The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

John Garfitt, is shown standing at the graveside of one of the miners killed in another pit tragedy in 1947 at Ings Colliery.
John Garfitt, is shown standing at the graveside of one of the miners killed in another pit tragedy in 1947 at Ings Colliery.

MY RECENT articles concerning the Combs mining disaster in 1893 in which 139 men and boys were killed, has created much interest, more so from those who had never heard of it.

But much more is still to be told, especially about the “miracles” many believed occurred for them that fateful day.

Mercy Wilcock, born on the day of the disaster, pictured aged 14.

Mercy Wilcock, born on the day of the disaster, pictured aged 14.

Some should have been in the pit when the explosion occurred but were not and so their lives were saved.

One miner set off but turned back because his wife was in labour.

They named the baby who was born at the time the explosion occurred – Mercy.

This week I give an account of another miracle, that of John Garfitt, who was miraculously saved, but tragically his father and two brothers were not John, one of seven miners who survived Dewsbury’s darkest day, gave the following graphic account of what happened:

Margaret Watson.

Margaret Watson.

“At half-past eight, Alma Bates went to the surface because he felt poorly, but had he remained he would never have seen sunlight again, for in his district not a man survived.

“At 12 o’clock we were accustomed to knock off for our dinner, and although above ground the explosion was heard for half a mile around, not a sound reached our ears.

“The first thing we knew was smoke rolling towards us.

“Some of the men went into the main roads to find out the cause, but it got worse.

“A deputy named Wilkinson, came and said: “By gum, there’s a good draught here lads. I’m no’an leaving, but you can please yourself.

“We left but he stayed and was afterwards found dead in the spot where we left him.

“My brother was with me and also a chap who was a Primitive Methodist. Never in my life have I heard such powerful prayers. They poured out of his soul, and hour after hour he prayed and sang hymns.

“After our lights had been snuffed by the gas, we were left thirty hours in the darkness, and the sound of his voice was very welcome.

“It was remarkable how different men were in withstanding the gas. Some died in no time while others fought it to the very last.

“I could feel a sudden difference in the atmosphere and now believe that it was caused by the shaft being covered.

“At last I was the only living man left in the place and I began to crawl about in the pitchy gloom, guiding myself by the tramlines and blundering and knocking myself against many obstructions.

“I felt across the faces of dead men whom I could not see as I crawled my way along, and to my horror, I found myself getting weaker.

“The desire to get back to my own place seized me, and I set out upon my return.

“At length all consciousness forsook me, and when the searchers came my way, looking for living men, they rolled me aside as a dead ‘un and passed on.

“On returning, however, the chap who had done so, cast a glance at me and said ‘this chap’s moved since we left him’, and they turned me over. For a long time it was doubtful whether I breathed or not, but at length I gave a signs of life and I was sent to the top and taken to the infirmary.

“All I remember is suddenly waking up in bed not knowing where I was.

“The nurse, who I learned afterwards had attended to me night and day for three weeks, had just left the room.

“I said to myself,’ where the hangment hev I gotten to now?’ I looked all around the room. I went into the next room and saw a row of beds with a man in one of them.

“I asked what place it might be, and he said it was Dewsbury Infirmary.

“I felt my hands and legs and nothing was broken. I said “By gow, I mun get out of here.

“There’s now’t matter wi’ me. I mustn’t leave mi work laiking about here.

“The man asked me where I worked, and when I said Combs pit, he asked if I really didn’t know what had happened. Then the nurse came in and I told her I was going back home or I’d be late for work.

“I had no idea what had happened. I knew nothing about the explosion, and in a gentle voice, the nurse told me all about it.

“She handed me a newspaper, and then I knew something serious had happened because I had forgotten how to read.

“She read it to me and all the strength went out of me. I thought of all the mates I should never see again or the weeping widows and orphans.

“I thought of my brothers and my father, all killed, and then thought of the struggle ahead that faced my mother with her family still to bring up.

“When I came out into the world, my memory was gone. I often had to inquire my way about the district where I had been born.

“For some time after they said I was still unfit for work, but I went back to the old pit, working for the old firm and never wished for a better.”

In 1947, there was another pit disaster just down the hill from Combs at Ings Colliery in which 12 men were killed.

I will be writing more about this mining tragedy in future columns.