The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: Remembering the Combs Colliery disaster

Lucky seven: The seven men who survived the pit disaster after being entombed for 30 hours: From left to right (back row) Henry Wraithmell, Friend Senior, Willie Lightowler;  Front: Squire Shires, John Garfitt, Richard Wood, J Mallinson.
Lucky seven: The seven men who survived the pit disaster after being entombed for 30 hours: From left to right (back row) Henry Wraithmell, Friend Senior, Willie Lightowler; Front: Squire Shires, John Garfitt, Richard Wood, J Mallinson.

It is exactly 126 years next month when one of the worst mining disasters in history took place at the Combs Colliery, Thornhill, which claimed the lives of 139 men and boys, some as young as 12.

Only seven men who were working in the pit that day survived, and those who perished were nearly all from the village of Thornhill, although there were some from outlying districts.

Those from Thornhill were buried in the village churchyard on the same day, burials starting at dawn and continuing late into the night.

It was a pitiful sight which villagers were to remember for years to come, and the whole of the Heavy Woollen District were united in grief and in mourning for weeks.

Each town set up its own appeal to provide for the widows and orphans, with factory workers throughout the borough donating a day’s wage.

I am hoping this same kind of community spirit will be aroused again when local people are asked to support a charity brass band concert in memory of those killed.

It is being organised by St John’s Masonic Lodge, Dewsbury, who have engaged the best Brass Band in the country – Grimethorpe Colliery Band – to take part, supported by Skelmenthorpe Male Voice Choir.

In the run-up to the concert, I will be writing a series of articles about the tragedy and hope they will spur readers, to book their tickets now. Proceeds are in aid of local charities.

The following is the first article recounting the mining tragedy which took place on 8th July 1893:

The disaster occurred shortly before noon on a warm July day just as the pit winders had stopped the engines to take their dinner.

Everything had been as usual and there was not the slightest suspicion that anything was wrong.

The men had heard a muffled sound but dismissed it as thunder, for there had been terrific storms of late in the town.

A second report followed, this time from underground, and the men knew beyond a doubt that a terrible catastrophe had taken place, and that the lives of their follow workmen were in jeopardy, if not already sacrificed.

News that men were trapped below ground quickly spread throughout Thornhill, and women in agonies of alarm, their children running behind them, raced to the pit, and the cries of woe were heard on every hand.

Many scenes of bitter anguish were witnessed that day as news spread from village to village, and more women, with deep misery prevailing in their hearts, went rushing to the pit, each with a father, son, husband or brother trapped below.

Four men bravely entered the cage to attempt a rescue, but were forced back by the fumes of the deadly after-damp, and news of the catastrophe spread throughout the district.

Within an hour it had reached Batley, Heckmondwike, Soothill, Ossett, Mirfield, Flockton, Grange Moor and beyond.

By late afternoon 20,000 people had congregated on the pit hillside and girls working in nearby mills, with fathers and brothers below ground, left their looms and rushed to the Combs.

When rescuers descended, they came face to face with dreadful sights, the first being the bodies of four miners, whom they brought to the surface in full view of the crowds.

The first was blacksmith James Scargill, aged 46, a married man from Batley Carr.

The bodies were brought up and laid out for identification in the nearby Parochial Hall.

Rescuers reported more dreadful scenes in the recesses of the gloomy mine where the trapped miners had run for protection.

They found the bodies of seven young boys, laid face downward and separated from each other by only a few yards.

Another miner was found on his knees. He had scribbled a dying message to his wife on the wall which read: “Goodbye Betsy love, do the best you can.”

A little boy lay dead nearby, and the rescuers were deeply affected by the terrible scenes.

When they came to the surface with the bodies, they had tears rolling down their cheeks.

The Parochial Hall, where the bodies of the 139 men and boys were laid out on the floor, presented a melancholy sight.

A long table had been placed between two large wooden platforms where the women had washed the dead men and laid them out.

An inquiry into the disaster revealed the explosion had been caused by a naked light igniting a small amount of gas which had accumulated at the bottom of the pit shaft.

It had gone off like a trail of gunpowder.

Miners at that time were not compelled by law to wear safety helmets and were even allowed to smoke underground!

Next week, I will be recounting the story of the widows and children left behind....

If you wish to book tickets for concert in Dewsbury Town Hall, Saturday, July 13 please ring 01924 324501, or book on line at www.kirkleestownhalls.co.uk.