The Astley Green Disaster – June 6th 1939

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Newspaper clipping from the News Chronicle on the day of the accident

The Red Rose Trustees, who run the Lancashire Mining Museum @ Astley Green, want to commemorate those lives lost and the acts of incredible bravery when an underground fire broke out at the mine in 1939.

Five men lost their lives in a series of explosions and a further four were injured. The fatalities included the pit manager who died while leading the firefighting operations. Rescue attempts were hindered by the build-up of toxic gasses below ground but many men risked their lives to bring victims and the bodies up to the surface. Astley as one of the newer pits to have been sunk (in 1908), was employing 2,000 men at the time of what was the first multiple serious accident to happen there.  The incident is perhaps not as well known as other high-profile local mining disasters, such as those that occurred at Westhoughton’s Pretoria Pit, Golborne and Bedford Colliery, when casualties were much higher. But the team at the Astley mine now wants to rectify this.

Red Rose Trustees chairman Trevor Barton MBE said: “We all know about the Pretoria Pit disaster and the one in Golborne and yet there was one in Astley too. “I just can’t believe this disaster took place and there’s absolutely nothing to mark it. “We want to build a permanent memorial to these people. “Some remarkably brave things went on underground to save people’s lives. “We’ve given ourselves two years and hopefully by the 80th anniversary of the disaster we will have something that is fitting.”

The memorial will stand on site at the Higher Green Lane pit, which has now been preserved to give visitors an idea of what the mining industry was really like.

Discussions on the design of the memorial and how it will be funded are still at an early stage. The team behind the commemoration efforts would particularly like to track down any living relatives of colliers who worked at the Astley pit at the time of the disaster. Mr Barton said the trustees are determined to preserve the borough’s heritage and hoped that the unveiling ceremony for the memorial would be a high-profile occasion. He said: “This is the only pithead left in Lancashire and it’s a remarkable place. “It’s a piece of our heritage and there’s not likely to be anything like it again. “We want to do something special and we want to celebrate its history, and one way to do that is by telling this story and getting this tale of daring out there.” Anyone wishing to contribute to the memorial campaign can email trevor.barton@trustinleigh.org

Although the disaster happened on the 6th. The following report  of the disaster was announced to the local populace by the “News Chronicle” on Wednesday, June 7th. The headlines read:

FIVE MEN DIE, FOUR INJURED, IN PIT FIRE EXPLOSION
OFFICIAL, HURT HIMSELF, SAVED FAINTING MAN 

The story was given as follows:

Five men were killed and four injured in a series of explosions while fighting a gob fire in the Crombouke Mine of the Astley Green Pit this afternoon.Tonight, with the bodies of the men – officials and trained fire fighters – still unrecovered, it was decided to seal off the affected part of the pit to prevent further loss of life. The manager of the pit, Mr. J.H.Hewitt, was killed while leading the fire-fighters, his under-manager, Mr. W.Middleton was seriously injured.

Manchester Collieries, Limited, owners of the pit, tonight issued the following statement: Manchester Collieries deeply regret to report that following a series of slight explosions in the Crombouke Mine at their Astley Green Colliery, five men have lost their lives.

J.H.Hewitt, Manager of the Pit, Allenby Street, Atherton.

G.Griffiths, Under-looker, of Coach Road, Astley.

J.Keegan, fireman, of Henry Street, Tyldesley.

Eli Smith, collier, of Tyldesley Road, Atherton.

William Warhurst, collier, of Second Avenue, Astley.

Four other men have been got out of the mine injured, only one seriously. Following a conference with His majesty’s Inspector of Mines and the Miners Agent, it was decided to prevent possible further loss of life, to seal off the district affected.

The injured men are:

W.Middleton, of Henfold Road, Tyldesley, Under-Manager.

John Laughton, Under-looker, of Leigh.

Frank Morris, of Lime Street, Tyldesley.

William Smith, of Manchester Road, Astley.

A gob fire was first reported at 12.30 a.m, and the night shift of 1000 men was withdrawn from the pit face. Forty men, officials and trained fire fighters were left to fight the fire. They made such progress that by 4 a.m. it was possible for the morning shift to descend. Between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. 1000 men went down the shaft to the various mines which make up the Astley Pit. During the morning men were withdrawn from certain sections, and a party of officials, including the men killed and injured, descended. They were working in C panel of the Crombouke Mine, where the gob fire had occurred earlier in the day. Men continued to work in the Rams mine on a lower level, and at 1.30 p.m. news of an explosion reached them.

John Skise (25), a collier, of Manchester Road, Tyldesley, told me that he was working in the Rams mine.

“I didn’t hear any explosion, but there is such a racket that it would have to be tremendous for us to hear it in our seam.” A fireman came and said: “There’s trouble in the Crombouke mine. There are men there. I want you lads to come and help me get them out. When I got there it was very hot and there was smoke hanging about. I helped to carry Mr. Middleton out. He seemed to be very badly injured. He had got out Frank Morriss, one of the other men. Although he was hurt himself, he had dragged Morriss, who was fainting for 200 yards. At one stage he stopped to release air from a pipe into Morris’s face to revive him. They told me that Bill

Smith was further along, but the fireman said there was too much gas to go after him. Three chaps said they’d have a go and came back with Bill Smith. They were George Marger, William Hulme and Richard Sutton. I think Mr. Middleton’s effort was the bravest thing a man could do. He was in no state to walk himself, let alone help others.”

Another rescue workman told me that the 40 men left to fight the fire used sand and a tank holding 199 gallons of water.

“Those men are heroes” he said.

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Following the explosion a call was sent to the mines rescue station at Boothstown and men equipped with every device for fighting the fire were hurried to the scene.

Ten rescue men, who had been putting on their breathing equipment as they were being driven to the pit immediately went down. They were met by other explosions before they had time to reach the five men now given up as lost.

The Astley Green Pit is one of the most modern in the Lancashire Coalfield, and is at present employing 2000 men. It was sunk in 1908 and this is the first serious accident there has been.

Mr. Hewitt was promoted from Under-Manager about two years ago. His father retired some time ago from the position as Manager at another coal pit. Mr. Hewitt leaves a widow and two sons.

The father of Eli Smith, one of the dead men, was killed in the same pit in 1920. Eli Smith was married with one child. His brother, Harry, is also employed in the pit.

There was a notable absence of women waiting at the pit head; at one time not a woman was to be seen among the crowd. I understand that Manchester Collieries immediately informed the relatives of every man who had not escaped unharmed. This prevented the pitiful scenes so frequently a feature of colliery accidents.

Tonight lorry loads of bricks and sand are being rushed to the mine. On the busy East Lancashire Road, a few hundred yards away, a police officer was on traffic duty to facilitiate their quick arrival. The bricks and sand are being sent down in the cage to the rescue men, for strengthening the barrier which has been built to prevent the fire from spreading.

Men who arrived at the colliery to prepare for work the afternoon saw a notice chalked roughly on the wall. It read “No afternoon shift today.”

Tonight several hundred sightseers gathered in the roadway near the pit head.  A few of them were relatives.

A question was raised in the Houses of Parliament on the 7th June below is a copy of the Hansard report for that day.

 

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The Inquest into the deaths took place in late July, when the Jury returned a verdict of “death from misadventure”. The bravery of the men was remarked on by the Coroner. Additional information concerning the disaster was given by Edward Humphrey Browne, the Mining Agent. He said that Hewitt, the dead Manager, had rung him up to say that in the early hours of June 6th. a shot had been fired and some smoke had been seen at another place. Hewitt was satisfied at the time that the smoke was fumes from the shot. However, after a subsequent message, Browne put into effect the emergency organisation. Twice he spoke to Hewitt over the telephone, but he was emphatic that he could find no trace of the fire.

Browne was about to go underground himself to see when a final message was received, “It has gone off again. It has blown us off our feet.” Two men volunteered to go down with him. It was very dusty and difficult to see when they reached the Crombouke delivery level. The safety lamps were burning, allbeit low, and the canary was still alive. When they reached the haulage engine, Browne’s lamp went out and when another was passed forward the canary appeared to be dead. The party were unable to go further and returned to summon the rescue teams.

The first team were instructed to look for the missing men, but just before they reached the coal face there was a fall and they were stopped. They had passed three bodies on the way and offered to go and get them out. They were told not to, and a second fresh team was sent in instead to see if there was any trace of fire. Browne remained with the stand-by team, and then short circuited the fresh air into the return, to starve any fire of oxygen. He was certain that had the first team been allowed to return then they too would have been lost.

William Granby, the Under-Manager, said that when he went down the mine after the accident there had been a temporary lull in the ventilation and then a sudden reversal of the current. This was the usual sign of an explosion.

Taken from The History of Astley Green Colliery by J G Isherwood Sept 1990

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