‘ No Carols This Christmas ‘. The Pretoria Pit Disaster 21st Dec. 1910


Pretoria pit 1.jpgThe Hulton Colliery, owned by Hulton Colliery Company, was situated close to Atherton, about eleven miles to the west of Manchester, consisting of four distinct collieries ; these included seven coal drawing shafts and, before the accident, about 2,400 tons of coal were raised each day. The total number of persons employed both on the surface and below ground was 2,400.

The pit, commonly known as the Pretoria pit, had two shafts known simply as Nos. 3 and 4, sunk In the years 1900 and 1901, and each 15 feet in diameter, placed 75 yards apart, No. 4 being the downcast shaft and No. 3 the upcast shaft. Both shafts were sunk to the Arley Mine or seam which was 434 yards from the surface in a downward direction. Each of these shafts were then split into seams, and in the No. 3 shaft three seams were being worked from the same level known as the Plodder seam. Three-quarters seam and the Yard seam. It was in this level that the explosion was known to have occurred. The number of people working in the No. 3 shaft on the day of the explosion was 344, distributed as follows :

No. 3 ……………………………….. PIT PERSONS
In the Yard seam ……………………. 230
In the Plodder seam ………………. 090
In the Three-quarter seam …….. 024
Total ………………………………………. 344

The Hulton colliery had all the latest electrical equipment, including an adequate ventilation system supplied by large electrical fans, placed in the Arley mine, the Three-quarters seam and the Yard seam. Men were appointed by the manager at this time to make checks on all the equipment used in the mine, all of which was recorded in a book. Firemen inspected the seams to check for gas before the seam was worked ; indeed, the No. 3 pit was checked on the morning of the explosion and no gas had been found. All therefore seemed well as the men descended the No. 3 shaft only a couple of days before Christmas.


Map showing the Hulton Colliery Co. pits around Hulton Park. Westhoughton town centre is off the map to the west of Chequerbent. Taken from the OS 1909 6in. to 1 mile Edition sheets Lancashire XCIV SE & NE. The map is 1.5 miles (2.42km) across. The working coal faces at the time of the disaster are shown as thick black lines. Marked in red are: 1. Pretoria Pit No.3 shaft. 2. Epicentre of the explosion at the North Plodder No.2 coal face (red circle). 3. Yard Mine East Jig District. 4. Downbrow District, NW end of the Yard Mine coal face. 5. Downbrow District, SE end of the Yard Mine coal face (furthest point from the explosion origin). 6. South Plodder District. 7. Three Quarters Mine District. 8. Top Yard District. 9. North Plodder No.1 coal face

The Explosion
The explosion occurred at 7-50 a.m. on the morning of 21st December 1910. It happened in the No. 3 shaft, affecting all three of the seams and killing 344 men and boys. The explosion could be heard miles away, the force of it had wrecked the casing round the shaft, and also jammed the cage used in that shaft. News that the Pretoria had fired soon got around and in no time anxious relatives of the miners had descended on the colliery from all directions. At first there was speculation as to which of the shafts had exploded. Some people thought both shafts had exploded — the lives of another 545 men were at stake. No attempts to enter the shaft were made until the general manager, Alfred Joseph Tonge, arrived on the scene, and it was not until 9-00 that the cage was repaired.

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Waiting for news. Relatives at the pit gates

Mr. Tonge and five other men descended into the No. 4 shaft. They stopped the cage at the Trencherbone seam some 146 yards beneath the surface, where they found the under-manager Llewellyn Williams at the mouth of the seam. When Mr. Tonge asked him if his men were all right, he replied “ Yes, but suffering from the fumes of the explosion.” After Williams had joined them they all proceeded down the mine in the cage, but found the cage kept meeting with a variety of obstacles. It broke through these obstacles and when they managed to get to the Yard seam, they stopped there and entered the seam, finding the underground fan blown inwards, and much wreckage all around them. As they went further into the seam they picked up and sent to the surface a young boy whom they discovered. The mine was filled with afterdamp, extremely hot, but they pressed forward, finding another person, who was also sent back up the pit. He was the first of many to be found. They made their way back to the cage and descended to the Arley seam where they found men crying to come up because they were ill. They were told by Mr. Tonge to let the worst be taken up to the surface first, and they began to haul all the men up. After 3 hours all 545 men from the No. 4 shaft had been hauled to safety using only one cage. No-one at this point knew whether anyone was still alive in the No. 3 shaft ; they started the search in the Yard mine where they found a number of fires, which were left to be put out by a fireman called Turton, who unfortunately was overcome by fumes and died a short time after. Because of this they decided to return to the surface to put some fans into operation. Half an hour later they resumed the search but all 344 were presumed dead. Many of the bodies were very badly burned and mutilated ; the nearest body was sixty yards from the detonation point, such was the force of the explosion.


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Underground at Pretoria after the explosion

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Men with breathing apparatus were given charge of getting the bodies out of the mine ; their job was hazardous as the roofs were unsafe and the supports unstable. So difficult was the operation that only on the 14th February was the last man pulled out. The rescuers worked all through the Christmas and New Year periods to clear up the terrible mess.

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Dr Hatton (centre) and men of Westhoughton Ambulance Brigade in front of the No.3 shaft headgear and engine house. Note the white mufflers many are wearing – most probably to soak with eucalyptus oil and pull over the face when dealing with the decomposing bodies in the mortuary.

Personal Account of the Explosion
One person who remembers the accident well (the writer’s grandmother) reports that on the morning of the explosion she and her mother were having their breakfast when there was a loud explosion which knocked their clock off the fireplace. Straight away her mother knew it was the Pretoria and ran into the street, frightened because her son worked there ; she rushed to the Pretoria, and only returned that night with her husband, still not knowing whether the son was dead or alive. For the next three days they went back and only on the 24th December did they know their son was dead. This ruined their Christmas as it did many other families ; but the worst thing was the presence of the coffin in the house for a week, so full were the churches with funerals. A neighbour lost her husband and two sons in the explosion. All that week coal trucks were pushed up the Chequerbent line near their house with bodies piled in them ; it was terrible ! That Christmas was the gloomiest they could remember — nobody celebrated Christmas in the usual way in Westhoughton.

The newspapers were full of grisly details — here are just three reports on the rescue attempts.

Rapid Progress
The rescue workers are now being hindered by heavy falls ; it is taking up to three hours to drag some of the bodies along the workings. The stench from the decomposing bodies is becoming unbearable, and the deadly firedamp and other gases is becoming worse.

Shocking Mutilation
In the North Plodder shaft the bodies are shockingly mutilated. One was found impaled the whole length of his body on a piece of timber, another was split almost in two. In another case only a pair of trousers was found.

Strong Men Break Down
Men are completing their hours of duty strangely affected. One poor fellow has been moving about on the pit-head almost frantic. Noxious fumes and ghostly sights have combined to make him delirious. Again a strong man has become weak before the horrors of the morgue.

The police have been working round the clock ; they are found at the doors of the mortuary and inside the identification rooms. It is their duty to lift the lids of the coffins when relatives are to identify loved ones. This they have done for days until the mutilated features weigh heavily on their minds.

Risen from the dead The curious case of William Lord indicates that even by the end of December when the official death toll had been set at 344, and the colliery company had a list of names, they were still unsure about exactly who had been killed. According to the BEN (2 Jan 1911), on Friday 30 Dec 1910, unknown body No.112 was identified as 44 years old William Lord by both Mrs Lord of Darcy Lever, and his brother Joshua. A burial certificate was authorised by the coroner, and common grave 3/N1/5&15 at Tonge Cemetery was ready to receive his coffin on 31 Dec 1910 (Tonge Cemetery Register No.80483). William Lord had left home in October and the family did not know where he was. It turned out he was alive and well, and mining coal in Barnsley, and on somehow hearing of his demise and imminent burial, telegraphed back to his wife the words “Alive Woman, Send to pit at once”. The Coroner’s response was “He evidently objects to being considered dead” (Wigan Observer). Body No.112 was buried in Westhoughton Cemetery as unknown.

The Inquiry
It commenced the morning of February 20th 1911 at the Carnegie Hall, Westhoughton, at 10-30 a.m. It explored every possibility of what had caused the explosion, but it was obvious that the explosion had been caused by gas being ignited. How it was ignited is, however, not clear. In discussing types of lamps used, it was found that only one was in use, that of the Wolf Safety Lamp. These lamps burned naptha, a mineral oil with a low flash point, and were magnetically locked. Previously Davy lamps were used in the mine, but for two years the Wolf lamps had slowly replaced them, because they could be relit whilst testing for gas. The place where the lamps were kept, known as the lamp cabin, was situated at the surface where day and night lampmen were employed. The night lampmen had to clean, oil, examine, and give the lamps out to the morning shift, as well as to inspect the lamps at the bottom of the shaft. The head man in charge of the lamp station of the No. 3 shaft gave evidence that morning and was said to be far from well, having lost his sons in the disaster, thereby suffering a nervous breakdown. He was not present when the lamps were given out at the morning shift on the day of the explosion, having come to work at 6-15 a.m. Although no record was kept of damaged lamps the number of glasses broken over a period of months was known to be 1,200, during which time 148 lamps were known to have been damaged, of which 50 had been returned to the Wolf company in Leeds. When one of these lamps are damaged they usually overheat. There was a definite possibility of this being the cause of the ignition of gas, but one question remained ; how was gas present in the mine when it had an adequate ventilation system?

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Plan 2 from Redmayne (1911) report on the disaster, showing where the bodies lay, and where many would have been working before the explosion

The mine had been inspected by coal mining officials, who found that the roofs in all parts of the mines were not strong ; and that the coal and coal dust in these roofs contained much gas. All parts of the seams were checked for weak roofs, and during their checks they found the roof had collapsed in one part of the North Plodder Seam. The final verdict of the Inquiry was :

That on December 21st 1910 at the No. 3 shaft Bank pit commonly known as the No. 3 Pretoria Pit, Westhoughton, an accidental ignition of gas and coal dust occurred when a roof collapsed in the North Plodder Seam, probably due to weakness. The gas was probably ignited by a defective or overheated safety lamp and caused an explosion.

That upon such ignition and explosion there followed a large ignition and explosion of coal dust, affecting all three seams of the No. 3 shaft All 344 men came to their death by accident and not otherwise.

After the probable cause had been found, certain recommendations were made to try and prevent a similar accident.

1. There should be more men employed at the mine to deal with safety.
2. Two firemen should be employed instead of one for each shift, and the lamps should be inspected by the firemen who have just come to work on a shift, rather than the firemen who have been working on the shift.
3. A proper record of all the lamps used in the mine should be made, and the lamps mended or replaced if they are damaged.
4. There should be a stronger support for the roof.

The Aftermath
Thirteen of the 344 bodies recovered from the Pretoria explosion could not be identified, so a tomb was made in Westhoughton Cemetery to contain them. Every year a service of remembrance takes place on the 21st December. In 1970 the 60th anniversary of the Pretoria Pit disaster took place : some 200 people attended the service.

Once all the bodies had been recovered and 344 men and boys had been declared dead, there were some 593 beneficiaries, all dependants of those who died in the pit. It was necessary for a disaster relief fund to be set up to help these people ; this was done by the Mayors of Manchester, Liverpool and Bolton, who appointed or asked for volunteers to collect money from the public. Their efforts raised a total of £138,000 including a gift of £650 from King George V and Queen Mary ; by careful management of these funds the trustees have been able to pay out more than £300,000 to the beneficiaries over the years. The last person to receive relief money died in 1973 at the age of 96, having received £250 in weekly allowances the year before.

In 1975 there is £11,000 left in the fund, and this is to be given to charities connected with the British Mining Industry.

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A total of £ 138,000 was raised to help the families and the fund was finally closed in 1975

To the present day the Pretoria Pit disaster is the third worst to have happened in the history of coal mining accidents in Britain. Prior to the disaster a Bill was passed by Parliament in 1881, which made an inquiry compulsory. That which followed the Pretoria disaster was long and detailed, over 13,435 questions being put and answered in nine days. Yet the horrors of that fateful day in December 1910 could never be erased by a logical analysis of all that went wrong. Nor could the regular payments out of the Fund disguise the absence of a father and sons in many families living locally.

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To mark the 75th anniversary of the disaster in 1985 Radio Manchester commissioned a special programme entitled ” No Carols this Christmas ” which told the story through words and music with contributions from The North West sound Archive and local folk artists Bram Taylor and Calico. To listen to the programme click on the link below and press the play button.

Taken from Coal Mining Disasters – Leigh Local History Society

Parish of Westhoughton Website

One thought on “‘ No Carols This Christmas ‘. The Pretoria Pit Disaster 21st Dec. 1910

  1. My great-uncle was one of those who died. Fountain Byers, who was also a Wingates Band member, was brought out alive, but succumbed to his injuries and gas poisoning at Bolton Hospital. His brother George survived although affected by gas poisoning. Another brother James worked on the rescue team as a member of Westhoughton Ambulance Brigade, and was awarded a medal. My grandfather Ben Byers, aged only 14 at the time, later wrote his life story and recollection of the Pretoria tragedy – his voice is featured on Wingates Bands’ recording ‘Perspectives of Pretoria’.

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