In 1908, seventy-five people, many of them Irish, died in one of the British mining industry’s worst tragedies. Here, Joe Mullarkey describes that disaster, and the moves being made to commemorate those who lost their lives
IT WAS five o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday 18 August 1908 when an explosion ripped the heart out of the Cannel mine, Number One pit, at the Maypole Colliery, Abram, near Wigan, killing seventy-six men.
It was a disaster that shook the Lancashire coalfield, a tragedy unprecedented in the Wigan area. For hours after the explosion, yellow smoke poured from the Number One shaft. A stark aftermath of the horror underground.
Seven bodies were recovered quickly, but it was not until November of the following year, that most of the remaining victims were brought to the surface. The last body was not recovered until 1917, nine years after a disaster still talked about by local miners. Recovery of bodies was delayed because the number one Pit had to be flooded to quell the underground fire started by the explosion.
An inquest on the seventy-six victims, listed below, was opened on the 21 August 1908 and concluded on the 8th.of July 1909. Verdict: Accidental Death. 75 lives lost in an explosion of firedamp and coal dust ignited by permitted explosives.
There were four victims from the Charlestown, Co. Mayo area, namely: Pat Mulligan, J McGrath, M Cafferty and E Cafferty. The rest of the victims, including many with west-of-Ireland surnames, were: J Bennett, T McDonald, Pat Cullen, J Cassidy, T Gaskell, J Holcroft, John Hammons, Tom Jennings, T Cross, T Kearns, H Pimblett, M McGreal, T Fishwick, P Duffy, J Donnelley, M House, A Hughes, P Caulfield, J Robinson. E McDonough, McMalloy, Pat Sloyan, J Burns, J Crehan, J Doyle, M Boyle, S Evans, T Murphy, H Taylor, L Rushton, T Lloyd, Pat Carroll, J Moran, M Gallagher, Thomas Groarke, T Donlon, J Flannery, McGuckian, W McCabe, J Taylor, J Welsh, W Moore, A Devaney, W Monks, A Henderson, T Killoran, R Pimblett, A Monks, R Wilding, J France, T McEllin, T Harrison, P McGowan, E France, J Goghegan, J Walkden, J Davies, O Robinson, C Ford, J Kirby, J Pennington, H Killoran, J Hodgson, G Allen, G Melling, J Danson, E Banks, J Conway, A Draper, P Simm, and P Charnock.
The three survivors were: Edward Farrell, W M Doran, and Richard Fairhurst. Patrick Sloyan, also listed as having lost his life in that terrible tragedy, was from Kilgarriff, Charlestown. He was related to the late John Sloyan and also to the Harrington’s, Bones, Ruanes, Mulligans and Gallagher families.
Twenty-one of the dead came from Saint Patrick’s RC parish in Wigan. The entire parish shared the grief of the bereaved. On the Sunday following the disaster, Canon Sommer sang a solemn Requiem Mass for the dead, which was attended by people from all the Catholic churches in Wigan. A choir picked from all the churches sang at the mass and Dr O’Donaghue of Saint Mary’s preached the sermon.
As you walk into Saint Patrick’s today, you will see a memorial to the dead of this disaster. Descendants of the victims still live in the parish.
The Moss Hall Coal Company formerly owned the colliery, but about eighteen months prior to the fire it was taken over by the Pearson and Knowles Coal and Iron Company Ltd. It was situated several hundred yards to the left of Warrington Road, Abram and is about midway between Wigan and Leigh.
At the time of the explosion, the men had just changed shifts and this was regarded as a fortunate circumstance, as during the day the number of men working in the mine is greater than in the night shift.
Shortly after 5 o’clock everything was proceeding as usual at the colliery when, with startling suddenness, the terrific report of an explosion at the pit shaft was heard and dense smoke and dust were seen issuing from the shaft and rising to a height of 200 or 300 ft. above, the headgear. Debris was scattered in all directions and a man who was working close by had a narrow escape of being struck.
For a considerable time after the explosion, clouds of smoke rose over the shaft and in the immediate vicinity of the engine house and it was not until this had been cleared somewhat that an idea could be obtained as to what had occurred. It was then discovered that, the headgear was damaged; the roof of the fan drift completely blown off; steam pipes broken and the ventilation from the fan house was stopped. Acage was ascending the shaft with tubs of coal and this was dashed to the bottom in consequence of the winding rope breaking. This would probably result also in some damage to the shaft itself, which is over 500 yards deep.
The report of the explosion naturally caused great consternation for miles around, and a shock was distinctly felt a couple of miles way. In a very short time, the streets leading to the colliery were alive with people hurrying to the scene of the explosion, and amongst them were the relatives of the men working down the mine. Alarming rumours, which, unfortunately, were later proved to be correct, immediately gained currency and anxious relatives instinctively paid a visit to the lamp office in order to ascertain whether those they were seeking were engaged in the mine. Pathetic scenes were witnessed when some of the women learned that their husbands and sons were down the ill-fated shaft and in peril of their lives.
Doctors, too, rushed to the scene in motor cars and other conveyances and several nurses were also sent for. Many clergy men also waited on the colliery premises in case their services were required. During a recent visit to Co. Mayo, the current Mayor of Wigan, Wilf Brogan, planted a tree in the parish churchyard in Charlestown to commemorate those from that area of East Mayo who died in 1908 in the Maypole pit disaster.
The ceremony was organised by a local heritage group in Charlestown who are interested in making contact with a similar group in Wigan to commemorate the centenary of the disaster in 2008.
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Copyright © 2004 Joe Mullarkey