Whilst going through some correspondence files for the Butterley Company, I came across reports for an accident. What was unusual about this accident was the amount of detail mentioned in the company’s correspondence. It gave detail from the time of the incident and included the consequences for those involved and their rescuers. The following is paraphrased from those documents found in N5/99/7.
William Ratcliffe was a brick contractor brought in to help with this work. He was first mentioned in a letter addressed to Mr Mitton, a manager at the Butterley Company’s Colliery Department, on the 20th of February, stating he was willing to continue his work helping to sink the three shafts. Within 4 days, he would unfortunately be caught up in a fatal accident.
On the 24th of February 1926, William Ratcliffe and Fred Warren were tasked with helping to brick the bottom of the Bond Land shaft. Both these men were day contractors and were not regular employees of the mine. However, they still suffered as a result of a brick fall. This shows that just how dangerous working in a mine was, regardless of who was working there.
At around 12:30 pm a loud crash of bricks, louder than the usual unloading from the hoppit (a tub lowered for bricks and debris). A man above shouted to ask if everything was alright and a response came to send someone down. Something was clearly wrong. Bernard Hurley and Benjamin Walters immediately volunteered for this. Once underground they saw the scaffold the men had been working from was tilted and a pile of bricks lay on one side. Warren was injured but standing and it soon became obvious that Ratcliffe was more seriously injured as he was crouching in pain. He had to be helped into the hoppit so that all 4 men could return to the surface. Hurley and Walters were slightly injured themselves by further bricks falling on their ascent to the surface. The brick fall continued until about 3:30pm and it was estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 bricks had fallen during that time.
Hurley and Walters were praised by the Inspector of Mines on their “prompt and plucky” rescue, which stopped a more serious situation from happening. Sadly, this was not enough to save William Ratcliffe from his injuries and he died in hospital 2 days later. He died from fractured ribs and other possible internal injuries. Fred Warren was lucky as he had head wounds but these were not of a serious nature and he survived.
Hurley and Walters were commended for their bravery that day. They went to a place of unknown danger in order to rescue their colleagues, even if they may not have known them well as they were day contractors. The Butterley Company were keen to recognise this from the start. How to do this was of some discussion. Did they deserve money or a clock or something similar for their efforts? It was certainly decided that a medal from the Mines Department would not be suitable as “many others would do exactly as “Hurley and Walters did”. The two men were eventually given a gold watch each for their efforts.
The accident increased discussion about safety in the mine, especially when it came to securing the hoppit. The idea of using a double rather than single chain for this mechanism was discussed in a letter dated the 26th of March. This was done in hopes that it would help prevent further deaths like that of William Ratcliffe.
However, that was not the end of the story, certainly not for the families of those involved. An entry for a compensation arbitration court shows that William Ratcliffe’s daughter, Winifred, disapproved of the £65 she was offered for her father’s death. As he was an outside contractor, he was not entitled to as much as an ordinary worker. Still, £65, or around £1800 in today’s money, was not much for the loss of a life.
Winifred, as seen in the arbitration description above was instead hoping to get £150 pounds in compensation, not the £65 that her brother’s were willing to accept. Unfortunately, she didn’t win the case and the £65 still stood. The saddest part is that by 1928, the shafts to this exploratory mine at Heage were deemed unworkable and they were filled in, making it feel that William Ratcliffe’s death was for an unworthy cause.
Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners.