Brickfall at Bondland shafts, Heage

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.

Bravery for Accident

Letter detailing the presentation ceremony for Bernard Hurley and Benjamin Walters, 8th Apr 1926, N5/99/7

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.

William Ratcliffe

Workmen’s compensation acts Record of agreements, arbitration cases and liability memoranda, 1899-1944, N5

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.

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My Personal Connection to Rhyl Miners’ Holiday Camp

I’ve known about Rhyl Miner’s Camp in North Wales for most of my life. A photograph of my mum aged about 4 with my grandma whilst on holiday there has been on our wall since forever. The picture must have been taken in around 1951 or 1952. Whilst the pair look happy and my mum cradles a cat, the sad part is that around a year after that seemingly happy holiday that my grandparents took my mum and uncle on, my grandma died from cancer. This of course was something my mum talks of with utter sadness that she never got to knew her own mum well enough.

However, when my parents and I decided we’d like to go to North Wales on our own holiday, not long after my mum’s brother was also given a terminal cancer diagnosis, we decided to try and find where the Miner’s Camp in Rhyl had once stood. Google didn’t provide much detail as not many people wanted to remember this long lost place that once allowed many mining families a chance for a seaside holiday. The Skegness Miner’s Camp seemed to be a more popular search term as well, so it became hard to figure out what had happened. That was until we came across a small post online detailing the new street names of the housing estate that now sits on top of the former Miner’s camp land and strangely enough, they all had a Derbyshire connection.

Upon arriving at Marsh Road, my mum instantly recognised some older buildings at the entrance to the Miner’s Camp. In fact, she remembered a lot more than she thought when standing in the place she hadn’t seen for over 60 years. The miniature railway close by was one of these things.

Rhyl Miners Camp

Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Centre Rhyl brochure [Mid 20th cent]. N42/6/7/1

Not much was remembered about the site, but from the brochure pictured below, it reminds me of similar caravan holiday camps we went to when I was younger! Lots of on-site entertainment and food in the canteen. At the time my mum stayed there it wouldn’t have been a large site as the Rhyl Holiday Camp had only been set up during the Second World War, compared with the one in Skegness, which had opened in the 1920s. Still, it provided many families with the opportunity to go on holiday to the seaside, my family included. In the holiday season of 1952, it was full. Perhaps this was the year my grandparents took my mum and uncle. This had been helped by the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act, ensuring that workers were entitled to a certain amount of holidays with pay, ensuring that working classes could manage to get away from the dirt and grind of their jobs. It had to be accommodation suitable to their budget but was still comfortable to feel like a holiday. This meant that for mineworkers, the Miner’s Holiday Camps were the best solution.

Rhyl Miners Camp 2.jpg

Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Centre Rhyl brochure [Mid 20th cent]. N42/6/7/1

Holiday camps were a wider part of the welfare offered to coal miners during this time. The National Coal Board had inherited a welfare system of providing housing, sport and leisure activities from the private coal companies who ran the miners prior to nationalisation. The type of activities usually differed in each area but the premise of creating a sense of community for the workers and their families remained the same whichever mine you worked for. This can be seen in a wage agreement booklet discussing the terms of the Derbyshire District Colliery Workers Holiday Savings Scheme, stipulating that all Derbyshire collieries, excluding the South Derbyshire area must abide by the same wage and holiday pay rules.

holiday pay

Wage agreement made between the colliery owners of the Derbyshire District and the Representatives of Workmen working at the collieries excluding South Derbyshire, Nov 1937. N3/B/66/2

Bibliography:

Barton, S., Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Hayes, N. and Hill, J. ‘Millions Like Us’?: British Culture in the Second World War (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999)

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Pit Ponies at Ireland Colliery

Pit ponies were a vital part of the coal mining way of life. They worked just as hard as the men by pulling tubs both above and below the surface, delivering coal and many other heavy jobs that their human counterparts couldn’t. This large variety of jobs required for the horses meant that they came in varying sizes. Smaller ones worked directly at the coal face, while bigger ones worked in underground spaces with larger roofs or on the surface. In the majority of mines there would have been ponies somewhere, especially as each seam had stabling for around 15 horses.

If you ask anyone who heard tales of the pit ponies, of which I have heard many myself from relatives, they would often tell you that they were often a miner’s pride and joy. Many of them were perhaps better treated than those who always lived above ground. They would be well fed and cleaned after their shift. Most importantly, their wellbeing was a priority to the regular horse inspectors who would come and check on them, ensuring they had a week off above ground if necessary. A pony driver could also be fined or sacked if he was found to be negligent towards his pony. These were often checks that weren’t carried out on horses working in other industries. Just like the men they worked alongside, any injuries or accidents were recorded in their own accident books.

Most pit ponies would have been allowed up on the surface for either holidays or weekends, as well as if they were deemed unwell by the inspectors. The majority of these were ones deemed special enough to be paraded in shows or competitions. However, during strikes, ponies would be brought to the surface for the entire strike action. After all, why not? They were hard workers too!

Ireland Colliery Pit Ponies

National Coal Board East Midland Division No. 1 Area, List of Ponies at Ireland Colliery, Nov 1960. N42/1/26/7

Whilst researching into the everyday life of pit ponies, Ireland Colliery on the outskirts of Staveley near Chesterfield brought up some interesting documents. First of all was a list from 1960 giving the names and defining features of some of the colliery ponies. If you notice their short names, this was because if there was an emergency, it was quicker and easier to say a pony’s short name. Each pony would have had this name placed above their stable. I find this piece of information, no matter how small, wonderful as it gives them all an identity and personality that shines out of the past.

Whilst on the topic of personalities of ponies, I found an amusing letter written to a Mr Bishop, probably from one of the pony keepers, about a certain pony named Sam. From the letter we can guess he was a new pony arrived at the pit. Unfortunately not much detail is given as to Sam’s short time working there other than the last line indicates “he would be no good for pit work”. I would have loved to have known more about what exactly this meant, but perhaps it just meant he was too naughty. Whatever the circumstances, you can easily imagine the pony’s temperament from this statement.

Letter of bad Sam

Letter to Mr Bishop detailing the removal of Sam the pony from Ireland Colliery, 24 Nov 1947, N42/1/26/7

Generally ponies were no longer needed by the 1960s due to the increased mechanisation of the coal mining process, but some did last longer than that, particularly in Wales. What didn’t change is how much miners were attached to their ponies. Many would bring treats, knowing that the job was just as dangerous for the ponies as it was for them. It’s estimated that up to a horse a fortnight was killed, often by being crushed by the tubs. When accidents like this occurred, men often risked their lives to try and save ponies, in return for the many times ponies refused to move when they sensed danger, often saving many men by doing so. It is with these small memories that pit ponies are remembered, especially during times of trouble.

Bibliography:

Kirkup, M., Pit Ponies (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Summerhill Books, 2008)

Slaney, L., ‘Pit Ponies’, Reflections, Feb 1999, pp. 9-11.

Winter, J, 4 Oral Histories: Cyril ‘Sonny White’ (c. 1996)

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Welcome to the Mining the Seams Project

The Mining the Seams project is a 2 year collaborative project with Warwickshire County Record Office and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Our small team aim to shed more light on the National Coal Board collection we have, with particular focus on the medical and compensation aspects. In the future, this particularly means helping to catalogue this collection in more detail so it is more accessible to those interested in this type of industrial history.

Having graduated from the University of Derby’s MA Public History and Heritage course last November, I’m so far enjoying my time delving into a period of history I don’t usually cover. Still, this isn’t my first time here at the Derbyshire Record Office as I have been involved on and off since my internship on the Pop-Up Archives Project in 2017. It’s so great to be getting more involved in the nitty gritty of how an archives works. As someone who lives in Alfreton and has done all my life, I can’t ignore the town’s mining heritage and that some of my relations have been miners. For me this project is a way to understand what their way of life once was, particularly my maternal grandfather who I never knew but had always heard stories about him coming home black from the coal. My uncle who is now recently retired also played a role in the local Miners Strikes.

So far there isn’t much to write about other than a brief introduction to the project’s aims and introducing myself as a project archives assistant, so apologies for the very brief post! However, there will be more posts on interesting items and themes that come along, which will be posted at the beginning of every month. I do hope you can follow the project’s progress and that some of you may become volunteers when we start looking for them at the beginning of next year.