“ONE of the most appalling disasters in the history of the North Staffordshire Coalfield occurred at the Brymbo Colliery, Chesterton, today.”
That was how The Sentinel announced the terrible news of the catastrophe at Holditch Colliery, which was known as the Brymbo because the pit had first been sunk in 1912 by the Brymbo Steel Company.
The disaster, of July 2, 1937, was caused by a fire which broke out near the coal-cutting machine in the four-foot seam, at just after 6.30am. Poisonous gasses killed two men, and a third miner was killed by an explosion an hour later.
Rescue teams led by Shelton Bar’s joint managing director, John Cocks, made their way to the seam. But at 10am there was another explosion, which killed Mr Cocks and 18 men who were with him. Other rescuers were seriously injured.
Sentinel reporters were among a large crowd which had gathered at the pithead, and the awful news made that day’s edition.
The report, of Friday, July 2, 1937, said: “Eight survivors, seriously burned and in an unconscious condition, have been brought to the surface and removed by ambulance to the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary.
“Ten rescue teams were called to the scene, and late this afternoon it was learned that they were unable to reach the seat of the disaster owing to the intense heat, although it is believed that the fire has now been extinguished.
“The outbreak of fire occurred at the four-foot seam between 6.30 and 7 this morning, and although, at first, not of an extensive character, it became more serious when the first explosion occurred about 7 O’Clock.
“About three hours later, while rescue operations were in progress, a further explosion took place, and among those involved were the colliery officials and rescue workers.”
As survivors were brought to the surface, they began to tell their own stories of the disaster. William Jones, of Milehouse Lane, Knutton, told The Sentinel he was working on the coal face when the initial fire broke out, trapping two men, Arthur Stanton and William Hastings.
“About 12 of us set to work to release them, then came the explosion,” he said.
“We had to race for safety. A second explosion followed almost immediately and we were all nearly choked with dust. We hardly knew what was happening, but we managed, half-blinded and choked though we were, to get through to the bottom and safety.”
Thomas Price, of Hall Street, Newcastle, said: “All of a sudden there was a hot flash and a rush of hot gas and dirt. My mates and I rushed for the back steps and made our way for the main airway.
“Then, on taking an emergency roll call, we found that two of our mates, Hastings and Stanton, were missing. We tried to get back to them. It was impossible in that inferno of smoke and fumes.
“Then, there was another explosion which blew us right off our feet. We scrambled up and rushed for the pit bottom.”
Harry Bentley, a fireman, from Newcastle Road, Talke, was the first injured man to arrive at the North Staffordshire Infirmary. Mr Bentley, who was suffering from burns to the face and both arms, said he had felt the force of the first explosion behind him, but was unhurt.
“Then, the wind seemed to rush up,” he said.
“There was a second explosion, and I was flung into a man-hole, where I remained until help arrived to get me out.”
Ultimately, 30 miners were killed.
King George VI and the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, sent messages of sympathy. Newcastle’s high steward, the Earl of Harrowby, and the borough major, Alderman Sydney Myatt, launched a national appeal to help the families of the men killed or injured.
The first donation, a cheque for one hundred guineas, came from The Sentinel. Shelton Bar gave a thousand guineas and in less than a week almost £4,000 had been donated.
But despite the generous donations, hart times lay ahead for the widows and children of the killed miners.
The impact of that terrible disaster was felt for many years in the homes of those affected – and its impact continues to this day.
Sam Latham never got to meet his father, Samuel Henry Latham, who was a member of the Hanley Deep Pit rescue team summoned to help. He died, aged 28, trying to save other miners at the Brymbo Pit.
Sam, now aged 79, of Endon, said: “His death left my mum, Phylis, a widow, faced with being alone for some six months, until my birth on December 30, 1937.
“Despite the reported public donations and financial help for the disaster dependents, you can appreciate the struggle my mum and the other families had, to ensure that the children of this tragedy would fulfil their potential during those dark and troubled years.
“Throughout my life, my mum always told me of my dad’s sacrifice. Although I never met him, I am so blessed with his name, which will be continued by my grandson – as befits a true hero and dad.”
From the Stoke Sentinel – July 04, 2017