In October 2014, I had the opportunity to visit the Wrexham Museum to see an exhibition called “A Light in the Dark: Coal, Colliers and Communities”. This year was the eightieth anniversary of the Gresford colliery disaster, the memory of which the exhibition took as its main inspiration, as it looked at how the Welsh coal mining communities faced challenges and disasters.
Gresford Colliery situated in the North Wales coalfield near the village of Gresford, about two and a half miles north of Wrexham, consisted of two shafts, the downcast or Dennis shaft and the upcast or Martin shaft, and three seams. The Dennis section of the mine, of significance here, worked the main seam and consisted of five districts each worked on the longwall system. The districts were named on a somewhat illogical system as follows: 20's, 61's 109's (which included 95's) 14's and 29's.
On the night of the 22nd September 1934, at approx two am, the colliery suffered a massive explosion and fire which is thought to have affected the Dennis section in its entirety, but left the other section of the mine – the slant, initially unscathed. Only six men escaped: - a deputy and five workers. Except for the latter, and a few persons at pit bottom, all the men working in the Dennis section lost their lives.
On the Saturday morning, three members of a rescue brigade also died in an attempt to reach those trapped in the workings:-
William Bonsall, the colliery manager, wanted to ascertain the state of the air in the 20's return airway. It was thought that miners in the 20's district could possibly still be alive, and this route could provide their means of escape. Members of the No. 1 rescue team from the neighbouring colliery of Llay Main, together with a Gresford rescue man, were thus sent into the airway, but fumes killed off their canary before they had gone five metres. Despite this, the team continued forward, but soon found their way blocked, and were forced to retreat. Struggling back the way they had come, three of the men were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. It is possible their breathing apparatus had been damaged in the chaotic scenes at the surface.
In the days that followed, a surface worker also lost his life when a subsequent explosion wrecked the sealing of the downcast shaft.
In total 265 persons lost their lives in what was the worst colliery disaster since the Senghenydd Colliery explosion in 1913.
A detailed account of the attempted rescue and recovery work following the disaster was written early in 1936 by Parry Davies, captain of one of the rescue teams from Llay Main colliery.
He vividly describes how men worked in relays to tackle the fire that raged after the initial explosion and how they removed falls and debris from the roadways.
At “29's junction” where a roadway branched towards 29's district (the district from which the six miners had made their escape), a massive fall of ground prevented further progress towards possible survivors.
Parry Davies takes up the story: -
“There the whole junction had collapsed in one huge fall, and the fire was still smouldering under the fall. If one moved a piece of dirt and allowed what little air there was to get to the smouldering timber, it would immediately burst into flame. Our object was to find the entrance to 29's level which was completely closed up. After one hour's solid hard work, handing the hot stones back to others and working in turn, the rescue team found the entrance. It had been considered possible that some men could be behind some doors just inside the entrance of this level, but “Bend down and look”. What a sight! The whole of the level end is just one mass of flame, the coal sides of the roadway, burning in one white mass, and the more stones we moved to one side, the more air we put on to the flames, and the fire roaring away. It was most peculiar to see the flames from that fire, all the colours of the rainbow, a sight which I will never forget.”
Work had progressed all though Saturday night and into Sunday, when all hope was finally lost. Parry Davies recalled how he and others reported that the pit looked to be on fire and there was considerable possibility of further explosions which would endanger the lives of the over 200 men engaged in rescue operations.
With the possibility of a greater death toll, had the rescue and recovery work continued, and with an ever deceasing possibility of finding anyone alive, the decision was finally made to withdraw all men engaged underground, and exclude air to the fire by sealing the pit. This decision was actioned late in the afternoon of Sunday by the order of Sir Henry Walker, Chief Inspector of Mines.
The statement which was drafted, signed by officials and handed to the press is reproduced below:
The attempt to overcome the fire in the main road has gone on continuously since yesterday. In spite of very strenuous efforts and although some progress had been made in the road, the fire has got a further hold in a road to the right, through which it was hoped at first to reach any possible survivors. Today several explosions in bye of the fire on the main road have occurred. This afternoon they became more frequent and closer to where the men were working on the fire. The return airway in both the main returns is carrying carbon monoxide in dangerous quantities, and it is with great reluctance that all parties -the management, representatives of the miners and H.M. Inspectors have come to the conclusion that no person can possibly be alive in the workings. In these circumstances, and in view of the increasingly grave risk to the men engaged in combating the fire and on the main road, it had been decided that it would not be right to continue to expose these workers to such serious risk, and all persons have been withdrawn from the mine.
Only 11 bodies were ever retrieved, despite the fact that the pit was re-entered by specially trained recovery teams in 1935. The Dennis section itself was sealed off by these teams, via a system of stoppings in the main and other roads, and no examination or inspection of the Dennis Section apart from some tentative exploration, was ever carried out.
Coal mining was gradually resumed in the unaffected areas of the mine from January 1936.
The pit was finally closed in 1973.
The Gresford Disaster lives on uncomfortably in local memory to this day.
Men who had come out of the slant area of the mine unharmed, or worked on other shifts in the Dennis section struggled in vain to save their comrades. In addition, workers from neighbouring collieries rushed to the scene to offer their help The rescue attempt was however called off in the late afternoon of Sunday 23rd September as it became too dangerous to continue.
- Explosion at Gresford Colliery, Denbighshire. Reports of the causes and of the circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at Gresford Colliery, Denbigh, on the 22nd September, 1934. Sir Henry Walker et al, 1937.
- Gresford Colliery Explosion - 22nd September 1934, Parry Davies, Denbighshire Historical Society, Transactions, Volume 22, 1973.
- Gresford: The Anatomy of a Disaster, Stanley Williamson, Liverpool University Press, 1999.