Memorial to hundreds killed in England’s biggest mining disaster

The unveiling of a statue to commemorate The Oaks Mining Disaster, in Barnsley town centre Sunday. Picture: Mark Bickerdike.

The unveiling of a statue to commemorate The Oaks Mining Disaster, in Barnsley town centre Sunday. Picture: Mark Bickerdike.

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THE explosion made the ground shake for miles around, and flames erupted from 300 yards below. All around Barnsley - it was just before Christmas - “black snow” and burning wood fell out of the sky.

The apocalyptic scenes of December 1866 claimed 361 lives in England’s worst coal-mining disaster.

Pictures by Mark Bickerdike Photography. 7 May 2017. The unveiling of a statue to commemorate The Oaks Mining Disaster, in Barnsley Town Centre today (Sunday).

Pictures by Mark Bickerdike Photography. 7 May 2017. The unveiling of a statue to commemorate The Oaks Mining Disaster, in Barnsley Town Centre today (Sunday).

The Oaks Colliery Disaster, which wrought so much devastation, was remembered yesterday as over a thousand people joined a huge procession, which bought the town to a standstill, for the unveiling of a new memorial.

In a poignant connection with the past, a steam buzzer, used to alert people of a disaster, was sounded before 20 descendants - including a Texan Sir William Jeffock, who bought his family across from the US - stepped forward to unveil the sculpture.

Its centrepiece is “Kitty” whose eyes are fixed directly on the colliery, as her child clings terrified to her shawl. Underneath her is a miner working on a low seam - but is in fact digging his own grave.

“She knows her husband is probably buried underground,” said sculptor Graham Ibbeson, whose own father worked down the pits.

The unveiling of a statue to commemorate The Oaks Mining Disaster, in Barnsley town centre Sunday. Picture: Mark Bickerdike.

The unveiling of a statue to commemorate The Oaks Mining Disaster, in Barnsley town centre Sunday. Picture: Mark Bickerdike.

While working on the project, Mr Ibbeson discovered one of his own relatives, George Ibbeson, died in the tragedy.

“That sent a shiver up my spine,” said Mr Ibbeson.

Modelled in clay in his Barnsley studio, and paid for almost entirely by public donations, Mr Ibbeson, who gave his services for free, added: “To me it’s about the community, it was built in the community, sculpted in the community and is now being placed in the community.”

The closure of the Kellingley pit in North Yorkshire, Britain’s last deep coal mine came as Mr Ibbeson, best known for his sculptures of comedians Eric Morecambe and Laurel and Hardy, worked on the sculpture.

He said: “My work has been about enabling people to look at the world through laughter. This is the other emotion - I am using grief to draw people in. But it is also about hope.

“The biggest monument to the Oaks disaster is what has happened to the community in Barnsley, how that has moved forward in 150 years. The people around us, the mining village, we have all moved forward, it has become a vibrant town.”

The statue - which cost £125,000 - was paid for in just under a year through collection buckets in supermarkets, shopping centres and working men’s clubs, and the sale of half a dozen models of the statue in resin bronse.

Eddie Downs, a member of the statue’s steering group, said: “Apart from the odd donation from organisations such as the unions, all the money came from the public. It is a memorial for the people, by the people.”

The Dodworth Colliery Brass band headed the procession, followed by people carrying banners, including one for the Huskar Pit Disaster in which 26 children aged 7 to 17 drowned. The disaster so shocked public opinion that the law was changed banning children under 10 from working underground.

“The sculpture is in a beautiful spot, the backdrop is the church and it looks magnificent when you drive into Barnsley town centre.

“You can nearly reach out of your car and touch it,” said Mr Downs.

More than 360 people - including many children, some as young as 11 - died in two explosions at the Oaks Colliery in Barnsley in December 1866.

The Oaks mined a seam that was notorious for firedamp, nearly always highly inflammable methane, and on the fateful December day tragedy struck when the gas was ignited, probably by a candle. It caused a huge underground explosion that ripped through the workings, less than an hour before the shift was due to end.

A second explosion the next day killed 27 volunteer rescuers who were frantically trying to reach any survivors.

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