Monument to honour 139 killed in one of Yorkshire's worst mining disasters

It was a tragedy which left a Yorkshire mining community shocked and devastated.

A naked flame igniting an accumulation of gas had caused the horrific underground explosion, which killed 139 men and boys outright, some of them as young as 12.

More than 20,000 people gathered that fateful day – on 4 July, 1893 – at the pit head at The Combs Colliery in Thornhill, Dewsbury, awaiting news of loved ones as the bodies were carried up one by one. Only seven men survived.

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Now, 127 years later, a lasting memorial is to be built in memory those who lost their lives in one of the UK's biggest ever coal mining disasters.

The Combs Colliery in Thornhill, Dewsbury. Credit: Dewsbury Reporter/ Margaret Watson

A mass burial took place with the victims placed in unmarked graves, mostly in Thornhill Parish Church yard and other locations nearby.

Finally, their memory will be officially marked in history with a mining wheel monument to commemorate the tragedy, as well as a roll of honour for those who died.

Paul Ellis, president of the Dewsbury Chamber of Trade, who has been involved with the plan to create a monument for more than two decades, said: “Out of the 139 dead, 46 of them were under 16. And seven of the 46 were only 12.

The seven miners who survived the disaster. Credit: Dewsbury Reporter/ Margaret Watson

“The victims have never been officially remembered and a lasting memorial is needed. This has been a project of more than 20 years in the planning and it is something which still runs deep for relatives of the dead men and people in our town, which was once home to this mining community.

“It was an unprecedented disaster at the time, on such a huge scale, leaving the community in a state of shock.”

A huge mining wheel, rescued from Denaby Main Colliery, Mexborough, in south Yorkshire, is to be installed in the centre of Dewsbury later this year, on the Longcauseway.

Councillor Eric Firth, (Lab, Dewsbury East) Marilyn Shaw, of Dewsbury Forward and Paul Ellis, President of the Dewsbury Chamber of Trade, look at plans for the mining monument. Credit: Mike Bickerdike

A funding bid has been submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance the project, which is expected to cost up to £40,000.

The names of everyone killed will also be listed on a roll of honour to be unveiled at Dewsbury Town Hall.

Mr Ellis has been working on the project for two decades alongside Dewsbury East councillor Eric Firth, with support from businessman Andrew Hutchinson, who salvaged the mining wheel, along with backing of Kirklees Council and members of Dewsbury Forward, which promotes business and positivity for the town.

Coun Firth said: “This has been a long time coming and it will honour those who died and the families affected.

"This explosion had such a devastating impact on communities in Thornhill and surrounding areas such as Whitley, Briestfield and Middlestown, Horbury and into Dewsbury.

“We have the full list of all names, ages with some local surnames we recognise. Descendants will have had great grandfathers and relatives lost in the explosion.”

Initially the plan was the have the monument in Thornhill, but it was not practical or safe to locate it near the church or the former colliery, which closed in 1971.

“One half of the wheel will be used in a semi-circular design, put onto a Yorkshire stone plinth. Plans could see a new pavement area around it and benches installed.”

“We decided it needed to be somewhere prominent and the Longcauseway is the perfect location,” added Mr Ellis, a former councillor.

The mining wheel was rescued by Dewsbury salvage and demolition expert Andrew Hutchinson and has been in storage ever since for more than 20 years. It is being painted and restored.

Twelve was the age deemed suitable for youngsters to go down the pit to earn a living. The smaller boys could crawl into smaller spaces into seams of coal.

Of those who died, 110 were buried in the Thornhill Churchyard, 16 at Whitley, three at the Baptist Chapel churchyard, Thornhill, one at Dewsbury, one at Flockton, one at Middlestown and one at Outwood.

Most of the men had died not as a result of the explosion, but as a result of inhaling the dreadful after-damp which every miner feared.

As news of the disaster spread, a crowd of around 20,000 gathered on the Combs in Thornhill as the bodies were brought up from underground, one by one, until 139 were laid out on the hillside.

They were all buried in the village churchyard on the same day in unmarked graves. The pit owner has arranged for them to have coffins but no name marking their existence.

An inquiry later revealed the explosion has been caused by a naked light igniting a small amount of gas which has accumulated at the bottom of the pit shaft.

A trust fund was set up nationally and around £30,000 was collected, equivalent to almost £4m today.

The pit was working until 1971.