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Children of the pit whom time forgot

Former MP David Hinchliffe outside Norcroft Cottages, near the scene of the pit disaster.
Former MP David Hinchliffe outside Norcroft Cottages, near the scene of the pit disaster.
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It was one of the most terrible mining accidents of all. Ten colliers died, six of them children. Three were just eight years old.

Yet there is hardly a sign of what happened at Norcroft that day in 1821 – not even the graves of the victims.

The churchyard of All Saints in Crawthorne

The churchyard of All Saints in Crawthorne

David Hinchliffe had served as an MP for 20 years in that part of the West Riding, but it was when he discovered that one of the young victims was his ancestor that he made it his business to build them a permanent memorial in time for the 200th anniversary.

The children of the pit had died at around 10.30 in the morning when, at the end of their shift below ground, they climbed into a basket to be hauled back to the surface.

The chain carrying their weight snapped, and they plummeted about 180ft feet to the bottom of the shaft.

Such was the apparent acceptance of the occupational hazards of the mines that the next morning the papers mentioned it only briefly, and did not record the age of the victims.

The Norcroft pit sketched by John Claude Nattes

The Norcroft pit sketched by John Claude Nattes

Mr Hinchliffe, who represented Wakefield until 2005, said: “I grew up in a mining community, but learning that I had a relative who died aged just eight really brought home the industrial history of that period.

“There were children as young as five going down the pit and yet in this case there is just no record of what happened.”

Six of the victims are buried in unmarked plots at Cawthorne Church near Barnsley. On March 16 its village hall will be the venue for a meeting that will kick off a fundraising campaign for a memorial. The speakers will include the current MP for neighbouring Penistone and Stockbridge, Angela Smith.

Mr Hinchliffe, who served on the board of the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield after retiring from the Commons, said: “The parish register records the deaths of the children but not the circumstances. A memorial to them would really give us the opportunity to rectify that.”

The six young victims were brothers Benjamin, Robert and Charles Eyre, aged 10, 12 and 16; Charles Forden, Charles Foulding and John Hinchliffe, the eldest child of the former MP’s great great grandfather.

The Norcroft pit, sketched a few years before the disaster by the artist John Claud Nattes, was abandoned by around 1825 and only traces of its existence remain. The disaster itself went largely undocumented until 50 years later, when an eyewitness account by Jeremiah Gilbert, a local preacher, was published.

He wrote: “There were men and women running in almost every direction, both under ground and above, to see who had fallen a prey to death’s dart – mothers and wives on the pit-bank, crying, stamping, shrieking, and wringing their hands together.”

Mr Gilbert quoted onlookers as saying the sight was “the most awful and affecting that they ever saw in the whole of their lives”

He described taking one woman, whose husband had died, widow back to her home.

“The mother said, ‘Twice before they have brought my husband home nearly killed, but the third time they are about to bring him home dead in a cart’,” he wrote.

Yet lessons were not learned from Norcroft, and 17 years later, at the nearby Huskar pit, 26 children – girls and boys aged between seven and 17 – died after heavy rain disabled the winding engine. Both pits had been struck to work the Silkstone coal seam.

The second disaster galvanised public opinion against the use of children in the pits, and the resulting inquiry led to the 1842 Mines Act, which prohibited children under 10 from working underground. A memorial to the Huskar victims is at All Saint’s Church, Silkstone.