'VCs' won by miners surface for new exhibition

Museum display marks 75th anniversary of pit explosion which claimed lives of 45 men in 1931 Paul Whitehouse WITH its flourishing woodland and network of bridleways the landscape of the former Bentley Colliery gives today's visitors virtually no clues about its mighty industrial past.

But 75 years ago the scene was unimaginably different, with the mine at the centre of a disaster which claimed the lives of 45 colliers and also witnessed acts of extreme bravery by colleagues which resulted in the award of eight Edward Medals, colloquially known as the "miners' VC".

While the mining industry may have long-since disappeared from the area, the surrounding community has steadfastly refused to let the memory of those who lost their lives, both in 1931 and other tragedies, fade.

Annual memorial services continue to be well attended and now Doncaster Council has organised an exhibition to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1931 explosion.

One council member, Coun Tony Sockett, has personal connections with the disaster because he knew two of those who were awarded Edward Medals.

Ernest Allport was his wife's grandfather and served as a volunteer with the pit's rescue team, going into areas where the danger was most severe as he searched for survivors.

Mr Sockett also worked briefly in the 1970s with Richard Darker, a pony driver who was involved in rescuing men from different areas of the colliery in the aftermath of the blast.

He said: "The Bentley Colliery explosion was a terrible tragedy which had repercussions throughout the whole community. But to this day we still remember the courage and bravery of the rescuers who worked tirelessly to help the injured in appalling conditions."

At the time of the disaster the Edward Medal was the highest award available to recognise the men's heroism but during the Second World War the George Cross was instituted as the highest award for civilian gallantry.

In the early 1970s the Government decreed that all surviving holders of the Edward Medal could exchange that award for the George Cross and some of those involved in the Bentley disaster did so, attending ceremonies at Buckingham Palace to receive them from the Queen.

Regulations restricted those who could attend to the most immediate family and Mr Sockett remembers waiting outside the gates of Buckingham Palace while Mr Allport went in to receive his.

Part of that agreement was that he, and others, hand over their Edward Medals to Doncaster Museum and that is where they remain.

They will form part of the exhibition, which will also see the George Crosses awarded to Mr Allport and Mr Darker back together for the first time since they were presented in 1972.

Mr Sockett said: "We were all very proud of grandad. I remember going down with my wife and kids and was stood outside Buckingham Palace while he went in and came out.

"I represent the Bentley ward so I am also very conscious that there were many people who lost their lives and, I suspect, there were also many unsung heroes.

"Men faced hazards day-to-day working in the coal industry at that time," he said.

Bentley Colliery mined the Barnsley seam which was plagued with problems from methane gas, which can be very volatile. Most of the mine had been closed because of gas problems before the explosion and many miners were concerned about conditions underground at the time, even though the pit had a ventilation system regarded as the best in the country.

After the disaster the NUM established a fund to sustain an annual commemorative service. This year it takes place on Sunday although the actual anniversary of the disaster is November 20.

The mine closed as the industry contracted following the 1984 pit strike.

n The exhibition opens on Friday and will remain

open until January 28 at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery.