FORTY years ago this week, one of the worst mining catastrophes in British history occurred – the Lofthouse Colliery disaster.
It happened shortly after 2am on March 21, 1973, when a group of miners working about 750 feet underground unwittingly sheared into an old shaft which was flooded. What happened next changed the face of British mining forever.
The “inrush”, the term used to describe such an event, caused water trapped in the abandoned shaft to flood the coal face where the miners were working. What came through was cold dark sludge. Miners had been excavating a narrow seam of coal just 34 inches deep, and some were 70 yards in when the water started to flood the coalface.
Crawling on hands and knees, some of them managed to flee. Others were not so lucky.
In fact, the miners had unwittingly tapped into a hidden reservoir containing around three million gallons of water. It comprised old and mostly unmarked mine tunnels and shafts abandoned at the start of the 20th century. The old workings ran for miles throughout the surrounding countryside, all of them flooded with stagnant water.
One was known as the Warren House Seam and lay at a depth of around 50 yards. Another was the Top Haig Moor Seam, about 120 yards down.
When men working on the coalface known as South 9B hit a shaft connecting these, all of the water in them suddenly rushed out. So great was the reservoir that some people have estimated it stretched as far as Ossett.
In a nearby field three holes, each about nine feet across, suddenly opened up. They were the heads of the old shafts, known as the Bye Pit, Bull Pit and Engine Pit.
Eddie Downes, 62, is a chartered engineer and qualified mine engineer, a member of the Lofthouse Colliery Action Group and mining historian.
He said: “When the water started to come in, they were working on their hands and knees. Some were able to scramble off and run, others were trapped. After a short distance, they were able to stand up and run but the stuff chased them.”
The water carried away everything in its path, including rocks and bits of machinery. Even those who ran faced an uncertain future, as the water chased them along the tunnels.
One of the most harrowing stories was that of father and son, Charles and Terry Cotton, who had been working alongside one another when the inrush happened.
They were both able to flee but the elder of the two quickly realised he would not outrun the water. He was forced to say goodbye to his son and urge him to save himself on that grim day. His was the only body rescuers were able to recover.
Mr Downes said: “The rescuers couldn’t get to the people who were trapped, tried though they did. They brought in specialist divers but because of the sludge they couldn’t breath. The air was unbreathable, which meant anyone going down there effectively only had a two-hour limit. They spotted Charley Cotton’s body after about four days, but it was some time before they were able to recover it.”
The body was spotted by George Hayes, who, speaking of the awful events for the first time, said: “I was working alongside a man called Sid Hague, whose own son Alan was trapped. We worked on what they called the ‘Piggy Back’ tunnel, which we cleared out with our bare hands – it ran along the roof of the flooded tunnel and we were trying to get to the men who were trapped.
“It was hard going – our hands were cut to shreds but we just carried on. Sid was hard as nails.
“There was a day shift and a night shift. We were the day shift, and I can remember spotting something on a conveyor. It looked like a body but we couldn’t get to it. I remember hearing on the news later it was Charley Cotton’s body.
“The men of the Lofthouse Development team were the real heroes, they worked tirelessly to try to reach the men.”
Sadly, their efforts were all in vain.
The Lofthouse Colliery Disaster claimed the lives of seven men in all, and even 40 years on emotions run high. Understandably so, for it was not lost upon those who worked at the pit and their relatives and friends, nor the public inquiry which followed in due course, that ultimately the disaster had been avoidable.
One man who worked as part of the rescue team at Lofthouse put it down to “Victorian greed”.
Dave Hagan was a member of the Allerton Bywater rescue crew which worked for six days following the disaster.
He said: “Back in those days you had to pay the landowners for taking coal, so what they used to do is pinch a bit here and a bit there and no-one would mark it on the map.
“It was such a horrible thing to happen and for a lot of people it’s like it happened yesterday. Them bodies are still down there and it’s important we never forget.”
Those old unmarked tunnels, miles of them, some connecting to others as far away as Ossett, had lain undisturbed for nigh on a hundred years and were full to the brim with water.
When the miners working on South 9B cut into one, it unleashed a torrent the like of which no-one could have imagined. Indeed, Gomersal pit was closed just three months later over fears that the same could happen there.
Mr Downes said: “When they were building the M1 at Junction 40 near Ossett, they uncovered some tunnels there about 30 yards down, complete with machinery and tools.”
The rescue operation was changed to a recovery operation after six days, not least because of the views of one of the rescuers, Sid Hague, whose son had still not been found at that stage. He told a public meeting it was a pointless exercise.
Such stories – although 40 years old – are still as harrowing today, and it was partly because of the nature of the disaster and the heart-wrenching choices people were forced to make, that it had and still has such a profound effect. It changed the way the mining industry worked and led to more stringent safety procedures, in particular the Mines (Precautions Against Inrushes) Regulations 1978.
Mr Downes said: “For some it will feel like yesterday. Something like that never goes away.
“I’m involved with the Lofthouse Colliery Action Group, and we have funding to put a permanent memorial on the site. When the pit closed, they open-casted it and went down about 120ft – they eventually landscaped that to create a country park, which is now very nice.
“There are a number of paths which run through it, named after some of the coal seams which were mined at Lofthouse. There are also some streets in Wakefield named after the men who died.”
A seven-sided stone obelisk listing the names of the seven miners was erected in Wrenthorpe above the point where the miners were trapped. It is on the south side of Batley Road, opposite the junction with Wrenthorpe Lane. A new memorial will be placed on the old colliery site.
Mr Downes is in the process of researching a book, Yorkshire Collieries 1947-1994, due to be published in August. In the meantime there will be events later this week to commemorate the disaster.
At 1pm on Saturday, March 23, a memorial service will be held at Outwood Parish Church, Wakefield, and From 2pm at Ledger Lane Workingmen’s Club there will be a reunion for mineworkers and families of the men who lost their lives. Lofthouse 2000B brass band will perform.
Later Outwood Community Video Club will show a film from 1973 about the disaster, and the following day there will be a short service at 3.15pm at the Lofthouse Memorial Garden followed by events at St Paul’s Church, Alverthorpe.
The men who died were Edward Finnegan, 40, William Armitage, 41, Alan Haigh, 30, Sydney St Clair Brown, 36, Colin Barnaby, 36, Charles Cotton, 49 and Frank Billingham, 48.
How disasters changed law
The Lofthouse Colliery disaster was by no means the worst in mining history but it was certainly among the most poignant.
The Universal disaster at Senghenydd, Wales, in 1913 killed 439 following an explosion.
The Oaks disaster, Barnsley, in 1866 killed 380 following an ignition of “firedamp” or methane gas.
The 1838 Huskar mining disaster, again in Barnsley, saw 26 children drowned, the youngest just seven. It led to the creation of the Mines Act of 1842, which stopped women and children working underground.
The Cresswell Disaster, Mansfield, 1950, led to the widespread use of the “self-rescuer”, a device which enables miners to breathe for up to two hours in carbon monoxide.