Coal mining costs, in terms of human life, were extremely high throughout 19th and 20th centuries. Mining communities were extremely fortunate if they did not experience loss of life on a large scale. Sadly, Bentley colliery was to witness two disasters during its existence from 1908 to 1994.
Barber Walker & Company commenced a proving borehole near Bentley Mill in 1887, but, owing to the nature of the strata, the attempt was abandoned. In 1895 a further attempt was made by boring at the corner of Daw Lane Plantation and the rich Barnsley seam was proved at a depth of 615 yards. Negotiations with landowners for working rights followed and sinking was begun in 1904. The No.2 shaft was the first to be started in 1905. The sinking of the upcast shaft commenced in October 1905 and a depth of 50ft was reached in December of the same year.
These operations proved unsuccessful and sinking was stopped, another attempt being made in March 1906. Two years later, in November 1908, the Doncaster Chronicle noted: “On Friday evening the pit sinkers at the Bentley Colliery were provided with dinner to celebrate the reaching of coal at both shafts, when there was an attendance of upwards of 300. The arrangements for the spread were admirably discharged by Mr Hildernby of the Bay Horse, Bentley, whose cuisine and general appointment met with the most cordial recognition.”
At the start of the 1930s Bentley colliery was one of the largest and best-equipped pits in South Yorkshire, producing a yearly average of over 1m tonnes of coal. But on Friday, November 20, 1931, it was the scene of the worst disaster that had taken place at any of the new collieries in the South Yorkshire coalfield. The Bentley explosion, though less serious than that of Cadeby in 1912, was felt keenly by the inhabitants of Doncaster.
The first news of the calamity came shortly after 6pm. Nobody knew exactly what had happened beyond that ‘there was something up at the pit’.
It was not until the early hours of Saturday that the full extent of the disaster became apparent. In total 43 miners were killed instantly and four were injured; two of these dying later. Five bodies were never recovered. King George V sent this message: “The Queen and I are shocked to hear of the disaster which occurred last night at Bentley and send our heartfelt sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives tragically.”
A fund for the dependents was launched and £40,000 was raised.
The following Wednesday, November 25, 31 disaster victims were buried together in one big grave at the Arksey Lane cemetery amid unprecedented scenes of public sympathy. The coffins were borne to the grave from the New Village Church at Bentley, on motor lorries, in a long procession.
In subsequent decades the pit overcame problems of flooding, began working new seams and was re-equipped. This included the introduction of flame-proof diesel locomotives for underground haulage. In March, 1969, Bentley Colliery was in the news – held up as a striking example of a pit that had ‘changed its ways’. Twelve months earlier it was alleged the colliery was the ‘sick man’ of the area, torn by industrial disputes and was under the threat of closure. A year later it was not merely a pit which came back from the brink but a pit in the top 10 productivity bracket.
In the 1970s, output at Bentley was 14,000 tons per week with 920 men employed below ground and 280 men on the surface. Tragically, at 4.55 am on November 21, 1978, Bentley colliery saw seven men die and 19 others injured – three of them seriously. The tragedy struck deep into the community.
A diesel-drawn paddy train ran into trouble on a sharp bend as it careered out of control for a distance of about 800ft on an incline dipping at 1 in 16. Three of its four coaches were derailed and men were thrown from their wooden seats as it crashed into the steel-arched roadway supports. The train was carrying 65 men, who had been working in the Dunsil seam. It was almost 47 years to the day since the 1931 disaster.
Separate funeral services were to be held for the victims during the following week. Don Valley MP Dick Kelley joined a call in the House of Commons for an inquiry into the Bentley tragedy, to consider whether pit productivity deals had any bearing on safety standards.
On November 16, 1993, British Coal’s announcement to shut down Bentley colliery was met with an air of sad inevitability within its community. Bentley vicar Bob Fitzharris commented: “We are being held hostage to fortune by this evil [Tory] administration that worships the false god of the market place...It is a sad and black day for Bentley.”
Wilf Gibson, who retired from the colliery in 1986, said: “For a pit to close like that when it is producing coal like Bentley it is just wrong – I can see no reason for it. At the end of the day we have got a pit that is workable.”
During late 1994 and early the following year the Bentley colliery buildings were demolished. Redevelopment work started on the site during the latter half of 1998 and the area now forms part of the Bentley Community Forest.
On www.forestry.gov.uk it is stated: “Bentley colliery was an important focal point for the communities surrounding Bentley, but the closure of the pit in 1993 presented an opportunity to transform the site into a resource for all of the community to enjoy.”
Each year, since the tragedies of 1931 and 1978, a memorial service has been held in Arksey cemetery.