The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: After the Combs Colliery disaster

Tragedy: Mrs Harriet Wood, who lost husband William and two sons John and Friend in the disaster. She is pictured some years later with her four remaining children. She had to send another son, Harry, pictured next to her, down the pit when he was only 12. Her other children were Mary Ellen, pictured far left, and Emma and Gladstone.
Tragedy: Mrs Harriet Wood, who lost husband William and two sons John and Friend in the disaster. She is pictured some years later with her four remaining children. She had to send another son, Harry, pictured next to her, down the pit when he was only 12. Her other children were Mary Ellen, pictured far left, and Emma and Gladstone.

THE heartache I wrote about last week regarding the loss of 139 lives in the Combs Colliery disaster of 1893 can never be measured.

This shocking disaster left 65 women without husbands and 230 children without fathers, 182 of whom were under working age.

In one family seven children were left fatherless, and in another six.

One woman, Elizabeth Firth, lost her husband and three of her sons, and of the 139 killed, 52 were young boys who had started working at the pit when they were only 11 years old.

The bodies of the 139 men and boys were laid out on the floor of the Parochial Hall, just across the road from the pit.

And the melancholy task of washing them and laying them out was left to the women of the village, many of whom were relatives of the dead.

The rows of bodies were all numbered, and their clothing bundled up to be collected by relatives, many of whom, on recognising their loved ones broke into uncontrollable grief.

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.

The 10 hearses and 40 cabs arriving at the churchyard for the funerals had been provided by the pit owner, Theodore Ingham, who lived in Blake Hall, Mirfield.

The Thornhill Brass band, chiefly composed of miners, played the Dead March during the service and they also accompanied the bodies of a number of their own members to the graveside.

The funerals of two brothers, Charles and Aquilla Booth, of Thornhill Edge, aroused great interest, for the two men were members of Thornhill Edge Church, where Aquilla was organist and Charles was choirmaster.

During that dreadful day, many other distressing scenes were witnessed, especially in the case of families who had lost more than one member, and many a poor widow had to be borne away from the grave supported on each side by strong men.

Such manifestations of grief were seen during the whole of the day to be witnessed by the thousands of spectators who had come from all over the district. They had who stood quietly outside the churchyard, having not been allowed inside.

The first man buried was Isaac Lightowler, aged 36, whose widow and mother headed the mournful procession.

Many of the women in the village lost their sole breadwinner and some lost both sons and husbands.

Some were later forced to send young sons back down the pit where their fathers and brothers had been killed.

Thornhill was a mining village and its people accepted death as part of life and faced the tragedy with a quiet dignity which sought no blame for what had happened.

There was no public outcry, no demands for compensation and no criticism of the pit owner.

Indeed they were grateful to him for providing the 139 coffins for those who had perished.

A national appeal was started and more than £30,000 was raised – a magnificent sum in those days – but this money did not enrich those who had been bereaved.

Most only received pitiful allowances which could be withheld at any time by the trustees who administered the fund.

If they felt that any of the widows or their children had misbehaved in any way, they could stop their allowances, including widows who might have taken up with boyfriends.

The following amounts were paid weekly to those suffering hardship as a result of the tragedy:

Widows received 7/6d, grandmothers or grandfathers, who had depended entirely on those killed in their household, received the same.

Imbeciles and incurables, as they were cruelly referred to in those days, were treated as special cases and were allowed according to the graduated scale for children.

In the case of children left without father or mother, an allowance of 7/6d a week was granted to allow these orphans to pay someone to look after them until the youngest child attained the age of 15.

In addition to this, the trustees set aside the sum of £40 to be paid to the parents of each boy killed in the pit as a final payment.

The explosion at the pit had been caused by the ignition of a small accumulation of gas by a naked light, but it was never discovered how this had happened.

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.

What happened on that fateful day – 4th July 1893 – has faded into history and the names of those killed forgotten, except by their descendants.

A memorial concert in memory of them is being held in Dewsbury Town Hall on Saturday July 13th, presented by St John’s Masonic Lodge, Dewsbury.

The world famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band will be providing the music accompanied by Skelmenthorpe Male Voice Choir.

Only the best for these brave miners from Thornhill.

Please book your tickets now because we owe it to the memory of these men that Dewsbury Town hall is packed to capacity on that night.

The names of everyone killed will be on display in the reception area.

Proceeds are in aid of local charities. To book tickets please ring 01924 324501 or go online at www.kirkleestownhalls.co.uk.