The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

LAST week I gave an account of the widows left behind after the 1893 Combs Colliery disaster in which 139 men and boys were killed.

This week I publish a written account of one widow whose husband and three sons were working underground that day.

Her husband was killed and only one of her three sons, John Garfitt, survived the horror.

She gave a compelling account some years afterwards in the Reporter recalling exactly what happened on that fateful day.

This is what Mrs Garfitt, who lived in Thornhill Edge, wrote:

“It had just struck 12 o’clock and the housewives of our little village were busy preparing the mid-day meal.

“All our menfolk were down the pit, and our daughters, who were at work, would soon be tripping home hungry and impatient for dinner.

“It was just five minutes past 12 when there came a clap of thunder.

“Miner’s wives live in fear of explosions, so each woman rushed out of the house to see what the noise could be.

“Everything seemed as quiet as the grave, and with blanched faces we held our breath, afraid to give expression to our thoughts.

“Suddenly a black cloud of smoke came pouring out of the pit shaft, and the pitiful cry went forth: ‘The pit’s afire. It’s gone off! God help our poor men below!’

“In a minute the road was crowded with frantic women and children flying to the colliery to hear the worst, and terrible indeed was the news that awaited us.

“The men working at the pit mouth had knocked off at 12 o’clock and were gathered in the cabin, preparing to get their dinners when the explosion took place. They were ‘capped’ (surprised) to hear thunder on such a fine day, but they never dreamed of the possibility of the pit going off.

“They rushed to the pit mouth, and fifteen minutes later another explosion took place and the cage was quickly lowered to the bottom.

“After a few minutes, it was drawn back again to the surface, and it had become red hot. It was evident that a terrible fire was raging below.

“By this time the yard was full of mothers, wives and children, wringing their hands and praying to the men to do impossible things to save their loved ones below.

“The men went on with the work of preparing for the lowering of a rescue party, but the look upon their faces gave little hope to the distracted women around them.

“It was impossible to go down the main shaft, so they descended another shaft 80 yards away which was used for pumping the water out of the pit.

“Quickly they were followed by other men, and we watched the wheel as the cage was lowered again and again.

“Once below, the brave fellows found a raging hell, and after struggling fiercely with the smoke they succeeded in finding four bodies which were promptly sent to the top.

“By this time water was being poured down to put out the fire, but the smoke and steam became so great that the gallant rescue parties were driven to the surface again.

“A fever of excitement went around the crowd of anxious women, some saying they thought the pit shaft was to be covered to smother the fire.

“Someone uttered the words ‘May God have mercy on them’. It will smother our poor lads. Some of us protested fiercely at this.

“After a time, the cover was removed, and it became evident the fire had been subdued, and soon after six o’ clock, another rescue party was lowered. The crowd was silent as the dead.

“It was nearly eight o’clock when the rescue party was again brought to the top, looking terribly hot and tired, but still ready to tackle the work again.

“All the night, water was poured down the shaft, and we were told no further rescue attempt would be made until the following day at noon.

“By this time the officials were anxious to prepare us for the loss of every man below, but we refused to believe such a cruel thing.

“Next morning, the only blinds left undrawn were at those houses where the bodies of the four men recovered had been taken.

“It was quarter past 12, just 24 hours after the explosion that the rescue recommenced, and at half-hourly intervals further reports were made. We crowded around the shaft, anxiously awaiting the return of the men with their report. Our hearts began to sink with fresh fears.

“It was then we heard they had discovered 138 bodies, only three of whom were burnt, the rest having evidently died from the affects of the after-damp.

“It was then that Mr Scott, the mine manager, spoke to the crowds waiting outside.

“With tears running down his face, he told them there was no hope of anyone coming out alive.

“He told them: ‘It is impossible that any other men could have survived the conditions following the explosion. Poor chaps, they have all gone to their last account. But he was later proved to be wrong when eight men, one of them Mrs Garfitt’s son, were brought to the surface alive after being entombed 30 hours.”

Next week I will continue Mrs Garfitt’s account, including how later eight men, supposed killed, were brought out alive, one of them her son, John.

This coming Saturday (July 13th) a memorial concert is being held in Dewsbury Town Hall, commencing at 7.30pm, to mark the 126th anniversary of the worst tragedy in Dewsbury’s history.

The concert is being presented by St John’s Masonic Lodge, Dewsbury, and on stage will be World famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Skelmenthorpe Male Voice Choir.

Those wishing to book tickets at £20, please ring 01484 225755 or go to the kirkleestownhalls.co.uk website.

Complimentary tickets are available to certain groups, including ex-miners and servicemen and women.

To apply for complimentary tickets, please ring Eric Firth 078700 219290.