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By Belinda Artingstoll
BBC Radio Cumbria, Special Features Producer

Wellington Pit
The candlestick chimney is all that remains visible of Wellington Pit

On the 11 May 1910, 136 men and boys died following an explosion and fire at the Wellington Pit in Whitehaven.

What makes the story even more poignant are the chalked messages found afterwards showing many of them had survived the initial explosion.

Fathers, brothers and sons - some from the same family - died leaving already very poor families facing destitution.

The town marked the 100th anniversary of the disaster with a week of special events including services and a parade.

Explosion

The first sign that something was wrong came when some of the men reported air rushing out of the pit at about 7.30pm on 11 May 1910, an indication that there had been an explosion.

The explosion was caused by a build up of methane or fire damp being ignited by a spark or naked flame.

map of a coal mine
Part of a map showing where the bodies were found in the mine

Dave Banks from the West Cumbria Mines Research Group which investigates and records the history of the local mining industry says it could have been a damaged safety lamp which ignited the gas.

The main route out of the mine for the men working underground was blocked by the subsequent fire.

Sealed

Rescuers battled through the night and well into the following day to try to get through to the trapped miners but eventually the regional mines inspector ordered them to pull out.

He felt it was unlikely that anyone would have survived the explosion and fire and, despite strong opposition from some of the miners involved in the rescue operation, he ordered that the area should be sealed off to starve the fire of oxygen.

Several months later the mine was re-opened to allow for the gruesome task of recovering and identifying the badly decomposed bodies.

miners safety lamp
A safety lamp brought up from the mine after the disaster

The Edward Medal is awarded to people who have shown exceptional bravery in industrial rescues. 64 were awarded after the Wellington Pit disaster which is the most ever awarded in a single incident.

Messages

The youngest to die were just 15 years old and several families lost more than one relative, including Tom McAllister who died with his two teenage sons, James and John. Tom left behind a widow and six other children.

Dave Banks says one story which really gets to him is the father who was found cradling his teenage son and his son's friend in his arms.

Another man had taken off all his clothes and neatly folded them up in a pile beside him. No one knows why.

In all, 85 women were widowed and 260 children lost their fathers.

Just as poignantly, when the mine was re-opened, chalk messages were found on several doors showing that some of the men and boys had survived for a time after the fire and explosion.

An Edward medal
An Edward medal awarded to one of the rescuers

Could they still have been alive when the decision was taken to seal the mine?

Pain

Some families believe their men could have been rescued but historians and mining experts think this is unlikely.

Jenni Lister, from the Whitehaven Record Office and Local Studies Library, understands this view but says tests were done after the disaster to see how long the men would have survived the effects of the smoke from the fire and the general consensus is that they would have been dead by the time the mine was sealed off.

Most of the people I've spoken to in connection with the disaster's anniversary, whether or not they were related to those who died, have at times become visibly upset.

Given that it is 100 years since the disaster this did surprise me but Dave Banks says "in this community the miners are part of us and we feel their pain."




SEE ALSO
Wellington Pit 1910 - families
05 May 10 |  History
Whitehaven marks mining disaster
18 May 10 |  History
In pictures: Miners remembered
11 May 10 |  History


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