The disaster that changed mining
By Michael Johns
MEMORIES of a North Somerset mining disaster of 100 years ago have been to the fore at Radstock Museum this summer – and time and again, museum staff have been reminded that for the families of the victims, a century is really not a very long time at all.
On the evening of April 9, 1908, an explosion at the Norton Hill Colliery in Midsomer Norton left 10 men and boys dead and shattered a community, and since the tragedy was well documented, the museum had enough photographs, eye-witness accounts and other material such as certificates, bravery medals and miners' lamps to put on an absorbing exhibition.
But what has surprised manager Nigel Carter and his team has been the way it has emerged that it is not only local historians such as Keith Trivett and Dinah Read who know the story of that black day. It is clear that it is still recalled in several homes in the district, passed down by word of mouth through the generations.
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"Thanks to families coming in, we know a good deal more about some of the people involved than we did when the exhibition opened," says Nigel. "For instance, at the top of the staircase there is a large photograph of a funeral.
"We thought it was a moving scene, as funerals in the wake of tragedy are – but imagine how we felt when a man walked in one day, pointed to a little boy walking beside the coffin and said: 'That's my father'."
Nigel expects some more stories will come out next Monday, when some 80 former miners from the North Somerset coalfield will assemble for their annual reunion. "The last mine closed in 1973 and the reunions began a few years later," he says.
"This will be the 20th reunion, and combined with the 100th anniversary of Norton Hill, we expect a good turn-out. I'm sure many of the men will be interested in the exhibition, and I shall be surprised if a few more details don't emerge."
An interesting fact that has been revealed is that the five widows of the Norton Hill victims were awarded a pension of between 10 shillings and 17 shillings a week, so long as they remained unmarried, and a 10 shilling pension was also awarded to one of the men's frail mother.
In fact, four of the five widows remarried within a year or two of the disaster, Ethel being the exception, but they each left the pension fund with quite a handsome £10 dowry.
As the exhibition explains, the accident occurred some 1,500 feet underground, but it was loud enough to rouse the community and send men rushing from their homes to the pit head. Their mammoth rescue attempt involved dozens of volunteers, with colliery owner Frank Beauchamp and pit manager Robert Bennett among them.
After three days of searching amid confusion and dangerous conditions, 19 survivors were saved. Of the 10 victims, the youngest was Harry Sage, a 14-year-old powder boy. The official inquiry found the accident was due to an "explosion of coal dust, caused by a shot fired... in the Slyving Vein Incline", a verdict that eventually resulted in a change of mine safety regulations.
"There was an overhanging part of the roof of the mine that was obstructing coal trucks, so they laid a charge to remove it and that ignited the coal dust and set off the explosion," says Nigel.
"There were no official rescue teams – they didn't come until much later – so it was down to the pit manager and volunteers to go down and do what they could."
The Norton Hill disaster was one of several around the country that brought pressure for new legislation and changes to safety procedures.
In 1911 Winston Churchill was behind a new law to bring in rescue safety stations. "The Norton Hill disaster had a big impact on mining safety, and the Somersetshire Miners' Association played an active role in enforcing the rules," says Nigel.
To learn more, detailed accounts of the disaster, by Keith Trivett and Dinah Read, appear in the spring and summer editions of Five Arches, the journal of the Radstock, Midsomer Norton and District Museum Society. Each costs £2.50 from Radstock Museum. Call 01761 437722.
The Disaster Underground exhibition, which also includes information about accidents at other collieries, including Timsbury, Camerton, Wellsway and Newbury, continues at Radstock Museum until Sunday.