GRESFORD DISASTER | 85 Years On

Macclesfield Town
Posted:Sun 22 Sep 2019

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the Gresford Colliery disaster and the team will mark the occasion by wearing a special commemorative shirt for our visit to AFC Fylde this coming Tuesday evening and again next Saturday for the home fixture against Ebbsfleet United (28 September).

The club will also remember the horrors of the disaster with a minute’s silence against the Fleet, to recall a tragedy that shocked the whole country, but most of all the community of Wrexham, who lost 266 men.

Assistant manager Brian Flynn will join club officials at the annual memorial service in Gresford this morning, as the club pays its respects to those who lost their lives.

At 2.08am on Saturday, 22 September 1934, an explosion rocked the Dennis section of the mine, when there were almost 500 men underground that night – a larger number than usual, as many miners had doubled up on shifts in order to be free to watch Wrexham play Tranmere Rovers at the Racecourse later that afternoon.

With the fire well alight, it was later reported that: “The rescuers faced almost intolerable heat with unexampled courage. Their boots were burned off; their hair and eyebrows singed, and hands and knees were scorched whenever they touched the floor of the road.”

Three rescuers were killed during an attempt to explore the return airway to another mining district - an operation that saw only 11 bodies recovered - the cause of death for them all was found to be carbon monoxide poisoning.

Above ground, the families of the miners flocked to the pithead, desperate for news of their loved ones. It was said that the rescuers knew that all was lost early on but kept at it for the sake of their friends trapped further into the mine.

The lack of firefighting equipment, water and a compressed air main, hampered the rescue teams. The fire was fought continuously, particularly in the main airway intake, until the Sunday evening, but all to no avail. It was certain by that time all the men were dead and as conditions regarding the presence of inflammable gas were very dangerous, it was decided to cap both shafts of the mine.

A further explosion, three days later, saw one of the seals on the shaft blown out and a workman was killed by the flying debris.

Crowds gather for news from underground
Relatives, friends and fellow workers wait for news from underground

It was whilst the rescue operation was in full swing, that less than two miles away a crowd of 10,100 gathered at the Racecourse for a Third Division North league match with Tranmere Rovers.

George Lerry, who was the sports reporter ‘XYZ’ for the Wrexham Leader, wrote the following: “It was only natural that people were unable to turn their minds to thoughts of football. The match on the Racecourse between Wrexham and Tranmere instead of proving, as it promised to be, one of the most exciting in the season’s programme, was contested in an atmosphere of restrained enthusiasm under the saddest circumstances in the Wrexham club’s history.

“Both teams wore black arm bands and before the start, players, officials and directors lined in the centre of the field, whilst the crowd stood bareheaded and two minutes’ silence was observed. An ironic fact was that the music to have been provided at the game should have been played by the Gresford Colliery Silver Prize band.

“The news of the disaster had become known on the morning of the match and at one time it was thought that the game would be postponed. Personally, I wish it had been so. After hurrying from the pit head where I had seen the dead bodies of miners and brave rescuers who had lost their lives – where, too, I had watched other heroes still going down to fight the flames below – I did not find it easy to settle down to the task of taking notes of this match.”

With Wrexham scheduled to visit Sealand Road for the local derby on the following weekend, the Chester FC board held a special meeting to discuss how they could help. One of the proposals put forward was for a combined Chester & Wrexham XI to play the full Wales international team at the Racecourse Ground.

In the event, a collection was held at Chester and the home directors arranged for some of the collectors to be miners from the colliery who had taken part in the rescue efforts, and they even transported them to the ground by car. The Chester FC Supporters Committee also gave all their proceeds from the day to the fund and £150 was raised in total.

There were emotional scenes before the game as the crowd of 15,106 sang “Abide With Me” which was followed by a minute’s silence.

The Dennis section of the mine was never reopened and the bodies of the 254 victims were sealed in the mine. Only eleven bodies were recovered, plus the surface worked killed a few days later.

Inquests recorded the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning.

In September of that year, 1,100 Gresford miners signed on the unemployment register.

Relief funds were set up by the Mayor of Wrexham, the Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire and the Lord Mayor of London, raising a total of over £500,000 for the dependents of the victims.

An inquiry opened October 25, 1934 and highlighted management failures, lack of safety measures, bad working practices and poor ventilation in the pit. The miners were represented at the Inquiry by Sir Stafford Cripps.

Gresford Colliery reopened six months after disaster with coal production resuming in January 1936.

In 1937, court proceedings were started in Wrexham against the Pit Manager, the Under-Manager and the United and Westminster Collieries Limited, the owners of the mine. The court found the mine's management guilty only of inadequate record-keeping.

Gresford Colliery finally closed on economic grounds in November 1973 and the site was developed as an industrial estate.

In 1982 a memorial to the victims of the disaster was erected near to the former colliery. It was constructed from the wheel of the old pit head winding gear.

To read a roll call of all those who perished, please click this link.

Gresford Memorial
The memorial pit head wheel at Gresford

Rescuers emerge from underground
Weary rescuers emerge from underground

Gresford Disaster
Hopes fade for those trapped deep below the surface

 

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