THE Hulton Colliery Company, established by William Hulton in 1858, owned four collieries in Westhoughton, employing about 2,500 people.

The first pits to be sunk on Hulton land were north of the A6 and within the Hulton Park estate in the mid 16th century.

Hulton Colliery Bank Pit numbers one and two shafts were sunk in 1897 and were locally known as Klondike Pit.

They were about three quarters of a mile to the west, south of Chequerbent, and not connected underground to Pretoria.

Bank Pit numbers three and four were sunk in 1900 to 1901 on the northern border of Atherton and Over Hulton.

More commonly known as Pretoria Pit, the colliery lay underneath the south edge of Hulton Park on the lands of Sir William Hulton. (Number one on the map) The shafts were 18ft wide and about 75 yards apart, with number four as the downcast shaft and three as the upcast.

It was given its name because when the shafts were sunk the British had recently captured the South African city of Pretoria during the Boer War.

The shafts led to six coal seams where miners in their hundreds worked in cramped conditions.

A ventilation fan extracted used air from number three shaft, while other fans pushed air into the working districts.

Five seams — known in Lancashire at that time rather confusingly as mines—were worked from Pretoria Pit: the Trencherbone and Arley from the number four pit; and the Plodder, Three Quarters and Yard from number three where an explosion on December 21, 1910, would claim 344 lives and rip communities apart.

The shallowest seam was Trencherbone, 438ft (134m) from the surface.

At 822ft (250m) was the Plodder mine, where the explosion occurred.

The Plodder was accessed from the Yard mine, which came below at 918ft (280m).

Next were the Three Quarters mine at 1,083ft (330m) and the deepest mine called the Arley.

Each shaft had two steel-framed double-deck cages (lifts) which transported miners, and at other times the coal tubs.

The workings on this level were divided into five districts — the North Plodder, the Three Quarters, the Top Brow (or Up Brow), the Bottom Yard (or Down Brow) and the South Plodder.

Deep-shaft mining began to develop extensively in the late 18th century with rapid expansion in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the industry peaked.

In 1905, the UK was the world’s largest producer of coal, providing about 237 million tons.

Mining was exclusive to specific areas of the country and was often the biggest employer of men.

The location of the coalfields helped to make Lancashire a prosperous part of the UK.

Westhoughton lay within the South Lancashire Coalfield — a prolific mining area at the beginning of the 20th century.

The total number of men working in number three pit on December 21 was 344, with 545 in the number four pit.

Of those in the number three pit, 230 were working in the Yard mine, 90 in Plodder and 24 in Three Quarters.

In number four pit there were 109 in Trencherbone, 306 in Arley and 130 in Three Quarters.

Ten per cent of the Pretoria workforce was made up of boys aged 13 to 15, who worked as haulage hands, near the shafts to gain experience of underground operations before they ventured down the pit.

Although the colliery was nearest to Atherton, most of the workers came from Westhoughton.

By 1910 the Hulton Colliery was very profitable and seemed to have everything in its favour; it was even on the radar of the international mining community.

The districts were under the general control of manager Alfred Tonge, but he did not go down the pit every day. Under him there was an undermanager for each mine. Looking after Pretoria Pit was Edward Rushton, who was killed in the explosion.

Mr Rushton went down the mine at 6.45am every day, before coming back up for breakfast in the pit office at about 10.30am.

He would return underground to join his workers at about 11am, finally coming out mid-afternoon.

Coal production began shortly before 7am and the shifts usually wound up at about 2.45pm.

Pretoria Pit was subject to two visits by groups of mining engineers in 1904 and 1906.

These give an insight into the latest technology employed at the time, specifically the widespread use of electrical power above and below ground.

Coal mining was one of the main sources of work for Lancashire men in 1910.

Young men comprised the majority of the workforce with boys as young as 13 leaving school to begin their mining careers.

Despite worries about safety down the mines, and breathing in gas and coal dust, the men were renowned for their toughness and bravery.

For many, mining was their only realistic option and if they wanted to put bread on the table, they would have to “make do”

with the long hours and hard graft.

The working classes were seen but never heard, and standing up to the boss was unthinkable.

The industry provided a stable life for the locals and families even travelled from out of town to live in purpose-built miners’ terrace cottages and work in one of the recently opened collieries.

Pub landlord John Gore and his wife Elizabeth moved from Wigan to Westhoughton in 1890.

John was given a place in one of the pits owned by the Hulton Colliery Company and the family rented a house in Brancker Street, near Chequerbent roundabout.

Their eldest son, William, was living and working as a miner in Blackrod when he and his wife Mary also set up home in Brancker Street.

William was given a job with the company, working in the Pretoria Pit along with his eldest son, John.

On the morning of December 21, 1910, William kissed Mary and their seven children goodbye and went to work as usual, but John was feeling sick so he stayed at home.

At 7.50am there was a huge explosion in Pretoria Pit which killed 344 men including William. And 100 years later, it is still the third worst British mining disaster.

The Bolton News: Pretoria

The morning of December 21, 1910

CHRISTMAS was only four days away and families across Westhoughton were busy preparing for the festive celebrations.

Excited children were singing carols, putting up handmade decorations and hanging out their stockings, as women everywhere wrapped gifts and prepared the bird for roasting.

It was a cold, dark, damp morning, typical for that time of the month, which seemed no different from any other.

Knocker-uppers, armed with their bamboo poles, made their way along the cobbled streets at dawn to wake up the miners in time for another day’s work.

As the smell of coal permeated the air, men hurried to the pit, eager to get the day over so they could return to their families and wind down for the festive break.

At the Hulton Colliery, they made their way down the pits and got to work at about 7am, anticipating the day would fly by, as it was the shortest of the year.

However, for 344 of them — some of whom are pictured at the top and bottom of these pages — the day and their lives would tragically be cut short.

At 7.50am, a tremendous blast occurred in the Plodder seam of the pit, wiping out half the workforce. The explosion caused an earth tremor which was felt for miles, spreading fear among families everywhere.

Terrified wives and children rushed to the mine shafts, where they waited in anguish to discover whether their loved ones were dead or alive.

Newspaper reports published in the days that followed told of “Streets of weeping and “Homes of sorrow”.

The rescue

GENERAL manager of Hulton Colliery, Alfred Tonge, lived almost two miles away from the pit head.

He was at home at the time of the blast, but left as soon as he heard the explosion.

Mr Tonge arrived within about 20 minutes, leading a team of rescuers into the pit.

He is reported to have said: “I’m not forcing anyone to go down, we may come back and we may not”.

Eight men from the Howe Bridge Rescue Team silently followed him into the scene of the disaster.

It was incredibly dangerous to venture down the pit after such an enormous and devastating blast, but someone had to find out what had happened to the men.

One of the cages was made free by about 9am and five men went down to the Trencherbone mine to begin the search.

A shout for survivors was bellowed out and the miners, although slightly affected by fumes, responded that they were okay.

On the way down to the next shaft the team encountered obstacles, broken signal wires and bearers, and they were concerned the cage would break.

At the Yard mine, the rescuers heard a voice and found a boy, Joseph Stavely, who they sent up the shaft.

Workers in the Three Quarters mine responded that they were also okay and, despite their pleas to go up in the cage, they were left, as there were others in greater danger.

At the Arley mine, many workers were breathing in deadly carbon monoxide fumes, so they were sent up the shaft in groups of four or five. It was the first time, worldwide, that a rescue team had been used on such a large scale.

The station had been set up in Lovers Lane, Atherton, in 1908, and the first callout was to assist at the Maypole Colliery disaster near Wigan where 76 miners were killed.

At that time, only six men were trained and there was a limited supply of apparatus at the station.

Two years later, a team of several hundred trained rescuers were called to Pretoria Pit.

Volunteers flocked from far and wide to help assist the huge operation — but it was a challenging operation.

A rescuer from Chequerbent Pits, William Turton, was 62 at the time.

He died while putting out a small fire in the South Plodder district on the day of the explosion.

Following his death there was speculation that Mr Turton may have died while desperately looking for family members instead of following orders to make the pit safe.

The Bolton News: Pretoria

The 344 victims

THE first body to be brought up the shaft was that of 52-year-old Richard Clayton, from Cheshire.

The majority of victims discovered by the first exploration team had no visible signs of injury as they had been overcome by fumes.

A total of 342 men and boys working in the number three pits at the time of the explosion were killed. Only one man, Fountain Byers, lived long enough to reach Bolton Infirmary, but he died from his injuries the next day.

The two victims who took the death toll to 344 were the aforementioned Richard Clayton, who died in the Arley mine at number four pit, and WilliamTurton.

A total of 205 died in the Yard mine, including Mr Byers. In the Downbrow District, 140 died, including 48 who were struggling back to the shafts along the east level.

Of the Yard mine victims, 23 were killed in the East Jig district and 42 in the Top Yard district — most from gas poisoning.

In the Plodder mine, 95 victims perished. Most were killed instantly by the explosion: 62 in the North Plodder district where the blast occurred; and 34 in the South Plodder district. The pit shaft area saw the death of 22 men and boys, with all but two being killed by the explosion.

Historic research has found that of the 344 victims, nine per cent died from the blast and the remainder were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning.

A total of 64 per cent of those who died were aged between 13 and 30; 145 were from Westhoughton; 24 from Atherton; 38 from Chequerbent; 29 from Daisy Hill; 27 from Wingates; 63 from Daubhill and Deane; and 18 from other areas out of town.

Many families lost several loved ones, but it was Miriam Tyldesley, from Wingates, who suffered the greatest devastation. She lost her husband, four sons and two brothers in the blast. She died three years later and was buried along with her loved ones in Wingates Churchyard.

Despite strenuous efforts by rescuers, only 343 bodies were recovered and the same number of deaths registered.

On March 6, 1911, the Bolton Evening News reported that “work is still being pushed forward for the recovery of the remaining body in the Pretoria Pit. So far no trace has been found.”

Indeed, no trace was ever found.

Some of the bodies were so badly injured as a result of the blast that they were unidentifiable to their families. A total of 24 unidentified bodies were buried in a vault in Westhoughton Cemetery.

Eight were later identified from clothing or property and the remaining 16 were registered as unknown males.

The Bolton News: Pretoria

The survivors

ALTHOUGH not officially regarded as survivors, 545 men and boys were rescued from the number four pit.

Only one cage in the shaft was operable, the ventilation was wrecked and poisonous afterdamp gas was accumulating. Had another explosion occurred – a real possibility in such a situation – or had the cage become stuck in the shaft, the death toll would have been much higher.

Four men are understood to have been found alive in the Yard mine, but only two survived.

For apprentice fitter Joseph Staveley, aged 16, from Chequerbent, it was his first day of employment in the Yard mine.

He had gone to work in the pumphouse with fitter James Berry.

After the explosion, both tried to get back to the shaft, but were overcome by afterdamp gas.

James died, but Joseph recovered and followed water pipes to number four pit where he called for help and was found by rescuers.

Joseph described his ordeal in a report for the Bolton Evening News on December 23, 1910: “There was a lot of noise, I dropped my kit, the lamps went out and I ran towards the Arley Pit.

“We were half way there when he [James Berry] stumbled and fell and I fell over him.

“My head was swimming and I felt very tired. There was no pain.

“I just wanted to close my eyes and sleep. I was so tired. I went to sleep.

“At first I thought I was in my bed. I tried to push the clothes from me and touched the body of James Berry.

“I found I was dressed and it all came back to me. Something had happened. Was I locked in the mine?

“I called to Berry, but he did not answer. I listened for breathing, but I heard no sound. “I put my can to my mouth and ran. The mine was pitch black. I did not know where I was going.”

William Davenport, a 20-year-old haulage hand from Atherton, had worked at the pit for around five years.

During the rescue operation, he was found near the top of the Downbrow roadway and taken to Bolton Infirmary.

He was not expected to survive, but by January 7, 1911, his brother Henry sent a letter to the press which said William was “coming round very nicely”.

William died on September 24, 1951, aged 60, and he was buried in Atherton Cemetery.

John Sharples was badly gassed in the number four pit and was taken to hospital where he developed pneumonia, but survived. However, it is not known what happened to Mr Sharples and his name does not appear among the list of witnesses at the inquest.

The aftermath

CHRISTMAS 1910 was a tragic time for families in Westhoughton and the town would never be the same again.

Almost every house had its curtains drawn as a sign of respect for the dead as the community mourned together.

There were heartbreaking scenes at the pit head as children, wives, mothers and sisters waited anxiously in the cold to see whether their loved ones would be pulled out alive.

The fact that it was Christmas was forgotten by grieving families.

A nearby joiner’s shop became a temporary morgue where girls washed and cleaned the bodies and coffins were quickly thrown together.

The undertakers found it hard to cope with the amount of coffins needed and supplies were brought from out of town.

Most people had given up hope of seeing their loved ones alive again. Their only fear now was that they would never be freed from the pit.

The rescuers worked day and night and one by one, families were put through the agonising task of identifying the bodies of their loved ones as they were brought to the surface.

But some were so badly injured by the explosion that they were beyond recognition and officials had to rely on pieces of clothing and other bits of property to establish who was who.

Funeral services began on Christmas Day, and on Boxing Day almost 100 workers were buried, with sometimes four or five processions taking place in a row.

Coffins were carried on the shoulders of comrades of the victims and those who survived.

Some even dug graves themselves and led services as the community mourned together.

Yet, not all the bodies had been found and the recovery operation continued well into the New Year.

A number of badly mutilated bodies were retrieved from the bottom of the shaft on January 4, 1911.

They had been propelled through the shaft by the sheer force of the blast that hit the Yard mine.

The Salvation Army was on hand to offer support, but no words could comfort the grieving families. Some had lost several loved ones.

Incredibly, by today’s standards — and despite the scenes of sorrow—work at Pretoria Pit resumed on January 11, 1911, more than a month before the last body was pulled from the rubble on Valentine’s Day.

Many frowned upon the decision to send the men back down the pit so soon, but with the local economy in turmoil, there was little choice for the workers.

The disaster had a huge financial impact on the families of those who died and the miners who suddenly found themselves out of work.

Men were the breadwinners and without them some families were left with nothing.

The Hulton Colliery Explosion Relief Fund was set up by the Mayor of Bolton and immediately raised £138,000 to help bereaved families.

Donations came in from across the country and the King and Queen gave £600 each to the fund.

Compensation was awarded through three sources: the mayor’s relief fund, miners’ relief societies and the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906.

But the money was strictly protected and families were put through even more agony when it came to getting a share of the cash.

In about March 1911, dependants received letters requiring their attendance at court in Bolton where officials sat to hear the pleas of each family and decide whether to give them any compensation.

There are many heartbreaking tales of what some had to suffer to convey their desperate need for financial help.