Fig 1. Creswell Colliery on the day of the disaster – 26th September 1950. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection.
Prologue: The Creswell Colliery Disaster.
Seventy-years ago on 26th September 1950, Creswell Colliery in North Derbyshire, was hit by a coal mining tragedy which claimed the lives of eighty miners. An underground fire started at 03.45 at a conveyor transfer point in the High Hazels seam which led to toxic fumes travelling inbye to several working panels. Fifty-one miners escaped the fire by means of a return airway but eighty miners were killed through the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Forty-seven bodies were recovered on the day of the disaster with twenty seven more bodies being recovered six months later on 25th March 1951. The final six bodies were recovered almost eleven months after the disaster on 11th August 1951. The tragedy received national attention and a four page article appeared in ‘The Illustrated London News’ on 7th October 1950. A formal enquiry opened immediately after the disaster and was adjourned until 1951. The formal report into the disaster was published in June 1952. A memorial to the eighty victims was erected in the Skinner Street Cemetery at Creswell.
Fig.2 Creswell Colliery in the 1930’s. Photo Credit – Bolsover Colliery Co Jubilee Souvenir (1889-1939).
Creswell Colliery (1894 – 1991).
The colliery was the second sinking of the influential Bolsover Colliery Company (1889-1947) who later would become the dominant coal company in the Dukeries Coalfield in north Nottinghamshire. Twin shafts were sunk between 1894 and 1896 to the Top Hard seam at a depth of four hundred and seven metres on land leased from the Duke of Portland. The colliery was situated adjacent to the Midland Railway’s Mansfield to Worksop line which opened in 1872. Production started from the Top Hard seam in 1897 and other seams worked over the next ninety-four years included the High Hazels, Clown and Three-quarters. The general incline of the coal seams at Creswell was 1 in 25 to the east. Although situated geographically in Derbyshire, because of the influence of the Bolsover Colliery Company and effects of the 1926 Miners Lockout, in terms of trade union membership, it was always considered a Nottinghamshire colliery.
Fig 3. Creswell Colliery – Guide to the Coalfields 1961.
At nationalisation in 1947, the colliery initially went into the short lived NCB East Midlands Division No. 2 Area which was merged into No.1 Area in 1949. In the reorganisation of 1967 it became part of the NCB North Nottinghamshire Area. For its last five years of production, it was part of the British Coal Corporation’s Nottinghamshire Group.
Much modernisation of the colliery took place in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the installation of electric winding, a new coal preparation plant, skip-winding and a rapid loading bunker. Eickhoff shearers were pioneered in the thin Three-quarter seam workings which eliminated the need for stable holes. Production finished on 20th September 1991 when output from the Threequarter seam had fallen until it had become uneconomical.
In its latter years, because of its proximity to the North Derbyshire coalfield, Creswell had to deal with more mine-water than coal to keep the underground workings safe from flooding or from an inrush from older workings. Following closure, it remained as a mine-water pumping station until the early twentieth-century to protect underground workings at other collieries in north Nottinghamshire coalfield.
Fig 4. Former pit houses at Creswell ‘Model Village’ in September 2020. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner
The Bolsover Colliery Company was a progressive company, providing its employees with the best possible living and welfare conditions anywhere in Britain. Creswell model village was built in the early years of the twentieth century and in addition to the fine industrial housing, it also included a Miners Welfare Institute, playing fields and later a public baths. Creswell can be said to have been a Company Pit Village in its true sense. From 1904 to the early 1930’s, the Bolsover Colliery Company built other pit company villages at Forest Town, Rainworth, Clipstone and Edwinstowe in north Nottinghamshire.
Fig 5. Plan of the underground workings at Creswell Colliery affected by the fire – from the official report.
The Creswell Colliery Disaster – 26th September 1950.
The cause of the underground fire was thought to be friction burning at No. 2 transfer point caused by a damaged conveyor belt in the south-west district of the High Hazels seam. This caused the rubber conveyor belting to be ignited which spread toxic fumes inbye into the workings which included several panels in the High Hazels seam. The fire at the transfer point was discovered at 03.45 on the night shift of 25th / 26th September 1950. Two hundred and thirty-two men were working underground at the time, with one hundred and thirty-one being deployed in the south-west district. Fifty-one of these miners in the south –west district escaped via a return roadway but eighty others perished. Because of a breakdown in communications and a failure of fire-fighting equipment, the remaining miners in the south-west district were overcome by carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Mines Rescue teams from Chesterfield and later from Mansfield and Ilkeston Mines Rescue Stations attended the scene and three bodies were initially brought out before the heart-wrenching decision was made to seal off the affected area of the colliery. This difficult decision was reached following a quickly convened conference held between management, trade union representatives and Mines Inspectors as further rescue attempts would inevitably lead to a greater loss of life. Dozens of other miners and volunteers helped fill sand bags on the surface which were sent underground to help build the stoppings.
Later that day another forty-four bodies had been recovered but it was discovered that the underground fire was more extensive than first thought and the affected area was resealed. It would be almost six months later that the next twenty-seven bodies were recovered on 25th March 1951. The final six bodies were not recovered until almost a year later on 11th August 1951.
Fig 6. Crowds anxiously awaiting news at Creswell pit head following news of the disaster.
Reaction to the Disaster
As word got around about the disaster, a crowd of two thousand miners and their families gathered at the Creswell pit head awaiting news. A service of hymns and prayer was conducted at the pit-head by the Rev C.S. Branson, Vicar of Creswell. He later recalled the role he played in the disaster in the book ‘Pitful of Memories’ (1995). Messages of condolence were received from King George V1 and the Queen, the Bishop of Derby and Prime Minister, Clement Atlee.
Coal Industry and associated dignitaries who visited the scene of the disaster included Lord Hyndley (NCB Chairman), Phillip Noel-Baker (Minister of Fuel and Power), Sir Andrew Meickle Bryan (Chief Inspector of Mines), Sir Hubert & Lady Houldsworth (NCB Chairman East Midlands Division) Arthur Horner (NUM General Secretary), Alderman W Bayliss (President – Nottingham Area NUM) and Mr R Ringham (Deputy Chairman NCB East Midlands Division).
Some Heart-rendering cases.
Some harrowing cases came to the fore as news of the disaster spread. Tragically, three sons in one family, the Dodds of Creswell, were killed. Leslie (47) and Ernest (31) were working on 74’s panel and John (45) was on 68’s panel.
Frederick Barker (41), a ripper, was one of the bodies not recovered until 25th March 1951. His wife, Kathleen, had tragically lost her first husband in a fatality at Creswell Colliery seventeen years earlier.
Another fatality, Colin Hemingray (25), had only been married three weeks. His young wife, Audrey (nee Wragg), had his breakfast ready for him coming off the night shift and didn’t know about the incident until her mother informed her.
The majority of the fatalities came from Creswell and the nearby mining community of Clowne. No mass burial of the fatalities took place as had happened in other parts of the British coalfield in the past. For the initial fatalities where the bodies had been recovered, individual services took place during the day at different churches and chapels every half hour following agreement between the Rev C S Branson (Creswell C of E), the Methodist Minister, the Roman Catholic Priest from Clowne and three local undertakers.
Fig 7. Ministry of Fuel and Power report into the Creswell Colliery disaster. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner.
The Enquiry and Inquest
A formal investigation into the disaster opened on 17th October 1950 at Creswell Miners Welfare Institute and was adjourned two days later. The Enquiry resumed on 27th November 1951 with additional evidence being given and conclude the following day. George Vardy (36), a conveyor erector, gave a harrowing and graphic account of his escape from the disaster scene.
At the inquest into the deaths, the District Coroner, Michael Swanwick, sitting with a jury, opened the inquest at Creswell Miners Welfare Institute into the death of forty-seven miners. He stated that he intended to take evidence of identification from doctor’s statements only. Dr Al Lecutier, Pathologist from Chesterfield Royal Hospital, conducted three post mortems and established the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning. He stated, that in his opinion, the miners would have died quickly and without much suffering.
The Official Report into the disaster by the Ministry of Fuel and Power was published in June 1952.
Finding from the official report into the disaster were as follows;
- A rapidly starting and growing fire spreading in the main intake roadway
- Failure of firefighting apparatus.
- Some delay in warning the men inbye of imminent danger.
- The main return was the only means of escape for men on the inbye side of the fire.
The underground fire at Creswell Colliery resulted in the development of non-flammable PVC conveyors to replace rubber ones, other means of egress in the event of underground fires and trials in the development of self-rescuers, a type of respirator used in underground fires. After Creswell and following the Auchengeich Colliery and Michael Colliery disasters in the Scottish coalfield in 1959 and 1967 respectively, the use of self-rescuers would be universal in British collieries by the early 1970’s.
The records for the disaster at the National Archives, COAL 50/342, dated September 1950 to October 1952, are closed for a period of seventy-five years until 1st January 2028. The criteria is unknown.
Fig 7. Creswell Colliery Disaster Memorial – September 2020. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner.
The Creswell Colliery Memorial
A memorial garden to the victims of the Creswell Colliery disaster was established in the Skinner Street cemetery at Creswell. The memorial, erected by Elmton and Creswell Parish Council and the NUM (Nottingham Area), contained the names of the eighty victims. The memorial was rededicated on the 50th anniversary of the disaster in September 2000.
A stained glass memorial window can be seen in Creswell St Mary Magdalene Parish Church along with a flame safety lamp which remains lit as an eternal flame to the memory of the eighty miners. A seventieth anniversary commemoration service took place at the church on Sunday, 27th September 2020.
Fig 8. Gravestone of one of the victims of the 1950 Creswell Colliery disaster. The Disaster Memorial is in the background. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner.
The Creswell Mine Disaster
There were eighty men down that mine
When an awful fire occurred
When the heart of the town of Creswell
To its innermost depth was stirred.
Eighty brave hearted fellows
Cut off from the ones they loved dearly
But their mates above showed their pluck and love
When the angel of death stood near.
They were eager to go to their pals below
In spite of the risk they ran
For under the miner’s jacket beats
The heart of a noble man.
The awful flames, the terrible smoke
Have no terror for those who brave
The awful effects of that fire
Where those brave fellows found a grave.
Here the coal-dust flies, there the danger lies
Had that been cleared away
Many a thousand miner
Would still have been alive today.
It’s the pound that rules in Britain
Now, just as in the days of old
And men are sacrificed each year
On the altar of greed and gold.
England is proud of its heroes
Whose deeds have been told and retold
And many a miners name today
Should be written in letters of gold
To die for the sake of comrades
Not for the reward or show
For there’s no braver men in our country today
Then the men who work down below.
Heritage Resources Officer
Bell, D: Memories of the Derbyshire Coalfield, Newbury, 2006.
Bolsover Colliery Company: Jubilee Souvenir 1889-1939, Bolsover, 1939.
Bradley Dr R: (Retired Senior Mining Surveyor) Telephone Oral Interview, 23rd September 2020.
British Coal (Nottingham Group): Creswell Colliery 1897 – 1991, Edwinstowe, 1991.
Derbyshire Times: When Coal was King, Chesterfield, 2010.
Healey Hero website: www.healeyhero.co.uk
Haigh, B: Bolsover Colliery: One Hundred Years of Mining – A Centenary History, Bolsover 1989.
McGinley J: The Creswell Mine Disaster.
Ministry of Fuel and Power: Accident at Creswell Colliery ,Derbyshire. Report on the causes and circumstances attending the accident which occurred at Creswell Colliery, Derbyshire, on 26th September 1950.
Saint Augustine Youth Interview Team: Pitful of Memories: Chesterfield Teenagers Mine the Memories of a Dying Breed, Chesterfield, 1995.
YouTube: Creswell Pit Disaster (British Pathe) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0FEgh_GNn8