On the first on January 1942, an explosion occurred in number 4 pit Sneyd Colliery. The terrible consequences of the events of that day are well documented in John Lumsden’s account on Disasters
What is perhaps less well known is the effect they had on of those who lost members of their families, or whose fathers were involved in the rescue and recovery.
We would like to put on record our gratitude to Barbara Limer, Agnes Burgess, Beryl Royal, Doreen Pearsill and Derek Hulme without whose help we would not have been able to tell the story of those who were left behind.
We would like to think that our contribution will, in some small measure, contribute to the eventual construction of a permanent memorial to the 57 men and boys who died on that day.
J Wilson and J Burston
Barbara West with her mother and father
Three-year-old Barbara West was living with her mum and dad at 45 Victoria Street, Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent. They had just returned from a short Christmas break at her grandmother’s in Northampton. She was eating her breakfast whilst playing happily with the presents she had received on Christmas Day. Her mother was cleaning up the debris from the New Years Eve celebrations of the night before. Her father Ernest was a cutter man at Sneyd colliery. Much against the grain he had gone to work that morning in answer to the nations call for more coal to support the war effort. Ernest’s two brothers and a nephew should also have been at work. However, one of them had a broken collar bone and, following the New Years Eve celebrations the others were in no fit state to join him.
IT WAS JUST ANOTHER DAY
At 88 Moorland Road, Burslem, everything was quiet. Head of the house, James Bennett and his seventeen-year-old son Robert were both on early shift working the haulage at Sneyd colliery. Mrs Bennett, a munitions worker at Radway Green, was already at work. Her 15-year-old daughter, Agnes, was doing her bit making insulators at Wades.
The family were looking forward to the evening when they would celebrate mum and dads wedding anniversary. Last year had been quite traumatic. Young Robert left Sneyd following an eye problem. For a few weeks he worked along side his sister Agnes, but he never settled to factory work and had decided to try his luck in the merchant navy. The family awoke one morning to find a letter informing them that the sea had beckoned him and the young man was on his way to Liverpool.
His father James went in search of him and managed to locate Robert before he had chance to join a ship. They both returned to Burslem a week before Christmas and once again he was employed at Sneyd colliery
Agnes Bennett and her brother Robert
IT WAS JUST ANOTHER DAY
The Hulme family at 12, Grange Street, Cobridge, were busy preparing for the forthcoming wedding of their son Thomas, who was to be married in two days time. Thomas was on his way home on embarkation leave from the Army. The head of the house Charles was a senior under official at Sneyd. Another of his sons Joe was also employed at the colliery
IT WAS JUST ANOTHER DAY
At 48 Pleasant Street, Burslem, head of the house John Brooks was working at Sneyd Colliery. Christmas for John, his wife and five children had been good fun but with very few presents. Eldest daughter Doreen was ten years old, she later recalled having had a stocking containing an apple and pear. She shared the present of a doll with her two sisters Jean and Sheila which they took turns at nursing. At around eight o clock in the morning she heard the Sneyd siren. She had always associated the sound with bad news. Her mother, who was pregnant at the time, told her to go quickly to her aunt Ada’s who lived further up the street and ask her to go to the colliery to get news of her husband.
Doreen in the center and her siblings.___ Young Beryl Ansell
At 8, Leonard Street, Burslem, the Ansell family was having breakfast. Eleven-year-old Beryl was eating a piece of toast. Her mother was making a cup of tea. Her father Albert was on the afternoon shift at Sneyd and was having a ‘lie in’. It was 7-50 am. Suddenly there was a terrific thump, the cups and saucers rattled on the table and the windows and doors shook.
“What the hell fire was that?” Beryl’s mother shouted. It can’t be a bomb; there’s been no air raid warning”. Soon Leonard Street was full of noise. A car drew up, there was a loud knock on the door and Beryl opened it. Outside stood a man in a black suit wearing a bowler hat. He was asking for Alb who was a member of the Sneyd colliery rescue team. At almost the same time Beryl’s father was rushing down the stairs pulling up his braces. In the passage, Beryl heard the man in the bowler hat say “Number 4 pits gone up, can you help” Her father shouted “I’m going to the pit”. He would be there for two days.
IT WAS GOING TO BE A TERRIBLE DAY
At Sneyd colliery there had been a huge underground explosion. The colliery emergency procedure was put into operation. Rescue teams from all over the coalfield were mobilised.
Charles Hulme, whose mining expertise and underground knowledge would be vital in the rescue, joined Albert Ansell and other members of the Sneyd team in the attempt to rescue the men who had been caught up in the explosion. Charles Hulme trying to protect his son Joe, made it clear to the officials at the pit that the boy was not a part of the rescue team and should not be allowed underground. But somehow Joe did go into the pit and was so traumatised by what he saw that it took fifty-seven years before he could even speak of it.
As the day progressed the news from Sneyd got worse and the death toll began to rise. Thomas Hulme travelling by train back to Burslem was shocked to read on a railway station a newspaper headline of a terrible explosion at a North Staffordshire colliery. Wartime controls would not allow the pit to be named. At that time Thomas did not know whether he was going to church for his wedding or for a funeral.
At Wades in Burslem all the talk was of the explosion. Agnes Bennett, although concerned, did not know whether her father and brother had gone to work. As recent arrivals from Scotland, Hogmanay was a very special time for them. She left work as normal and made her way home.
When she arrived the house was full of people. Some of them she knew including neighbours and Scottish friends of the family who were also miners. There were others who were strangers to her. She was not told what had happened, but instead was sent to her Aunt Jenny’s house. Although Agnes was fifteen and in full time employment she was still treated as a child and shielded from bad news.
IT WAS A TERRIBLE DAY
John Brooks sister Ada made her way to the pit where she saw the crowds watching the agony unfold at the colliery gates. She could see body after body being brought to the surface, and was badly affected by the distress of the women and children many of whom were crying. After some time she was informed that her brother John Brooks was dead and had been taken to the Haywood hospital Later she would have to go to identify the remains.
Ada made her way to the hospital full of dread at the thought of having to identify the broken and battered remains of her brother. She did not know how she would be able to break the news to his pregnant wife and her children.
When she arrived at the hospital she was told that her brother John was still alive, though badly injured. She made her way back to Pleasant Street full of relief; though on the long walk home her heart was full sorrow for those who had lost their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.
Agnes Bennett went to work as usual. Although she knew that her father and brother were missing, she was not fully aware that they were both dead. When she arrived at Wades the overseer put her arm onto her shoulder and said “Agnes, come with me I’m taking you home, you do not have to come back to work for at least a week”.
Beryl Ansell made her way from Leonard Street to the colliery with some sandwiches for her father. She found him still dressed in his rescue equipment, with the respirator on his back and the mouthpiece hanging around his neck. He was covered in so much sweat and dust that she hardly recognised him. The horror of the enfolding events was etched into the faces of those assembled at the entrance.
She knew a lot of them, and thought that in different circumstances she could have been one of them. Over the next few days and weeks Beryl’s mother along with other neighbours would bake bread and make soup for those who had lost fathers, brothers or sons. When taking this food Beryl would have to cover it so that the families would not be offended.
Barbara West, as an only child, found that after her father’s death her extended family surrounded her with so much love and affection that her cousins became like brothers and sisters. This close loving relationship is still maintained today.
Albert Ansell and the Sneyd rescue team along with Charles Hulme played their part in the rescue and recovery of the men and boys from number Four Pit. After working for two days in the most arduous of conditions, Charles returned home in time to attend the wedding of his son. But at the reception a representative from Sneyd asked Charles if he would return to the mine. On a show of hands the miners who were present said, as there was no one left alive in the pit it was better for Charles to stay with his son Thomas who would shortly return to active duty abroad.
Doreen Brook's father John had no less than fifteen fractures, including pelvis and tibia. Sometime later he was transferred to an orthopaedic hospital in Leatherhead, Surrey. Following numerous operations and physiotherapy he was eventually allowed a weekend at home. Doreen remembers quiet vividly her father returning on crutches.
During his stay in Surrey, his rehabilitation included training in leather work. For many years afterwards he would make wallets, purses, and bookmarks etc. John later joined a local band and played the cornet and horn.
John Brooks his wife May with son Alan and grand daughter Lainy
Doreen also recalls her father saying that the neighbours in Pleasant Street were angels from heaven. One in particular a Mrs Lovett would allow Doreen’s mum and the children to stay in their cellar during air raids. Others neighbours would send Doreen to run errands or wash floors, for which she would be given a small reward, such as a few pennies or in one case a slice of bread and butter pudding. She also remembered when her father returned from Surrey he made a small truck to carry firewood. She was expected to sell this around the streets, but used to wait outside the school for her sisters to come out and then make them sell it.
Although virtually a cripple from the explosion, John Brooks worked on a number of different jobs and even went back to Sneyd to work on the surface. He said the dust in the screens was affecting his chest so he left after about a year.
A relief fund was set up and many people and organisations gave generously. It was to help the relatives in time of need. Yet Barbara West recalls that whenever she needed anything out of the ordinary she would have go with her mother to appear in front of a tribunal at the Miner’s Hall in Burslem to appeal for assistance. She can vividly remember standing in front of the board while her mum begged for help. This humiliating experience has stayed with ever since. Her father Ernest is buried in Tunstall cemetery
The remains of Agnes Bennett’s father were among the last to be released. His identification was confirmed because Mr Bennett had a missing finger. Together with his son he was buried in Burslem cemetery. Sometime later, Agnes’s mum wanted to return to her home north of the border. Assistance was given to her from the relief fund.
Eventually Mrs Bennett returned to Scotland, but by this time Agnes was courting and decided to stay in Stoke-on-Trent, where she still resides.
The gravestone of James and Robert Bennett
After two days Beryl Ansell’s father came home from the colliery, but he was never the same afterwards. She heard a muffled conversation between her mum and dad concerning the after effects of the explosion. Some time later her father decided to put into writing what he saw on that day. His brother read the story and demanded it be destroyed.
She remembered hearing raised voices and her uncle saying “There is a war on; if this is made public we will never get another man to work down the pit”. Her father tore up the story and burned it. Beryl remembers seeing her father staring into the fire as if he was recalling the sights he had witnessed during the days following the explosion. She said her father went to Sneyd pit on the day of the explosion aged forty and came back more like seventy.
Two years later he left the colliery with severe pneumoconiosis, never to return.
The tragedy of the 1942 explosion was never officially commemorated. For over fifty seven years a number of organisations, including the City Council, the National Coal Board, and various mining unions had the opportunity to create a lasting memorial to the disaster, but none of them did. Instead it was left to the efforts of one man and a small but determined band of supporters.
Joe Hulme's Plaque
In 1999 Joe Hulme broke his silence on what he saw at the Sneyd colliery. He said “Its 57 years since the disaster, where 57 men and boys were killed. Its time we had a memorial to commemorate this terrible event”. Following a great deal of research, he commissioned a brass plaque to which were added the names, occupations and addresses of those who died.
Many of Joe’s family had been christened and attended Sunday school at the Hot Lane Methodist Chapel. Joe asked the minister if he would consider allowing the plaque to be placed in a prominent position within the body of the church.
The minister readily agreed and suggested that he would conduct a special service of dedication to commemorate the lives that had been lost.
Joe Hulme and his wife Florrie
Many of those who lost relatives or whose family members were involved attended the service including Barbara, Agnes, Beryl, Doreen, Joe and his brother Derek. Sadly, within two years, Joe had passed away. The plaque remained in the church until tragically the roof collapsed. Church stewards Malcolm Davies and Melvin Millward rescued the plaque.
It was returned to Joe’s brother Derek for safe keeping until a permanent home could be found for it. The Evening Sentinel ran the story of the rescue, and how Joe’s family were looking for somewhere to re-house the plaque.
Hot Lane Chaple on the left Hamil Road Chaple on the right
As a result offers were received from the Bourne Methodist Church at Englesea Brook, and the Potteries Museum in Hanley. Joe’s son and daughter, and his brother Derek wanted it to remain in the locality of the colliery, and excepted the offer to have it placed in the Hamil Road Methodist Church. On the first of January 2005 a memorial service was held in the church where all the names on the plaque were read out.
Later in the year on the 18th of September the church rededicated the plaque. Again many of the surviving relatives were at the service, and would welcome those who would wish to attend the next service on the 1st January 2007.
At the dedication Keith Meeson, chairman of Apedale Mining Museum said that as a result of considerable pressure from the surviving relatives and others he was able to report that after 63 years the Stoke on Trent Authority have finally agreed to a lasting monument to the men of Sneyd. It will be placed in the centre of Burslem.
Whilst researching this work, we have been given considerable help by all those mentioned. Mrs West kept many of the documents (some of which can be seen later in the story) relating to her husband Ernest, which were later passed down to her daughter Barbara and have been used extensively throughout this story.
Agness Bennett provided us with photographs and oral history of the events concerning her family. Doreen Pearsill told us some lovely stories about her father and family. Derek Hulme and the family of the late Joe Hulme have kept alive his memory and ensured that the names of the men killed at Sneyd will be remembered.
Beryl Ansell has filled in a lot of gaps and has many stories of the time. Her abiding hope and the hope of many others, is that sometime in the future the people of the Potteries will recognise the outstanding part played by the colliery rescue teams, not only in the Sneyd disaster but also on numerous other occasions throughout the history of the North Staffordshire Coalfield.
LETTERS TO THE SENTINEL
January 2nd 1942
To The Editor of the Sentinel
Sir, the whole of North Staffordshire is shocked at the terrible calamity which occurred on New Years Day at the Sneyd colliery, Buslem, in which it is feared very heavy loss of life has been involved, and our heartfelt sympathies go out to the relatives of the miners trapped in the pit.
It is well known that miners have a superstitious dislike of working on New Years Day; yet. in response to the governments call for the maintenance of the output of coal, in order that the war effort shall be maintained, these men descended the pit to do their duty, and in doing so may have lost their lives.
I am sure it will be the desire of everyone that a fund should be opened to help the dependents of these brave men and to see that their loved ones are cared for. The proprietors of the colliery have authorised me to say that the company will head the appeal with a donation of £5,000 and also pay the funeral expenses of the unfortunate victims.
Please send donations to me at The town Hall, Stoke on Trent. Cheques and postal orders should be made payable to “Sneyd Disaster Fund” Yours Faithfully H.W.McBrine, Lord Mayor. “2nd January 1942.
MINES MINISTER’S MESSAGE
Mr D.R. Grenfell, Minister of Mines sent the following telegram yesterday:-
Deeply distressed to hear of the accident at Sneyd Colliery, and offer my sympathy to all concerned. I trust that the men cut off in the workings will prove to be safe, and I send my good wishes to the rescue teams in their arduous task.
THE SENTINEL OF THE 1ST JAN 1942
It was reported that in all there were nine rescue teams at the colliery on the day of the disaster. Three from Sneyd, three from Chatterley Whitfield and one each from Victoria, Hanley Deep and Shelton collieries.
One of the Chatterley Whitfield rescue teams on the day from the Sentinel
One of the Sneyd rescue team scirca 1942. Beryl Royal nee Ansell believes her father Albert is in the center.
OTHER EXTRACTS FROM THE SENTINEL
The following extracts come from the Sentinel’s pages in the days following the disaster. Item one is concerning the survivors, while item two gives details of the funerals of James and Robert Bennett and Ernest West.
THE OTHER SURVIVORS
The Sentinel of January 2nd 1942 said that only five men had survived the Sneyd explosion. They were Mr T Gibbons, who was near the pit bottom working a compressed air machine when the explosion occurred. He was flung against the side of the road where he fainted. When he recovered he crawled off the main road into other workings in the Holly Lane. There he met some workers who gave him a drink of water. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital. He believed that he owed his life to his intimate knowledge of the underground workings of the colliery.
Mr G Read, working near the pit bottom missed the full blast and was found suffering from shock.
Mr E Stone was in a recessed position at the time and escaped most of the blast. He was later reported to be suffering from shock and dizziness. Mr J Bayley was reported as being involved when in fact he had changed lamps and was in a part of the pit unaffected by the disaster.
A sixteen year old boy was blown off his feet and was tumbled over and over by the blast before coming to rest against a water drum. He put his head into the water and then sat in it crying for his mother.
Sad Scenes at the Funerals
Many manifestations of sympathy marked the funerals at Burslem yesterday of James B. Bennett aged 41 years and Robert Bennett aged 17 years of 88 Moorland Road Burslem. Father and son victims of the explosion were buried together in the same grave at Burslem cemetery.
The fathers body, which had been recovered some days ago and listed as that of an unknown person, was only identified by a relative a short time before the sons funeral was to take place, but the City Coroner (Mr W Huntbach) on receiving sworn testimony, issued a burial certificate in order that the double funeral might take place.
Prior to the internment , a service conducted by the vicar of St Paul’s Burslem the Rev W .Cartmell was held at the home. Many sympathisers were present at the grave side, and many of them were in tears.
Bearers of the coffins were Mr J Bennett, brother, Mr W Johnston, Mr D Johnston, and another Mr Johnson, brothers in law and Mr Sloane. Other mourners were Mrs James R. Bennett, widow, Miss Agnes Bennett, daughter, Mrs John Bennett, Mrs Welsh, and Mrs J Noble sisters, Mrs R Johnston and Mrs R Finlay sister in laws, with Mr W Davies, Mr D Rogers, Mr J Sandland and Mr Allport.
Mr Ernest West.
Several friends serving in the forces, together with fellow workmen, attended the funeral service ay St Mary’s Church, Tunstall of Mr Ernest West, husband of Mrs Kathleen May West of 45 Victoria Street, Tunstall.
The Vicar (the Rev H.F.B, Corns) conducted the service, which was largely attended. The chief mourners were the widow, Mr and Mrs Alfred West, Mr and Mrs John West, Mr T. West Mr J West, Mr and Mrs Gallimore, Mr L West, Mr F Wallace, Mr J Wallis, Mr J Wright, Mrs Rigby, Mrs Biddulph, Mrs W West, Mrs Thomas, Mr Jennings and Mrs Boughey, The bearers being Mr Newton, Mr Pankhurst, Mr J Cunliffe, and Mr J Thomas. The internment was at Tunstall Cemetery.
All the above information on the funerals were taken from the Evening Sentinel, the copy of which was in poor condition. We apologise for any names missing or misspelt
Copy of letter's sent to Mrs West from the Owners of Sneyd Colliery and King George the Sixth.
January 2006 photographs of all those who contributed to this story.
Barbara Limer nee West and Derek Hulme
Agness Burgess nee Bennett and Doreen Pearsill nee Brookes
Beryl Royal nee Ansell.