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Pretoria Pit Disaster 1910

by Ken Beevers

The disaster unfolds

Lancashire's worst pit disaster and Britain's third largest loss of life from a single mining accident happened at the No. 3 Bank Pit belonging to the Hulton Colliery Company.

The pit known as the Pretoria Pit was situated on Hulton Park land on the border of Atherton and Westhoughton. The explosion occurred at 7.50 am on Wednesday, 21 December 1910. 344 men and boys died. Of these, 72 were from Bolton, mostly Daubhill, 23 from Atherton while the rest were from Westhoughton and its districts.

The full day shift had just begun and 898 men and boys were working below ground at that time.


Pretoria Pit Disaster
By the close of day there was considered little hope for the 336 men and boys still trapped. Hundreds of people gathered on the pit bank forming an enormous and pitiful crowd.

"Between Christmas Day 1910 and New Years Day 1911 the different cemeteries presented appalling sights which no one will forget: the hearses, the mourning coaches, the long funeral processions, the throngs of bereaved widows and orphans, relatives and friends, the hundreds of visitors, all of them making their way to the last cold resting places.

To see the people in tears, to hear the sobbing and sighing of the wives and children, brothers and sisters, was something beyond human endurance."

Rev. A L Coelenbier, Rector, Sacred Heart Parish, Westhoughton, 1 January 1911.


Pretoria Pit Disaster
The scene at the pit. In the foreground is the Arley Pit, from which search parties started, and in the background is the Pretoria Mine.

Rescue Workers and Helpers

Pretoria Pit Disaster

The man in the bowler hat is possibly a winding engineman and the be-medalled man a rescue miner. The woman in the bonnet next to him and the man in the peaked cap seated in front of her appear to be Salvation Army officers. On the right are pit brow workers.

The Westhoughton district nurses, Nurses Gallimore, Jones, and Green, worked continuously, and Sarah Morgan, a pit brow worker, was on the scene for fifty hours attending to the welfare of the colliers and looking after the dead. On top of the coffins were placed any articles that might identify their owners - tea cans, belts, clogs, scarves, stockings, and even a solitary apple. Among the belongings was a watch stopped at 7.50 am, which is on display in Westhoughton Library.

Bravery and Courage

Mr Alfred Tonge was the General Manager and he lived two miles away from the pit. He heard the explosion and went straight there arriving at 8.20 am along with Dr Hatton, the surgeon to the colliery.

Repairs were made to the gearing of the downcast and at 9.00 am Mr Tonge led the first rescue party, entering the pit with eight other men: James Polley, James Moss, John Hilton, William Markland, John Hardman, Robert Roberts, John Herring and James Hartley. They did this at great risk to themselves as they were entering unknown and very dangerous conditions with every risk of further explosions.

They descended without breathing apparatus but with safety lamps, caged canaries and mice to test for after damp.

They each later received the King Edward Medal - the miners' VC.

In paying tribute to the heroism of the rescue teams the Mayor of Bolton, Alderman J T Cooper JP said:

"We do honour to the men who did such noble work on the 21st December last - a time when everyone was looking forward to a happy Christmas.

The men who went about the rescue work set an example of true bravery and courage. True courage is to look fear in the face and not to lose mastery of yourselves.

These men, whilst recognizing the greatness of the risk they ran, controlled natural fear with the hand of courage and calmly did what was considered right. The men had no thought of themselves, going to the pit without hope of reward, not seeking fame, but as a duty towards their fellows."

Mr Tonge also received the Life Saving Medal of the Order of St John in Silver, the Royal Humane Society Medal in Silver and the Bolton and District Humane Society Medal.

Bolton Museum recently acquired three of Alfred Tonge's Pretoria Pit medals, pictured below.


King Edward Medal (Mines) 2nd Class, Bronze awarded to Alfred Tonge
King Edward Medal (Mines) 2nd Class, Bronze
Bolton and District Humane Society Medal awarded to Alfred Tonge
Bolton and District Humane Society Medal
Life saving Medal of the Order of St John in Silver awarded to Alfred Tonge
Life saving Medal of the Order of St John in Silver

Pretoria Pit Disaster - Survivors and Memorials

Postcard of only Survivors of Pretoria Pit Disaster

Postcard showing the only survivors of the Pretoria Pit disaster, sold to raise money for the victims' families.

The rescuers proceeded down to the Yard level, where the explosion had occurred, but conditions there were too hazardous to investigate. On the second descent Joe Staveley, a young boy from the workshops, was found alive and together with William Davenport they were the only two survivors of all those working on the level where the explosion occurred.

John Sharples, who was also rescued, did not in fact survive. Although he had recovered so well in the evening that he was actually on the point of being sent home from Bolton Infirmary he developed pneumonia and later died.


Tomb of unknown victims of Pretoria Pit Disaster

Westhoughton Council contributed a large vault for the unidentified bodies. Thirteen interments took place at a service conducted by the Rev. Garrett and among those laid to rest were the bodies of 4 boys aged about 14. The final total of bodies unidentified at the time of burial was 24.

A memorial plaque on the site of the disaster - at Broadway, off Newbrook Road - was unveiled on 19 September 1976.

There are other memorials in Westhoughton Library as well as a permanent display about the Pretoria Pit disaster.


Pretoria Pit Disaster Memorial Pretoria Pit Disaster Memorial
The memorial at Westhoughton Parish Church cemetery was unveiled on 25 November 1911
Bolton & District Cricket Association memorial
This memorial to those victims who were members of affiliated cricket clubs in the Bolton & District Cricket Association is on the wall of Westhoughton Town Hall

See also James Polley, Surface Manager Pretoria Pit and An Account of the Pretoria Pit Disaster 1910