News 1934 Gresford Disaster 4

In this week’s look back at Wrexham’s History, today we take a look back at the town’s mining heritage. 

Wrexham’s industrial prosperity is founded largely on its mineral wealth and its coal resources in particular.

The local story of coalmining goes back to the fifteenth century, although it was then little more than surface digging. Early records show that the first coal barons were the Grosvenors of Eaton, near Chester and the Myddeltons of Chirk Castle. With the perfection of a process for making iron with coke instead of charcoal, there was a greater demand for coal at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

John Wilkinson, the great ironmaster, provided a local outlet for coal when he took over the ailing Bersham furnace from his father, Isaac. He also sank his own pits in the locality and when he established the new iron works at Brymbo, he sank more pits at Brymbo Hall, 1,500-acre estate which he bought. Records show that there had been about 90 pits and levels on this estate. Other local ironmasters such as Thomas Jones, T. E. Ward and Hazeldine, who supplied the superstructure for Telford’s bridges, were also creating a demand for East Denbighshire coal.

The coal industry went into a decline early in the 19th century but recovered with the age of steam, local coal being used to fuel steamships and railway engines, apart from being used for making gas and providing domestic heating. In 1854, 26 mines were operating on the western side of the town, Ruabon, Rhos, Acrefair, Brymbo and Broughton being the main areas. At this time, Wrexham’s coal mining potential attracted many newcomers with specialist mining knowledge, such as Henry Robertson, William Young Craig, James Sparrow, William Henry Darby, Thomas Clayton, William Low and Henry Dennis.

Their arrival heralded a new era in coal-mining. Small mines were phased out and mining developed into larger operations with such collieries as Westminster, Hafod, Bersham, Wynnstay, Wrexham and Acton, Llay Hall and Gatewen. The next and final chapter in coal mining began in the 20th century with the sinking of two deep pits, on the northern side of Wrexham. Gresford, (2,260 ft. at its deepest) began winding in coal in 1911, and Llay Main, (2,715 ft. deep) brought up its first coal in 1923. Sinking at Llay had started in 1914, but work had to be suspended because of the war. Llay Main, a £1 million venture, was a successful pit and the biggest employer of labour in the coalfield with 2,500 at one time on its payroll. It closed in 1966.

When the coal industry was nationalised in 1948, the collieries operating in East Denbighshire were Llay Main, Gresford, Hafod, Bersham and Black Park. Ifton just the other side of the border in Shropshire, and Point of Ayr on the Dee Estuary made up the North Wales coalfield. Black Park closed in 1949, Hafod and Ifton in 1968 and Gresford in 1973. Bersham, employing about 700 men, remained until 1986 and was the last active colliery of a once-flourishing coalfield, which at its peak had as many as 38 pits, and once employed more than 18,000 people.

Today, spoil banks and Bersham pithead gear pockmark the landscape but the main scar that coal mining has left is on the minds of those who were bereaved by the Gresford Disaster of 1934. It was one of the worst in mining history claiming 265 lives. The explosion took place at 2 a.m. on September 22, 1934 in the Dennis section of the mine. Except for a few men working near the pit bottom, and one deputy and five men who escaped along an airway, all 262 men in this section lost their lives. Three rescue men died later the same day overcome by gas.

Fire followed the explosion and unsuccessful attempts were made to deal with it. By the evening of the following day, it was decided that there was no hope for the entombed men. The two shafts were sealed off at the tops because of the danger of inflammable gas, and after a series of small explosions, a tremendous explosion on September 25 blew off the concrete seal, killing a surface worker with flying debris. A relief fund to help the 166 widows and 229 fatherless children created by the explosion raised £556,871, and is still paying out to dependants.

The court of inquiry which opened in October 1934 did not close until July 1936, and among eminent counsel who appeared were Hartley Shawcross and Stafford Cripps. Among the criticisms made by Sir Henry Walker, the court commissioner, were in-adequate ventilation, failure to record air measurements, disregard of shot firing regulations, and failure to observe the permitted working hours. In 1937, the owners and certain officials were charged with 43 offences at a Wrexham court. On eight charges, fines of £140 with £350 costs were imposed, the remaining charges being dismissed.

The pit remained sealed for six months after the disaster, and was eventually brought back into production after a long and difficult recovery operation. Because of the risk of new explosions through the in-leakage of air, the affected district of the pit was permanently sealed off and no further attempt to recover the bodies was made. The pit resumed an active life, employing more than 2,000 at its peak. The National Coal Board closed it in 1973, geological difficulties having made it uneconomic.

Wrexham has undoubtedly prospered a result of coal mining, but has paid a high price in terms of human suffering.
Wrexham History 2014

Sources: Wrexham Advertiser, Llangollen Advertiser, Wrexham & District Official Guide 1975.

Written by: Graham Lloyd for Wrexham History. More of Wrexham’s history can be found on one of our favourite websites, www.wrexham-history.co.uk