"I went down to the bottom of the mountains;
The earth with its bars was about me forever..."
Madeley is a former mining town, situated on the East Shropshire coalfield and, since the late 1960s, part of the extensive new town of Telford. There are many reminders of Madeley's industrial past, one of the most poignant being the graves of nine miners, killed in a pit accident in 1864, who lie side by side in the churchyard of the parish church of St Michael. The quote above is part of the inscription on their memorial stone.
The graves are plain, bearing only the initials of each man on their cast-iron covers. The memorial stone gives their names and ages:
Edward Wallett, 52.
Benjamin Davies, 35.
John Tranter, 37.
Joseph Maiden, 18.
William Jarratt, 18.
John Farr, 14.
John Jones, 14.
Francis Cookson, 13.
William Onions, 12.
What shocked me most when I first read this list was how young most of the dead were. Even in 1864 they were regarded as children: the coroner's inquest record states that the victims were three men and six boys. Twenty-two years earlier the 1842 Mines and Collieries Act had prohibited children under eight from working underground. But even in 1864 it would have been quite normal for children to start work at twelve - and no doubt this made an essential contribution to the family income.
The Madeley Wood Company, who owned the mine, were considered to be good employers; they had never employed women underground and were local benefactors. But the shifts were long - twelve hours - and there were no extended breaks in the working day. The men would take it in turns to grab a quick bite to eat. The air they breathed was full of dust and most of them would eventually contract lung diseases. Life expectancy was short.
Madeley's many pits are now hidden under tree-covered mounds. The Brick Kiln Leasow pit at Madeley Wood was an ironstone pit, 220 metres deep. It stood near the top of the steep hill that leads down from Madeley into Ironbridge, and nearly all the miners lived within about half a mile of it. They were a tight-knit community and no doubt many of them were related. Certainly the oldest man on the shift, Edward Wallett, was the father of William Wallett, who was banksman on the day of the accident.
On Tuesday 27th September 1864 at 5.40 pm the shift had just ended and the men were coming up in the device known as 'the doubles' - loops of chain forming seats, with a heavy iron 'bonnet' above to protect them from any falling debris. This device was hooked on to the main chain which was drawn up by the engine at a signal from the 'hooker-on'. The hooker-on that day was Benjamin Davies, an experienced man who'd been doing the job for twenty years.
When the men were about halfway up, the engine man felt the winding chain go slack. He knew at once that the miners had fallen to their deaths. Moments later the doubles, the men, the iron bonnet and the great chain crashed through the layers of thick planks at the bottom of the shaft into four metres of sump water. The thunderous sound brought miners and local people rushing to the scene.
The mutilated bodies were brought up and taken down the hill to the George and Dragon pub, close to where many of the miners lived - and desperate relatives had to be kept outside the room until the bodies had been washed and laid out.
No clear cause was ever found for the accident. The hook and chain were intact, so it was assumed that the hooker-on had somehow failed to properly connect the hook to the chain, and that the hook had slipped out halfway up. Nine men, rather than the permitted maximum of eight, were in the doubles that day. Whether this could have been a factor was unclear. A verdict of accidental death was returned.
This was not an unusual accident - a similar one occurred a few miles away eight years later, when a triple-link chain broke - but it made a deep impression on the community not only because of the large number of miners lost, but because so many were children. One of the dead, 13 year old Francis Cookson, lived in a house only yards from the one where, in the 1980s, my own 13 year old son was able to look forward to a very different future. The Victorians made great strides in child protection and improved working conditions, but one of the most shocking aspects of this story is not the employment of children - my mother started work at 14 - but the long working day, which was still accepted as normal, even for such arduous work. Change comes slowly, and is often hard won.
This pit pony sculpture is by local artist Gerry Foxall.
We thank Ann Turnbull for this post. Carol Drinkwater will be back next month.