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For 60 years Water Haigh Colliery was Oulton and Woodlesford’s largest employer. But apart from three small concrete obelisks which mark the site of the shafts today, there’s little physical evidence to show that there was once a thriving pit down Fleet Lane. Football pitches now cover the site, and its ironic that new trees planted there are the descendants of the giant ferns which became the coal that created wealth for the coal owners and wages for the miners. Howard Benson, whose father and grandfather both worked at Water Haigh, has been digging into the pit’s past.

The sinking of two deep shafts at Water Haigh began in 1908 when rights to mine the coal under land mainly owned by the Calverley family of Oulton Hall were acquired by the Henry Briggs company, a long established firm which had been engaged in mining since the early 19th century, with pits at Methley, Whitwood and Normanton.
Indeed Water Haigh was a relative newcomer on the local mining scene and had a relatively short life. Fanny Pit at Rothwell, owned by J. & J. Charlesworth opened in 1867 and outlived its neighbour at Woodlesford by 13 years.
Glyn Edwards, who started as an apprentice mine surveyor at Water Haigh in 1956, believes that before 1908 there were already two shallower shafts on the site which Charlesworth’s Newmarket colliery had been using to extract coal from the Haigh Moor seam. In time they became disused and were known as No 2 and No 4 shafts.

In 1910 the sinking of No 1 shaft had been progressing well and had reached a depth of 110 yards. As rock and earth were excavated wooden planks were put in place to hold back the bare sides. These were strengthened by cast iron rings to hold them in place. Then a circular brick wall, 19 feet in diameter, was built upwards to line the shaft and the iron rings were “struck” and taken away as each was reached. No 1 shaft had already been lined by bricks to a depth of about 70 yards with the rest of the distance to the bottom supported by planks and iron rings.  

It was around 8 o’clock on the morning of Saturday May 7th 1910 when the disaster happened. There were 7 men bricklaying on a wooden scaffolding a few yards from the bottom of the shaft. One of them, William Macnamara, was being raised to the surface in a large bucket called a hoppit when an iron ring collapsed and tons of earth and planks fell onto the men below. Suspended above the scene Macnamara raised the alarm when he was hauled to the surface.
Five of the men were buried under the rubble and must have died quickly, but the sixth, Patrick McCarthy, was trapped by his leg between the scaffolding and the side of the shaft. A desperate attempt was made to save him which lasted well into the afternoon with volunteers risking their own lives as they descended the shaft in the hoppit as debris rained down on them. After about 8 hours he too died of shock with his head being held above water just before two local doctors reached him. They’d taken their surgical instruments down with them with a plan to amputate his leg.   

The collapse of the shaft at Water Haigh came on the same day as news reached the area of the death of Queen Victoria’s son King Edward VII, who’d only enjoyed a short reign of 9 years. Reports of both events in the Rothwell Times were lined with heavy black ink.  

It took more than a week for all the bodies to be dug out of the rubble at Water Haigh. At the Inquest, held at the Oulton Institute, the Coroner said his greatest sympathy went to the relatives of the men and he would report the bravery of the rescuers to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.

The dead were named as William George Lancaster, 26, a married man from Hunslet; Willie Helliwell, 24, who had lodged at the Nookin in Oulton; Fred Cooper, 23 from Friar Wood in Pontefract; Patrick McCarthy, about 27, lodging in Hunslet; John McCafferty lodging in Church Street, Woodlesford; and Patrick Gill of Cross Lisbon Street in Leeds.

In evidence His Majesty’s Inspector of Mines for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, William Henry Pickering, who was one of the rescuers, said it was a mistake that as much as 41 yards of shaft at the bottom had been left unsupported by brick work, especially as the iron rings couldn’t hold back the pressure of water seeping into the shaft. The jury returned a verdict that “six men were accidentally killed by the collapse of the sides of a shaft in which they were engaged in sinking operations at Water Haigh Pit.”

A few months later in August 1910 the rescuers travelled to London to be presented with the Edward Medal by the new King, George V. Pickering and enginewright George Handley Silkstone were awarded first class medals, and four others gained second class medals. (Two years later Pickering was one of the many rescuers killed in an explosion at Cadeby Main pit near Rotherham as they searched for survivors of a previous explosion.)

Also in August Water Haigh’s owners, Henry Briggs, Son and Company Ltd, held their annual meeting in Leeds. It appears to have been a slightly grumpy gathering as the recently introduced Eight Hours Act had led to a decrease in productivity. The chairman W. G. Jackson referred to the Woodlesford disaster in passing and seemed unconcerned with  making any reference to help for the dead men’s families. The Rothwell Times reported his remarks: “The sinking at Woodlesford was going very well, and the surface works were making good progress. As they knew, a sad accident had marred their work. The only bright point was the cheerful alacrity with which the men did their work in putting things right again.”

But within months there were to be two more accidents and three more fatalities. The first was on Thursday 17 November 1910 and yet again it was caused by the collapse of the shaft sides as tons of coal and shale fell in on ten men working at the bottom of the pit which had reached a depth of 255 yards with the brickwork reaching to 240 yards.  

As before there was a scaffolding and iron rings supporting the brickwork when a mass of shale fell from the sides and the timbering and rings collapsed. 

The chargeman, James Cannon, noticed the shale falling and managed to shout a warning for the men to go to the centre of the shaft. He also signalled for the hoppit to be lowered. Along with five others he jumped to safety but four of the men were caught by the falling earth, iron rings, and timber.

An Irish pit sinker from Roscommon, Patrick Joseph Berine, 24, was killed instantly and the three others were trapped and seriously injured. Cannon went to the surface with the uninjured men, and quickly went back with Joseph Artis and others including George Silkstone, Percy Asquith and foreman joiner Herbert Pickersgill to try and get them out.

The thick oak woodwork of the scaffolding had to be sawn through and it took many hours to finally free all of the injured men. Loose shale and other rock was constantly falling down the shaft putting the rescuers in danger.

Cannon managed to stay down for six hours but Silkstone had to return to the surface after about half an hour. After two hours Artis was injured by a piece of shale and had to go back up. Asquith was also hit by debris. He and Pickersgill were in the pit for a long time risking their lives.  

It took two days to recover Berine's body as the sides of the shaft had to be made safe. Of the four that were rescued two were sent to Leeds Infirmary but James Phelan, 39, died there several days later. It appeared to the coroner that this second accident had been caused in exactly the same way as the first, and he asked if too much of the shaft wall had been left unsupported by brickwork. Contractors and colliery officials maintained they’d done all they could to prevent a further collapse and in the end the jury believed them.  Nothing had been done to prove neglect, they said, and “the affair was a pure accident.”

But that wasn’t to be the end of the story because within a few months on Tuesday 1 February 1911 there was yet another accident and Water Haigh had not yet produced any coal. This time there was only one fatality. One of the rescuers in the November accident, Herbert Pickersgill, who was 46 and lived at Cross Leonard Street in Woodlesford, fell 300 feet to his death when a scaffolding in No 1 shaft gave way. He left a widow, Maria, and a 14 year old daughter, Edith. Three other men escaped. They were rescued by the under manager, Frank Williams.

In April 1911 Herbert Pickersgill was posthumously awarded a second class Edward Medal for his role in the second shaft collapse. It was collected by his widow. Percy Asquith and Joseph Artis also got second class awards. James Cannon received a first class medal and George Silkstone an additional bar to his existing medal.

Eventually the first coal to be cut from the Silkstone seam reached the surface up No 1 shaft on April 20th 1911.

From then on until its closure 60 years later in 1970 Water Haigh produced millions of tons of coal. Up until the collieries were nationalised in 1947 the conditions underground were harsh. Many of the seams were only a few feet high and the miners had to lie on their side and use picks and shovels to load the coal into steel tubs after it had been brought down by explosives and cutting machines. Boys went down the pit at the age of 14. Their first job was to look after the pit ponies which pulled the tubs on rails to the pit bottom where they were put in double decker cages to be hauled by stationary steam engines to the top of the shafts.

A view of the pit top from one of the sludge beds near the railway.

Not many written records from the early years of the pit survive but several small notebooks are still in the possession of Glyn Edwards. They had belonged to William Bell Williams, known to everyone as “Billy”, who followed his father Frank down the pit and rose to be colliery manager from 1940 until 1958.

The notebooks record many significant dates going back to before the First World War. For instance the first strike for a minimum wage lasted for 6 weeks in March and April 1912. The men were out for even longer after the War – 13 weeks in 1921, and then during the epic struggle following the General Strike of 1926 when a total of 181 days were lost from May to November.

Falls of rock into the workings were common and miners were often trapped under heavy rocks, their mates having to use brute force to free them. The largest single number of deaths after 1910 was in July 1933 when 3 miners lost their lives in an explosion of methane gas. 3 others were injured. Billy Williams himself, and a collier called WaclowChrystin, were awarded the George Medal in 1956 for their efforts to rescue two men. Charles Gibbons received the British Empire Medal.

My grandfather, Ernest Benson, was a miner who moved to Water Haigh from Royston in 1939. Four years earlier he had been lucky to be convalescing from a motor bike accident  when there was an explosion at North Gawber pit where he worked in which 19 men died. A year later South Yorkshire's worst mining disaster at nearby Wharncliffe Woodmoor colliery claimed 58 lives.

Both incidents probably explain why Ernest was adamant that my father, Frank, wouldn’t follow him down the pit. When he started work in 1943 a word was had with Mr Williams and a surface job as an errand boy was arranged. He soon became a wages clerk in the time office and stayed there until Water Haigh closed and he moved to Lofthouse Colliery where he was to witness the disaster in 1973 when 7 miners died.

As a toddler I remember walking down Fleet Lane with my grandad to feed the pit ponies which had been brought to the surface for their summer holidays. My other memories of him include his constantly worn flat cap, a liking for bread and dripping, his preferred brand of Park Drive cigarettes, and his lengthy visits to the tap room at the New Masons Arms. Not forgetting the thick leather belt which was a constant threat against childhood misdemeanours!  

At the end of its life Water Haigh was in a way the victim of its own success. After nationalisation in 1947 the miners were exhorted to work harder and produce more coal to put the country back on its feet after the Second World War. Mechanised coal cutters were brought in and conveyor belts were installed instead of the old tub system to haul the coal out. Some of the faces were as far away as Ouzlewell Green, and at its peak over 1000 men were employed.  A consultative committee met regularly with elected representatives from the workforce agreeing plans with the management, although its clear from their minutes that Billy Williams remained firmly in charge until his promotion to Group Manager at Glasshoughton in 1958.

Output increased steadily and production records were broken but then in the late 1960s it was becoming obvious that the main Beeston and Eleven Yard seams were becoming exhausted and the cost of developing new ones was prohibitive.  It was a problem that was widespread and wasn’t helped by an unofficial strike in October 1969 when all of Yorkshire’s pits ground to a halt for the first time since 1926. The men were striking over surface workers pay, just as the Central Electricity Generating Board was making a decision about the new Drax power station.

According to documents in the National Archives local management were sensitive about announcing closure during the strike, especially since that of nearby Primrose Hill had already been announced.  By then the pit had a workforce of about 630 and there was pressure for closure from  further up the chain at Divisional Headquarters in Doncaster as the much more profitable pits being developed at Kellingley and elsewhere were short of men. Those over 60 were eligible for decent redundancy payments and pensions.

Closure was announced to a joint meeting of union representatives on December 5th 1969. A last ditch attempt to save the pit was made by the national secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Lawrence Daly. He claimed that correct “jeopardy”  procedures hadn’t been followed but after an appeal to the NCB top brass at their  headquarters at Hobart House in London on February 17th 1970 he only managed a two month reprieve and closure was set for the end of April.

So, after a great deal of blood, sweat and toil, accident and death, but also much laughter and camaraderie, coal production at Water Haigh came to an end on April 24th 1970. It was the beginning of the end of a tradition and a way of life in Woodlesford and the rest of the Rothwell district that has now gone forever.       

This article is one of several chronicling the industrial history of Woodlesford. As well as the pit I’m currently researching Bentley’s Yorkshire Brewery, George Armitage’s brickworks and the railway through Woodlesford.  If you have information or memories to pass on to future generations please email me at or you can write to 7 Bangor Close, Northolt UB5 4HD, tel: 07711 631 753.  


Adventures In Coal, British Mining British No 66 by John Goodchild.

The Rothwell Times.

Documents in The National Archives, Kew.