MAC: Mines and Communities

Don't forget the victims of dust - they also suffered

Published by MAC on 2011-09-26
Source: South Wales Echo, The Sentinel (2011-09-23)

Last week's lead story addressed the latest industrial tragedy to hit Wales - a small country where coal mining has proceeded uninterrupted for around 800 years.

Four miners were trapped and drowned while working in the Gleision colliery, near Swansea. See: Mining disaster returns to Wales

As we pointed out then, innumerable instances of lung disease have been contracted by  mine workers in recent years. It's part of the unacceptable "price of coal" borne by them and their dependents.

In one of the following articles, ex-miner Dan O'Neill says that, as of last year, no fewer than 3,253  such miners have died in Wales alone, before receiving any compensation from a UK government pay-out scheme (COPD).

Commenting on the "tragedy of Gleision", another commentator points out that, in his own county of North Staffordshire, "there's hardly a square metre of land...beneath which men, not so long ago, worked in the presence of instantaneous death".

According to Dan O'Neill : "The victims of Dust are rarely remembered, seldom honoured".

Amen to that.

Don't forget the victims of Dust - they also suffered

By Dan O'Neill

South Wales Echo

21 September 2011

We do not know his name any more than we know the name of the first man to fall at Flanders.

He is the Unknown Soldier of that war against nature waged in Wales since the first coal was mined in Neath 800 years ago.

His was the first mining death recorded in South Wales, back in the year 1660.

There were doubtless many before him. We know beyond all doubt that there were far too many after him.

And now, again, Wales mourns.

Philip Hill, Charles Breslin, David Powell and Garry Jenkins are the latest in a long, long line of men who lost that centuries-old battle below ground.

Reminding us once more of the true cost of coal.

Two years ago, on the 86th anniversary of our most terrible pit disaster - Senghenydd, October 1913, when 439 men and boys died in a single, apocalyptic explosion - I suggested it was time for a memorial, a "Miners' Cenotaph" honouring our underground warriors as other warriors are honoured, as we are honouring, all too briefly I suspect, the men who died in Gleision Colliery.

Why not? There were honours enough for the coal-owners who made their millions on the backs of those broken miners.

But why, some might wonder, such an outpouring of national grief over just four deaths when multiple deaths on our roads and in our skies and our factories occur without such a response.

I believe that here, oh yes, especially here in Wales, death below ground, death while facing the old enemy touches the national psyche in a way that is unique.

Impossible to contemplate the disaster in the Swansea Valley without resurrecting the shades of so many other disasters in so many other valleys; to recall again the woe of waiting women at bleak pit tops, husbands and sons buried beneath them, maybe for ever.

As, no doubt, a woman grieved above the primitive mine where her man was buried by a fall in 1660.

But while musing on the deaths in Swansea, let me remind you of a report in the Echo on December 2 last year.

The Department of Energy and Climate revealed that 3,253 Welsh miners died before receiving compensation via the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Scheme (COPD).

No drama in their dying, no headlines, no cries of sympathy from politicians - yes, Cameron sent a message last week, so maybe times have changed since his heroine demonised miners as "the enemy within".

COPD. To any old miner, the dreaded Dust. I learned about the Dust when working down a pit in the East Midlands.

But I didn't really realise its terrible effect until I lived in a Durham mining village during the first great strike in 1974.

And I will never forget the sound of Dust, because it is a sound like no other.

It is unmistakably, agonisingly unique.

It begins with a desperate desire to cough, a gasp for breath from deep down in clogged lungs and it ends as a hollow echo, a croak as though from somewhere behind the breastbone, a battery fades and power drains.

The sound of Dust, the anthem of every one of the thousands of victims over the years, the sad echo of distant pits, a sound that once punctuated the morning talk in every mining pub or club.

I remember a Durham miner picking up his cigarette packet, laughing over the warning in large red letters, SMOKING CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH.

"If that's the case," he said, "they should put a Government Health Warning on every pit in Britain.

"You get more rubbish inside you from a couple of shifts on a power loader than you do out of 40 fags."

He lit up and after the first deep drag, the inevitable cough, raw, torn from the lungs, a constant, ominous reminder of the debris that nestled in the delicate fibres of his being.

And now I think of an old saying: miners love their work so much they take a bit of it home with them every day.

I was lucky. The only dust I took away from Pye Hill Pit is in my knee and just above my nose, coal dust trapped in old wounds, the celebrated blue scars, my souvenirs of time below with a billion tons of rock above. But no dust in my lungs. No struggle over each agonising breath. No strangled cough.

I dwell on the Dust to emphasise that a mining tragedy does not always mean a devastating explosion or sudden flooding.

The victims of Dust are rarely remembered, seldom honoured.

And as Bleddyn Hancock, of the mining union Nacods, said last year: "Many thousands of them died before receiving a penny of compensation because of delays."

They deserve their place on a Miners' Cenotaph as much as the victims of Senghenydd or Gleision or of any other mining tragedy since that first recorded death so long ago.


We should never forget miners who toiled in death's shadow

The Sentinel (Staffordshire)

23 September 2011

I WAS considerably shocked by the images of the crumbling, soaking-wet labyrinth of Gleision Colliery, where four miners lost their lives in their daily task of digging coal.

Gleision is a small drift mine cut into a hillside in the Swansea Valley, accessed by a narrow lane.

Its alarming isolation reminds me of Red Hall Lane, Halmerend, where, on January 12, 1918, North Staffordshire's single worst mining disaster occurred.

This is the site of Minnie Pit, where 155 lives were lost in an explosion of gas. Simple memorials mark the buried entrance covered by a forest of trees and a carpet of wild flowers and steep grass.

These are the remains of another age - an age of industrial power that made Great Britain the richest nation on the planet. But the raw minerals that made some exceptionally wealthy also produced intense poverty for most who worked in dangerous subterranean surroundings.

It's 15 years since Stoke-on-Trent's last colliery, Trentham, closed in 1996. Since then coalmining, as one of the district's major industrial influences, has been forgotten.

It seems, too, that the memory of the hundreds of thousand sufferers from injuries and prevalent respiratory diseases that consigned strong men to a lifetime of debilitating infirmity has also faded.

Understandably, these secondary causes of death are eclipsed by the shock of instant multiple deaths which we refer to as 'disaster'.

Mining historians John Lumsdon and Fionn Taylor have recorded and detailed mining disasters since records began in 1821.

Their research reveals there have been more than 350 established mines in the North Staffordshire coalfield, aside from thousands of private workings. It also reports the accounts of multiple fatalities in North Staffordshire's pits - a cumulative total of 795 deaths, of which 313 miners were killed during the 20th century.

Minnie Pit was the district's worst disaster. Another disaster happened in July 1937 when an explosion at Holditch killed 30 miners. A memorial in Burslem town centre recalls the Sneyd Colliery disaster on New Year's Day in 1942, when the lives of 57 men and boys were lost.

And yet a more recent calamity at Dales Green Colliery in Silverdale, in 1953, when six men were gassed, wasn't officially classified as a disaster.

Before I visited John and Fionn's website, I wasn't aware that death in coalmines didn't come under the category of a disaster, unless the lives of 10 or more were lost in a single event.

It made me wonder what sort of misplaced statistics are applied to such deadly classifications. Perhaps it's to do with insurance, or health and safety. I mean - who writes the rules on this?

Fatalities large and small were always an accepted part of labouring industry. And mining communities in North Staffordshire have all felt the pain of mourning for men who left and never came home when the shift ended.

As a rule, death comes suddenly below ground. Whether or not it comes in single numbers or in hundreds it is a community disaster. Death needs no classification for the bereaved.

What shocked me most over Gleision Colliery was discovering that in some parts of the country, our industrial past still improbably lurks in the present.

I hear people say they didn't know that coal was still being mined in Britain, even on such a small scale as this drift mine.

It has taken the tragedy of Gleision to remind me that there's hardly a square metre of land in North Staffordshire beneath which men, not so long ago, worked in the presence of instantaneous death.

Nor should I forget that mining is as much a part of my heritage as the pottery industry.

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