Lofthouse Pit Disaster (50th anniversary)

Our March talk was given by Tony Banks and Eddie Downes, key members of the Wakefield Mining Heritage Group, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Lofthouse Pit Disaster. Eddie and Tony delivered a lively talk, by turns funny and sad. Both men come from generations of coal miners. Eddie gave us an overview of the development of Lofthouse Pit up to 1973. There would have been mining in this part of the world as far back as 1309 and we learned about the early numerous bell pits which would have contained no supports and were not filled in properly when they were abandoned; a tree was often planted in the centre and they are usually to be found in woodland.

In December 1872, a group of business owners who were tired of being held to ransom when buying coal to run their businesses, developed the Leeds and Yorkshire Mining Company, leasing 890 acres from the Duke of Leeds; in 1873 Lofthouse Pit was born, production starting in 1877. Eddy told us about Haigh Moor, the principal seam which was worked extensively in the local area. The Aire and Calder Navigation and the steam railways impacted the development of the mining industry and in the 1880s, the Lofthouse Coal Company as it now was, expanded into different seams and Wrenthorpe Colliery was bought. Eddie took us up to 1947 when the mining industry was nationalised and developments in the 1950s.

Tony then took over and told us about the events of March 21 1973 when the unthinkable occurred. He painted a vivid picture of how it had been an ordinary day when he started his night shift the day before, future plans being discussed and the poignancy of everyday exchanges which would, for some, be their last. Tony told of the loud noises and sudden surge of cold air in the mine at 2.20am and learning two hours later from the Deputy that there had been a sudden inrush of water and was told to get all the men together and out of the pit.

The first rescue team was made up of Lofthouse men as they lived nearby and every man and woman who worked at Lofthouse Pit did their bit. Women manned the refreshment bar offering hot drinks to the rescue teams which included Tony. The Salvation Army also did sterling work supporting the families of the trapped miners. The rescue operation went on for six days, including an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the men, thinking they may have been trapped in an air pocket.

An enquiry followed, where Arthur Scargill was to make his name and Eddie told how, after any disaster, some good always follows. For example, learning that aerial photographs of mines up and down the country could reveal the sites of old shafts – they would appear as circles and Lofthouse Pit had 143 of them. Eddie and Tony showed us examples of Davy lamps, illustrating their development and the Self Rescuer that miners always carried; it gave the men two hours to survive the toxic gases that always follow an explosion.

Lofthouse pit eventually closed in 1981, possibly because men were needed to work the Selby coalfield, and the area was landscaped. In 2013 the Lofthouse Colliery Action Group received lottery funding to create a heritage trail. The disaster was the first one to receive comprehensive press coverage, this affected miners and their families up and down the country. We were reminded of the events taking place on the March 18 and 19 to commemorate the disaster.

Lorraine Simpson

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