I DON’T know if a melody without words is strictly speaking a hymn, but it certainly sounds like one. It commemorates a disaster less than 100 years ago, though it was such a different time that it might as well be a thousand.
In the early hours of Saturday September 22, 1934, nearly 300 miners were working the night shift half a mile underground at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham in north-east Wales. The pit was prone to ‘firedamp’, a mixture of flammable gases which can trigger explosions. It was not a popular mine to work in: conditions were unbearably hot, between 86F and 92F – the men had holes drilled in their clogs to let out the sweat – and ventilation was poor. Safety practices were regularly ignored. But with six men for every job there was no shortage of applicants to earn £2 5s (£2.25) a week. The mine had made a loss in 1933 and the manager was under pressure from the owner to increase profitability.
At 2.08 am there was a violent explosion more than a mile and a quarter from the bottom of the shaft. Fire immediately broke out. Thirty-six men were on the shaft side of the blaze but all the rest were trapped. A six-man group went ahead, attempting to fan the air to mitigate the effects of the deadly afterdamp, the toxic mixture of gases resulting from a firedamp explosion, but they soon realised the other 30 had not followed them. After a long and difficult climb up 1 in 3 gradients, several ladders, and past rockfalls, they made it to safety. They were the only men to survive. Volunteers from nearby pits went down the shaft and a dozen bodies were recovered. All had died from burns and carbon monoxide poisoning. One team of four rescuers misinterpreted instructions and entered a narrow tunnel although their canary (still in use in those days) died instantly. Two collapsed and the team leader dragged one of them 40 yards towards safety before being overcome himself. He survived but the other three died.
By dawn, crowds of anxious relatives and off-duty miners were gathered at the pit head waiting for news. Here is a Pathe News report.
In the evening they were told that the trapped men would soon be rescued, but the information was wrong. By Sunday evening it was clear that the inferno had spread and there were more explosions. The relatives were told there was no hope of any survivors, and rescue efforts were halted. The last man to leave the pit said: ‘From the point where the fire is raging for twenty yards the stones are red-hot.’
The shaft was capped off and 254 bodies remained underground. In total 266 died. Two hundred women were widowed and 800 children lost their fathers. All the other miners at the colliery, 1,600 men, were thrown on to the dole.
Here is a video featuring Ted Andrews, one of the six who escaped.
Relief funds were set up by the Mayor of Wrexham, the Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire and the Lord Mayor of London. These raised more than £580,000 for the dependants of the victims, equivalent to more than £41million in 2019.
An inquiry was chaired by Sir Henry Walker, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Mines, who had himself been in the pit during the rescue attempts.
His report in 1937 was inconclusive and did not attribute any outright blame or definitive cause for the disaster.
The only conviction against the management at Gresford Colliery was £150 plus costs for inadequate record-keeping.
The part of the pit involved in the disaster was never mined or opened up again.
The disaster inspired former mine-worker and musician Robert Saint (1905-1950) to compose Gresford for brass bands. He was born in Hebburn on South Tyneside and went down his local pit in 1919 after leaving school at 14. He worked with the pit ponies until the mine closed in 1932, leaving him unemployed. He earned money by giving music lessons and playing in a dance band. After the Gresford disaster he joined the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers as a bandsman, playing the trombone. Gresford was first performed publicly during the Durham Miners’ Gala in 1938, and quickly became known as ‘The Miners’ Hymn.
Saint was discharged from service for medical reasons in 1939. In 1940, he joined the National Equine (and Smaller Animals) Defence League and eventually became a regional organiser. He was a heavy smoker and suffered from chronic industrial lung disease. He died at the age of 45 leaving a widow and two children. All the royalties he gained from Gresford were donated to the National Union of Mineworkers.
I found these words on a website, which says they were on a Durham Miners’ Gala programme, but I don’t know what year, and no writer is credited. I don’t know if they really fit the melody. I don’t even know if they have ever been sung. However they are poignant verses.
Creator, who with marvellous design
The world and all that is within did make;
The lofty mountain, and the mine:
Hear now our prayer for Jesu’s sake.
Lord of the oceans and the sky above,
Whose wondrous grace has blessed us from our birth,
Look with compassion, and with love
On all who toil beneath the earth.
They spend their lives in dark, with danger fraught,
Remote from nature’s beauties, far below,
Winning the coal, oft dearly bought
To drive the wheel, the hearth make glow.
Now we remember miners who have died
Trapped in the darkness of the earth’s cold womb;
Brave men to free them, vainly tried,
Still their work-place remained their tomb.
All who were shattered in explosion’s blast
Or overcome with fatal gas have slept,
Or crushed neath stone, have breathed their last;
And the bereaved, who for them wept.
O Saviour Christ, who on the cruel tree
For all mankind thy precious blood has shed;
In Life Eternal trusting, we
To thy safe keeping leave our dead.
The melody is still often played by brass bands and at gathering of miners and ex-miners. Here is a performance by the Black Dyke Band.
Here it is played by the Murton Colliery Band of Co Durham.
As the sole YouTube commenter says, ‘The small audience obviously don’t realise the significance of the hymn. Our own social history has been quietly moved from view to where, the only people who can actually remember, remember!’
How sad and shameful it would be if he is right and we forget the past that was Britain so quickly.