Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Mining: Toil Without Tribute

On 14th May 1910, Marlborough House received the following telegram:

Deeply regret most respectfully to inform his Majesty that the rescuers at Wellington Pit have been driven out by smoke from the fire, and there is no possible chance of saving 136 men who are entombed, and almost certainly dead from suffocation.

And so, into history went the Whitehaven Colliery Disaster.

136 lives ended in employment. The Times of the day reported that one family, named McAlister, had been "practically wiped out" as the father, 3 sons, 3 nephews and a son-in-law were all left to rest in the cavity of one of man's great vices.

The coming weeks and months saw the expeditionary team find the bodies of some of the deceased. In maybe the most moving piece of historical documentation this writer, a writer with a History degree, has ever seen, The Times on 30th September 1910 reported that 25 of the bodies had been found. Forgive me for the extensive extracts, but I feel they should be used verbatim:

The bodies were uninjured, and were in a much better condition than were the two bodies found two days ago...The bodies were lying in attitudes which indicated that the men had died peacefully. Each man had his lamp between his knees, his water bottle full, and his food lying beside him.

The only messages observed were chalked on a door, and were :— "All well, 6,30. — A. McAllister." "All right, 7.30. — William Robinson." The date was not added. Mr. Atkinson, H.M. Inspector of Mines, is of opinion that it may be inferred that the messages were written in the early morning of May 12, the day after the explosion took place. Behind another door was chalked "William OprayJohn Lucas can get no further."

And, perhaps most moving of all:

They had left about 100 tubs filled with coal, representing about three hours' work, a circumstance which gives rise to the assumption that they had worked after the explosion took place at 8 o'clock until about 10 o'clock. They had only two sets of tubs standing empty.

Toil without tribute.

Lest we ever forget these men; men whose tragedy gave birth to our party. It was Keir who represented these men and their communities in the House of Commons at the time. Indeed, Keir ended up in a row with a young Liberal Home Secretary named Winston Churchill over the decision to stop the rescue mission whilst the men were still alive.

This was not to be the last mining accident to which Keir gave publicity and prominence at Westminster.
And these incidents still happen.

On 26th April 1942, there was the immense explosion in the Benxihu Colliery in China. That day, 1,549 men died. It is considered the worst mining accident in human history.

And last year, again in China, just over 100 men died at Heilongjiang in the Xinxing coal mine.

So over the next couple of days, as the men of the San Jose mine ascend to freedom, remember A. McAllister and William Robinson. Remember William Opray John Lucas. Remember what was left of the McAlister family, and the unnamed dead of Benxihu.

The rescue operation in Chile needs to be commended. Far from the days of Whitehaven, the scale of engineering, dedication and solidarity of the rescue team has been a reminder of how far we have come. However, this doesn't detract from the fact that we are still sending men into the depths of the earth, putting their lives and their families' futures at risk, to satisfy our insatiable lust for the minerals that mother earth has to provide. May this truly global story serve as an advert for the need for safer mines and an awakening so we realise that we must think harder, even harder, about how we power our world in the future.


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