Monday, February 16, 2009

"An unfortunate accident” in a coal mine

Haig Pit, Kells, Whitehaven, Cumbria (1978)
Miner Denis McGrath lost his life in an accident here on 21 June 1943
(Photograph courtesy of Mr R. Calvin)
In Britain, during the Second World War coal mining was one of the key industries on the Home Front. At this time the incidence of serious accidents and some kinds of industrial disease and the average age of the workers were much higher than that of the working population as a whole. In 1943, for example, according to a post-war independent report (*) based on access to official Government documents out of 708,000 workers in British coal mines there were at least 173,000 accidents leading to a disablement of more than 3 days.

Although the comparative fatality rate is not given in this report, it would be logical to assume this was also significantly higher in mining compared to other industrial sectors. One of many such mining industry fatalities that occurred in 1943 was that of Denis McGrath (Senior) from Cleator Moor, Cumberland who died as a result of a roof fall underground at Haig Pit, Kells, Whitehaven on Monday 21 June. At the inquest into Mr McGrath's death, the Coroner brought in a verdict of 'accidental death'. The Coroner, Mr W.H. Bayliff, also made the comment that Mr McGrath’s death had been the result of "… an unfortunate accident".

(*) Source: W.H.B. Court (1951), 'History of the Second World War: Coal', HMSO, London

For additional information click on 'Comments' below


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Additional information

In 1943 Denis McGrath (Senior) was in his 57th year and was married to Margaret (née Burns). They had three sons and one daughter and the family home was at 1 Ennerdale Road, Cleator Moor (approximately 4 miles from Haig Pit). Denis McGrath had originally been employed as an iron ore miner at the Moss Bay Mines, Woodend near Egremont. After the Great War of 1914 - 1918 there was a slump in the price of iron ore, and a general economic decline for a time, and several iron ore mines in West Cumberland closed down. Denis had then transferred to working in Haig Pit, a coal mine in nearby Whitehaven.

In 1943 Denis McGrath was employed on the First (morning) shift as a 'stripper' (which was an underground job setting up the pit props made of timber to support the roof as the coal face advanced). According to the coroner's inquest, Denis was working with two other 'strippers': Walter D. Bell and Gilbert Gill, both of Whitehaven. Although it was known there was a 'natural slip' in the coal face, extra precautions were being taken with the setting of the props. There was, however, no cause to indicate anything untoward might happen. The face had been inspected by a pit deputy, Mr George Pearson at 09.30 and later by Mr Thomas Woodburn the Overman. Neither had found anything unusual in the coal face.

According to evidence given at the inquest, Mr McGrath and Mr Bell had been working together in the coal face area. At about 10.50 am Mr McGrath had asked Mr Bell to move down while the prop was set. Mr Bell had gone a few steps when there was a thud. He had turned round and saw Mr McGrath had been pinned under a large stone, subsequently estimated to weigh at least two tons. Mr Bell had shouted for help and, with the use of a jack, they had been able to lift the stone off Mr McGrath after about 7 - 8 minutes. Death was due to a fractured spine and multiple other injuries, and it would have been instantaneous.

At that time in the Second World War in a community like Cleator Moor everyone tended to know everyone else. So Mr McGrath’s death would have been a big shock to many people in and around the town and also among his work colleagues at Haig Pit. Confirmation of this is given by the report about Denis McGrath's death in the local newspaper 'The Whitehaven News' from 1943. This article reported that there was “… general regret throughout the district”, and that Mr and Mrs McGrath and their family were "... held in the highest regard". ‘The Whitehaven News’ also reported that Denis was a good worker and well-liked at the pit. The Coroner, Mr W.H. Bayliff, Mr Tom Banks (Snr) for the Coal Owners, Mr James Martin (Miners' Agent), representing the family, and Mr Harry Skerry for the Colliery Officials Association, all expressed their deep sympathy to the relatives of the deceased.

The funeral of Denis McGrath took place at St Mary's R.C. Catholic Church, Cleator. He was then interred in the Churchyard adjacent to a replica of the Grotto at Lourdes, France which had been completed in 1927 by unemployed miners from Cleator and Cleator Moor. It is likely that Denis McGrath would have been one of those who had worked on building the Grotto during difficult times. Many of those who had helped build the Cleator Grotto believed it to be a special place and were subsequently interred nearby when they died.

There is no way to describe Denis McGrath's untimely death as other than a terrible tragedy. During the Second World War many families had to come to terms with tragic deaths of at least one close relative. Some families had to cope with the loss of two or more close relatives. Such are the things that happen in wartime. Unfortunately, this was to be the case for the McGrath family of Cleator Moor.

As well as losing her husband Denis in June 1943, before the war ended Mrs Margaret McGrath would later lose two of her sons while they were serving in the army. Firstly, Denis McGrath (Junior) was killed in action in Holland on 23 October 1944. He was 22 years old. Then, a few months later a second son, John McGrath, died of malaria in a Carlisle hospital on 1 May 1945. John had served in the Far East for a number of years before coming back to the UK. He was 25 years old when he died. John McGrath’s funeral took place just before V.E. Day 1945 and he was interred in the same grave as his father. The bearers of the coffin were a detachment from the Border Regiment, John McGrath’s former regiment.

According to the headstone in St Mary’s Churchyard, Mrs Margaret McGrath passed away at the age of 87 on 21 December 1969 and was laid to rest with her husband and son in St Mary's Churchyard. The headstone also commemorates Denis (Junior) and includes the prayer:

"On whose souls, sweet Jesus, have mercy".

May they all rest in Peace.

Acknowledgement of sources:
Mr R. Calvin, a former official at Haig Pit, ‘The Whitehaven News’,
Cumbria County Archives (Whitehaven Records Office)

[NB - A separate article has been written about the Ww2 story of brothers Denis McGrath (Junior) and John McGrath]

Monday, 16 February, 2009  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Joseph -
my family going back to the early 1800's were involved in the mining trade in Fifeshire - Ayrshire - and Northumberland as well as New Zealand and so we know of the sorrow and the hardship associated with mining in those days - in fact one of the main mantra's of my parents was ' "If you don't do well at School - you finish up down the pits"

My GP here in Agassiz is from south of Edinburgh and he tells me that he had the same threats when he was at school..this caused him to excel and become a Doctor !

So threats do work on the young !

Tuesday, 17 February, 2009  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

As you suggest, a lot of families did not want their sons to go down the mines to work. Then most of the WW2 ‘Bevin Boys’ probably would rather have been in the Forces, especially if they did not live in a mining area beforehand.

You can deduct from the figures I quote in the main posting above, mining could be quite a dangerous job. These figures were for 1943 the year Mr McGrath died. Deaths due to accidents must have been relatively much higher than in industry as a whole and it seemed to be accepted as one of those things that happened.

In mining accidents where there were a lot of casualties then these often seemed to be remembered. For the BBC “People’s War” I wrote a couple of stories about an explosion at William Pit, Whitehaven in 1941 (where 12 miners died). Also, on this ‘2WW Blog’ I have touched upon a larger explosion at the same William Pit in 1947 (where 104 miners died). These occasions, and those who lost their lives in them, tend to be remembered to some extent.

Accidents where there were perhaps ‘only’ one or two fatalities or serious injuries seem to have been largely forgotten. I actually went to the Haig Colliery Mining Museum and asked if there was a Remembrance Book for miners who had lost their lives in coal mining over the years. At present, there isn’t such a Book of Remembrance for Cumbrian colliery casualties, although they are working on putting one together for some time in 2010.

I only really came across Mr McGrath’s accident as two of his sons are on the Cleator Moor ‘Roll of Honour’ I have been researching. Mr McGrath (Snr) would not be listed on the CWGC records as a ‘civilian death’, even though he was working in what was deemed an ‘Essential Industry’ in WW2. If someone had been on ARP duty in WW2 (for example) and they had been killed by a building falling on top of them after an air raid, they would likely be on the CWGC lists. Although full-time miners such as Mr McGrath would not be listed by the CWGC, if there were any ‘Bevin Boy’ fatalities in WW2, I wonder if they are included in their records?

Tuesday, 17 February, 2009  

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