The Pretoria Pit Disaster

One hundred years ago today, on the 21st December 1910, at ten to eight in the morning, a huge blast ripped apart Hulton Colliery at Westhoughton in Lancashire, known locally as the Pretoria Pit. Deep underground a roof in a tunnel fell in and set off a chain of events that culminated in the explosion of methane gas and coal dust. Local man, Brian Clare, recalls that his mother still had vivid memories of that morning. As she was getting washed in the kitchen ready to go to school, the force of the explosion blew her off her feet.

The pit employed 2500 men and boys from the local area and on this particular morning the day shift had just begun and 898 men and boys, some as young as only twelve years old, were working down the mine. News reports of the time say that some of the miners had complained about gas and hot air in the mine and the coroner’s report, prepared by Mr Redmayne, noted that a large fall of the roof ‘some twenty yards long at No.2 face of the North Plodder had not been completely removed’. There was also a mention of miners seeing sparks coming from the conveyor belt switch at the No.1 face of the North Plodder which suggests that it was defective. The final conclusion of the inquest was that the roof collapse had caused the build up of gas and that a faulty lamp had ignited it.

News of the disaster quickly spread and men, women and children ran to help, but there was little they could do as the dead and dying were brought to the surface. During the day 553 miners were rescued but there were only two survivors from the level where the explosion occurred and a total of 344 men and boys were killed.

The funerals began on Christmas Eve; there were even funerals on Christmas Day and the disaster is remembered by locals as ‘Black Christmas 1910’. What people must have gone through during that Christmas is unimaginable and the loss of so many men and boys must have shaped the way Westhoughton has developed over the last hundred years. One woman lost her husband and four sons, the youngest of whom was just twelve and had gone down the pit for the first time that day.

The Pretoria Pit Disaster was the third largest pit disaster in British history and the worst in Lancashire. The loss of life was the largest in any English coalmine.

A relief fund was set up for the families and dependants and a total of £145,000 was raised. The marble memorial which cost £200 has this inscription:

‘Sacred to the memory of 344 men and boys who lost their lives by an explosion at the Pretoria Pit of the Hulton Colliery Co. on the 21st December 1910, 24 of whom sleep under this monument, being unidentified at the time of burial. This monument is erected by public subscription as a token of sympathy with the widows and relatives of the victims, 171 of whom are buried in this cemetery, 45 in Wingates, 20 in Daisy Hill, 3 in the congregational churchyards, and the remainder in various burial grounds. “Be Ye Therefore Ready Also For The Son of Man Cometh At An Hour When Ye Think Not.” St Luke Xll .40’

It was visited by thousands of grieving people in the days after its erection and the anniversary of the disaster is still remembered in an annual ceremony when a wreath is laid. A memorial service was held on Sunday and a new statue has been unveiled in memory of all those who lost their lives.


Reluctant Recluses

Many of you will already know that Henry de Lacy gave land at Whalley for the Cistercian monks to build a new abbey because the site at Stanlaw had proved unsuitable and liable to flooding.

After Henry de Lacy’s death his lands passed to his son-in-law Thomas of Lancaster and after Thomas’s execution, for his rebellion against Edward II, to his younger brother Henry. In December 1360 Henry Duke of Lancaster gave land at Ramsgreave and Standen for the maintenance of a recluse or anchoress to live in a hermitage in the churchyard at Whalley.

The recluse was to have two servants to wait on her, and a monk attended by a server was to sing mass daily in the chapel of her inclosure, the abbey providing all necessaries. These ‘necessaries’ were a weekly provision of 17 conventual loaves and 7 others, 8 gallons of the best ale, also 3d. for the attendants; and yearly: 10 stockfish, a bushel of oatmeal, a bushel of rye, 2 gallons of oil for the lamps, a stone of tallow for candles, 6 loads of turf and 1 of faggots.

The duke and his successors were to nominate the recluses and in 1437 a widow by the name of Isold Heaton was nominated. But she seems to have been reluctant and, like others before her, she ran away, prompting this letter from the monks to the king:


Be hit remembryd that the plase arid habitacion of the seid recluse is within place halowed, and nere to the gate of the seyd monastre, and that the weemen that have been attendyng and acquayntyd to the seyd recluse have recorse dailly into the seyd monastre, for the livere of brede, ale, kychin, and other thyngs for the sustentacyon of the seyd recluse accordyng to the composityon endentyd above rehersyd : the whyche is not accordyng (fitting) to be had withyn such religyous plases. And how that dyvers that been anchores and recluses in the seyd plase aforetyme, contrary to theyre own oth and professyon, have brokyn owte of the seyd plase, wherin they were reclusyd, and departyd therfrom wythout eny reconsilyatyon. And in especyal how that now Isold of Heton that was last recluysd in the seyd plase, at denomynatyon and preferment of owre Sovereign Lord and Kyng that nowe is, is broken owte of the seyd plase, and hath departyd therfrom contrary to her own oth and professyon, not willyng nor entendyng to be restoryd agayn, and so livyng at her own liberte by this two yere and more, like as she had never bin professyd. And that divers of the wymen that have been servants ther and attendyng to the recluses afortym have byn misgovernyd, and gotten with chyld withyn the seyd plase halowyd, to the grete displeasaunce of hurt and disclander of the abbeye aforeseyd, &c.

Please hyt your Highness of our espesyal grase to grant to your orators the abbat, &c.

The result was that the hermitage was abandoned and it was ordered that the endowment should be used to maintain two chantry priests to say mass daily for the soul of Duke Henry and for the king. It seems that some cottages were later built on the site, but demolished in the 1800s and apart from the hermitage being located in the east of the churchyard there’s no clear evidence of exactly where it was – perhaps somewhere near to the present primary school?

Hermits and anchorites living in or around churches were quite common in the middle ages. You can still see the remains of an anchorite’s cell in the church at Skipton:

The plaque here records that the cell would have been blocked up after the anchorite entered and that she would have remained there for the rest of her life. ‘A small window admitted food and light and gave a view of the church’s altar’. Not much chance of running away from there then!