I live in Chester Road, Wrexham and it is difficult to imagine that, 83 years ago, it was filled with the sound of anxious voices and the clatter of boots hurrying down the hill to the tragic scene unfolding among the grit and grime surrounding the pithead at The Gresford Colliery.
When I first came to live in Wrexham, our next-door neighbour – who was then in her late eighties – remembered only too well the hundreds of people who made their way, in a stream of sadness, down the road outside her house on that terrible night and morning of September 22, 1934.
‘In living memory’, is a relatively short time and there are few – if any – left to relate, at first hand, those dark days following one of the worst mining disasters in the history of the British coalfields.
Even in Wales, where generations of families lived and died within sight, and sound, of the many coal mines that provided work and clothed and fed their families, only the massive loss of life (439) at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly in Glamorgan, eclipsed that of Gresford.
However, that disaster was back in the supposedly less enlightened times of October 1913, when miners’ lives came only second to the ‘black gold’ they extracted that made their masters, the mine owners, very wealthy men.
The final death toll at Gresford was 266, with 262 colliers dying underground – many sadly sealed in their fiery tomb for eternity – together with three rescue workers and a surface worker.
There is often controversy and doubt surrounding the actual number of deaths, but this is because the last victim died several months later.
However, his name was, quite rightly, added to those remembered on the plaque placed for all to see on the Gresford Wheel memorial.
It was ironic that a love of football and dedication to following Wrexham AFC had condemned those to die who changed their shift to enable them to see the home match with Tranmere on the Saturday.
The Third Division North clash of near-neighbours has been long forgotten, but its unfortunate part in the tragedy never will be.
It was therefore fitting that, in 2009, on the 75th anniversary of the disaster, Wrexham AFC paid their own tribute at the home match against Luton Town by remembering the victims of the disaster.
The Gresford Disaster folk ballad was also recited by school children on the pitch before the game. In a very emotional finale, 266 black balloons – one for each life lost – were released into the darkening skies.
I understand also officials from Luton Town attended the match as a mark of respect.
Incidentally, the Reds did their fans, and the mourned miners proud by beating Luton 3-0 in one of their best performances of that season. Emotion and adrenalin can make men mighty!
A long enquiry into the cause of the disaster was set up of course, reports were written, words of condolence were spoken by the leading political figures of the day and a fund for the widows and orphans was put in place.
There were rumours abounding of neglect by the owners, of previous warnings ignored, about gas levels in the mine – the cause of the fatal explosion – and promises of compensation at the end of the enquiry.
Faded papers in a dusty vault pored over by far greater luminaries than I, show little was done, even to help the poor families of the Gresford dead.
It was not until 1982 – nine years after the pit finally closed – that a memorial was created for the lost miners of Gresford following a long and emotional campaign to have them remembered.
This was even more important given any remnant of the colliery had since disappeared under a newly built industrial estate.
Fortunately, one of the pithead winding wheels remained and this was used to great effect as part of the now iconic and well-tended monument at the bottom of Chester Road in the grounds of The Gresford Colliery Club.
To coincide with the 75th Anniversary a new and revealing book, The Gresford Letters: Aftermath of a Disaster – Letters, Love and Loyalty in 1934, was published.
The author, Beverley Tinson, lived locally and first came across the disaster and its story while researching the history of a house on the outskirts of Coedpoeth – a village that was home to many of the miners who worked down the Gresford pit.
Many hundreds of hours of research and reading of manuscripts and letters followed.
Beverley also spoke to the last acting colliery manager at Gresford, Ithel Kelly, and the last surviving widow, Blodwen Bryan, who was 96 at the time.
The result is an invaluable insight into that tragedy in 1934 through the eyes of the people most affected.
Their letters and their words echo down through the 75 years in between and tell us, to quote the line from the folk ballad, The Gresford Disaster, of “the terrible price that was paid”.
I see there are still copies of this fascinating book available online if you search for the title.
Strangely, for such a well-documented piece of industrial and social history I could only find one other publication dedicated to this life-shattering event that still casts a dark shadow in families throughout the Wrexham area.
This book, Gresford: Anatomy of a Disaster by Stanley Williams, was published by Liverpool University Press in 1999 and was a scholarly, well-written and erudite work.
But, no doubt, readers will tell me there have been others and, if so, I should be glad to know.
As far as any musical remembrances are concerned, there are, to my knowledge, three tunes/songs written about the tragedy.
The Gresford Disaster song was written contemporaneously to the event by the legendary folksinger and songwriter, Ewan McColl.
There are many recordings of this piece, although some of the assertions made have since been challenged.
Maybe McColl deserves the benefit of the doubt and we must put the rest down to poetic licence.
Gresford (The Miners Hymn) was written as a brass band tune by former Durham Miner Robert Saint in the 1930s and is still a favourite of brass bands all over Britain.
It was played every year by colliery brass bands at many miners’ galas including, of course, the Durham Miners’ Gala.
The words were added much later, in 1970, by George Leslie Lister but, unfortunately, the composer never heard the finished article as he had died 20 years before.
As a foot note Gresford (The Miners Hymn) was recorded by The Unthanks so passing into the folk tradition too. It was also featured in a book called The Pitmen’s’ Requiem (2010) written by Peter Crookston from the perspective of the
North-East Coalfields and incorporating the life of composer Robert Saint.
Finally, my own tribute, No More Disasters Tonight, was written in 1973 during the pit’s closing down period. The site was finally stabilised, cleared and shut down in November, 1973.
The newspapers, at the time, rightly bemoaned the loss of 800 local jobs as a result of the closure of the Gresford Colliery.
But all I could think of, as I passed that ghostly place late at night, on my way home to Chester from courting my wife in Coedpoeth, was no more men would lose their lives.
The song was recorded by Anthony John Clarke on his album, It’s a Cover Up, and also on my own album, Over the Moors, in 1988.
So, when the clock strikes 11pm on September 22 and, hopefully, you hear the siren sound from the Old Fire Station in Wrexham, spare a minute to reflect on what happened all those years ago and “the terrible price that was paid”.
See full story in the Leader