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1938 Markham Colliery Disaster - On Record!

Posted Thursday, June 7, 2007

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Records of Disaster – Markham Colliery 1938 (Reflections Magazine 2001)

`A valuable resource-base of referenced information which is available to all'

The Derbyshire Records Office based in Matlock provides an invaluable repository and documentary archive for storing and preserving detailed information about the social history of the area, and as such it serves the dual purpose of safeguarding our documented heritage – and provides a valuable resource base of referenced information which is available to all.

Recently the Records Office acquired and archived the records of the 1938 Markham Colliery Disaster Fund which was finally wound up following the death of the last recipient widow; the final payment being made for funeral expenses in March 2001, sixty three years after the Disaster Fund was launched in September 1938.

Coincidentally, the receipt of the Disaster Fund archive also marked the tenth anniversary of the final closure of Markham Colliery after 112 years of production, and brought to an end a history of coal mining in North Derbyshire which had existed for centuries.

Public access to the valuable archive allows a glimpse at the facts and figures of the disaster, but further research reveals an insight into the scale of the human tragedy which befell the local coal-mining community on that fateful morning sixty seven years ago.

The 1938 Disaster

There were 171 men working underground on the night shift of 10th May 1938, when an explosion in the Blackshale Seam at Markham Number One Colliery at 5-32am killed seventy nine men and severely injured forty others. The tragedy ripped the heart out of the closely knit coal mining village of Duckmanton, bringing it to its knees and claiming the lives of twenty four men of the village, including John Henry Bradford, a coal-face `ripper’ of North Crescent and nine of his workmates from the same street, including a father and his two sons who worked together and died together side by side.

But the resilience of the village and its strong methodist community was remarkable, a fact to which the recently refurbished Duckmanton Methodist Church bears testimony, for within days the villagers had erected a `temporary’ chapel to provide a focus and meeting place for both prayers and consolation in the aftermath of the disaster. But the local school was bombed during the war and the `temporary’ methodist chapel doubled as a classroom until the school re-opened, thus earning itself a reprieve. The building provided a focus for the community and become an integral part of village life, and the splendid Duckmanton Methodist Church of today thus owes it’s existence directly to the Markham Colliery Disaster of 1938.

Disaster does not descriminate, and also amongst the dead was 22 year old haulage hand, Bobby Wood from Old Whittington, who a few weeks before had celebrated his engagement to be married; another sad victim was young Salvation Army band-leader Alf Lamb from Staveley, whose newly-widowed wife gave birth to their first and only child two days after the disaster.

The seventy nine men left bereaved sixty two widows, eighty three fatherless children and other dependents, and the unprecedented scale of the disaster was such that an appeal for funds was immediately launched, led by the Mayor of Chesterfield, Ald. H. Hatton.

This was a time before union control and the stricter and safer working practice which came into being following the foundation of the N.U.M. seven years later, on January 1st 1945; the coal industry wasn’t nationalised until 1947 and at the time of the disaster all the pits were privately owned.

In fact, the Markham Disaster of 1938 was the catalyst which led to the foundation of both organisations, for it was set against a background of militancy in the coal mines which had smouldered and occasionally flared up since the General Strike of 1926.

Underground working conditions and locomotion were still relatively primitive compared to modern mining methods, and canaries in cages were still used to detect gas, whilst pit ponies did the work of the later deisel powered machines. Fatal accidents were commonplace and there was no guaranteed compensation for loss and scant insurance cover for injury.

Thus the miners had little protection from either a national union or from the government, and the conditions of employment at the time made the Markham Disaster Fund a vital and valuable necessity.

The Derbyshire Mineworkers Union had been formed in 1887 following the opening up of a number of shafts along the Brimington Anticline, a rich coal seam running south from Staveley through Brimington and Calow towards the Vale of Scarsdale.

In 1882 the Staveley Company owned by Charles Markham leased five thousand acres of coal reserves on the Sutton Estate from William Arkwright, and by 1885 the new Sutton Estate Colliery, later named Markham Number One, was in full production. A year later, in 1886 a new shaft was sunk into the Deep Softs or Clay Cross Softs seam at a depth of 1,512 feet and this colliery became known as Markham Number Two.

The Staveley Company had built a number of colliery villages to house the workforce at places like Duckmanton, Staveley, Arkwright, Warsop, Barrow Hill and Poolsbrook. The house went with the job and the Staveley Company openly encouraged non-unionism; company regulations stated that men could and would be evicted from their homes if they went on strike or opposed the Company by breaking any of its rules.

This was the general policy throughout the coalfields, except in South Wales where many of the mines were council owned, and thus the miners lived in council houses and were protected from the threat of eviction.

The industry had been in decline during the inter-war years, the price of coal had slumped and jobs were at a premium, all of which gave the mine owners the whip hand. But following the birth of the Labour Party and the upsurge in Unionism, small pockets of union militancy developed in the Derbyshire coalfields and talk of strike action was rife. Initially those who went on strike in the battle against the private owners and lost their jobs and their homes, simply went to another private colliery - until the colliery owners got together in an attempt to weed out the militants. They formed a list of the names of the sacked militants, and if a man’s name was on the list he was refused employment, this is believed to be the origin of the term `blacklist’.

The mood of the miners towards militancy and unionism was exacerbated at Markham in 1937 when an explosion in the same Blackshale seam resulted in the loss of nine lives.

The disaster of May 10th 1938 was caused by an explosion when a runaway tub-train ran off the rails and damaged a power cable and the sparks ignited the subsequent cloud of coal-dust. By September the Disaster Fund appeal launched as a joint venture by Chesterfield Borough Council and Staveley Urban District Council had raised a total of almost £31,000 and even the Royal Family is recorded as having made a donation.

The Sheffield Telegraph & Associated Newspapers also launched an appeal which raised a magnificent £19,600, and a George Formby concert in Chesterfield raised another £238 swelling the grand total to £51,694.

The fund enabled grants of money to be paid to widows and dependents for funeral expenses, for childrens educational purposes, and also to the injured in compensation. Each year it paid a special Christmas Allowance to all the bereaved families, and also recorded are payments for Marriage Allowance, education grants, and funeral grants for every disaster widow, until the final one for 95 year old Jane Bradford, widow of John Henry Bradford of North Crescent, Duckmanton, sixty three years later.

The outbreak of the war in 1939 quelled the surge towards unionism when the Government took control of the coal industry as it had done during the first world war. But the seeds were sown, and the National Union of Mineworkers was born as the war ended in 1945, and the shortage of manpower in the coal industry forced the mine owners to allow unions to flourish without discrimination. Underground working conditions and safety records improved rapidly along with the social conditions of the miners after the industry was nationalised and the National Coal Board came into being in 1947. The coal miners now had the protection of the Union and the safety net of the government, but it was too late to catch the 79 men of Markham Colliery who had perished a decade earlier; too late to provide the protection of compensation to the sixty two widows, eighty three fatherless children and seventy bereaved families who suffered as a result of the 1938 tragedy at Markham. That was left to the Markham Disaster Fund Appeal and to the response of the Derbyshire and South Yorkshire public, whose generosity is now preserved forever, along with the rest of our documented heritage, and available to all at the Derbyshire Records Office.

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