Pretoria disaster remembered

Tony Hogan at the memorial
Tony Hogan at the memorial

IT was one of the darkest days in the history of an industry often blighted by fatalities.

No fewer than 344 men and boys – many from the Wigan area – died when a methane fireball engulfed the massive Pretoria Pit galleries deep underground.

Now a community that is committed to never to forgetting this sacrifice to keeping the lights and home fires burning, is preparing to mark the 113th anniversary of the disaster on Saturday December 21.

Today there is little sign of the massive mine, whose pit head gantries once strode the land between Atherton and Westhoughton.

But four years ago volunteers marshalled by Atherton Forum raised enough money for a more striking symbol of the price many have paid to provide the industrial revolution with coal.

It is known that 23 of the victims were from Atherton itself. MP Julie Hilling unveiled engraved stones at the heart of a new memorial wood.

They now carry the names and ages of all 350 victims killed in the catastrophic blast.

The campaign for the stones and their successful placing had been a two-year labour of love and remembrance for Tony Hogan of Atherton, an ex-Parsonage Pit face worker and great-grandson of pit blast victim John Austin.

The work was funded by Lancashire Area National Union of Mineworkers which maintains an office in Holden Street Leigh to this day, along with the Co-operative Funeral Care, Abbey Funeral Care, Peel Holdings and Viridor Credits, landscaper David Partington, the Bridgers community group and even a well-supported charity football competition.

He also received support from Philip Harrison Ornamental Ironworks which constructed the memorial garden gates at cost price.

The existing earlier memorial plaque, erected in 1976 by former Wigan MP Roger Stott, is in a field just inside the Bolton borough boundary at the top of Upton Road/Broadway in Atherton.

The actual pithead formerly stood half a mile away, further to the west.

Campaigners were also concerned that the two capped shafts next to the plaque – but which actually provided access to an entirely different colliery system - could cause confusion.

Now the community is preparing to again mark this tragic day with a service at the new Pit Disaster Centenary Memorial in Ditchfield Gardens off Market Street in Westhoughton. Maroons will be fired at 7.50am...the exact moment, it is recorded that the explosion was heard and felt.

This will be followed by a service at 10am at the Parish Church of St Bartholomew, along with the laying of wreaths at the Pretoria Pit monument. A spokesman said: “This coal mining disaster, just on the outskirts of Atherton, is the third worst of its kind in British history, and the death toll on that bleak day was even larger than our town’s loss of men in World War I.

“The incident must have had a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of people living in the area, not least on the many wives, sons and daughters, not to mention other close relatives, sweethearts and friends, all of whom no doubt, would have been preparing for the Christmas festivities as we are currently doing.”

On that fateful day in 1910, more than 900 of the 2,500 workers employed by the Hulton Colliery Company arrived for the day shift, working five coal seams of the Manchester Coalfield.

The fatal explosion was in the Plodder Mine, which was thought to have been caused by an accumulation of gas from a roof collapse the previous day, would claim all but four of the shift.