THROUGH THE ARCHIVES: Armagh man among trapped miners at Whitehaven pit

From the News Letter, August 19, 1947

Thursday, 19th August 2021, 9:56 am
Rescue workers bring a body to the surface at Whitehaven pit where an explosion trapped 15 miners underground in August 1947. Picture: PA
Rescue workers bring a body to the surface at Whitehaven pit where an explosion trapped 15 miners underground in August 1947. Picture: PA

Thomas Nelson, native A of Armagh, was among the miners trapped in the Whitehaven, Cumberland, coal pit, reported the News Letter on this day in 1947.

Late the previous night 98 bodies had been recovered and 75 had been brought to the surface.

It was not known whether Nelson was among the six miners still missing.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Workers at Whitehaven, Cumbria, where an explosion has trapped miners in the undersea workings of the Lowca No 10 pit in August 1947. Picture: PA

Nelsone, who was a “Bevin Boy”, had been in England since 1940. He was married, with two children. He had five brothers, all residing in Armagh, and three married sisters.

RAF DOGS

It was decided to obtain the services of specially trained dogs which were used in the air raids to locate persons buried under debris. The RAF offered to services of two dogs and their trainers travelled from Liverpool to Whitehaven.

Miners and Coal Board officers hoped that the dogs would enable them to determine quickly whether any bodies were buried under falls.

General view of Whitehaven the Cumbrian town which was the focus on a mining disaster in August 1947. Picture: PA

A Coal Board official said that, to his knowledge, it would be the first time dogs had been used down a mine. He pointed out that both the trainers would have to be “briefed” before they could go down and the result of their work would not be known before that morning.

INQUEST OPENED

The inquest on 66 of the victims of the disaster had been opened the previous day at the Magistrates’ Court which was about half a mile away from the colliery and adjourned until September 9. Only the evidence of identification was taken.

Mr J A A Thompson, assistant area general manager for the Coal Board, said that everything reasonable within the power of the Coal Board to help the victims would be done.

The Coroner, Colonel Mason, praised the rescue workers, said: “In times like these we see our fellow-countrymen at their best.”

Rescue work with apparatus which had been suspended during the Sunday night to give the workers a much needed rest, was resume the previous morning and additional teams of trained men arrived from other districts.

Money found on the men – in some cases their week’s pay packet received just before they went down the pit – were handed to relatives together with personal belongings. The appeal fund had reached £306.

The first funeral were to be held that day.

The three men who saved themselves by staying in a “drift” had got home from hospital. And it was possible, the previous day, to piece together the story of their dramatic escape. If the 36 men they tried to persuade to accompany them after the explosion had agreed there might not have been a living man left in the pits.

The men did not realise their haven for so many hours was to be a little space at the end of a “drift” where the available oxygen was scarcely sufficient for three. They did realise, however, the need for their lying still to conserve the oxygen and even put out the minute flame of their lamp so that the good air would last.

GUIDED BY LAMP

When at last they considered they might move they set out not only guided by the illumination from the lamp but also depending on its reaction to the atmosphere. Several times the flame showed the warning blue colour indicating gas and the men retraced their steps to try another avenue of escape until finally they made their way safety.

[According to the Northern Mine Research Society (https://www.nmrs.org.uk/), Nelson was one of the victims of the disaster, he was aged 36 when he died]