1930s >> 1936 >> no-385-september-1936

The Mining Disaster

Once again an English mining town has been stricken by a tragic disaster, this time Barnsley. In the early hours of Friday, August 7th, at the Wharncliffe, Woodmoor Colliery, occurred one of the worst explosions this country has known.
Fifty-eight men who had gone down the mine to work returned—but to the mortuary: their bodies twisted and battered beyond recognition. The wives, children and dependants who gathered at the pithead had one—though pitiful —consolation: death was swift. Unlike many previous disasters, the victims were not buried alive for days to suffer the tortures of lingering deaths.

There is hardly a year in which there is not a big disaster or series of accidents in the mines. They have come to be taken for granted. The miners accept the risk they run, inevitably, as men who have to earn their daily bread. They receive neither medals nor decorations, which such risks would bring in other spheres. Rather, their earnings are almost the lowest among organised workers.

Can mining be made safe, or safer, so that the risk of the loss of life through accidents may become non-existent or at least very much reduced? Responsible and professional opinion says that it can, as the following from the Daily Telegraph (July 29th) shows. Reporting the proceedings of the Royal Commission on Safety in Coal Mines, sitting at Caxton Hall, Westminster, the evidence of Mr. Arthur Roberts, President of the Colliery Under-Managers of Great Britain, is given as follows: —

 If the provisions of the Coal Mines Act, with the accompanying regulations and orders, were consistently carried out by all the parties concerned, he said, there would be a big drop in the accident rate. This particularly applied to accidents caused by falls of roof and sides, haulage and machinery.

And again, the evidence of a Government inspector in the same newspaper on the same day:—

  Nearly half the colliery accidents in the North-Western Division last year could have been avoided, states the Divisional Inspector of Mines, Mr. W. J. Charlton, in his report issued yesterday.
He reports that 99 persons were killed and 322 injured during the year in the division, which contains the coalfields of Lancashire and Cheshire, North Staffs and North Wales.
Falls of ground accounted for 54 of the deaths, and Mr. Charlton calls attention to the “disturbing increase” in the number of accidents from falls of side at the working face.

Here is opinion from two independent and opposing sources that mining could at least have been made safer to the extent that nearly fifty per cent. of the accidents in a certain period could have been avoided if “the provisions of the Coal Mines Act” had been “carried out.” Why were they not carried out? It is doubtful whether that question will be heard outside a Royal Commission of Inquiry. It is a measure of the ethical standards of capitalism that the complete resources of its scientifically equipped police force, supported by immense funds, would be set in motion to track down an homicidal maniac, yet expert opinion, which says that negligence has caused workers’ deaths, is just quietly reported. There are no screaming headlines; no Scotland Yard sleuths to fix culpability for the slaughter.

It has often been argued that the cost of making some mines safe is prohibitive; that the result would be less profits and the inability to compete with fellow-capitalists in the markets, or no profits. Mark this, fellow-workers in the mines: Profits—but twisted and battered bodies and widows and fatherless children. No profits or less profits and less of these appalling and tragic “visitations from God”—which? If the choice were between these two simple alternatives then capitalism would choose—the first.


That is the tragedy.


When society is organised to produce things for use only, instead of for profit, then will risk to life in daily work be reduced to its minimum, and human life, health and well-being, be looked upon as society’s first duty.


Harry Waite