Mining disaster remembered, 150 years on
Michael Cash shouted out to his workmates, after swinging his pick into the coal face about nine o'clock in the morning.
"Come and look at the River Dee," he said, as water began to trickle out of the rock.
But as the trickle turned first into a stream, and then into a full-scale flood, the enormity of the situation quickly dawned on the men working the deep seam shaft at Pelsall Hall colliery.
A service was held yesterday to mark the 150th anniversary of Pelsall's worst disaster yesterday, which claimed the lives of 22 boys and men, the youngest being just 13 years old. The ceremony, organised by the Rev Alison Morris, was held around the memorial in the grounds of St Michael and All Angel's Church.
Also in attendance were the Mayor of Walsall, Councillor Rose Martin, and Sim Mayou, a Second World War veteran who has been commemorating the disaster for many years.
A wreath and 22 mixed-colour carnations, representing each of the miners killed, were laid at the memorial, and pupils from St Michael and All Angels CE Primary School, Pelsall Village School and Ryders Hayes Primary School all took part.
The flood was caused by water that had accumulated in the old workings of an abandoned mine, and when Cash swung his pick at the coal face, he unleashed what would quickly become a terrible torrent.
The working day had begun three hours earlier when 50 men were lowered down to work at 6am. About 20 of them had just headed back up for breakfast when Cash unwittingly allowed the water in. As the tunnels flooded, those lucky miners sat on the bank above heard an alarming cry from the bottom of the 60ft shaft: “Lower the cage or we shall all be drowned!” Charles Starkey, manager of the mine, and three other men, descended into the shaft where they encountered a mass swirling of water.
"Eight or nine men had barely time to cling to it before the water was up to their necks," said a report.
These colliers had been nearest to the shaft and were able to save themselves, in some cases by swimming. One man in particular had a remarkable escape, clinging to a ladder, he was carried along underground for a quarter of a mile by the rush of water and ‘when dragged up by his fellows, he was insensible’.
A roll call revealed 22 men and boys still in the mine, and frantic calls down the shaft received no response.
By this time the water level had risen by 28ft, covering the inlet and ruling out any early rescue attempts.
It soon became evident none of the men had survived. The body of Michael Cash, the man who had unwittingly unleashed the torrent, was found six days later, entangled in a harness, and his arm around one of the support timbers as he had been swept away by the rushing waters. His 19-year-old son Charles also perished, but Cash's other two sons Joseph and Isaac survived.