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The Vigil of a Thousand Deaths

By Josephine.Jasper  |  Posted: September 04, 2013

Actual photograph of the pithead scene at Coombs Wood Colliery in 1929

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Nowadays, Black Country womenfolk are no longer called upon to keep the kind of fearful vigil pictured here. Although time has blurred this harrowing scene, captured by the camera at Coombs Wood Colliery pit head in March 1929, sufficient detail remains to portray the pregnant dread which weighed the hearts of the waiting crowd.

They waited with awful foreboding to learn the fate of husbands and sons, trapped in a fiery prison far below ground. One of that gathering was Mrs May Bannister (pictured with back to camera in bottom right hand corner of the photograph).

Mrs Bannister remembered the dreadful summons which aroused her on that March morning, long ago.

"Gerrup, May! They'm stopped in at Cums'ood."

As she dressed hurriedly, the dream which had earlier disturbed her sleep came back vividly to her. Fire in the pit, licking tongues of flame which raced through dark passages, driving men back and further back until they had nowhere to go. Her husband, Steve, was there!

The terror which had haunted her slumbers was sudden reality, precipitated by that awful summons which every collier's wife and mother dreaded. As she left her cottage in Corngreaves Road, the crowd was already streaming by. White-faced women with anxious expressions, grim-faced men who well knew the constant dangers which attended the miner.

They hurried on in silence with the cold hand of fear clutching at every heart. A few mumbled urgent prayers, hoping against hope for good tidings as they climbed the winding lane to join the sombre crowd at the pit head.

A man informed them.

"They'm in Tum Johnson's Sidin'."

Mrs Bannister's fear welled up, for that was where Steve worked. She saw a familiar face in the crowd - old Mrs Barnsley whose husband, Edwin, worked alongside her Steve. Their eyes met briefly in tacit communication and they drew closer together.

"No news is good news," whispered the older woman, attempting a wan smile.

"Stop with me, Mrs Barnsley," answered the younger woman. "I've had a bad drame an' I'm afeared."

The minutes grew into hours - slow, death-march hours which seemed an age. The crowd split into little groups, each hanging on the words of experienced miners in their midst, listening intently for some word of hope or comfort.

Some wept openly but they were few - for Black Country womenfolk usually learned early in life to put on a brave face.

The low murmur of the crowd was suddenly stilled. Cables moved smoothly over winding gear and the cage doors were opened. A man covered in coal-dust staggered out supporting the front end of a stretcher. On it lay an inert figure. A low gasp escaped the crowd as they saw that the face was covered and the hand which protruded from beneath the blanket flopped limp and lifeless as the stretcher-bearers moved through them.

A hundred hearts missed a beat as that broken-finger-nailed hand moved in rhythm with the stretcher. Fearful eyes searched it for some sign of familiarity. The blanket was drawn back from the face. A name was whispered through the ranks of the watchers. Somewhere a woman sobbed deep in her breast.

"My lad - my poor lad."

Others rushed to comfort her, sympathy and relief vying for facial expression. That harrowing scene was to be repeated seven times before Coombs Wood Colliery yielded the last of its dead.

Steve Bannister was not amongst them. He came to the surface, burned and scarred from long hours of toil in the rescue operation. Old Mrs Barnsley was not so fortunate. Her husband, Edwin was one of the victims of the disaster which added several more names to the long list of Black Country mining widows.

Such was a day in the life of Black Country folk as our coal-mining era was drawing to an end. The industry had played a major role in our economy for more than a century. The toll on human life from the early days to the disaster at Coombs Wood Colliery in 1929 was an accepted part of our mining heritage and played its part in moulding the character and stoicism of a wonderful people.

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