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The tragedy at the well of
Brierley Hill's Old Bell tavern

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: December 16, 2004

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A few weeks ago, we recounted the daring rescue in January 1933 of a fox terrier called Peter, trapped in a disused mine shaft in Pensnett, by a Tansey Green man, Harold Whittingslow. After risking life and limb to descend hundreds of feet underground to save the hapless dog, Harold was awarded medals by both the R.S.P.C.A. and the National Canine Defence League for his courage.

We have now been contacted by another grandson of Harold, Melvyn Whittingslow of Tennyson Street in Pensnett, who reveals that such fearless acts of bravery seem to run in the Whittingslow family. He has kindly supplied us with a newspaper report from 1886 concerning Harold's great-great-grandfather, John Whittingslow, taken from the earlier journal of a local reporter, Clulow.

With seams of more than thirty feet thick, Brierley Hill was long famed for the abundance of coal in the area. Mined in the vicinity at least since the reign of Edward III, the Industrial Revolution gave the industry new impetus, and by the nineteenth century the township was ringed by pits, among them the Delph, Ashtree, Belleisle, Springfield, Cricketfield, Higharcal, Turner's Lane and Saltwells Collieries. The men who toiled here were hard-working and hard-drinking, heading straight to the nearest watering-hole as soon as they had "knocked off" in order to relax and replenish the fluid they had lost working underground.

One of the favourite pubs among the colliers was the Old Bell, at 7 Bell Street in the heart of Brierley Hill. Nestling in the shadow of St. Michael's Church, it was noted for its beer, which was drunk in great quantities by the thirsty miners. Not surprisingly, disturbances among the sooty clientele were common. They could usually be defused by the landlord or more peaceable pals, but in 1836 what started as a petty argument was to have tragic consequences.

Two local miners, Barker and Bagley, were drinking in the Old Bell in the company of their "doggy", or pit deputy, Dick Steadman. As the night wore on and the pints went down, tempers began to rise. Inflamed by alcohol, Barker and Bagley began to quarrel, until Barker challenged his erstwhile friend, "If you'll come out of doors I'll knock thee to hell in a minute." The two miners agreed to fight it out, and immediately left the pub, little thinking that they were going to their deaths.

The second they were outside, the two former pals set to. This was no gentlemanly display of the pugilistic arts, but a real brawl. Punches were thrown, kicks directed and eyes gouged. After one round, the two panting protagonists took a short break, before closing in on one another once more.

Whether through excitement, the darkness of the night - it was after eleven o'clock by this time - or sheer forgetfulness, the two men edged closer to their deaths: for yawning just a few feet away from them was the mouth of a well, around ninety feet deep, which had only recently been excavated at the front of the pub. As the two men struggled, they unwittingly moved closer and closer to the hidden menace. Suddenly, as they continued pummelling each other, they were on the very verge, and an instant later the two men had fallen.

The rescue attempt was made by another collier, John Whittingslow, Harold's ancestor. Although John was living in Brockmoor by this time, his family lived in the immediate vicinity, and it is possible that he was called from his father's house in nearby Chapel Street. John was lowered on a rope down the well, but when he came back to the surface it became clear that the attempt had come too late. The two men must have drowned almost immediately, for John was holding the body of one of them, and later went down to retrieve the other.

Divided in life, the two miners had gone to their deaths together. The two men were fittingly buried in the same grave at St. Michael's churchyard, a mere stone's throw from the scene of their tragic deaths.

Around forty years later, John Whittingslow emigrated to the United States, settling in Colchester, Illinois. There are now representatives of the Whittingslow clan all over America, including California, Texas and Florida. Separated by the years as well as miles, the family are nevertheless still rightly proud of their forebear's brave but grim act that night over 150 years ago.

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