As a young, ten year old boy in Longtown in 1958, Gordon Routledge knew the Wellington mine disaster as a personal tragedy, even though it had happened almost half a century earlier. His great grandmother, Sarah Lambert, 86 at the time, recalled, with the vividness of remembered loss, receiving the sequence of three fateful telegrams that told of the death of her brother James Kennedy in the Wellington Pit Disaster.
The first telegram sent by her brother-in-law, William Hill, was telegraphed from Workington at 9.30 on 12th May, 1910. It said: “Pit on fire. James down. No hope of saving the men.”
The second telegram was briefer: “William, Whitehaven, not found yet. Letter following.” Her brother and cousin were lost.
The third telegram was sent on 13th May by Sarah herself, after she had travelled to Whitehaven. It spelled out the totality of the disaster in seven words: “No rescue hopeless case no men saved”.
Two men, J H Thorn and James Littlewood walked the five thousand yards beneath the earth towards the site of the explosion. Donning breathing apparatus they struggled through the heat and dense smoke to approach another furlong. “The heat was terrific, simply infernal.” The men kept inching forward until “the name plates on their helmets completely melted and fell off and their legs were badly scorched.” They were forced to turn back.
When they returned the inevitable decision was made to abandon all rescue attempts. A wall two feet thick was built across the main roadway.
The newspaper headlines said all that was necessary: “Terrible Colliery Disaster at Whitehaven: 136miners entombed in Wellington Pit. Pathetic scenes.”
There was great distress. Relatives gathered in the Market Square and at the pit gates demanding that a rescue be attempted and the police sought to quieten the crowds as they waited for the officials to decide.
On the Saturday, Lord Lonsdale arrived by special train from London and immediately decided to go down the mine with the manager and the Chief Constable. “When they returned they were gasping for breath. ‘It was terrible down there,’ said Lord Lonsdale. ‘We did not go far, but we soon experienced the poisonous fumes. No one could live down there. It’s an inferno. Poor fellows! Poor fellows!’”
The men were accustomed to work in teams of three, cutting and transporting the coal. Many of these teams were made up of relatives, father and sons or three bothers. John Reed was killed with his two sons as was Henry McClusky and three brothers were lost from each of the Taggart, Brannon and McCourt families. Seven members of the McAllister family perished, including a father, two sons and two nephews.
There was hardly a family in Whitehaven and the surrounding area that was not directly affected. “W J Dunn of Middle Row, Newhouses, aged 21, had lived with his parents and was due to be married to Miss Anderson of Bentincks Row.” Daniel Branch was waiting to be married. James McClusky had been married for eleven days. There is a doleful litany in their wasted lives.
It is now over a hundred years since the explosion at the Wellington Pit. Throughout his life, Gordon Routledge has found those three worn and fragile telegrams a constant reminder of a personal tragedy that has been felt down the generations.
In this book, he tells the story of the Wellington Pit disaster in great detail, drawing on newspaper reports and the official enquiries, quoting at length, almost as though he is experiencing the tragedy for the first time. Each person who died is recalled with reverence and a photograph, grey and faded, serves as a memorial to each of the men who remained entombed beneath the waters of the Solway.