South Bristol’s biggest single mining disaster should have a public memorial, a city councillor has stated, to recognise and highlight the area’s mining history.
Ten men and boys were killed in an explosion at the Dean Lane colliery on September 10, 1886, and a bandstand erected in memory of those who died was destroyed by fire decades ago and never replaced.
Now Cllr Tony Dyer, whose great uncle worked down the Bedminster and Ashton coal mines, is calling for more of the area’s mining heritage to be recognised and highlighted, after conducting his own in-depth research into the mines on which South Bristol was created.
The story of mining in Bedminster, and the Dean Lane pit disaster, is the subject of the latest talk in the South Bristol History Festival series, being run by the Bristol Radical History Society, and three of South Bristol’s local councillors, Kerry Bailes, Christine Townsend and Tony Dyer. Tony’s talk on the mines takes place on Tuesday (Oct 4) at 2pm at Bedminster Library, and is free for everyone.
He said people living in the Southville, Ashton and Bedminster area now may well have no idea that the area was once full of coal mines, with as many as 25 mines in just the small BS3 area.
The first mineshaft was sunk in 1748 at South Liberty Lane in Ashton Vale, when mining experts and entrepreneurs persuaded the family who owned all the fields from there to Bedminster Bridge – the Smyth family at Ashton Court – that there was coal underneath the ground. At its heyday in the middle of the 19th century, there were as many as 25 different pitheads all around Bedminster, Southville and Ashton Gate, and the last one to close, in 1925, was ironically the first to open.
Little is left of the area’s extensive mining heritage – apart from two local pub names, the Miners Arms on Bedminster Down Road and the Jolly Colliers on West Street, and a small information board in Dame Emily Park, the park created on top of what was the Dean Lane pithead.
Cllr Dyer’s research has discovered that as many as 150 men were killed in various mining disasters in South Bristol during that time – and that figure could be even higher, because fatal incidents weren’t routinely recorded before the latter part of the 19th century. The single worst disaster happened at the Dean Lane pit on September 10, 1886.
“The men went to work that day, a Friday, not in a great mood because the day before there had been an explosion and a young lad had been killed,” said Cllr Dyer. “They were worried because they thought the supervisors were not checking for gas thoroughly enough.”
Their fears were tragically prophetic. A naked flame triggered an explosion of methane gas, known as firedamp, and eight miners were killed in the blast, or suffocated down below as the explosion used up all the oxygen. Two miners were dragged out of the mineshaft and died the next day, and around ten other miners suffered serious injury.
One of those who was killed was the banksman, aged just 16, who was killed when the lift was sent hurtling up the shaft by the explosion, and then fell back down on top of him.
“Even though the Davy safety lamp had been invented 70 years earlier, they weren’t required to use them, the mine owners weren’t strict on safety, and the miners themselves didn’t like to use them,” said Cllr Dyer. “They weren’t as bright as a naked flame candle or lamp and the miners viewed their greatest risk being falling rocks or a collapse, so they wanted to be able to see the state of the rocks around them better.
“It was hard, dangerous work. The Bedminster coal seams were as little as a foot wide, and the mine owners didn’t want to go to the expense of creating big enough tunnels to work in, so the men were lying down in these narrow cramped cracks, pretty much naked because it was up to 90degF in there,” said Cllr Dyer.
“The scale of the mines was something else. If you stand on the Clifton Suspension Bridge and look down to the river, it’s about a 250ft drop. The deepest mineshaft was the Argus mine, between West Street and the railway line in Bedminster, and that was ten times the drop, which is quite incredible,” he added. “What’s also interesting is that pretty much all of the coal mined in Bedminster stayed in Bedminster – it would have gone nearby to the foundries and the smelting works. It’s what fuelled Bedminster’s growth to what would have, on its own, been a big town of 83,000 people.
“But there is hardly anything left around to show or tell that story,” said Cllr Dyer. “I would like to see something in Dame Emily Park as a memorial to the ten who were killed in September 1886. When the pit closed and the park was created, they put a massive concrete slab over the pithead, and then put a bandstand on that, in the centre of the park, and the bandstand was a memorial to all the men who were killed there. But, as far as I can make out, the bandstand caught fire and burned down at some point, and was never replaced.
“I would also like to see some marker or plaque at each of the other mine sites too,” he added. “There were literally mines everywhere. There was one next to the Spotted Cow pub on North Street, another in what is now the car park of the Ashville pub in Ashton Gate, and at the stadium itself, what is now Wedlock Way and where the Atyeo statue is at the entrance to the stadium, that was Newlands Mine. It’s part of our history,” he added.
Mining in Bedminster and the Dean Lane pit disaster is at Bedminster Library on Tuesday, October 4 at 2pm.
For more information about the South Bristol History Festival, visit the website here.
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