Hednesford Mines Rescue Station
By Mick Drury
The large number of mining fatalities throughout the country at the turn of the 19th century forced the government to induce law for the establishment of mines rescue stations. In 1912 the Cannock Chase Coal Owners Association sub-leased the redundant gasworks site in Victoria Street Hednesford from the Marquis of Anglesey for 99 years.
The rescue station was then opened for training and call-outs in 1913. Volunteer colliers were trained in first aid and the use of self contained and other breathing apparatus so that they could be summoned to any incident or disaster at local and nearby county mines. They truly became a ‘Band of Brothers’ who were to attend many underground incidents putting their skills to very rigorous and dangerous situations. They attended underground fires when there was always the foreboding knowledge that there could be an explosion of gas (methane). They were on occasions brought in to retrieve bodies from various incidents in the pit. For their dedication and their efforts to help fellow miners in trouble and make collieries safe they were paid on a sliding scale.
The main apparatus used until the 1970’s was the Siebe Gorman Proto apparatus. A two-hour unit that was improved over many years but was always cumbersome to work in and whilst it was being used the rescue-mans apparatus became very hot. This was a very unpleasant situation to work in, but training taught them not to take out the mouthpiece or remove the nose-clip in an atmosphere that could kill in seconds if the amount of carbon monoxide was sufficient. In this atmosphere roadways and face lines would have to be sealed by stoppings of about 5 yards thickness, all done by forming a dry stone wall and filling it by shovelling loose dirt in. This could take many hours and a succession of 6 man rescue teams.
So good were the Hednesford men and their Superintendent Joss Payton, who was rated very highly by Professor John Cadman at Birmingham University, that during WW1 a team were sent to Porton Down Experimental Station to stand in a flow of Chlorine gas to test the Proto apparatus. Following this a Team of Royal Engineers were sent to train in the use the apparatus at Hednesford Rescue Station, no doubt to prepare them for work as a tunnelling troop in the trenches of France where the German army were known to use this gas.
The training and incidents were ever present but one very notable event in October 1930 was when the Rescue Service was called to traverse the destroyed roadways and bring out 14 bodies following explosion on the afternoon shift at Wyrley Grove Colliery. This was to be followed in May 1933 by an explosion at West Cannock No. 5 Colliery when 6 men lost their lives. Once more the Rescue Service from Hednesford was called upon to find and bring out the bodies.
Notable call-outs of the Hednesford Rescue Service.
One of the many National incidents that the Hednesford Mines Rescue was called upon to help followed the accidental sinking of the submarine ‘Thetis’ in Liverpool bay on 1st June 1939. In November a team of six men, from various Cannock Chase collieries, was taken to Holyhead, North Wales, where the vessel had been put into dry dock. Using Proto 2 hour breathing apparatus, and working in very cramped and narrow areas, they retrieved the 25 bodies that were entombed in the submarine. The team was chosen because of their experience in using this form of self-contained breathing apparatus.
During WW2 the station was set up to deal with emergencies and training for events brought about by the conflict such as coping with the effects of war gas, incendiary bombs and high explosives. The station became a fire station for the Auxiliary Fire Service to which the rescue instructors and some rescue men became firemen. Throughout the war the station continued to be on call for numerous incidents below ground at various collieries, never failing to complete any task asked of them.
Nationalization of the industry in January 1947 enabled many improvements to be made to the station, its team of superintendents and instructors. Not only did the station cope with colliery emergencies they even sent out a team in 1964 to Lichfield Cathedral to inspect an underground chamber that archaeologists had exposed and who nearly become overcome by noxious gas, it turned out to be an ancient sewage tunnel!
In 1965 they helped effect rescue work when a Wolverhampton furniture shop collapsed and killed two people.
On the lease expiring on the Victoria Street premises in 1972 the station was transferred to the pithead baths at the closed Valley Colliery. Shortly afterwards another first for the station was the forming of the first ever mines rescue diving team, formed to enable a team to traverse flooded underground roadways. In March of 1973 the team were called to the flooded Lofthouse Colliery in Yorkshire. After several attempts over some days to travel the water and sludge filled roadways it was decided that it was an impossible task and the team were brought home but received many accolades from within the industry. After seeing the benefit of such a team the National Coal Board trained teams at other stations. The Hednesford rescue Station was eventually closed in 1991 after 78 years of service to the coal industry and other catastrophes.
The Officers of the Hednesford Rescue Station in the 1960’s.
Left to right - Jan Magulski, Ray Wall, Jack Craner, Don Wood, Bill Bainbridge and Ray Hartshorne.
Jos Payton (in Plus Fours) at Porton Down
Rescue Practice at the swimming baths
The Thetis Rescue Team with a Naval Officer
Certificate of rescue training