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Last updated:27 April 2015

Pretoria Pit disaster - the centenary commemorated

It is 100 years since that fateful day in 1910, in Westhoughton, when 344 men and boys were killed in the worst Pit Disaster up to that time. The town of Westhoughton held commemorative events of which each was 5 years in the planning.

Pretoria Pit disaster posterThose involved with holding events were the local Council, History Society, Libraries and schools. The planning groups also had representation from all local denominations, the community at large, and music and recreational societies.

The lead up to the anniversary date was supported by a series of talks in Westhoughton and Bolton Libraries, given by local historians, library and museum staff. About the disaster and related topics. A commemorative CD was produced by Wingates Brass Band, who at the time experienced a great loss of members. Books have also been written, a sculpture created and a mural painted. All these items are on public display.

As visitors descended on Westhoughton for the very special Centenary Memorial Service, coming from as far away as America and Canada, they were welcomed on the evening before at a “Lancashire evening” featuring local musicians and personalities. This was a convivial occasion with comedy and song, but emphasis was placed on the fact that the next day would be of a very different nature.

On Tuesday 21 December 2010 the day started with a very powerful and emotive sound. At 7.50am precisely, the time of the original explosion, Westhoughton woke up to the amplified sound of a huge bang. A controlled explosion near the site of the original pit shaft.

Some of the victims of the 1910 Pretoria Pit Disaster

Some of the victims of the 1910 Pretoria Pit Disaster

The Commemorative Memorial service was held at St. Bartholomew’s Church. The public had been able to apply for tickets for entrance to the church, or the local school hall where the service was to be relayed. On arrival people were invited to take a small piece of coal from a basket offered by local school children, as a sign of respect. The service, which had taken place annually, was packed out with people wishing to remember.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, local inter denominational clergy, the Town Mayor Mr. Brian Clare other local town mayors and councillors attended, along with relatives and the public. The moving service included hymns, poems, songs and prayers. All the names of those who died were read out and a candle lit in their name. It concluded at the local memorial.

The afternoon continued with an exhibition at the local library with contributions from local schools, history societies, Wingates Band and the Libraries and Museum. The Mural was also unveiled in the Carnegie Hall in the Library.

All this took place on a very cold day, with deep snow and ice on the ground. A fitting reminder of what those people left behind experienced as they waited for news of loved ones.

Sue and Cliff Stockton

Note: images of the victims of the disaster are taken from: 344 Victims of Pretoria Pit - some facts, compiled by Pam Clarke for Westhougthon Local History Group - see lan-opc.org.uk/Westhoughton/Pretoria/index.html for more information about the disaster

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