On Wednesday, December 21st 1910, at the Pretoria Pit, Westhoughton, there was an explosion of such severity that the earth tremor was felt for miles around. It was 7.50 am. Of the 345 men and boys who had entered the Yard mine scarcely an hour before, only two survived.
Many of the miners died instantly from the force of the blast, the others were asphyxiated, victims of the deadly gas known as "after damp". It was, at that time, the worst disaster in the history of British mining, and the greatest catastrophe that had ever befallen the little town of Westhoughton.
The life of the community was torn apart by the tragedy; the famous Wingates Temperance Band lost several members, one local football team was left with only three players and the Young Men's Class at the Sacred Heart Church was almost completely wiped out.
Miners from the surrounding districts flocked to the Pretoria to assist in the hazardous task of recovering the bodies. They were constantly threatened by roof falls and the build-up of the deadly gas; one man died and many others were taken to hospital suffering from its effects. The rescue teams worked tirelessly throughout the Christmas period and well into the New Year, anxious to bring home their dead comrades, determined that the pit should not be their tomb.
Most of the bodies were claimed by grieving relatives and taken to their local cemeteries for burial. Some were so badly mutilated that they were only identified by their clothing. The body of a thirteen year old boy, his face torn away by the blast, was recognized by his mother because of the patches she had painstakingly sewn on his shirt the evening before his death. Those who could not be identified were buried in a communal grave in Westhoughton churchyard.
Jane was one of the women whose husband's body could not be identified. Without even the small comfort of a plot of her own to tend, she still made regular pilgrimages to the communal grave and placed flowers on the memorial that had been erected there. Public subscriptions had paid for the memorial and provided finance for the small pension which was paid to the widows and orphans. Jane never remarried and there were no children to lighten the long years of her widowhood. Pregnant at the time of the disaster, the shock had caused a premature birth and Jane's only child was still born.
I first met Jane in the late 1940s, when I was employed as a counter clerk at the local post office. She was then an old age pensioner and although almost forty years had passed since her husband's death, she still wore dark clothes, as though in perpetual mourning. A small, sad wraith of a woman, she was hardly noticed amid the hectic bustle of the post office on pension day - until one particular Thursday morning.
I think that I sensed something odd about her as she thrust her pension book towards me with a half apologetic, yet at the same time, almost defiant gesture. I noticed that the name signed on the counterfoil was not the same as the one printed on the cover and I pointed out her mistake. "It is no mistake" she said quietly. "I shall never use that other name again".
I explained that I was unable to pay the pension unless the two names corresponded, but she steadfastly refused to alter the signature. Behind her an impatient queue of people had formed. I was puzzled and, to be truthful, a little irritated by her behaviour but, as she was obviously distressed, I led her through to the rear of the office to see my supervisor. The Postmaster was a kindly, patient man, well liked by everyone and he drew from her the whole sad story.
The previous day there had been an unexpected visitor at Jane's little terraced cottage. On opening the door, she had found herself face to face with her husband, the man she had thought dead for so long. Having recently recovered from a serious illness, his brush with death had convinced him of the need to clear his conscience. He told Jane that on the morning of the Pretoria disaster he had left for work as usual but, realising that he would be too late for the last winding, that is, the latest time when men could be carried in the cage, he had decided to take the day off. For some months he had been associating with another woman and, hearing of the explosion and its appalling death toll, he seized the opportunity to start a new life with his mistress, leaving Jane to mourn him. Through all the years she had been living out her lonely existence, he had lived happily with this other woman. They had children, grandchildren, and each other. Jane had nothing.
To add to the shock of her husband's deception, there was the realisation that for so many years she had been paid a Pretoria widow's pension, when she was, in fact, a deserted wife. The sum involved was only a pittance, twelve shillings a week, but the guilt lay heavily on Jane. "I feel like a thief", she told the postmaster. "All these years I have been living a lie".
Embittered by her husband's betrayal and overwhelmed by her sense of shame, Jane grew steadily more withdrawn, more neglectful of her own appearance and welfare. Like a fading shadow, she drifted in and out of the post office on pension days, looking more frail with each passing week. Shortly afterwards she died, of "natural causes" it was said, but those who knew her story felt that she was another victim of the Pretoria Pit disaster almost four decades after the explosion.
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