Double tragedy casts shadow over Christmas

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Black Christmas when two terrible tragedies in the region claimed hundreds of lives on the eve of the festive season, plunging whole communities into grief

When the Lancashire Daily Post reappeared on the streets after the festive break of 1910 the editorial spoke of a ‘Calamity Christmas’ that would live long in the memory, writes local historian Keith Johnson.

The week prior to Christmas had certainly been a traumatic one, with the headline on the Wednesday before Christmas being ‘300 Miners Entombed’ following a pit explosion at 8am that day, at the Hulton Colliery in Westhoughton, near Wigan.

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Then, on Christmas Eve, the newspaper brought more devastating news following a terrible railway disaster involving the Scotch Express at 6am, not far from Kirby Stephen.

Hawes Junction railway crash of Christmas Eve, 1910Hawes Junction railway crash of Christmas Eve, 1910
Hawes Junction railway crash of Christmas Eve, 1910

Certainly for many, the Christmas that followed would be an horrendous one. On the Wednesday morning more than 900 men and boys had clocked on to work the five coal seams at Hulton and the explosion that occurred was in the Pretoria Pit.

Gas and coal dust soon spread into the neighbouring seams and rescue workers had to act quickly to ensure the miners there got to the surface quickly. Unfortunately, one of those miners succumbed due to gas inhalation and a number of others carrying injuries were conveyed to hospital.

The rescuers went about their business with haste but it was soon obvious there was little hope for those working the Pretoria seam.

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Alerted by the roar of the explosion, hundreds had hurried to the colliery to enquire about their loved ones. With fire raging down below it had by mid-afternoon been possible to recover only six lifeless bodies. It was the start of days of anguish in the pouring rain which would leave a death toll of more than 340, many barely recognisable as they lay in temporary mortuary’s awaiting identification.

Burnt-out carriages of the Scotch express after the Hawes Junction Rail Crash December 24, 1910Burnt-out carriages of the Scotch express after the Hawes Junction Rail Crash December 24, 1910
Burnt-out carriages of the Scotch express after the Hawes Junction Rail Crash December 24, 1910

As for the railway tragedy (pictured, inset)it also was a scene of despair. It had been caused when the double engined Scotch Express, heading towards Carlisle through Hawes Junction, had been given the all clear by a busy signalman to proceed on a stretch of track on to which he had given two pilot engines the all clear just minutes earlier.

When the express, travelling at 60mph, ploughed into the back of the pilot engines it pushed them along the track for 150 yards before they derailed, the express itself jumping the rails and hurtling over an embankment, leaving its timber framed carriages in ruin. The dining car was soon on fire as fractured gas pipes ignited and the morning air was filled with cries of anguish.

The flames were fanned by strong prevailing winds and altogether 12 people lost their lives, with upwards of 20 being injured. The ferocity of the blaze meant it was almost impossible to identify the charred remains of the victims. On Christmas Eve, the body of Preston victim William Bellew, aged 19, was recovered from the Pretoria Pit. His father and brother travelling from their St George’s Road home to carry out identification of the body.

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At the many church services held in Preston on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the unfortunate victims were remembered in their prayers. The Vicar of Preston the Rev Hercules Scott Butler led the tributes to the victims from the pulpit of the Preston Parish Church and the other churches and congregations of the town likewise paid tribute.

Salvation Army service outside the Pretoria Pit after the disaster in December 1910Salvation Army service outside the Pretoria Pit after the disaster in December 1910
Salvation Army service outside the Pretoria Pit after the disaster in December 1910

Away from the tragedies the Post reported that the weather had been most unseasonal with chilly and blustery winds, storms of cold rain and a general dampness in the air. However, hearts had been opened and purses too.

Local tradesmen had reported brisk business on Christmas Eve including the butchers Myerscough who had held their annual ‘Prize Fat Pig Show’ on their Church Street premises that week offering choice pork and plump sausages; Haysworth the grocer had been selling plum puddings aplenty; the Preston Drug Co. on Fishergate had sold perfume sprays galore and the Merigold Brothers on Church Street were offering a Humber motor car for £350.

The usual Christmas customs had once more brought the townsfolk together in charitable works. Nurses touring the wards at the Preston Royal Infirmary singing carols; roast beef and plum pudding served to the residents of the Fulwood Workhouse; at the Temperance Hall more than 2,000 children were handed a free breakfast and at Fulwood Barracks the soldiers dined on turkey, goose and plum pudding.

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Although one soldier, namely Driver Hall of the RFA, did not make it to the Christmas table at the Barracks. His Christmas calamity began on Christmas Eve when he went drinking and making merry in the town and ended up crashing through the plate glass window of Messrs. Thornton & Frances wine store on Fishergate early on Christmas morning. Shockingly injured with cuts to face and hands he was rushed to the Preston Royal Infirmary where he was destined to spend the remainder of Christmas.

Ambulanceman waits outside the rescue station after the Pretoria pit disaster in December 1910Ambulanceman waits outside the rescue station after the Pretoria pit disaster in December 1910
Ambulanceman waits outside the rescue station after the Pretoria pit disaster in December 1910

On the football scene it was a derby in the top flight for Preston North End on Boxing Day with Blackburn Rovers the visitors to Deepdale. North End had lost 1-0 at Bradford City on Christmas Eve, while Rovers had beaten Middlesbrough by 5-1 in their First Division encounter. A damp and dreary day it was, but the crowds still flocked to Deepdale, it wasn’t a record but a 29,000 crowd on such a day made the PNE directors smile.

The match had spills and thrills but no goals and honours were shared. A rock solid North End defence, with veteran Peter McBride in goal, but a shot shy forward line with only 20 goals in 20 league fixtures leading to a blank Christmas.

Entertainment over Christmas was provided at the Royal Hippodrome on Friargate with a pantomime based on ‘Aladdin’ with a sell out crowd on Boxing Day and at the Theatre Royal there was the drama entitled ‘Smith’ straight from its success in London running for seven days to rapturous applause.

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One visitor to Preston during the festive season had alerted the curiosity of the local constabulary. On the Wednesday before Christmas a house near the town centre had been entered through an unlocked window and the unwelcome visitor had helped himself to mince pies, cakes, plum pudding and pork.

A day later another visit to a gentleman’s residence nearby, again entry through an open window, a mince pie or two and the visitor was away again. On Christmas Eve the mysterious visitor turned up in Deepdale. This time there were no mince pies to devour, but 6lb of pork disappeared, as did a rabbit and two bars of chocolate. The intruder did not take a gold watch which was on the table, nor any other articles of value.

After dark on Christmas Eve, with all at slumber, a house on Winckley Square was entered through an unlatched window. The visitor lighting a wax candle as he quietly toured the downstairs rooms, the dripped wax marking his path.

Rescue party at the Pretoria pit disaster in December 1910Rescue party at the Pretoria pit disaster in December 1910
Rescue party at the Pretoria pit disaster in December 1910

Of course, a couple of mince pies were missing and also a tobacco pouch, but otherwise the valuables were left untouched. There were no further sightings and the intruder remained a mystery. The message from Preston Borough Police Chief Constable Lionel DL Everett was keep your downstairs windows locked because you never know when a lover of mince pies might come your way and it might not be the guy with the white beard and red tunic who visits you.

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The holiday locally ended on a sad note the day after Boxing Day when the funeral of mining victim William Bellew took place in Preston as hundreds lined the route to see his funeral cortège make its way to the Preston Cemetery where his coffin covered with wreaths was buried in the Roman Catholic portion of the cemetery.

The Editor of the ‘Post’ concluded it had been a dark and dreary December for many Edwardians, but that Christmas spirit had shone through and the people of Preston had brightened the gloom with their charitable response.

In that first few days the people of Preston had donated more than £180 (£22,000 in today’s money) to the Bolton Colliery Disaster Fund including £52 from the cotton workers of Horrockses, Crewdson & Co.