Chorley Historical and Archaeological Society

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Oct 2012

Tue 9 Oct 2012
The Pretoria Pit Disaster (Westhoughton) Ė Alan Davies

Alan made a welcome return to speak to the society following a coal mining related talk a few years ago. He has a strong background in coal mining and, additionally, he has been researching mining history for 40 years.

The Pretoria pit was on land of the Hulton private estate north of Atherton, part of the south Lancashire coalfield. Mining had taken place on that estate since the 14th century.

Two pits were sunk, numbers 3 and 4, in 1900 and 1901 respectively. They were commonly known as the Pretoria pit from the South African town in the Boer War. They were sunk to exploit the last pocket of coal there.

Alan Davies


It was number 3 pit that suffered the explosion at 7.50am on 21 December 2010, which caused the terrible loss of life. In all the lives of 344 men and boys were lost with ages ranging from 13 years old to mid 60ís.

This pit was seen as a model colliery for its time. It was managed by a Alfred Tonge and was one of the few pits using electricity and had introduced modern methods of coal cutting.

The pit head on the day of the explosion

Men of Westhoughton Ambulance Brigade in front of the No.3 shaft headgear and engine house.
Photo from Maxine

In his vividly illustrated presentation Alan included a wide selection of contemporary photographs of the scenes around the pit following the disaster. The mining community in and around Westhoughton suffered a crushing blow by this tremendous loss of life.

Worsley council set up a relief fund the day after the disaster and the last payment was, surprisingly, made from it as late as 1976.

Teams of men, Alanís grandfather amongst them, went down the pit immediately following the explosion but it soon became clear it was a recovery, not a rescue operation. His illustrations included specially produced post cards that were sold to raise money for the relief fund and headlines of newspapers, both local and national. These gave a flavour of the impact the tragedy had on the wider population.

The Inspector of Minesí official report identified a roof fall as the cause of the explosion. It had broken a minerís lamp, which in turn created a spark that ignited the coal dust. However, the report revealed reports of gas underground in the days before that had gone unheeded. Alfred Tonge did not communicate with his managers and other failures in his management regime and a flawed ventilation system contributed also.

A monument to commemorate the dead was erected in Westhoughton cemetery and stands there still. Alfred Tonge, however, moved to Canada to manage a pit at Cape Breton. Tragically, that, too, suffered a deadly explosion some 7 years later killing around 60 men.

Alanís excellent illustrated talk brought to life this appalling tragedy, the folly that led to it and the lessons learned.

Peter Robinson

Pretoria Pit in 1934 before closure.
No 3 shaft is on the left

After the erection of the
Memorial in Westhoughton Cemetery

Memorial to the 344 Men and Boys in Westhoughton Cemetery

At the end of Broadway off Newbrook Road is a memorial to the disaster behind a recently erected set of gates. Lettering on the gates reads 'PRETORIA MEMORIAL 344'
The actual site is almost a mile away.



Westhoughton Town Hall where the memorial to the cricketers is fixed on the near corner of the building,

Erected by the Bolton & District Cricket Association.
In memory of the Players and Committee-Men of the following Clubs.
Westhoughton, Daisy Hill, Wingates and Chequerbent.


Other sites with information about the Pretoria Pit Disaster:
OnLine Parish Clerks, Lancashire, Westhoughton
Leigh Life