Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Pelsall colliery follow-up

Family history research can get compulsive and it has been really nice how people have been keen and willing to share information (myself included). Susan Wilkes, a second cousin of Margaret’s, who we discovered through us both researching family through, sent me some information on some relatives killed in a colliery accident in Pelsall, Staffordshire in 1872.

Her research has saved me lots of time in identifying relatives on Margaret’s grandmother Robinson’s line. In summary, they were agricultural labourers (like most of the people in the country in the 18th century) who had moved into Staffordshire in the 19th century to work in the expanding coalmines and other industry.

This was the Black Country, heart of the industrial revolution and home to hundreds of mines, furnaces and engineering. They clearly thought this would be a better life (and perhaps it was), but it can’t have been a great place to live and work.

Pelsall, where they moved to was a small mining village, but unlike some mining communities, it had a history going way back before mining. I was prompted to find out a little more about the place and the local history society has a very good website:, which includes an account of the colliery disaster.

There was an error on the site concerning the age of Frank Dilks, our family member who died, so I e-mailed the contact to say how good the site was, but also to make them aware of the error.

Andrew Weller mailed back to thank me, but also included some photographs and other information from the Pelsall History Centre.

Every year, on the anniversary of the disaster, they lay a wreath at the miners’ memorial in the village and here’s a picture of that ceremony. It’s incredible that the event is still commemorated all these years later. It would be good to go to Pelsall one day and have a look round the place.

Andrew also sent me pictures of George Cassell’s memorial and of bibles given to the widows of those who died. George was 28 when he was killed in the disaster and he was the husband of Harriett Dilks, Frank’s elder sister and a great, great aunt of Margaret.

Susan Wilkes (sorry about all the Dilks and Wilkes) had discovered that Harriett and George had two sons – George and Frank (who was born after his father was killed). No doubt Harriett called him Frank after her younger brother who died alongside her husband in the mine. I can imagine the anguish of a young woman, pregnant with her second child, losing her husband and breadwinner in such a way. She would have received a pretty meagre pension and she would also have been given one of the bibles (pictured). I wonder what happened to that? It would be interesting to see it.

George’s memorial is interesting as it includes a long poetical inscription:

In affectionate remembrance of George Cassell, the beloved husband of Harriett Cassell of Pelsall, who lost his life by the terrible accident at Pelsall Hall Colliery, November 14th 1872; aged 28 years.

All under the coal I lost my life,
No time to get away;
There I did die, and here I must lie,
Until the judgment day.
All you that do my grave pass by
As you are now, so once was I;
As I am now, so you must be,
Therefore prepare to follow me.
I miss thee when the morning dawns,
I miss thee when the night returns,
I miss thee here, I miss thee there,
My husband I miss thee everywhere.
Farewell my wife and children, and friends so dear,
Weep not for me though I lie here,
It’s hard to part with those we love,
But sweet to meet with Christ above.

I thought that was so charming and also poignant. The first four lines are simple and describe in stark terms what happened in the accident. They’re also an acceptance, in words put into George’s mouth, of his fate.

The next four lines: As you are now, so once was I is reminiscent of the epitaph on the tomb of Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376) in Canterbury. It was originally written in Norman French but was, at some point, translated into English and became popular in the mid 19th Century

Whoso thou be that passeth by;
Where these corps entombed lie:
Understand what I shall say,
As at this time speak I may.
Such as thou art, sometime was I,
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.

Edward's epitaph, though it contains some of the sentiments found in the popularised 19th Century version, does not exhort the visitor to, "prepare for death and follow me." 
 I guess that was added by the Victorians – never slow to miss a mournful moment.

George Cassell, who died in the Pelsall Colliery
disaster, aged 28,
George Cassell’s epigraph then runs into doggerel which would almost be comic if it wasn’t so poignant and written as the words of his widow. Perhaps Harriett wrote them? I don’t know. The final four lines are words again put into George’s mouth and clearly aimed to give some comfort to his loved ones.

I often wonder what life would be like for my ancestors. I once rode a vintage Triumph motorcycle made just before the First World War. It was driven by a leather belt made up of separate links and started by pedals. When I was 17 and had a motorcycle, my grandfather took an interest in it and told me about his belt-drive Triumph and how he’d ridden it to Birkenhead in the rain with the belt slipping so much it was hard to get up the hills. I couldn’t see how you could have a leather belt, except to hold up your trousers and I thought he was going a bit soft. Well 40 years later I was able to ride one at a Vintage Motorcycle Club event. It struck me at the time, how rare it is to have the chance to experience what our grandfathers experienced; to stand in their shoes. The bike must have been just like the one he had as a young man.

That was quite a pleasure, but much of what our ancestors had to cope with, we’re well to manage without – there are mine accidents today, but the conditions in Pelsall (from cutting the coal with pick and shovel to riding up and down the mine on an open basket) don’t bear thinking about. I wouldn't want to have stood in Frank Dilks' or George Cassell's shoes. They were a lot tougher than us.