Former MP pens book remembering the young lives lost in a forgotten mining tragedy

A chance encounter while researching his family history led to former Wakefield MP David Hinchliffe uncovering a long forgotten mining tragedy, one in which his eight-year old great, great uncle John died.

By Julie Marshall
Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 3:10 pm
The cottages where the two eight- year-old victims - John HInchliffe and Charles Forden - lived at the time of the disaster. The shaft involved was very close to the cottages.
The cottages where the two eight- year-old victims - John HInchliffe and Charles Forden - lived at the time of the disaster. The shaft involved was very close to the cottages.

The pit disaster occurred near Cawthorne, a few miles south of Wakefield on May 23, 1821, when ten colliers - four men, and six boys aged from eight to 16 - died in an accident at Norcroft Colliery.

It took place on land owned by the Spencer-Stanhopes. Sir Walter Spencer-Stanhope, was a former Tory MP and squire of Cannon Hall.

Mr Hinchliffe has written a book about the disaster called Descent into Silence,which examines the circumstances of what happened: a wicker basket full of ascending colliers dropped almost 120 feet after a chain broke.

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Benjamin Hinchliffe, the author's great grandfather

It goes into the backgrounds of all those involved and how surviving family members suffered subsequently under the Poor Law of the time, also how the location of the tragedy was identified through old documents and underground plans.

He said: “My key objective in writing the book is to try and get across the importance of researching mining ancestry to gain a better understanding of many of the struggles collier families have lived through.”

Mr Hinchliffe’s great-grandfather Benjamin Hinchliffe, who had lived much of his adult life at Warmfield, near Wakefield, was, in 1827, born into a family of colliers at Norcroft .

Mr Hinchliffe said: “My great-grandfather would appear to have been victim John’s youngest brother and was, similarly, a collier from being very young.

Julia and David Hinchlife with the memorial to the miners who died in Norcroft in 1821

“Like many collier families, Benjamin’s were industrial gypsies and from the Cawthorne area they moved via Dodworth to Churwell, near Morley, and Altofts, near Normanton, before settling in Warmfield.

“The Barnsley Canal, running from Heath, near Wakefield, to near Cawthorne played a huge part in the development of coal mining in that area and, interestingly, Benjamin’s son, Oliver (my grandfather), married Ethel Woodhead from a family with strong connections to it.

“They lived next to the locks at Agbrigg and her father and grandfather worked as smiths and carpenters for the bargees.”

Mr Hinchliffe’s wife Julia, shares his passion for genealogy but, being born in Scotland and brought up in North Wales, had no knowledge of any Yorkshire ancestry.

Researching her father’s maternal Greaves ancestry, she discovered that her great-great grandfather Jonathan Greaves had married at Cawthorne Church in 1812 and his family also appear to have direct connections with Norcroft.

Several years back a small group of interested individuals came together to both raise funds for a memorial to the men and boys killed at Norcroft as well as try to locate the site of the accident.

Fundraising initiatives, supported by Wakefield’s Red Shed Players, raised the money for the erection of a memorial in Cawthorne Churchyard during 2019. A special service to commemorate the disaster bicentenary is being held at Cawthorne Church at 3pm this Sunday, May 23 with the Bishop of Wakefield, Tony Robinson preaching. The book will be available to buy from 1pm in Cawthorne Church Hall.

Mr Hinchliffe is giving an online talk to Huddersfield Local History Society at 7.30pm on Monday, May 24 and a song called Cawthorne Boys to accompany it has been composed by Dave Hanvey of the Red Shed Players.

Descent into Silence is available in bookshops via Amazon or from at £12.99, with all royalties going to heritage charities, in particular the Cawthorne Museum.