Shirebrook Miners in the Tunnelling Companies

Shirebrook is in the news in the UK owing to the working practices in a warehouse operated by the company Sports Direct. At the beginning of the twentieth century Shirebrook was infamous in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire for the thousands of miners drawn to its colliery. Many joined the specially formed Tunnelling Companies to dig deep beneath no man’s land and the German lines during the First World War.  I have gathered the stories below for my book on Tunnellers at La Boisselle in 1915-1916. 

A large group of miners recruited from collieries around Chesterfield and Mansfield crossed to France on 23 September 1915 and many were posted to 185th Tunnelling Company. The most notorious mining centre in the region was Shirebrook which had grown rapidly after a pit was sunk in 1896 and in fifteen years the population had risen from 600 to 11,000. It gained a reputation for immorality, drunkenness and violence with the newspapers filled with reports of attacks on the police, armed poachers and closing-time fights outside the pubs.[1] John Flowers, a 37 year old miner well-known to the police and courts, appeared before magistrates on 4 September 1915 for being drunk and disorderly in Shirebrook, during which he had offered his wife for sale. Although already under a bond of good behaviour, he was let off on the condition that he enlisted. [2]

sheffield-evening-telegraph-september-4-1915

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4 September 1915.

Three weeks later he was at the Rouen Base Camp allotted to the 185th. Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, good friends in their late twenties, enlisted as Tunnellers on the same day as Flowers. Despite the chaotic picture of Shirebrook depicted in the local press, it was a comparatively small number of miners who regularly appeared before the courts. Eight years before, an encounter with one such individual had serious consequences for Joe and Tom when, one night after closing time, Hodgetts, a keen amateur boxer, agreed to fight the man. He produced a knife and stabbed Tom and Joe in the head and neck.[3]

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Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 19 March 1907.

Joe and Tom survived serious injuries and it may have been this experience that moved Joe to begin organising meetings at the Pentecostal Mission.

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Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, 185th Tunnelling Company photographed on the Somme in Albert. (c) Duncan Hunting

In a photograph taken in Albert in the winter of 1915-1916, Tom rests his arm on Joe’s shoulder; only one would survive the war.

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The Derbyshire Courier, 24 April 1917.

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Joe Cox’s grave in Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, France. (c) Duncan Hunting.

A group of miners from the Shirebrook area would excel in driving tunnels though the hard chalk of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. In 1916 they were awarded silver medals by 185th Tunnelling Company for a record drive of 127 feet 4 inches in 120 hours, including Harry Richardson (whose name was given in the press as J. Richardson).

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Derbyshire Courier, 17 October 1916.

John Flowers, Tom Hodgetts and Harry Richardson survived the war but Flowers was soon in court again for drunkenness, this time blaming wartime gas poisoning for his conduct. The gas he referred to was carbon monoxide, released in large quantities in the underground galleries by the detonation of massive explosive charges. It could cause violent behaviour and permanent mental impairment.

derbyshire-courier-october-11-1919

Derbyshire Courier, 11 October 1919.

[1] Belper News, Derbyshire Courier and Nottingham Evening Post, passim.

[2] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4/9/1915; Belper News, 10/9/1915; Silver War Badge roll WO329/3002.

[3] Derbyshire Courier, 23/3/1907, Nottingham Evening Post, 11/4/1907, Derby Daily Telegraph, 11/4/1907.


Hawtrey, Young, Bullock 28 June 1916res

The Men Who Dug The Lochnagar Mine


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We will study the work of the Tunnellers on my Underground War battlefield tour 7-11 June 2017.



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