The Nine Men Of Madeley

I want to return to St Michael’s church in Madeley now, a place which to me is marked by its familiarity. Let us pause amongst the headstones, breath deeply, take it all in. Notice the subtle changing hues of the greenery, the moss and lichen clinging to the crumbling edifice, obscuring the names and dates. This place would have been grand once, a cemetery to rival Greyfriars or Kensal Green. However, its beauty is now in its decay. It almost feels like a secret, tucked away in a quiet place. Despite this, I believe that the people here want to be remembered. Remembrance is a funny thing, isn’t it? It is amazing what we recall. We can tell the tales of our grandparents, reflect on the sights, and sounds of childhood. We remember the exciting and lifechanging events, but also the simple and mundane. We remember, and that’s what makes us human. I think one of the reasons why I love history is that at its most basic form, history is the art of remembering. It brings to mind the Terry Pratchett quote that ‘no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away’. I’ve always been an advocate of this. Even as a child I would walk past gravestones and war memorials, pausing to take in the names. I would wonder just who that person had been. Perhaps this was my way of recreating those ripples, you don’t lose your importance just because you are dead. This is the very reason that I have returned to St Michael’s. Let us walk past Lieutenant Frederick John Briscoe, who was killed in Ypres in 1915, visit the cast iron tomb of Rev. John Fletcher briefly to then reach the memorial to a local mining disaster, that has come to be known as the Nine Men of Madeley.

I must confess that I am by no means an industrial historian, so my discussions of mining may be brief, however, I want to discuss the tragedy in detail, noting the social impact of the disaster. These deaths would have created their own ripples within the community, leaving a tragic legacy behind.   Let us explore the role of industry in East Shropshire and how it came to shape this area.

Though rural, my part of Shropshire was once awash with the throes of heavy industry. The area was known as the East Shropshire coalfield or 'Coalbrookdale Coalfield'. This important area saw the birth of the industrial revolution. At one point during the 17th century, the Coalbrookdale coalfield was second only to the Northeast Coalfield in terms of production, and later in its history would come to produce 95% of the coal in Shropshire.  Mining in East Shropshire was first documented during the 13th and 14th centuries, when the monks of Buildwas Abbey were granted the right to coal and ironstone by Philip De Benthall. Skip forward to the 16th century, outcrop coal was being extracted and transported down the River Severn to more distant customers. Iron was also being produced at several furnaces around the area. There is also some evidence of underground working, with ‘levels’ which were tunnels cut under the hillside. Madeley coal was being shipped to areas such as Worcester by the late 16th century.  With all of this considered, it is understandable why this area became the ‘birthplace of the industrial revolution’ and that mining became a central factor in the lives of those who lived here.

This whole area would have been alive with the hum of human activity, a busy, noisy morass of people. Industrialisation changed the course of Shropshire’s history, catapulting the population into an age of iron, furnace, and kiln. This was a changing world of opportunity, illuminated by furnace fires that never dimmed but also, It was a world of misery and misfortune. After all, there is more than one reason as to why the Gorge gained the epithet ‘hell on earth’. Due to the scale of mining in the local area, it became the main source of employment. Communities were strengthened by such ties, and it was not uncommon to see whole families under the same employment.

Let us turn now to the tragedy itself, which occurred at the Brick Kiln Leasow Pit, which stood on top of the hill leading to Ironbridge from Madeley. This was where the 9 men of Madeley all worked, and where they would sadly lose their lives. The pit itself was an ironstone pit and was around 220 metres deep. It was owned by the Madeley Wood Company, who ran several mines in the local area, and who were by Victorian standards particularly good and fair employers.  It was a well-established site with its origins in the 1790s and was growing steadily in terms of production. Much of the local community would find employment through this pit, of the 9 men themselves, most lived within half a mile of it.

Tuesday 27th September 1864 would have started out like any other day, unremarkable in its events. However, as the men’s shift was ending, everything would change. As the men began their ascent, the accident took place. It is worthy of mentioning here that of the nine miners, six of which were still boys, in their early teens. They were ascending up via a crude apparatus known as ‘the Doubles’.

The Doubles comprised of a central chain about 3m long, attached to four chain circles, one above the other. This provided two seats on either side of the chain. At the top of the main chain was a hook with a safety catch and, between it and the topmost pair of ‘seats’ was an iron canopy, ‘the bonnet’, designed to protect the seated men from falling debris. The upper end of the central chain passed through the bonnet and its hook engaged with a ring attached to the end of the winding chain from the engine. Responsibility for ensuring a proper connection between hook and ring lay with the ‘Banksman’ on the surface for the descent and with the ‘hooker-on’ at the bottom of the shaft for the ascent.

Halfway to the surface, the coupling that held the towline snapped, which sent the miners hurtling down to the bottom of the pit, smashing through six inches of solid oak, which lined the bottom of the pit, and landing in four feet of sump water in the bottom. The Banksman on the surface would have felt the winding chain slacken, and be left powerless, knowing that the miners had plunged to their deaths.  Though industrial accidents were common, one cannot begin to comprehend the tumult of emotions that William Wallet, the Banksman on shift would have felt. The powerlessness, and fear. This would have only been amplified by the fact his father, William was one of the men riding the Doubles.

William stopped the engine and is said to have ran to the pithead, perhaps in a futile attempt at hope. With the scale of the accident, it was not surprising that there would be no survivors. Before the shock and severity of the event could properly sink in, the painful task of recovering the bodies had to be undertaken. They had to be removed from the water and brought back up through the shaft. As one can imagine, the injuries such men sustained before death would have been severe, and it would have been horrific to see.

The victims were:

·         Edward Wallett,

·         John Tranter,

·        Benjamin Davies,

·        William Jarratt,

·        Joseph Maiden,

·        John Farr,

·        John Jones,

·        Francis Cookson

·        William Onions.

 Though little is known about their lives, we do have some details. I want to outline these, to preserve the men as they were.

The oldest of the group was Edward Wallett, who was 52. He was father to five children, including William, the Banksman on the shift during the accident. One cannot imagine the amount of emotional pain William must have harbored in the years after the accident. The family lived on Thieve Street (now Wesley road) Edward (alongside John Tranter) were responsible for managing the underground work whilst mining.  He was an old hand at such work- likely having spent his whole working life underground.

John Tranter was the other man responsible for managing the work underground. He was 37 and the father of five young children. These children were all less than ten years old during the 1861 census. One of his children, Benjamin was likely born after his fathers’ death. It’s sad to think that Benjamin grew up without his father.

Benjamin Davies was 35 years old and unmarried. He lived with his father, and several boarders. Benjamin was the ‘hooker-on’ for the team and, as such, would have been responsible for ensuring that the winding-gear was properly connected for the ascent to the surface. He was an experienced ‘hooker-on’ and highly trusted in his role, he had fulfilled it for over 20 years.

Though 22 years prior to the accident laws were passed to prevent children under 8 from working underground, many young people still worked in such environments. The remaining victims of the accident were all 18 or younger, and as we shall see, had been miners from a very young age.

William Jarrett was 18 years old. He still lived with his parents on Church Hill.
Joseph Maiden was also 18, and from a family full of miners, including his father and his brother.

It is not known how John Jones became a miner, as he was from a very agricultural family. Aged 14 at the time of the accident, he clearly had some experience, as on the 1861 census John, at 11 years old was listed as a coal miner.

John Farr was also 14, and Francis Cookson was 13 years old and lived adjacent to the Park Inn in Madeley. His Father, and two older brothers were miners.

And the youngest of the group was William Onions at just 12 years old.

It is so strange and humbling to imagine that a 12-year-old boy would have walked to work along the same roads I used to walk to school. How different our lives have been. Though we only have snippets of their lives, these people mattered. They had families, lives, hopes and dreams of the future. They would have been looking forward to the rest after a long day at work, seeing their wives and mothers but unfortunately this never came. Though industrial accidents, and even death was commonplace, it is important not to trivialize the pain their families, and the wider community would have felt. Nine people were ripped from the lives of all those who cared about them. There were nine empty spaces at the dinner table, and a huge number of people left in mourning. This accident was particularly painful to the local community due to the high number of young victims involved.  Even for those not directly affected, it would have been difficult not to think of the event when looking at your own husband or son leaving for work.

The funeral for the men took place on Saturday 1st October 1864, at St Michael’s church, Madeley. The Madeley Wood Company covered the expenses for the occasion, as well as providing financial assistance to the dead miner’s families. This would have been a relief for the families wondering where the next wage would come from. The funeral procession was massive, with over 400 miners, together with about 100 relatives and friends’ part of the procession. It was estimated that perhaps a further 2,000 people attended the church service, with many waiting outside. If you know the area surrounding St Michael’s Church, you will understand just how striking this scene would have been.  As the coffins were being placed along the aisle the organist played the ‘Dead March’ from Saul.

After the funeral, the inquest began. It originally started the day after the funeral at the George and Dragon public house in Madeley but was postponed until the 3rd of October. The inquest moved to Waterloo police station at Ironbridge. Where it was decided that the hook and the ring had not been attached properly. The equipment was in good working order; thus it seemed likely that at least in part there had been human error. The ‘hooker-on’ Benjamin Davies may have played his part- perhaps not checking it had been properly attached, but he had died in the accident, so the inquest could not come up with any conclusions there. Furthermore, the Doubles had been overloaded, as they were only built to move 8 people. Perhaps Edward and John had made the call to bring the extra person, thinking it would not matter due to the 6 men’s young age compensate for the numerical overloading of the apparatus. Whatever was the cause of this human error, the official verdict was Accidental Death, and the matter was closed.  This must have given some closure to the families of those involved, but it did not bring their loved one back. It did not detract from the fact that they had gone and did not detract from the fact their lives had to take a different trajectory. I am glad we have the memorial to the Nine Men of Madeley still, and one cannot deny the sadness of their passing still lingers around it.

There is another Terry Pratchett quote that I think of often, it says that ‘a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?” and I think this is a good place to finish. Pause for a moment and say the names of Edward Wallet, John Tranter, Benjamin Davies, William Jarratt, Joseph Maiden, John Farr, John Jones, Francis Cookson, and William Onions. Think of them laughing as they worked, talking about their lives and their plans. Just by saying their names, we are breathing life back into the men, and I think this is beautiful. They may not be here, but they are not forgotten.


  1. Of all your stories, this is the one that haas affected me most on first reading. I’m sat here in bed in Ludlow, ill with Covid. I’m using the time of recuperation to read your tales of Shropshire. This one has made me cry as I remember each of those men by name x

  2. I visited this churchyard a couple of years ago, not to visit this grave in particular just to aquaint myself with the Church as Thomas Telford was the Architect. I came across the Nine Men of Madeley grave.
    I was familiar with the disaster from reading local history books.
    To see the names on the memorial stones, all in a row, side by side..
    I stood for quite a while with my thoughts, and left with tears in my eyes. So glad i came across this bit of history, i live in a very different Madeley to then.
    Let us not forget the hard working mining communities that toiled below the ground for a living and the dangers they faced every working day. God Bless their souls...

  3. This is so very sad, unfortunately indicative of the harsh working conditions at the time. I’m glad that those poor souls are all remembered together in this peaceful place. Thanks for your description, it really brings home the human story behind this awful tragedy.


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