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The Gresford Disaster

[ Roud 3089 ; Ballad Index PBB116 ; DT GRESFORD ; trad.]

Karl Dallas: One Hundred Songs of Toil A.L. Lloyd: Come All Ye Bold Miners Roy Palmer: Poverty Knock

Mrs A. Cosgrove of Newtongrange, Midlothian, sang The Gresford Disaster in an Alan Lomax recording on the anthology Jack of All Trades (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 3; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968).

Ewan MacColl sang The Gresford Disaster on his 1957 Topic album of industrial folk ballads, Shuttle and Cage, and printed it in his Workers’ Music Association book The Shuttle and Cage, where he gave A.L. Lloyd’s Come All Ye Bold Miners as his source. The album was reissued in 1964 as part of his Topic LP Steam Whistle Ballads. The track was also included in 1993 on his Topic anthology CD The Real MacColl. The sleeve notes commented:

The mining disaster described in this ballad occurred on 22 September 1934. The ballad, properly bitter in its editorialised narrative, slightly underestimates the casualties—265 miners were killed, including three rescue men. Ewan MacColl learned the song from a young miner named Ford in the Sheffield Miners’ Training Centre.

The Albion Band sang Gresford Disaster in 1977 on their album Rise Up Like the Sun. In the same year, they played it in a BBC session, possibly on 31 May 1977, which was included on their 1993 CD BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, and on 29 July 1i77 at the Cambridge Folk Festival, which was included in 1998 on their BBC CD Live at the Cambridge Folk Festival. The original album’s notes said:

The epic closing track of the original Rise Up Like the Sun album tells of a mine explosion at Gresford near Wrexham in September 1934. A 20th century ballad, it was written in the form of the great black lettered broadside ballads to raise funds for those who had been widowed and orphaned by the accident. John Tams had first performed the song at an acoustic concert with Pete Bullock accompanying him on harmonium. In the summer of 1977, the band had rehearsed this arrangement at the Hertfordshire home of Ashley Hutchings’s erstwhile sister-in-law, Dolly Collins, and during these extended rehearsals, Graeme Taylor developed the perfectly appropriate chord structure and Ric Sanders created the central cyclic passage. In a 1986 interview, Tams described how their version developed: “I don’t know what drove me to look at that Gresford song. I looked into its background and found that the colliery band was at the pithead as the bodies were being brought out, playing to try to raise the spirits of the wives, children and friends who were waiting. One tune they played was How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear, which was written by D.H. Lawrence’s great-grandfather. I tried the words to the tune and they seemed to fit, seemed to yield to each other.” Several versions of Gresford Disaster were recorded during the Rise Up Like the Sun sessions, including one with Tams and Richard Thompson singing alternate verses, and a take with a complicated overdubbed drone by Martin Carthy. With Martin Carthy, vocals.

Seth Lakeman sang The Colliers on his 2006 CD Freedom Fields.


Ewan MacColl sings The Gresford Disaster

You’ve heard of the Gresford disaster,
And the terrible price that was paid.
Two hundred and forty-two colliers were lost,
And three men of a rescue brigade.

It occurred in the month of September,
At three in the morning, that pit
Was racked by a violent explosion
In the Dennis where gas lay so thick.

The gas in the Dennis deep section
Was packed there like snow in a drift,
And many a man had to leave the coal-face
Before he had worked out his shift.

A fortnight before the explosion.
To the shotfirer, Tomlinson cried:
“If you fire that shot we’ll be all blown to hell!”
And no one can say that he lied.

The fireman’s reports they are missing.
The records of forty-two days;
The colliery manager had them destroyed
To cover his criminal ways.

Down there in the dark they are lying,
They died for nine shillings a day.
They have worked out their shift and now they must
In the darkness until Judgement Day.

The Lord Mayor of London’s collecting
To help both our children and wives.
The owners have sent some white lilies
To pay for the poor colliers’ lives.

Farewell, our dear wives and our children,
Farewell, our old comrades as well.
Don’t send your sons down the dark dreary pit;
They’ll be damned like the sinners in hell.