The Gresford Disaster was a real-life tragedy that happened in 1932 at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham. An explosion killed 266 men and boys. Poor mine management was blamed for causing the tragedy. Should children be exposed to an incident like this? Should they be shielded from real-life disasters?
Well I would argue that the average year four, five or six can cope with this, and experience has shown that they are fascinated by it. They have many questions: What happened? Why did it happen? Who was to blame? Could it happen again? Here is a link to a Wikipedia article about it.
Here is the full poem. The identity of the writer is not known. By the way, the Dennis was the name of one of the two shafts. The other was called the Martin.
You’ve heard of the Gresford disaster,
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 wracked by a violent explosion
In the Dennis where dust lay so thick.
The gas in the Dennis deep section
Was packed 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 shot-firer,Tomlinson cried:
‘If you fire that shot we’ll all be 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’ve worked out their shift and it’s now they must lie
In the darkness until Judgement Day.
The Lord Mayor of London’s collecting
To help both the children and wives.
The owners have sent some white lilies
To pay for the colliers’ lives.
Farewell our dear wives and our children,
Farewell our dear comrades as well.
Don’t send your sons in the dark dreary mine
They’ll be damned like the sinners in Hell.
This song by contemporary folk singer Seth Lakeman is also believed to be about the Gresford Disaster, though the number of victims differs from the poem. It is on Youtube bu audio only.
This is a rather badly filmed, but live version, of the song.
Possible lesson structure:
1. Show children a picture such as the one at the top of this page. Where was this photograph taken? Look at the clothes the people are wearing. When was it taken? What are the people waiting for? What are they saying to each other?
2. Get the discussion going but do not give any answers. List the different ideas on the board.
3. Then show the poem to the children. Read it to them. Ask them in pairs to come up with a question about it, and note some of these down. Ask different groups to prepare a verse each for a class performance. Then listen to each of the groups, so the whole poem ends up getting performed.
4. Through discussion, talk about what has happened. Who seems to get the blame? Now, who are the people in our picture and what are they waiting for? Then link in to the Seth Lakeman song below (about the same incident). What do children think about the song? What is the message for today? Why are people still singing about it? Is it bad taste to write a poem or a song about a disaster? Is song more powerful than words? Which modern disasters should we remember in song?
My experience using this poem:
I introduced a Year Five class to the narrative poem, The Gresford Disaster. We discussed the idea of an ‘anonymous’ author. I allotted each of the eight verses to a different child (volunteers) and then asked each to rehearse a reading to children around them. We then listened to the eight reading the poem. Some verses were read too quietly while other less able children stumbled over some of the words. I asked all of the class to read the last verse together. We then started a class discussion about the poem, picking apart what might have happened and who was to blame. The children enjoyed discussing why white lilies might have been sent (‘the sign of death’). We finished with reading the poem again with the eight readers taking the lead. I had intended to link this with a Youtube version of the song The Colliers by Seth Lakeman – which is based on the disaster – but the whiteboard was not working. This linked with narrative poetry unit.