The Coal Mines Act 1911 forced colliery owners to employ qualified safety officers, called firemen to inspect roadways leading to the coalface and make sure the pit was well ventilated and free from gas.
It was a responsible job. A miner could not become a fireman unless he obtained a Firemans Certificate, was at least 25 years old and had worked underground for three years before working at the coalface for two.
In the early 1920s, Harry Wilson, a roadman at Harriseahead Colliery, was a part-time student at the North Staffordshire Technical College (Staffordshire University) where he was studying for his fireman’s certificate.
On March 10th, 1924, Harry was at work when the lower levels of the colliery were flooded by a sudden inrush of water. Except for Edwin Booth, who was trapped by flood water about 300 yards (274 metres) from the bottom of the shaft, all the men working underground escaped. Many made their way along roadways where the water was four feet deep to the bottom of the shaft. They were brought up in the cage. Other miners scrambled up a foot rail to reach the surface.
When he realised Edwin was missing Pailing Baker, the manager, called for volunteers to help rescue him. Five men, including Harry, volunteered. Led by Pailing, they entered the mine through the footrail. Making their way along a roadway, the volunteers reached a ventilation door that was holding back the flood water. Fearing for their lives, four of the men refused to open it. They returned to the surface while Pailing and Harry stayed in the tunnel.
The two men slowly opened the door, and the water behind it fell slightly.
Realising they could be drowned by the water which was still pouring into the workings, Pailing and Harry risked their lives by wading in semi-darkness, through swirling flood water, They made their way along a low roofed, narrow roadway to where Edwin was trapped.
Struggling against chest high, fast flowing water, they again risked death to guide him to the bottom of the shaft where a cage took them to the surface.
Six months later, on August 23rd, 1924, Buckingham Palace announced that King George V had awarded Pailing and Harry the Edward Medal for “exceptional courage and resolution”. Before going to London to receive their medals from the King, they were honoured locally.
At a ceremony in the Victoria Hall, Kidsgrove, they were presented with certificates acknowledging their bravery by the Daily Herald, a popular national newspaper. During the ceremony, the Carnegie Trust announced that it had agreed to pay Harry’s tuition fees at the North Staffordshire Technical College giving him the opportunity to continue his studies and become a mining engineer.
Instituted by King Edward VII in 1907, the Edward Medal was the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Designed by W Reynolds-Stephens, the medal had the sovereign’s profile on the obverse, while the reverse depicting a miner rescuing a stricken colleague, was inscribed with the words “For Courage”.
During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the prime minister, Winston Churchill, persuaded King George VI to institute the George Cross “for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”.
The George Cross gradually replaced the Edward Medal which was only awarded posthumously after 1949. During 1971, the Queen invited the 68 surviving holders of the Edward Medal to exchange it for the George Cross. Harry accepted the invitation, and until his death in 1986, he regularly attended the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association’s reunions at Buckingham Palace.
Contact Spotlight on The Potteries at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us about other miners working on the North Staffordshire Coalfield who were given awards for risking their lives to rescue a comrade trapped underground.