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Sunday, 31 August 2014

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100 years on: the day my family home was wrecked by 1,300 tons of debris

JOAN Hartley of Whitehaven, was surprised but honoured to see her family’s story told in the September 9 edition of The Whitehaven News.

It told how three people were killed when a 60ft stretch of wall gave way, depositing around 1,300 tons of debris onto cottages at Catherine Place, West Strand, Whitehaven, in a tragic accident 100 years ago this month.

Robert William Charlton was Joan’s grandfather, and it was her grandmother, Kate, who was among those killed.

Whitehaven was still reeling from the disaster at Wellington Pit in May of that year when the tragedy occurred near the Wellington Pit Head, in December 1910 but was not connected with the pit itself. A retaining wall collapsed at about 8.30am on a mid-December day, falling on top of Catherine Place, the cottages behind the Wellington Inn, where the Charleton family lived.

Two cottages were obliterated, a third partly ruined. The death toll was three, including Joan’s grandmother Kate who was 35, and one of Kate’s children, a son, Joseph, aged four.

It took over five hours to extricate them from the rubble.

There were eight people within the homes but only five escaped with their lives.

Luckily, Kate’s daughter Mona Charleton, who was later to become Joan’s mother, survived the avalanche even though she was only five months old at the time. In adult life she was to marry Ralph Miller, Joan’s dad.

“I had kept the full report from The Whitehaven News of the time. It was given a full page of coverage.

“Coming so soon after the 1910 pit disaster it must have really shaken the community,’’ said Joan, 74, of Church Street.

While Joan’s mother was just a baby in a pram at the time, and lucky to escape unharmed, Mona’s sister Ethel, who was just one year old, suffered a broken leg and brother Robert, 10, was trapped under rubble. Sadly a four-year-old brother, Joseph died. There was no mention in contemporary reports of another sister, Cissie, so Joan is unsure about her story.

“It was my uncle Robert Cradduck Charleton who sang God Save the King when he was found.

“My mother said he was trapped under a table (actually a door) and the fire brigadesmen were trying to get him out. They asked him if he knew any songs to sing and he said no. Did he know any poems or recitations then? Robert, who was 10, said he knew the National Anthem and the rescuers sang along with him to keep his mind off what was happening. He wouldn’t know at that point that the fall of rock on his home had killed his mother and his younger brother.’’

AT THE subsequent inquest all present thought the pluckiness and loyalty of the 10-year-old should be commended and a letter would be sent by the Coroner to the King about Robert’s bravery.

The inquest jury made a collection for the boy which raised 16 shillings.

After the tragic collapse, Joan’s now widowed grandfather, Robert William Charleton and three of his motherless children, aged six months to 10 years, went to live at 1 Park View, Newtown, with Kate’s parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Choyce.

The Charletons’ son, Joseph, who was just four, and neighbour Dinah Mooney, 36, wife of collier John Mooney, were the other two victims who perished.

At the time, Whitehaven was still in mourning from the pit disaster six months earlier that killed 136 at Wellington Pit in the May.

So what went wrong? After passing the Wellington Lodge and under-manager’s office at the pit there was a high retaining wall on the harbour side which looked down onto the tramway which took coal from the pit to the hurries to be shipped out of South Harbour.

The tramway was several yards wide and there was another retaining wall against which the cottages in Catherine Place were built. It was this that collapsed.

William Cradduck and his wife and family occupied the house which was only partly wrecked: they were in bed at the time, but were unhurt.

Dinah Mooney, 36, wife of collier John Mooney, of Catherine Place, was in her neighbour’s house, the Magees’ cottage, at the time and she was the third to lose her life (David Magee’s home was the other property to be overwhelmed besides the Charletons’). It is thought Mrs Mooney had gone to warn her neighbours of the danger, unfortunately losing her own life.

David Magee was in hospital at the time; but Mrs Magee had one daughter in the house with her and Mrs Charlton had four of her family with her. All of them were buried among the debris.

Mrs Magee had been rescued from the other cottage and taken to the infirmary suffering from fractured ribs and contusions to the back of the head. Her daughter, too, was rescued, suffering from shock.

It was at first thought that the weight of some large boilers had put excessive strain on the wall, but it was found they were nothing to do with the disaster (although the boilers were promptly emptied to lessen any risk of further disaster).

Afterwards it was thought long and heavy rainfall following severe frost had caused the cliff to fall and breach the retaining wall.

Prior to the arrival of the brigade, a number of the colliery workmen had helped to remove rubble. They thought it a miracle there was anyone alive.

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