Harry Ellis was 57 years old when he died in a rock fall underground at Water Haigh in February 1956. His job as a bye worker was to cut and enlarge the tunnels which led to new coal faces – an occupation which could be very risky as bye workers often had to work in dangerous and unpredictable conditions.
He was working close to a fault in the rock with another miner, Bill Higgins, when they were both buried in the rock fall at about 11.30 in the morning.
Other men rushed to dig them out but it took several hours to clear the rock with the constant danger of further falls. Bill Higgins was eventually released at 3.15 in the afternoon and was allowed to go home after receiving first aid. But then there was a second large fall which completely buried Harry Ellis and by the time the rescuers reached him at 10pm he had passed away.
For their part in the rescue effort Water Haigh’s manager, Billy Williams, and Polish miner, Waclow Chrsytin, each received the George Medal, the second highest civilian honour for bravery.
Another miner, Charles Gibbons, who was only 8 yards away at the time of the fall, was awarded the British Empire Medal. Tragically he too was killed when his bicyle was hit by a coal lorry in thick fog on Swillington Bridge in September, three weeks before his award was announced. He was 42 and lived at Well Lane in Kippax with his wife and two teenage children.
The citation, published in the London Gazette on 9 October 1956, reads: “Gibbons, who was working near the fall, removed debris until joined by Williams and Chrystin. Williams, who had been on the surface at the time of the accident, took charge. He realised there was a danger of further falls and erected a protection over the trapped men. He and Chrystin then continued their efforts to free the men.
During the whole period they were in a position of extreme danger, the roof and sides being in such a state that a collapse could have occurred at any time. Without thought or regard for their own safety Williams and Chrystin calmly, quietly, and with great skill persevered with their rescue work. Gibbons was also exposed to danger of further falls, and displayed courage and endurance.”
Waclow Chrystin and Billy Williams collected their medals at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday 27 November 1956. Chrystyn lived at Castleford and was married with twin children who were 5 years old at the time of the accident. He had arrived in Yorkshire in 1948 after serving with the Polish Brigade of the Eighth Army in Italy. Previously he’d worked at St John’s colliery in Normanton before moving to Water Haigh in 1951.
Harry Ellis lived with his wife Carrie at 7 Holmsley Field Lane in Oulton close to her parents James and Sarah Holstead at 29 East View. The Ellis’s had seven children, two girls and five boys.
Their middle son Frank, who was born in 1933, was working in the blacksmith’s shop at Water Haigh at the time of his father’s death and had a “premonition” that something had happened, but colliery officials claimed not to have heard anything. He was later told that a deputy, Arthur “Ginger” Bowater, had played a big part in the rescue, but it appears his name was not put forward for an award.
Click on the links below to hear Frank Ellis’s memories of his father and the events surrounding his death.