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  Story behind a Gravestone


George Sykes, born in 1850, grew up in Tickhill the youngest son of James Sykes, variously listed as a farmer or farm labourer, and Ann Sykes. They lived in a cottage in Wood’s Yard, off Northgate, close to where Weardale House is now. George left Tickhill to work as a farm servant at Parsonage House, Bawtry, where he was recorded in the 1871 Census. He then worked as a horse driver underground at Swaithe Main Colliery near Barnsley. On Monday, 6 December 1875 George was one of 143 men and boys (one as young as 12), along with a number of horses, tragically killed after fire damp exploded at 9.30 a.m., three and a half hours into the shift. George’s body was found near the old stables, removed from the mine the next day, then brought back to Tickhill and buried in the churchyard on 10 December. Where new stables were being built there was no damage. 

George’s gravestone, to the west of the church near the path going towards Pinfold Lane, has the following inscription:

In Affectionate Remembrance of George Sykes, who was killed in the Swaithe Main Colliery explosion, on Monday December 6th, 1875, aged 25 years.

We little thought when he left home,

His race was so near run;

But ah, alas, death called him hence

Before he did return. 

An Inquiry ‘of the most searching and full character’ was quickly arranged before a Coroner and jury at the Masons’ Arms, Worsbrough, beginning on 7 December and reconvened at Barnsley Courthouse the following week. Wives, mothers and work mates who identified bodies, and those who went into the mine to help with recovery work or to determine the cause of the accident, gave formal depositions. George’s body was identified by a deputy, not a family member. Evidence was heard over a total of nine days and was completed on 14 January. A Chief Inspector of Mines, Frank Wardell, and others compiled a report presented to the Home Secretary, who in turn reported to the House of Commons. The verdict about the cause of the accident noted that, although the mine was known to be ‘fiery’ and although the miners had safety lamps, gunpowder was ‘recklessly used’ and various safety rules had not been observed.   

News of the mining disaster spread round the world. For example, an account appeared in the New York Times on 7 December and newspapers as far away as New Zealand reported it. A memorial was erected at St Thomas’s Church Worsbrough Dale listing George’s name. His name also appeared with 71 other names on a commemorative plate, probably produced to raise money for a relief fund set up to help the miners’ families. 

George Sykes could well have been one of the first Tickhill people to find work in a coalmine. At that time the nearest mine to Tickhill was Denaby Main opened in 1867. The 1871 Census for Denaby shows that not one person from Tickhill had settled there to work as a miner, although two Tickhill families had moved there for farm work. Perhaps people were aware of the great risks involved in mining. Mining fatalities were all too prevalent, even where safety lamps were used. However, the Swaithe Main Colliery explosion was the worst since 1866 when 380 died at Oaks Pit, also near Barnsley.

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