Who Do You Think You Are?
An annotated family photograph was the only clue Ann Simcock had about her paternal family. It led to the discovery of a brave man and a shocking event that devastated a Victorian community, says Gail Dixon
How Ann Simcock’s ancestor lost his life in an accident that ripped the heart out of a coal-mining community
There was a hint of snow in the air on 6 February 1881 when Cain Mayer left his wife Ellen and their large family at home, and set off to begin his night shift at Chatterley Whitfield Colliery in Staffordshire.
Cain was Ann Simcock’s 2x great grandfather. “He’s the first ancestor who I feel that I’ve really got to know,” Ann explains, “and his is such a tragic story.”
Ann’s parents and grandparents died before she began researching her family tree. “All I had to work from was a photo that my father had annotated on the reverse. They were his father’s family.
“The names seemed so unusual – Cain, Enoch, Elijah, Abel and Josiah Nathaniel. I searched the 1881 census and found widow Ellen Mayer and her family living in Norton, Staffordshire. The names matched those on the photograph, and I knew that we had connections with Norton.”
The youngest child was Enoch, and his birth certificate established that his father Cain was a blacksmith and engine tenter – a miner who was in charge of machinery that crushed ore.
“I then discovered that Cain died on 7 February 1881, when he was aged only 40. The cause of death was ‘explosion in a coal pit’. Finding such dramatic events was intriguing, as well as very sad.”
Cain was born in Tunstall in 1841, and married Ellen Wright. They had five children, including Cain junior, who was Ann’s great grandfather. Ellen died in 1870, and Cain senior married Ellen Doolan two years later. Six more children followed.
The Mayers moved to Norton between 1875 and 1878, and Cain senior worked at Chatterley Whitfield Colliery. Unusually,
colliery ‘As the flames took hold, the refused manager Edward Thompson to let the men return to the surface’
the pit had a smithy underground which was regarded as being safe, despite housing a fire. The flow of air around the smithy kept the chimney cool, and the flue was cleaned every four weeks.
In May 1880, the smithy was found to be causing an obstruction, so the manager of the colliery Edward Thompson moved the equipment to a side chamber away from the cooling air current. “Unwritten rules stated that the fire should only be lit for workrelated purposes, not to keep the miners warm, and a form of fuel called breeze should be used, which burned less brightly than coal,” Ann explains.
The miners arrived at 10.30pm on that bitterly cold night, and the boys lit a fire using coal. After clearing their tools they discarded cotton waste onto the fire. The flue was due to be cleaned, and there was a large build-up of soot.
At 11pm the miners warned the boys to damp down the fire, but by 1am smoke was streaming through the workings. “As the flames took hold, Edward Thompson refused to let the men return to the surface, saying that they had to stay and extinguish the flames.”
By 2.30am nothing more could be done, and the men, including Cain, returned to the surface. However, several ponies had been left below and Thompson told Cain, Henry Stubbs and Bob Miles to go back for them. “They agreed, probably in Cain’s case because he worked closely with the ponies.”
Tragically, at 3.10am an explosion occurred that was heard two miles away. William Lockett, Henry Boulton and Thompson’s son were all in the cage, which was blasted high into the pithead. In all 24 men and boys lost their lives that night, including Cain.
“Edward Thompson stood trial for manslaughter, but was acquitted – probably because he had lost his son.” The 18 widows and 56 fatherless children were left in poverty, and reliant on charity. Cain’s body was never found.
“The tragedy of his death is tempered with pride, because he risked his own life for the ponies,” Ann says. “Cain, like all those who faced extreme danger in the subterranean world, deserves to be called a hero.”