Czech Support for Victims of the William Pit Mining Disaster – 1947

On August 15th, 1947, due to an explosion, 104 miners lost their lives in what would be called the William Pit mining disaster in Whitehaven, Cumbria.

On the 27th of September, Evžen Erban, Secretary General of the Czechoslovakian Central Council of Trade Unions, communicated a proposal for a Czechoslovak-supported miners’ recreation home in Britain in commemoration of the victims. Mr Erban said that under the proposal, Czechoslovak miners and other workers would do an extra hour’s work and give the additional pay to the fund for the building. The scheme was reminiscent of the Lidice Shall Live campaign. Erban called on all workers throughout Czechoslovakia to do this:

“… honour to the men who gave their lives on the battlefield of industry.”

Additionally, the Secretary-General announced that free scholarships would also be provided for the children of affected families who would like to study in Czechoslovakia, and invitations would be extended to bereaved wives and children for them to receive treatments in Czechoslovakian spas and for the costs to be subsidised.

All details of the plan were to be arranged in cooperation with the National Union of Mineworkers. As far as Evžen Erban and the Czechoslovak Central Council of Trade Unions were concerned, this was a reciprocal, empathetic gesture for the £32,375 collected in Britain subsidising the creation of a new Lidice—a campaign spearheaded by British mineworkers.

It was reported on the 26th of January 1948 that Will Lawther was cooperating on the project with the Czechoslovakian Trade Union Council and that, true to their word, the trade unionists had indeed raised about £40,000 for the widows and orphans of the Whitehaven Pit Disaster the previous year, “a reciprocal gesture for the kindness shown towards the victims of Lidice”, it said.

Erban and Lawther planned to meet to discuss how the money could best be spent. There were three ideas: holidays and spa treatments in Czechoslovakia for Whitehaven widows and orphans; scholarships in Czechoslovakia for the orphans; and building homes in Britain that they could occupy and that would later be used for old miners and their wives.

During a time of great upheaval in Czechoslovakia, General Secretary of the NUM, Arthur Horner, along with two other representatives of the union, travelled to Prague in early February 1948 to discuss the Whitehaven plans in person. Satisfied with the way the scheme was working out in practice, the authorities in Prague decided that the Czechoslovak holiday tours should be sold to “progressive” Britons for £37.10 a head and that part of the proceeds should be donated to the Whitehaven Fund.

It was agreed that the business would be run by the company Progressive Tours since they already had expertise in organising package holidays behind the Iron Curtain. For a nation strangled by the grip of communism, it was quite a free-market venture.

On the 19th of December 1949, an industrial correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph wrote,

“The sum of £40,000 collected by Czech miners two years ago for the dependants of 104 miners killed in the Whitehaven pit disaster in August 1947 has still not reached Britain. Miners’ leaders think that it never will.”

Difficulties had arisen since the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak miners wanted half the cash devoted to widows and orphans and half to offering spa treatment in Czechoslovakia for disabled British miners.

But Sir William Lawther, now President of the National Union of Mineworkers, said:

“We have told the Czechs that the idea of British miners going there for treatment is impracticable. We have suggested they send the money here for the Whitehaven dependents.”

Sir William denied that the change of Government in Czechoslovakia had anything to do with the NUM’s attitude. The report continued that Communists had alleged that the union was afraid to let its members discover “how well the Czechoslovak miners live under a nationalisation policy that encourages workers’ control at all levels.” According to British reports, the leaders in Prague announced subsequently that the country’s sterling currency reserve would not permit this amount to be transferred to Britain, and they offered to use the money to provide holidays in Czechoslovakia for miners and their families instead.

A note sent from the Foreign Office to the Treasury on February 5, 1950, described a typical holiday as including transport by air from London to Prague for a fortnight’s stay, whereby the participants would enjoy five meals per day. They would have the opportunity to visit the surrounding districts in addition to seeing Prague. The Czechoslovak Trade Union Movement would make no special charges for the administrative costs connected with the realisation of the scheme. The British NUM, for its part, pledged to obtain permission from the British authorities for the landing and taking off of the specially chartered Czechoslovak planes.

Unsurprisingly, government officials in Britain soon realised the pro-communist propaganda potential of the holiday-in-Czechoslovakia idea. Staff at the British Embassy in Prague had no illusions about how the tours could improve sentiment among the holidaymakers for the increasingly autocratic Communist-dominated Czechoslovak Government and how this could spread through their families, friends, and colleagues on their return home. As written in the British Embassy’s report to the Foreign Office,

“The Czechs, no doubt, will do everything to persuade the visitors that Czechoslovakia is a workers’ paradise. Nor should they have much difficulty in doing so if they lock them up in a series of delightful mountain resorts and surround them with engaging young communists of both sexes.”

In due course, the promise of funding for the Whitehaven dependents materialised; it was reported on April 6th, 1956, by the Lancashire Evening Post:

“In the near future, each surviving widow and adult dependent of the 104 miners who lost their lives in the William Pit Whitehaven, disaster in August 1947, will receive a lump sum of £100 and each child under 16 at the time of the disaster—there are 189—will get £10 each.”

It was affirmed that the money would come from the Czechoslovak trade unions, whose members had worked an extra hour to honour the memory of the lost miners. It had taken over eight years to have the funds transferred to England because of currency difficulties. Finally, there was confirmation that about £33,060 would be available for distribution among dependents by the end of the year.

“Apart from the lump sums, Mr Tom Stephenson, secretary of the Cumberland Miners, announced this morning that it was proposed to give the 64 widows and adult dependants who have not remarried a pension of 30s each a week for the next three years and 97 children who are still under the age of 16 will get 7s. 6d weekly during the same period.

“The payment of the initial lump sums will cost the fund £9,800 in respect of the adults and £1,890 in respect of the children, a total of £11,690. While the annual cost of the weekly payments will be £6,883 10s. In the three years during which these payments will run, more than £20,650 will be distributed, leaving in the fund about £720, which will be used for the payment of fares between West Cumberland and London for those dependants who wish to take advantage of the holidays which are offered by the Czechs to use up the remainder of the fund, some £19,600 which they continued to hold.

“Mr Stephenson said that in the near future, he would call a meeting in Whitehaven of the widows and dependants to tell them of the details of the scheme and hear any suggestions which might be put forward. With him on that occasion will be Mr J. Hewitt, president of the Cumberland Miners; Mr R. Beattie, the Haig Pit representative; Mr A. Lee, representative of the Ladysmith Works; and members of the council from the Whitehaven area. It is not known precisely when the share-out will begin.”

Any trip to Czechoslovakia invariably included a visit to Lidice. Sightseers were taken to both the new village and the few scarred remnants of the commemorative site, the symbol and pinnacle of Nazi brutality towards Czechs during the Occupation. For many British people, with their own memories of the Second World War so clear in their minds, this would have been a shocking cultural reality.

In 2008, a man named Joe Hewer, a beneficiary of the Czech-funded Whitehaven scheme, recalled his experience:

“I visited Czechoslovakia in 1956. I was nine years old, and we went to Lidice, a place I will never forget. I’m 61 now. I was with a party of miners’ widows and orphans as guests of the Czech miners. My father and 103 other miners were killed in an explosion in the William Pit disaster at Whitehaven in Cumbria, on 15 August 1947. Czech miners contributed to a fund for the miners’ dependents. We travelled to London and then on to Dover. We crossed the Channel to Ostend and then continued by train to Czechoslovakia. We stayed in a beautiful town called Mariánské Lázně.

“I will never forget our visit; the people were so kind and friendly to us all. We had two days in Prague and I remember visiting a youth camp by a lake in a woodland setting. We played games with the children and had our meals with the Czech youngsters. When it is near the anniversary, my memories of Czechoslovakia always come back to me. Thank you for everything you did for us all.”

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