MINING engineer John Fretwell Thompson attended the scene after a massive explosion at Warren Vale Colliery killed 23 and injured seven in November, 1874.
He was taken down to the exact spot where the blast had taken place and took charge of an exploration party as they worked out how far the gas had travelled.
“When we got about halfway up we found a body,” said John, who was based at Manvers Main, and whose account of the incident is featured on the Northern Mine Research Society website.
“We went a few yards further and found another two. We found gas on the far side of the bank next to the face. While I was there, there was a report of a fire in the first gate of the bank.
“We went to the fire and found it burning just behind the gate. A man’s jacket was on fire. We got it out as best we could with the assistance of a bottle of water.
“There was a deal of smoke and there was gas five or six feet off. We found the body with a stone on his head which had killed him.
“We found two men at the far side of the first bank. We found four near the far gate of the first bank.
“We came out to the level and after a short rest we went back and brought one man out of the first gate to the level and found that we could do no more.
“I sent out of the pit a note for fresh men and when they came, we got all the bodies out.”
Among those killed in the explosion that day was James Morte, who had been the chapel keeper at the Rawmarsh Wesleyan Chapel. The jury for the inquest had to go and view his “shockingly mangled and burned body” at his home.
James is mentioned on the memorial to Thomas Heathcote and his wife, Elizabeth. She had buried her first husband 12 years earlier and her second marriage to James explains why he appears on the Heathcote stone at the High Street cemetery, next to St Mary’s Church in Rawmarsh.
The inscription reads: “Also James Morte, second husband of the above named Elizabeth Heathcote, who was killed by an explosion at Warren Vale Colliery, Rawmarsh, November 20th, 1874, aged 30 years.”
These words were recorded in the 1990s but now — because so many stones there are covered in ivy — it is not even known where this memorial is within the site.
The High Street cemetery is part of the borough’s Victorian heritage. It was open for burials between 1851 and 1908, when the Haugh Road cemetery was opened to offer more space.
What makes the High Street site of such historical interest is that it is filled with the graves of thousands of Parkgate and Rawmarsh residents who lived and died in a time of remarkable growth for the area.
Large numbers of migrants arrived from across the country, attracted by the various jobs available in the coal, iron and — later — steel industries.
Tony Dodsworth, chairman of the Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group, said: “It is a matter of growing concern for our membership that the condition of the High Street cemetery has deteriorated over a period of years.
“As a result it is well-nigh impossible to get to many of the gravestones for much of the year let alone read them or pay respects to those buried in that place.
“The current management seems to involve just one vegetation cut a year, usually towards the end of the year.
“This allows some access to some parts of the cemetery for about four or five months before increased growth in the spring once again stops any reasonable access.
“The three War Graves Commission headstones do receive some extra care to enable easier access and to stay legible but a significant proportion of the other memorials are impossible to read all year round owing to them being covered by great thicknesses of ivy.”
Many of the readable inscriptions on the graves actually refer to the circumstances of the death if it happened in a pit or industrial accident.
The jobs which brought so many men here to Parkgate and Rawmarsh were occupations associated with high death rates.
Miner Mark Dyson (41) was killed in the Aldwarke Cage Disaster, which claimed seven lives on February 23, 1904.
“The memorial for this accident is locked away in the dilapidated miners’ institute building in Broad Street and has not been viewed for years,” said Tony. “Access to the memorial has been forbidden due to health and safety concerns.”
A small stone dedicated to Richard Athorne can be seen in the High Street cemetery, recording that he was accidentally killed at Aldwarke Colliery in January 1899.
Richard, also known as Dick Thompson, was a 46-year-old who lived at Hall Street in Parkgate. He had been a cricketer for Aldwarke Park — even writing poetry about the team’s exploits.
Another work-related death involved Charles Maiden Laughton, who was fatally injured while employed as a planer in the armour plate department of the Parkgate ironworks in September 1859.
A newspaper report described in distressing detail how he was caught up in some machinery, drawn up off his feet and whirled around a shaft. He died in 20 minutes from his terrible injuries.
“His stone can still be read in the cemetery but it is deteriorating quite quickly now due to poor conditions in the cemetery,” said Tony.
Another local notable with a memorial at the cemetery is Charles Wannop, who was born in Carlisle but came to Parkgate around 1861 to make his fortune.
He set up as a grocer at Rawmarsh Road, next to the George Inn, and ten years later he was established in a new shop at the heart of Parkgate, at Four Lane Ends.
The reason his name is still known today — more than a century after his death — is because the road running past where his shop was is named after him and is still known as Wannop Street.
Tony said: “He has a fine stone beside the main path in the cemetery, fittingly, as he was in his lifetime on the Burial Board dealing with the cemetery.”
Slightly more recently was Charles Hague, who established his drinks manufacturing business in Holme Flatt Street, probably in the 1870s.
He lived close by with his wife and seven children until his death in 1899, when he was 59.
Hague’s pop lorries were a familiar sight around Rotherham well into the 20th century, although perhaps his greatest claim to fame nowadays is that he was grandfather of politician William Hague.
The cemetery would frequently make the papers for events which were out of the ordinary, for example when Ellen Cooper, late of Green Lane Inn, Rawmarsh, was interred in 1874.
No fewer than 68 friends and relatives followed her to the grave as chief mourners, and many hundreds of others were present, too.
On that same day, James Bailey was also buried. He was 82 — and worked in Warren Vale pit right up to the time of his death. His mining career was an astonishing 75 years.
More bizarrely, there is a report from 1886 of a funeral of the wife of a Parkgate collier, at which the local spiritualists walked in procession to the cemetery, adorned with lilies and maidenhair ferns.
The rites of burial were administered by a local “medium” who professed to be in a trance state and under the influence of a clergyman named Norman.
It was reported that “the hundreds of onlookers who had been attracted were disgusted with the incoherent utterances”. The police were present to prevent disturbances.
Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group has offered to be involved with carefully removing ivy from the gravestones, in order to make photographic records while the words are still legible.
Tony said: “There may be hope for an improvement on the horizon as there has been an initial meeting of a Friends of Rawmarsh Cemeteries Group with greater local public support being sought soon.
“High Street Cemetery and Haugh Road Cemetery have played an important part in the development of the community of Rawmarsh and Parkgate for well over a century. It is time this is recognised and acted upon.”
Crematorium director Steve Gant, from the Crematorium and Memorial Group, part of Dignity, said: “We take great pride in ensuring the grounds of our crematoria and cemeteries are of the highest standards and create a peaceful environment for visitors.
“A regular maintenance programme for Rawmarsh cemetery has now been developed and work is already under way to improve its appearance.
“Across the UK we collaborate with a number of community groups that have an interest in the maintenance and history of cemeteries.
“While we take full responsibility for the upkeep of the cemetery, we would of course welcome a meeting with the Rawmarsh & Parkgate History Group and encourage them to get in touch with our office at Rotherham Crematorium.”