West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History




The stocky, quiet little man, buttoned into an inconspicuous raincoat, handed over the "Express" office counter two pictures of a colliery office ambulance team, 40 and 50 years old. They say every picture tells a story and these two contain the essential story of an era – a record of human endeavour directed to the saving of life and limb which has not figured in the social histories nor on the placards. And in Fred Hancox, retired Pontefract miner, who brought the pictures, one could see the reason why.

The pictures, of an outstanding Pontefract Collieries ambulance competition team and the man who took it from enthusiastic youth to consummate experience and skill, are of men all very similar to Fred Hancox – quiet, self-effacing.

They came, like most pit ambulancemen, from the grass roots of a local working population. They spent hundreds of hours and years of their lives perfecting an expertise in the saving of life and limb, anywhere, anytime – but especially underground. They tested themselves in constant competitions, colliery against colliery, area against area, throughout an industry in which the consciousness of accident or worse was ever present.

Pontefract Collieries Prince of Wales Ambulance Team
Pontefract Collieries (Prince of Wales)
Ambulance Team 1941

Like their fellows of the St John Ambulance Brigade, the local colliery teams were engaged in a constant search for the perfection or the extension of their skills. And theirs was an entirely voluntary contribution, without sponsorship, reward or publicity – beyond the simple record of their performances in ambulance competitions, given regularly in the "Express".

Many a man owes a limb, an eye, or even his life to their prompt and expert ministrations. But they sought nothing for themselves. Their order forbade it; their nature rejected it. Their giving was a way of life. They took nothing and reserved all praise for their teachers and instructors.

It was the overriding sense of gratitude to a master-teacher, that brought Fred Hancox, now of Fairfax Road, Baghill, to the "Express" with his pictures.

Pit ambulance competitions were a particular feature of local colliery life and followed through to national level. Set tests included "live" patients and often mock-up underground conditions. They were subject to rigorous supervision and marking. Doctors were prominent among the judges’ panels. And it was not uncommon for one of these to comment of some competition performance: "I could not have done it better".

Besides their lifeline job in the pits, colliery ambulancemen were often first on hand at home and street accidents, the sudden collapse, the local disaster.

And Pontefract and Glass Houghton men became names in the coalfield for their quality, skill and constancy in competitions. But it was with something akin to worship that they regarded certain instructors who taught them. This is particularly true of the Pontefract colliery team featured here.

They represent a decade in the life of the late Mr. Godfrey Brooks of Pontefract, who was the inspiration and constant guide of that team from the day in 1931, when he drew them together as novices, until their prime in the early 1940’s. But this remarkable man had opened his long record of devotion to humanity through first aid, long before that.

A file of his service, brought by Mr. Hancox, shows that it began in 1896 when he won the First Year Certificate in ambulance work with voucher and medallion, adding labels for many years afterwards.

He was secretary and instructor at the Knottingley Station ambulance class from 1898-1908 and the same at Hemsworth Colliery, 1908-1913. Hundreds passed through his classes, including three generations. In Mines Rescue work he was Superintendent of the Prince of Wales Rescue Station 1913-1917 and then leader of the Colliery Brigade at Wakefield until 1923.

He started competition work in 1900, continuing to 1929 when he became Secretary of the Yorkshire Collieries Ambulance League Castleford Division, and trainer of the Prince of Wales team.

It was then, after POW teams had had a "lean time" in competitions, that he raised a brand new team at POW. But he trained a total of some 50 teams, all of which won awards at open competitions, and in personal first aid rendered, he recorded about 30,000 examples major and minor.

It seems odd that such a record did not bring more local recognition; but it was not lost upon the St John Ambulance authorities. Mr. Brooks was awarded the Vellum Vote of Thanks in 1910 and in 1929 was admitted as a Serving Brother of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem – a sign of the highest regard and merit.

Only long and unabating dedication brings men into this Order. Significantly, the only other local man holding it at that time was the late and great Superintendent T. C. Amery, of the Pontefract St John Ambulance Brigade – then at its height.

Those who know its worth will feel pride that, only in the Express of 12th February 1981 was recorded admission to the Order of a present-day ambulanceman, Mr. John Burchill, of Ledston Luck who superintends ambulance work at Featherstone where it seems to be reasonably well established.

However, the Godfrey Brooks Shield, which Mr. Brooks gave to encourage ambulance work beyond his time, still stands with honour to his name.

Fred Hancox himself had many "best individual" awards in competitions, also G. Kirkham, H. Wood, J. Tolson and Dick Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham who later became one of Pontefract’s Mayors, once had about seven wins in seven consecutive competitions, six being first placing's and two bringing trophies.

The team trophies awarded were notable names throughout Yorkshire – Pilkington Cup, Lane Fox Shield, Wood Shield, Reckitt Cup, Burman Cup and Ingham Brooke Shield.

In their first year (1931) Mr. Brooks’ Pontefract Collieries "lads" won the Lane Fox Shield (all Yorkshire) for the under 21’s and had four individual shield wins.

A story of mounting success continued year after year. By 1933 they had reached the final of the coveted senior all-Yorkshire Wood Shield. They came third. In 1935 they came second and third again in 1936. Then from 1938-1941 they were Wood Shield finalists four times in succession and winners in 1938 and 1941 (pictured).

Other shield and cup team awards multiplied over the years, along with many individual successes. A look at the carefully-kept records of Mr. Brooks suggests that some of the team members must have enough certificates to paper the walls of their homes.

But, says Mr. Hancox, when the professional nurse came into local ambulance rooms after Nationalisation, "there seemed little point" in continuing and locally, pit ambulance teams no longer flourish to the same extent, though the shields and cups are still fought for elsewhere in the industry.

It may be significant also, that the local Pontefract / Castleford Ambulance Brigade Superintendent was appealing recently for members because the numbers are far from what they were in the pre-war period, when local lads often went post haste to join but found they could not be admitted because the Brigade was at full complement.

Perhaps there are others still learning first aid; certainly there seems to be at Featherstone. But if they are not to be found in the numbers of bygone years, the man in the street must ask himself for whom the bell tolls. It tolls not for these services, maintained by ordinary folk with extraordinary devotion – but for him.

These are frightening times. First-aider's could be needed quickly everywhere. The state cannot provide them in sufficient numbers. Only the dedication of volunteers can do that.

Perhaps today, there are not so many quiet little men in raincoats who see nothing – not even recognition – for themselves.

John Hargrave

The Express, Thursday 12th March, 1981


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