CROFT PIT, Whitehaven, Cumberland. 15th November 1831
CUMBERLAND PACQUET, Tuesday, 15th November 1831
We have this week the painful duty of recording one of the most distressing accidents of a local nature that ever appeared in the columns of our paper. About three o’clock in the morning of Saturday last, an explosion of hydrogen took place in Croft Pit, to which twenty-two human beings, men and boys, have fallen victims. The cause of this heavy calamity must ever remain unknown, as no one has been permitted to survive to disclose the fatal tale. It appears, however, from the evidence given at the Coroner’s inquest that no blame – not even of the slightest nature – attaches to any of the viewers or deputy overlookers of the pits.
Two of the overseers, were in another part of the pit at the time the accident occurred, and one of them had just visited and examined the working where the explosion took place and found all perfectly safe. The discharge therefore must have been sudden as well as considerable, but as the situation was a very confined one – all the men being killed within the space of two hundred yards – the effect was of course proportionally powerful. From the whole of the evidence, indeed, it is sufficiently plain that the accident was one of those inscrutable decrees of Providence, which no human prudence could either guard against or avert.
It is so painful to dwell upon matters like this, that we would willingly close the recital of this tale of woe by a brief enumeration of the names and ages of the sufferers but injustice to the overmen at that time in the pit, and others who act in the same capacity, though the nature of these accidents are well known to everyone residing in a mining district, we deem it proper to give the following evidence, from which it will be seen that the Pit was in the most admirable state of ventilation, and that no attention whatever was wanting on the part of the overseers. The lateness of the hour, indeed, prevents us from doing more but should we afterward see the necessity of so doing, we shall publish the whole of the evidence in our next number. We may observe, however, that the whole of the witnesses corroborated the testimony, which we subjoin:
JOSEPH BATES sworn: – Is a deputy overlooker at Croft Pit, and saw the place where the accident happened about six o’clock on Friday evening. At that time all was apparently as safe as could be. He was told that there had been a fall from the roof and went and examined the place. He found it of a very trifling nature nothing but a piece of following stone. There was no explosive air in the place: It was then as clear as the house in which we assembled. He believed that there was not a better ventilated pit in England, and of this, the men were also aware. Never heard anyone object to work in Croft Pit, but, on the contrary, they had had more applications than they had room for. If any danger be apprehended, the overmen always order the tops of the Davy lamps to be locked on, and locks are kept underground for that purpose. He could not tell how the accident happened but it was unquestionably an explosion. He had been at the place since the accident occurred – had examined it minutely – but could not tell from whence the foul air had been dislodged. At this time there was not the least symptom of inflammable air. There was nothing to indicate the place where the foul air had come from but he thought it had come either from the roof or the thill. Inflammable air seldom accumulates in the old workings and in some instances it is more dangerous to work at pillars than at new work. As a precautionary measure, when the men go to work at pillars, all the lamps are locked and made safe but if it be found, after the experience of two or three days, that there is no danger, the tops of the lamps are removed, and the naked lamp is used the same as in new works.
Such was the healthy state of the mine at the time when this fatal event took place, and proves, we think, to a demonstration, that no care is sufficient to provide against these sudden discharges of inflammable air.
The following are the names of the unhappy suffers:
- TURNER Patterson Ginns aged 28
- McMINN John Ginns 17
- MORRIS Cormick Front-row 60
- McCALLISTER Hector Front-row 20
- GARROWAY Robert Bell’s Lane 12
- BOLTON John Bell’s Lane 35
- DAVEY Michael Back-row 26
- PARTLETON George Back-row 32
- FITZSIMMONS Christopher Middle-row 14
- INGLEBY Clement Middle-row 20
- TAYLOR Abraham Middle-row 40
- COOK Robert Front-row 19
- QUEEN James Middle-row 40 and
- QUEEN Arthur (his son) 9
- HANNAY Hugh Middle-row 25
- SMITH Hugh Middle-row 27
- McGAUGHIN Archibald Middle-row 23 and
- McGAUGHIN John (his brother) 13
- GRAHAM John Middle-row 17
- WOOD Thomas Middle-row 26
- LITTLE William Gainbriggs 21 and
- LITTLE Robert (his brother) aged 20 years.
The bodies of the unfortunate sufferers were yesterday interred twelve of them at Trinity chapel, eight at St. Nicholas’s, and the remaining at St. James’s. Six of the men were married, and have left 17 children, eight of them under ten years of age. The wife of Turner has been brought to bed since the accident happened.
It my seem unnecessary to add, that the verdict re-turned by the jury was ‘Accidental Death.’
WHITEHAVEN HERALD, Tuesday, 15th November 1831.
EXPLOSION OF FIRE-DAMP IN LORD LONSDALE’S COLLIERIES – TWENTY-TWO LIVES LOST!
It is this week our painful duty to record on of those sudden and terrible events which so frequently occur in coal working, and of which the consequences have plunged between twenty and thirty families into the most agonising distress.
About half-past two on Saturday morning an explosion of inflammable air took place in Croft Pit, about a mile to the south-west of Whitehaven. Various reports of the nature and extent of the accident were, in the course of the morning, current in Whitehaven, and excited an intense interest. But though the interest in the event, and the sympathy with the sufferers and their families was great, candour obliges us to state, that nothing seemed do extraordinary to us as comparative strangers in Whitehaven, as the very little excitement if occasioned. An event so awful in its nature, and so dreadful in its effects, would, in any but a colliery district, have excited feelings of horror and amazement, of which the effects would have been visible, in the most unequivocal manner, to the most cursory observer but though the event was indeed a subject of general conversation, it did not seem in the least to disturb the ordinary course of business, and the destruction of from twenty to thirty individuals seemed to excite less interest, than in other places we have seen occasioned by the untimely death of a single human being. Even the mystery which hung over the causes of the terrible catastrophe seemed hardly to excite a desire to penetrate it and though we cannot believe that if active exertions could have been of any benefit, they would not have been spared, still, the apathy which prevailed, seemed to us a strange contrast to the deep feeling of awe and interest which elsewhere would have been occasioned by a loss of life to one tithe of the amount.
About one o’clock in the afternoon we learned that the raising of the bodies of the sufferers had commenced, and we accordingly repaired to the mount of the pit. On our road thither we saw none of those symptoms of public interest in the fate of the sufferers, which in other towns would have turned out thousands, eager to learn the least tiding of the fate of so many fellow creatures, cut off by so sudden and dreadful a calamity. The streets bore their ordinary aspects of business or of listless indifference. As we receded from the town we met successively four cars, which contained each something covered with straw, and as we learned from casual passengers, the bodies of the wretched victims. On reaching the pit we understood that five bodies had been raised, besides two living men, of whom one had since died. Fifteen or sixteen were collected at the bottom of the shaft ready to be raised, and two or three persons supposed to have perished, were yet missing and unaccounted for. About fifty or sixty persons were collected on the spot a number of carts were ready to carry away the bodies as fast as raised, and one was pointed to us as containing the body of a young man and waiting to receive the body of his brother, who had perished along with him. Deep agony was painted in many a countenance round us and one poor young creature who had lost her husband rent the air with her wailing’s. The corpses were momentarily expected to be raised to the surface but we turned our steps from the scene of horrors.
On enquiry we learned that the depth of the shaft was 160 fathoms (one third of the height of Skiddaw!) and that the working, where the explosion took place, was more than a mile, some said two from the bottom of the shaft. A coroner’s jury, we further learned, was already summoned, and would meet as soon as the bodies were all raised.
About three in the afternoon we were informed, that the inquests were about commencing, and we repaired to the quarter of the town where we were informed they were to be held. We were prepared to find a large concourse of people attracted either by sympathy, or curiosity, to the scene of an investigation so solemn and momentous, as an enquiry into the cause of the deaths of twenty two human beings, must be in the eyes of all who are duly impressed with a tender regard for the life and happiness of their fellow creatures and who are aware that in the Whitehaven collieries alone, many hundreds are daily making their bread with a similar calamity impending over them, but our eyes could discover no trace of any event which might excite human sympathy we saw no passenger who did not seem passing on his usual avocations, and the inhabitants of the houses around were as usual in the evenings, carelessly lounging at their doors. Our readers will scarcely think it credible but we can assure them of the fact that within one hundred yards of the spot where the inquest was sitting, we enquired of two persons who could not direct us to it, and we only obtained the information from a person officially acquainted with the fact. When we arrived at the spot, the coroner’s gig at the door was the only indication of any thing particular going forward within. These may seem but trifling facts, but to us who are unused to such dreadful scenes, they seemed lamentable indications, if not of a want of feeling, at least of the suppression of it. We have seen enough of the men of Whitehaven, in cases of shipwreck, to know, that where active exertions can be useful, they are not slow or timid in affording them, but still it was not the less incomprehensible to us, that on this occasion, no little feeling or sympathy should be visible.
On entering the public house, where the inquest was sitting, we found its apartments occupied by a number of persons, principally colliers (Saturday is pay day at the collieries) spending their evening, as usual, in boisterous drinking. The Landlady conducted us to the room in which the coroner was it was a small back parlour, and letting us into it with a snap-key, she informed us that it was shut in order to keep the room clear from the intrusion of the people drinking in her house, which we have no doubt was the case. We found the coroner, Peter Hodgson, and his clerk, with twelve jurors and a constable at the door, the room being barely sufficient to hold the party.
The Coroner was busy swearing in the jury, and on our entry he enquired our name and if we were one of them. We gave our address, and stated that we attended as a spectator- as one of the public. Mr. Coroner immediately replied that perhaps we would like to be on the jury ourselves, and then we could see that every proper investigation was made? Mr. Coroner observed, that in the inquisitions before him the names of twelve jurors ere already recorded, but that we might be included in the next one.
The following jury:
- Richard Curwen, assistant overseer, Foreman
- John Bell, Keeper of the house of correction
- David Frears, auctioneer, and sheriff’s office
- Jonathan Boadle, publican
- Oliver Ussinson, late a clerk in an attorney’s office
- William Leslie, pensioner
- Joseph Jackson, watchman
- Phillip Jackson, sheriff’s officer
- Jonathan Burnyeat, joiner
- William Kewley, policeman
- Thomas Trohear, clogger
- Jonathan Bowman, shoemaker
Were impannelled, successively, to hold inquests on the causes of the deaths of Christopher Fitzsimons, Abraham Taylor, Hugh Hannay, Hugh Smith, John McMinn, George Partleton, Archibald McGahan, John Graham, Thomas Ward, Hector McAllister and John Graham.
Whether the above Jurors were selected by the overseer, or by the Coroner, or by what rule the selection was guided, if by any, we do not know.
Mr. Coroner then with great civility, requested us to take a seat at the table, in order “to report every word he said” and was kind enough to say, that he would speak slow on purpose to enable us to do so. We were the only reporter present, and indeed the only individual in the room except the Coroner, clerk, jurors, and constable.
Mr. Coroner then proceeded to charge the jury. The charge he had to make to them would by a very brief one indeed. They were assembled on one of those melancholy occasions, which unfortunately but too often occurred. It appeared to be one of those awful and sudden events, which sweep off their victims in numbers, and leave none behind to tell the tale. And it was utterly unknown how it had happened, and it was to be presumed that it was accidental but if the jury found that any man had willfully ignited the air in the pit, that person would by guilty of the crime of murder, and if they found that any man had willfully taken off the top of his lamp without looking to consequences it would amount to manslaughter. His official duty had at time and time required his attendance on many similar occasions but never yet could he satisfactorily ascertain the cause of the explosion, for all who were within its reach invariably perished, and he feared that no more light could be thrown upon it now. The most probable cause, and he feared they could arrive at nothing nearer than probabilities, was, that this dreadful explosion which “ at one foul swoop” had hurried so many human beings to their long account, was some individual’s opening his lamp to get more light than he could otherwise be enabled to have. Mr. Coroner then proceeded to explain to the jury the different circumstances connected with the use of lamps which would warrant them in bringing in a verdict of murder, manslaughter, or accidental death.
The charge being over, Mr. Coroner turned round to us rather abruptly, and enquired if we had “put down every word he said?” We replied that we feared we had not, but that we thought we had got the substance we should, however, be happy to submit our report to his correction. This proposal was courteously declined.
The jury then proceeded to view the bodies of the eleven unfortunate beings above named. They had to pilot there way through those almost interminable rows of squalid cottages called the New Houses and the Ginns, which belong to Lord Lonsdale, and are exclusively occupied by his workmen. None of these buildings seem very modern, and we have rarely seen any dwellings even of the lowest class of artisans so destitute of comfort or convenience. Whether it be from poverty or from improvidence, their interior and exterior, with the exception that they are all carefully whitewashed, are naked, desolate, and filthy in the extreme a yet more disgusting circumstance was that a large portion of their inmates both male and female, were either intoxicated or in a state bordering on intoxication. It was the duty of the jury and of the Coroner to take a view, as it is technically termed, of the bodies and in the discharge of this painful duty they had to traverse the whole of those buildings, and dive into many a recess of wretchedness, and witness the agonizing grief of the widowed, the fatherless, and of destitute old age. The majority of the victims were unmarried, young men or lads. They in general seemed little disfigured, though a respect for the feelings of their relations, and the necessity of getting through the preliminary part of the business that night, if possible, in order to enable the coroner to issue has warrant for their burial on Sunday, prevented anything beyond a very superficial examination. They had been taken out of the pit before the limbs had got permanently contracted, and perhaps the foul air had retarded that process they were all washed and straightened, and were laid out with that decent regard for the obsequies of the dead, which invariable distinguishes even the poorest of the poor.
On the return of the jury, the investigation commenced with chilling evidence respecting the death of John McMinn.
James Floody called. It would be difficult to give our readers any idea of this man’s appearance and conduct. He commenced a very rude expostulation with the Coroner, who was about to swear him. He declared that the Coroner had asked him something or other (we could not catch what) before, and he had no business to ask him again – he would not take the oath – his conscience pricked him – he would tell the truth first and than swear to it after. The Coroner expostulated with him the jury expostulated with him. Both reminded him that he was bringing great suspicion on himself. The Coroner threatened to commit him he told the Coroner to do so if he liked. Neither threats nor reasoning could induce him to take the oath he protested that he was sober – had not been an hour out of the pit – he would tell the truth but he would not swear. The Coroner ordered him into custody. There was some delay in finding a constable, and in the mean time the witness persisted in talking, and stated that he was going down the pit and felt the blast – that O’Brien and he both found it. This person did not appear to be drink, or at least not particularly so.
Two witnesses now appeared, Thos. Dryden and another, both to them manifestly intoxicated. The former was sworn. He went to the pit about half-past four in the morning – deceased was a taker off in a little pit – a hagger. The coroner expressed an anxiety to get deceased’s proper designation, and commented severely on the intoxication of the witnesses. Heard no blast – the man was scorched and burnt – blood came from his head. Was certain there had been a fire in the Croft Pit. Witness here showed strong symptoms of drunkenness, was very impertinent with the coroner, and insisted on leaving the room the Coroner threatened to commit him, expostulated with him, but all in vain. All that could be extracted from him was that he believed there had been a “strong blast” and that deceased had died from its effects.
During this examination the service of the only constable in attendance on the court being required, the Coroner desired him never to mind the fellow that had run away, (Floody) he was not worth keeping – that he would report him and see that he never was employed again.
Intelligence now arrived that the bodies of two brothers, William Little and Robert Little were got out and taken home. A jury were impannelled, including the same jurors as in the preceding inquests, excepting that James Hewitt, ex-huntsman to Lord Lonsdale (we believe) was substituted for Joseph Jackson, watchman, and Robert Abraham was substituted for Phillip Jackson, sheriff’s officer.
The jury proceeded to view those bodies, which lay at a little solitary cottage, in the field, about a mile and a half out of Whitehaven. We had an opportunity of examining them more carefully than the others. William, the elder brother, was a little scorched in the face, but not so much, and his breast, where his shirt had probably been open, showed a little appearance of scorching likewise the skin of his breast had just that rough reddish appearance which marks the incipient stage of confluent small-pox. His face was very livid, which, with the redness of his breast were pretty certain signs that he had, not died suddenly, but had lived ling enough for the blood to get carbonized, and the skin to inflame. His brother Robert showed no exterior sign of injury he was neither discoloured nor scorched, and it might be difficult for the physiologist to conceive what could be the proximate cause of that swift destruction, which had left so little trace of its agency. His manly countenance had that “mild and placid air, that rapture of repose,” which often marks the recent dead.
“Before decay’s effacing fingers, have swept the lines where beauty lingers.”
They were both fine young men, remarkable for personal appearance, and were in a great measure, if not wholly, the support of their aged parents, and bore an excellent character. There was not much difference between their ages, and they strikingly resembled each other. As they lay side by side in the humble bed of their lonely cottage, we thought we had seldom seen a more affecting spectacle.
The jury returned in the dark and lowering night from this melancholy errand, an on their return found that Patterson Turner, Robt. Garraway, John Bolton, Thos. Daly, Robt. Cook, Jas. Queen, and Clement Ingleby, had been carried to their several houses from the pit. Being sworn on those inquisitions, they proceeded again to search out for the houses of mourning. It would be impossible for us to give any lengthened detail of the appearance of the bodies, and indeed this part of the business was got over a speedily as possible, for the reasons we mentioned above. Some of the bodies appeared much scorched and bruised, especially those of the two Queen’s, father and son, the latter a mere boy, who both lay in the same bed.
On their return to the inn, the jury were apprised that the body of Cormack Morris was found. This was the last victim known to have perished and they proceeded to the house where the corpse was lying. On our arrival, we found this poor fellow exactly in the state in which he had been taken out of the pit. He was all blackened over with coal dust, his clothes burnt, and his skin looked as if he had been scalded, but from there being no discolouration it was evident he had died very suddenly – that is before re-action could take place. As he lay on his back before us he seemed to be in the position in which the last mortal agony had come over him his limbs contracted, his countenance sternly fixed.
The bodies (twenty-two in all) having been now all seen, and one of the jury having suggested to the foreman that it would be as well, on resuming the enquiry, to have in attendance every one who could throw any light on the subject by a proper account of the preventive measures usually adopted of the state of pits, and especially of their ventilation, in order that no time might be lost in sending for witnesses, the Coroner said that in such cases it was invariably the custom to make such a full investigation and that it was strongly the interest of the noble proprietor of the pits to prevent the occurrence of such accidents, as he made a practice of allowing the widows of the sufferers each a house and coals free for life, with a pension of two shillings a week, and employment to the children on very favorable terms.
The Coroner then, in a very handsome manner, suggested that Monday morning at eleven o’clock, at the public office, in Lowther Street, would be a suitable time and place for reassembling that for himself he was a public officer, and that his time was at the service of the public, and that if any jury could suggest any other time or place as more convenient for their attendance, he should be ready to afford them any accommodation in his power.
This proposal being assented to, after a little conversation, the names of the jury were called over and Mr. Coroner proceeded to charge them. He said that this was a case attended with loss of life to a most terrible extent. At present the state of the only witnesses who were likely to throw any light on it, was such that it was utterly impossible to impress on them any adequate idea, either of the solemnity of the occasion, or of the solemnity of an oath. He believed that under all the circumstances it would be better to adjourn, and that on Monday it was to be hoped that the witnesses would be impressed with a due sense of this awful event.
The jury were then bound over in their own recognizance’s of ten pounds each to appear at the police office in Lowther Street, on Monday morning, at 11 o’clock.
Thus terminated the preliminary part of this investigation. At it is hardly probable that the inquest will be terminated time enough on Monday (if at all on that day) for us to give so full an account of it as its awful importance demands, and as it would be highly improper in us, pending the enquiry, to offer any comments of our own, our readers must not expect to read in our paper of this week, any further particulars of the investigation, or of the presumed causes of the accident. We have only to add, that though we have in our time seen many a dismal spectacle of human misery and mortality, we never witnessed one, which left on our mind such deep impressions of horror, as that of Saturday night.
WHITEHAVEN HERALD, Tuesday, 22nd November 1831.
THE WIDOWS: – An honest man called on us one day this week and asked us if we had not stated in our paper that ”Turney Hodgson” had said, that Lord Lonsdale allowed the widows of the men who were killed in his collieries eight shillings a month and a cottage and coals rent free? We told him that Mr. Hodgson had said so. He said then that he had come to tell us that it was a mistake, (he used a shorter and more expressive word, but that does not matter.) That Lord Lonsdale might order it, but they did not get it. He told us that he knew Jane Scott, who was left a widow many years ago with three children that she had eight shillings a month allowed her for three years then she got four shillings a month for two years and then two shillings a month for one year, and then her pay was stopped altogether and that with respect to coals, she was only allowed one cart load in the year. She made several applications to the agents but all in vain. He added that he believed that the pensions were totally taken form the widows on the Whingill side, but that the Howgill widows had some trifle continued to them yet.
We have to record the death of an additional victim to the explosion of Saturday week. On Friday, Alexander Garraway died of his injuries he had received making the number of lives lost twenty-three in all. An inquest was impannelled, in which of course we were not included, and the usual verdict returned.
WHITEHAVEN HERALD, Tuesday, 22nd November 1831.
ADJOURNED INQUEST ON THE BODIES OF THE PERSONS WHO PERISHED BY THE EXPLOSION ON SATURDAY WEEK IN CROFT PIT.
We stated in our last week’s publication, that the inquest was adjourned until eleven o’clock on Monday morning. At that hour we repaired to the public office. In about a quarter of an hour the jury assembled. Five or six witnesses likewise dropped in, and Mr. John Peile, Mr. Williamson Peile, (his son) and Mr. Jackson, Lord Lonsdale’s colliery stewards, took their seats on the bench, near the coroner.
The names of the jury were then called over, and the coroner then proceeded to charge the jury. They were now reassembled for the purpose of making inquiry, and ascertaining, if possible, the cause of the deaths of the individuals named in the inquisitions before them. If it appeared to them, as he told them on Saturday night, that any one had willfully ignited the air in the mine, the persons who had done so would be guilty of murder. But he believed that they might fairly lay that out of their consideration, as besides the unlikelihood of it, nothing of the kind had even been hinted at. However, if they met with any circumstances leading to any suspicion that such a crime had been committed, they would doubtless feel it their duty to investigate them narrowly. It was utterly impossible to ascertain what took place at the time of the accident, but the shortest method, he believed, would be, to call those who knew the state of the pit immediately before and immediately after the accident. If the heard evidence as to those points and found it impossible to get at evidence showing exactly how the accident happened, he thought they could only come to one conclusion.
William Nicholson sworn, and examined by the coroner. I only go occasionally to this pit, and happened to be there on Friday. I go once a week. I am ordered by Mr. Peile to visit it once a week. Was there on Friday at ten o’clock, at the place where the accident happened. The pit was quite clean of any inflammable air. Considered it in perfect safety. Fresh air was gong round it as usual. Have been there since. No inflammable air now. It is now well aired. Was in it as soon as I could conveniently get on Saturday. I think the mischief had arisen from a sudden gush from some part, but cannot ascertain from where of inflammable air, I suppose, which had touched some of the men’s lights. Are the men more or less cautious on Saturday nights? I don’t know any difference. Some of those men should have been there on Saturday, but were there on Friday to meet their pay. Friday night is a regular working time.
Here some of the jury expressing themselves satisfied with the evidence, the deposition was read over to witness, as usual.
Mr. Peile (Lord Lonsdale’s principal colliery agent) and the coroner, had here some conversation. The witness added that at other times Wilson Pit was the one he visited.
Mr. Williamson Peile sworn and examined by the coroner. – Was at Croft Pit after the accident happened. Went immediately on hearing of it. At that time the air was going round. Went down with my father. Found the air restored – not going entirely round all the parts it formerly went round, but round the principal parts. Considered the pit perfectly safe previous to the accident – the ventilation, especially in that part, was particularly good. I saw the bodies of all the deceased, (here Mr. P. enumerated them) excepting McMinn and Morris.
Mr. Peile suggested here that Mr. Jackson could speak to the same facts.
The Coroner thought it quire unnecessary to hear Mr. Jackson. He did not think the inquiry could be prosecuted any further. It was clear that the explosion was the effect of accident, and he did not know what further could be made of it.
To this opinion the jury seemed generally to assent, but after a pause, Mr. Peile’s examination was resumed. – The cause of the accident was mere conjecture. It left no traces behind – no traces before. No inflammable air had been seen before, and none after.
The whole of the evidence on these inquests was little more that answers, yes or no, to questions put by the coroner. Not a single question was put by any of the jury.
The Coroner charged the jury. They had now heard the whole of the evidence that could be adduced, and it had just turned out as he expected it would, and left them just as much in the dark as they were before. He would read them an inquisition which he had prepared last night, and he presumed that the rest would be much the same, though there might be some difference in specifying the exact causes of their death, whether by suffocation or scorching.
An inquisition on Christopher Fitzsimmons, ready filled up with a verdict to the effect, that, Christopher Fitzsimmons being employed in Croft Pit, as a driver, it so happened that on Saturday the 12th of November, a great quantity of inflammable air caught fire, burning and scorching the said Christopher Fitzsimmons, on the back, breast, loins, and various other places, and that he met with his death casually, and by misfortune, and not otherwise, was then read, and the jury declaring themselves satisfied, it was signed by them immediately.
It was here incidentally stated by the foreman, Mr. Curwen, that seventeen children were left without fathers, ten of them under eight years of age.
The jury impannelled on Hector McAllister was now called over. This was one of the inquisitions, which included our name.
Mr. Coroner charged. The jury had heard the evidence on the other inquests, and the same evidence was applicable to all. The death of Hector McAllister had been proved by Mr. Peile, who identified the body. He (Mr. Coroner) supposed that the deceased was very likely known to Mr. Curwen and others of the jury, which would remove all doubt of the death of the party.
The foreman read over an inquisition, filled up exactly like the others, affirming that the death of Hector McAllister took place “accidentally, casually, and not otherwise.”
Mr. Peile here observed that Mr. Jackson, and the viewer, and all the deputies, were present in case any of the jurors wished for further information. Another person (whom Mr. P. named) could also give some account of the circumstances connected with the accident. Mr. Coroner said, he thought further evidence quite unnecessary.
We here rose and stated to the Coroner that we ourselves had not heard any evidence touching the inquisition.
It would be difficult for us to describe the alteration that took place in Mr. Coroner’s demeanor upon our making this remark. It would be altogether impossible for us to give anything like an exact report of the series of violent altercations (violent at least on one side) which from that moment commenced, between him and us on almost every point of what we considered the discharge of our duty as juror. We endeavored throughout to treat Mr. Hodgson with the respect due to his judicial position, and trust that we did do so, though our patience was often sorely tried. Engaged as we were for three hours that morning, in an arduous investigation, and in an active contest with the Coroner, it is entirely out of our power to give a verbatim report of some speeches which we were compelled to listen to, and which we would have given worlds to have had upon record, as illustrations of a “Coroner’s quest.” With the exception of the evidence, which we took down very minutely, we can give nothing but the faintest outline imaginable of the other proceedings. Besides many things were done and said so extraordinary, that as a party in the contest, we find a delicacy in publishing them on our own sole authority.
In reply to our observation, Mr. Coroner said that we had heard the evidence on the preceding inquests, and proceeded at much length to enlarge on its conclusiveness.
We replied that there was no evidence before us in our capacity of juror that even if the evidence we had just now heard wee before us in our judicial capacity, it would not satisfy our mind, and that we had firmly resolved that we would not sign a single inquisition until we had heard all the evidence which could be produced, and which we thought necessary to satisfy our doubts.
Here a long discussion took place, and Mr. Peile earnestly advised the Coroner to suffer us to have the evidence we wished for.
Mr. Coroner at last enquired what witness we wished to be called, and we named Jas Floody.
Floody was not in court – notwithstanding he was one of the witnesses on account of whom intoxication the Coroner had adjourned the court! Indeed at that time there was nobody whatever in the court, except the Coroner, his clerk and constable, the jury, three colliery agents (on the Magistrates bench), and five or six overlookers, & c., brought as witnesses, and a gentleman connected with a paper of which one of their agents was lately proprietor.
So little interest did the enquiry excite in Whitehaven, that there was not a single person in the room as a mere spectator. The unpleasantness of our situation may be better conceived than described.
We then desired to see William Nicholson, who was re-sworn and put into the box, but not before Mr. Coroner had made a ling speech expressing his conviction that, the “Stewards were anxious for a full and fair investigation.”
We were at length about to put a question to the witnesses, when to our great surprise, and indeed indignation, on turning round we saw the jury signing the inquisition, and five or six of them had already got their name down! We immediately remonstrated with the Coroner, and told him that we considered it a most indecent thing for a jury to be signing an inquisition while the inquiry was pending. This was put a stop to.
We obtained the following evidence from William Nicholson. I have generally gone to Croft Pit once a week, but sometimes I have missed. Am regularly employed at a weekly salary, to examine the pits and see that they are safe. Am five days in the week generally at Wilson Pit, and the sixth day generally at Croft Pit. What reason have you for devoting five days to Wilson Pit and one only to Croft Pit?
The Coroner would not suffer this last question to be put – we had nothing to do, he said, with Wilson Pit.
Examination resumed. When at Croft Pit employs himself solely in seeing that it is safe. When apprehensive trys it with his lamp. Am I to understand that you try the pit with your lamp once a week? Yes. How do you judge whether it is safe or not? I judge by the spire that goes off the top of the light.
Here we asked the witness what were the appearances in the spire itself by which he judged. To this the witness, encouraged, we do not doubt, by observing the contempt and rudeness, to use no hasher terms, with which we were treated by the coroner replied “I am not called here to larn you to be a collier.” Mr Coroner told the witness he need not answer the question that he had no occasion to state how he arrived at his conclusions. Mr Coroner also remonstrated with us in no gentle terms on our ignorance and impertinence in asking such irrelevant questions, and told us the business of the court was to ascertain “the when, the how, and the where” the person met his death, and not to instruct us on the working of collieries and the use of Davy’s. We possibly knew more about the use of a safety lamp that either Mr. Coroner or the witness suspected, but we contented ourself with coolly making a note of the question and enquiring, if we were allowed to have an answer to it. At last, at the earnest request of Mr. Peile the examination was allowed to go on.
If the light had enlarged I would have considered it dangerous, and if it had burned blue. The pit works night and day by alternate shifts of workmen. Can you give me the names of some of the men who worked on the shift before the accident?
Mr. Coroner – You need not – it is not relevant – it is idle waste of time.
We did not press this question, as we knew that we could obtain the very important information the answer would have involved from other sources.
Examination resumed – I was there at ten o’clock on Tuesday morning. Was on the very spot. It is no part of my duty to examine the safety lamps.
Here Mr. Coroner observed that we were “putting the cart before the horse,” that we should first have ascertained that there were safety lamps, and he asked a question to that effect. This we understood to be done in ridicule of our enquiries.
Examination resumed – Are the safety lamps, do you know, made at the pit, or are they bought of some manufacturer, or where are they made?
This question was also very much laughed at by the coroner, who professed himself quite unable to see the object of it.
Examination resumed – The lamps are made in the town – at the granary yard. The men were not invariably in the way of taking safety lamps with them, the place being considered particularly safe.
Mr. Peile here made a remark, the purport of which we missed noting.
Examination resumed – Those men behind me were employed to go on regularly in their turns. Am sent to see that they do their duty – am an overman – find fault if I see anything wrong. What do you mean by the place being well aired – how do you know when it is? I mean there was a good strong current of fresh air.
Mr. Coroner, who had frequently interrupted us with expressions of contempt and impatience, at our asking such absurd and unusual questions. Here read us a long lecture on the folly of our proceedings.
Examination resumed – I cannot say where the inflammable air came from. No part of the works had fallen in to interrupt the ventilation, not was it interrupted. Could not discover any communication with any place in which inflammable air had been known to exist. (The coroner was very humorous on the idea of the air having found its road into that level from any other working, and ironically asked the witness if it could have come from William Pit.) In this case the witness could trace no fresh irruption of inflammable air. They were splitting up one or two of the pillars, but not regularly taking them away.
We were enquired if we could see a plan of the working, but the coroner told us that was impossible. He then proceeded again to charge the jury, persisting that there had been no fresh information elicited, not was it possible to get any, that there was no reason to think any body to blame. Several of the jury, if not the majority, expressed their concurrence with this view of the case. We persisted, however, in calling for further evidence as to the state of the pit, and we obtained from this witness the names of three persons who had been in the pit on the previous shift.
Mr. Williamson Peile re-sworn – (A prodigious loss of time was occasioned by the innumerable speeches of the coroner, who now told us that we might be allowed to ask a few questions, he would not tolerate such rigmarole. Mr. Peile in the most handsome manner expressed his anxiety to give all the information in his power.) He went down to the pit about six o’clock in the morning. William Nicholson was correct in his statement of his duties – (Here one of the jury observed “Oh, his evidence is quite clear.) There are others whose duty it is to inspect the pit better able to inform you than I am. Mr. Jackson is the viewer of the colliery. I hold an official situation connected with the colliery.
Mr. Coroner said that he would let us into the whole secret of that part of the business. Mr. Jackson he stated was the viewer of one part of the collieries, Mr. Quayle of the other. Mr. Peile was over all, and Mr. Williamson Peile was a general assistant to his father.
Examination resumed – Does not know that there was any surgeon present when he arrived at the pit. Two boys had been removed alive about half-past four. Mr. Mossop is one of the surgeons. Was there any one at the bottom of the pit capable of distinguishing between a case of asphyxia and one of actual death?
These questions raised a storm of indignation on the part of the coroner, which it is impossible to describe. He threatened to make short work of the case he proceeded in a strain of vehement invective, so rapid that we had only time to note down the expressions “waste of time,” “rigmarole,” “impertinence,” “audacity,” and “impudence,” during which, Mr. Peile expressed a wish that we would put the questions to Mr. Jackson. Mr. Coroner here hastily swore Mr. Jackson, and appealed to him if the pit was not well ventilated, particularly well ventilated -–never heard any one complain, and no one had any cause for complaint, all which Mr. J. confirmed. He then made another speech to the jury, in which he denounced the “villainy” and “rascality” of the person who had “dared to impeach” the gentlemen whose evidence they had heard, and he called on us for the name of the “calumniator.”
To all this we replied, that we had a duty to perform as well as he that that duty was narrowly to sift the circumstances of the case – which we fully intended to do, and that by interrupting the examination, he was only wasting time. We persisted in being allowed to re-examine Mr. Peile, to which, at length, the coroner assented. We inquired how long it would take to raise the body of a person really or apparently dead, to the top of the pit? Mr. Coroner declared this to be a most “ridiculous “ question but a last Mr. Peile was allowed to tell us, that it was a mile from the bottom of the shaft to the place where the accident happened – that the pit was 152 fathoms deep – he could not tell how long it might take to raise a body – great delay often was unavoidable – could not name any definite time. Mr. Jackson has the general superintendence of that colliery. The blame would, in the first instance, rest on Mr. Jackson, if the pit was in a foul state. Can only discover a trace of an explosion. No receptacle discovered whence foul air might have issued. Have examined the place pretty carefully since. No considerable fall of roof. If there was a foul state of the pit, would not the blame rest between Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Jackson? (Mr. Coroner made great objections to this question.) Not on Mr. Nicholson certainly I have already told you that Mr. Jackson is the steward. Would the responsibility rest on Mr. Jackson if the pit were in a foul state? (Mr. Coroner insisted on our defining the word responsibility.) It would rest on Mr. Jackson. He is responsible for keeping the pit in a proper state, as far as is it is within his control. The fresh air reached the place by the gallery – not by boxes – they were not used – they were not needed. I was there by six o’clock. The whole day was occupied in finding the bodies, and sending them out, I personally examined each man. No surgeon went down into the pit to ascertain that the bodies were dead. (A long and tedious interruption by the coroner, who accused us of “brow-beating” the witness.) The bodies were cold and stiff.
Mr. Jackson called. Is viewer of the colliery. I reside in Whitehaven. Was called on at half-past four. Went to Mr. Peile, and then went to the colliery. The spot on which the deceased were working was about two hundred yards in extent. The effect of the blast extended all the way to the shaft the man riding down felt it. I visited the place about a week before the accident. Four or five men are employed under me to inspect the state of the pits. I considered this part of the pit safer than other parts in the ground – it was better ventilated – had fresh air direct from the shaft – the air descended direct on the men – it would have to travel a mile and a quarter before it reached them. There were side galleries, but the did not interrupt the current of the air. The men had their safety lamps, but we did not tie them to work with the tops on – there was an overman to look to them – their working with or without the tops of the lamps was left to the discretion of the overman, excepting I saw it necessary to order different. None of the overmen were killed. These four overmen have all the pit to superintend. There is nobody alive to tell whether they were working with tops to their lamps or not. The overman, whose duty it was to see, was not on the spot. There are locks to put on the lamps, and the overmen puts them on if he thinks necessary, or may be directed. The workmen will smoke, and can contrive to light their pipes through the gauze by holding the lamp obliquely. (We expressed some surprise at this statement, but Mr. Peile, sen., confirmed it.) No person ever objected to me to going into the pit. Robert Ellwood is the overman, and is present. Have since examined the place, and found no trace of any explosion of confined air. Cannot form the slightest idea how it collected. Have you any classification of workmen, according to their experience or inexperience?
Mr. Coroner here lost all patience. He insisted that we wanted to know the expense of working the colliers, and that we had no business to inquire into such matters. Of course we disclaimed any such intention, and Mr. Jackson took advantage of the first pause, to inform us that the men went into the pit indiscriminately and each man chose his own partner. Mr. Coroner went on, vehemently insisting that it was not necessary to ascertain how the colliery worked. After much invective against us, he declared that we would suffer no more questions to be asked. He once more began to charge the jury we tried to stop him, but finding remonstrance vain, let him go on. He told them that all they had to try was “the how, the when, and the where,” the subject of the inquisition met his death. He appealed to the jury if they were not all satisfied. When he had done, we coolly asked him if we were precluded from asking any more questions of the witnesses. After a little consideration he told us that if we could confine ourselves to pertinent inquiries he would not prevent us.
We told him that we thought that no enquiry could be efficient, unless the men who were at work in the pit, on the shift that was on immediately before that which was blown up, were examined. He assented and told us to give him the names of the persons we would like to call, and reminded us that we had some of the names down in our notes of Nicholson’s evidence. We told him that if we had, he ought likewise to have them in Nicholson’s deposition, and that if he persisted in defiance of us in not taking down the answers to the questions he suffered to be put, he could not expect us to assist him. We also told him that before we could agree to any verdict, we must see a young man named Gallagher or Garraway, who, it was currently reported, had been prevailed on by his brothers (who lost their lives in the pit) not to go into it on account of its foulness. The foreman undertook to have this young man and half a dozen of the shifters in attendance on the afternoon.
It was half-past two, and Mr. Coroner then adjourned the jury until four o’clock, with another speech. He exhorted them, for at least the tenth time, to confine their attention to three points only “the when, the how, and the where” that that they should not allow it to be diverted by “chimerical ideas,” and that they “might as well suppose that he set the pit on fire” as that there was any thing to blame in the conduct of those who had it in charge.
In the course of the morning we had two or three times to remonstrate with the coroner, for only putting down such parts of the evidence of the witnesses as he thought fit, and for suffering persons present to interfere in the business of the court.
ADJOURNED INQUEST, Monday at four o’clock.
On entering the room we found Mr. Coroner and about 8 or 10 jurymen. He was repeating very earnestly his exhortations to the to the jury about “the how, the when, and the where” enforcing on them his own views of the evidence, and his conviction of the folly of pursuing the inquiry any further. As soon as the jury had assembled and had been called over, he charged them again in his usual style but on this, as on some other occasions, as we have no notes of the epithets applied to us and our conduct, we will not venture to quote them from memory. He stated that he had made up his mind that he wold make short work of it that he knew what course to pursue, and would pursue it. He then read the verdict with which he had filled up the inquisition, and addressed the juror at the extreme end of the jury bench. “William Leslie, are you satisfied with the inquisition I hold in my hand, and which I have just read to you?” Mr. Leslie, who is a man up in years, very mildly replied, that he would wish to have a question or two asked if any complaint had ever been made to the overseers. This rather posed Mr. Coroner, who directly commenced a speech to Mr. Leslie, to the effect that as there was no evidence that any complaint ever had been made, it would by foolish to expect it to be proved that complaint had not been made, as it was impossible in the nature of things to prove a negative. Before he had got to the end of his speech, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Mossop, the surgeons to the pits’ entered Mr. Robinson (who is in the commission) he invited to take a seat on that bench, with some other allusions, which nobody acquainted with Whitehaven politics could misunderstand, observing that he himself sat on that bench once a month to administer justice, and trusted that he did so, and should do so impartially. He then turned to Mr. Mossop, and told that gentleman that he must be prepared for a very severe examination.
Mr. Coroner again charged the jury. They were again assembled for the purpose of investigating the cause of the death of Hector McAllister. He had already told them that the object of their inquiry was exclusively what kind of violence the deceased had perished from. That it was quite unnecessary for them to take into consideration the assertions that the pit was in a foul state, or that Mr. Williamson Peile was mistaken as to the men being dead when taken out, because nobody had come forward to prove either the one or the other. (Mr. Coroner either would not, or could not, comprehend that we had made no such assertions, but merely wished to ascertain that due care had been taken.) He should not have thought it possible for any one to bring forward so heinous a charge against honorable men. I have no objection to the most ample investigation especially if it were necessary to satisfy the public mind, and though I am not accustomed to make the usual proclamations, I have no doubt that the affair has become so public that we have heard every thing any body has say. But I will not suffer “indefinite, ridiculous, and impertinent,” enquiries. Mr. Coroner here proceeded at great length to prove that there was no means of ascertaining how the inflammable air became ignited and finished with his usual exhortation respecting “when he died, where he died, and by what means.”
The foreman here whispered with a part of the jury, and stated to the Coroner that he thought that most of his brethren was agreed.
Mr. Coroner observed that his mind was perfectly made up he would ask a question, and it would be his duty to take a course, which he had made up his mind to. He then read his own ready prepared verdict, and explained the meaning (after his own ideas of course) of each clause. He thought, he said, there could be no objection to the inquisition, and he should be governed by the majority, and not be the individual.
The foreman here stated that himself and ten of his brethren were agreed. We appealed to Mr. Leslie, who again repeated his wish to know if any body had ever made any objection to the state of the pit.
The officer of the court was here ordered to make the usual proclamation for all persons to appear, concerned in the matter before the court. We protested against closing the inquest until the witnesses, for whose evidence the court was adjourned, were called. After a long contest of which we were unable to preserve any minutes, a witness was put into the box.
David Johnston sworn. The witness answered in the affirmative to the following questions from the Coroner. Are you in employment in the pit where the accident happened? Were you employed there on Friday last? Were you in the place where the accident happened? Was it well aired? Yes, there was a good air, a capital fine air. I considered (here a bystander interfered to explain witnesses meaning) the pit in perfect safety. We worked with the lamp tops on, opening a pillar, and found no dirt (bad air). We left the pit at six o’clock. Question put by Mr. Robinson. In what state did you leave the pit? I had no idea of any danger.
Here a running conversation, which lasted some time, took place among Mr. Coroner, Mr. Robinson, the witness and somebody else.
Mr. Coroner made another speech in which he accused us of having come for the purpose of making “wanton and foolish delay”.
Examined by ourselves. On Friday we worked with the tops of our lamps both on and off. We were working with our tops off, but there was some road roven up not far off, and we heard it beginning to rustle, and we blew our lights out we called out, and then went and got fresh ones, with the tops on, and examined if there was any dirt. We had no reason to fear any danger of any accident happening.
By the Foreman. I never complained of danger, nor ever heard any one complain.
Here Mr. Coroner declared that he would tolerate no more. That we ought to pay the witness for his loss of time. That we were bound in honour to pay the expenses of those to whom we gave the trouble of coming and addressing the witness he said “you’ll call at the Herald Office for half-a-crown, in the morning.”
Peter Andrew sworn. Examined by ourselves. Do you recollect making any complaint to Mr. Coroner on Saturday evening?
Here Mr. Coroner interfered and would not allow the question to be put. He said he would allow none but substantive questions to be put which he explained to mean, questions immediately relating to the fact of the death of the party. He took the examination into his own hands. I was employed at Croft Pit, know the Pit – knew it last Saturday – saw it this day fortnight. It was properly ventilated that day. It was aired then, and is now according to the master’s regulations sometimes four-air was suffered to fall down.
This spontaneous statement of the witness occasioned a great sensation, and a very irregular examination of the witness by Mr. Coroner and Mr. Jackson took place, of which we were quite unable to preserve any intelligible notes. On this as on other occasions, we protested against interruptions, but in vain. The Coroner commenced a very solemn speech to the witness “Peter Andrew, did I not see you on Saturday evening in the front of one of those rows of buildings which a benevolent master allows for the use of his dependents free of rent. You were complaining of some air pipes, and did I not tell you to apply to the proper tribunal? Did I not meet you wandering about drunk, and with a pipe in your mouth” here the speech of the Coroner was rather ludicrously cut short by some of the Jury exclaiming “it is not the man, it is not him Mr. Hodgson,” and the witness gave vent to his astonishment and indignation at the charge in no measured terms.
When order was at length restored, we asked the witness if Croft Pit was reputed more or less dangerous than other Pits?
The coroner would not let this question be answered. He characterised it as “foolish, ridiculous, nonsensical, and absurd.” He again took the examination of the witness into his own hands and elicited from him that he did not usually work at that pit, but had worked there that day fortnight.
We here thought it our duty to make a formal remonstrance to the Coroner on his proceedings. We told him that we were willing to take it for granted, that he was acting in what he conceived to be the discharge of his duty but that we also had a duty to perform, which was to inquire into every thing connected with the death of the person named in the inquisition that this duty we had fully resolved to perform, and that his interruptions might delay our getting the information we wished, but could not prevent it, since we knew well that he could not complete a single inquisition without our signature, which he most certainly should not have while any part of our duty was left unperformed.
Mr. Coroner treated our statement of the law with great contempt, and told us that we were far mistaken, that there were two ways of getting rid of a refractory and obstinate juror – one by applying to the court of King’s Bench for a Mandamus, and the other by suing out a writ de rebus inquirendo., (as we understood him to call it.) Now that we had heard so much evidence, the Jury should be locked up till they came to a conclusion, only there were one or two old men, and it would be punishing them, not us.
The Coroner was on this as on other occasions, earnestly remonstrated with by Mr. Peile, Mr. W. Peile, and Mr. Jackson, who seemed dreadfully annoyed at the suppression of the evidence. At last he suffered Chas. McGahan to be called, and we were suffered to examine him without interruption.
Chas. McGahan sworn. It is unnecessary to give this witness’s replies to the interrogatories, but he clearly and distinctly declared that there was no foundation for the report of his having been prevented by his deceased brothers from venturing into the pit, as was currently reported. Mr. Robinson, Mr. Peile, Mr. Heywood, and another legal gentlemen (the Coroner’s friends) joined in a most long and earnest remonstrance with the Coroner, on the inexpediency and impropriety of interrupting us, and on the necessity of making every investigation which the state of public opinion rendered necessary, and reminded him of the prodigious loss of time he had occasioned.
By this time, rumours of the extraordinary enquiry that was going on had spread over Whitehaven, and the room was filling with respectable and influential gentlemen, whose presence had a manifest influence on the Coroner’s tone. He asked us what other evidence we would like to have.
We reminded him that on Saturday night, when the Jury were viewing the bodies, a poor man who had lost a relative, complained bitterly of the conduct of the Stewards and of the want of pipes, as we were able to understand him, and that we thought that the ends of justice would not be answered if this man were not produced and heard.
The great difficulty was to find out this man, for nobody knew his name. Mr. Williams Peile was particularly anxious that he should be found and made every exertion to identify him. We then said that while this witness was searched for, we should employ the interval in examining the medical witnesses, to ascertain that proper care had been taken to examine the bodies of the deceased, and to distinguish the cause of death from those of asphyxia.
This the coroner declared to be of no importance, and under his directions the officer of the court again made the usual proclamation for witnesses to appear. We desired to see Thos. Graham.
Thos. Graham sworn – Was at work at Croft Pit on Friday. No danger was apprehended on that day.
James McCabe sworn – (examined by Mr. Coroner) – Is a collier. Was at Croft Pit last Friday. Worked where the accident happened. In the forenoon we worked with the tops off until this place began to fall. Then heard a rush and put them on. Tried and found it safe after. Did not consider it material to examine it. The pit was well aired. Have worked there about six months. Always considered it a safe place to work in. The overseer was diligent in looking after the spot. All ordinary caution was used to prevent accident.
By ourselves – What do you mean by a rush? The rush was a fall of stone. These rushes are not common – only in a robbery. By a robbery I mean taking away pillars. In a general way it is considered more dangerous to work pillars than the main coal. Would you rather work at the pillars than at the main coal? I would not. And are you better paid for working pillars? I am. Is not the danger owing to the roof falling in places, and liberating inflammable air?
The coroner would not let this question be put. A long conversation ensued in which we protested against the interruption. At last the witness was allowed to answer, and he said it did arise from that cause. They then usually work with the tops on their lamps. An overman is employed to see that the tops of the lamps are on if necessary. We were working on Friday with the tops of our lamps off and did not put them on until we heard the rush. We blow out our lamps sometimes when we hear the rush. The rush might be about 50 yards off. The rush gives warning we hear the roof fall. Do you thing there is any danger in working at robbery of pillars from the inflammable air catching? Not unless in dangerous workings. The overlooker was there on Friday, – once in the forenoon and once in the afternoon. We take off the tops of the lamps to have more light. We told all the men of the rush. We did not tell Mr. Jackson, but we told Joseph Bates, the evening overman, of the rush. We told the men that have lost their lives that a rush had taken place. Bates went and viewed it.
Joseph Bates sworn – Is an overman. Saw the place last Friday. Left it about a quarter past six in the evening. All was apparently safe. I heard before I got to McCabe that a rush had taken place – a fall from the roof. I went to examine it. Nothing but a piece of following stone. No explosive air. Place quite clean, never heard of any one objecting to go into this pit. Always directed the Davy’s to be locked when I apprehended danger. To what do you imagine this catastrophe to be owing? Can’t tell that. To the ignition of inflammable air? Yes. Have been there since, and have examined it. We examined with a light every place in the works to see if there were any inflammable air in it. Examined every place strictly, and saw no place whence it could have come. I think it had come out either at the roof or at the sill. Have seen inflammable gas accumulated in old workings, but rarely. It was my business to see that this place was in a state fit for working. Sometimes working at pillars is more dangerous than working at the main coal. When the roof falls, or the sill heaves, it is more dangerous. As soon as ever we start with such a concern our lamps are locked and made safe. After we have repeatedly examined and found all clean (safe) and sometimes not for two or three days after that, we take the tops off. But you have no possible means of knowing that an irruption will not take place? None. If the top is off is there an increase of light, and can the man work more? He can. Are they paid by the piece? They are. The people who were killed were over an extent of about 200 yards – 24 of them in all. Every collier had safety lamps. The youngest boy there, was about 8 years old. Two of the boys had lamps. Could these boys take the tops on and off the lamps as they liked? They could.
Hugh Smith sworn – (This was the man who had complained on Saturday night, and about whom so much inquiry had been made.) Examined by the Coroner. I know the place where the accident happened. Saw it about half an hour after the men were lost, and also about ten weeks before. I was not working there – went to inspect – to see if I was able to work there. I considered the work too heavy – it was for able, stout men. I had also an objection to working there on account of so many accidents having happened – men scorched and burned, found alive, and who died afterwards. They were found alive and died afterwards. Dan Maclaughlen and Mike Smith were lost there, working the solid coal. When I saw the pit last, it was in a middling way, some men working with open tops, and in some places they were working with them shut. I could work in some places in safety, in others I could not. They worked with or without tops to their Davy’s according to the deputy’s directions. I saw danger in some places, one within sixteen yards of where these people were lost. It was not a regular working – it was where they were taking pillars- it was where I would not work.
Most of these statements were made, not in answer to the questions of the Coroner, but spontaneously. The Coroner accused him of drunkenness, and asked him why he had not told him and the jury of these things before. The witness repelled the charge of having been drunk on Saturday night with great indignation. The poor fellow said, that his own cousin was among those who were lost, that he had been 26 hours in the pit, and had not left it until he was in danger of his own life from the effects of the foul air, in his attempts to save his relative. He complained bitterly of the composition of the jury, which he assigned as a reason for not complaining to them more particularly on Saturday night.
Examination by ourselves – Did not know that an inquest was sitting now. Was in the pit on Saturday night, in a different working – was about a mile from where the explosion took place – it was about three when it happened. Went with the deputy as fast as he could. Did not hear the explosion – was in a separate air. Met two boys carried out alive. Was terribly exhausted with making three attempts to get at his cousin. There was great delay, for want of wood to restore the air. (We believe that “the air” is restored by setting wooden partitions in the different galleries, so as to direct the atmospheric current into the part of the works where ventilation is wanted.) Computes there were four hours lost for want of means of restoring the air. There was plenty of experienced people, but they had not stuff to make their experience of any use. No complaint can be made of the conduct of the deputy overman in restoring the air. Was overcome by exhaustion. I saw there was no air, and no means of getting it. Saw it was all of no use. They had to send to the granary yard for wood – about three miles. I thing four hours were lost.
Mr. Jackson here addressed the court, and denied that the air was cut for four hours – the current of air was continued.
The Coroner thought the statement of the witness worthy of no credit as he asserted that the air was not restored until six or seven o’clock, which was quite contrary to the statements of Mr. Peile and Mr. Jackson.
Here Mr. Williamson Peile made an observation, which though quite extra-judicial, we considered it only due to him to record, and handing him our notes, we requested him to note it down, which Mr. Peile was kind enough to do. It stands as follows: –
“The current of fresh air was never taken off the men, excepting for the instant of the explosion, and wood on the place was uselessly used to replace doors in attempting to send it forward.”
We here again repeated our determination to sign no more inquisitions without more evidence and especially that of the surgeon.
Mr. Mossop, surgeon, sworn. Is surgeon along with Mr. Robinson, attached to the pits. Made an external examination of the body of Garraway. The whole body was burnt. What organic changes do you consider indicative of the body being burned? The skin was reddened and inflamed, and especially on the hands, it was thickened and hard like leather. I was called at six several men had been burned, and brought to the place kept by Lord Lonsdale for receiving them on these occasions. “Saw one boy with his thigh broken.” Those persons are doing well. About half-past seven or about eight o’clock, went to the pit top to make inquiry. Have you ever in your own practice or in you reading, met with a case in which animation was suspended for want of fresh air, or that the person seemed dead, but was not really so? (The Coroner would not suffer the witness to be questioned, as to his information derived from reading but he was allowed to answer that he had never meet with such a case in his own practice) Are you aware that it is an established rule of practice not to consider any one dead of asphyxia, until putrefaction has commenced? I believe no man ought to be considered dead whatever disease he may have died of, until putrefaction takes place. In cases of asphyxia is not more precaution required, than, when a person dies of chronic disease? It is – but I was told I could be of no service.
The Coroner here objected to the use of the word asphyxia, as unintelligible to any but medical men, and while we were considering how to frame our questions, so as to dispense with this obnoxious word, a pause took place. Poor Hugh Smith, a simple-minded man of warm feelings, to whom all this was quite unintelligible, had, for some time, been sullenly eying the jury, who were in a row in a corner of the room, with the exception of ourselves, who were at the table making notes. He took advantage of the pause to address the coroner – “Please sir, is them yer jury?” “Yes they are.” “Did any body ever see such a set? What can they know about it! There’s not a qualified man among them!” The Coroner ordered him to be silent – lectured him – reiterated his accusation of drunkenness on Saturday night on this Smith replied with more warmth than decorum, and the scene, which convulsed all the spectators with laughter, ended in Smith’s being ordered into custody, from which, however, he was soon liberated.
Mr. Mossop’s examination resumed. – Did not consider it any part of my duty to ascertain, when the bodies were accessible, whether there were cases of suspended animation or of death. There is no man attached to the colliery whose business it is. With the exception of Garraway, I do not know whether they died of contusions, burning, or from the want of fresh air. If you were to see a corpse, with the lips and face livid, and blue, and burned, what would think the person had died of? For what of fresh air, or from strangulation. We here, with some opposition from the Coroner, put a question in the following terms. “I and several of the jury saw the body of Commack Morris the clothes were burned more of less, the surface of the body was pale, and the skin was peeling off as if it had been dipped in boiling water of what would you think Cormack Morris had died?” From the effects of fire. You saw on Garraway’s body marks of inflammation? I did. Is inflammation a process, which takes place before or after death? It takes place before death, not after. Then Garraway must have lived long enough after the infliction of the injury, for that reaction, which constitutes inflammation, to take place. It is not inflammation, but a common appearance after burning. If you were to see a body, with the face blackened and bruised would you think that the person had lived long enough after the receipt of the injury for reaction to take place? I should hardly think so, but I should imagine he had died from want of circulation in his lungs. If you saw a body with face much bruised, and reddened about the bruises, would you think that the man had lived long enough after the receipt of the injury for reaction to take place? I will not answer – if I had seen the men I might have told you.
The Coroner here told witness that he need not answer the question that he wondered at his patience in submitting to be catechised so long. He insisted that we were merely putting these questions for the purpose of showing our learning, and enlarged very humorously on that point.
We stated that we considered it a matter of the highest importance to ascertain whether any of the unfortunate persons could have been saved by prompt attention.
The coroner said he positively would not suffer the time of the court to be wasted by such foolish and impertinent inquiries. He accused us, for the twentieth time, at least, of obstinacy, obtuseness, and stupidity, of wishing to insult Mr. Williamson Peile and Mr. Jackson, talked again about applying to the superior courts for a writ de rebus inquirendo, and threatened to put a stop to the inquest. He then took the examination into his own hands. Was every thing done that could possibly be done? Yes. Do you believe it possible to have restored any of the persons to life? I think not, but I did not see them.
Finding it absolutely impossible to effect any thing like a minute inquiry, subject to the innumerable interruptions, and interminable speeches of the coroner, of which, and of the epithets he applied to us, we could not note one tenth, we offered to strike a kind of a bargain with him, that if he would let us ask one or two more questions of Mr. Mossop. We would have done. Several of his friends near him, and especially the gentlemen, connected with Lord Lonsdale’s colliery establishment, urgently requested him to let us make whatever inquiries we thought fit, and, at last, he assented, telling Mr. Mossop, that he need not answer any questions unless he liked.
We then proceeded, having previously written our questions. “If Mr. Mossop…“ Here Mr. Coroner again interfered he would suffer, he said, no hypothetical questions to be put at last he was persuaded to let us put it our own way.
“If Mr. Mossop had had the superintendence of the pit, would he or would he not, have considered it his duty to have had a professional man on the spot, immediately on the bodies being accessible, to ascertain whether any or them were suffocated and recoverable, or not?”
Here another long, irrelevant, unreportable (to coin a word) conversation took place, during which Mr. Coroner treated with much ridicule, the idea of a surgeon going to the bottom of a pit on such an errand.
We explained, as soon as we could get a hearing, that we meant “accessible” to medical aid, and did not care whether that were at the top or the bottom of the pit, and read the following question: –
“Would you have considered it your duty to have a surgeon to them immediately on their being accessible to medical aid?”
The witness declined answering the question. The coroner commenced a rapid ironical monologue directed to the witness of which we made the following note: – “Mr. Coroner – It would be a very great insult to send for a medical man under such circumstances.” Thinking it of importance to verify this observation, we read our note to Mr. Coroner, and asked him if we were to consider that a faithful record of what he had said. Mr. Coroner said that he had not said anything of the kind, but he would tell us what he had said, and would talk slow, that we might note it down. We wrote down as follows from his dictation. “I said to Mr. Mossop – If you are informed by a person who has charge of a colliery, that half a dozen persons had lost their lives in the colliery, would you deem it necessary to go to see if they were dead or not? Mr. Mossop said No. Then I said would you deem it an insult? Mr. Mossop said Yes.”
Here Mr. Mossop, who did not seem to relish having his name tacked to such a monstrous absurdity, denied that he had said yes, and said he merely meant that it might be unnecessary.
Another long conversation in which Mr. Coroner observed, that the object of all this was to fill the columns of the Whitehaven Herald. We replied that it was too late for that week’s publication. He said that was no matter, – it would keep until next week. We replied that we believed it would, and a great deal longer. He observed that he should be laughed at for allowing so many foolish questions to be put. We assured him that if he were laughed at, it would not be on that account.
We now intimated that we had no more questions to ask.
The jury was once more called over, and Mr. Coroner once more charged them. He said that they had heard all the evidence, which was necessary to enable them to come to the conclusion recorded in the inquisition he had read to them in the morning. (He here recapitulated those parts of the evidence, which were to that effect.) He had previously stated that all must be left to conjecture. As for the actual causes of death, the only way by which you can come to any conclusion, whether the parties were burned or suffocated, is by the external appearance. If any of you have any doubts of the propriety of the verdict, it has already been signed by persons long more conversant with those things, than the individual who has occupied your attention so irrelevantly and impertinently. (Here Mr. Coroner was very hard on that individual, but we were only able to get down the following sentence.) There was no aspersion now rested on the characters of the gentlemen who had come so roundly forward in the face of day – the calumny had recoiled on the head of the infamous calumniator. It was brought home to the most ordinary understandings that no human means could have been devised to save them. In all probability it was a pure accident there could be no design of setting the pit on fire and it has long been known that on the part of the colliers in general there is a carelessness, a headlessness, a recklessness of their own safety, which yet cannot be considered felonious.
Mr. Coroner here turning round to us, and showing us his ready-prepared inquisition, asked us if we were now ready to sign it.
We said “that we had one very strong objection – namely, that 5 of the jury signed it before they had heard the evidence.” (A laugh.)
Mr. Coroner.– “Oh! that is immaterial” (Laughter.)
We replied “that we begged to be understood as formally making the objection. It was within his discretion to entertain the objection or not.”
Mr. Coroner here said something about his own impartiality and legal precision.
Here entered Mr. R. Sherwin, solicitor. “Mr. Sherwin,” said Mr. Coroner, “have you seen any thing illegal in my conduct.” “I beg to decline answering, Mr. Coroner.” “Oh! You don’t want to be interrogated, do you not? Mr Coroner now erased the names from the inquisition with his pen, and handed it down, directing the Jurors who had previously signed to sign again, and all the twelve put down their names, ourselves last.
While the signing was going on, Mr. Williamson Peile enquired of us, with much courtesy and with a degree of feeling which did him honour, if we really believed that any lives had been lost for want of medical assistance? We replied that we could not form any decisive opinion on that point, as we had made a very superficial examination of the bodies, never suspecting in the least that medical assistance had not been had but that we had every reason to believe, from the appearance of inflammation on the bodies, that many of the deceased had lived for some time after the explosion and that the bodies of the two Littles exhibited no indications of scorching sufficient to account for their death – one of them indeed none whatever, and that if they had died of suffocation, there was no saying whether or not they might have been recovered, unless proper means had been tried.
The inquisition on Hector McAllister having been signed a new difficulty occurred. It having been clearly proved that some of the bodies showed appearances of suffocation and others of burning, it was plain that the standing verdict of “burned and scorched on the hip, back, breast, &c.” would not fit all the cases with any decency, so it was agreed to adjourn until the morning, against which time the Coroner and the foreman could get inquisitions ready filled up, and the jury might then assemble formally to sign them.
Previous to separation, Mr. Coroner turning round to us said, “Perhaps Mr. Abraham you do not know that it is not usual to have a parchment inquisition filled up, and signed by twelve jurors, but the inquisition is often written on a piece of paper, and signed only by one of the jury. You may not know that this is law, but it is law I can assure you. To which we replied. “Sir, I did not know that it was the case, though, I do know that crowner’s quest law has been a proverb, ever since the times of Shakespeare.” “Oh that’s all your learning is it” replied Mr. Coroner, “Why Mr. Shakespeare’s quite a modern author. Crowner’s law, as you call it, sir, goes back in – Here Mr. Coroner’s memory failed him, and turning to his books, he quoted an act of the Edwards some way about 1500, but we are not very sure of the chronology, nor does it much matter.
CUMBERLAND PACQUET, Tuesday, 29th November 1831 – ACCIDENT AT CROFT PIT
The adjourned inquest upon the bodies of the unhappy sufferers in the late melancholy accident at Croft Pit, was resumed on the morning of Tuesday last, the Coroner having adjourned the Court for a week, in order to gratify one of the jurors, who wished for additional evidence. The rest of the Jury, however, had long been satisfied upon the case, and expressed great unwillingness to be kept so long in attendance and shortly after the commencement of the proceedings the foreman handed a memorial to the Coroner, signed by himself and ten of his fellow Jurors, in which they expressed their perfect conviction that “the sufferers in Croft Pit lost their lives by an accident over which no human being could have had any control” – that they could come to no other conclusion – that “the conduct of their fellow-juryman, Mr. Robert Abraham, was not calculated to elicit the true state of the case” – and that “the adjournment he had requested was to answer some vexatious design, and not to promote the ends of Justice.” The memorial concluded by requesting the Coroner to discharge them as soon as possible.
In the course of this day’s proceedings, as on the prior investigation, frequent discussion took place between the Coroner and the dissatisfied Juror, but as they were almost entirely irrelevant to the inquiry, we think we shall best consult the feelings of our readers by omitting them altogether. Upon so painful a subject we have no desire to touch upon any topic in the lightest degree irritating.
As soon as the Jury had taken their seats, the Coroner proceeded to address them. As the inquiry, he said, had already been prolonged in so unnecessary a manor by the obstinacy of one of their body, it was his intention, in order that they might not be put to further inconvenience, to swear in a thirteenth Juror. It was perfectly competent in him to do so and as Joseph Jackson had seen the whole of the bodies, and was able to judge from personal inspection of them, he would swear him as a Juror, in order that they might not be any longer detained. He could not conceive how any person could ever entertain the slightest doubt upon the case – the evidence was so clear and unvarying. He then proceeded to explain the law as regards Coroner’s Juries, observing, that be the original law that officer might summon four, six or more, and he was not aware of any statute which went to take away that discretionary power. In cases of murder it was not unusual to summon fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen jurors. In cases of manslaughter twelve was the usual number. Lest therefore any further impediment should be thrown in their way, he would take thirteen and twelve of them would be competent to return a verdict. The appointment of an additional juror did not, however, at all interfere with Mr. Abraham’s power to act he was still as much a juryman as ever he was, and he begged he would exercise his rights. He (the Coroner) was there for a purpose, not of stifling inquiry, but of causing the fullest investigation and should be glad to hear any evidence that could be added.
JOSEPH JACKSON was then sworn and added to the Jury upon which the dissatisfied Juror observed that is was an unprecedented proceeding, and a mere expedient in order to silence his voice and stifle inquiry. He had witnesses whom he had intended to have examined, but after the course which Mr. Coroner had thought proper to pursue, he would take no further part in the proceedings. He was relivied from a heavy responsibility for which he was thankful. He should not of course be expected to sign the inquisitions.
The CORONER said he had no interest but in the fullest investigation, and characterised the expressions of the juror as a vile insinuation, repeatedly urging him to give the names of his witnesses, which was as often refused.
After some further altercation, the following witness were called
JAMES DODD sworn. – Is a collier, and was in Croft pit at the time the explosion took place, which, to the best of his judgment, happened about half-past two or three o’clock. He was in the air course, and was not injured, though he felt the blast, which blew out their lights. A boy who was behind a door preserved his light, and gave one to them. Witness proceeded into the Bannock Band, and met two men, William Simon and Daniel Kean, of whom he asked what had happened. Proceeding on, witness came to a door which he found tight opened it and passed through, taking care to secure it after him. Met some men coming up the inclined plane, which leads from the main band. The men whom witness met advised him no to go any further, as the stithe was very strong he determined, however, to go on and see what was the matter, and upon the rolly roads met Thomas Benson, who was the first man he spoke to. Shortly after Joseph Fox came up, and after holding a short consultation, they proceeded on and came to two doors, both broken – one shattered to pieces. Witness and Fox pushed forward, and found Joseph Freckleton lying upon the ground. They helped him up, and found that he was able to talk and walk. A little further on, they found a boy named Alexander Garraway. During the whole of this time, the air was going the right road, and to the best of his belief, it was about four o’clock. Still further on they found another boy, Alexander MacMean, who was lamed. They sent the two boys towards home. Proceeding on they found a dead boy, John McMean. Came to the air course pit, which they examined, and found that the air was going as usual. Witness held up his lamp, and the air was strong enough to blow the flame to the side of the cylinder. Witness then came back to the points, and went a contrary road to look at a stop. Found a door open, which they shut. Pushed forward, but found the stithe very strong. Met Robert Ellwood, an overman, and told him what they had done. Ellwood went and examined. With some difficult, they got to the top and found several of the men laying dead.
This might be about six o’clock. The first that witness came to was Robert Little, who was burned. Lifted his hand and found that he was dead. Heard some one shouting, to whom he replied and found it to be Mr. Peile, Mr. Jackson, and Mr. Williamson Peile. At the place where witness then was, fourteen or fifteen of the bodies were found and amongst these was the other Little. The air was going as usual, during the whole of this time. A tight door sent it direct to the place, and it was never off even for a moment. The explosion made the road dusty, and the air was very thick. When Mr. Peile and Mr. Jackson come, he had nothing more to do, but he assisted in removing the bodies. If Mr. Peile had not come he considers that they could have done, as the air was never off the ground.
Examined be a Juryman – Has been a collier for 50 years, and has worked in Croft Pit for several months. Always considered Croft Pit worked in a proper manner. All the head masters in his time have been anxious to render the pits safe. The Stewards always attended well, and cautioned the men when any danger was apprehended. They were ordered to work with their lamp tops on, on the day the accident happened, as a fall was expected but some men are bigoted and will not attend to what is said to them. Cannot tell how the accident happened, but thinks the lamps, when found, will show whether the tops have been on or not. In the previous shift they were expressly ordered to keep them on.
THOS. BENSON sworn – Is a blaster, and was employed in Croft Pit, on Saturday morning, at the time the accident happened. After the explosion, witness went to the break pit top, and saw two bodies, said to have been those of John Graham, and Christopher Fitzsimmons. Went down and saw John McGaughan lying on his left side dead. The two Littles were lying at the steath bottom. Partleton was lying on his back, with his head downwards, over the remains of a wall, which had been blown away. James McQueen was lying on the steath head with his face in the dust, and witness turned him upon his back – he was dead. Hector McAllister was the next he came to and Clement Ingleby the next. Witness turned each of them over on their backs to see if they were dead. One of the bodies was stripped, but does not know how it came to be so. – The pit was well aired, and properly wrought, and witness had been employed in it three years and a half. Had been in the pit on the previous shift, and was on his road there when the accident happened but having gone into Kells pit for a spade, he escaped the danger. The pit, in his opinion, was in a good state and he saw no danger or he would not have stopped there. Witness is a blaster. There was plenty of wood to repair the damage, it could have been got at, and no time was lost.
JOSEPH FRICKLETON sworn: – Was in the pit at the time the accident occurred, and was struck down by the blast. He does not know who helped him up, but he was carried away be James Fox and James Dodd, who took him down the main band stage, and he was restored. Can give no account how the accident happened. He was sitting between two doors when the explosion took place, and immediately ran, but was overtaken by the blast and fell. He rose and ran a second time, and fell again. At the third time he fell insensible. The distance, which he ran, might be about thirty yards. Has worked in Croft Pit two or three years, and never heard any one object to work in it on account of its being considered dangerous.
WILLIAM SIMON sworn: – Was in the pit at the time the explosion took place, and saw Hugh Smith about three quarters of an hour after the accident occurred.
At this period, the Coroner again pressed the dissentient Juryman, with great eagerness to produce any witnesses whom he might wish to call, but he declined to do so, alleging as his reason, that the Coroner had sworn the additional Juror for the express purpose of stifling the inquiry.
This expression, which was heard with much surprise by the Court, was ordered by the Coroner to be taken down, with a view to ulterior proceedings against the speaker, for impugning his honesty and impartiality as a Judge.
WILLIAM POSTLETHWAITE was the next witness sworn, and being asked if there were any want of wood in the pit, he replied that there was twice as much as was wanted, if it could have been got at. He considers that no one can live longer that three minutes in such an atmosphere as results from an explosion of foul air in a coal pit, and he has been burned two or three times a single mouthful of foulness is sufficient to make a man fall when a feed is accidentally cut, even though it be not fired, and witness has himself fallen several times from that cause.
ALEXANDER GARRAWAY sworn: – He lost two sons by the late explosion in Croft Pit, which in his opinion, was a pure accident, not resulting from any bad management, but from causes which could not be controlled by human means.
The evidence of the witness, who seemed much affected, produced a strong sensation in the Court, and the Jury unanimously expressed their unwillingness to hear any further testimony, having long been perfectly satisfied that, the melancholy occurrence was purely accidental.
The Coroner then read the inquisitions, which were signed by twelve of the Jurymen, the dissatisfied individual still objecting to the verdict “accidental death.” Upon being asked by the Coroner why he refused to sign he replied that that was an illegal question!
WHITEHAVEN HERALD, Tuesday, 29th November 1831.
ADJOURNED INQUEST ON THE DEATH’S OF THE PERSONS KILLED IN CROFT PIT, HELD NOV 22nd
The jury began to assemble on Tuesday. About ten o’clock. A good deal of delay took place before they were all collected and called over. Several of them, we observed came out of an adjoining room, and two or three were called out singly. We did not, at first, understand this proceeding, but it was soon sufficiently intelligible to us.
As soon as the Jury, was called over, we addressed ourselves to the Coroner, and told him that some of the witnesses were present, and some were not, but that we would give him a list of those we wished to see, to prevent any delay in producing those who were not present.
Mr. Coroner desired us to tell him the objects we had in desiring to see them.
We told him that our general object was inquiring into all the circumstances attending the catastrophe, and that with respect to the light which each witness could throw upon them, that would be learned from the witnesses, when they were produced.
Mr. Coroner was very indignant at our answer, and said that he never heard of such a thing as refusing to inform a counsel of the objects for which witnesses were to be called.
We told him that we did not regard him as a counsel, but as a judge.
Mr. Coroner expressed great displeasure at our reply, and said, that as a judge, he had the more right to ask any question or make any observation.
Mr. Coroner then proceeded to charge the jury. He said they were again assembled in consequence of a note addressed to him by Mr. Robert Abraham, stating that he must hear further evidence before he could sign any more inquisitions. (Mr. Coroner here proceeded to enlarge on the conclusive nature of the evidence they had already heard.) Lest any inconvenience should arise from the obstinacy of that individual, he would make such an addition of the jury as would put it out of the power of any man to protract the investigation any further than was necessary.
The jury as well as another individual behind them, had all seen the bodies, and it would have been competent in him to have sworn in the whole 13 in the first instance, and there could not have been any difference of opinion to prevent their coming to a verdict, for he was sure there could not possibly be more than one man who could hesitate after the evidence they had heard. Indeed he usually impannelled a Jury of sixteen or seventeen when there was any suspicion of murder or manslaughter, but in this case where there was no reason to suppose that any one had contemplated either of those crimes, he thought it quite unnecessary to trouble more than twelve. “But I now find it necessary to swear in an additional Juror, that the Jury many not be detained any longer by the obstinacy of one individual.
Mr. Coroner here called Joseph Jackson.
Jackson is so well known in Whitehaven that it would be quite unnecessary to say any thing about him, except for the information of our readers at a distance. He was, we believe, originally a farmer, then became a policeman. He was defendant in an action brought against him for an outrageous assault, and was imprisoned for the damage. He came out under the insolvent act, and is now a watchman, and we believe ekes out a living by officiating, as bellman, distributing hand-bills, and acting as assistant to the sheriff’s officers.
This person was then sworn and placed in the Jury box, and being asked if he had seen all the bodies, answered in the affirmative.
Mr. Coroner here looked at the Foreman of the Jury, and Mr. Foreman getting upon his legs, made a speech to the Coroner. He said, that he, as foreman, and the rest of the jury, thought the enquiry had now been persisted in long enough to enable them to come to a conclusion on the verdict required that they thought they had been very unnecessarily detained by Mr. Abraham, to answer purposes of his own, and he (Mr. Foreman) would just hand in a few lines expressive of their feelings on the occasion.
Thereupon Mr. Foreman handed in to Mr. Coroner a bit of paper, which the latter opened and read aloud. We were unable to obtain a copy of this precious document, but the purport of it was as follows: – That eleven of the Jury had all made up their minds to sign a verdict, but that Mr. Robert Abraham “from party motives” refused to do so that the Jury were very much inconvenienced by being kept so long from their houses and their business, and they prayed the coroner to take such steps as he thought fit to terminate the investigation. It also made sundry other imputations on us, the words of which we do not so distinctly remember as we do the charge of “party motives,” and it was signed be the whole eleven Jurors.
We remonstrated with the coroner and with the Jury on these extraordinary proceedings, of which we cannot pretend to give any report, took place. The Coroner asked for our list of witnesses, which we declined giving him, and called on us to proceed with our inquiries, which we also declined we told him that after the extraordinary step he had taken, after the indecent charge which eleven of the Jury had brought against us, and his own still more indecent and illegal conduct in reading it, that the investigation could not be prosecuted to any useful purpose but that if he would fill up the panel to the full number of twenty-three, and make up the addition with names of respectable people, that we would be willing to go on. This Mr. Coroner declared to be impossible, as Jackson was the only man who had seen the bodies. We the them told him that as far as we were concerned, the investigation was at an end – that he had put a stop to it, legally perhaps, but quite effectually.
Mr. Coroner here read our note, which he observed “could tell no lies” the note stated that witnesses whom we wished to examine would be in attendance he accordingly enquired if any one was in the court who had any complaint to make. No answer was returned by any body. Here the Foreman stated to him that he and eleven of the Jury were agreed.
Mr. Coroner now, who seemed not a little vexed at the turn affairs had taken, reproached us with bringing him and “the Jury there for nothing.”
We accused him of swearing in an officer of his own court, for the express and avowed purpose of getting quit of us when our enquiries might be displeasing.
Here a discussion took place, as to whether Jackson was or was not an officer of the Coroner’s court, which was denied. The Coroner declared he had done it at the request of the Jury, to relieve them from a duty, which as men living by their industry, might prove oppressive to them, and to prevent the court being adjourned from day to day on frivolous complaints. The discussion continued very regularly, and after several attempts to explain our reasons for refusing to name any witnesses, in which we were always interrupted by the Coroner, and not always in the mildest manner, we sat down and took advantage of the first pause to say, that “we had no right to reply on the court, and certainly would not presume to do so without his permission, but that as soon as we had that permission, we were prepared to assign our reasons for the course we were pursuing, but that we begged he would not let us begin unless he was disposed to hear us out.” Mr. Coroner requested us to proceed.
We then rose and stated to him, that he had now got a jury, of whom twelve had expressed their willingness to sign the verdict which he had prepared for them – one of them even without having heard it read to him, and without having heard a tittle of the evidence. That by so doing he relieved us from the responsibility which rested on us as long as there were only twelve men on the jury – which twelve men must necessarily be unanimous that we felt sincerely obliged to him for having released us from a laborious and painful duty, and that as he could now do without our signature, there was nothing to prevent his getting such a verdict as he wished and that as we did not mean to sign it, there could be no use in detaining, with our doubts, the twelve who had made up their minds to sign it. That we certainly neither would sign the verdict, nor pursue the investigation. That for our not signing the verdict we would give no reason whatever, because we were not bound to give him any, and it was no business of his what our reasons were. That for our not pursuing the investigation, as we had promised, our reasons were these: That his ideas of law and justice, and of the proper course of enquiry, and of the method of obtaining evidence were so different from ours, that even on Monday week, when we were so circumstanced that he could not possibly get an inquest without us, we were perpetually impeded and obstructed by him in what we considered our duty that to some important questions he would let us have no answers, and that to others we only got answers by positively telling him that we would sign no inquisitions until we had such answers. And that now when we had no such means of enforcing the production of evidence, – now that eleven of the jury had formally declared that they wanted no more evidence, – now that he had sworn in a thirteenth juror, for the express and avowed purpose of stifling our enquires if they grew disagreeable – and now that all the twelve had expressed their willingness to sign the verdict, he had tendered to them – that any further investigation would be worse that a mere loss of time it would be an absurdity, a mockery of justice to which we would not lend ourselves.
Mr. Coroner, after hearing us our, replied rather angrily. He told us that it would not end here that he would apply to the Court of King’s Bench, for a Mandamus to compel us to give our reasons for not signing the verdict.
We replied, that we had not the least objection to his doing so. That we should be very happy to meet him in the Court of King’s Bench, and did not doubt but that we could give the Court very good reasons for withholding our signature.
Here Mr. Coroner again called on any person who had any complaint to make to the court to come forward. Nobody volunteering, he cast his eye upon a man in the crowd and called him forward.
James Dodd sworn, and examined by the Coroner – Is a collier was in Croft Pit when the explosion took place. – The blast happened a little before three – about half-past two. We were in the air course then – I was not hurt. It blew our lights out – we got our lights again and proceeded to the Bannock band. The lives were lost in the main band. William Symon, Danial Cain and I went on to the Inbank head proceeded to a door which we found tight we secured the door. Met some men coming up the inclined plane leading from the main band. They recommended us not to go on the stifle was strong we persuaded them to turn, and they all went back with us. Met Thos. Benson in the main band met with Joseph Fox and we all went forward together. We met two doors broken open a little shattered. Went on and found a man called Joseph Freckleton, on the road. We helped him up, and he could talk and walk. Further on we found Alexander Garraway (the father.) The air was going on the right road all the time. This might be about four o’clock. Then we went further and found another lying, McMinn we took him up and sent him off towards home. Went forward and found a dead body. We proceeded to the air course pit – examined that – the air going as usual – came back to the points – took on another contrary road to a stop – found a door open and shut it. Went forwards to the brow foot. Found the stithe strong. Another hour was gone. Met Edward Fox and I told him what we had done. Afterwards got to the top and found several of the men lying dead. – This might work on until six o’clock. The first man we found was a man named Little, who was not burned. The air was then as usual and had been. Found he was dead. We looked for more. Heard a shout – it was from Mr. Peile, and Mr Williamson Peile, and Mr. Jackson. The air was never off the spot – going about the right road – the stithe raised a great dust. Mr. Peile and Mr. Jackson arrive about six I staid about till late on the day
His Deposition was here read to witness.
By a Juror. – I have worked 50 years in those pits never in any other. Always Croft Pit worked in a proper manner. Whenever I applied to the head master, had redress. Never wanted stone or wood. The stewards were regular in attending, for anything I knew to the contrary. We warned each other when we apprehended any danger. That day a man told me they were ordered all to work with their lamp tops on – they apprehended a fall. The lamps are not found – do not know whether the tops were on or off. They were ordered to work with their tops on – I think.
Thos. Benson was then called, we think on the suggestion of Mr. Peile. – Am a collier – employed in Croft Pit – I left home at one. (Witness proceeded in his narration too rapidly for us to write all he said the Coroner making no minutes.) I went down – the stithe was too strong – could not proceed. Air was going its right course. While I was there, attempts were made to get up to the pit top – up to the bodies. Those attempts were several times defeated. I saw two bodies got.
This examination so far, was not taken on oath, but the Coroner now observed “I’ll begin there.” and swore the witness, and examined him as follows – Can’t tell when I got to the brake pit top I had no watch, I saw bodies lying on their faces – Saw different bodies round them. – (Mr. Peile here explained that by the “brake pit top” was meant the area round the top of the pit, which ascended from the level where the witness was, to that in which explosion happened.) The two Little’s were lying at the steer bottom, and Partleton between them, on his back with his head downwards, on a wall, which had been blown down. James Queen was lying on the steer head I turned him over on his back. The witness here named the persons whom he had found most to them it appeared were lying on their faces. Hugh Hannay was lying on his back. Bolton was lying on his back with no breeches on. Mr. Coroner “What has that to do with it, Thomas?” Witness “I dunnet knaw indeed – his britches were gone.” The pit was well aired – was skilfully wrought. I have been employed three years and a half in this pit.
Mr. Coroner – “Have you any thing more to add?” “I have not.” Here a juror expressed very loudly his opinion of the conclusiveness to the evidence.
Mr. Peile here made an observation. Witness – “I would have been among them, if I had not gone to Kells for a spade
Mr. Coroner here asked Mr. Peile if he had anything more to ask of witness? “Mr. P. said he had not.
By the coroner. – “Was the pit in a good state?” – “Yes.”
By a Juror. – There was no danger that I saw. I was a joiner but now am a blaster. There was plenty of material in the pit if we could have got at it for the stithe. We worked with our tops off about 200 yards from where the explosion happened. They worked with their tops on in the shift where the accident happened.
Mr. Coroner here called for Joseph Fox to appear. One of the jury observed, that they had had Fox before and that his evidence was very short. Mr. Peile observed that Fox was the deputy-overman.
Joseph Freckleton sworn. – Was struck by the blast. Was helped up, but does not know by whom. Two men carried me away. Know nothing how this happened. I was sitting betwixt two doors, and it came and knocked me down. I got up and was knocked down I was knocked down a third time, and after that I knew no more.
By Mr. Peile. – What distance did you run from your being knocked down the first time, to your falling down at last? Witness – “Fifty or sixty yards.” Mr. Jackson observed it was about thirty yards. The Coroner said fifty yards would be about twice the breadth of the street. The witness said then it could not be less.
By the foreman. I have worked 2 or 3 years in the pit. I never heard any of the men object to working in it from its being considered dangerous.
Mr. Foreman here observed that the testimony of all the witnesses was alike on that point, and, from the first, one confirmed the other and he thought Mr Abraham must now admit that his doubts were unfounded.
We declined making an answer, or taking any part in the investigation.
Mr. Coroner here asked Mr. Peile if there was any further he wish to adduce. There had been insinuations, to call them no worse, but he thought them direct charges, of something amounting to culpable negligence. There had been no evidence of anything of the kind yet adduced. If Mr. Peile thought it necessary, on that account, to call any more witnesses, he thought the Jury would not grudge the time necessary for hearing them.
Mr. Peile said, he was always desirous of the fullest investigation that the witnesses who had been first on the spot, had been produced, and he was ready to give any further information in his power.
Mr. Coroner said, that from the first, he had always foreseen how it would end, and that not a tittle of evidence had been brought forward, to support the imputations that had been made.
We here stated that we had made no imputations whatever against Mr. Peile. That imputations had been made, which, from the extraordinary measure adopted to stop the investigation, were yet hanging over the gentlemen connected with the collieries but that all that we had done, was to insist on examining whether there was any ground for imputation or not and we appealed to Mr. Peile if we had cast any imputations on him.
Mr. Peile acquitted us of having done so.
Mr Peile observed, that he thought if Hugh Smith had any thing to say – If he had any charge to make – he ought to come forward.
Mr. Coroner here read his deposition.
Mr Peile said, that Smith was only there for a very short time, if there at all. A number of witnesses then had questions put to them, on this point. James Dodd did not know – Smith might be there for any thing he (Dodd) knew. James Fox did see him, but could not recollect at what time. William Symon recollected seeing him about three quarters of an hour after the explosion. Coroner – “You must have been misinformed Mr. Peile.” Mr. Peile here objected to Smith’s statement that four hours had elapsed.
Smith’s deposition was read,
Mr. Coroner – “Have you any thing further to add to this deposition, Smith?” Smith – “I have nothing to add to my first evidence.”
Here a long and very irregular conversation took place between Mr. Peile, Mr. Jackson, and Hugh Smith. The Foreman of the Jury asked him what time he was at home on Saturday morning? Smith said, he believed about six, but he had no clock or watch.
Here another irregular conversation took place, in the course of which, we whispered jocularly to the Foreman and the Jurors near us that we thought that they had used us unpolitely, in imputing motives to us for differing with them, while we had carefully refrained from imputing motives to them. Mr. Foreman took this up rather warmly. The Coroner insisted on knowing what the Jury were whispering about and said he would allow no whispering in Court. He was told, and the Foreman proceeded to say, that he thought we had used the Jury unhandsomely by printing their names, with their descriptions (such as publicans, police officers, and the like) in the Herald that when they were all met on Saturday night on the first adjournment of the inquest, they had sent to us to request the perusal of the Herald, which Mr. Foreman continued, to do us justice, he must say, we had sent and that, on seeing the way in which their names were printed, they had felt very much offended.
Mr. Coroner – But that did not influence you to send me the memorial?
Mr. Foreman – Oh, no, our minds were made up as to the verdict, and to Mr. Abraham’s conduct.
We here observed, that we did not doubt that, as Mr. Coroner and the Jury had taken very opportunity of telling us, that their minds were made up from the first, to agree to a certain verdict, and that the consequence was that Mr. Coroner had sworn in a thirteenth juror, for the purpose of stifling any inquiry which might lead to an opposite conclusion.
Mr. Coroner was very angry at our making this charge against him, and threatened to put down our words.
We told him that we would not shrink from what we had said – that he had sworn in a thirteenth juror, for the purpose of stifling inquiry.
Mr. Coroner directed his clerk to take our words down, which was accordingly done. While this was doing, we told him, that he had imputed to us improper motives, for persisting in the inquiry, and that we considered ourselves quite justified in telling him what we considered to be his motive for a step, which, he avowed, was for the purpose of stopping the inquiry. That if he chose to go to the courts above, they would protect us in our rights as a juror, which he had invaded, as much as they would protect him in his office as coroner, as he knew full well.
Mr. Coroner here addressed the crowd below the bar, with much animation. If there was any of them who had any thing to say let them come forward? We wish to come to a proper conclusion. We wish to have every one from whom information can be obtained. Is there any of you that has anything to say to the court, let him come forward.
A man, who gave his name Robert Macdonald, said, that he knew a collier who had told him, that there was a want of wood in the pit, in consequence of which, relief could not be had in time. But he would not tell his name, for fear he should forfeit the man’s work. Mr. Peile, casting on Macdonald a searching glance, asked him at what pit he worked to which Macdonald replied, “Oh! I don’t work at any of your pits at all!” The manner in which the question was asked, and the answer was given, excited much merriment. The Coroner here read a deposition to witness, and had some discussion with him. Mr. Coroner urged him to reveal his informant’s name. This Macdonald declined – said that the man’s living depended on it – but that if the Coroner would insure the man a hundred pounds in case he was turned out of employment, in consequence of his evidence, that he should have his name. Mr. Coroner told the witness, that he would not give a hundred pounds for them both, “clothes and all.”
Here the Coroner again addressed the crowd below the bar – “If any on you have any complaint to make, let him come forward boldly and manfully.”
Here was a long pause.
Mr. Coroner here observed, that he should be glad to hear any further evidence. That he was sure that this adjournment of the inquest had only been for the purpose of keeping up excitement. That no one could suppose that the pit had been set on fire on purpose.
Mr. Foreman observed, that, with respect to any charge of recovering the men, experienced colliers all said that no man could live three minutes after being struck be the fire damp.
Here a long, disorderly conversation took place, in the course of which, somebody said that Dr. Fox was of the same opinion.
Mr. Coroner now put Alexander Garraway into the box, who answered in the affirmative, the following questions by the Coroner. You lost two sons in Croft Pit on Saturday week? No body can speak more feelingly on the subject than you can? Is it ascribable to accident? Pure accident? No bad management of the pit? Could not have been controlled by any body? And then turning round to the jury, Mr. Coroner said, “Can there by any testimony stronger than that?”
Mr. Coroner here asked the Jury if they were all satisfied? The twelve replied, “All, All!” “That it was accidental?” “Yes, of course!”
Mr. Peile here made a speech to the court and to the Jury. He said that an idea might go abroad, that there was a scarcity of wood in the pit, and that lives were lost in consequence. Now it might not happen that the wood was lying where every might lay his paw upon it, just at the moment when it was wanted but there was at least 300 dozen of wood lying about the pit. That they always kept 40, 50, or 100 dozen ready cut in the granary yard, ready for giving out, and such a quantity at every pit as was likely to be wanted, but it was impossible to have it lying just on the very spot where an accident might occur.
The Coroner here read the inquisition on Cormack Morris, which he had filled up with a verdict, stating that Cormack Morris, in consequence of certain burns, met with his death “accidentally, casually, and not otherwise.” He also read an inquisition on William Little, filled up with a verdict to the same effect, substituting suffocation for burning as the cause of death. He then turned to his clerk, and said, “James, you’d better go round and get the verdicts signed and tender each to Mr. Abraham, as you come to his name.
The clerk accordingly offered the first verdict to us we read it, and as soon as we came to the words “accidentally, casually, and not otherwise, “we declined signing it. Mr. Coroner, who was at the other end of the room, talking to Mr. Peile, inquired of his clerk, “What is it? What does he mean?” To which the clerk replied, that we objected to the words “accidentally, and casually.” Mr. Coroner observed, “Oh he means intentionally then – that’s murder.” We remonstrated with Mr. Coroner – told him that he acted illegally in dictating to the jury their verdict, and in commenting on the refusal of a juror to sign – that we were not accountable to him for our reasons for not signing, and that we considered his observation a very improper one.
The remainder of the verdicts were then tendered to us, read by us, and rejected, one by one. We observed, that they were most, if not all, ready signed by the Coroner and the Foreman, and several of them had five or six names besides, affixed to them, among which we read that of Oliver Ussinson.
When they were all signed, and laid on his desk, Mr. Coroner resumed his seat.
“Gentlemen of the Jury, hearken to your verdict.”
Here the inquisition on Cormack Morris was read.
“Is this your verdict?”
Jury – “Yes.”
The same formalities were gone through with the verdict on William Little and his brother.
“Your other verdicts (naming them) are similar, namely, that they died by being burnt?”
Jury – “Yes.”
“Gentlemen of the Jury, I thank you you are discharged.”`
We asked the Coroner if he would allow us to copy the memorial, handed in to him by the Jury. His reply was “Certainly not it was merely meant for the court.” The Foreman likewise refused to give us a copy of it.
We may add, that all the verdicts are, setting out of the question the manner in which they were obtained, informal. One of the Jury could not write, and they only contain eleven names of Jurors, the twelfth signature being merely a cross, without attestation. This makes the inquisitions mere waste paper. (See the case of Rex v. Bowen – Carrington and Payne’s Rep. Vol. 3, part 3.) This cannot be remedied now, as the jury is discharged and to alter a deed after execution, amounts to felony, and any one making the experiment, might run the risk of becoming practically acquainted with the nature of asphxyia.
THE EXPLOSION AT CROFT PIT
The termination, for the present, at least, of the investigation of the circumstances connected with the dreadful catastrophe which occasioned the loss of twenty-three lives, has left us at liberty to enter upon the subject, and to lay before our readers our own ideas of its causes and nature, and of the credibility and tendency of the evidence adduced.
There are three distinct questions to which the attention of the public will be and ought to be directed. The first is the composition of the court before which, and by which, the investigation was made the second, is the conduct of that court, whether impartial and legal or otherwise and the third, is the evidence on which the court decided.
With respect to the conduct of the coroner and the jury, as we shall feel it our duty to bring it before a superior legal tribunal, it would be highly improper for us to appeal to public opinion. Of it we shall therefore not say one word. It is true that we have not been treated with equal delicacy. The coroner, who ought to have known better – the jury, of whom nobody could expect any thing better – and the editors of two newspapers, who ought at least to have affected some regard for decency, have assailed our conduct even while in the discharge of a solemn duty, which, in the eyes of the most unprincipled and most ignorant men, ought to have been a protection to us, at least so long as we were actually invested with the judicial function these persons have assailed us with the foulest imputations, in the most unqualified language. For what can be a fouler imputation against any man, than to say that he has carried “party motives” to the judgment seat, and after he has sworn to do justice without fear or favour “to present no man through hatred or malice,” to accuse him of prostituting his brief authority to the gratifying of his private vengeance? No, if we felt ourselves capable of doing any thing so base, if we were conscious of having done any thing to warrant such an accusation, we should feel our-selves clothed with “infamy, as with a garment,” and we might then stoop to extenuating our own conduct, or criminating others. But reposing as we do on the purity of our motives, and the correctness of our conduct, we feel no solicitude respecting the opinion of that public whose sympathy we know well is ever on the side of those who brave obloquy and insult in the cause of justice and humanity and knowing as we do, that it is impossible in a country, where there is even a shadow of respect for the forms of justice, for such conduct as that of the parties who signed the verdict of Tuesday, to pass unnoticed by the superior authorities, we willingly refrain from saying one word to add to the indignation which the bare narration of their proceedings will excite.
Before proceeding into the details of the case, it may be as well to observe that it is invested with an awful interest. The destruction of twenty-three human beings, is in itself no light matter but the suddenness of the catastrophe renders it sill more painful to contemplate. It is an awful thing even for one human being to be hurried to his last account, without one moment for penitence of prayer. In all times, even up to the present, it has been held to be the greatest aggravation of the crime of the murderer, that his stroke leaves the victim no time for repentance. Even our great dramatist has painted a son, burning to avenge his father’s death, hesitating to strike the murderer, lest he should plunge a soul into eternity loaded with the weight of the mortal sin he was about to avenge. The sentiment is based alike on natural feeling and religious principle. There are few religious creeds, which do not enjoin it as a pious action to pray for the souls of those who are cut off by sudden death. Many an “antique oratory” and mouldering fane attests the piety of our Romish fathers, who accounted it a holy deed thus to purchase forgiveness for those who had died “unshriven and unabsolved.” And though our reformed churches have rejected the doctrine, that mortal intercession can avail between man and his creator, there is yet more urgently imposed on them the duty to omit no effort to save their fellow creatures from that sudden destruction, which thus renders all human efforts unavailable.
And though the death of twenty-three human beings is a matter of such grave importance in the eyes of all who are endowed with human sympathies, it is not to this alone that our view of the case must be restricted. This is but one of a series of catastrophes scarcely differing in their nature, some more, some less, calamitous in their effects. The number of persons who have perished in the collieries round Whitehaven, is almost incredible. Upon the most moderate calculation, not less than ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY persons have been killed within the last sixteen years, principally by explosions, and of these nearly a third in Croft Pit alone. This is an average of about ten annually, and estimating the actual number of persons employed in the collieries at one thousand, it is a fearful average. Lord Lonsdale draws a great revenue – the people of Whitehaven many advantages – eight or nine hundred families their living, from these collieries but this periodical immolation – this annual sacrifice of the blood of nine men, is a fearful price to pay even for those advantages, great as they are. There is an awful responsibility both as members of a civilized community and as accountable moral agents, upon those who drive the bargain of human life against gold. There is a responsibility, not less awful, shared by all, who, whether as proprietors of such pits, or as judges, or as mere spectators possessing a moral influence, have the means in the smallest degree of controlling the operations of a system which, like the idol car of Juggernaut, crushes a human victim at every turn.
The law of England has wisely provided that no man who has come to a violent end shall be buried without a judicial investigation into the causes of his death. The principal object of this investigation, is to present such individuals, if any, as by force or by neglect, more or less criminal, may have been accessory to the death of the party, in order that they may be punished or absolved by a superior court or in case there be neither violence nor criminal neglect, so to distinguish the causes of death, as to insure the prevention, as far as human exertions may, of the occurrence of similar calamities.
Now the duty of an inquest holden upon the bodies of the persons who perished in Croft Pit, was of a very important nature. Among other matters, it was especially their duty to look into the general system of working the coal, and to ascertain both the general causes which rendered accidents so frequent, and the particular causes which led to this accident to ascertain that the pit was not worked on a system necessarily destructive to human life to ascertain that proper persons were employed to discharge every duty connected with the management and working of it, and that, individually, they did discharge their duty properly.
In order to answer the ends of justice, it was necessary that the Coroner and Jury should be intelligent and independent men. First of all, it was necessary that they should be intelligent because, if not so, they would be incapable of entering into so extensive an inquiry as it was their duty to enter on, with any prospect of their coming to a proper conclusion. It was necessary that they should be independent, because they had to examine and to judge the conduct of powerful men and of the agents and underlings of such men if they were not independent, and it became their duty to censure, perhaps to accuse, to impeach of crime, their duty would place them in painful conflict with their interest of feelings, to which their duty might possibly yield and if they saw no reason, otherwise than for a verdict of acquittal, of absolution, such verdict coming from men who were not independent of the influence of the parties they were judging, would command neither respect nor confidence, and the whole transaction might be regarded as a mere trick to protect powerful criminals.
If the parties, who might be incriminated or censured, had any influence over the appointments of their judges, a strong argument as to their innocence or guilt might be drawn from the manner in which they used that influence. If they were honourable men conscious of innocence, they would naturally be desirous of being tried by a court, which from character and station might be expected to make a full and impartial enquiry, and whose verdict, if in their favour, would carry with it such authority as would absolve them in public opinion as well as in the eye of the law of men above the suspicion of servility or interested motives. But if they wished to conceal negligence or misconduct, to smother investigation, and to be allowed to persist in a guilty career, they would instinctively shield themselves behind a tribunal, it such could be found, which from its composition might be expected to be under their own influence.
It is impossible for us to say whether the colliery agents or their underlings had or had not any influence over the selection of the jury, which sat on the 12th of this month. We should hope that they had not because if they had, their making such a selection, would be the strongest evidence, that they durst not trust to a jury of men likely from station and character, to come to an impartial and enlightened judgment.
The Coroner of the Court, (Peter Hodgson, Esq.,) is one of the legal agents of the Earl of Lonsdale and is the steward of his Court Baron. In local and general politics Mr. Hodgson is a strong, not to say a violent partisan of Lord Lonsdale.
The officer who returned, or ought to have returned, the list of jurors, is Mr. Curwen. Mr. Curwen is assistant overseer or constable, if not both, in Preston Quarter a district where Lord Lonsdale is predominant and is the principal ratepayer. Mr. Curwen, it is quite notorious, is only kept in his office by the influence of Lord Lonsdale, the proprietor of the pit, wielded by his agents, who are responsible for its management.
- John Bell is the keeper of the House of Correction he was placed in office by the Magistrates, who are nominated by Lord Lonsdale.
- David Frears is an auctioneer and a Sheriff’s officer, that is a bailiff.
- Jonathan Boadle is a publican and one of Lord Lonsdale’s tenants. It was at his house that the jury and witnesses had their guzzle, usual on such occasions in Whitehaven. This has been usually charged to the parish, which has latterly refused to pay. Who paid for the entertainment on this occasion we do not know, though it might be an interesting subject of enquiry, especially as all the witnesses were not invited to it.
- Oliver Ussinson is an individual whose profession it is rather difficult to describe. He has been occasionally employed as a copying clerk in several attorneys’ offices.
- William Leslie is a pensioner (on Chelsea Hospital, we believe) occupying a small house in Preston Quarter, where he has not resided more than two or three months.
- Joseph Jackson is now a watchman, bellman, bill- distributor, and bailiff’s assistant. He was a policeman, and was discharged, after being imprisoned for a violent assault.
- Philip Jackson was formerly a staith-keeper of Lord Lonsdale’s is now a sheriff’s officer or bailiff.
- Jonathan Burnyeat is a joiner, and son-in-law to one of Lord Lonsdale’s farmers.
- William Kewley is a Whitehaven police-officer and in constant attendance at the magistrate’s office.
- Thomas Trohear is a clogger somewhere about the Ginns.
- Jonathan Bowman is a working shoemaker, some where in the same neighbourhood.
- James Hewitt, formerly huntsman to Lord Lonsdale, or to Mr. Peile. Was formerly a collier, and has now the care of one of Lord Lonsdale’s waggon-ways, and is in his Lordship’s pay.
There is one other circumstance, which we mention here to avoid any thing like offensive personal allusion. One of the Jury is a near relation of the gentlemen on whom a large share of the criminal responsibility (if any) of this calamitous affair rests. Now, without meaning to say that there was any probability of such an event occurring, we will ask could there be a more scandalous outrage on decency and justice, than to place a father in a situation in which, by any possibility, his duty might call upon him to criminally accuse his own son?
We are informed that the only persons in this list who are rated ten-pound householders, are the Coroner and Jonathan Boadle. We are sure that it would puzzle Mr. Coroner and Mr. Foreman to account for the impannelling of this jury on any recognisable principle. We say Mr. Coroner, because as he did us the honour of turning on of these gentlemen out to make way for us, he might just as easily have turned out the other eleven if he had not liked their character & appearance. We do not be any means mean to say that this Jury could not, or did not, act impartially but we do say, that if the persons whose conduct they ought to have reviewed, were not entirely blameless, a conflict must have taken place between their duty and their inclinations – and whether they were likely to sacrifice their duty, is not for us to judge. Nor do we mean to accuse Lord Lonsdale or his colliery agents of any thing like direct or indirect interference in the appointment of this jury. We believe the abuse has arisen from the improper and illegal practice of treating these Juries at the public expense, which has made it an object with low hungry dependants to be on the panel, and has driven away respectable persons. But we do say that if such another melancholy case occur, and alas it is but too certain that such a one cannot be far distant, and if Lord Lonsdale or his agents have any direct of indirect influence over the constitution of this court – we think they will not deny that they have some. – And if, after this exposure, they do not exert that influence to procure a Jury of the most respectable and intelligent men that Whitehaven contains – we do warn them that the public will conclude that they are conscious of some crime of so deep a dye, that they are willing to suffer public infamy as the price of concealment. But we hope better things of them.
So much for the constitution of the court the conduct of the court, as we observed, is a subject for the consideration of another tribunal than public opinion the general nature of the enquiry, and the tendency and credibility of the evidence, we must defer until next week. Sure we are that the subject will not speedily lose its interest.
WHITEHAVEN HERALD, Tuesday, 6th December 1831.
EXPLOSION AT CROFT PIT (Concluded from our last)
Having now disposed of the question of the composition of the court, we shall proceed to an explanation of the nature, tendency, and credibility of the evidence adduced, and of the general scope of the inquiry. Neither our time nor limits, nor indeed, we may add, our information, permit us to examine systematically all the minute bearing of the case, which we shall be obliged to despatch with a brevity not at all commensurate with its importance. But we trust we shall experience not great trouble or difficulty in showing, that the most important questions to which the attention of an intelligent jury should have been directed, were either left wholly uninvestigated, or else that the evidence was of such a contradictory or inconclusive nature, at to involve the affair in deeper mystery then ever.
From the system of terrorism which prevails in coal pits (at least in those where the men have no combinations to protect them) from the despotic power possessed by the principal agents, which they delegate to little subordinate tyrants called overmen and deputies from the general impression among the workmen, that any one who may say or do any thing offensive to these people is a proscribed man – there are difficulties innumerable in the way of getting at the truth of any matter, in which the truth may possible be offensive to any one of these little despots. It is a thing quite notorious – obvious to any man or common sense, that an explosion cannot well, happen in a coal-pit, without the general management being faulty, or some underling neglecting his duty. Now which ever of these be the case – whether one or both, there is always somebody who has an interest and an influence in suppressing the truth there is somebody whom the poor collier dare not offend by speaking out and though the men will talk boldly enough where they think they can do so safely, nothing but a rigid cross-examination before an impartial judge can get the truth out of them in public, to their employers’ faces. And if the judge of the court be not impartial and discerning if he do not conduct the inquiry with a rigid determination to get at the truth, and to reject all interested testimony, the thing is absolutely impossible one can get nothing but general protestations that every thing was right.
Having thus far premised, we shall now briefly recur to the different points of inquiry, in numerical order.
Is the system on which the pits are worked necessarily destructive to human life, and can the loss of life be obviated by an alteration in the system?
This was the question entirely untouched at the inquest. That the system is destructive to human life to a horrible extent, the blackened corpses of ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY victims, in about sixteen years, furnish a damning answer. That it is necessarily so, Mr. Coroner Hodgson in effect affirms, because he the said Mr. Coroner, with the assistance of twelve good men and true, each time, has never been able to discover how the explosion originated so that, unless the managers of the coal-pits know more than Mr. Coroner, no man can penetrate further than the bare fact of these inevitable consequences of working on the usual system. That they can be obviated every body knows. Force through the workings such currents of air as will sweep away all foulness, and the danger will be much diminished, if not altogether removed. If, after this is done, a single life is lost which even the most “stupid and obtuse” of jurors cannot clearly make out to have been lost from unavoidable accident, then let every man be compelled to work with the top on his lamp, and let his wages be raised, so that he may make, under that disadvantage, as much as he makes now.
If these precautions were taken, not, a single life could possibly be lost from explosion. But they would be expensive, and as long as ever interested parties can persuade the public that all is right, colliers will be burnt and suffocated by dozens. When the public become properly informed on the subject, the law will interfere and put a stop to this revolting traffic – these holocausts to Mammon. The most effectual plan would be the levying of a deodand of one, or if need be, of ten thousand pounds for the death of each collier.
Was the pit properly ventilated?
Mr. Williamson Peile and other witnesses stated that it was. Mr. Peile, we suppose, meant that it was so in his opinion, and that it was as well ventilated as the rest of Lord Lonsdale’s pits. This is, we doubt not, all correct enough but repeated explosions, and especially in this very pit, have proved to a demonstration that, though Lord Lonsdale’s pits are well enough ventilated to enable him to get his coal out of them, they are not so well ventilated, as to enable the workmen to get at those coals with any tolerable degree of safety and more especially the loss of well on to FIFTY lives in this very Croft Pit, within the last fifteen or twenty years, is a proof that it is no better, and perhaps something worse that the rest.
We should have conceived it to be the duty of a coroner and judge to examine the pit, or plans of it, so as to ascertain the direction of velocity of the different currents of air in it, there direction, and the means of acceleration or regulating them to have trusted nothing to report or opinion, but to have got directly at the facts. Doubtless Mr. Peile and his friends thought the ventilation adequate but the question for the jury was, were they correct in their judgement or not? Were their ideas of what was necessary, sufficient? It was on the conduct of those gentlemen, and their subordinates, that the jury were sitting in judgement.
On the present dangerous system, was due care taken to prevent unnecessary risqué, and to obviate the effects of accidents when they occurred? This question dub-divides itself into a number of distinct queries.
1st. One great point is the comparative safety of the working. On this point, all the interested witnesses, that is, those on whom the responsibility rested, chime in with each other wonderfully. Mr. Peile and Mr. Jackson thought it particularly safe but some things came out in the evidence rather incompatible with the opinion. The fact of the explosion itself is presumptive proof that there was something wrong. David Johnstone stated that an alarm had been given in consequence of a rush to the preceding shift. Peter Andrew stated, that some times foul air was suffered to fall down. James McCabe stated, that working at pillars was reputed dangerous (a fact every body knows), and that though he could make more money by working on them he would not prefer such work. Hugh Smith stated that two men had been killed by an explosion in the same place not long ago. Joseph Bates admitted that there was never any entire security against the explosion of inflammable air. And James Dodd stated, that a man (of the shift that perished, we suppose), told him that they were ordered to work with the lamp tops on, and that they apprehended a fall. It would require something more than the testimony of interested persons to get over these circumstances quite satisfactorily. Mr. Peile and Mr. Jackson knew nothing of the matter personally. This part of the business lay with the subordinates the leading witnesses in their own favour.
2nd. The next point is, what were the precautions taken against explosions? The most extraordinary circumstance is that though the bodies were found, and both Mr. W. Peile and Wm. Nicholson swore that they had examined the place very carefully, no evidence was given to prove whether in point of fact, the lamp tops were on or off, not does it appear that they are yet found (see the evidence of James Dodd). This is to us quite inexplicable. It appears clearly that their lamps were unlocked. It also appears that they were working with the tops off, and that if a rush of inflammable air took place, their only security was blowing their lights out if they heard it coming but if they did not hear it – the much more probable event of the two is they would be all involved on one common destruction. It also appeared that there was no classification of workmen (a thing much complained of,) and that they worked in large gangs or shifts, as they are called, in which the young and old, the experienced and the inexperienced men all mixed indiscriminately, and an ignorant foolish or rash man might peril the lives of all. It appeared that there was and is a continual temptation for men to run risqués in dangerous atmospheres, because they can make more money by working with a full light than they can with the gauze tops on their lamps. It appeared that in this instance, among twenty-four people, there were several boys, the youngest 8 years old, and that two or these had safety lamps, and consequently the lives of the whole twenty-four at their disposal. – We should think that such a system, as this cannot long be tolerated in a civilized community.
We have also been informed (and but for circumstances detailed in another place, we should have enquired into the fact,) the proper care was not taken in this pit to keep it clear of foul air that foul air was often suffered to accumulate. We think this might have been got at by cross-examination. We have also been told that if the colliers do not-make up a certain quantity of work in the week, the are fined so much per basket, and that no abatement is made, even though they have left their work on account of foul air. It this be true, there is another direct stimulus to self-murder. And yet it seems a man is to be accused of “party motives” because he insists on hearing and on examining the evidence before he signs a ready made verdict of death “casually, accidentally, and not otherwise”!
3rd. Another important point is, whether or not the persons in charge of the pit were competent to the task. On this point, though no pains were taken to put the Jury in possession of direct information, a circumstance came out sufficiently conclusive. We do not speak here of Mr. W. Peile and Mr. Jackson, whose duties of superintendence seem little more that nominal – one had not been on the spot for about a week, and it did not appear when the other had been there. But Mr. Peile said the ventilation of the working was complete except at the moment of the explosion, and that the attempts made to send the air forward were useless. Now the persons who made these useless attempts were principally the overlookers and the deputies of the pit, so that either Mr. Peile was wrong, and the ventilation was incomplete, or the persons to whose charge the pit was committed, were ignorant of the ventilation and lost several hours in idle attempts to restore it. We leave him the choice of the dilemma. No attention whatever was paid to this point during the inquest.
4th. Another point is, what time elapsed between the explosion and the getting at the bodies? Smith estimated it at four hours, but he stated that he had no clock or watch, and guesses under such circumstances must necessarily be vague. Dodd, whose narrative was more precise, called it three hours and a half, which is probably correct the explosion is commonly believed to have taken place at half past two, and Mr. Peile confirmed him in the fact of the bodies being got at about six. Smith, against whom perjury was more than insinuated, seems to have been very nearly, if not altogether correct, on the showing of the parties themselves.
5th. What time, if any, was lost unnecessarily? It appears that they had to send to the Granary yard for wood. Now without reckoning the time they might lose in seeking for wood before they sent, and without examining if it was skilfully applied when they did get it, (which Mr. Peile’s remark might make one doubt,) not less than two hours could be lost in the journey to the Granary yard and back. Two hours in many cases will make the difference between life and death. Either this two hours was lost by the want of wood, or else through the ignorance of those who had charge of the mines, in sending for the wood unnecessarily. There is no getting out of this dilemma. The Jury were put in possession of no information to enable them to judge whether this time were lost through neglect on the one hand or ignorance on the other.
6th. Since it appears on all hands, that under the present system there is no effectual security against these explosions, and that when they take place, wood is more or less indispensable to the relief of the sufferers, for restoring the door or partitions which are blown down by the explosion, and for directing currents of air to sweep away the stithe or stife which prevents access to the bodies – was there such a quantity of wood in such proper places, under the care of such proper persons, as to ensure the speediest relief possible? – On this point the evidence is incontrovertible, – that if wood were there the persons under whose immediate charge the pit was, did not know where to find it as to the fact of wood being there or not, nothing appeared on oath but mere vague assertions both ways. But whether it was there or not, makes no matter, if it was not placed so as to be instantly found by those who might momentarily want it. It does however appear a little extraordinary, that a parcel of witnesses should one day swear that they sent to the Granary yard for wood, and the next that they had always plenty close at hand.
Mr. Peile, in his address to the Coroner and Jury, observed, “that there was always 300 dozen of wood lying about in the pit, though it might not happen that the wood was lying where every man might lay his paw upon it, just at the moment it was wanted.” Lay his paw upon it! It is an ugly phrase and considering that Mr. Peile was vindicating himself from being accessory to the death of three and twenty men, he might have chosen one more decorous. But let that pass. Setting out of view the question whether or not the number of planks he mentioned were adequate to the wants of the pit, of which the immense galleries traverse in the three levels an extent of very many miles, which we have heard disputed, and which ought to have been enquired into putting this question out of view, we should like to ask Mr. Peile, of what use was the wood in emergencies, it was not placed where every poor creature whose filthy paws were earning him a subsistence in those dens of wretchedness, and who might rush to save the life of a son, a brother, or a friend, could be furnished without a moment’s loss of time with the means of rescue? Of what use was it, when the overmen and deputies preferred sending to the Granary yard, to continuing the search for wood in the pit? That there was wood in the pit sufficient to enable the men to get at the coal is certain enough, and if Mr. Peile meant to state that, he might have spared himself the trouble of doing so but if he meant to say that there was a supply adequate to those emergencies which it was either his duty or that of some body else to provide against, and that supply distributed in a proper manner, the bare fact proves him in error, and his own statement confirms the fact for, since an explosion might occur at any moment, the wood should have been placed so that any man might lay his paw on it at any moment.
If Mr. Peile had a vessel which drifted upon a lee shore, without dropping her anchor, and the captain on escaping, were to tell his owner that he had plenty of anchors on board – half a dozen or so in the hold or about the deck, but there was not one where a man could lay his paw on it at the moment it was wanted – what would Mr. Peile think of his story? Is not a supply of wood the sheet anchor in collieries where the ventilation is weakened or interrupted? If Mr. Peile had a friend who fell down in a fit of apoplexy, and the surgeon on being sent for were to be unprovided with a lancet, and if two hours were lost by the neglect, would Mr. Peile think it any excuse, if he were to say that he had a dozen lancet in the house, but not one that he could lay his paw upon when it was wanted? If the surgeons of the Infirmary were to set to work to extirpate a tumour from the neck of a patient and in so doing were to wound a deep seated artery, and the patient were to die for want of a ligature being put round it – what would the Governors of the Infirmary think of the operators, if they were to allege that there were plenty of ligatures in the place, dozens of hanks of yarn, cotton or silk, but not one where the Hospital Dresser might lay his paws on at any moment it was wanted – even though patients in such a case join in a verdict of died “casually, accidentally, and not otherwise”?
7th. Was there any medical care taken of the bodies of the persons suffocated? On this point there was a very explicit answer – no care was taken, absolutely none. There was no professional person about the pit who considered it his duty to attend to this business. There was no one there who was competent to distinguish between recoverable an irrecoverable asphyxia. The solitary Surgeon who attended did not get there until eight o’clock and he did not see the bodies. And yet the bodies were, notwithstanding all the delays, recovered much within the time, which medical men consider as limiting the possibility of resuscitation. Orfila the greatest modern authority on the subject, says, and a host of other writers unanimously confirm him, that attempts at resuscitation ought never to be abandoned until at least six hours after, to all appearance, life is extinct. This rule is acted on in England, in France, and in every civilised country where the life of men is thought worth the trouble of preserving. Mr. W. Peile indeed says, that when he got there the bodies were cold and stiff. Mr. Peile, it is highly probable, was in a certain degree mistaken on that point, as he easily might be in the hurry and agitation of the moment. Supposing that they were all instantaneously killed (which we shall presently show was highly improbable) it is impossible that in three hours, or three and a half at most, the limbs should have entirely lost heat and flexibility. A human body retains a large part of its heat for many hours after death, and the muscles do not become permanently contracted for even a much longer period than that mentioned. An uninformed observer easily mistakes the inertness of suspended animation for an unequivocal indication of death. If the limbs of any of them were really stiff at that period, it should rather be taken as an indication that they were alive – rigidity of the muscles is a very common symptom of asphyxia the little manual of Orfila, which is in the hands of almost every medical man, is very particular on this point. And there is nothing on which all medical authorities are more thoroughly agreed, than that for a great many hours after the accident – some say so many as twelve, it is impossible for the best physiologist to say, by mere inspection, whether a suffocated person is recoverable or not.
8th. Was there any probability that life was lost for want of due expedition? We have just shown, which indeed is obvious to common sense, that there was a possibility the question is now as to the probability. To come at this we must take into consideration all the circumstances. Suppose that two or perhaps three hours had not been lost in what Mr. W. Peile declared to be useless efforts to restore the circulation of air suppose that they had been got at, as on Mr. W. Peile’s showing they ought to have been got at, by four o’clock or so. Suppose that those who perished by mere suffocation, like the Little’s, had been raised by that time is it not highly probable that those persons might have been saved? – Those who answer in the negative must, we humbly submit, be entirely ignorant of the nature of human life. A certain portion would doubtless be utterly and irremediably destroyed by the flame of the explosion but of those who showed no symptoms of having been burnt, of those who had clearly died form suffocation and nothing else, if there be any truth in theory or experience, the great majority would have had a fair chance of being recovered by prompt and skilful application of remedial measures. Mr. W. Peile himself says, and we believe him to be so far perfectly correct in his judgement, that the circulation of air, or the very spot of the explosion, was restored immediately after the moment of the explosion, so that, there was nothing to injure or suspend vital motion beyond the immediate effect of the first blast of foul air which overwhelmed them. If any man chooses to say that a person who is recovered within two hours of his being suffocated by foul air has not a fair chance of being resuscitated, he only displays his own ignorance, if not something worse. But as Mr. Mossop ingenuously admitted “inflammation is not a process which takes place after death,” and as the majority of the bodies showed unequivocal symptoms of inflammation, it is highly probable that a large portion of the sufferers were actually alive at the time, when, with reasonable expedition, the bodies ought to have been recovered. It is true that on William Postlethwaite, who swore, according to the Pacquet, that there “was twice as much wood in the pit as was wanted, if it could be got at,” (!!!) says that nobody can live more that three minutes “in such an atmosphere as results from explosion of foul air,” and he quoted Dr. Fox in support of his opinion, and stated that he himself had been “burned two or three times.” We know nothing whatever of Dr. Fox, whose name we never heard in our life before, but if he be a man of common sense and information, he must be ashamed of hearing an ignorant creature like Postlethwaite, who according to his own story, must have had as many lives as a cat, gravely setting his authority against that of all the physiologists in Europe. Out upon the nonsense! It would move the bile of Job himself to listen to it.
We have thus, calmly and dispassionately, travelled over the leading points of this momentous enquiry. Of its awful importance we entertain a deep and overwhelming sense. Other times are at hand, and we indulge a hope that we shall yet live to see the day, when the life of man shall not thus idly be sported with. But deeply impressed as we are with the solemn duty, we have suffered no extraneous sentiments to interfere with the discharge of it. We believe that the gentlemen connected with the colliery, if appealed to as gentlemen, and men of honour, will cheerfully acquit us (as indeed they have done) of travelling one step out of our road of fair and impartial investigation and we, on our part, should be wanting in candour if we did not publicly acknowledge that their conduct throughout the investigation was fair and manly. It is true they were guilty of some interference, which, though perhaps neither strictly legal nor proper, a natural anxiety rendered excusable. How far the blood of these three and twenty men rests on their heads, or on the head of others,
“This let the world, which knows not how to spare,
Yet rarely blames unjustly, now declare.”Return to previous page