HAIG PIT. Whitehaven, Cumberland. 5th. February, 1931.

The No.3 North District where the disaster occurred was part of the Main Band Seam and was two and a half miles underground at a depth of 1,100 feet. Mr. George Marron was the manager of the colliery and Mr. Andrew Naysmith the undermanager. They visited the workings of the mine on a daily basis and Mr. William Morgan, the Agent, visited at frequent intervals. There were four shifts of deputies, one deputy in each, in the No.3 North District for three shifts of workmen. In addition, an overman supervised this district as well a as the No.2 South District which adjoined on the morning and afternoon shifts. During the night shift, there was one overman for the Haigh Section of the mine.

The No.3 North District was reached from the shafts by the Haigh Engine Plane which was also the main air intake. This road averaged 9 feet in height, was about 13 feet wide and extended approximately two miles. The No.3 North Dip extended for 400 yards. It was level for 150 yards and then dipped at a rate of 1 in 6. The workings making up the No.3 North District extended to the west and east of this dip for about 300 yards and 200 yards respectively. The coal was worked by bord and pillar with the roads about 50 yards centre to centre.

The Main Band seam is this district was about half its normal thickness of about 11 feet, the top coal being thinner and the bottom or “Benk” coal was missing. The seam in this district resembled a saucer, the main dip starting at the rim and cutting the saucer in half. The roads to the east were more or less level for a short distance and then rose in that direction. Those to the west dipped for a short distance then rose.

The district was ventilated by a split of 19,000 cubic feet of air per minute. The split was then divided into three, one containing 3,500 cubic feet entered at Hodgson’s place, a second of the same amount went east and ventilated the broken workings and a third of 12,000 cubic feet went west by way of Bailey’s level.

Limestone dust was used for dusting the roof, floor and sides and was distributed in No. 3 North district during December and January at a rate of about 5 lbs. of dust per ton of output. Bailey’s level was treated on 27th January and the roads to the east of the main dip on the 28th.

The workmen used Oldham electric lamps and the deputies and other officials Patterson flame lamps. A top caunch in Hodgson’s level was being taken down and Samsonite No.3 explosive was used. In Bailey’s place, the coal was found to be difficult to get and the men working there as asked the underground manager for a special price, in order to enable them to earn reasonable wages. The undermanager suggested that if they would agree to undercut the coal to a depth of five feet, he would supply Cardox shells to blow down the coal. This bargain was struck and on the 27th January two shells were fired and when third was fired, the explosion took place.

The explosion occurred on a Thursday night without any warning and was felt almost a mile away. It partially destroyed the ventilation system and was followed by great gusts of gas. Within two hours of the accident, this gas could be smelled a few hundred yards to the windward of both the Haig and the Wellington Pit tops. It occurred in the No.3 North District and was close to the sealed off area where the thirteen men and officials were killed on 12th February 1928 while they were conducting exploration work. The stopping to this Development District was unaffected by the explosion.

At the time of the disaster which occurred at 8.15 p.m. 169 men were underground, 45 of who were working in the No.3 North District. Of these 24 lost their lives and a further 12 were injured or gassed and removed to hospital. One of these men later died. Two workers in the adjacent Wellington Pit which was reached by a drift from the Haig Pit were fatally gassed and 30 others overcome by the afterdamp but only one needed hospital treatment.

Immediately after the explosion the afterdamp surged along the main roads but rolled back as the air current, which had been reversed by the explosion, again reversed and swept down Jolly’s Drift into the Wellington pit. John Ruddy and Thomas Quirk were overcome by this gas and the others had to flee for their lives.

The men underground that were not involved in the explosion but were battered and bruised gallantly went into the shattered workings and dragged six of their fellow workmen to safety although they were injured and seven other men owe their lives to the actions of these men. They went down the pit without breathing apparatus and went for about a mile through the mine before they were driven back by the gas.

About 9 p.m. an improvised Rescue Team was assembled by Mr. Marron, the manager and Dr. E.H. Ablett. The part consisted of Mr. G. Marron, the manager, Mr. J. Nasmith, the underground manager, Mr. A.B. Dawson and Mr. McCuskery the manager and the undermanager of the Ladysmith colliery, Mr. W. Tweddle, the manger of the William pit, Mr. W.B. Brown the Cumberland Inspector of Mines, Councillor J. McAllister, Mr. Charlton of the Brigham Rescue Station and Mr. Thompson the senior deputy at the Haigh pit. He was responsible for the rescue of Joseph Smith who unfortunately was so badly injured that he died in hospital on Saturday.

They descended the mine without respirators and battled through clouds of dust and gas and got to within a mile of the explosion area. They rescued seven men and recovered three bodies. When they emerged at the surface they were all suffering from the effects of gas and were in danger of losing consciousness.

By midnight specially equipped parties arrived at the colliery. A Team from Brigham Rescue Station arrived with the new “Meco” rescue apparatus which helped men work in gas while breathing oxygen. Other teams came from Siddick, Morseby, and Lowca as well as the local Haigh, Wellington, Ladysmith, and William pits. They descended and found that although there was great damage there were no great falls of the roof that would hamper their efforts.

Later the team consisted of Mr. W.H. Johnson the general manager of the Colliery Company, Mr. A.H. Bryan and Mr. Rogers, H.M. Inspectors of Mines attached to the Northern Division, Mr. T.S. Durham mining engineer to Lord Lonsdale, Mr. R.H. Garside surveyor to the Colliery Company, Mr. D. McKenzie, Mr. T Banks the general manager of the Siddick Colliery, Mr. H. Skerry secretary to the Deputies Association and Mr. Greenland-Davies Chief Northern Inspector of Mines.

They made good progress with the men with the breathing apparatus working out in front restoring the ventilation so that men without apparatus could follow. They worked in relays for 38 hours before the last body was recovered.

An official at the pit who had had previous experience in explosions at the Haigh pit said:

Never have I seen rescue Men work to better effect. They were splendid. The worst job was that of carrying out the bodies some of which were in a terrible state.

During the night, Dr. Ablett was joined underground by Dr. A.V. Harris whose father was one of the heroes of the 1910 explosion at the Wellington Colliery and worked at the surface with other local doctors, nurses, and ambulance men who helped the men who were suffering from the effects of the gas.

The management of the colliery made a statement:

An accident occurred at the Haigh Pit about 8.15 p.m. on the 29th inst. Rescue work is now in progress and so far 25 men have been rescued and 11 bodies have been recovered. The cause of the explosion is at present unknown.

Mr. W.H. Johnson, general manager of the Whitehaven Colliery Company, issued the following statement at Friday noon:

Out of the 45 men involved 19 have been rescued alive and 25 dead bodies have been recovered. The explosion occurred in the new section of the pit known as the No.3 North and as localised.

There were distressing scenes at the pithead where relatives of the doomed men waited throughout the night in the forlorn hope that there would be further survivors found in the mine. As the night advanced the crowd grew and made its way to the pit yard. They divided into small knots and discussed the situation in hushed tones. The moon shone through the headgear and there were lights in the colliery offices. Telephones were heard and busy workmen hurried to and fro and materials were taken to the Haigh and the Wellington pits.

The assembled wives, parents and close friends and relatives waited and bore the ordeal bravely. A large detachment of Police was rushed to the pit yard but the crowd estimated to be at least one thousand but it posed no problem for them and they maintained perfect order and it was not until the first survivors arrived at the surface that there was any change in the mood of the assembled crowd.

There was a tilled chamber at the pit head and as the cage came up carrying the first of the survivors, wives’ parents and friends rushed forward looking for their loved ones. the fortunate ones rushed to their men and hugged them and eyes filled with tears of wild hysterical joy. in the others the tears that had been so long held back began to flow and with the arrival at the surface of the first mangled body women broke down and sobbed and were led away by relatives. Those left bore their disappointment and grief in silence.

Many of the survivors told their stories to the press at the time. John Broatch said that he had finished work and was walking out when there was a bang and a violent rush of air along the working that flung him on his face. Almost semi-conscious he struggled to his feet and eventually reached the bottom of the shaft. When he got to the surface he and the men that were with him were said to resemble snowmwen since they were covered from head to foot with stone dust. The man who worked with Broatch was Robert Timmins who was severely injured.

Another survivor was working in a remote district when he heard a thud but he continued to work until he noticed that the air was becoming foul. the alarm was given and he and his companions dashed headlong for the shaft. When they got to the pit eye they were exhausted.

The rescue parties found great damage to the mine with a small stationary engine being flung bodily for forty yards down the road. On top of the engine, they found the body of young Gainford who was its driver. Props had been reduced to matchwood and steel girders twisted like pieces of tin.

The men that were found were in the act of doing everyday things when they died. One was in the act of putting on his coat and another held his lamp in one hand and his bait tin in the other showing that there was no warning of the explosion.

Another anonymous survivor told the press:

Me and my marrer were filling our last tub when there was noise like a big gun going off and I felt as if somebody had hit me like a crack in the lug. We were in Humbug district about 600 yards away. I said, “There’s something wrong” but my marrer said, “It’s nowt”. I felt the air current turning so we went outbye. My marrer went right out but I turned inbye again and met blinding clouds of stone and coal dust. Men were running everywhere shouting for help and stretchers. We got a stretcher and got a man onto it but he died before we could get him far. I couldn’t stand it so I came outbye and was glad to get out.

Mr. T. McGlennon another survivor was knocked down by a rush of air. He picked himself up but remembered nothing more and Douglas Amos of Newhouses told the press:

I was working in another district and I was going to ride out to the shaft which was two miles away when I saw a flash and heard a rumbling noise. Then I saw men falling down all around, men falling all over each other. I picked up man and carried him for 40 yards and found he was dead.

Daniel Bailey aged 19 years of York Road Whitehaven had just got to the shaft when the explosion occurred:

I realised that my elder brother, George, was in the district and I went back to try to rescue him but I was blinded by the gas and had to go back.

Some of the men that stayed underground and tried the first rescues without apparatus were half a mile from the No.3 district when the disaster struck. Many were hurled to the ground by the force of the explosion before they heard the report. William Birkett was one of these men. He was a hewer of Duke Street and as he went towards the explosion he found Mr. Thompson, the overman, trying to contact the No.3 district by telephone. He got no response and they went forward and quickly came across some bodies which they left but they succeeded in rescuing six men who were injured. Some of these rescue men stayed underground until 2 a.m. without breathing apparatus, helping the official Rescue Teams.

The conduct of Mr. Harry Stevenson who worked as an overman at the Wellington colliery was brought to the notice of local pressmen. He was working of the afternoon shift due to the illness of a colleague. Soon after 8 p.m. the air suddenly thickened and the lights went out. He thought that there had been a fall that had stirred up the dust or that the compressor had failed. He tried to phone the engine house and Mr. Heslop who was in the engine house who was in the 1928 explosion, when asked if anything was wrong said- “It’s that —– great pit”.

On ringing the manager of the Haigh pit, Mr. Marron, Mr. Stevenson told him that the air in the Wellington pit which joined the Haigh pit through Jolly’s drift, which joined the two pits, was “thick” and he was informed that all was well and that the Haigh pit was drawing coal.

In the meantime the men who had been working in the Bannock district, except four who were working in the farthest places. It was also found that another four men, Quirk, Ruddy, Coates and Pearson were beyond a set of tubs on the main road. Leaving others to warn them, Mr. Stevenson went back into the Bannock district to warn the four men at the end. He went about 700 yards and he phoned back to Heslop to find how things were going. Heslop replied, “Joughlin”. This was one of the men who he was going to warn and then Heslops’s voice tailed off.

Just the gas arrived and Mr. Stevenson fell on his hands and knees but he managed to crawl into a side road and open the brattice double doors which cut off the air from this part of the working. The air got better and the road which went round to form three sides of a square and then joined the main road again. The road was four feet high and 700 yards long. He passed through a door at the far end and reached the men who said that Mr. Stevenson must have broken the 100-yard record to reach them!

The men were sitting on the ground and Mr. Stevenson told them to get a move on and just then a cloud of gas swirled down the road. They staggered through the brattice into relatively clear air and travelled back into the Main Haulage road through san old disused working. They had to climb an old “chain pit” twenty-two yards long by an old ladder and they eventually joined the main road just by the compressor below the entrance to Jolly’s drift from which the gas was coming.

As soon as they got there, Mr. Stevenson asked if anything had been heard of the men there. Heslop said that they had had a phone message twenty minutes before that they were proceeding outbye but they had not turned up. Mr. Stevenson tied a handkerchief over his mouth and started out to find the men. After staggering about 440 yards he heard a loud snore and found Pearson unconscious. His efforts at artificial respiration failed and he was crawling on to Coates who was a few yards further on when he was overcome by the gas and he knew nothing more until he was at the bottom of the shaft. The rescue party arrived soon after Mr. Stevenson was overcome and got him out with the four other men. Unfortunately, two of the other men were dead.

A message of sympathy arrived at the colliery, forwarded through Lord Lonsdale. The message read:

The Queen and I are shocked to hear of the terrible accident at Haigh pit and at the serious loss of life which it has involved. Please convey our heartfelt sympathy to the bereaved relatives and make enquiries on our behalf to the progress of the injured.

As the bodies were brought to the surface at the Haigh pit, they were taken to a temporary mortuary at the pit head and later to the hospital mortuary to await identification. The work of identification was gruesome and difficult owing to the state of the bodies and in many cases identification could be made only from clothing, birthmarks and personal possessions. Remarkably, on one or to of the bodies watches were still found to be in working order.

The men near the site of the explosion met a violent and sudden death and the bodies were so frightfully disfigured that identification was very difficult. The men that were further from the immediate scene were killed by concussion and gas:

  • John Holliday, aged 50 years. A married man who worked as a hewer of 26, Main Street, Parton.
  • William Wilkinson, aged 24 years a married man who was a hewer of Plumblands  Lane, Whitehaven.
  • Joseph Henry Gainford, aged 18 years. A single engine driver of 28, Hill Top Road, Arrowthwaite. He had worked at the pit since he was 14 years old.
  • Robert Parkin, aged 53 years a hewer of 68, High Scotch Street, Whitehaven.
  • Matthew Storey, aged 28 years a married hewer of 16, George Street, Whitehaven. He left a wife and two children and there had been six deaths in the Storey family in the last fifteen months.
  • Joseph Kelly, aged 51 years a married hewer who lived at The Bungalow, Low Road, Whitehaven. Mrs. Keely was told that her husband had been taken to hospital with slight injuries but this proved to be William Kelly. Joseph had worked at the pit for only three weeks and left a widow. He had previously worked in the gold and diamond mines in South Africa and returned to England in 1913.
  • John Edward Slack, aged 30 years a married stoneman of 53, Ennerdale Terrace, Whitehaven. He had been out of work for over a year and had found a job at the William pit only seven weeks before the disaster and had recently been transferred to the Haigh. He left a young wife and a daughter aged four years.
  • Robert Hewitson, aged 22 years. A single man of 56, Buttermere Avenue, Whitehaven,
  • James Richardson, aged 45 years. A married man who worked as a hewer of Union Terrace, Whitehaven.
  • John Richardson, aged 45 years. A single hewer of Union Terrace, Whitehaven. James Richardson and John Richardson were father and son and both were well known cricketers in the area.
  • William Cowan, aged 47 years, a married deputy of 6, Countess Terrace, Whitehaven. He left a widow and five children, George Parker (senior), aged 58 years. A widower who worked as a hewer of Middle Row, Newhouses, Whitehaven
  • George Parker (junior), aged 31 years a single man who was a hewer and lived with his father, George (senior). The younger was to have been married to Miss Margaret Mather a few days later. Margaret waited for hours at the pit head awaiting news but he was the last to be brought out of the pit.
  • John Telford, aged 33 years a married man who was a hewer of 62, Middle Row, Newhouses, Whitehaven.
  • Edward Cockbain aged 40 years a married hewer of 8, Ennerdale Terrace, Kells.
  • Wilfred Hocking, aged 24 years a married hewer of High Harras, Whitehaven. He had been married for only three months.
  • Joseph Rogan, aged 49 years a married hewer of Thwaiteville, Whitehaven.
  • John Thomas Rogan, aged 22 years a married hewer of Thwaiteville, Whitehaven. Joseph Rogan and John Thomas Rogan were father and son. John left a wife and a fifteen-week old child.
  • James Knox, aged 43 years a married hewer of 31, Old Arrowthwaite, Whitehaven. He was identified by his clothing. He left a wife and eight children, His body was found by his brother George.
  • Fred Armstrong, aged 37 years a single hewer of 19 Buttermere Avenue who lived at Plumbland, Aspartia.
  • John Bailey (junior), aged 21 a single man who worked as a hewer of 9, York Road, Arrowthwaite. He had narrowly missed death in the last explosion at the colliery, Robert Vincent, aged 50 years a married man who was a deputy of Hill Top Road, Kells. He left a widow and nine children.
  • Richard Hayton, aged 49 years a married man who worked as a shifthand of 20, Front Row, Newhouses.
  • Robert Groggins, aged 23 years a single man of 25, Mount Pleasant.
  • John Ruddy, aged 58 years a married deputy of 65, Hill Top Road, Arrowthwaite. He was one of the dead from the William pit had started work at the pit when he was 13 years old and he left a widow and two sons and two daughters.
  • Thomas Quiry, aged 59 years a widower who worked as a timberman of 8, Littledale Lane, Whitehaven.

The following men were admitted to the West Cumberland Hospital:-

  • Joseph Smith, aged 27 years a single man of East Road Kells. He had a fractured leg and burns and later died in hospital. He had been out of work for some time and had worked at the pit for two weeks and had not drawn his first pay packet.
  • G. Pritt, aged 37 years of North Road, Bransty who was suffering from shock.
  • R.J. Timmins, aged 42 years a married man of Thwaiteville, Arrowthwaite who had a fractured leg and shock.
  • Thomas McClusck, aged 40 years a married man of High Street, Whitehaven who was concussed and suffering from shock.
  • Joseph Bell, aged 38 years a single man of Long Row, Arleedon who had shock and a cut head.
  • G. Geer, aged 36 years a single man of Montreal Street, Cleator Moor who was s shocked and was discharged after treatment.
  • James McGlennon, aged 52 years a married man of Hill Top Road Arrowthwaite who was suffering from shock.
  • Joseph Kermeen, aged 36 years a married man of York Road, Arrowthwaite who was shocked.
  • John Hornsby, aged 53 years a married man of Back Row, Newhouses who was suffering from shock.
  • Aaron Housby, aged 33 years a married man who was shocked and concussed and lived at Scotch Street.
  • Myles Knox, aged 54 years of 54, Newhouses who was shocked and had injuries to the knee and ankle.
  • David Johnston, aged 29 years a married man of Railway Terrace, Newtown, who had a cut head and shock.
  • William Kelly, aged 28 years a married man of Quay Street who had cut head and was shocked.

All the men were suffering from the effects of gas and other men who were gassed were taken to their homes. Most discharged quickly from the hospital and only R.J. Tinnins, J. Bell and M. Kox were kept in hospital.

The town buried their dead and the Mayor Mr. Thomas Reed opened a Relief Fund stating that £600 was required. This target was reached by the end of March with donations from all over the country. The inquest into the deaths of the victims was held and the official inquiry into the disaster was opened in February 1931 by Sir Henry Walker the Chief Inspector of Mines at Whitehaven Congregational School Room.

The inquiry lasted for three days and ended on a note of indecision. There was an explosive “Cardox” used in the mine and one theory as to the cause of the explosion was that a flying Cardox shell had struck a tub causing a spark which had exploded the firedamp mixture which was believed to have come suddenly from the floor.

All parties agreed that the explosion originated in Bailey’s place and that it was an explosion of firedamp propagated by coal dust. Two men were killed in the Wellington section of the mine by afterdamp that was carried through Gallows drift and damage was done as far as 530 yards outbye of the Haigh main haulage road.

The explosion occurred at thirteen minutes past eight but what happened in that place between two minutes to eight and the explosion when McGlennon saw Cowan, Armstrong and Bailey jnr. at work there, can only be surmised. Inspection after the explosion revealed that the coal in Bailey’s place had been carved to a depth of 4.5 feet right across from side to side, and the other apparently about the same distance from the right side, both being started about 8 inches from the roof. The hole of the left side was 4.5 feet deep and had not been charged. That on the right had been bored 2 to 3 inches into the solid, had been charged and fired but little work had been done as the Cardox cartridge had blown out leaving a socket about 15 inches deep. The cartridge with a piece of cable still attached was found on the floor next of the face of the opposite heading, the one in which McGlennon and Walsh were working. The exploders were found in Bailey’s level with an electric safety lamp beside it; it was William Cowan’s body who had evidently used the exploder. The bodies of Armstrong, Walsh and Vincent, two flame lamps and an electric lamp were a few feet outbye.

The shotfiring cable was found in three pieces, one about 16 feet long with two leads at one end formed into loops. A few feet outbye on the other side of the road from the exploder, there was another piece about 7 feet long and at a third piece, 105 feet long stretched out along the road with its outer end entangled with some iron rapper wire around the hook and wheel of an upturned tram.

The lamps were tested and found that were not responsible for the explosion but the exploder was found to be capable of igniting a mixture of firedamp and air. The inquiry came to the conclusion that the explosion was due to firedamp accumulating in Bailey’s place because of the derangement of the brattice doors. It was difficult to understand why Cowan did not detect the gas unless he examined the place before charging the hole and not immediately before firing. The ignition was due to either a spark from the exploder or by spark or heat caused by the Cardox cartridge when it struck the end of a steel tub. The explosion was spread throughout the district because of the dampness caused the limestone to bond and not to rise and intermingle with the coal dust.

Henry Walker thanked all those involved with the inquiry and the proceedings were closed.


The Mines Inspectors Report.
Colliery Guardian, 6th February 1931, p.513, 30th January, p.406, 20th February, p.677, 27th February, p.795, 29th May, p.1885.

Information supplied by Ian Winstanley and the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.

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