HARRINGTON No.10 PIT. Lowca, Cumberland. 9th. December, 1946.

The Lowca Colliery was described as a “big industrial sentinel” on its 500-foot hill overlooking the Solway Firth and was first sunk in 1908. At the time of the accident, it belonged to the United Steel Companies Limited. The shafts were known as the No.10 downcast, which was 20 feet in diameter, and the No.9 upcast, which was 16 feet in diameter. The pit bottom was in the Six Quarters Seam at a depth of 648 feet and the Main Band Seam at the shaft lay at a depth of 350 feet. The Colliery employed 770 people of which 530 worked underground and 240 of which 30 were women were employed at the surface. 196 were engaged at the coalface and 335 on the haulage and as oncost workers. The average number employed on a day shift was 250 but on the day of the explosion, there were 208 at work of whom 53 were in the Main Band Seam. It was known as a wet pit but it had been free from serious accidents. The Main Band Seam was 350 feet below sea level and four districts were being worked at the time of the disaster. The explosion occurred in the No.2 District where there were five headings worked at the time.

Mr. J.A. Nimmo was the General Mining Manager of the Company’s Cumberland collieries, Mr. J.T. Hughes the Agent and Mr. Frank Graham the manager of the Harrington Colliery. At the date of the disaster, Mr. McCracken was the undermanager. The regular undermanager had been ill and McCracken had been transferred from a similar position in the No. 5 pit three months before.

The No.2 district of the Main Band seam was supervised by two overmen, day and afternoon, and by one deputy on each shift. The seam was overlain by a thick sandstone roof and was 12 feet thick coal with thin dirt partings, but the roof coal, 2 feet thick was not worked. The floor was of fireclay and then thick hard shale. Four units or districts were being worked and they were entered form the Main Band Engine Plane which started at the Lickbank Junction off the North Plane haulage about one and a half miles from the shaft and ran west for about a mile. At this point, mechanised mining was started in 1943 to try to increase output. Four parallel levels were started numbered 1 to 4, from the Main Band engine plane as development roads and advanced by Joy Loaders and an M&C Arc Shearer. Later, a trunk belt conveyor was installed in the No. 3 level and chain conveyors. Auxiliary fans were then introduced to ventilate the levels.

From these levels, the No.2 district, in which the explosion occurred, was opened out by five headings started in November 1944. The district was mined by the pillar and stall method with headings being driven into the coal 8 to 16 meters apart and interconnected by thirlings or side passages, about 25 meters apart. The resulting pillars supported the roof and by this method about one-third of the coal in a district would be mined. The pillars were then “robbed” when the passages were widened. Shuttle cars were introduced but they were withdrawn and the section abandoned a short time before the explosion and supports were being withdrawn from it.

The area of the No.2 district was very wet with water raining from the roof in the headings and it was decided to advance the Nos. 2 and 3 headings which rose about 1 in 18, rapidly to the boundary which was fixed by a limiting minimum cover of 240 feet so as to drain the water from the area, Duckbill loader and Goodman shortwall coal cutters and Victor drills for simultaneous shotfiring were installed. The height of the headings was reduced to 6 to 7 feet at a point about halfway between Nos. 5 and 6 left thirls and continued at that height. The rate of advance was about 40 yards a month. The No.1 heading was stopped at the No.4 left thirl and No.5 struck a fault and was discontinued. The intention was to drive back from No.5 right thirl to make a connection. No. 3 heading was the haulage and intake road in which a belt conveyor fed by a scraper chain conveyor was installed in No. 5 left thirl between Nos 2 and 3 headings and a similar conveyor in No. 5 right thirl. At the date of the explosion Nos. 2 and 3 were in advance by about 40 yards of the last thirl, No.7, and these workings were about three miles from the shaft.

When the thirls were no longer in use they were sealed off by corrugated sheeting covered by brattice cloth. The undermanager stated that there was shortage of both bricks and bricklayers and that was the reason why brick stoppings were not built. He considered the sheet metal both safe and effective.

The ventilation was produced by a Capell double inlet fan which was electrically driven. It was situated in the No.9 shaft and had a capacity of 2000,000 cubic feet per minute at 8 inches water gauge. On the north side of the pit, the North Plane haulage road in the Six quarter Seam was the main intake. At the Lickbank junction which was about one and a half miles from the shaft, the air split. A current to the Main Band Seam went west by the Main Band Engine Plane and from this separate splits were taken to the Nos 3 and 4 and then to the Nos. 2 units. the remainder went further inbye to ventilate the No.1 unit. The total quantity of air entering the North Plane was measured on the 7th. November 1946 was 61,870 cubic feet per minute and the quantity entering the Main Band was 41,750 cubic feet. No measurements of the quantities entering the separate slits in the Main Band were recorded in the Statutory Air Measurement Book but readings taken for the No.2 district recorded in a notebook showed 17,017, 16,744, and 17, 876 cubic feet per minute for September, October and November respectively.

There were three auxiliary fans in use in the No.2 until, all of them driven by electricity. No.1 fan was fixed in the No. 2 road was an Aerex type made by Walker Brothers and was 19 inches in diameter, driven by six half-inch belts but only four were in use at the time. It had a total capacity of 8, 750 cubic feet per minute, and adjustable louvres were fitted at the intake end for regulation. This fan had about 300 feet of 24 inch diameter Meco canvas tubing attached to it for ventilation part of the old shuttle car section of the workings which had been recently abandoned and were being drawn off. No. 2 fan was in the No.3 road and was Aeroto screw-type made by Davidson and Company. This was driven by a direct motor at 2,900 r.p.m. and had a capacity of 5,000 cubic feet per minute with 540 feet of tubing, 24 inches in diameter. This was used to ventilate the No.4 heading and the No.5 thirl extension. No.3 fan also in the No.3 road was a duplicate of the No.1 and was used to ventilate Nos. 2 and 3 headings. All the auxiliary fans were kept running when the men were at work. Normally Nos. 2 and 3 ran constantly from Sunday midnight until about midday on the following Saturday. They were restarted on Sunday morning at about 6.45 and run for another five or six hours when the maintenance engineers were on duty. After that, they were stopped and restarted by the night shift deputy before making his pre-shift inspection for the Monday morning shift. No measurements were taken of the air circulated by these fans.

The Main Band seam was regarded as a gassy one and during the six months up to the explosion the statutory reports showed that firedamp had been detected in the No.2 district on several occasions and the reports were found to be incomplete. No inspection on behalf of the workmen had been carried out in the district during this period.

These are was supplied with electricity from a 100 KVA Transwitch Unit 3,300/550 volt which was in a sub-station on the low side of the No.3 Level. The main cable passed through busbars of a number of switches before dividing into several sub-circuits. No2 switch at the foot of the No.3 heading controlled the main trunk belt conveyor in that heading and was operated by a nearby switch. Nos. 6 and 7 switches were near the No.3 left thirl and controlled a Mono pump in No.3 heading and No.1 fan. The main and tailgate haulage in No.2 heading was supplied by a cable off from the main cable just on the inbye side of No.7 switch. No.10 switch controlled the coalcutter and drilling machine in No 5 right and No.2 fan. No.11 switch controlled the two scraper chain conveyors feeding on to the No.3 heading belt conveyor, one in No.5 right and the other in No.6 left and the two duckbills in Nos. 2 and 3 headings. From No.11 switch, a pilot cable ran down the No.3 heading back to a push-button switch at the transfer point on No.3 level which enabled the starting and stopping of the branch conveyors to be controlled, in relation to the main conveyor from this point. The whole of the electrical apparatus in the district was certified to be flameproof with the exception of the two shortwall cutters, two duckbills, and the scraper chain conveyor in No.5 right which were of American design and manufacture.

A certified bell and approved dry battery were used on the bare wire signalling system. The bare wires extended inbye as far as the return wheel at No.5 left and outbye to the bottom of the No.2 supply road. A similar battery signalling system was installed in the No. 3 heading, the bare wires extending from the transfer point at the outbye end of the heading to about 20 yards inbye of the No.4 right beyond which up to No.6 left there was a pull wire by which the signals could be transmitted outbye.

The morning shift descended at 5.30 a.m. There were thirteen men, including Thomas Millar deputy, John McMullan, stoneworker and an overman, William Hoodless. the most important task was to clear the firedamp as soon as possible so that coal could be produced. Hannah had reported that the No.4 heading and the No 5 thirling extension of the number one heading, clear for work. On this information, two brothers John and Thomas Bird were sent to remove timbers and Thomas Addison, John Hill and Daniel Largue were sent to start work in the No.4. The rest of the shift were to assist in restoring the ventilation with William Hoodless directing the operations.

All the men who entered the No.2 district that morning were killed and there was no evidence to say what they were doing on that fateful morning so the inquiry looked at the situation on the preceding shift and considered the situation at the end of that shift as detailed by the shift deputy. From this and the evidence of the position of the bodies and injuries, deductions were made about the situation.

Coal getting operations ceased in the District with the end of the day shift on Saturday 7th December about noon and the fans were stopped and all electrical power cut at 10.30 p.m. On that day John Lewis Tubman, a shotfirer and spare fireman went down the one with the pumpman, William Urwin who was left at the No.6 pump on the main plane. After calling at the No.3 district and starting a pump there and an auxiliary fan, Tubman went to the No.2 district where he travelled up the main conveyor road called the No.3 heading until he reached the first auxiliary fan used for ventilating the No.4 heading and back to the No.1 fan which he started after making an examination. He then retraced his steps to No.3 heading and went inbye to the No.3 fan where he found the air clear and started the fan. This fan was between Nos.4 and 5 left thirls. He went a little beyond No.5 thirl and found all in order. It was then about 2.25 a.m. About 15 minutes after Tubman started the fans, he made an inspection at the face of both No.2 and No.3 headings and found no indication of firedamp. There was canvas screen brattice immediately over No.3 fan extending across the whole width of the road but with a small opening covered by a loose sheet through which the belt conveyor passed and according to Tubman, “good air” was circulating. A canvas screen was also placed in No.5 right thirl over the top of the scraper chain conveyor about three yards from No.3 heading beyond which a T-piece was placed in the ventilating tubes from the No.2 fan with extensions into the face of No.4 heading and the fast end of the No.5 thirl. Tubman came out of the district about 2.35 a.m., leaving the three fans running and after visiting other parts of the mine to see that the pumps were working, he reached the shaft and went up about 5.35 a.m. He had gone in on this shift to get the pumps and fans started because it was intended to move No.3 fan forward on Sunday morning.

The deputy, John Proud Fisher, went down at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning with four men, including two maintenance engineers, to move the No.3 fan. He saw Tubman at the pit head baths and he told him how he had left things in the district. Fisher and his men went to the old shuttle car charging station where they left some of their clothing. All three fans were running but on his way inbye to make an inspection, he stopped first the No.1 fan and then the No.2 at about 7 a.m. The men followed him inbye to No.3 fan. The Inspector commented that this was “a procedure not strictly in accordance with the requirements of Section 64 of the Coal Mines Act, 1911.” He then inspected the face of Nos. 2 and 3 headings, tested for gas and found none. He opened the door flap which was about four feet square in the brattice screen over the conveyor belt to allow air to pass through to the face while the fan was stopped and returned to the No.3 fan. Fisher disconnected the air tubes from the fan and left them suspended from the roof.

The fan was then pulled inbye for about 50 yards by means of a shortwall coal cutter the rope from which was lengthened by two short pieces to reach the fan. Glaister, one of the maintenance engineers, stopped the fan at the switch panel and then removed the plug from the fan socket. The fan as standing on the floor in its new position and the trailing cable was dragged up to it and connected to the fan by Thomas Brown, the other maintenance engineer, the fan was restarted by a switch which had been installed at the switch panel by Glaister. The air tubes had been broken at a joint and re-attached to the fan which started without any trouble.

About the time that the fan had been got to its new position, Robert McCracken, who had been operating a coal cutter and was the man nearest the face remarked, “I think its getting dirty up there” meaning there was gas at the face. There was a flame safety lamp about 10 yards on the inbye side of the No.7 thirling which the deputy said he had hung up about five minutes before and had not noticed any indication of firedamp though he knew, “it was possible inbye that thirl to get dirty” He did not bother about McCraken’s remark as the fan was ready to be re-started. This was about 11 a.m and the fan had been stopped for over three hours. After starting the fan, the brattice screen across the No. 3 heading which had beeN removed to leave the road open, Fisher and his men came out to the charging station to have their bait. About half an hour later, he returned to Nos. 2 and 3 headings and made a careful examination of the faces without finding any firedamp. At the time the headings were being ventilated by an air tube in each and the fan as running normally. There was no fall or any movement of the roof to suggest the possibility of a fall at the junction of the No.2 heading and the No.7 thirling. After stopping the fan, he came outbye at about 11.55 a.m. While the fan was running the louvres were fully open so it would pass the full quantity of air and it was left in this state. Nos.1 and 2 fans which had run for part of the shift were stopped after the men had taken their bait and were not re-started.

It was originally intended to move the switchgear controlling the No.3 fan but owing to the difficulty in hauling it due to the reduced height of the roadway, it was decided to leave the switchgear in the old position and the length of the spare training cable was enough for this to be done. No careful examination was made of the cable after it had pulled by Glaister and Brown who said they saw it was not damaged and was in good condition. General Regulation 131 (c) required that the electrician should be responsible for the fulfillment of certain duties and test all new apparatus of apparatus that had been re-erected in a new position. A piece of wire was found sticking out between the plug and socket attached to the fan motor which was fitted incorrectly. Glaister, took the plug out of the fan before it was moved and Brown, who replaced it later both denied knowledge of having seen such a wire and claimed to have made a careful examination of the apparatus. Unless this wire was put in in the morning of the explosion which seemed very unlikely, it must have been there when the fan was re-started but it apparently escaped the notice of the two maintenance engineers. Before leaving the district after the fan had been moved up, Glaister put the isolator switch at the No.11 panel into neutral so cutting off all current to the duckbills and scraper conveyors. It was the practice to have the switch close during the week. The switch was opened by the day shift deputy at the end of the shift on Saturday and left until Monday morning unless the maintenance engineers required the current.

On the Sunday afternoon, Robert O’Neill, a shotfirer, went down to attend to some pumps in other parts of the mine but between 2.30 and 3.30 p.m., he had occasion to go into the No.2 district to look for some grease near the scraper conveyor in No.5 right thirl. He did not examine the place nor, apart from getting the grease, interfere with anything. Alan Hannah, the night shift deputy, who had been in the position for only two months but had previously worked in the No.2 district, went down at 11 p.m. on Sunday with James Bateman, a pumpman. HannahÕs duty was to see that the districts in the Main Band Seam were in good order for the Monday morning shift to enter. They went together as far as the first pump which was known as the “back end” in the main haulage road where Bateman was left to look after the pump and Hannah continued inbye to the No.2 district which he entered by the No.2 supply road at about 12.15 a.m. He arrived at the No.1 fan and examined the place for gas, found none, and went into the No.3 heading and started the fan. He returned to No.1 fan and found it running and returned to No.3 heading. He reached and started the No.2 fan, the air being clear and continued up the No.3 heading and at the junction of the No.5 left thirl he walked into what he called “an accumulation of gas”. When he was asked what he did then Hannah said:

When I came across the accumulation of gas I was surprised and I think shocked to find such an accumulation. To shift it properly would have meant that I would have to move more men, and where I was going to get them from I did not know. In fact, there was no way of getting men for assistance at that time. I decided I would do my best to shift this accumulation and that I would open the door in No.5 left and this I did. This door was about 6 feet high and 4 feet wide and was opened by fastening up the sheet which hung down like a curtain. I then came to the belt road, No.3, leaving the position as it was and entering No.1 district, carried out examinations and left that district clear.

After about an hour and a quarter, he returned to No.2 district and went to No.5 left thirl which he found clear. This proved to him that the intake and the return from No.5 left was clear of any obstruction and he thought the air was travelling up to the No.7 thirl which was the last one. He then decided to take the tubes from the No.2 fan out of No.5 right and put them straight up the No.3 heading. To do this he stopped the No.2 fan and re-started it after fixing two lengths of tube about 34 yards long up the No.3 heading. After moving the tubes form the No.5 right thirl up the straight he opened the door of the canvas screen in that thirl to ventilate the No.4 heading. The velocity of the air from the tubes was good and there was a good draft through the door in No.5 left and the air seemed to be going beyond No.5 left and being drawn back through the door. He tested the air at the outbye end of the tubing in No.3 heading by beating dust from his clothes and by breathing into the air to see if any re-circulation was taking place but there was none. He was satisfied that the gas was not coming back on him and that the ventilation was taking its natural course. He returned to Bateman at the pump to have his bait and left the No.2 fan running. He reached Bateman at 3.05 a.m.

Bateman was an old and experienced pitman and Hannah discussed the position with him. After having their bait they returned to the No.3 district, each with a flame safety lamp and a cap lamp. They went to No.5 left thirl and found that the gas had receded further up the No.3 heading, going through No.5 thirl, Hannah went as far as No.2 heading where, in making a test for gas the light was extinguished, which showed that the No.2 heading was also fouled. To find out what the position was higher up, Hannah ran up the No.6 left thirl with just a cap lamp and opened the screen which opened in two halves. The first was connected to the prop on which the door was made by means of a five-foot boring drill and the other side was jammed with a sleeper. On his way back he closed the screen in No.5 left thirl after this he made a fence at the junction of this thirl with the No.2 heading. He did not test for gas in the No. 2 heading. When he was going up the No.6 thirl, Hannah passed the No.3 fan in its new position but there was no brattice sheet across the heading or any other obstruction there. When he left the No.3 heading there was gas down to about 20 yards inbye on No.5 left thirl but the impression he gained was that the air was passing inbye beyond that point.

The door through the screen in No.5 right thirl still remained open and left so. Tests for firedamp in the No.4 heading and the extension of No.5 right thirl were made before and after removing the tubing from this thirl but none was found. As nothing more could be done in the No.3 heading Hannah went outbye, through the No.3 left thirl into the No.1 heading, up this heading, leaving Bateman just inbye No.1 fan and followed the course of the air tubes from the No.1 fan to the near end of the tube where he made an examination and found about one percent of gas. He took little notice of this as it was not uncommon to find gas there and he thought some gas would be coming from the No.2 heading. Although he did not then know that there were men at work there, he knew timber was being drawn in this section, that men would be at work at this place. It was here that the Bird brothers were found after the disaster.

It was about 4.30 a.m. when he made this examination. He then went outbye by No.2 level to No.4 district to make his pre-shift examination, leaving Bateman at the No.6 pump and from there he went to the Lickbank junction where he reported the accumulation of gas in the No.2 district in the report book and that he had fenced off the area. He then went to the shaft where he met Hoodless, the overman, in the undermanger’s cabin and told him of the position. The undermanger then came in and he too was informed of the position.

The morning shift on Monday, 9th December descended at 5.30 a.m. It included thirteen men and the deputy, Miller, who was at work in the No.2 district and John McMullen who was normally a stone worker but on that day he was sent to work at the transfer point at the entrance to the No. 2 district where the belt conveyor in No.3 heading was delivering its coal on to the main trunk belt. They were accompanied by the overman, William Hoodless. The task which faced these men was to get the accumulation of firedamp cleared as quickly as possible so that normal coal getting operations could continue on Nos. 2 and 3 headings. Since the night shift deputy had reported the No.4 heading and No.5 right thirling extension fit for work it was considered that these could start at once and the positions of the bodies indicated that they had either started or were about to start work, tow others were employed in withdrawing supports in the old shuttle car workings and this is where they were found.

Most of the others were presumably assisting in restoring the ventilation with the overman directing the operations. The plan of action was to advance the air tubes from No.2 fan until No.3 fan was clear of gas and then to run No.3. Evidence was given by Glaister of seeing two bales of canvas being taken inbye and being told by John Fox, one of the deceased, that he and his mate Pflaumer were going to erect a canvas screen on the inky side of the fan which had been moved on Sunday. The canvas bales would be taken up No.2 heading to the return wheel. It was suggested that this would have been done by the haulage engine in that road and carried forward by hand.

J.W. Glaister went into the No.2 district on Monday to look for some tools he had left at the old charging station. He arrived at about 7 a.m. and left about 7.45 a.m. to go to the No.1 district where he was working. When he left, R.H. Brown, the maintenance engineer in charge of that shift was still in the charging station. Glaister said that the main belt in No.3 heading had not been started as he did not hear it when he was at the charging station, nor was it running when he passed the transfer point and spoke to McMullen o the way to No.1 district. John McMullen whose job it was to control the running of the no. 2 district belts and who although seriously injured by the explosion was able to evidence at the Inquiry said that the main belt was running from about 7 a.m. almost continuously, though very little coal was being delivered by it at the transfer point, mostly in small interactant patches of a few shovel fulls as though of cleaning up. He was actually cleaning the spillage, of which there was more than usual at the transfer point and was probably not paying very great attention to the belt delivery.

Some minutes before the explosion occurred, the deputy, Miller, came outbye to the transfer point. He asked Mcmullen what had been wrong with the belt to which McMullen replied that the trunk belt on the main road had been standing. The belt had been re-started and was running. Miller then retraced his steps inbye along No.3 heading and only had proceeded about 15 yards when as Mcmullen said. “I knew no more”. McMullen was later found unconscious. He had been burned on the left side of the face, right hand, and left thigh and was badly shocked.

Glaister was working at the conveyor in the No.1 district about 600 yards from McMullen when the blast happened. He said it was like a heavy fall of stone and the blast which accompanied it flung him over the conveyor and threw stone dust from the side into the air. It was followed by a smaller explosion, perhaps seconds after the first. Along with his mate with whom he was working, he came out to the transfer point on the No.1 district with the main trunk belt and tried to telephone but could not do so as the lines had been damaged. On the No.2 level, he found the deputy who was going in to bring his men out but the men were already on their way outbye. Together they travelled out by No.2 level for some distance and the through a thirl to the No.3 level and reached the transfer point of No.2 district where they found the conveyor structure piled up in the roadway and other damage. It was not until later that McMullen was found there. From this point, Glaister telephoned to the undermanger at the surface giving the alarm.

Thomas Barton who was the deputy in the No. 4 district said the explosion sounded like a big dull thud or the closing of a big door and the auxiliary fan in his district stopped. He heard only one bump. He went inbye, met some haulage boys coming out, and then some men from the No.3 unit. He found the air at the No.2 district transfer point thick with dust and smoke. He was going to the No.1 district when he met some men coming out and turned back with them. On the instructions of the undermanager he went to examine some of the airways but collapsed and was sent outbye.

Rescue operations were set in motion and everything possible was done to get into the affected area to give aid to the men there. It was soon evident that the explosion had travelled outbye to the transfer point on No.3 road with considerable force. The air crossing which was a considerable structure had been demolished, doors and other ventilation arrangements destroyed and there were numerous heavy falls. All this made the work of rescue very difficult and because of the wet condition, unpleasant but no effort was spared by officials or workmen from this and other collieries to reach the entombed men.

By 9.45 a.m. on the morning of the disaster, the first trained rescue team had arrived from the Brigham Rescue Station, under the direction of the Superintendent, Mr. Charlton, and other brigades followed from other collieries a total of twelve brigades in all took part in the rescue operations.

Few of the men outside the No.2 district were treated by the men of the rescue brigades but by the time they could be reached all the men in the affected district were dead. By Tuesday night all the bodies had been located except that of Miller and he was found under a heavy fall.

The explosion was sudden and devastating. Thomas Miller, the deputy, came to talk to John McMullen who was at the junction of the No.3 heading and No.3 level, cleaning the spillage from a conveyor belt. McMullan’s last memory before he lost consciousness was that Miller had left him and was just starting to return down the No.3 heading. Miller’s body was found about 10 meters from that junction.

The explosion was felt or heard in other districts in the mine and men from these districts soon raised the alarm and rescue efforts were started at once. By 9.45 the first trained rescue team arrived soon to be joined by brigades from other collieries. The explosion had travelled with great force out-bye which meant that men in other districts were affected by afterdamp. Unfortunately, the men in the No.2 district were past help and in most cases died instantaneously.

The first official statement was made about 11 hours after the accident and stated:

As a result of what appears to have been an ignition of firedamp in the No.2 District of the Main Band Seam, Harrington No.10 Colliery, Lowca at 8.30 a.m. today, 15 men are missing. Rescue operations are in progress. The cause of the accident had not yet been ascertained. Rescue parties have been hampered by falls.

The seat of the explosion was about three and three-quarter miles from the pit shaft, well out under the Solway Firth where the Main Band Seam was about sixteen feet thick and was regarded as one of the richest in Britain.

Teams of volunteers were quickly formed from the miners in the No.10 and others were quickly summoned from St. Helens, Solway, William and Haig Pits under the command of Mr. J. Charlton who was the superintendent at the Mines Rescue Station at Brigham. Among the first to go down the pit were Mr. F. Graham the mine manager, Mr. T.J. Hughes, the general manager of the United Steel Company’s Cumberland collieries and Mr. T. Stephenson, Secretary of the Cumberland Miner’s Association. There were reports of the conditions underground immediately after the explosion was told to the press. There were more than two hundred men in the pit at the time, many in remote workings who were unaware that there was anything wrong until they were ordered to return to the surface.

One of the men working near the scene was Joseph Little of Main Street, Parton. He was completely deafened and clouds of stone dust rushed past him. He tried to get to the scene but the fan had stopped and both men were driven back by the gas. Little came out of the pit suffering from shock and the effects of gas as did two others from the No.2 District. They were John Richardson of The Square, Parton and Tom Barton of Pica.

One of the luckiest men to get out of the pit was John McMullen of Mooreclose Road, Harrington. He was badly cut about the head in the explosion. He was helped away from the danger area by two men until the gas became so bad that they were unable to stagger along with him and they had to be left. He was found by the first rescue team and taken to the pit top and after first aid, he was taken to the Whitehaven Hospital where he lost consciousness and now in a grave condition.

As soon as the news of the explosion spread around the district groups of anxious relatives gathered at the pit top. Little news came out of the pit for hours but it was felt by the first explorers that due to falls and the gas that they had experienced that there was little hope of anyone being left alive in the explosion area.

The first man to be reached was Tom Addison. He was trapped by debris and was dead. Within 24 hours due to the efforts of the rescue teams eight bodies had been located and brought to the surface and two others had been located. By Tuesday morning it sunk into the community that there could be none left alive and at that time there were three men Tom Millar the deputy in charge of the work in that area and the two Bird brothers who were unaccounted for. Later the bodies of the brothers were recovered but there was no sign of Millar and it was assumed that he was buried under a large fall. It was some time before his body was reached. The bodies were brought to the surface and a pit-head building was used as a temporary mortuary under the supervision of Inspector E.F. Nixon and the relatives came to identify their dead loved ones.

Mr. Tom Crellin, of the St.Helens Colliery Rescue Team, told of rescue men in heavy breathing apparatus making their way slowly forward trying to restore the ventilation while behind them in a purer atmosphere working to clear away debris and shore up the damaged roof. Crellin said that there were two large falls that barred progress. The first was about 30 yards long and contained something like 100 tons of rubble and the second was similar in size. Both were about fifteen feet high but fortunately, there was a space between the top of the fall and the roof through which the parties could work.

The fact that Mr. Harry Bird of Parton felt, in his own words, “seedy” on the morning of the explosion probably saved his life. He should have been at work with his two brothers John and Tom but he stayed in bed. As soon as he heard of the accident he hurried to the pit yard and joined a rescue squad. He was on the point of entering the cage when George Burns, a married man of Lowca, pulled his sleeve and told him that two brothers were enough to be down the pit and took his place. Mrs. Burns thought that her husband had gone for a stroll until she heard that he was down the pit.

Serving tea in the colliery canteen was Mrs. Margaret Wilson of Meadow View, Parton whose father William Hoodless, deputy, was one of the first to be reported to be killed in the explosion. The Mayor of Workington, Councillor R. Townley of Salterbeck was on his way to Carlisle on an official engagement when he heard of the explosion. He immediately turned back and changed into his working clothes and went down the pit to help with the timbering.

The last body was recovered on Saturday night and was that of Tom Miller. He was found under the largest fall of all and hundreds of tons of debris had to be removed before the body was recovered.

Those who died were:

  • William Hoodless aged 41 years an overman of 1, Meadow View, Lowca who was married with two children.
  • Tom Millar aged 44 years a deputy of 54, Salterbeck Road, Workington, married, with two children.
  • William H. Ennis aged 53 years a faceworker of 1, High Lowca, married 12 children.
  • Robert Burney aged 44 years a faceworker of 143, Queen Street, Whitehaven, married with three children.
  • Wilfred Chapman aged 42 years a face worker of 15, Burnside, Harrington, married with two children.
  • Charles Sharpe aged 26 years a faceworker of 85, Valley View Road, Greenbank, Whitehaven, married with one child.
  • Tom Addison aged 44 years a faceworker of 85, Valley Road, Greenbank, Whitehaven, married with one child.
  • Dan Largue aged 43 years a faceworker of 24, Solway Road Lowca, married with two children.
  • Harrison Fidler aged 37 years a demonstrator of 35, Croft Crescent, Dearham, married with two children.
  • Tom Bird aged 31 years a timber drawer of 7, West Croft Terrace, Lowca, single.
  • John W. Bird aged 46 years a a timber drawer of 10, Solway Road, Lowca, married with one child.
  • Robert H. Brown aged 31 years  a service engineer of 9, Ladypit Terrace, Whitehaven, married with one child.
  • John T. Hill aged 39 years a faceworker of 9, Burnside, Harrington, married with no children.
  • John Fox aged 43 years a bricklayer of 106 Main Street, Distington, married with four children.
  • Ronald Pflaumer aged 32 years a bricklayer of 12, Rose Hill, Harrington, married with no children.

There were some tragic tales from the list of the dead. One of the biggest families in West Cumberland lost its father, William Ennis. He was the father of twelve children the youngest of whom was Annie aged four years and Jennie aged 23 years was the eldest girl at home. The two eldest boys also worked in Cumberland pits. The Lowca Council lost William Hoodless to which he had been recently elected. His father, Jack, had worked in the mines for 54 years and another member of the family was killed in a disaster at Siddick about sixty years ago. The local sports scene was badly affected and the Football Club lost many supporters. The two Bird brothers who were on the Committee and Dan Largue was a county referee. Charles Sharpe was a well known boxer and as well a child his wife was expecting another. Tom Millar stated work in the St.Helens Colliery when he was fifteen years of age and after almost thirty years he was appointed as a deputy. During his life in the pits he had several near escapes. About twelve years ago a fall of rick trapped his arm and it was feared that it would have to be amputated but he made a good and rapid recovery. Two weeks before the explosion he sat an examination to train the Bevin Boys. Robert Burney was a collector for the National Savings and was very fond of dancing while Robert Brown was the organist at the Lowca Methodist Church. He recently had completed a course on mining engineering and was related to the Birds.

Before the explosion 650 men were employed underground at the colliery in three shifts. The work in the other districts was not affected by the disaster and was expected to continue when a full inspection had been made.

Messages of sympathy came from far and wide with Mr. Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power express sympathy with the relatives in the House of Commons and letters appeared in the Local Press.

We would like to express our deep sorrow with all those in distress at this time through the Lowca Colliery disaster.

Our children were evacuated to Whitehaven. You were good to them then when we were in distress in the south and we feel that were are linked up with you. God bless, comfort, and strengthen you at this time.

L. & B. Skinn.

1, Mayfair Avenue,

Chadwell Heath,



The Lowca Pit disaster is yet another reminder of the risks of the mining community incur in the winning of coal, upon which the life of the community depends. The dependants of the 15 men who lost their lives will, we know, have the sympathy of all, but we feel that a great many people will wish to have the opportunity of making some practical contribution to their future welfare. We have therefore decided to open a fund on their behalf. Since the men were drawn from the rural district of Ennerdale and the Boroughs of Whitehaven and Workington we have thought it best that a joint appeal should be made by us. We feel sure that we can rely upon a swift and generous response to our appeal so that adequate provision can be made for both the immediate and the future needs of the dependants. donations should be sent to the hon. treasurer of the Lowca Pit Fund, Mr. Williamson, District Bank, Whitehaven or to any of the undersigned.

(Chairman Ennerdale R.D.C.)

(Mayor of Whitehaven.)

(Mayor of Workington.)

Donations were received from all over the country and the fund reached several thousand pounds.


The inquiry into the causes of and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at the Harrington No.10 Colliery, Lowca, Cumberland on the 9th December 1946 was conducted by Sir John Felton, O.B.E., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines by arrangement with Lieutenant-Colonel D.J. Mason, D.S.O., T.D., D.L.., H.M. Coroner for West Cumberland and held concurrently with the inquest into the men’s deaths in The Congregational Church Schoolrooms, Whitehaven from the 25th. February to the 1st of March 1947. The report was presented to The Right Honourable Emanuel Shinwell, M.P., Minister of Fuel and Power on the 9th of September 1947.

All interested parties were represented and the coroner’s verdict was that:

The cause of death in each case was due to the result of an explosion of gas on the 9th December 1946 and that the men met their deaths by misadventure.

An investigation by the Mines Inspectors, colliery officials, and all other interested parties were carried out when the ventilation had been restored and falls cleared. Electrical apparatus and cables were brought to the surface for examination and the position of the bodies, pieces of apparatus and falls were carefully noted. The direction of the force of the explosion on stoppings and supports was also recorded and Sir John Felton made an inspection of the area on the 20th December with Inspectors and colliery officials.

It was generally agreed that the explosion was one of firedamp and that the point of origin was within an area extending halfway between the No.5 and No.4 left thirl in the No. 3 heading, outbye down to and including No.4 left thirl and No.5 right thirl but excluding the No.2 heading.

It was left to the inquiry to establish the cause and the sequence of events leading to the explosion. The main cause was determined to be firedamp and the source of ignition was looked for. The investigation narrowed down the possibilities to lamps, shot-firing and faults in the fan and the electrical equipment.

Evidence emerged that there was a lack of adequate maintenance and unauthourised frequent adjustments of equipment but the electrical equipment was ruled out as a cause of the explosion. Shotfiring was also ruled out as no shots were not fired that morning.

The electrical cap lamps were ruled out, but the flame safety lamps came under a searching inquiry. There were three lamps of this type used in this district. One was with the Bird brothers and this was found to be locked and intact near their bodies and the other belonged to the deputy Miller and the overman Hoodless. The overman’s lamp was damaged and had a missing pyropher bar and it was impossible to re-light it. This was not the cause but Miller’s lamp was a different matter. The lamp was found in pieces with the screw threads in perfect condition. If it had been pulled apart by the explosion the threads would have been damaged. The inquiry could only decide that the lamp had been unscrewed before the explosion.

Miller had gone down the heading talking to McMullan and possibly because Hoodless’s lamp was giving him trouble, left his with him. Hoodless needed to know the conditions on the other side of the brattice re-erected across No.3 heading. Possibly the lamp went out and would not re-light. He should have gone to the shaft and asked for another lamp or at least gone a considerable distance out-bye before he tested it.

The inquiry found that the best possible account of events was that Hoodless went to the best ventilated area in No.4 left thirling near the No.2 fan and unscrewed the lamp. He may have been trying the re-lighter when the spark ignited the gas. The inflammable mixture moved rapidly inbye, up the No.3 heading with increasing velocity until it exploded at No.5 thirling. Sir John Felton commented:

Such were the circumstances in which I visualise the lamp being opened. after removing the oil vessel Hoodless was, I think, trying the re-lighter when it operated and ignited the firedamp.

All the evidence points to there having been at this point an inflammable mixture which continued inbye up No.3 heading, the percentage of firedamp in the air gradually increasing until somewhere in the region of No.5 left thirl it reached the explosive point and there exploded with great violence.

The men near the No.3. fan were badly injured and a searing flame raced down the No.5 right thirling reaching the No.4 heading and severely burning Addison, Hill and Largue. Witnesses reported hearing two bangs. The first explosion and the second was possibly caused by the demolishing of the air-crossing or by coal dust exploding.

The inquiry established that ventilation was not adequate since although the full capacity of the fan existed the actual volume of air was not enough to ventilate the No.2 and 3 headings. All the cost-cutting, corner-cutting and shortages of skilled labour and Government Inspectors caused by the war were at last reaped in a bitter harvest.

Sir John Felton H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines made his report to Parliament and praised the rescue brigades and other parties for their work in rescue and recovery. He recommended that at the earliest possible time that training of skilled electricians and more attention be paid to the importance of ventilation. The switching off of fans to save electricity could lead to the accumulation of gas.

Sir John Felton made the following observations and recommendations:

The system of working in the No.2 district was Room and Pillar fully mechanised on American lines, entailing the use of a considerable quantity of electrically driven machinery (with switchgear and cables) for cutting, drilling, loading and conveying and for ventilation, all at or in close proximity to the coal face.

This system is now in use with satisfactory results as regards output at a number of collieries and is extending. With such a quantity and variety of electrical apparatus in use, it is apparent, in seams liable to give off firedamp even though not regarded as “gassy” in the accepted sense, that there is a need for special precautions to ensure safety.

I would call attention to a few of these, not they are new but because they are of such vital importance as to require stressing and the urgent consideration of all concerned.

1) The first and over-riding essential is the provision and maintenance at all times of adequate ventilation. The speed of advance made possible with this method of working necessitates the careful planning ahead of ventilation requirements and systematic checking of the ventilation by properly trained and competent officials. The use of auxiliary fans does not decrease this obligation but accentuates it, as shown in the present case.

Sir John referred to the report on the Manvers Main Colliery explosion in which auxiliary fans played a part:

2) The electrical apparatus should not only be (as was the case here) of the highest standard and certified flameproof or its equivalent where apparatus of American design and manufacture is in use, but special and constant attention must be given to its maintenance in that condition. This will raise a question of supervision and it is hoped that efforts will be made to recruit and train more electricians as soon as possible.

3). A further point arises, viz- the necessity for ensuring that electric cables and switchgear near the face cannot be made live after a prolonged stoppage until the area in which they are situated had been examined by the deputy or other qualified official and he has certified it safe to do so.

Under the system of remote control at Harrington was made possible in certain circumstances for the attendant in charge of the main belt at the transfer point outbye to switch the current to the panels Nos 11 and 19 and so make live switchgear and even to start a scraper chain conveyor situated beyond the auxiliary fans controlling their ventilation.

Sir John ended his report with the following paragraph:

Tribute was justly paid by all parties at the Inquiry to the excellent work done by the Rescue Brigades and numerous others who voluntarily gave their services in an endeavour, unfortunately of no avail, to rescue the victims of the disaster and later to recover the bodies. These efforts were in accord with the well known high traditions of mining men and I gladly record thanks to all who thus served.


The report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at the Harrington No.10 Colliery, Lowca, Cumberland on the 9th December 1946 by Sir John Felton, O.B.E., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines. C.D. 7222.
The Whitehaven News.

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

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