ST. HELENS No.3. Workington, Cumberland. 27th. November, 1922.

The St. Helens Collieries were situated to the north of the town of Workington and were close to the seashore. The owners were the St. Helens Colliery and Brickworks Company Limited who acquired them in 1921 during the national stoppage of that year. There were originally two mines, the No.2 Pit and the No.3 Pit, but owing to the 1922 stoppage, the lower seams at No.2 Pit were flooded and were not re-opened and the upper seam abandoned.

Both the shafts at the No.3 Pit were used as winding shafts. The downcast was sunk to the Six Feet Seam at 220 fathoms and the upcast was sunk to the Lower Three Quarters Seam at 203 fathoms. The downcast shaft cut the following seams, the White Metal at 66 fathoms, the Upper Yard at 67 fathoms, the Slatey Band at 74 fathoms, the Ten Quarters at 85 fathoms, the Metal Band at 115 fathoms, the Channel band at 117 fathoms, the Yard Band at 1439 fathoms, the Little Main at 150 fathoms, the Lickband at 196 fathoms, the Upper three Quarters at 198 fathoms, the Lower Three Quarters at 203 fathoms and the Six Feet at 220 fathoms. The downcast shaft was 10 feet 9 inches in diameter and the winding level was at the Lickband Seam. The upcast shaft was 11 feet 8 inches in diameter and winding was carried out from the Cannel and the Lower Three Quarters Seams.

The mine was under the control of the agent, Mr. T. Banks and Mr. C.D. James was the manager. there were two undermanagers, Mr. J. Spence who was the undermanager for the area in which the explosion occurred. There were nine overmen, one on each shift for each section of the mine. There were 38 deputies, one in each shift for each district. The Ten Quarters Seam, in which the explosion took place, was divided into two districts, with a deputy in charge of each and their duties did not overlap in any way. In addition of their statutory duties, the deputies also did the shot firing.

Before the stoppage, both mines were worked practically as single shift pits, but when No.2 Pit was stopped, nearly the whole of the men were transferred to No.3 Pit, the greater part of which was then put on a double shift. The workings in the Little Main, Three Quarters, and the Six Feet Seams continued with only one shift of hewers, but in the remainder of the mine, two shifts of hewers and one repairing shifts were employed.

For the purposes of inspection, starting with the night shift, the mine was worked in three shifts, except the Little Main, Three quarters and Six Feet Seams. The deputy in each district descended, made his inspection, and reported on all the working places prior to the night shift commencing. He also made the inspection during the shift and the inspection and report before the start of the morning shift and he passed in that shift. The same procedure was followed on the two other shifts. In the Little Main and other seams working one shift only, the deputy descended before the men, made his inspection, and passed his own men.

The day shift deputies descended at 5.30 a.m. and came up at 1.30 p.m., the afternoon shift deputies went down at 1 p.m. and came up at 9 p.m. and the night shift deputies went down at 9.45 p.m. and came up between 5.45 to 6 a.m. The men on the day shift went down between 5.20 and 6 a.m. and came up between 1 and 1.40 p.m., the afternoon shift went down between 1 and 1.30 p.m. and came up between 8.30 and 9 p.m. and the night shift went down between 10,30 and 11 p.m. and came up between 5.30 and 6 a.m. The number of men employed in the mine was 1,623, of whom 1,354 were employed underground. There were 700 hewers. At the time of the explosion, there were 619 men in the mine. In the Ten Quarters Seam, there were 49 hewers, 36 datal hands, two deputies and one overman.

No naked lights were used in the mine and the Prestwich Patent Protector Flame Safety Lamps with lead rivet locks and electric safety lamps of the Ceag were used with magnetic locks. There were 1,194 flame lamps and 257 electric lamps. It was a local rule at the colliery that there must be at least one flame lamp in every working place, and in particular, places affected by the explosion there were no electric lamps in use at the time.

The lamps were numbered and each man received the same lamp daily. This formed part of the checking system. The workman handed in a numbered check and in return received a lamp bearing the same number. On returning the lamp at the end of the shift, he received his check back in exchange. A register was kept of all the lamps issued, as well as a record of damaged lamps which was required under Section 34 (1) (ii) of the Coal Mines Act, 1911. The lamps were examined at the meeting station by the deputies before the men went inbye.

As many men as possible were searched at the bottom of the shaft by persons appointed to do so under the order, dated 21st May 1912 in force under the Act. At least 10% of the men were searched each day, and once a month a surprise search of all the workmen descending the mine was made. This was a procedure approved by the Divisional Inspector. There was a properly equipped Ambulance Room at the surface and various first aid stores were kept at places underground.

The explosion occurred in the Then Quarters Seam, which was one of the upper seams in the coalfield. Owing to a series of faults, the seam was entered by the Lickbank Level and after following the Lickbank Seam for 384 yards; the haulage road cut the Cannel Band through a fault and then followed the Cannel Band for 284 yards until it reached a point where the Ten Quarters Seam was reached by crossing another fault.

The haulage, which was by endless rope, extended a further 500 yards in the Ten Quarter Seam. From this point, there were 100 yards of level road with pony haulage before the start of a series of four self-acting inclines, or brakes, in a north-westerly direction. The first or No.1 Brake was 163 yards long. This was followed by another level stretch of 66 yards to the bottom of No.2 Brake, which was 208 yards long. No.3 Brake was 300 yards long and finally, the no.4 Brake extended for 112 yards up to Ditchburn’s level which led to the section where the explosion occurred. Ditchburn’s Level was 2,017 yards from the shaft and 179 yards long from the top of the incline to the face.

Electrical signalling was used to the end of the endless rope and ordinary mechanical signals on each of the inclines. There was no electric power in the Ten Quarters Seam. The nearest point at which electricity was used for power or lighting purposes at the shaft siding which was lit by electricity.

The ventilation of the mine was produced by a Walker Indestructible Fan which worked at a water gauge of 4 to 4.2 inches and was driven by a direct-coupled steam engine. The measurement s at the downcast shaft showed that a total of 84,260 cubic feet per minute were passing through the mine on the 26th, November 1922 of which 26,800 cubic feet passed into the haulage road leading to the Ten Quarters. Here it was further split, 17, 200 cubic feet going to the Ten Quarters Seam and the remainder passing into the Rattler Band and New Main Band Seams. The measurements within 100 yards of the first working place in the Ten Quarters was 7,920 cubic feet. The air passed round the whole district in one current with no splits in the seam, a point which was taken up at the inquiry.

The Ten Quarters Seam had a section as follows, a roof of Light Blue Shale and the portion that was worked consisted of 6 inches of Rattler, 3 feet of coal, a dirt band of 4 inches Coarse Coal, 2 feet 2 inches, and Black Metal, 6 inches. The floor was of fireclay and shale. The seam was worked on the stepped longwall system, with gateways 13 yards apart driven on the level course and the main gates or brows 80 to 100 yards. The face at the time of the disaster was under the sea just below the low water mark and rose to the west or seawards at a gradient of 1 in 6 to 1 in 7. Height was made in the gate roads partly by taking down the roof and partly by taking up the course coal at the bottom of the seam. The latter was left under the packs. Two men usually worked in a working place and filled their own tubs from the coal got down, but the trailing or putting was done by pony drivers.

An examination of the Deputies Report Books for three months prior to the explosion showed that gas had been reported on many occasions, with the percentages of 2 or 3% reported and no other percentages were shown. The records showed that the workmen had been withdrawn because of gas on one occasion in the Ten Quarters Seam No.2 District from the place of the explosion on the 17th October 1922. Coal dusting was practiced in the mine but only where the inert dust produced naturally was considered insufficient.

The deputies fired the shots which were of Samsonite No.3 and Tees Powder, both of which were permitted under the Act and they were used in coal as well as stone. The shots were fired electrically with No.6 detonators and the explosives and detonators were carried by the deputies only, except in stone drifts where one man was specially authorised and was allowed to carry explosives.

From an examination of the records for the month preceding the explosion, it was found that the average number of shots fired by each deputy in the district was between 11 and 12 per shift. Shots in the coal usually consisted of one cartridge and those in stone of two or three cartridges but the cartridges used may be 2, 4, or 5 ounces. Surface clay was used for stemming and this was sent down the pit in tubs and take into the workings by the hewers as required.

Of the 619 men and boys who descended the mine on the morning of the 27th November, 88 entered the Ten Quarters Seam including two deputies. The working so the right of the four main self-acting inclines were in the charge of James Johnstone who descended the pit about 5.30 a.m., the inspection before the commencement of work in the day shift being made by the night shift Deputy. Johnstone had about three places on the left side of the incline but the remaining places on this side were under the charge of the second deputy.

All seems to have gone well until noon, when a stoneman named Farish, who was working with three others making ready to put up a wooden door at the top of the No.4 Brake, heard the sound of an explosion coming from the direction of Dixon’s gateway in Ditchburn’s Level. The report appeared to him to be something like a shot but when he saw reek and “stume” (dust) advancing, he concluded that something extraordinary had occurred. The explosion put out his lamp but the party had an electric lamp which continued to burn so they went down the incline where they met the overman, Fell. Fell was at the No.3 Brake top at the time of the explosion and felt a gush of wind. After taking some panic-stricken boys down to the bottom of the No.3 Brake, and getting some canvas door open to clear the brake of dust, Fell proceeded to the top of the No.4 Brake and came across Robert Nicholson, and George Davidson jnr., who had come out of Ditchburn’s Level seriously injured. He placed them in the charge of two other, Edwards and Thompson, and then after failing in an attempt to get into the e affected area by Ditchburn’s Level where the air was too foul, he retraced his steps down No.4 brake and entered by the level below. By this time he had been joined by William McMaster, a hewer, and another workman named Thwaites. This party went into Davidson’s place from the intake side and found another victim, Johnstone, the deputy. Johnstone was placed in fresh air under the charge of McMaster and Thwaites, while Fell went for further assistance. he succeeded in organising two other parties, each of four persons, On party entered by Wilkinson’s Level and the other by Ditchburn’s level (in which the air had become clearer) and they found the bodies of the three remaining victims, J, Davidson, T.G. Featherstone and G, Davidson snr. Three workers who had been rescued alive later died from their injuries.

Those who died were:

  • George Davidson snr. aged 48 years, hewer of 102, Main Street, Ellenborough, Maryport,
  • John Davidson aged 14 years pony driver of 19, Old Row, Netherport, Maryport,
  • Twentyman Graham Featherstone, aged 24 years, hewer, Skiddaw View, Dearham,
  • James Johnstone aged 34 years deputy of 14, Siddick, Workington,
  • Robert Nicholson aged 29 years, hewer of Crosshill, Main Street, Dearham and
  • George Davidson jnr. aged 20 years, hewer, of 102, Main Street, Ellenborough, Maryport.

Mr. Thomas H. Mottram, C.B.E., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines arranged with the Coroner, Colonel D.J. Mason, D.S.O., that the inquiry into the disaster should be held concurrently with the inquest into the men’s deaths. The proceedings took place in St. Michael’s Parish Room, Workington on the 11th December 1922 and continued for the next two days. All interested parties were represented.

The jury found that:

1) That the explosion was caused by firedamp alone.

2) That it was caused by the firing of a shot in Dixon’s level.

3) That the firing of the shot was a negligent act on the part of the person who fired it.

4) That the evidence was insufficient to fix any person with manslaughter.

They added the following recommendation and observations:

We are of the opinion that the work performed by Fell, McMaster, and Thwaites at the time of the accident is to be highly recommended and is worthy of recognition.

We are of the opinion that more care should be taken in the filling in of the various reports by the deputies and the other officials.

The flame safety lamps involved in the explosion and recovered were tested and found that they could not have caused the explosion and no matches or cigarettes were found. There was a consensus of opinion that the explosion originated in blasting operations in Dixon’s road and it was clear that their shots of Tees Powder were fired on the morning of the explosion. Two had been fired in the top and one in the bottom brushing.

The sequence of events in Dixon’s road following the firing of the No.1 shot could only be deduced from the inspection of the place after the disaster. Another shot had been fired in the bottom brushing. It had been drilled to 4 feet 6 inches in coal 2 feet thick and had done its work well, just loosening the coal.

An overhanging stone had been left by the first shot which was partly displaced by a further shot. Although the amount of explosive was unknown, it was evident that it was overcharged. The inquiry thought that:

The primary cause of the disaster was the firing of a top brushing shot by the deputy, Johnstone, when firedamp was present in the vicinity. That shot was the last of three fired by him. It was an unnecessary shot and at the same time overcharged, with the result that it emitted flame which caused the explosion.

Mr. Mottram suggested that the efforts of Fell, McMaster, Thwaites, Richard Edwards and R. Thomason were brought to the notice of the trustees of The Carneigie Hero Fund with a view for them to get recognition for their efforts following the disaster,


Report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at the St.Helens No.3 Colliery, Workington on the 27th November 1922 by Thomas H. Mottram, C.B.E., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines. CD. 1828.

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

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