ST.HELENS. Workington, Cumberland. 19th. April, 1888.

The colliery was owned by the St. Helens Colliery and Brick Company, Limited and the directors were Mr. P. Wedgewood, chairman, Mr. H.P. Stenhouse, Mr. T, Carey, Mr. W. McGowan and Mr. A. Helder. None of these men had any technical knowledge of mining. The resident mining engineer and also the certified manager of the mine was Mr. J. H. Johnson with Mr. J,. Davidson as the certificated undermanager. The Agent’s name given in the special rules at the time of the explosion was Mr. C.J. Croudace, a mining engineer and shareholder of the Company who lived and practiced in North Wales but had lived in Cumberland. Mr. Croudace did not admit that he was the agent but stated he was the consulting engineer to the colliery. Mr. Joseph Morrison was the overman and had a staff of four deputies in the Main seam where the explosion occurred.

The colliery was commenced in 1877 and coal was first raised from the Upper or Ten Quarter Seam in 1880. The shafts were deepened to the lower or Main seam and coal first raised in September 1882. There were two shafts twenty-eight and a half feet apart about a mile to the north of Workington and close to the seashore. Both shafts were 119 fathoms deep where they cut the Main seam. The Ten Quarters seam lay at a depth of 85 fathoms, or 34 fathoms above the Main seam.

One shaft was ten feet eight inches in diameter and as the downcast. It was fitted with wooden guides to the Main seam and coal from this seam was raised through it. The other shaft was eleven feet eight inches in diameter and was the upcast. This was fitted with wooden guides to the Ten Quarter seam only from which coal was raised. It was possible to raise men in a kibble from the ten quarters if necessary. The water that collected in the sump at the bottom of the downcast shaft was drawn to the surface in water tubs and both the shafts were rather damp.

The coal was worked in the first instance, by pillars, which were later removed and this operation had been started at four points. The general dip of the seam was to the south-west at 5 inches per yard but this varied. The coalfield was faulted. The levels ran almost north-south and the haulage and some of the airways were driven 8 or 10 feet wide. Coal was left in the roof of these roads in order to use less timber and the height was between 5 and 6 feet. The bords were 24 feet wide and were driven next to the level where the coal was led and where the connection to another level was required for ventilation only, they were often driven in the upper part of the seam only and were narrow.

A Guibal fan, twelve feet wide and thirty-six feet in diameter which ran at 55 r.p.m. was at the surface of the upcast shaft and exhausted the air from the mine. Both seams were being worked and those in the Ten Quarters direct from the shafts were extensive. These workings had no connection with the explosion and were little affected. The workings in the Main seam and a small portion of the Ten Quarters were approached from the main seam and it was in this plane that the explosion took place.

The air which ventilated the explosion area passed down the engine dip and had two intake passages. At the last measurement, there was a total of 37,170 cubic feet per minute passing through the Main seam. All the splits were regulated by ordinary regulating doors with openings in the framework of large doors on the haulage roads.

The haulage of the coal to the shafts was done by horses and ponies by a self-acting incline and by an engine worked by compressed air piped down the downcast shaft. The air engine hauled the coal up the dip by means of a rope in trains from 14 to 16 tubs at 6 m.p.h. and the empty tubs ran into the mine by gravity taking the rope with them down a slop at three inches to the yards. There were landings at the bottom of the engine dip and at four intermediate points. From the bottom of the engine dip, Hogg’s and Gilmour’s brows rose at two and a half inches to the yard until they were near the face and then they started to dip. The coal was taken down these brows by horses. Part of the coal from the places next to Hogg’s brow was brought out to the engine dip by the return airway. The dip parallel tote engine dip was used as a travelling way for the men and horses. The bord parallel to the incline was also used in this way. There were 160 people working in the Ten Quarters seam. There was only one shift of hewers who started work at 6 a.m. and finished at 2 p.m. About 200 tons of coal a day was raised from the Main seam and the adjacent Ten Quarters.

On the day of the explosion, work started as normal at 6 a.m. and the mine had been examined by the deputies before the men entered and their reports entered in the Report Books stated that the workings were safe. About 9 a.m. a shot was fired in the coal at the face of Hogg’s brow. The shot was prepared by James Hogg, the hewer who was working in the place and fired by John William Beaty, the deputy in charge of the district. Hogg’s brow was then 42 yards beyond the holing and the air was directed to the face by canvas brattice which was damp. Gilmour’s brow was not being worked on that day. At the inquiry, James Morrison, the overman said that the shot did not do its work and this was confirmed an examination after the disaster and the hole was drilled in an unusual place. The cartridges were of compressed gun powder and they were supplied by the owners and sometimes a 2lb. charge was used. The shots were stemmed with a plug of soft shale. Firedamp coming from the face ignited and continued to burn eventually setting fire to the coal and the brattice. Efforts by Beaty and Hogg to put out the flame were not successful and the fire got a hold and forced workmen to the north to leave their working places. Hogg was killed in the explosion that occurred later and W.J. Beaty was injured and was said to have lost his reason.

The manager, Mr. Johnson, the undermanager, Mr. Davison and the overman Joseph Morrison were working near the top of the engine dip and were informed of the fire and went to the place at once. After an examination, they decided to cut off the air with a brick 14-inch brick stopping, in Gilmour’s brow. The work started at about 10.30 a.m. and was completed at about 2 p.m. with no difficulty. Before the stopping was started, several men had left the Main seam level and during the building, all the workmen were sent out before 11 a.m. except those who remained to deal with the fire.

Work continued as usual in the Ten Quarters seam direct from the shafts. Morrison was instructed by Davison to almost close the regulators controlling the air to the North Brow and the Ten Quarters, the east side and the west sides of the shaft level. This he did about 12.30 p.m. Under normal conditions, the effect of this would have been to send more air down the engine dip and round the district where the fire was burning. Several stoppings had been completed but one in Hogg’s brow could not be built because of the smoke and heat. It was stated at the inquest that loose stones were built up to try to close the road but this was found impractical and the men retreated before 3 p.m. While this work was going on near the fire several slight explosions took place. After an initial one, there was one at 1.30 or 2 p.m. and one at 3 or 4 p.m. The manager denied all knowledge of these explosions at the inquiry and stated that falls might have taken place near the fire which could be mistaken for explosions and no one was burnt or injured. The Inspector thought there was good reason to think that the noises were explosions.

At about 3 p.m. there was a consultation at the surface held in the office at which the manager, undermanager Mr. Wedgewood, the chairman of directors and Mr. J.E. Mulcaster, the Company secretary were resent. It was decided to isolate the fire by flooding 130 yards of the lower parts of the engine and back dips and Hogg’s and Gilmour’s brows by building a stopping in the return airway through the nip out at the higher level. It was proposed to start the stopping in the first return and in order to do this it was decided to reverse the direction of the air current to clear away the smoke.

The stoppings were made of wood and canvas and the planks were nailed to props with a recess being cut in the coal on each side. The resulting structure was covered with canvas brattice cloth. The work began between 4 and 5 p.m. may have been completed before the explosion. One stopping had been completed and some door was opened and propped back. Some other doors were opened slowly. The air then came down the engine and back dips, joining into one current near some doors on the back dip. Part of the air then passed to the right over a bridge crossing and the remainder passed to the left along the return and to the nip out where it was joined by a reduced current caused by the regulators from the district to the west of the shaft level. This combined current then passed through the nip out and divided, one part passing along Hogg’s brow through the third thirling from the face and then round the workings on the south side of Gilmour’s brow to the engine dip where it met the other part of the air that went past the canvas door on Hogg’s brow below the return through the nip out. This current then went up the engine dip and passed through open doors to the upcast shaft.

About the time that the direction of the air was changed, James Morrison was directed by Mr. Davidson, the undermanager, to open the regulators he had closed that morning. Morrison went with Thomas Wright, a shiftman, and at about 7.30 p.m., opened the regulator near three air crossings which regulated the air to the east side of the shaft level and then went to the regulator on the west side of the shaft when the explosion took place. Neither Morrison nor Wright was injured. They lost their lights but came out in the dark to the shaft. Joseph Morrison, the overman remained in the pit for several hours after the explosion helping to recover the survivors and the bodies of the victims. There were 35 men underground on the level of the explosion and there were five survivors. Four men who were working in the Ten Quarters district direct from the shafts were not aware that the explosion had taken place until some time after.

Within a few minutes of the blast, the cages were run down the downcast shaft to find out if it was clear. When the cage came to the surface it was found to contain, Joseph Robinson, the onsetter who was alive but injured; he died later. The fan and the connections with the upcast shaft were examined and found to be intact. A descent was made within half an hour and four men were found near the shaft, Joseph Morrison and Thomas Wright who were not injured and John Ballantine, the lampman who was alive but injured and died later and John Pearson, a mason who was under a drum of the compressed air engine at the time mixing mortar. He lost consciousness but was not injured.

Three men were found near the air engine, including the engineman, Henry Nicholson who was dead, Robert Clark, who was seriously injured but survived, William Gowan was found alive but died before he could be taken to the Infirmary. Most of the men down the dip were seen and most recovered during the night of the explosion. Three were brought to the surface alive, Joseph Iredale who died at the pit, Robert Hodgson, who was taken to the Infirmary and died the following day and W.J. Beaty, the deputy who fired the shot on Hogg’s brow. He was taken to the infirmary but was not able to give evidence as the report records that, “his mind was deranged.”

Having rescued the survivors and recovered the bodies to the top of the engine brow, the explorers went down the engine dip but met afterdamp and fearing a second explosion, it was prudently decided to suspend further explorations and flood the mine to seal the roads hat communicated with the fire. Over the next 10 days, eight or nine million gallons were poured into the nine.

On 30th April, 11 days after the explosion, a second descent was made and the bodies of Henry Nicholson and William Peel were sent to the surface. They were clear of the water live and had been declared dead on the day of the explosion. On the 15th May, two more bodies, those of Thomas Hogg and Thomas Marrs were recovered from the water by a diver named Mr. A. Lambert of 55, Strahan Road, Grove Road, Bow.

After the flooding was finished it was found that the water was rising in the engine dip. On the 4th of July, pumping was commenced and the remaining bodies recovered. Pumping was completed on 21st September 1888. There had been nineteen horses in the stables at the time of the explosion, 12 were killed and seven survived although they were not fed between 19th and 30th April.

The men who died were:

  • John Davison aged 53 years, underground manager.

The shiftmen:

  • Robert Laybourn aged 22 years,
  • John Martin aged 58 years,
  • George Wright aged 42 years,
  • Wigan Beatie aged 24 years,
  • Richard Jackson aged 27 years,
  • Joseph Iredale aged 44 years,
  • Lancelot Leyborne aged 48 years,
  • William Dixon aged 23 years,
  • John Johnson aged 26 years,
  • Isaac Gaskin aged 42 years,
  • William Holstead aged 45 years,
  • Thomas Marrs aged 32 years,
  • Thomas Hannah aged 25 years,
  • James P. Smith aged 35 years, joiner,
  • James Moffatt aged 53 years, joiner,
  • Joseph Stevenson aged 42 years, deputy,
  • William Peele aged 47 years, deputy,
  • William Tunstall aged 41 years, deputy,
  • John Nicholson aged 34 years, hewer,
  • James Hogg aged 31 years, hewer,
  • Robert Townsley aged 39 years, hewer,
  • William Banton aged 37 years, hewer.

Those that died in hospital on 21st April:

  • Robert Hodgson aged 39 years, hewer, died 20th. April,
  • Joseph Robinson aged 37 years, onsetter,
  • Henry Nicholson aged 22 years, engineman,
  • William Gownan aged 28 years, whipper-in,
  • Thompson Moore aged 25 years, whipper-in and
  • John Ballantine aged 54 years, lampman.

The inquest into the deaths of the men was held by Mr. W.W. Lamb, Coroner for West Cumberland on the 20th April, and continued on the 1st, 17th, 18th, 24th, 25th, and 26th, May. Two of the injured died in Workington Infirmary and an inquest was held by Mr. John Webster, Coroner for the Lordship of Egremont. This was adjourned sine die on the 7th. June. After the inquests were over another was held by Mr. Lumb on the 13 bodies that were recovered and a complete examination made of the mine. It was not proposed that any other inquest should take place.

After the water had been removed from the pit, a detailed inspection of the mine was made to ascertain the cause and direction of the explosion, and coal dust was suspected in the spreading of the explosion. The Inspector came to the following conclusions:

  1. The flame causing the ignition was that of a fire burning in Hogg’s brow.
  2. An explosion of firedamp and gases due to the fire mixed with air in the unventilated parts of Hogg’s and Gilmour’s brows as the primary explosion.
  3. The extension of the explosion from the unventilated parts of Hogg’s and Gilmour’s brows to the engine dip was direct down Gilmour’s brow and may have been caused by firedamp, gasses due to the fire, coal dust, or to a combination.
  4. The extension of the explosion down the engine dip to the stopping may have been caused by firedamp, gasses due to the fire, or to coal dust, or to a combination, but would be extended by coal dust alone.
  5. The extension of the explosion from the stopping to the downcast shaft was due to coal dust alone.

When all the evidence had been heard, the Coroner summed up and put a series of questions to the jury. In answer to these questions put to the jury by the Coroner they found that:

The deaths were caused directly by the explosion and that the explosion occurred in Hogg’s brow. It was an explosion of firedamp. That suitable means were adopted for dealing with the fire under the circumstances. That they could agree as to whether the number of men kept in the pit for dealing with the fire was excessive. That the explosion was accidental. That according to the evidence the presence of standing gas or excess coal dust prior to the explosion was not known to any of the managers of the colliery. That no blame was attributed to the management.


The Mines Inspector Report, 1888.
The Colliery Guardian, 20th April 1888, p. 560, 27th April 1888, p.595. 4th May 1888, p.631.

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

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