WILLIAM. Whitehaven, Cumberland. 26th. November, 1907.

The colliery was worked by the Whitehaven Colliery Company and at about 1.50 p.m. on Tuesday 26th. November an explosion occurred in a stone drift known as No.6 or Taffy’s Drift which was being driven from the air intake and endless rope haulage road leading to the Lowca and Countess districts in the workings which were under the sea in the Main seam at the colliery. As a result, five men were killed and seven were injured.

There were 623 men and boys employed underground at the colliery. 369 hewers in three almost equal shifts which were worked as follows, the morning shift from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., the afternoon shift from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., and the night shift from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. The others that were employed underground were the putters or trailers, haulage men, joiners, drifters or stoneman and officials which were spread over the various shifts.

The only seam that was in production at the colliery was the Main Band which was a 9 foot thick seam which gave a daily output of 800 tons of coal. The downcast shaft was the drawing shaft and was 12 feet in diameter and sunk to the Main Band, 200 yards below, near it was the upcast shaft 13 feet in diameter and sunk to the same depth of the Main Band. At the top of the downcast there was a Walker’s Indestructible fan which exhausted the air from the mine at a rate of 115,000 cubic feet per minute. Bother the shafts were sunk 76 yards further down to the Six-quarters Band. The seams at the colliery dipped to the sea westward and encountered several upthrow faults so that the depth from the sea bed at the point where the explosion occurred was approximately 202 yards with the depth of the sea at high water being 80 feet.

The haulage system was by endless rope with the rope running below the tub. There were also self-acting inclines with hand-trailing or putting. There were no horses or ponies in the mine. The endless rope travelled at about 3 m.p.h. and sets of 20 tubs with a clutch bogie at each end of the run intervals. The workmen rode inbye and outbye over certain lengths of the rope road. One rope 13,599 yards long extended as an endless rope haulage from the shafts into the Countess District. The haulage of the Delaval and Lowca Districts was performed by compressed air engines stimulated at a point called the friction gear.

Except near the downcast shaft where there were acetylene gas lights, there were no other lights in the mine except locked Marsaut lamps, magnetically locked and fitted with electric re-lighters. Twelve electric re-lighters were placed at different points in the workings and there was one at the bottom of the No.6 drift.

No explosives were used in getting the coal but it was sued in driving the stone drifts. Saxonite, which was a permitted explosive, was fired by No.6 detonators by an electric battery.

In order to replace a section of the haulage and intake road which included a right angle return and had small cross-sections at various gradients, it was decided some years before to make a new straight road with a larger cross-section and a uniform gradient. The road was started from the inbye end and was known as the No.5 drift and was driven with a dipping gradient of 1 7n 17 for 900 yards. Some water was encountered and the operations were suspended in June 1904. The water-filled the drift for 100 yards from the face and the road remained in this condition until August 1907 when the water was pumped out by a compressed air driven pump. No.5 drift left engine the plane and for 450 yards was driven directly beneath it, the distance gradually increasing until the drift turned more to the north.

From the inbye end, the drift known as Taffy’s drift or No.6 was started about eleven months before the explosion and had been driven for 438 yards which let 150 yards to be excavated to complete the road. At the time of the disaster, operations were being carried on from this end. The drift was being driven by a contractor, Mr. Rowland William which found all labour and put in all timber and girders. He had eighteen drifters employed at the face and twelve hands for taking away stones. These were spread over three shifts and there was usually an interval of an hour between shifts when no men were actually at the face. The outgoing shift passed the incoming in the haulage road.

There was a hand-worked fan in the drift and the men working n it were understood to change at the fan being paid overtime for doing so. They were employed and paid by the Colliery Company and the Company’s officials inspected the drift in accordance with the General and Special Rules and a shotfirer for each shift was provided and paid for by the Company which also provided the explosive and stemming clay.

The “station” was at the foot of the drift at a point known as “McAdam’s turn”. The haulage road from which the No.6 drift started was started in stone and rose at a gradient of 1 in 17 which was almost the same as the rise of the strata and the drift did not cross-cut and rocks until it crossed a fault at 200 yards. The fault had an upthrow of 36 yards in the direction in which the drift was being driven. Before reaching the fault there was no coal in the drift, but after crossing it was associated with two coal seams, an upper on 17 inches thick which was either I the roof or just below it and a seam 7 inches thick, 6 feet below the upper one which was either removed in forming the drift or was just below it.

There were workings in the Main Band above Nos. 5 and 6 Drifts that had been abandoned 25 years before and above the inner portion of the No.6 drift, the pillars had been partially robbed. No.6 Drift was completed to its full size, thirteen and half feet wide by seventeen and a half feet wide. For about 200 yards from the start of it, the roof was supported by iron girders resting on props at each end and lofted above. Further on it was continued for about 238 yards, 10 feet wide and 5 feet high and timbered with legs and wooden crowns, the intention being to make it full size later.

Two hundred and ten yards from the bottom of the drift there was 14-inch incline wheel and up to this there were two sets of rails laid to form a self-acting incline. The loaded tubs of stone from the face ran on the south side. From the top of the incline to the face, the tubs, which were ordinary coal tubs were run by hand.

At the time of the explosion, the No.6 Drift was ventilated by a range or iron air pipes which acted as the return airway. There were two entrances to the drift separated by a small triangular pillar. One of these entrances was a curved road called the “shunt” which led outbye and was used to bring out the loaded tubs of stone and a split of fresh air which reached this point passed into it, up the drift and back down the iron pipes. To divert some of the air currents into the drift, a canvas sheet extended to within 1 or 2 feet of the floor was hung across part of the haulage road lying between the two entrances of the drift. The other entrance to the drift, the continuation of the drift itself, was closed by a brick wall 14 inches thick. In there was a wooden door five feet by four and a half feet which opened towards the face of the drift and through it rails were laid to bring the empty tubs into the drift. At the upper left-hand corner of the wall two iron pipes, 16 inches in diameter were inserted. One was not extended and closed off with canvas and the other continued on the left side of the drift in 6 feet lengths fitting into each other with joints sealed with putty and carried near the roof by wire attached to the girders and crowns. The pipes continued as 16-inch pipes for 239 yards ad then were carried on as 20-inch pipes for 136 yards to a hand fan 56 yards from the face beyond which they were continued as 20-inch pipes for 51 yards. At the time of the explosion, they were within 15 feet of the face of the drift.

The air ventilating the drift joined the current it had left met the outbye side of the canvas sheet. The hand fan was 18 inches in diameter and 9 inches wide geared 11 to 1 and was placed in connection with the pipes so that it both exhausted air from the face and forced it to the other end of the range. A fan man was at the fan only when men were engaged or about to be engaged at the face of the drift. When the fan was working the handle revolved at about 44 r.p.m. and the fan at 484 r.p.m.

On the 24th September 1907, an inspection was made of the working places and roadways leading to the Lowca District, the No.5 drift, and the Lowca return, and the two representatives of the miners employed at the pit reported that “all was safe and in good working order”. On Sunday 24th November work in the drift ceased about 4 a.m. At 5 a.m. James Bigrigg a deputy, was at the face and stated that it was clear of gas. He made a written report of his inspection. About 10 p.m. Bigrigg came on duty again and reached the drift with a fan man about 11 p.m. He examined first as far as the fan and found it clear he then called the fan man forward and the fan was worked for about three-quarters of an hour. He then went to the face and found it clear of gas but he made no written report. The fan man was left in the drift and the other men came down about 10 p.m. Bigrigg visited the face again at 5 a.m. on the 24th and reported in writing that the face was clear. Soon after the ordinary workmen started work at the face.

On the day of the explosion, Bigrigg examined the drift about 7 a.m. and found no gas. The fan man was at his post and no one was at the face at the time but the result of a round of shots lay ready to be cleared away by the next shift. He made a written report to say that all was safe and in working order. The oversman Wilson Graham, was in the drift from 7.30 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the day of the explosion and also found it safe. The undermanager John Rothery was at the face shortly after the overmen and he also found nothing untoward.

The miners who worked in the Countess and Lowca districts were not allowed to ride on the endless rope road belong McAdam”s turn or to the point where No.6 drift started as the manager did not consider it to be safe to do so. They had asked to be allowed to ride further inbye and the manager accompanied by the local Miners’ Agent for the Whitehaven Collieries, and Mr. James Smallwood, a local check-inspector on behalf of the William Pit miners were down the pit on the morning of the explosion considering this request. The manager promised that when the new road was completed, an extension of the riding distances would be granted. at about 9.40 a.m. they visited the No.6 Drift face to see the progress.

At about 1 10 p.m. owing to the neglect of William Cowan to attach 6 loaded tubs to the incline rope, they ran amok and collided with some loaded tubs standing a the bottom of the drift. Cowan went to the face to report the mishap and the contractors” chargeman, Evan Evans and all the face men except one went to the bottom of the drift to put matters right. The one man remaining at the face was the shotfirer. Shots were ready to be fired as the tubs went down the incline.

Evan Evans was present when the holes were drilled and charged and he described them as follows:

Two opening or sump holes started in the coal about the centre of the drift 2 feet apart and were drilled 6 feet inclining downwards and leaving the coal seam and also converging so that the ends of the holes were 9 inches or 1 foot apart in each of these holes six 4oz. cartridges of Saxonite were placed. To the right of these holes, 5 to five and a half feet deep were also drilled, starting with the coal and in the same line as the course of the drift and they were charged with five 4oz. cartridges to the left of the opening holes were two holes of similar depth and charge to those on the right. At each top corner of the drift was a hole four and a half to 5 feet deep each charged with six or seven 4oz. cartridges. All the holes were stemmed for 9 inched to foot with clay.

Evans went on to say that he fired two sumping holes simultaneously and had left his watch at the face and retired to get it and saw Burns examined the face and found it free from gas. Evans then left for the bottom of the drift and was about halfway down when he heard the third hole fired. He was close to the bottom of the drift when the explosion occurred and he was knocked over and rolled up in some discarded canvas from the inner gallery. He saw no flame but felt the heat although he was not burnt.

The face men who had preceded Evans to the bottom of the drift were busy with the wreck and two of them were killed by the violence. They were dead when found and both appeared to have died from fractures of the skull but the bodies showed no signs of burning.

At the time when Evans left the face to go down the drift. William Cannon and John Kirkpatrick, both of who were injured and Joseph Kennedy who was killed remained in a refuge hole 125 yards from the face and a conversation took place in which they decided to stay there and put their clothes on until the next shift came down. While this discussion was going on and after some shots had been fired, Burns came back from the face and said that the last shot had not done its work. He made up another charge in their presence and went down the face to recharge the hole and the others left to go to the bottom of the drift.

Thomas Moore one of the injured men, said aid he was at the bottom of the drift when he heard the third shot and he noticed that the door at the bottom of the empty road was open about 18 inches to two feet and it did not close again. When he tried to close it he found it jammed. He also said that the door was open 10 to 15 minutes before the explosion. William Cannon said he remembered seeing the door open but closed it. Moore saw Burns examine the drift for gas outbye from the fan and told him, “There is a bit there Tom”.

The overman passed the foot of the No.6 drift about 1.25 p.m. and saw there had been a runaway set and hear the sound of a shot fired in the drift. He went inbye to a cabin at the turn known as the “friction gear” where there was a telephone to the surface and two compressed air engines. He was in the cabin when the explosion occurred. He immediately came out when the air which had been reversed or checked by the explosion took up its normal course and was laden with clouds of coal dust. He thought there had been a large fall in the haulage road and he sent a man in that direction to investigate. Soon after some men came out from the direction of the drift without lights and the overman went at once into the drift.

A riding set was standing on the haulage road at the foot of the drift waiting for the morning shift hewers and trailers, some of whom were near at the time and some on their way. A panic ensued among the men. Most had lost their lights and some ran inbye and some outbye. The dust raised on the haulage road nearly choked some of these people.

Word went to the surface by telephone and the Manager, who was in the office near the pit top and had just come out of the pit, was soon at the spot. The drift was found to be full of afterdamp and nearly all the air tubes were blown down. No timber had been displaced and there were no falls in the drift. One empty tub was broken by the force of the blast and the body of Fitzsimmons was found under it. A short distance up the drift was the empty set and rails had been forced through the tub. Kennedy was found mixed up with the tubs above the wooden doors.

After removing the tubs and the two bodies and sending injured out on stretchers who were attended by Dr. Harris who had come into the drift, a new canvas sheet was hung across the haulage road and the wooden doors replaced by canvas. The air pipes up the drift were placed so that the bodies at the face could be recovered.

Progress was rapid until smoke was encountered which was being driven back by falls of the roof which could be heard further in. This alarmed the explorers who feared a second explosion and preparations were made to build a brick stopping 60 yards up the drift. Eventually, 140 yards a sleeper 4 inches thick was found to be on fire and near it some burnt and smouldering brattice cloth. This was extinguished with water and the problem of the smoke receded.

Mr. Atkinson tested the air coming through the pipe at the end and found no gas but on going beyond the point where the pipes had been removed several of the workmen were affected. In a refuge hole, a locked box of Saxonite cartridges was found. The bodies of the people near the face were reached about 7.20 p.m. on the day following the explosion. Burns, the shotfirer, lay between the tub and the right-hand side of the road, and his face was covered by his hands. Hanlon and Rowe were lying across the road against the inner tub. These men were severely burned.

An extinguished safety lamp was found beside the bodies and a cartridge box was ground under Hanlon’s body. Two yards nearer the face was battery with the cable uncoupled but the handle still on. On the tubs, coke was observed. When all the bodies had been recovered the area was thoroughly examined.

The men who lost their lives were:

  • Joseph Kennedy aged 22 years, trailer
  • Alfred Burns aged 26 years, shotfirer
  • William Hanon aged 30 years, drifter
  • James Rowe aged 24 years, trailer
  • William Vincent Fitzsimmons aged 22 years, trailer

The inquest into the deaths of the men was held on the 27th and 28th November, the 3rd December, and the 7th January 1908. After hearing the evidence the jury returned the following verdict:

The jury is of the opinion that the five men lost their lives in the No.6 Drift, William Pit, by an explosion of gas, but how it occurred there is not sufficient evidence to show but we are also of the opinion that there was not sufficient ventilation.

The inquiry also heard that when the hand fan was working the ventilation was satisfactory but during the fanman’s absence on Sundays from about 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. gas accumulated at the face of the drift and it was usual to work the fan for an hour or so before work started. When work stopped it was assumed that there was gas at the face and the fireman did not make an inspection by the fan was worked for some minutes before work continued.

The ventilation of the drift came under the criticism of the inquiry and it as found that there had been breaches of the Coal Mines Regulation Acts 1887 and 1896. The breach of the rule on the part of the deputy in allowing workmen to pass the station on Sunday nights before they had made the statutory examination required by the Act had some justification, but Mr. Redmayne stated that:

In any case, they were clearly not justified in allowing a body of the workmen to pass the station until the drift had been found by them to be in a safe condition.


Mines Inspectors Report.
Report on the Explosion which occurred at the Whitehaven Colliery on the 26th. November 1907 by R.A.S. Redmayne, H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines.
Colliery Guardian, 29th. November 1907, p.1014, 24th. January 1908, p.169, 24th. January 1908, p.169.

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

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