WILLIAM PIT. Whitehaven, Cumberland. 3rd. June, 1941.

The William Pit was one of three mines owned by the Cumberland Coal Company (Whitehaven) Limited. The mine was acquired by this Company in March 1937 and previous to that it had been idle for two years. The other pits were the Haigh and the Wellington Pits. They were all sunk close to the seashore near Whitehaven and the coal that they worked was under the sea. The William Pit was a few hundred yards north of the L.M.S. Railway station and it had two shafts which dated from the early nineteenth century. The shafts were originally sunk to the Six Quarter Seam at 297 yards but after some time the lower part of the shaft was abandoned and winding was carried on from an inset 10 yards below the Main Band seam which was intersected at 208 yards.

The downcast was 15 feet in diameter and was the winding shaft, the upcast was 13 feet in diameter and was used solely for ventilation. There were three other means of egress to the surface through the Wellington and Haigh Pits and a day drift from the workings of the Haigh Pit. These were reached by a communication road from the William Pit workings. There were abandoned workings in the Main Band seam and work was in progress in the Bannock Band seam at the time of the explosion.

Three seams had been worked at the colliery. The Main Band had been extensively worked and the seam averaged 10 feet of clean coal. It was worked by pillar and bord and there had been much splitting and robbing of the pillars. Generally, the pillars were left at their original dimensions of an average of about 20 yards square. The disaster concerned two patches of workings in the Bannock Band Seam. One to the south of the Lowca Junction which was known as the Delaval Bannock District and the newer Countess Bannock District which was opened in 1933.

In the Delaval Bannock District, a few pillars were being worked out and but for the fact that roadways in the district served as return airways for the second and newer Bannock Band District, this district played no part in the disaster. The Countess Bannock Band District was opened by driving a drift 330 yards long, rising 1 in 8, from the main haulage road about 25 yards inbye of the Lowca Junction and vertically above the Main Band roadway. A second drift from a roadway was driven in the Main Band pillars to the north of the Main road to provide a return airway for this district. Latter a second return airway, the Countess Bannock New Back Drift, was driven from the Delaval Level near Lowca Junction to provide a separate spilt for the workings on the south side of the main level in the Countess Bannock District.

The main intake airway from the downcast shaft was the main haulage road to Lowca Junction. Originally it had an irregular gradient due to displacements of the seam and faults which it crossed. About 1908 a new road was set out with an even gradient from the downcast shaft at Lowca Junction and this permitted endless rope haulage in one reach between these two points. The new road was 4,000 yards long and was in the stone below the seam which minimalized the air leakage between the intake and the return airways. Haulage from the Countess Bannock District to the Lowca terminus of the haulage road was by a subsidiary endless rope driven by an electric motor installed immediately above the haulage road near the bottom of the incline.

At the time of the explosion, all the intake air passed through the Lowca Junction. There was leakage through the doors n the Lowca and Delaval Levels and also into the stopping area of the Main Band pillars immediately under the Countess Bannock Drift. according to measurements taken in the drift on the 30th. May 1941, 38,000 cubic feet of air was passing up the drift. Attempts to measure the quantity of air escaping to the return by leakage through the Main Band pillars about the Lowca Junction were abortive.

At the time of the accident, 430 people were employed underground and 114 on the surface and the daily output was 650 tons on average. Supervision of the mine was in the hands of Mr. J. Williamson, the agent and there was general manager of all three mines, Mr. G. Farquhar, who had under him, two overmen on each of the day and afternoon shifts and one overman on the night shift.

For the normal working of the mine at the time of the explosion, there were 19 deputies working over the three shifts and in addition, there were three more deputies, two on the day shift and one on the afternoon shift, whose duties were confined to inspections of and the supervision of people working at gob-fire stoppings. In December 1938, there was trouble from carbon monoxide in part of the return airway from Countess Bannock District which had come from old workings in the Main Band. It soon became evident that additional supervision was required to deal with the trouble. At the time, Mr. A.B. Dawson was in charge of the surveying and planning department of the Whitehaven Collieries and he was specially detailed for these duties. He was a holder of a First Class Certificate under the Coal Mines Act, 1911 and at one period of his career he had been the manager of the William Pit for several years and he worked in collaboration with the agent and the manager with reference to gob-fires. He had under him two deputies on the day shift and one on the afternoon shift and a considerable number of workmen. These were rarely less than 20 and at times there were more than 100 when stoppings had to be built which interrupted the normal working of the pit. Mr. Dawson had a unique experience of the Main Band workings in both the William and other pits of the Colliery. He kept detailed notes and records on the course of events from December 1938, right up to the day of the explosion which was presented as evidence at the inquiry.

Few of the pillars in the Main Band workings had been completely extracted but there were a few patches in the goaf. The seam was thick and with regard to the thickness of the coal and the method of working it was not surprising to find a history of trouble from spontaneous combustion but definite colliery records were sparse and confined to a few years before the disaster. There were official records of the occurrence of heatings or fires at several points prior to 1928 when the workings of the Main Band inbye of the Lowca Junction were abandoned. These occurred in the area to the north and west of the Lowca Junction. A heading was built off in No.8 North Section in 1911. There was a fire in No.5 Right Section in 1918 and another heating in No.3 North District in 1924. These heatings and fires were along way from the Lowca Junction but each one progressively crept nearer to the Junction.

From 1924 no further trouble was experienced until 7th. December 1938 when on that date two men working in the main return airway outbye of the “Humbug Doors” showed symptoms of having been exposed to an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide. An analysis of the air showed that there was 0.0379 percent of this poisonous gas. The Humbug Doors where the men were working was common to both the Delaval and Countess Districts. Spot samples taken in the return airways where they separated, showed that the carbon monoxide was confined to the Countess return but further sampling made it clear that somewhere in the pillared area to the north of the Countess Bannock Back Drift there was a seat or seats of active combustion.

The percentage of carbon monoxide in the main body of the air was never high but the roadway was the second means of egress from the District and it was essential that it should be maintained in a condition fit to be traveled by men in the case of an emergency and measures were put in hand to isolate the affected area by building a series of stoppings among the old bords flanking the return airway. At the same time attempts, were made to restrict the supply of fresh air and a second series of stoppings was erected in a rough semicircle called A1 to J1 among the pillars immediately below and around the Countess Bannock Drift. There were possible connections between the Countess District and the main return airway a considerable distance outbye, near the “Humbug Doors” and nine further stoppings were either newly erected or repaired in this region.

At the time, the conditions for the erection of stoppings of any description were not favourable for, owing to falls of roof and fractures on the coal sides the average of the stoppings had to be 20 feet wide and 15 feet high. Most of them were constructed of broken roof stone set in mortar but some were faced with brickwork. The construction of the new stoppings and the repair of the old ones took a long time and was not completed until March 1939. Throughout this period and afterwards air samples were taken on a systematic basis in the main return airway at a point about 15 yards outbye of the “Humbug Doors”. The carbon monoxide content varied from day to day but the amount gradually grew less until the gas was barely detectable.

This state of affairs lasted until the middle of February 1940 and on the 11th. vapour was observed on the return side of the Lowca Level Doors and at the Little Main Regulator. Samples were taken and appreciable amounts of carbon monoxide was again detected. It was concluded that the vapour was coming from the area of pillars between Lowca Junction and the stoppings around the bottom of the Countess back Drift. It was stated that there was no smell of gob stink that could be detected at this stage.

A brick stopping was built in front of the Lowca Doors and the Little Main Regulator was bricked up. About a week afterwards, vapour was observed at stoppings 1A to the left of the Countess Bannock Back Drift and 4A, three pillars to the left of 1A. Several stoppings were reinforced by building new brickwork in front of them. The vapour was accompanied by an appreciable increase in the amount of carbon monoxide in the return air but this went away apparently as a result of the work that was done.

About the beginning of March there were further signs of combustion at stopping 1A and smoke was found coming from breaks on the left hand side. There was some leakage of smoke at another stopping, the furthest outbye in the Countess Return. Steps were taken to strengthen the stoppings by cutting into the side to find coal that was not fractured. Dense clouds of smoke came from the breaks and smouldering coal found and very high temperatures recorded. It was evident that there was active combustion near the stopping. Leakage at the stopping became less but the air found another outlet in the roof strata that formed the floor of the Countess Bannock Back Drift. A layer of concrete 6 to 8 inches thick was put down and repaired regularly as cracks appeared in it.

There was a reduction in the carbon monoxide escaping from the main return which seemed to indicate that an improvement had been brought about. Three months later fire was detected in front of one of the stoppings in the Lowca Junction intake barrier. A chock made of broken coal and stone with the lower part buried was found to be on fire. The fire outside the stopping was put out and cooled down by water but a hole a few inches square was found at the junction of the brickwork with the coal side and the coal could be seen to be glowing bright red. A wall was built and a hole bored through the brickwork and in spite of the constant application of water, the reduction of the temperature at one spot was followed by an increase at another.

In early September smoke appeared at the left-hand side of the “H1” stopping and cement was injected into the coal and the adjacent strata but about two weeks later a borehole indicated that the coal was still glowing. Water was again applied and the temperature began to fall. As the new wall was built to G1 stopping an airlock was made in the intake road, or “Hole”, as it was aptly called, on the right-hand side of the Countess Bannock Drift. This was to reduce the leakage of fresh air into the stopping area. Another stopping called the New Front stopping across the old Main and roadway about 5 yards inbye of the airlock was commenced in February 1941 and the door closed on the 7th March. This stopping was of 14-inch brickwork.

All went well for some time during the last week in May when the air temperature near the “G1” stopping began to rise and moisture appeared in the roof above the stopping. There was also a break which extended an unknown distance outbye and laterally down the old roadway to the right of “G1”. An attempt was made to plaster up the break but on the 21st. May a current of warm air was detected which indicated that there was an inlet for fresh air and that oxidation of the coal was going on. It was then decided to put in an additional stopping called the “New Front” stopping, through the coal still remaining between it and the and the next old road, across this and into the coal of the pillar between “H1” and “J1”.  During the following days, the temperature rose and reached 104 degrees on the 30th of May.

The preparations for the extension of the New Form stopping were going on and on the 29th. May a start was made to remove about five feet of flue dust packing from the outbye side of the wall. This work was interrupted by the Whitsuntide holidays and nothing more was done for a further three days, 31st. May to the 2nd. June. There was an examination except for the 2nd. June. The work then resumed on Tuesday morning 3rd, June. About 10 feet of the upper section of flue dust was still to be moved to each end of the brickwork and the face of the narrow cutting. Men were set to work and the fireman lent a hand from time to time.

Mr. Dawson arrived between 9 and 9.30 a.m. on the 3rd. June when the removal of the flue dust had been suspended while the passage was enlarged by taking the coal from the left-hand side. Mr. Dawson went to the end of the cutting and cleared the flue dust up to the coal at the end of the cutting. The dust was warm but not hot and the temperature of the brickwork at this stage was said to have been normal. Later a connection was made to the water column and at about 12.20 p.m. water was applied to the exposed surface of the flue dust close to the roof of the face of the cutting. The dust soon became saturated and the excess water to where the old road had been crossed. It soaked through the dust there and disappeared and no trace of it could be found. This occurrence was referred to at the inquiry.

Shortly after the hosepipe had been put into position at 12.20 p.m. the manager appeared and the general position was discussed, the other stoppings and surroundings inspected and at about 1.15 p.m. to 1.30 p.m. the party consisting of the manager, Mr. Farquhar, Mr. Dawson and the fireman, Mr. G. Savage withdrew after the workmen had already gone after their shift ended. The water was left running and the door in the “New Front” stopping was left open and the doors to the airlock were both closed with the outer door plastered around its edges.

In due course, three officials, the manager, Mr. Dawson and the fireman went out on foot. Work in the Countess Bannock District was going on as normal. Most of the day shift had gone outbye and the afternoon shift had gone to work. Due to absenteeism which was to be expected after a holiday, some work in the day shift had not been completed and a few hands had stayed on about an hour to catch up. They had completed their work about 2 p.m. and gathered at the Lowca Junction to wait for the train to take them to the pit. After some delay, while repairs were carried out in the Countess Bannock haulage rope haulage was set in motion on the afternoon shift at 2.10 p.m.

At about 2.15 p.m. work in the Countess Bannock District was going on as normal. A number of men were near the Lowca Junction ready to ride outbye and some had already taken their places in the tubs while others were about to do so. The manager, Dawson and G. Savage were proceeding outbye on foot. These three had reached the Six Quarters Turn about halfway to their destination when the explosion occurred. They felt a temporary reversal of the air current and they retraced their steps. At the Lowca Junction, the men felt a violent blast from inbye. All were affected by carbon monoxide. Eight of them were found dead and four others fatally injured. Others were injured but survived and few near bye were little the worse suffering from shock. There was a lot of heat and dust was stirred up but no one observed any flame. The men in the haulage road at the to of the Countess Bannock Drift were also struck by a violent blast that came from outbye. Four out of the five men appeared to have been poisoned by carbon monoxide.

The manager”s party realised that something was wrong and immediately went inbye. The fireman stopped at the second turn in the roadway with instructions to telephone the agent, Mr. Williamson. About 30 minutes later Farquhar and Dawson were approaching the Lowca Junction when they saw indications of violence. Wires were down and some props displaced. The haulage rope was still running in the Countess Bannock Drift and the manager cut off the power to the haulage while Dawson went towards the stopping area. He found the doors of the airlock had gone and there was a hole in the brick partition from which smoke was issuing. The smoke ahead stopped his progress.

Arrangements for the relief and evacuation of the injured was speedily put in hand and by 4 p.m. all who were not past help were either out of the pit or on their way out. Later the bodies were cleared and the work was finished at about 9 p.m.

Those killed:

  • Sydney Barbour aged 21 years, junction hand,
  • Robert Baxter aged 55 years, coal filler,
  • John Penny Burney aged 21 years, haulage hand,
  • Johnathan Curwen aged 57 years, coal filler,
  • James George aged 18 years, haulage hand,
  • William Ernest Harker aged 20 years, engine boy,
  • Robert McCreavy aged 20 years, junction hand,
  • Charles James Martin aged 41 years, deputy,
  • Cornelius Moore aged 40 years, coal filler,
  • James O’Pray aged 38 years, sill hole cleaner,
  • William Perry aged 50 years, junction hand,
  • James Wells aged 27 years, haulage hand.

Those injured:

  • John Robert Baxter aged 29 years, coal filler,
  • William Benson aged 29 years, coal filler.
  • Thomas Dougherty aged 55 years, conveyor puller,
  • Joseph Fitzsimmons aged 21 years, engine driver,
  • Richard Donaldson Glaister aged 45 years, rope splicer,
  • William James Kerr aged 44 years, coal filler,
  • Thomas McCormick aged 45 years, haulage hand,
  • George Porterhouse aged 48 years, coal filler,
  • Joseph Rogan aged 18 years, pan engine boy,
  • Henry Ruddick aged 59 years, deputy,
  • Moses Stephens aged 17 years, haulage hand.

The inquiry into the causes and circumstances attending the explosion at the William Pit Whitehaven Collieries, Cumberland on the 3rd. June 1941 was held by F.H. Wynne, C.B.E., B.Sc., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines in the Congregational Church Schoolroom, Whitehaven on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 29th. to 31st. July inclusive when all interested parties were represented. The report was presented to David R. Grenfell Esq., C.B.E., J.P., M.P., Secretary for Mines on the 10th May 1942.

Two features of the explosion were unusual. In the first place, it was not associated with normal operations of coal production for although it affected men engaged in coal getting operations in another seam it occurred in connection with a large sealed off area that had been abandoned since 1928. There was no firedamp showing when the fires from spontaneous combustion were analyzed there was no suspicion of an imminent explosion. In the second place, there was little down but that the explosion was not one of firedamp but of inflammable gas produced by the application of water to a considerable mass of glowing coal.

Immediately after the disaster, Mr. Dawson and the manager approached the Lowca Junction and turned off the water which had been left running from a hosepipe at the New Front stopping and then returned to the junction to rejoin the manger. The separation doors at the Lowca Level were burning fiercely but they left those and went up the Countess Bannock Drift to look for men that they knew were up there. About halfway in they met some men coming out with an injured man. They asked Dawson for reviving apparatus and he went to the airlock for the apparatus which he knew was there. He found both door blown out and the brattice cloth burning. He extinguished this and managed to get a few feet past the doors. The floor was littered with debris and he could not find the rescue apparatus.

Rescue and recovery were now well underway and the fire at the Lowca Level doors had been put out as well as a second fire that had developed behind the brick walling at the entrance to the Delaval Level. There as a mass or wrecked tubs at the bottom of the Countess Bannock Drift which was apparently due to runaways resulted from the fact that the haulage rope had continued to run for about half an hour after the explosion as there was no one left to stop it. The rails had been displaced upwards but there were no indications as to the direction of the blast and it was concluded that the explosion had occurred in the area inside the airlock. Joseph Fitzsimmons was the engine driver at the Countess Bannock haulage engine saw sparks in the brow 20 to 15 yards inbye and along the brow but he felt no blast.

When all the bodies had been recovered and the injured evacuated, all the workmen and officials left the mine at 10 p.m. At about 2.30 a.m. the following day the Managing Director arrived from Glasgow with two mining advisors. There was a short discussion and Mr. Williamson and some of his mining experts and three Inspectors went down the mine to the Lowca Junction. They thought it futile to try to fight the fire and returned to the surface to make preparations for sealing it off. This was done successfully by the erection of dams in the man intake and return airways about 1,400 yards from the fire area and about one-third of the way out from the Lowca Junction.

At the inquiry, evidence was given that Water Gas could be produced by water being poured on red hot coal and Professor Granville Poole said that probably 700 cubic feet of gas would be required to form an explosive mixture in the open space between the stoppings and the airlock. On the 15th December 1929 in the Louisa Old Pit of the Holmside and South Moor Collieries Limited, in County Durham, a fire was discovered at a disused air crossing in a main intake and haulage road in the Low Main Seam. On breaking through the air crossing it was discovered that the fire had a very firm hold in the overlying strata which comprised the Maudlin seam. A water supply was available for a short time it appeared to be having the desired effect. Later the ground was lost but the water supply was continued and two days afterwards turned to the heart of the fire and there was an explosion which blew out stoppings 55 yards away and opened a door 400 yards from the site of the fire. Lights were put out and men were blown over but no one was hurt. Firedamp was ruled out and it was thought at the time that the gas was a chemical product of the action between water and the fiercely burning coal.

The Inspector concluded the report by saying:

As regards deep-seated fires arising from other causes care in the application of water is clearly called for where there is a possibility of the production of “water gas”. Within the limits of this report, it is impossible to discuss or attempt to define the conditions which may give rise to the risk of water gas explosion and the precautions to be taken. It is, however, important that any attempt to do so should be made and to this end, I recommend further investigation and perhaps research.

The report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at William Pit, Whitehaven, Cumberland on the 3rd. June 1941 by F.H. Wynne. C.B.E., B.Sc., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines.
Colliery Guardian, 10th. July 1902, p.49, 31st. October 1947, p.599, 11th. June 1984, p.811.

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

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