WILLIAM PIT. Whitehaven, Cumberland. 21st. August, 1947.
Whitehaven’s worst pit disaster occurred on Friday night when 104 men lost their lives at the William Pit following a violent explosion in the main haulage road about two and a half miles from the shaft. At the time of the explosion, there were 117 working underground and it was soon apparent that there were 10 survivors but the remaining 107 were trapped by heavy falls. The first sign to the surface that something was wrong was the continuous ringing of the bell in the engine winding room which indicated that wires had been crossed.
Rescue operations were immediately organised and the news of the calamity spread like wildfire through the town causing relatives and friends and the men on the afternoon shift to flock to the pit. Rescue teams came from all over the country, Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland and Lancashire and they worked for over 20 hours in atrocious conditions. They were at the point of giving up hope of finding anyone alive in the pit when they discovered three men who had taken refuge in a remote working place where the air was fresher.
At first, there was only rumour with no concrete news until the issue of the first bulletin by Mr. J.G. Helps, the Area Manager for the National Coal Board who was in charge of all operations at the colliery. It read:
At approximately 5.40 p.m.. on Friday an explosion occurred in the William Pit. A hundred and twenty-one men were in the pit at the time. Of these three men have come out of the pit and seven others are known to be safe and are assisting in the rescue work.
The agent (Mr. Macpherson) and the colliery manager (Mr W. McAllister) are in the pit with the rescue teams and are endeavouring to travel along the main roadway of the working. There are a number of large falls behind which the remainder of the men are trapped and it will be some time before they are released. So far there is nothing to indicate the seat of the explosion or it’s cause”.
One of the three men brought out of the pit was Harry Allen of Fleswick Avenue, Woodhouse. He was on the shaft side of the explosion and was blown clear. he was unhurt, but was badly shocked and could not give a coherent account of what had happened. Mr. Allen lost a son, son-in-law, brother and nephew in the explosion.
At 2.55 am. on Saturday, Mr. Helps issued the following statement:
Rescue work is proceeding. Falls are being cleared and the ventilation restored. The bodies of 16 men have been located and every endeavour is being made to reach the men further in-bye. There is no good ventilation up to where the rescuers are working, and the haulage arrangements have been re-stared.
Men working in rescue apparatus are exploring the roads ahead. There is a stretch of 250 yards of the main raid obstructed by at least three falls. When these have been cleared the rescue operations can be stepped forward within striking distance of the coal faces.
On being questioned by Reporters, Mr. Helps said that the falls were about two miles from the bottom of the shaft, there was no sign of a fire and there was no way of knowing if any of the missing men were alive or not.
The news that came from the rescue teams was only bad news and the body count rose until at 3 p.m. on Saturday an official announcement declared that there was practically no hope for the men in the pit. Spirits at the pit head dropped only to be lifted by the news that three men had been found alive and had reached the shaft. They were very weak but otherwise in good physical shape. The news raised fresh hopes and cause a redoubling of efforts both underground and on the surface and caused a second rush of relatives and friends to the pit head. Rumours that another six men had been rescued proved to be false and as the night fell on a second night at the pit hope and optimism recede with the light.
All day during Sunday the teams toiled below and they were rewarded with the location of yet more bodies and by the evening of Sunday 90 bodies had been recovered and 64 of them had been brought to the surface. All hope was lost for those not yet recovered.
On Monday morning an official statement announced that during the night operations had been abandoned so as to give the rescuers who had been working in rescue apparatus a well-earned rest. These men were exhausted and a programme was put into operation to get fresh air to the working places. This was carried out satisfactorily and at 8.15 am., rescuers wearing rescue apparatus again went to work.
Mr. Helps was hopeful that the remaining 14 bodies would soon be located and he said that nothing had been lost by the suspension of the operations during the night. He thought it was too early to make a decision on the closure of the colliery.
By Monday night 98 bodies had been located and 75 brought to the surface. On Tuesday there was a novel rescue operation when for the first time in Great Britain dogs were used to try to locate the bodies under falls. The previous day the R.A.F. School for police dogs in Gloucestershire received a call from the William Pit after consultations with the representatives of the Mines Inspectorate, the N.C.B. and the N.U.M. and three Alsatian arrived at the pit under the care of Flight-Lieutenant Cooper, Corporal R. Marshall and Corporal W. Jenkins. The dogs were Jet who had saved the lives of 30 people during the London Blitz a feat that had won him the “Dickin Award” which was the dog equivalent of the V.C. Prince and Rex who had assisted in tracking down a fugitive armed Pole in Norfolk.
The dogs were taken underground at 2 am. and were reported to be very unsettled by the strange environment but they settled down and they would be put to good use later in the day. A bulletin stated that 84 bodies had been brought to the surface and only 7 remained unlocated. By Tuesday night conditions underground were getting better and that only three bodies were now unaccounted for.
On Tuesday Prince spent five hours underground and according to Mr. McAllister, the mine manager, showed interest in one of the falls. “It seems we may be getting results from that,” the manager said to the Press. After a rest, Prince again went down the pit. Only two bodies remained underground and Mr. Helps and the air conditions were improving underground. No more bulletins would be necessary. he thought that the use of dogs in these conditions was well advised and that the remaining two bodies had been located under falls.
The work of the Rescue Parties and volunteers brought tribute. They were praised for their gallantry, enterprise and hard work as well as the selflessness in a tribute issued and signed by Mr. J.G. Helps and Mr. J.A.R. Machin for the National Coal Board and Mr. T. Stephenson and Mr J. Martin for the National Union of Mineworkers. The statement read:
This has been a very stiff and heavy task, yet, with enterprise and teamwork, they have overcome very great difficulties. Those responsible for organising the rescue work deserve every commendation for the exemplary manner in which this work had been carried out. The police by efficient and sympathetic handling of the difficult task rendered valuable assistance. To all those and many others we desire to pay tribute and tender our deepest thanks.
The rescue squads were organised by Tom Charlton of the Brigham Rescue Station who was in charge of the first fresh air base underground. The first squads to report for duty were William Pit No.1 and No.2 led by T.E. Nicholson and W. Skelly, Haigh 1 and 2, John McMillan and Tom Stewart Solway 1 H. Turrell, Lowca 1 W, Foster. Clifton G. Cameron..
It was described as a miracle that three men had got out of the pit alive after being entombed for over 20 hours. The three men were John Birkett aged 50 years, Daniel Hinds aged 40 years and James Weighman aged 23 years. They astounded the rescue workers by scrambling over the falls towards them. At first, they thought they were members of the rescue teams who had worked their way around the return airway to locate and recover bodies but when they realised that they were survivors they assisted them to the shaft.
After medical assistance at the surface, they were taken to the Whitehaven Infirmary by ambulance where they were found to be suffering from severe shock but were otherwise unhurt. Dr. E.H. Ablett, senior surgeon at the Hospital said that they were too weak to speak to the Press but they were saved by the experience of Birkett who was able to guide the other two to safety. After the explosion, he led them with his Davy lamp and instead of making for the shaft he walked further into the pit until they came to a pocket of clean air at the end of a drift called the No. 3 Rise. On their way, they passed 36 men who refused to go with them. The trio stayed in the drift for about 18 hours when they slept fitfully but never lost consciousnesses.
When things became better Birkett went out with his lamp to make a tour of inspection and try to find a way out. He made several attempts to get out but the gas drove him back and eventually the gas extinguished his lamp. He persisted in his efforts and eventually thought that the air was better and decided to make a dash for safety. Wetting their handkerchiefs with water from their bottles and pools in the roadway they covered their faces and went through the curtain of gas guided by Birkett. As they went along the Main Haulage Road they found that the air was fresh which was an indication that the rescue parties were on their way. On their way, they passed 30 to 40 dead men huddled in small groups most of them sitting in a crouching position. They saw lights in the distance and made their first contact with the rescue workers who had worked their way in through the haulage round the return airway. The rescue workers failed to recognise the men as survivors and when they reached the squad working on the falls in the main haulage they had to explain who they were. “They weren’t half surprise to see us,” said Birkett.
The meeting of the rescuers and the survivors was described by Mr Rob Brannon the Secretary-Treasurer of the William Pit Miner’s Lodge who had worked from the start with the rescue parties:
We were timbering up on next to the last big fall when one of my mates said,
“There’s shadow down there Bob.”
I said, “You’re dreaming, it’s time you were out-bye.”
He insisted that he could still see a shadow so I went to investigate and it really was a shadow coming from the lamps. I thought it was the rescue men who had worked round the return airway and I shouted, “Is that Jack. Are there any bodies down there? A voice shouted back, “Is that Bob Brannon? Thank God, there is God in Heaven.” It was Birkett who shouted. With him were Hindle and Weighman.
We comforted them as much as possible and helped them to the pithead.
Alongside the Rob Brannon the rescue party was George Mossop, Dick Glaister, his nephew, John Brannon. His brother Tom was still in the mine and he left the pit when the survivors were found saying, “don’t want to be with the party that finds Tom so I am leaving it to others to have a go.”
Rob Brannon was one well known in the Whitehaven district and as one of the oldest “Terriers” to have served in both wars. His father had died the Christmas before from injuries received in a mining accident some years before that and his brother was killed in the William Pit eleven months before the disaster. Another brother Jack, was awarded the King’s Medal for the rescue efforts in the Wellington Disaster of 1910 and the name Brannon appeared in every colliery disaster list in the Cumberland coalfield from 1823.
The men who died were:
- Andrew Agnew aged 36 years, a brusher. Married with two children he lived at 17, TodhunterÕs Buildings, Queen Street, Whitehaven.
- Thomas Allan aged 33 years a stoneworker who was married with two children of 25, Buttermere Avenue, Seafield.
- Harry T. Allan aged 39 years a brusher who was married with two children of 45, Hill Top Road, Arrowthwaite.
- John Allen aged 59 years a contractor married with one son of 5. Buttermere Avenue Seacliffe.
- John Anderson aged 50 years married with six children of 28, Buttermere Avenue, Woodhouse.
- James Atkinson aged 45 years a brusher who was married with four children of 4, Gameriggs Road, Greenbank.
- Richard Atkinson aged 28 years a pipe fitter who was married of Lady Cottages, Whitehaven.
- Henry Barker aged 34 years a hewer married with five children of 4, Eden Road Cleator Moor.
- James. R. Barwise aged 49 years a brusher married with two children of 5, Low Harras Moor, Whitehaven.
- James M. Bowes aged 34 years a coal cutter married with three children of 5, Garfield Place, Parton.
- Thomas Brannon aged 57 years a chocker married with four children of 55, Haigh Avenue, Bransty, Whitehaven.
- Joseph Brannon aged 45 years married with three children of 21, Greenbank Avenue, Greenbank.
- Jacob E. Bridges aged 37 years a coal cutter married with three children of 85, Grasmere Avenue, Woodhouse.
- Hartley Byers aged 35 years a brusher married with four children if 15 James Street, Frizington
- Herbert Calvin aged 40 years a brusher of 67, Peter Street Whitehaven who was married with three children.
- Joseph Campbell aged 40 years married with one child of 81, Woodhouse Road, Woodhouse.
- Harold J. Carr aged 22 years a shifthand single of 9, Jane Street Frizington.
- Richard Cartmell aged 25 years single of 59, Valley View Road, Greenbank.
- William Clark aged 46 years a brusher married with one child of 15, The Square Parton.
- James Clifford aged 26 years a brusher married with two children of 72, Frizington Road, Frizington.
- Robert Conkey aged 43 years a brusher married with two children of 29, Smithfield, Egremont.
- William H. Crofts aged 45 years married with four children of 111, Queen Street Whitehaven.
- Samuel Delvin aged 27 years a shifthand married with two children of 9, Union Buildings, Low Road, Whitehaven
- Joseph G. Diamond aged 33 years a brusher married with four children of 8. Grasmere Avenue, Woodhouse.
- Thomas G. Dixon aged 55 years a brusher married with three children of 25, Yeathouse Road, Frizington.
- John H. Doran aged 50 years a brusher married with eight children of 8, Low Harras Moor, Whitehaven.
- Wilfred Farrer aged 34 years a pan-puller married with two children of 66, Windermere Road, Woodhouse.
- William Fisher aged 39 years a brusher married with four children of 12, GoreÕs Buildings, Whitehaven.
- Thomas Fox aged 24 years a hewer single of 29 Bowness Road, Greenbank.
- Joseph Fox aged 35 years an airways repairer single of 11, Woodhouse Road, Woodhouse.
- John N. Garner aged 37 years married with two children of 41, Frizington Road, Frizington.
- James Gibbons aged 47 years a brusher single of 60, Seven Acres, Parton.
- Henry Gibson aged 36 years shifthand married with three children of 17, Foundry Road, Parton.
- Edward Galister aged 49 years a brusher married with nine children of 14, Windermere Road, Woodhouse.
- Robert M. Glossen aged 39 years pan-puller marred with five children of 67, Windermere Road, Woodhouse.
- Richard E. Grearson aged 47 years a brusher married with six children of 173, Main Street, Parton.
- William F, Grearson aged 36 years brusher married with five children of 96, Main Street, Parton.
- Joseph W. Hewer aged 40 years a deputy overman married of 18a, Seven Acres, Parton.
- Ronald W. Hewer aged 38 years a brusher of 110, Main Street, Parton, married with four children.
- Ronald Hughes aged 20 years a shifthand single of Hospital House, Bransty.
- George Hutchinson aged 44 years occupation development married with one child of 7, James Pit, Whitehaven.
- William Johnson aged 27 years a trainee married with two children of 43, Trumpet Road, Cleator.
- George Johnston aged 41 years a hewer married with three children of 38, Lakeland Avenue, Woodhouse.
- James W. Lambert aged 35 years a brusher married with two children of 1, Plumblands Lane, Whitehaven.
- Thomas Lancaster aged 27 years a brusher single of 33, Basket Road, Arrowthwaite.
- William H. Lee aged 27 years married of 29, Aldby Street, Cleator Moor.
- James Leeson aged 48 years a brusher single of 10, Dyke Street, Frizington.
- Dennis Lyons aged 31 years a fanman single of 4, Lakeland Avenue, Seacliffe, Whitehaven.
- John H. Maddison aged 22 years a hewer married with two children of 72, Fell View Avenue, Woodhouse.
- Joseph B. Marshall aged 48 years a shifthand widower with two children of 70 George Street, Whitehaven.
- William Martin aged 32 years a coal cutter married with two children of 3, Wellington Row, Whitehaven.
- Edward McAllister aged 24 years a brusher married with two children of the Sun Inn, Parton.
- Isaac McAllister aged 54 years shifthand married with eight children of 15, BentinkÕs Row, Back Ginns, Whitehaven.
- James McMullen aged 27 years deputy married with two children of 16a, Sandhills Lane, Whitehaven.
- William T. McMullen aged 22 years coal hewer married with one child of 20a, Roper Street, Whitehaven.
- Vincent McSherry aged 37 years a brusher married with two children of 2, Crummock Avenue, Woodhouse.
- John Milburn aged 40 years a brusher married with three children of 94, Grasmere Avenue, Woodhouse.
- John E. Moore aged 37 years shifthand married with three children of 3, John Square, Peter Street, Whitehaven.
- Joseph Moore aged 46 years brusher married with three children of 64, Seven Acres, Parton.
- James Moore aged 63 years hewer married of 96b, George Street, Whitehaven.
- John R. Mowat aged 26 years shifthand married with one child of 3, Lowther Street, Whitehaven.
- Francis Murdock aged 38 years shifthand married with three children of 11, TodhunterÕs Buildings, Queen Street, Whitehaven.
- James Murray aged 36 years a coal hewer married with four children of 22, Crummock Avenue, Woodhouse.
- William Murray aged 39 a pan-puller married with three children of 5, Ladypit Terrace, Sunnyhill, Whitehaven.
- Lawrence H.P. Murtagh aged 41 years, pit deputy married with three children of 73 Buttermere Avenue, Seacliffe, Whitehaven.
- Patrick Murtagh aged 28 years pan-puller married with two children of Old Woodhouse, Whitehaven.
- William R, Musson aged 22 years brusher married of The Rose and Thistle, West Strand, Whitehaven.
- Richard Mussen aged 36 years a trainee single of 22, Brisco Crescent, Parton.
- Thomas Nelson aged 36 years brusher married with three children of Summergrove Cottages, Hensington.
- William Nicholson aged 33 years deputy married with one child of 1, Temple Terrace, Catherine Street, Whitehaven.
- Joseph Norman aged 41 years a borer married with three children of 1, The Close Bransty.
- Sydney O’Feo aged 34 years hewer married with three children of 62, Windermere Road, Woodhouse.
- John A. Paragreen aged 30 years engine fitter married of 9, Bransty Row, Bransty.
- William L. Pickering aged 24 years a pan-puller married with one child of 28, Haig Avenue, Bransty.
- John Pilkington aged 33 years a brusher married with four children of 5, LongmireÕs Court, Queen Street, Whitehaven.
- William Pilkington aged 66 years a brusher married with five children of 60 Windermere Road, Woodhouse.
- William Pilkington aged 51 years brusher married of 21, Woodhouse Road, Greenbank.
- Thomas Pilkington aged 27 years a brusher single of 60, Windermere Road Woodhouse.
- George Porthouse aged 54 years a brusher married with a grown up family of 16, North Road, Bransty.
- John Quirk aged 38 years brusher married with one child of 23, Victoria Road, Whitehaven.
- Adam Raby aged 26 years a brusher married of 45 Fleswick Avenue, Woodhouse.
- Edward A, Ray aged 31 years a shifthand married with one child of 1, Front Row, North Side, Workington.
- John J. Renwick aged 39 years coal cutter married with two children of 12, Gameriggs Road, Greenbank.
- Thomas Richardson aged 40 years brusher married of 150, Queen Street, Whitehaven.
- James Rigg aged 28 years brusher married with one child of 12, Marlborough Street, Whitehaven.
- John Robbs aged 56 years brusher married with nine children of 6, Brayton Road Bransty, Whitehaven.
- Albert E. Saulters aged 40 years a hewer married with one child of 12, Meadow View, Castle Croft, Egremont.
- Leonard Seward aged 36 years brusher married with two children of 7, Pasture Road, Rowrah.
- Thomas Shackerley aged 40 years a pan-puller single of 75, Low Church Street, Whitehaven.
- Mark J. Shaw aged 45 years shifthand married with seven children of 30, North Road, Bransty.
- Henry Shilton aged 44 years brusher married of 32, Main Street, Parton.
- Thomas B. Smith aged 62 years brusher married with three children of 2, TroentineÕs Buildings, Tangier Street, Whitehaven.
- Thomas T. Smith aged 32 years a brusher married with three children of 7, South Row Kells.
- Harold Smith aged 41 years a brusher married of 31 Solway Road, Marseby Parks.
- Thomas Turner aged 46 years shifthand married with one child of 17, George Street, Whitehaven.
- Albert Tweddle aged 31 years faceworker married of 6, Fleswick Avenue, Woodhouse.
- William A. Walby aged 46 years shifthand married of The Lodge, Ewanrigg Hall, Maryport.
- Ralph Walker aged 34 years shifthand married with two children of 16, Valley View Road, Greenbank.
- William Williamson aged 27 years a brusher married with one child of 14, Hilton Terrace, Whitehaven.
- George H. Wilson aged 29 years brusher married with one child of Douglas Burn, Market Place, Whitehaven.
- Matthew Wilson aged 46 years deputy single of 27, South Row, Kells.
- Joseph Wilson aged 38 years married with two children of 72, Valley View Road, Greenbank.
- Thomas Woodend aged 64 years shifthand married of 11, South View Road, Bransty.
- Walter Wylie aged 26 years a brusher married with two children of 36, Fell View Avenue, Woodhouse.
Professor A.M. Bryan, H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines, conducted the public inquiry into the disaster which opened on Tuesday 7th. October, 1947 in the Methodist Schoolroom, Scotch Street, Whitehaven.
The Health and Safety Department was represented by Mr. J.R. Edwards, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines, Safety, Research and Testing Branch by Mr. H.F. Coward, the National Coal Board by Mr. S.H. Sandlands K.C., the National Union of Mineworkers by Mr. A. Moffat, the National Association of Colliery Managers by Mr. R.W. Anderson and the Deputies Association by Mr. B. Walsh.
Before opening the inquiry Mr. Bryan paid tribute to the 104 men who had lost their lives and a vote of sympathy with the relatives was passed by all standing on silence. It was noted that none of the widows were present on that first day but the hall was filled with men from local pits.
Mr. R.W. Gallantry presented detailed plans of the pit to the court to help the members of the inquiry decided the cause of the explosion as with many inquiries into pit disasters, the first evidence that is given to the court came from the survivors of the explosion and from these is gleaned a first-hand account of the events underground. The first survivor to give his evidence was Stephen Ferguson a 28 year old deputy. He had held the post for about 18 months and before that, he had been a haulage worker and a shot-firer. He was in the Bannock District when the explosion stuck shortly before 5.30 pm. His first thought was one of “the impression of a spurt of compressed air”. He went to an underground telephone and a voice told him that there was something wrong in-bye. The district was not too big for efficient supervision and he made regular tests for gas. Of the six men that were working with him on that shift two had been killed, Thomas Fox and Joseph B. Marshall.
Fred O. Smith, a brusher, was also underground at the time and had been sent out-bye to get some oil and grease. He had telephoned John Maddison to tell him he could not get any oil and during the call, the air seemed to stop and then come rushing back and it seemed to him that fog had come down. The air resumed its normal course and he saw George Galister coming towards him and tell him that the phones seemed to be dead. Both Fred Smith and Stephen Ferguson went in-bye to help with the rescue operations.
Joseph McAleavey, a shifthand, was working in the main haulage road when a blast of wind blew him about 10 yards towards the shaft. He was working with Thomas Kervin and Henry Allen who was injured. Allen was helped towards the shaft by Joseph and Mr. McAllister.
Thomas Kervin, who was also a brusher, was in a manhole at the time of the explosion and he lost consciousness. When he came to he had lost his helmet and his teeth. He was half in and half out of the manhole and did not know where he was. He thought that an air pipe had burst.
William McAllister, the manager of the colliery, was the next to give evidence. He had been manager for ten months at the pit and lost an uncle and a cousin in the disaster. He left the pit just before 5.40 pm to go home and when he arrived his wife told him to go back to the pit as something had happened. He went down the pit where the on-setter told him that an air pipe had burst but he sensed that there had been an explosion and he gave instructions for N.C.B. officials, miner’s representatives, ambulance workers, rescue workers, and others to be sent for immediately as he went further into the pit he met other men and he took them with him. On the way, he saw tubs lying all over the place. Girders were down and the roof was leaking badly and a few yards past the No.2 crossing the roof was leaking and the roadway was completely blocked by a fall. He was joined by Mr. Dawson and Mr. Macpherson as they worked the best plan of operation. Mr. McAllister went to the surface between one and two o’clock on Saturday morning and went home but he could not sleep and he was back at the pit the next day where he took his turn underground and then on the surface.
The manger was viably moved as he recalled his experiences in evidence and he was allowed to stand down but was warned that he would be required later to give technical evidence an outline of the cause of death of the men was given by Dr. A. Roberts of the N.C.B. who said that the majority of the victims had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, some from gassing and burns and a few from the effects of violence of the explosion a stir of excitement ran through the courtroom as John E. Birkett, the leader of the three survivors was called to give evidence. Without emotion, he told how he joined up with Daniel Hindle and John J. Weighman to seek safety in-bye, waited, and lead them out of the pit. At one time he thought that they were not going to get out but the other two helped him along.
His evidence was supplemented by Hindle and Weighman and all three were complimented by Mr. Bryan on their good mining sense and he congratulated them on their escape.
William A. Ashbridge was the overman in charge of the underground workings the night before the explosion. He carried out the routine inspection and found nothing out of the ordinary but he had a report from a deputy named Aitken of 1.5 percent firedamp. There was a report of 2 percent firedamp gas in Allen’s Drift. The witness was closely questioned by Mr. Edwards and Mr. Moffat about the gas in Allan’s drift. Mr. Edwards asked, “Did you go into the place?”
“Have you had previous reports of gas in the place”?
“When were you last in the No. 2 dip before the explosion”?
“On Wednesday night. Everything was normal then.”
Mr Moffat asked, “Did you find the ventilation satisfactory?”
“Well, there were reports of gas in Allen’s Drift”.
“If deputies had submitted reports of gas, what would you have done?”
“I would have asked them what they had done to clear it.”
“On that night did you do anything personally?”
“Not on that night”.
“When did you last test for gas in the No.2 dip?”
“Did you find any gas?”
“Just in Allen’s Drift”.
“Are you satisfied with the return airway from the No.2 drift?”
“It was in fairly good condition. Men were working there”.
“How long have you seen holes bored from the face?”
“Quite a long time”.
“Have you studied the regulations for 1946?”
“I’ve read them but not studied them”.
Mr. Walsh took up the questioning and asked, “Is it a practice to have conferences with your deputies?”
“I won’t say every night”.
“Do you have confidence in your deputies?”
“You made periodical tests for gas?”
Mr. Sandlands then questioned about the mine being stone dusted and the witness answered that the dusting was adequate.
Gas was alleged to have been found the night before the explosion by Thomas A. Aitken, a deputy in charge of No.3 and No.2 dip districts. The gas collected because there was brattice down and it was cleared by putting up the brattice that was down.
Mr. Edwards asked if the places were stone dusted before firing shots and Aitken said that he satisfied himself before they were fired. He admitted to Mr. Moffat that he fired about forty shots on the production shift but he would not commit himself on how long it took to prepare each shot. Mr Moffat asked, “Did you find it difficult to carry out all the regulations and fire 40 shots a day?”
“Yes. I have reported it to the overman”.
Mr. Walsh then asked him, “Regarding these 40 shots per shift. Can you do your other jobs satisfactorily?”
“Why did you not ask for assistance?”
“I can not say”.
He had complained that he had too much work and had been given a shot-firer.
On the morning of the explosion the senior overman, Thomas E. Nicholson, said that he had visited all the areas of the pit except Allen’s Drift. He did not carry a lamp that day or make any tests for gas. Mr. Edwards asked if that was unusual and the witness replied that he did not have any reports of gas except in Allen’s Drift and he did not go there. Mr. Edwards continued that he appeared to be more concerned with “getting the wheels going” and the witness said that was his job
Mr. Moffat asked if he had examined the whole area for gas and he replied that he had not even though this would have been advisable. Mr. Sandlands established by questioning that the overmen were responsible for safety and the officials were to test the dust and measure the ventilation. The witness agreed that he should carry a lamp at all times in the mine and he never asked about the reports.
The course of the inquiry then turned to the questions of shot-firing in the mine and the methods of boring and the witnesses were asked if there was any connection between a change in the boring methods and the introduction of a five-day week.
Norman Allen acting deputy on the night before the explosion said that Allen’s Drift was clear of gas when he tested and there was no one working there that night because there had been a break in the roof and gas had been found. The witness said that the week before the holidays a borehole had been made in Allen’s Drift and a blower had been opened and no more work had been done in the drift until the blower had stopped.
Wilfred Kirk who was formerly the training officer at Lowca No. 10 Colliery, said that he had been an overman at the William Pit for two years and on the day of the explosion he was in charge of the No. 2 Deep right and left faces. He said that on that day 70 to 80 shots had been fired in the No.2 face by the deputy and the shot-firer. Some of these shots were fired from the face into the waste.
He thought that the ventilation was good but he did not check up on the written reports and he was surprised to learn later, that there was a considerable amount of gas in the return air from the No.2 at six o’clock on the morning of the explosion. Wilfred Kirk had not seen holes bored from the coal into the waste nor had he seen holes like this fired and he had given instructions against this type of boring in the previous January or February.
In answer to questions from Mr. Walsh the witness said that there had been reports about excessive coal dust on the No 2 Dip but a wet cutting was introduced on that face which was a success.
Wilfred Kirk agreed with Mr. Sandlands that when the five day week came into force a new method of boring evolved and the question of shot firing again was out before the court when the next witness, Wilson Graham, a 42 year old deputy who was in charge of the No 2 Dip the previous evening stated that at time 42 shots were fired. In reply to a question from Mr. Moffat he said that he had tested for gas about 150 times that day but he could not give a definite answer as to how many times he had reported the presence of gas. Mr Moffat went on to question the witness closely about the practice of shot firing on the mine and he told the court that he was trying to prove lack of supervision of firing shots.
Thomas Harrison, a shotfirer, said that he bored from the face as he thought it was dangerous to bore from the waste. He said that he had had no instructions on the procedure and the majority of the holes bored in the No.2 were bored in this way.
William H. Armstrong a borer said that if he was working from a “good” waste he bored there but in the case of a “bad” waste he bored from the face. He bored holes from the face before the five day week came in. He told the court that a year ago they were using proper dummy gates and were then told to bore from the waste into the face.
Mr. Noel B.M. Platt superintendent of the testing office for the Ministry of Fuel and Power said he had examined the electric cap lamps and flame safety lamps from the pit. One of the lamps had a glass pierced but he could not say if this was damaged in the explosion. The state of the undamaged lamps showed good maintenance by the lamp room staff.
The next witness was Mr. George D. Nussey, H.M. Inspector of Mines for Cumberland, Westmoreland and North Lancashire and he was asked if he had an opinion on where the explosion originated.
He said he concluded that the explosion resulted from blasting of No 3 shot hole on the right of the face of No.2 Dip long wall. The men on the No.2 Dip longwall died from carbon monoxide poisoning with the exception of Murray who died from the effects of a fall. Murtagh, the deputy, was almost uninjured and Brannon the chock drawer had lacerations and a fractured skull but he to had died from the carbon monoxide gas. From the position of the bodies, Mr. Nussey considered that the work was carrying on as normal along the face. No.3 shot hole had been blasted just before the explosion because the shot firing gear was found leading to it.
He thought that Murtagh was ready to fire No.3 shot hole and ordered Brannon to prevent people from approaching. He had then fired a shot which lighted the gas in a roof cavity and this initiated the explosion. Mr W.T. Badger of the Mines Inspectorate agreed with the evidence. There was evidence from Mr. Davey of the Mines Inspectorate that the stone dusting was exceptionally good. It was possible that the shot had ignited some gas in the cavity and this had burned for some considerable time before the explosion.
The manager, Mr. William McAllister, was closely questioned on the safety precautions adopted at the pit especially as to the ventilation and the spreading of stone dust which was used to control the coal dust. The manager thought that the ventilation equipment was not as efficient as it should be and that it should be replaced with new equipment.
During his questioning, it became very clear that he would not let the demands for increased production to interfere with his plans to increase safety, and of the 800 to 900 men employed in the mine only 25 percent were engaged in coal production. Mr J.R. Edwards the Divisional Inspector of Mines wished it to be put on record that McAllister had given every possible assistance to himself and his staff in the investigation.
The manager was very closely questioned about a stemmer used at a shot hole that the experts thought was the cause of the explosion. He stated emphatically that if he heard of a deputy of a borer using a stemmer without a scraper he would have dealt very firmly with him. Mr McAllister was questioned for almost an hour and Mr Moffat turned to the Commissioner and said, “I want to express my satisfaction with every straightforward way in which Mr. McAllister has answered the questions. I have never met a more straightforward colliery manager”. This prompted a spontaneous burst of applause and the tribute was endorsed by other officials.
The experiment of using the dogs to locate bodies trapped under falls was commented on by Mr. Ivor G.E. Leak who was the Rescue Testing Officer for the Yorkshire Area who said that the National Coal Board had agreed to have dogs trained for this type of work.
Mr Daniel McPherson the agent for the William Pit and four other pits in West Cumberland said that he had sent much time at the William Pit since he was appointed last March and he was not satisfied with the ventilation at the colliery. There were plans in hand to improve it and to enlarge the main and subsidiary airways.
Joseph Garside Helps was appointed the Mining Agent for the United Steel Company at Workington in 1943 and in January 1946 was appointed general manager for Cumberland under the N.C.B. told the court that he had every confidence in the manager and they had had discussions and decided that even though there was a very great pressure to produce coal for the country they would concentrate on development work. This was a disposition with which the Divisional Headquarters agreed and there had never been any sacrifice for safety for the sake of getting extra coal.
The inquiry was coming to an end and the forty-sixth witness was called. Mr George Price was a consulting mining engineer from Sheffield and he agreed with the evidence that had been given by Mr Nussey. He expressed the opinion that had a stemmer been used by the deputy who fired the fatal shot been fitted with a scraper, the break in the shot hole might have been discovered and the accident averted but he did not think that tea direction of the boring made any difference. Ventilation did not have any bearing on the explosion since the point where the explosive gasses were ignited was out of contact with the air on the coal face.
Mr. Edwards the commissioner summed up. He said that inquiry was to determine the cause of the explosion and the question of contraband could be entirely ruled out as could defects in any electrical system. The question of the compressed air lines was considered and while this had no bearing on the explosion it was pointed out that patched airlines were dangerous. After considering all possible causes the experts agreed that the explosions was due to the igniting of gas in a break in the No.3 shot-hole. He submitted that every possible step had been taken to eliminate shot firing as far as possible and with regard to the ventilation he submitted that there had been breaches of the Coal Mines Regulation Act and he strongly advised the appointment of a qualified ventilation engineer.
Mr Moffat said:
Nothing we can do or say can bring the one hundred and four men back to life but we do hope that what we have learned will help to prevent other accidents”. The inquiry found that there was no blame from he evidence to fix the blame on any one person or system a vote of thanks was proposed to Mr Bryan and he hoped that the improvements which had been indicated for the safe working of the William Pit would be effected without waiting for the report, Any lessons learned at the inquiry should immediately be applied.
The Coroner sat with a jury of whom Mr. L. Gillitt was elected foreman and Mr. Nussey confirmed the evidence that was given to the inquiry and after hearing the evidence the Coroner addressed the jury and said:
The whole picture is one that does show some lack of care, and the price paid was a terrible one. Perhaps, from it, some useful lesson had been learned, namely that pit discipline, by which I mean self-discipline, is the greatest safeguard against mining accidents”.
Mr D.J. Mason Coroner for West Cumberland in summing up said, “In my long experience of mining tragedies I find that familiarity does breed contempt that the men who work underground do take risks. They must, however, realise that the lives of other men depend upon each individual doing his job thoroughly and well.
The jury on the direction of the Coroner returned a verdict of “Accidental Death” which was duly recorded.
The report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at William Colliery, Cumberland on the 21st. August 1947.
Colliery Guardian, 31st October, 1947, p.559, 11th. June, p.811.
Information supplied by Ian Winstanley and the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.
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