WEST STANLEY. West Stanley, Durham. 16th. February, 1909.

The colliery was about four miles to the west of Chester-le-Street, Durham and was worked by The Owners of the West Stanley Colliery. The manager was Mr. J.P. Hall, the undermanager, Mr. R. Heslop and there were two fore-overmen, one back overman, two master shifters and twenty-two deputies. The colliery employed 527 men and boys underground and 118 at the surface a total of 645 people.

It was worked by two shafts known as the Busty Pit which was twelve feet in diameter and was the downcast and the Lamp Pit, upcast, which was nine and three-quarters feet in diameter. Both the shafts were sunk to the Brockwell Seam at 163 fathoms. The shafts passed through the Shield Row, Five Quarter, Brass Thill, Low Main, Hutton, Towneley, Tilley, Busty and Brockwell seams but only the Towneley, Tilley, Busty and Brockwell seams were worked. The Towneley had an average thickness of two feet two inches, the Tilley, two feet three inches, the Busty three feet and the Brockwell two feet five inches. The coal from the Towneley Seam was lowered down a staple to the hanging-on of the downcast shaft at the Busty Level and that from the Tilley seam was run down a stone drift to the same level opposite the shaft, so coal was drawn up the downcast shaft from the Busty Level came for the Towneley, Tilley and Busty seams and the coal from the Brockwell seam was drawn up the upcast shaft from the Brockwell level.

The ventilation was provided by a Guibal fan 35 feet in diameter and ten feet wide which ran at 35 revolutions at a water gauge of 1.5 inches. The air measured going into the mine on the 12th. February was 76,808 cubic feet per minute. 21,756 cubic feet went to the Towneley Seam, 15,545 cubic feet to the Tilley Seam, 10,210 feet to the Busty Seam and 17,297 to the Brockwell Seam. The remaining 12,000 cubic feet went into some old workings higher up in the shaft in one of which a pump was positioned.

The Towneley, Tilley and the Brockwell seam on the south side of the shafts were worked by longwall methods while on the north side of the shafts in the Brockwell seam, pillars were being removed. In the Busty seam, the workings consisted entirely of pillar removing. In the Towneley, Brockwell and Tilley seams here were for electrically driven Hurd Bar-type cutting machines. Two of these were in the Towneley and one each in the Tilley and Brockwell where there was also a spare machine in a stenton next the bottom of the upcast shaft.

There was other electrically driven machinery underground. In the Brass Thill seam, there was a 25 h.p. motor for driving a pump and a 100 h.p. haulage motor in the Towneley seam hauling from the straight West District and a 5 h.p. motor driving a 3-throw pump which was in the straight West Way. In the Tilley seam a 25 h.p. motor drove an air compressor. In the Busty seam, there was 100 h.p. motor driving a 3-throw pump close to the downcast shaft and two 5 h.p. motors which each drove a small pump in the West Way. There was 5 h.p. motor driving a creeper on the south side of the downcast shaft. There was a 48 h.p, motor in the Brockwell seam there was a 48 h.p. motor to drive an air compressor but this had never been used.

The electric current was generated at the surface as three-phase current at 550 volts and led to a switchboard in the generator house and from there down the shaft by three copper cables which were not armoured. The three mains down the shaft were controlled by an oil-immersed switch and three fuses of 150 amps which were on the main switchboard at the generating station. The shaft sidings at the Busty seam and the haulage engine house and staple top in the Towneley seam were lit by incandescent lights, twenty lamps in the Busty and fifteen in the Towneley.

All the other lights in use in the mine were safety lamps of which there were 637. 526 of these were Marsaut and 11 were of the Donald type. All were lit and riveted by lead rivets in the lamps room at the surface and no re-lighting was done underground. Only those men on the haulage roads, putters, drivers and others had Donald lamps. The coal hewers and stonemen were provided with Marsaut lamps with double gauzes. There was a proper system recording the number of lamps given out and those returned and of the lamps that were recovered none were without tops or unlocked.

The workings of the Four seam were dusty and the lower workings of the Busty seam were wet and there was a wet area in the Tilley seam. The upper section of the Busty seam consisted of old crushed pillars and produced large quantities of dust. In the past, considerable quantities of dust were carried in the air down the downcast shaft from the screens that were near the shaft on the surface. It came from a shoot which delivered coal to the boilers. In order to lessen this, the boilers had been boxed in.

The roads of the mine were watered by a small tank in which was fixed a hand pump and spray. The water was supplied from pipes laid along the main roads with taps at intervals. The roads were watered but they soon dried out and it was possible that there was not enough watering done to keep the roads damp. The last watering had been done the night before the explosion, particularly in the Busty Seam.

In the Towneley seam, explosives were taken in by the stone men and no others. They obtained the explosives at the magazine at the surface in a locked box. Only the deputies had a key and they fired the shots during the night shift. the stonemen in the Straight South District in this seam went down the pit  at 3 p.m. and shots would start to be fired when the men and boys were on their way outbye. The explosives used in the mine were “Saxonite” in the stone and “Monabell” in the coal. Shots were fired in the day time in the coal but between shifts only in the stone. All the shots were fired electrically using No.6 detonators. No shot had been fired on the day of the explosion except one in the coal in the South West District of the Towneley Seam and this was fired at 10 a.m. by a deputy as the deputies were the only people permitted to fire shots.

The return airways were travelled in the Towneley seam the week prior to the disaster and those in the Tilley and Brockwell seams during the week ending 22nd January 1909 and it was presumed that no heavy falls obstructed the air passing through the mine. The presence of gas had been reported only once in the previous twelve months and the seam did not give off much gas. On Thursday 24th September 1908 the workings of the Busty seam were examined as had the workings in the other seams some little time before and the result of the examination was as follows:

Ventilation good working places satisfactory returns all right.

General Report: we the undersigned travelled the Busty Seam, Straight West Way and Bugle South flats ponies scrubbing in South flat all things very satisfactory.

The explosion occurred about 3.45 p.m. and about five minutes before the explosion, Mr. Stephenson, the electrical engineer said the pumpman in the Busty Seam telephoned the generating station to switch on the current as he wanted to start the pump and at the time of the explosion the pump was working. There were two indications that an explosion had occurred with an interval of about 50 seconds between them and observed at the surface. Ralph Stevenson said:

I stood at the lip of the edge of the downcast pit and looked at the ropes, then fairly steady, and then down the shaft. I heard a roar and saw a red flame right down the shaft. As the roar increased I stepped quickly back and called the other men to keep clear. I then stumbled about four yards from the shaft and fell sideways and just at that moment, I saw a large ball of fire issue from the mouth of the pit, followed by a thick black cloud. The cloud spread around me whilst I was still on the ground. I was in darkness, still prostrate. When I was in the act of rising again the air in the shaft reversed and carried the remainder of the black cloud with it and I was then in clear air.

He went to the shaft and found that the doors on the bottom deck were splintered and broken open. Shortly afterwards, about five minutes, two of the three fuses on the switchboard in the generator house which carried the current down the mine, blew. First, there was a loud burring noise which indicated that there was an overload and then the fuses blew. Simultaneously smoke came from the downcast shaft and the doors at the “horse-hole” at the upcast shaft were blown open but swung to on their own. Fifteen seconds afterwards, a ball of flame issued from the downcast shaft followed by a dense cloud of black smoke.

Albert Todd, the engine winder, was bringing up a set of tubs from the south side near the Busty Seam. There was a curve on the brow with an iron guard rail which directed the tubs. When the set was about halfway around the curve he stopped the engine because the rope was tight and he thought the tubs were off the road. He reversed the engine and immediately the explosion occurred.

The cages were stuck in the shaft and a considerable time elapsed before the shaft was free and the rescuers could get down. There were three survivors from the Towneley Seam, twenty-six from the Tilley Seam and one from the Busty Seam but all those who were in the Brockwell lost their lives. The sole survivor from the Busty Seam, Matthew Elliott was recovered unconscious and remained so for about a month after the accident.

On their arrival at the colliery, the Inspectors found that both the downcast and the upcast shafts were damaged and the shaftsmen were engaged in clearing a way for the cages which fortunately were not damaged very much. While this work was going on, work went underway to make a temporary hospital in the joiner’s shop. Medical stores, oxygen and other materials that were likely to be needed were brought to the hospital including Draegar, and other rescue apparatus under the control of Mr. Simonds of Messrs. Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth and Company, Eleswick works who arrive by car within two and half hours of the disaster and bringing men who were trained to use the apparatus. Unfortunately, no opportunity presented itself to use the apparatus. The arrangements in the joiners shop were required for only three men, one from the Busty seam and two from the Towneley seam who were brought up the downcast shaft after the necessary repairs had been made.

By 2 a.m. the downcast shaft was repaired and rescue parties went down into the Towneley and Busty seams. They found twenty-six men in the Towneley seam that had escaped the effects of the explosion, probably due to the absence of dust in the drift leading from the Busty to the Towneley seam. The landing was wet, which suppressed the dust and the men did not try to get to the shafts. The men from the Towneley seam were Patrick Joyce, John Smith, Patrick Cogan and Robert Leadbetter. Leadbetter struggled for life for thirty hours when he was given the attention of the doctors and nurses in the temporary hospital but died from the effects of the fumes that he had inhaled. Along with Matthew Elliott from the Busty seam, these were the only men who were taken from the pit alive.

News of the disaster reached the London evening papers on 16th. February and the Committed of the Miners Federation passed a motion that:

Our secretary writes [to] Mr. John Wilson M.P. that this Committee deeply sympathises and console the bereaved families who have lost their breadwinners and beloved ones in the dreadful explosion at the West Stanley Colliery Durham.

The damage to the downcast shaft extended to the surface and the casing erected from ground level to the underside of the hempstead was blown down on three sides and the roof of the hempstead damaged. At the upcast shaft, there was little damage at the surface and the fan was not damaged and continued to run but the water gauge fell from 1.5 inches to 1.3 inches.

The work of exploration went on round the clock and by 22nd. February, 165 bodies had been recovered and brought to the surface. Two men were still missing and the search for them was carried on until 5th. March when all hope of finding them was abandoned. It was known where they were likely to be but they could not be found and owing to the increasing danger to the exploring parties the attempts were abandoned.

The men who died were:

Those found in the Towneley Seam:

  • Thomas Coulson.
  • Thomas Smith.
  • William Clark.
  • Mark Cowan.
  • William Samuel.
  • James Murphy.
  • James Croney.
  • John Benfold.
  • James McGreavy.
  • Allan Miller.
  • Joseph Hodgson.
  • James Uncles.
  • William Morris.
  • Walter Scott.
  • Thomas Coyne.
  • Thomas Whitehead.
  • Matthew Robson Coxon.
  • John William Johnson.
  • Francis Gallagher.
  • Henry Croney.
  • William Wallis.
  • John Lackenby.
  • William Smith.
  • John Clary.
  • Thomas Robson.
  • Ernest Smith.
  • John Selkirk.
  • John Alfred Peart.
  • Patrick Hennessey.
  • George Strorey.
  • John William Whitefield.
  • James Bell.
  • Robert Stoves.
  • Frank Donnelly Jnr.
  • Thomas Worby.
  • Patrick Doran.
  • Matthew Coulson.
  • Joseph Glennon.
  • Patrick Glennon.
  • Thomas Nelson Charlton.
  • Thomas Shackleton.
  • Cornelius McAlison.
  • Michael McGuirk.
  • Peter Gibbons.
  • William Crosier.
  • Thomas Carr.
  • William Murphy.
  • Luke Reay.
  • Richard Burns.
  • Thomas Thompson.
  • James Brennan.
  • John Joseph Walker.
  • Stephen Wood.
  • Joseph Cummings.
  • William Ranson.
  • John Pearson.
  • James Clarke.
  • Thomas Watson.
  • Peter McGreavey.
  • William Nicholson.
  • Ralph Wood.
  • John William Graham.
  • Robert Leadbetter who lived for 33 hours after the disaster.

Those from the Tilley Seam:

  • Thomas Riley.
  • George Booth Jnr.
  • Henry Manistre.
  • James William Dean.
  • Peter Allen.
  • Thomas Short.
  • John Glendenin.
  • Henry Gill.
  • William Batty.
  • Thomas Killingback.
  • Ralph Laverick.
  • Robert Johnson.
  • Albert Dunn.
  • Robert Brown.
  • George Bell Halliday.
  • William Doyle.
  • James Gardener.
  • George Lawson.

Those in the Busty Seam:

  • John Forster.
  • Joseph Agar.
  • John Mackay.
  • Edward William Manistre.
  • John Simm.
  • Anthony Reedman.
  • Thomas Crozire.
  • Anthony Hodgson.
  • Henry Wright.
  • William Quinn.
  • William Bropy.
  • John Glendenning.
  • John Henry Ivy.
  • John Finningham.
  • Thomas Herron.
  • John Joseph Smithson.
  • George Watson.
  • John Richard Johnson.
  • John Isaac Statt.
  • Thomas Anderson.
  • John Johnson.
  • Robert Forster.
  • Richard Broadmore.
  • James Jamison.
  • John Robinson.
  • William Crozier.
  • William McShane.
  • James Donkin.
  • Joseph William Dover.
  • Matthew Agar.
  • William Rowell.
  • John Pilkington snr.
  • William Palmer.
  • James Pilkington.
  • Joseph Willis.
  • John Henry Manistre.

Those from the Brockwell Seam:

  • William Jefferson.
  • John William Smith.
  • Richard Proud.
  • Thomas Booth.
  • Joseph Johnson.
  • Henry Dunn.
  • James Charlton.
  • John Carter.
  • William McGough.
  • Patrick McKenna.
  • Joseph Carter Jnr.
  • John Thomas Nixon.
  • George Carr.
  • John Wood.
  • William Charlton.
  • William Green.
  • Henry Miller.
  • Thomas Whelan.
  • Edward Davidson.
  • George Bowes.
  • James Harrison.
  • Stephen Riley.
  • James Foster.
  • George Lawson.
  • George Fewster.
  • Robert Johnson.
  • Stephen Riley
  • Joseph Nixon.
  • Joseph Burn.
  • Thomas Bottoms.
  • William Scott.
  • John Counsell.
  • Matthew Pattinson.
  • Stephen Gourley.
  • George Gill.
  • John Donnelly.
  • Archibald Coils.
  • Thomas Lawson.
  • John McNestry.
  • George Gettens.
  • James Payne.
  • Sidney Hodgson.
  • Allan Counsell.
  • Edward Lodge.
  • Alexander Wilkinson.
  • Joseph Welsh.
  • Isaac Walton.
  • Thomas Shepherd.
  • James Lambert.

Two of the bodies were left in the mine as unrecoverable.

The inquiry opened on the 29th March in St. Andrew’s Institute, Stanley before the Coroner, Mr. Graham and all interested parties were represented. Messrs. W.E. Harvey, M.P., and H. Twist reported in the inquiry into the disaster to the Miners Federation Committee at a meeting held on the 6th May 1909 at the Westminster Palace Hotel, London.

There was conflicting evidence as to the original point of the explosion. Matthew Elliott was the only survivor who witnessed the explosion who was the sole survivor from the Busty Seam. He was too ill to attend the inquiry but his evidence was taken at home. He said:

On the afternoon of the explosions, I was on the flat sheets near the shaft on the South side when I heard a loud noise coming from the South Side which seemed to shake the whole of the shaft sidings. It was so violent that the tubs rattled as if they had been upset, and it was followed by a big cloud of dust, and the lights went out. I had a small safety lamp burning in the cabin which showed the dust.

The witness said that electric lights on the South side went out before the explosion and he heard a boy, Charles Redman crying, “Help me,” three times. He tried to get into the cabin to get the lad a drink of water and he remembered no more. Elliott was found by a rescue party exactly where he fell. His body was severely burned.

Mr. W Blackett, a mining engineer speaking on behalf of the owners had formed three theories as to the approximate locality of the first ignition. he thought that it was possible that it originated in the Towneley seam, or in the Brockwell seam although he thought Elliott’s evidence did not support this theory and the third theory was that it originated in the Brockwell seam. Mr. Blackett continued:

If then the Towneley and the Brockwell seams are absolved from blame, it is necessary to revert to the contemplation of Elliott’s impression being correct and in that case, the only possible point of the initiation to be suspected is somewhere in the immediate vicinity of a big fall just around the Busty West way, and the only cause I can conceive is a very thick and heavy cloud of dust being raised by a fall of stone, which may have brought about by an accident to the set which was being hauled outbye and was the cause of it having been rapped hold. What has ignited such a cloud of dust I can not say? I am very disappointed that I can unable to give any more definite conclusions and I regret the somewhat uncertain state in which I must leave the matter. I could not believe that such an explosion could not have occurred and be developed in all seams without leaving clearer evidence of its cause.

Mr. Tate, another mining engineer stated that on his first visit to the Busty seam and was more definite in his evidence. He said:

I was stuck with certain indications which pointed to the force and trend of the explosion having come along the Busty shaft siding towards the downcast shaft. I afterwards had a string impression that it had occurred at the Towneley haulage motor, but this latter idea I found untenable and after hearing the evidence of Elliott, I had to reconsider my first impression and after careful and exhaustive examinations, I have satisfied myself that the explosion originated on the South side of the pit in the main intake of the Busty seam at a point beyond the curve at the entrance to the Bust west way.

I have ascertained that at the moment of the commencement of the explosion the engine set of laden tubs was just coming out of the Busty way end and would cause a cloud of coal dust. Just beyond the point where the end of the set had reached and near to the shaft siding there is a fall of stone and several baulks and props under this fall appear to have been driven outbye towards the way end, whereas at a short distance further inbye the indications are all inbye over. I also noticed that the explosive force is shown in this neighbourhood and from thence out over towards the shaft, and was not of a very violent character and there is an absence of serious damage.

All the persons employed in the shaft siding and at the bottom of the pit appeared from the position in which they were found to have had some intimation of the explosion and most of them had made an attempt to obtain shelter from the blast which was approaching them thus proving that it was at that moment a comparatively slow travelling force which had just commenced moreover the bodies did not appear to have been subject to much violence as some of the other bodies which were further away from this initial point. We also have it from Elliott that he heard one of the victims crying out for help.

All these incidents point to the possibility of this point being the neighbourhood of the first ignition consequently it must be a coal-dust explosion, as gas could not possibly have been present there. From this point of ignition the force travelled in ever direction inbye to the face of the Busty way, inbye to the Bugle way and up the Tilley staple and up the Tilley drift and outbye to the downcast shaft, and up this shaft to the Busty seam and down the shaft into the Brockwell seam. It afterwards came down the Towneley staple into the Busty seam at the other side of the shaft.

In my opinion, it was an explosion of coal-dust which was ignited at a point on the Busty waggonway on the inbye side of the curve.

Other sources of ignition were examined, open lights, whether by defective lamps or matches, shot firing, sparking from mechanical friction and electrical sources. All the lamps in the mine were locked and none of the recovered lamps showed signs of damage that could have caused the explosion and sparking from mechanical sources were dismissed as a source of ignition. The fact that the fuses at the surface had blown led Dr. W.M. Thornton, professor of Electrical Engineering at the Armstrong College Newcastle-on-Tyne who was called by the Durham Miners Association thought that the explosion was caused by an electrical spark. Three facts led him to these conclusions. First, a lamp which was hung in front of a large pumping tank in the Busty seam was found smashed, second the breaking fuse in the pump house in the Busty seam and third, a short circuit set up by a train of coal dust between the terminals in any of the junction boxes or gateway end switches. He thought the last to be the most likely.

At the end of the inquest, the coroner summed up and left nineteen questions for the jury to answer. They retired and after three hours returned with the following answers:

1. Question: What was the cause of death in each separate case?

Answer. As stated by the medical witness.

2. Question: Was the Towneley Seam in a safe working condition (including cables and their insulation, electric and all other plant, whether worked by electricity or otherwise) when the deceased men and boys were working therein on the 16th. February 1909, and up to the moment of the explosion, and had all proper precautions been taken by watering and sweeping to prevent dust explosion?

Answer: All in good working order and all proper precautions taken.

3. Question: Tilley Seam. Was the Tilley Seam in a safe working condition (including cables and their insulation, electric and all other plant, whether worked by electricity or otherwise) when the deceased men and boys were working therein on the 16th. February 1909, and up to the moment of the explosion, and had all proper precautions been taken by watering and sweeping to prevent dust explosion?

Answer. All in good working order and all proper precautions taken.

4. Question: Was the Busty Seam in a safe working condition (including cables and their insulation, electric and all other plant, whether worked by electricity or otherwise) when the deceased men and boys were working therein on the 16th. February 1909, and up to the moment of the explosion, and had all proper precautions been taken by watering and sweeping to prevent dust explosion?

Answer. All in good working order and all proper precautions taken.

5. Question: Was the Brockwell Seam in a safe working condition (including cables and their insulation, electric and all other plant, whether worked by electricity or otherwise) when the deceased men and boys were working therein on the 16th. February 1909, and up to the moment of the explosion, and had all proper precautions been taken by watering and sweeping to prevent dust explosion?

Answer. All in good working order and all proper precautions taken.

6. Question: Was the downcast shaft in a safe working condition (including cables and their insulation, electric and all other plant, whether worked by electricity or otherwise) when the deceased men and boys were working therein on the 16th. February 1909, and up to the moment of the explosion, and had all proper precautions been taken by watering and sweeping to prevent dust explosion?

Answer. All in good working order and all proper precautions taken.

7. Question: Was the upcast shaft in a safe working condition (including cables and their insulation, electric and all other plant, whether worked by electricity or otherwise) when the deceased men and boys were working therein on the 16th. February 1909, and up to the moment of the explosion, and had all proper precautions been taken by watering and sweeping to prevent dust explosion?

Answer. All in good working order and all proper precautions taken.

8. Question: Was the fan of sufficient capacity and was a sufficient current of air passed along in-takes and returns during the back shift?

Answer. Yes, in both cases.

9. Question: Were the lamps issued to the men and boys in good condition and safe as against gas, and were they properly locked?

Answer. They were issued in proper condition and properly locked.

10. Question: Was the West Stanley Colliery in all respects properly provided with all the necessary mechanical power and materials necessary for the safety of the men and boys employed on the 16th. February?

Answer. In all respects, the jury considers this had been done.

11. Question: Were the manager, undermanager, overmen, deputy overmen, master shifter, engineers, enginemen (both steam and electrical) and all officials of sufficient experience and ability and did they discharge their respective duties in a satisfactory manner and were the general and special rules in force at the colliery strictly complied with?

Answer. We are of the opinion that all the officials enumerated were competent men and that all rules had been complied with.

12. Question: In which seam did the explosion originate?

Answer. In the Busty Seam.

13. Question: Was there one explosion or more than one?

Answer. One explosion, not able to say if there was more than one.

14. Question: In what part of the seam (or elsewhere) did the explosion originate, and in what other parts where there other explosions (if any)?

Answer. On the west way, Busty Seam, between the curve and air crossing.

15. Question: Was the explosion of gas or dust or partly gas and partly dust?

Answer. A dust explosion.

16. Question: How was the dust ignited so as to cause the explosion?

Answer. What was the cause of the explosion the jury was unable to find.

17. Question: Who, if any, one or more, is (or are) and in what respect culpable?

Answer. No one.

18. Question: Was the explosion result of a cause or causes, which has or have not been and cannot be ascertained?

Answer. A dust explosion. What was the cause of the ignition the jury was unable to find.

19. Question: Does jury desire to make any recommendations or suggestions for the further guidance of the present or future owners of the West Stanley Colliery, or other similar collieries?

Answer.  None.

With the presentation of the verdict, the proceedings were terminated.


Minutes of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.
Report on the circumstances attending an explosion which occurred in the workings of the West Stanley Colliery on the 16th. February 1909 by R.A.S. Redmayne, H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines and R. Donald Brain, H.M. Inspector of Mines.
Colliery Guardian, 19th February 1909, p.386, 26th February, p.439, 5th March, p.490, 13th August, p. 319.

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

Return to previous page