SNAEFELL LEAD MINE. Laxey, Isle of Man. 10th. May, 1897.

The mine was on the eastern flank of Snaefell about three-quarters of a mile from the summit. A rough cart road connected it to the village of Laxey about four miles away. The top of the shaft was 908 feet above sea level. The property belonged to the Crown but the mine was leased to the Snaefell Mining Company, Limited which had worked it for many years. Mr. John Kewley was the resident agent of the mine and Mr. Frank Redicliffe visited it every month in his capacity of consulting engineer.

The vein that was worked at the mine had a strike which was approximately north-south and an average dip to the east of about fifteen degrees from the vertical. It width varied form 6 inches to 40 feet and consists of galena, zinc blende, copper pyrites, some iron pyrites, pyrrhotine, pearl spar and calc spar. The surrounding rocks are generally composed of clay-slate which was known locally as “Barrule Slate” and are considered to be of the Cambrian or Silurian period.

The mine was worked by one shaft, 171 fathoms deep measured along the dip, which followed the dip of the main vein In most places the sides required to be supported by timber which was arranged to form a series of rectangular frames. Each frame consisted of two long pieces of 8 inch by 8 inch timber which were called wall plates and supporting two end-pieces. The space enclosed by this rectangular frame was divided into three compartments. The first No.1 was for winding, the second contained a ladderway and the third took the pumping machinery and the compressed air pipes for the rock drills. There could have been planks or lagging around the outside of the frames.

The winding compartment was lined with planks nailed to the successive frames at distances varying from 3 feet 6 inches to 6 feet apart or to the cross pieces, so the winding shaft could be compared to along box made of planks nailed to strong ribs. Part of it had a thicker lining than the rest to provide for the wear and tear caused by the bucket or kibble as it went down what was a particularly steeply inclined wooden trough.

The middle compartment in which was the ladderway was divided by horizontal platforms, called sollars, 10 to 50 feet apart and these were connected by sloping ladders. There was manhole in one of the platforms to give access to the next ladder. There was a close partition of planks between the winding compartment and the ladderway, the ladderway was separated from the pumping compartment merely by cross pieces which served to prevent a person standing on the ladder platform from falling into open space at the side. The pumping space contained the main rod for the pumps, the rising main and two pipes for conveying compressed air.

At distances of 20 to 30 yards, horizontal tunnels, or levels, had been driven out and these were the main roads of the mine. Here and there these were connected to intermediate shafts called “winzes” which served as ventilation and for access to the ladderways. Sometimes the roof and sides of these levels had to be supported by timber whilst in other cases the rock was firm enough to stand for many years by itself.

The valuable portions of the vein were being removed by a method which was known as “overhand stoping”. The work of excavation, whether for driving level of for “stoping” away the vein, was done partly by hand and partly with the help of machine drills driven by compressed air. The sole explosive used in the mine was gelatine dynamite.

The ore and any waste material not used for filling exhausted workings were taken in little wagons, pushed by hand, along tram roads in the levels and were tipped when they got to the shaft. Here the mineral was shovelled into a wooden bucket, the kibble, in which it was slowly dragged up the shaft. The kibble held 8 cubic feet of ordinary ore which weighed about 7 to 8cwt. and 5 to 6cwt. of rock waste. The kibble took one and a half minutes to travel from the bottom of the mine to the top, and allowing for stoppages in loading and unloading, it made about 12 journeys an hour. Four and a half tons of mineral or three and half tons of waste were raised in this period. Even at the time this method of winding was recognised to extremely old fashioned even though it was the same method that was used at the adjacent and well-known Laxey mines.

The upper parts of the mine were kept free of water by a drainage tunnel, and “adit” and the working that were far below its level, were drained by means of a force pump and lifting pumps placed in the shaft and worked by a main rod, driven by a waterwheel at the surface.

The ventilation to the min was in the main, natural, in other words, the miner had to depend on natural air currents which entered the mine by the changes in atmospheric pressure at the surface an in the workings of the mine. A few years before the disaster, work to improve the ventilation was carried out. The end of the adit was connected to a sloping chimney, 136 feet high erected along the hills hillside. This created a difference of 96 feet between the top of the main shaft and the point where the air came out of the chimney. The air current was controlled by a door in each level, close to the shaft. The air generally went down the main shaft to the bottom of the mine and up through various winzes to the adit level and from there to the chimney. The natural current was supplemented by the air escaping from the rock drills after it had down its work.

The men had to ascend and descend the mine by ladders. It took about a quarter of an hour for a young active mean to go from top to bottom and at least half an hour to ascend. The older men climbed much slower than this and the average ascent lasted about an hour. It was estimated that in an 8-hour shift, 12.5% of the men’s time was spent on the ladders. In 1893 the mine had employed 79 men underground and 59 on the surface, a total of 138 but in 1886 the mine employed 30 men below ground and 16 above ground, a total of 46.

Commenting on the state of the mine before the accident the Inspector, Mr. C. Le Neve Foster, said:

From the inspectorial point of view, the mine can scarcely be said to have a good “record”, if I may use a common expression of the day I have had to make complaints about the ventilation upon various occasions, and, indeed, in two instances I have been officially instructed to take legal proceedings. However, in justice to the Mining Company, I will not insist upon these past offences, as the wooden chimney to which I have alluded materially improved the position of the affairs. At all events during the few days immediately preceding the accident, the ventilation of the mine was in a condition complying with the present vague working of the Statute.

On Wednesday 5th May, the mine was inspected by Captain Reddicliffe, the consulting engineer for the Company. (The work captain denoted the foreman, agent or manager of the mine) and he found everything in good condition and everything was satisfactory. The Assistant Inspector visited the mine on the 7th May, which was three days before the accident and made a thorough inspection. He reported in writing to the Inspector that the ventilation was very good and that, with a few trifling exceptions, due attention had been paid to the regulations concerning timbering, explosives, ladderways, fencing of machinery and the fencing of dangerous openings and gave the mine a clean bill of health.

Captain Kewley, who accompanied Mr. Williams did not go underground on Saturday but fro the evidence that was presented at the inquiry, everything was normal.

A little after 6 a.m. on Monday, 10th May, the morning shift consisting of 35 men, entered the shaft and began their descent by the ladders. Shortly afterwards, several men came to the surface in an exhausted condition, saying that the mine was full of foul gas which so deprived them of their strength that they could scarcely climb the ladders. These facts were reported at once to Captain Kewley who immediately sent a message to Laxey asking for assistance before descending the shaft to try to find out what was going on and to rescue the men who, he believed, had been overcome by noxious gases. He met a few men almost dead-beat, trying to make their way up and between 45 and the 60 fathom levels, he came across others, alive but unconscious.

Efforts were made to improve the ventilation and on his orders, holes were punched in the compressed air pipes and this improved the air to some extent. It was obvious that the rescue of any one from such a shaft would be a difficult and dangerous task. The unfortunate men had to be dragged from platform to platform with the help of ropes and through the manholes which measured only 22 inches by 19 inches. The rescuers themselves were in a foul atmosphere and were beginning to feel its paralysing effect.

As has been mentioned the ore and rock were drawn to the surface in a kibble but in cases where there had been severe accidents a special box, six feet long and just deep enough and broad enough to take a man was used to get them to the surface. This was used by volunteers who had come to the mine from the Laxey mine; three survivors were rescued in this way and dragged from the shaft by the winding engine.

The rescue work went on until five in the afternoon when James Kneale, the last survivor was brought to the surface. By this time the rescuers were thoroughly exhausted. Dr. Miller of Laxey went to the mine when he heard of the disaster and gave medical aid to the sufferers, several of whom were still unconscious when they were brought to the surface.

The assistant Inspector, Mr. Williams was still on the island and was told of the disaster by Mr. Samuel Harris, High Bailiff of Douglas. He hastened to the mine and arrived about six in the evening. In the hope of finding someone alive in the mine, he organised a rescue party with Captain Kewley and went down the shaft to the 74 fathom level, passing three bodies on the way. Mr. William and a miner named Frederick Christian, then made their way almost to the 100 fathom level. In doing so they had to pass over some bodies that blocked their way.

They decided not to go any further and this was a very fortunate decision because of the way back their strength began to fail and they had great difficulty in climbing the ladders. They reached the 60 fathom level where captain Kewley met them with the rest of the rescuing party who were also weakened and many found it too difficult to climb. It was then that Mr. Wiliams tried something that had not been tried in mining accidents as far as the Inspector was aware.

When Mr. Williams was in Douglas and tried to get some cylinders of compressed oxygen. None could be obtained but he thought he could make the gas on site and bought a pound and a half of potassium chlorate. He carried the chemical down the mine and made use of it while the rest of the rescue party were waiting to start their ascent from the 60 fathom level. He set light to a pile of newspapers on the floor of the level and kept throwing on the potassium chlorate, little by little. When the party leaned over and inhaled the fumes, they experienced some relief and regained some of their strength and the rescue party reached the surface in safety. By this time they had been forced to the painful conclusion that no one below ground remained alive.

A meeting was held between Captain Kewley, Captain Reddcliffe, Mr. Williams and Dr. Miller when it was decided to bring up the dead as quickly as possible and the work would become increasingly difficult with the passage of time. Mr. Williams again descended the mine with a party of men and was below ground until 11 p.m. during which time they had recovered three bodies.

Early the following morning, the work of recovery continued under the charge of Mr. William as Captain Kewley was suffering from the effects of the poisonous atmosphere and stayed at the surface attending to the bodies as they arrived at the surface. Further advice and aid came from the manager of the Foxdale Mine, Captain W.H. Kitto and Mr. H. Wynne-Finch who was a friend of Mr. Le Neve Foster.

Early in the afternoon, Mr. Williams was totally exhausted by his efforts, lost consciousness for a few minutes and had to be sent to the surface in the “box”. By this time ten bodies had been recovered which made thirteen with the three that had been recovered. At this point work was suspended for the day. About 6 p.m., a party of volunteers from the Foxdale Mine that had been summoned by telegraph by Captain Kitto, reach Snaefell and would have descended immediately but were told that their services would not be required until the following day.

Another Assistant Inspector had received a telegram informing him about the disaster when he was in Chester and he reached Laxey on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning a party of volunteers, led by Mr. Wiliams and Mr. Jones descended the mine and recovered five more bodies which were found on platforms near the 115 fathom level. By this time they had got as far as the 130 fathom level. One of the miners who was kneeling on the platform put his candle through the manhole to look for the last body and found that it immediately was extinguished. Mr. Williams sent a note to the surface asking for some bottles, filled with water and well corked to be sent down to collect some of the gas for analysis.

When the bottles arrived, he stood on the second rung of the ladder below the platform and, keeping his head well up, he held them under the platform and allowed the water to run out. He then re-corked the bottle containing the sample of the gas. He got a second sample in the same way but as he was getting the third, he suddenly and without warning, became unconscious. Mr Jones and some of the miners who wee holding the rope managed to drag him back 80 feet, still unconscious. They accomplished the task with great difficulty, with only just enough strength to lift the heavy unconscious body.

There could be little doubt that he had inhaled a whiff of the gas that came thought the manhole. The effect was instantaneous but his blood must have been affected as he had been down the mine for a number of hours. He knew he was running a risk and fortunately had the foresight to put a rope round himself before descending otherwise he certainly would have lost his life. On reaching the 115 fathom level, Mr. Jones held his colleagues mouth to a hole punched in the compressed air pipe and worked his arms backward and forward in the manner which had been recommended for the drowned. Before long they were rewarded by seeing signs of life. Mr. Williams was then sent up in the “box” and when he arrived at the surface he was revived by Dr. Miller who injected ether subcutaneously. Mr. Jones managed to get to the surface with great difficulty but there was no doubt that his great presence of mind save Mr. Williams life.

Undeterred by Mr. Williams narrow escape, Captain Kitto descended the mine in the afternoon with Mr. Wynne-Finch and a party of the Foxdale volunteers to recover the last body. He left his assistant, Captain Lean to direct the operations at the surface. The party got as far as the platform which Mr. William had reached when he took his sample and reported that he ad seen a body on the landing about 10 feet below. While one of the men was punching the air pipe, Mr. Wynne-Finch became unconscious and was sent to the surface in the “box”. Captain Kitto and his men then ascended the ladders, all suffering from the poisonous atmosphere they had been breathing.

Mr. Le Neve Foster was not able to reach Douglas until the afternoon of 12th May and went immediately to the mine where he found Dr. Miller who took him to see the eighteen corpses which were laid out in the carpenter’s shop. The Doctor pointed out the signs that they had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He then went to see his friend Mr. Wynne-Finch who was still in his mining clothes and feeling quite ill. Later he was brought down to the Inn at Laxey where he was put to bed. The next day he was well enough to return to Foxdale.

As the men who had been working underground were tired and exhausted and there was nothing to be gained by an immediate descent. The following day the Inspector went down to test the air and he came to the conclusion that the poisonous gas was carbon monoxide caused by a fire or foul gas. He had brought with him a supply of mice which he had purchased in Liverpool and intended to use them to test for the gas. A mouse was put into am improvised receptacle made from the revolving part of its cage and this was attached to the “clevis” or spring hook of the winding rope and a lantern and lighted candle were placed inside the kibble. With this apparatus they established that the air was not bad up to the 115 fathom level, after that it became poisonous and deadly at the 130 fathoms. The mice showed the same symptoms as the human beings. If they were not dead when they arrived at the surface, they had lost all power in their legs and a pinkness of the snout.

Mr. Le Neve Foster decided to make a descent to see the precise conditions. Accompanied by Messrs. Williams and Jones, Captain Kewley and several miners, they went down the ladderway to the 115 fathoms level and them proceeded by testing the air lower down with the help of the mice and a candle before going down to the next platform. The cage was held on a string and the candle attached to the top by a lump of clay. It was left for a minute or two and then retrieved. Using this method, they were able to get to the bottom of the fourth ladder when the mouse started to show signs of severe distress. The air was worse than it had been the previous day and a light would continue to burn on the platform but was extinguished below. One of the miners asked to go down with an air pipe in his mouth but permission was refused and the Inspector took the sensible decision that no one could go lower and the party returned to the surface. The journey took them an hour and they arrived at the surface showing signs of the bad atmosphere.

In order to improve the ventilation of the mine, a fire was lit at the bottom of the wooden chimney and this created a good draught. The following day tests were made at the surface which showed that the level of the bad air in the mine had decreased. The Inspector concluded that some of the ventilation doors, which he had been told were shut, must have been open. Captain Kewley offered to send men down but the Inspector thought it would be better to go him. Williams, Jones and Captain Kewley accompanied Mr. Le Neve Foster to the 100 fathom level and two doors were found to be open. These were shut and the party returned to the surface to wait for the expected improvement in the ventilation the day after.

On the Saturday, tests proved that the conditions in the mine were not much changed. It seemed probable that a door at the 130 fathom level was open which was allowing air going down the main shaft to escape through this level to the shafts which formed the upcast shaft without going to the lower levels at all. It was obvious that the door should be close, if possible and there was great desire that the last body should be recovered.

A party composed of the Inspector, Mr. Williams, Captains Kewley and Reddcliffe and a party of miners went down, without incident, to the 115 fathom level. The air below was tested with the aid of a rat in a cage. The miners stayed behind and Williams, the two Captains, the Inspector and Henry Clague reached the 5th platform in safety. The testing apparatus was lowered with a candle and the body of a miner could be seen in the position that was reported by the Foxdale men. Just at the level of the body, the candle went out. The rat in the cage was left for five minutes and was brought up alive but visibly affected.

Captain Kewley and Hague volunteered to go down and get the body which was only 10 feet below the party but the Inspector thought the risk was too great. The idea was arrived at that the body could be recovered by a grappling iron and the short ladder leading from the platform to the 130 level was pushed aside. Moving the ladder seemed to disturb the gas for immediately afterwards Captain Kewley said he was feeling ill. The Inspector shouted. “All up at once,” and the party climbed to the 115 fathom level where the “box” was. Kewley was put in it and wound to the surface. The rest of the party which had been on the lower platform felt that they could not climb the ladders and rested at the 115 “lodge” or “plat”, the enlargement of the mouth of the level where it joined the shaft.

The miners who had stayed at the 115 fathom level started to go up the ladders and reached the top in a state of exhaustion. The “box” that contained Captain Kewley was being raised to the surface, stuck in the shaft. A link of the chain by which it was attached to the winding rope got caught between two planks in a defective part of the wooden trough in which it was sliding. The “box” would go neither up nor down and Kewley was kept in this desperate position for about an hour. His son went down with some other men to free the “box” and another party came to the 115 fathom level to rescue those who were unable to climb and one after another they were brought to the surface. After these disturbing incidents, it was evident that it would be unwise to go down the mine again until the ventilation was considerably improved.

On Monday 17th, the Inspector met with one of the directors At Douglas and again at the mine. It was made clear that the Company was expecting too much from the Government officials and that while they were ready to give assistance, it was not part of their duty to recover the bodies and to put the mine in order again. Mr. Le Neve Foster said:

I told him that the mine seemed to require the services of some competent mining engineer, possessed with more technical knowledge that Captain Kewley, though I knew the latter could not be surpassed in personal courage.

The directors employed the services of Mr. N.R. Griffith, of Wrexham, who advised that a ventilation fan should be installed. All underground work was stopped until the fan could be procured and set to work. Owing to the difficulties of preparing the site for the driving engine, many weeks elapsed before the fan was working. When the Inspector returned to the island on the 24th May, nothing had been done. At that time he tested the air but did not think that it was safe to descend, especially was there was an obstruction between the 130 and 141 fathom level which prevented the kibble being lowered any further than this the latter level. At this time, Mr. Le Neve Foster attended the inquest into the men’s deaths.

The men who lost their lives were:

  • James Henry.
  • William Kewin.
  • Joseph Moughtin.
  • Louis Moughtin.
  • Loius Kinrade.
  • Robert Cannell.
  • Edward Kinrade.
  • Sandy Callan.
  • William Senogles.
  • William Callow.
  • Robert Lewney.
  • Frank Christian.
  • Edward Kewley.
  • William Christian.
  • John Kewley.
  • William Christian.
  • John Fayle.
  • John Oliver.
  • Walter Christian.
  • John James Oliver.
  • John Robert Kewin.
  • Robert Kelly.
  • Those who were injured:
  • Philip Mylechraine.
  • Evan Christian.
  • James L. Kneale.
  • John Corlett.

It was not until 7th June that the body of the last man, Robert Kelly, was recovered when the atmosphere in the mine had cleared enough by natural ventilation for a party to go down.

The inquest was opened by the High Bailiff on Wednesday, 12th May for the evidence of identification and adjourned. When the proceedings were reopened, Dr. John Haldane, F.R.S., Lecturer in Physiology at the University of Oxford presented a report of an analysis of the gas samples which had been obtained by Mr. Williams. Dr Haldane concluded that:

The composition of the sample corresponds to a mixture produced by the combustion of wood or some other similar material, Inhalation of this compound would produce helplessness (in a man) within about 7 to 8 minutes at most, and would soon cause death. a candle would not burn in such air, but would do so on the addition of a third of its volume of fresh sir. The mixture would then still be intensely poisonous to life, and would still be if diluted with four times its volume of fresh air. When diluted to nine times its volume of fresh air it would still be capable of rendering a man incapable of walking.

On a visit to the mine, on or about the 16th June, Mr. Le Neve Foster went into the mine with Dr. Haldane, Dr. Miller and captain Reddcliffe to the 130 fathom level. at a point about 630 yards north of the shaft they found that the level was completely blocked by rubbish which had fallen from the workings above as the supporting timbers had been destroyed by fire. The pieces of charred timber that was left were no doubt the origin of the disaster.

The inspection of the mine revealed the seat of the fire was sat the 130 fathom level where men were engaged in putting in new timber. The timber was very dry and would have easily taken fire and was probably ignited by the manner in which the miners handled the candles that gave them light.

It was their practice that when the candle was almost burned out, for them to remove them from the clay socket an stick the still burning end against the side of the working place, take out a fresh candle and light it at the flame of the old one. The flame of the stub was then blown out. Careless miners often forgot to extinguish the end an there was evidence given to the court that this was a common practice in the mines on the island.

The jury brought in the following verdict:

That the deceased met with their deaths by breathing air impregnated by carbon monoxide, which was generated by the burning of timber in the 130 fathom level, but we have no evidence as to how the timber was ignited. We would strongly recommend the means suggested by Dr. Foster for the prevention of such a lamentable event, namely those of non-flammable roof-timbers and supports the mechanical means for raising and lowering men, but especially the inspection of the mine prior to the commencing work on Monday morning. We are glad to learn that the fan now being put up is to be a permanent erection, and hope that it will be a further improvement to the ventilation of the mine. We also recommend the periodical inspection of the upcast shaft, not only by the officials of the mine but also by H.M. Inspectors. We wish to express our profoundest sympathy with the families of the bereaved, and our high appreciation of the ready and generous response to the appeals which have been made on behalf of the Relief Fund. We would also take this opportunity of placing on record out great admiration of the courage and perseverance displayed in the rescue of the men and the bodies by Inspectors By the Captains and also the men who formed the relief parties. And lastly, we would thank you Mr. Coroner, for the patience ad urbanity which you have displayed in conducting this very painful and difficult inquiry.

The names of M.r Williams and Captain Kewley were remembered on the Isle of Man when their conduct was brought to the notice of His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor of the Island to the notice of the Chapter of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and that the silver medal for saving life on land was awarded to each of them. The medals were presented by His Excellency on behalf of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Grand Master of the Order.


Mines Inspectors Report 1897. Mr. Le Neve Foster.
Reports to Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Home Department on the circumstances attending an underground fire at the Snaefell Lead Mine, Isle of Man, in the month of May 1897 by C. Le Neve Foster, Esq., D.Sc., F.R.S., and A.E. Miller, Esq., M.B.
The Colliery Guardian, 4th June 1897, p.1045, 18th June, p.1139.

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

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