ABRAM. Wigan, Lancashire. 19th. December, 1881.
The explosion occurred in the No.4 pit of the Abram Coal Company at Abram, Lancashire, a small village outside Wigan. There were two seams worked at the colliery, the Yard Seam, and the Lower Arley Seam. The Yard Seam, in which the explosion took place, was divided into an east and a west district. The Yard seam was reached by two shafts 18 feet in diameter at a depth of 520 yards. The coal was worked on the longwall system with the men using safety lamps and blasting was forbidden. The workings in the seam were not very extensive and had been reached about three years before the disaster. The workings on the west side extended about 220 yards and those of the east 400 yards. The mine was ventilated by a Guibal fan, 46 feet in diameter which ran at 37 revolutions per minute and at the time of the explosion was stated to be delivering 79,590 cubic feet of air per minute.
The mine was worked with locked lamps with the exception of the bottom of the downcast shaft where there were a few gas lights in the main intake. The mine was considered safe and the proprietors had done everything they could for the safety of the men. The men’s lamps were tested and checked that they were locked before they went to work and an unlocked lamp had never been found.
Two hundred and twenty men and boys descended the pit that morning and at three minutes past noon, there was a very loud report which could be heard up to three miles away. This was followed by a discharge of a large volume of dust and smoke from the pit. Relatives of the men rushed to the pit head anxious for the safety of the men. It was established that there were one hundred and fifty in the Lower Arley Mine at a depth of 650 yards and seventy in the Yard Mine at a depth of 530 yards.
The Certificated Manager of the colliery, Mr. Thomas Taylor, had only just returned from a routine underground inspection of the workings which had revealed nothing amiss. He was at the colliery when the explosion took place and immediately took control of the rescue operations and two partners of the Abram Coal Company, Mr. J.H. Johnson and Mr. W. Hayes were present in the colliery office.
The cage in the downcast shaft was jammed by the force of the explosion and could not be moved but there was little damage to the upcast shaft and to the ventilation fan which was functioning fully. Once the cage had been repaired Mr. Taylor and two men descended at 3 p.m. to find that the mouth of the Yard Mine had been smashed and further descent was impossible. It was clear that the source of the explosion had been the Yard Mine. Fires were raging and it was necessary to borrow a large number of fire extinguishers from the neighbouring collieries.
As news of the disaster spread, the scene on the pit bank was harrowing. Many hundreds of people had congregated around the top of the pit shaft. Up to about 4 o’clock, it was not definitely known whether the one hundred and fifty men in the Arley Mine were safe or not. By 5 p.m. the cage had been repaired and the descent into the Arley Mine was possible. The rescuers discovered two or three injured men near the mouthing but to their great relief, the rest of the men in the Arley were safe.
Mr. Green, the underlooker, had kept the men near the mouthing after the explosion to keep them cool as there was a strong current of air there. Apart from the lack of light when the explosion had blown most of the lamps out and some concussion from being thrown against the sides, most of the men were none the worse for the experience.
The work of bringing the men out of the Yard Mine was slow and difficult. By 9.30 p.m. twenty-six men had been rescued alive, though some were horribly disfigured and affected by the afterdamp and required artificial respiration. They were taking immediately to Wigan Infirmary but there was little hope for them to recover. By midnight twelve bodies had been recovered, all shockingly burnt, making identification difficult. A most tragic case was that of the death of the underlooker, Mr. R.J. Cronshaw, son of the Vicar of St Thomas’s, Wigan., and he was a most promising young man.
The rescue continued through the night until Tuesday morning. Miraculously a man was brought out of the Yard Mine alive; thirteen hours after the explosion but all those found after this was dead. By 6 a.m. all the fires had been extinguished and a further fifteen bodies recovered making a death toll of twenty-seven.
The work of cleaning up the rubble continued all that week until the last body was discovered on Sunday 31st December. A total of 15 tons of debris had to be wound out of the dib hole and during the last stages the head of a man was found in the falls of dirt. His body had already been buried so it was necessary for another interment to take place in Lowton Churchyard.
Those who died:
- Richard James Cronshaw, aged 49 years, underlooker.
- William Ball, aged 49 years, fireman.
- Thomas Livesley, aged 44 years, fireman.
- Joseph Westhead, aged 29 years, hooker-on.
- Thomas Plant aged 21 years, collier.
- Joseph Johnson aged 27 years, collier.
- James Ashton aged 32 years, collier.
- William Barton aged 31 years, collier.
- William Bailey aged 21 years, collier.
- Joseph Eckersley aged 31 years collier.
- James Taylor aged 27 years, collier.
- William Phillips aged 32 years, collier.
- Christopher Armfield aged 36 years, collier.
- John Seddon aged 24 years, collier.
- William Ashton aged 39 years, collier.
- Thomas Bromilow aged 44 years, collier.
- William Hindley aged 25 years, collier.
- David Aldred aged 36 years, collier.
- Johnathan Baines aged 51 years, collier.
- John Rigley aged 33 years, collier.
- George Baines aged 20 years, collier.
- H. Morris aged 24 years, collier.
- William Wadsworth aged 20 years, collier.
- John Marsh aged 19 years, collier.
- Thomas Marsh aged 19 years, collier.
- William Lea aged 42 years, collier.
- Edward Potts aged 23 years, collier.
- James Bent aged 27 years, collier.
- John Shovelton, collier.
- Daniel Garvin aged 37 years, collier.
- John Bromilow aged 44 years, collier.
- George Nixon aged 17 years, drawer.
- John Marsh aged 17 years, drawer.
- George Allen aged 13 years, waydrawer.
- George Pass aged 13 years, waydrawer.
- William Henry Mather aged 17 years, dataller.
- John Edward Jones aged 26 years, dataller.
- Robert Johnson aged 15 years, dataller.
- Benjamin Mayers aged 38 years, dataller.
- Robert Johnson aged 49 years, dataller.
- William Baines aged 25 years, dataller.
- Joseph Mather aged 18 years, dataller.
- John Mee aged 51 years, dataller.
- Thomas Fletcher aged 53 years, dataller.
- Charles Stott aged 36 years, dataller.
- Robert Jones aged 29 years, dataller.
- Edward Potts aged 31 years, dataller.
- Peter Wailing aged 48 years, dataller.
Those who died after being brought out:
- James Bent,
- Thomas Bromilow,
- Charles Stott,
- W. Phillips and
- John Rigby.
The total number of bodies brought out of the pit was forty-one and of those brought out of the pit alive seven subsequently died from their injuries which brought the final toll to forty-eight of which over half were men under 30 years of age mostly from the Park Lane and Westleigh areas. The disaster left 25 widows and 73 children fatherless.
One man, James Shovelton was reported missing but no trace was found of him in the workings. One family lost a father and two brothers, the youngest aged 16 years had started work in the mine that day. The whole workforce of the Abram Colliery were members of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners Permanent Relief Society and in addition, the employers had a scheme according to the Employers Liability Act. The scale of relief was as follows, disabled men to receive 10/- a week and medical assistance. Relatives of the deceased married men funeral grant of £5 5/- a week for a widow and 2/6 for each child. Relatives of deceased single men: Funeral grant of £20.
As well as these payments there were those who had taken put special life insurance policies with companies such as the Prudential Assurance Company who were generous in their bestowal of funds for the bereaved families. Immediately after the disaster, their Superintendent of the Manchester District sent a telegram of condolence with a promise to pay up on all claims as soon as they were submitted. Mrs. Moon who lost her husband in the explosion received a cheque for £14 2s 0d from them.
The family of Thomas Fletcher was especially fortunate. This collier stopped his weekly contributions to the company thinking it a waste of money from which he would never derive any benefit. Only the week before the disaster the Local Insurance Agent visited the family and persuaded Fletcher to pay up on the policy and continue his membership. The following Monday he descended the mine and met his death with his fellow-workmen in the Yard Mine. By his wise decision, the family was thus financially secure from the cruel blow that fate dealt them.
The cause of the explosion was far from clear. It could have been the result of a fall of the roof creating a build-up of gas which was ignited by a broken lamp that was broken in the fall. Or it could have been the result of faulty ventilation and the flame driven through the gauze of a Davy lamp by a sudden current of air. It was these questions that they hoped would be answered at the inquest into the explosion.
The first two inquests were held on the 22nd and the 28th December at the Forrester Arms Inn at Abram and did noting but hear the formal evidence of identification of the victims. By Wednesday all the bodies had been identified except one and the procedure had proved difficult. One was recognised by his clothing that was shown to his widow. She testified that her husband wore red flannel drawers, clogs, and stockings which she knew to be his. At the second sitting of the inquiry, the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners Relief Society complained that the law of the land meant that they had infringed it by paying all the funeral money once the bodies had been identified and not waiting for a certificate of the cause of death from the registrar as was stipulated in the Friendly Societies Act. They called for an amendment of the latter to ease the burdens of the bereaved.
The major inquest was held on Friday 24th February before Coroner Baker at the school built by the Colliery Company in Bickershaw Lane. It aroused considerable attention. In official sources, it is played down in that little actual evidence revealed. Over eighty witnesses were heard comprising miners who testified as to the state of the mine before the explosion and scientific witnesses giving evidence on the result and probable causes of the explosion. The evidence presented to the jury pointed to the ventilation being sufficient, so much so that some men had to work with their shirts on, but the presence of some accumulations of gas brought into question whether it was sufficiently distributed.
William Seddon, collier who had worked in this pit for four years said that he had never found gas in the workings and he thought the pit “as safe as being at home.” When his light went out he went to the pit eye to have it re-lighted and locked. He had always had to show it to West or Morgan before he went back to work.
John Stead, dataller was in the pit when it exploded and James Lloyd was in the Yard Mine at the time and rendered unconscious by the afterdamp but managed to get to the pit eye when he came round. he told the court that the ventilation was so good that he had difficulty in keeping himself warm and he had been visited four of five times each day by the underlooker or fireman.
John Lewis who had been a collier for sixteen years and had worked for six months in the Yard Mine said that two colliers. Aspinall and Claire had picked up a lamp before the explosion belonging to Cronshaw who was killed. The lamp was not locked. On the Friday before the disaster, Cronshaw and Livesley came to his place with the tops off their lamps. He could not explain why they did this.
After a lengthy two and a half hours of deliberation the jury brought in the following verdict:
We are of the opinion that a sudden outburst of gas took place in the westerly wide works and was ignited between the entrances of the top cut through of the westerly up brow and the pace where Baines and Armstrong were working viz., in the most easterly of the westerly up brows, but how ignited we have not sufficient evidence to show. We were also of the opinion that there ought to be an air crossing in the south-west jig brow and also one the north-east jig brow. We consider that there is sufficient air passing through the workings, but that it is considerably impeded in several places by gobbing up the dirt behind the brattice. We also recommend that brick stoppings should be used in front of dirt stoppings in the future. We are also of the opinion that there has been great laxity of discipline in relighting and relocking the lamps. We would recommend that the key be accessible only through the fireman or some duly appointed person, and also think Mr. Taylor, the certificated manager, gave his evidence most unsatisfactorily. We also recommend a better system for locking lamps.
There was high feeling in the area over the verdict and despite the lack of a criminal prosecution; there was by implication some culpable negligence on the part of the colliery owners. In “A Critical Examination of the Inquest of the Abram Colliery Explosion” published by George Roby a Wigan Radical in 1883 these doubts and criticisms were brought out in the open. He forthrightly denounced the collusion between the owners and managers, the lawyers and Government Inspectors in glossing over the facts of the case and burying the negligence of the owners in a morass of legal jargon. Led by Mr. Greenwall the consulting engineer and Mr. Peace, solicitor for the Company, the evidence presented to the Coroner had been slanted in their favour. The refusal to allow the right of the miners to have agents acting on their behalf at the inquest further aggravated the position. For the colliers, themselves were “afraid to speak unless they are prepared to burn their boats behind them and leave the district”. He strongly urged the need for a body of examiners appointed not by the Government but chosen by the miners from their own ranks.
Moreover, he disputed the blown out shot theory which was halfheartedly put forwards as the cause of the explosion by the officials. The evidence of the colliers refuted this. Samuel Aspinall testified that is working place was not safe on the Wednesday before the explosion and that the ventilation was not working on Friday. James Bradley stated that gas was definitely present on Friday and on Monday he was short of air. Yet despite their complaints, the colliers were ordered to continue working by the fireman and the foreman. Roby claimed that these witnesses were far more reliable than the Government’s scientific experts yet they were ignored. The only witness regarded by the Coroner as certain to give positive evidence were all dead. “The evidence had all been burnt out of the record and the mouths of the witnesses stopped by the stony hand of death”.
The report on the explosion was presented to both Houses of Parliament by command of Her Majesty. There were several letters to the Secretary of State about the verdict.
11, Old Square,
February 25th, 1882.
Acting on the instructions of Her Majesty’s Treasury, I attended the adjourned inquest in the above matter upon the 7th, 8th, and 9th, and again on the 15th, 16th, and 17th days of this month. I watched the proceedings in concert with Mr. Henry hall; Her Majesty’s Inspector of Mines for the district and took part in the examination and cross-examination of 46 witnesses with the view of eliciting the real facts of the case and the true cause of the accident. The jury returned a special verdict in writing, a copy of which I enclose herewith.
In my opinion, it was conclusively proved that the explosion arose from the ignition of a quantity of gas which had been given off as a direct result of weighting or crush and that nothing could have been done on the part of the owners to prevent the gas being given off. The jury came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to show how the gas was ignited. There was, however, a body of evidence to the effect that, in a well-ventilated colliery such as this was, the gas would be carried along with the air, and the air playing upon an ordinary unprotected Davy lamp and would blow the flame upon the gauze raise it to white heat in a few seconds and thereby at once ignite the gas. As a matter of fact, the body of a boy with a securely locked Davy lamp was found at the spot fixed by the jury, and the mining engineers, and Her Majesty’s Inspector, Mr. Hall, as being the place where the gas as ignited.
Sitting as a juryman I should have arrived at the conclusion that the gas was ignited against the current of air. Assuming this theory to be the correct one, it follows that, to prevent the recurrence of a like disaster, the ventilation must be reduced or a more perfect lamp adopted. I think the jury were averse to adopting this theory as to the cause of the ignition for two reasons: (1) their thorough belief in the efficiency of the Davy lamp which is in general use in the district, and (2) a desire to say nothing that might tend to lessen the amount of ventilation in a colliery. It is very probable that had there been less ventilation in this colliery; the explosion would never have taken place. Having heard the whole evidence I feel I am bound to state that in my opinion a similar explosion may occur again at any time and will occur almost certainly if another outburst of gas takes place when the men are at work. I quite concur with the jury as to the unsatisfactory character of the regulations at the colliery in question with regard to the lamps generally, and especially in question to the relighting of lamps which have been accidentally extinguished.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
The Right Hon. Sir William Vernon Harcourt, M.P.,
Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Home Department
11, Old Square,
March 8th, 1882.
I have the honour to forward herewith the shorthand writer’s notes of the evidence given at the inquest at the Abram Colliery, and also of the evidence taken at the Wigan borough coroner on the bodies of the men injured by the explosion, who subsequently died in the Wigan Hospital.
It will be noticed that the two juries concur as to the accidental nature of the accident of the explosion and the necessity of a safer lamp being introduced into the Wigan district, than the Davy lamp which is in common use.
It was, I think, clearly proved that the gas was ignited in the west workings but unfortunately for the purposes of the inquiry almost every man in the west workings was killed.
At the inquest witnesses were called in classes first, men who were in the pit at the time secondly, mining engineers and lastly, the Government Inspectors.
The evidence of a witness, William Westhead indicated that a severe weighting of the roof had occurred about an hour before the explosion. This took place in the westerly wideworks, where he was employed. The weighting was so severe that it drove several miners out of their working places. The alarm passed and the men returned to their work and were killed.
The fireman’s attention had been called to the weighting, and that he had immediately before the explosion left west side, remarking that he had never known the roof to take weight before. Mr. Westhead saw no gas during the continuance of the weighting, but as the air was going past him into the wideworks, it is obvious that any gas given off in consequence of the weighting would be carried away from him.
Mr. Westhead’s was the only direct evidence of weight having taken place, but it is clear that a considerable fall of the roof took place in the west wideworks.
Another witness, Mr. Speakman, who was near Westhead at the time of the explosion confirms what he had to say and he said that two colliers, for whom he was a drawer, left their workings for some reason which he could not explain. Mr. Speakman said that he heard no weight at all but appears to have given different evidence at the Wigan Borough inquest, as the jury there, in their verdict, attribute the explosion to a sudden outburst of gas given off be weighting in the roof, as explained by the witness Westhead and Speakman.
The scientific evidence was presented by Mr. Higson, a mining engineer totally unconnected with the colliery. He just happened to be close by at the time of the explosion and was of the opinion that a weighting or fall did take place in the west wideworks, and this resulted in a sudden outburst of gas. Mr. Greenwell, another independent engineer, was of exactly that same opinion and similar evidence was also given by Mr. Hedley, Assistant Inspector of Mines, and by Mr. Hall, Her Majesty’s Inspector. This evidence was quite convincing and the gas would travel with the air in the direction of the upcast shaft.
Judging from the places where their bodies were found, that several miners who were nearest the seat of the outburst of gas, were alarmed at noticing the gas in the air and were making for the downcast shaft when the explosion took place.
The scientific witnesses and Her Majesty’s Inspectors were unanimous as to the exact spot where the ignition took place, and in my opinion, the jury might well have come to the conclusion that the gas was ignited by a properly locked lamp of a boy named Baines, who had noticed the presence of the gas in the air and was making his way as quickly as possible for the downcast shaft. That gas mixed with air may be exploded by a securely locked Davy lamp was. I think, proved, and the greater the ventilation the greater the risk of an explosion when gas breaks out.
On the whole evidence, I came to and remain of the opinion that the explosion was the result of an accident and that no one was responsible for it. I also repeat that in my judgment another explosion may occur again at any time, and will certainly occur again under the same circumstances.
I enclose herewith a copy of the Special Rules in force at the Abram Colliery. They are posted up at the pithead in accordance with the Act of Parliament but are not otherwise published.
The great majority of the colliers examined at the inquest were illiterate, and it appears that no steps whatever are taken to bring the Rules to their notice. Mr. Taylor, the certificated manager, admitted that a new collier coming into the pit was never asked whether he could read or not. One great objection to the special rules in question is that they are not especially adapted to the “particular state and circumstances” of this mine, but are merely a common form in use in the district. It further appears to me to be wrong that the manager (Special Rule 1), the under officials (Special Rules 6), and the miners (Special Rule 25) should be told that it is their duty to comply with the “Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1872,” only so far as this is, “reasonably practicable”. I further that in a colliery such as this is, where gas is known to exist, the use of locked safety lamps should be compulsory, and should not be in the direction of the manager, as it is by the Special Rule 12.
The jury found that there was “great laxity of discipline in the relighting and relocking of lamps,” and recommended that the key should only be accessible through the fireman or some duly appointed person.
The rules referring to the lamps are General Rule 7 and Special Rules 12 and 32. It appears from the evidence that no person was appointed under the Special Rule 3 a “lampman” but the two firemen and the hooker-on were appointed to attend to the lamps, the fireman being supposed to attend to the lamps in the morning and the hooker-on to the relighting of lamps which were accidentally extinguished during the day.
A lamp key was hung by a chain at the bottom of the downcast shaft, and it was made clear by the evidence that a miner whose lamp had been extinguished could unlock, relight, and relock his lamp if he were so minded. Several colliers swore that when they did so they handed their lamps to the hooker-on to be tried, and several swore that they returned to their work without any trial of the lamps, on the ground that the hooker-on had other duties to attend to.
On the whole, I was satisfied that Special Rule 32 was not carried out strictly, and I should recommend that a “special officer” should be appointed within the meaning of that rule, whose sole duties should be to attend to the lamps. I do not think any person was culpable in the matter to such an extent as to justify a prosecution under the Act. To sum up, I think that the Special Rules are bad as a whole, that some of them should be compulsory which are now at the discretion of the manager, and that others are too vague to be capable of being given effect to.
The colliery owners had, I think, acted to the best of their judgment, and had spared no expense in providing for the proper ventilation of the workings and the safety of the colliers. That the lamps were not perfectly safe, though in common use in the district, was known to the owners, as is provided by the fact that very shortly before the explosion they were in correspondence with Mr. Hall, Her Majesty’s Inspector on the subject.
I think some immediate steps should be taken to enforce the adoption of a safer lamp than the ordinary Davy lamp into what Mr. Hall speaks of as “fiery” collieries. Until a safer lamp is introduced there will, in my opinion, always be the chance, and that not a remote one, of a repetition of the sad disaster which occurred at the Abram Colliery.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
The explosion brought into focus all the elements of a mining disaster the appalling risks of the workforce below the surface and the dependence of the relatives on relief the uncertainties as to the cause of the explosion and the clear interest between the workers and the management with fear and suspicion the foundation of working conditions.
The Mines Inspector Report, 1881
Colliery Guardian, 30th December 1881, p.106, 10th February 1882, p.221, 17th February 1882, p.261.
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