ALEXANDRA. St.Helens, Lancashire. 22nd. October, 1879.

The colliery was owned by the St. Helens Colliery Company Limited. When there was an overwinding accident at the colliery which resulted in the loss of seven lives when Joseph Naylor was in charge of the engine. William Eccleston of 4, Crabb Street, St.Helens, had worked in the pit for nine days and was one of nine who descended the pit at 5.40 a.m. The banksman, Martin Mullen knocked twice to the engine house, and immediately the knocks were heard the cage began to ascend. Eccleston saw that the cage was going too high and he shouted to knock “Hold” and at once jumped out of the cage. In jumping, he knocked down the banksman and he heard the cage go. He thought the cage was about four yards above the mouth when he jumped and after that, it seemed to him to go faster.

Martin Mullen, the banksman of Copperas Street, St. Helens and had been on duty at 5 a.m. on the morning of the accident. He had sent three cages of men down without incident. Nine men entered the fourth cage load from the Heath side to be sent down. The catches were set back and he knocked “Down”. He then turned to chalk the number on the board when he heard an alarm and looked round to see the cage creeping up. He shouted to the enginemen who he thought did not hear him and ran to the bell line. He had no time to knock before Eccleston and another man fell on top of him. He was stunned but managed to crawl to the cabin but did not see what became of the cage. He said that there was no light on the bank other than one in the cabin and that the engineman would not be able to see the cage. The gas light at the top of the pit had not been working since the summer and the banksman had seen men down by the light of his lamp. Mullen said that Naylor had been the engineman at the pit for eight or nine years and had never before made a mistake. He was a sober and steady man who had the confidence of the men.

Henry Swift was the other engineman and Naylor relieved him at 5 p.m. everything was alright at the time and the engine was working perfectly. At 6 a.m. the following morning Swift went to work and Naylor said to him, “I have had a bad accident I have done it”. Asking what he had done, Naylor said that he had started the engine the wrong way. He was crying and could not tell him if he had killed anyone. When Swift arrived at the engine house he found that there was little damage, only a few bricks knocked out of the wall. The rope was broken a few yards from the building but he could not see if the pit mouth had been damaged. When he was asked how he thought the accident might have happened he said that Naylor had neglected to reverse the engine.

Robert Bond of Water Street, St. Helens was a surface man at the pit and arrived at work to find that the accident had just happened and he gave evidence that Naylor was a steady man. Thomas Schofield was the underlooker at the pit and said that the shaft was 325 yards deep and he thought the engine had been started the wrong way.

John Rotherham, a collier in the Little Delf Mine said that all the bodies had gone through the scaffolding into the sump and lay in the water. Three of them were found in the cage, two were at each end of the cage and two lay underneath it. The bodies were sent home as they were found.

Those who died were:

The colliers:

  • Peter Aspinall aged 32 years,
  • Henry Norton aged 30 years,
  • William Parr aged 50 years,
  • Thomas Ray aged 45 years,
  • James Webster aged 38 years.

The drawers:

  • Joseph Holland aged 28 years,
  • David Dixon aged 16 years.

The inquest was held at the Fleece Hotel in St. Helens before Mr. Driffield the District Coroner and all interested parties were represented. Mr. Hall, H.M. Inspector for the district had made an inspection of the scene of the accident shortly after the event. The winding engine was a double horizontal with 25-inch cylinders and a 4 feet stroke. The drum was tapered from 12 to 10 feet. It was found to be in good order and fitted with a proper indicator. He went on to report:

The engineman at his position at the handles has a good view of the cage as it arrives at and leaves the surface and there is nothing in either the position or character of the machinery tending to make it difficult for the person in charge to wind with perfect safety, except for the fact of there being no light at the surface. The accident had no doubt occurred through the engineman Joseph Naylor, neglecting to place his reversing lever in the proper position before turning on the steam. He may have thought the right-hand cage was at the surface instead of the left and adopted his lever to suit that position or he may have overlooked the position of the lever altogether. In either case, if had paid proper attention to the indicator and ropes this accident would not have occurred.

Mr. Hall went on to give an account of overwinding accidents in the country and said up to December 1878, 45 people had lost their lives in these accidents in the coal and ironstone mines in Great Britain. This was one fatal accident for nine and a half million windings. He advocated the use of detaching hooks.

The Coroner summed up and the jury returned the following verdict:

That the deceased came to their deaths by being pulled at the Alexandra Colliery by Joseph Naylor. We think it possible that he misunderstood the signal given, and we also think that had the pit brow been lighted at the time and the catches in use, the sad accident would not have occurred. We further think the witness Mullen is not competent to be in charge of so many lives.

The Coroner asked them directly if their verdict was manslaughter and the foreman replied:

We do not think so. We hardly think the evidence will support a verdict of manslaughter. We also recommend unanimously that safety or detaching hooks should be supplied to the pit in question if it is possible to be done.


Mines Inspector Report, 1879.

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

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