BAMFURLONG. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire. 14th. January, 1892.

On Wednesday the 14th December 1892 between 7.15 and 7.30 a.m., a fire broke out in the engine house in the Pemberton Four Foot Mine, south side of the Bamfurlong Colliery. The position of the engine house was situated at what is known as the south tunnel or jig brow and it was the intake airway of the mine.  The result was that the current of air carried the smoke and fumes caused by the fire down the south tunnel into the workings.

The only means by which the men working in that portion of the mine towards which the smoke was being driven could escape suffocation was to obtain access to the return airway either directly if they were working in or near it or through one or other of the doors that lead from the intake to the return and to make their way along the return airway to the pit eye or shaft.

The doors connecting the intake and the return served as a means of escape to many as will be seen. A number of the men and boys were endeavouring to escape by way of the intake passed these doors and tried to save themselves by going up the brow of the south tunnel down which the smoke was being driven. Fifteen of these men and boys were suffocated.

One other man, James Towey, who was saved on the day of the fire complained afterwards on the same day of difficulty in breathing and was seen by Dr. Foreman at 12.45 p.m. Towey died at about 10 p.m. on the night of Thursday, December 15th but the Doctor was not prepared to say whether he died from carbonic acid poisoning or inflammation of the lungs. This brought the total number of deaths to sixteen.

The engine in the engine house in which the fire broke out was driven not by steam, but by compressed air and is used for haulage purposes. It works an endless rope by means of which full tubs of coal were drawn up to a landing and the empty ones were let down into the mine.

There was a tendency in an engine of this particular construction for the vapour at the exhaust pipe to freeze. This is caused by compressed air expanding. The consequence was that when the engine was brought to a standstill and was spoken of as “frozen”, a torch of burning paraffin oil was, until the time of the accident consequently placed with the naked flame close to the cylinder either to prevent the freezing or to thaw the engine when frozen. This lamp served a double purpose of keeping the engine from freezing and as a light for the person whose duty it was to attend to the engine that is known as the engine tenter to see by. The contained between a quart and half a quart of paraffin and it was positioned close to the engine. It was usually placed upon the iron bed of the cylinder with the flame against it. The distance of this torch from the floor when in position was about a foot.

Occasionally the lamp would be suspended from a wire from the exhaust and hung off the side of the cylinder the flame toward it. The former method was perhaps the safer at least in the opinion of Mr. Foster, the undermanager, and it appears from the evidence of Mr. Ashcroft, the engine tenter, for about eighteen months but was absent on the day of the fire through illness. His evidence stated that the usual position for the torch was on the bedplate of the cylinder. This was confirmed by Peter Winstanley, Fairclough, and Rowley whereas Gregory and James Winstanley say that it was suspended by a piece of wire. Probably Foster’s explanation is correct and the lamp was sometimes suspended and sometimes on the bedplate.

The floor of the engine house was of wood with a covering of zinc about a yard under the portion of the cylinder where the lamp was placed. The engine stood on square baulks of timber about a foot thick and these were covered with boards on the top of which was the zinc. There was also a wooden fence on that side of the cylinder remote from the torch.

On the morning of the 14th December, John Ashcroft, aged sixteen years, who had been the engine tenter for the last eighteen months was unable to come to work through illness. This was known to John James Rowley aged 13 years, a lasher-on who told Foster, the underground manager, at about 6 a.m. and asked for leave to attend to the engine house in place of Ashcroft. Foster allowed him to do so. James Winstanley the fireman, knowing of Ashcroft’s illness, sent James Knowles aged 15 years, a door tenter, to attend to the engine house but when Knowles came he found Rowley there.

From this point the evidence became contradictory. In the first place, it came out in the examination of Ashcroft that he was in the habit of pouring paraffin oil upon the cylinder and lighting it in order to warm the engine when it was frozen and this was not in place of but in addition to the torch and if the wick in the torch went out he light the new wick from the light on the cylinder.

Ashcroft confirmed by Rowley and Knowles. The evidence of Rowley was not fully accepted by the Inspector but at the inquiry, both Knowles and Ashcroft were recalled and closely questioned upon the point of the practice of pouring oil on the cylinder from which it would inevitably trickle down and lighting it and they stuck to their stories with some modifications.

Ashcroft said that he used to pour oil upon the cylinder once an hour and light it and that it burnt for five minutes. Ogden, the former engine tenter, taught him this. He did not know if Foster, the underground manager, knew of the practice. Judging from his manner and the way in which he gave his evidence, the Inspector was of the opinion that Ashcroft spoke the truth. His version was also confirmed by Fairclough. Knowles went further. He said that he has seen Foster in the engine house “many a time” when there was a light burning on the cylinder. Afterwards, he altered his statement to “about two or three times” and that the last occasion was three months ago.

Foster contradicted Knowle’s statement regarding himself. He said that he had never known or heard of this practice until after the accident. Had he know he would have stopped it at once. Foster, according to the Inspector’s judgment was a truthful witness. Moreover, the practice was unknown to Peter Winstanley the pusher-on whose duty it was to attend to the lamp in the morning and see that it was put out at night. Matthew Gregory, the rope inspector, who shared the duty with P. Winstanley to Hutchinson the manager, and as already stated to Foster and also to James Winstanley the fireman.

The Inspector came to the conclusion was that this careless practice of pouring oil onto the cylinder and igniting it existed, but that it was concealed from, and unknown, to those in authority. He thought that Foster gave the true explanation when he said that it would cause the boy less work not having to attend to the lamp so often and it was merely “mischief” on the part of the boys for which they would have been sacked if it had been known.

The five witnesses last named all said that the torch alone was sufficient to prevent the engine from freezing but this statement may not be correct as none of the five (the two Winstanleys, Hutchinson, Foster, and Gregory) were actually in the engine house for any length of time during the day so that it might have been due to the oil burning on the cylinder and not to the torch that the engine was kept from freezing.

As to the boy Rowley, his object in asking Foster to attend to the engine was to earn a little more pay. Ashcroft was paid 2/4d. a day Rowley as a lasher-on 2/- a day. Foster justifies his sending so young a boy to the engine house on several grounds. Upon Hutchinson’s instructions, Foster had appointed Peter Winstanley, a certificated person (i.e. one with the authority to light lamps and to lock and unlock safety lamps) to light the torch in the morning and see it put out at night (the hours being 6.15 a.m. and 3.55 p.m.). Mathew Gregory had the authority to relight the lamp in the course of the day if necessary. Gregory was also “certificated”. It was P. Winstanley’s duty in the morning before lighting the torch to see if the wick in it would last all day and if not to put in a new wick.

Foster stated that on several occasions, Rowley had asked him to go to the engine house where the pay was better. Rowley told him that he could manage the job having “stretched out” the engine for Ashcroft. Foster went on to say “I told him to go to the engine and be careful and mind what he was doing and in the course of an hour or two I should be at him – have a look at him” (This was about 6 a.m. on the day of the accident).

He then described the duties of the boy both with regard to the engine and the torch. As to the former, “It is perhaps put to one and is going for hours together and does not require any attention whatever”. With regard to the torch, if the wick should go down, Rowley would be expected “to draw out the wick with a nail or wire.” He had nothing to do with refilling the lamp, putting in new wick, or relighting it, these duties being P. Winstanley’s and Gregory’s.

Rowley then came to the engine house. The torch was not yet light, and it was now about 6.15 a.m. Peter Winstanley lit it with his safety lamp, which he unlocked. From this point, the evidence is again contradictory. Rowley’s version is as follows:

Knowles filled the stock with oil, and Peter Winstanley, having lit it gave it to Fairclough, the lasher-on, who placed it under the cylinder to keep it warm. The wick lasted “Not quite an hour and a half” it was but a small piece of wick, 6 inches, put in that morning. Rowley then inserted a new wick, Fairclough having “reached out off” for him, as he did not know where it was kept. Rowley had never inserted a new wick before. Oil had at that time been burning on the cylinder for half an hour, poured on by Rowley. Fairclough added some oil to this and lit the new wick from the flame on the cylinder. Ten minutes afterwards, while Rowley’s back was turned, the torch burst and there was a big noise and blaze. He tried to put it out with his jacket which caught fire and the whole place was in flames. He ran out, and Fairclough and Sixsmith came to him. He met Foster 20 yards from the engine house.

Rowley admits that the oil poured on the cylinder by Fairclough “ran all around” it and some on the floor. In the engine house was an oil can, kept in a box, and containing four quarts of paraffin. Rowley denied that the torch caught fire while he was putting in a new wick, or that he had said so to Fairclough, whose story differs considerably.

Fairclough’s lashing-on was done two or three yards from the engine house. Rowley shouted to him that the wick in the torch was too thin and Fairclough could see, from where he was working, that it would not burn. This was about 6.45 a.m. He then told Rowley where the torch-wick was kept, and left him to get it and put in the torch, and was not present when the new wick was inserted and lit. Fairclough did not light the new wick. When he came to the engine house he saw oil burning on the cylinder and poured more oil on for Rowley to light the wick from the plane, but he was not in the engine house for more than two minutes.

Five to ten minutes afterwards came the alarm of fire from Rowley, who shouted to him twenty-six yards off. Fairclough, Sixsmith, and Pennington rushed to the engine house and tried to quench the fire by throwing dust and dirt on the flames but the heat and fumes were unendurable. Rowley said to him that he was putting a new wick into the torch and it caught fire and he tried to quench the fire with his jacket. He said nothing about the lamp bursting.

This is the whole of the evidence as to what occurred in the engine house at about 6.45 or 7 a.m. and shortly before the fire. The only witnesses who were on or close to the spot being Rowley and Fairclough.

Sixsmith, a gang-rider, was twenty yards from the engine house on the pit eye side when he heard of the fire from Knowles and was present when Fairclough asked Rowley what he had been doing. This was immediately after the alarm of fire. Rowley answered that he had been “agate” with the torch wick that it caught fire and he threw it down. By “agate” Sixsmith understood “playing with” and that Rowley must have been pulling the wick out of the torch and set it on fire meaning that the torch lid was off and the oil inside the lamp caught fire. Sixsmith added that the timber was on fire when they got to the engine house. There remained the question of the wick, from the evidence of Peter Winstanley and James Knowles. The former says he filled the lamp with paraffin that morning after Knowles.

16 were killed:

  • Henry Edwards 49 Collier
  • Joshua Mann 42 Collier
  • John Morrison  31 Collier
  • James Towey 26 Collier
  • Joseph Mills 24 Collier
  • William Evans  22 Drawer
  • John Ovington 19 Drawer
  • John Colebeck 18 Drawer
  • George Cleary 17 Lasher on
  • Richard Fairclough 14 Lasher on
  • Charles Mann 14 Lasher on
  • William Owen 14 Ponyboy
  • William Banche 14 Ponyboy
  • Simeon Ashcroft 13 Ponyboy
  • Michael Cave 16 Spare boy
  • John Dolan 13 Spare boy

If the deaths in question have been occasioned by the negligence of several, they would all be guilty of manslaughter and it would be no defence for one who was negligent “to say that another was negligent also and to try and divide the negligence among them”.

It thus becomes necessary to consider the conduct of Hutchinson, Foster, Rowley, and James Winstanley. The only suggestion of negligence against Hutchinson arises in my opinion from the evidence of Mr Hall Already referred to when he states that the manager should have seen that the engine was properly fitted and that the air receiver is constructed close to the engine. The Inspector did not consider that this is sufficient to disclose any duty in Hutchinson which he has neglected to perform and in consequence of the fire and its fatal results can be said to have been caused.

In the case of Foster it might be argued that sending a boy of 13 to attend an engine as so far as it was necessary to the lamp was a neglect of duty but after carefully examining Foster’s evidence, Mr. Hall came to the conclusion that his explanation was satisfactory. The duties which Rowley was told to undertake at the engine house were really simple. It was no part of the work to touch or move a lamp or wick except perhaps once in two hours slightly to draw the wick with a piece of wire or to “Teem” oil on to the cylinder and light it and Foster had never known of an accident to be caused by the torch lamp of this description.

The authorities did not materially assist except perhaps by distinguishing the facts Foster’s case from those where the circumstances were held such as to amount to manslaughter. This is the case of Reg. v. Lowe (1850), an engineer, who was employed to manage a steam engine to draw up miners from a coal pit. He left the engine in the charge of an ignorant boy who told him that he was unable to manage it and in the absence of the engineer a man was drawn up and killed from the want of skill in the boy to manage the engine. This was held to be manslaughter by the engineer.

The facts of Foster’s case are very different and Mr. Hall was of the opinion that he would not be found guilty. With regard to James Winstanley and his leaving his post at the doors in consequence of which it is very probable that the men and boys passed into the south tunnel and were suffocated I do not think that this would be held in the amount to such negligence that the deaths could be said to have been caused by this action. Winstanley’s position when he left the doors was a terrible one indeed, on the one hand, there were frantic appeals of the 30 or 40 men that he should show them the way and the other his duty to obey Foster and remain at his post. Winstanley thought he would be able to get back to the doors and tried to do so after directing the men. He got back 40 yards and then became unconscious and was ragged out by the other men. The Inspector did not think that any jury would convict in this case.

Rowley’s case was very different. In all probability, the fire was caused by his neglect and form the evidence by Mr. Hall that he had known lamps of this description to burst I should have advised a prosecution but having regard to the doubt caused in my mind by this statement and the possibility that the lamp in question burst it is by no means certain that this boy would be found guilty.

Having considered all the facts in the case disclosed by the evidence taken at the adjourned inquest I cannot advise that a prosecution should be instituted.

J Roskill.
Temple 20th Jan 1893



Rainhill Prescot
January 10th, 1893


I have the honour to forward a newspaper report of the proceedings at the inquest held upon the victims of the Bamfurlong Colliery fire and to submit some observations on the circumstances of the accident.

At the inquest held by Mr. Brighouse, the County Coroner, and extended over two days I was present and acted in concert with Mr. Roskill, barrister. The various parties interested were all present and everyone was satisfied that a full and searching inquiry was made. Mr. Woods, M.P., and Mr. Aspinwall represented the miners.

The jury verdict was:

We consider that the 16 men and boys came to their deaths accidentally.

We find that the boy Rowley was not competent enough to take charge of the engine with an open paraffin torch.

We consider it is not safe to use any open paraffin torch lamps whether the engine is bedded on wood and there is a wooden floor.

We also recommend that the staple pit be done away with and that a ladder is placed in it until a better road is provided.

Being asked by the coroner if they attached any negligence to any official, the foreman answered “No”.

The No.1 pit where the accident occurred was one of a group of pits owned by Cross Tetley & Co. Ltd. They employ something like 1,500 hands and had a considerable output.

The accident occurred in the Pemberton Four Foot Seam in which the underground haulage is done by compressed air machines. Safety lamps were used in the underground workings that are, what is called a “safety lamp colliery” but there are as is not usual certain open lights in the shafts and sidings and at other points in the intake airway all of these lamps being on the outbye or shaft side of the “lamp stations” and consequently not illegal.

Up to a week or two before the accident, these open lights were what were called open torches and burning paraffin or petroleum but a change was made at that time by the present manager who had only been recently appointed and paraffin lamps fitted with proper “burners” were substituted, but there was one exception, a torch being left in the engine house marked on the accompanying plan some 500 yards from the shaft and it was here than the fire originated.

This engine which was used for hauling coal from the deep side workings was driven by compressed air and it appears that the outlet of the exhaust was liable to freeze from time to time so intermarrying with the proper action of the engine. To meet this difficulty the torch lamp already referee to was used for thawing the ice and finding the heat from the torch was not always sufficient for this purpose the boy in charge (16 years of age) was in the habit of pouring an uncertain quantity of paraffin on to the frozen parts of the engine and setting it alight. This practice was resorted to several times during the day and would have the effect of partly surrounding the woodwork with paraffin.

The officials of the mine in their evidence denied any knowledge of a fire being lighted on the engine in this way but the boy who attended to the engine and other boys working nearby bore out the facts as stated.

On the day of the accident the regular engine attendant was absent and in his place was taken by the direction of the under manager by a  boy Rowley not quite 14 years of age who had only worked underground for a few months. This boy had only been in charge of the engine house a little over an hour when by some means his torch lamp containing three gills of paraffin caught fire and to save himself he no doubt threw out down and the woodwork of the engine house was soon alight. Efforts were at once made to extinguish the fire by those nearby but without avail and in a few minutes it was unimpeachable whilst large volumes of smoke were being carried forward by the ventilation into the inner workings. A warning was sent to the men in the workings and a large number of them escaped (73) b the return airway but unfortunately, 16 men and boys elected to try and pass through the smoke coming to meet them along the intake road and these were suffocated falling into twos and threes at intervals on the main intake road facing the engine some of them reaching 30 yards of safety.

The jury in their verdict drew the attention to the incompetency of the boy Rowley who was at the engine at the time of the accident, to the king of lamp that was there, and also to a chain in the staple pit in the return airway and through which the miners had to pass to effect their escape.

With regard to the age or competency of the boy, there is nothing in the Act of parliament of the Special Rules fixing any definite age at which boys may be entrusted with such a duty this being a matter which is usually left to the description of the officials and the duties of boys underground are so various that it would be very difficult to form rules to be effective in such matters. An equal amount of caution might fairly be expected to be used underground in dealing with paraffin lamps as is the case on the surface. When the boy Rowley was asked by Mr Roskill “Had he ever handled paraffin lamps before?” his answer was “No” and then the question “Have you ever light a lamp at home?”, ”No Mother won’t let me mess with it”.

The use of such a dangerous form of light in such young and inexperienced hands ought never to have been allowed and more especially at such a distance (500 yards) from the pit shaft.

The general practice with respect to the use of paraffin lamps in collieries is that it is frequently used to light up the bottom of the shaft and the sidings near being burnt in lamps provided with proper burners and in a few exceptional cases I have seen it used in such positions in torch lamps similar to the one in question and have not been sparing in condemnation of the parasite. Many managers at larger mines do not allow paraffin to be burnt underground in any form.

I would suggest that a new special rule should be established under the powers confided by section 52 (2) Coal Mines Regulation Act as follows:

  • Every lamp burning petroleum paraffin or mineral oil and used underground in a mine or in any shaft of a mine shall be provided with a proper safety burner.

The establishment of such a rule would not likely to be opposed either by the colliery owners or the workpeople.

To forbid petroleum altogether might be attended by some difficulties. It affords an excellent light and possibly lessens the danger in other directions and it is very generally used in certain proportions to mix with and improve the lighting power of rape oil used in the miner’s safety lamps.

The hanging chain lamp in the staple pit in the return airway to which the jury referred was a very objectionable and dangerous appliance for its purpose and one which most colliery managers would not have tolerated.

Mr Woods one of the Miners Representatives at the inquest laid stress on the importance of having the same method of making known to the workmen generally the position and whereabouts of the return roads so that in the necessity arise they might be able more speedily to avail themselves of such roads for escape.

This is no doubt very desirable and it is perhaps a matter which had not received the attention it ought. I would suggest with this object in view that batches of the workmen should from time to time be compelled to return from their work by way of the return air roads and thus become familiar with them.

The loss of life amounted to 16 persons of whom 8 were boys under 18 years of age. All I believe were members of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners Pertinency Fund which makes a substantial provision for widows and children. The members of this fund contract themselves out of the Employers Liability Act on consideration of their employers adding 25% to the Society Funds.

The date of the accident was 14th Dec 1892 at 7.30 am.

I am Sir.
Your obedient servant,
Henry Hall
To Right Honourable H.H.Asquith MP Secretary of State.


Mines Inspectors Report.

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

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