BEDFORD. Wood End Pits. Leigh, Lancashire. 13th. August, 1886.

The pit was called the No.2 Pit and was owned by John Speakman. It had been working only for about two years and the shaft was bricked all the way down. It was known to be a fiery pit and great care was taken and it was sunk to 470 yards but the accident occurred at a depth of 530 yards in the top part of the No.1 Jig in the Crombuke or Four Foot Mine at about 10.30 a.m. on a Friday morning. The men started work about 6 a.m. and would have worked until 3 p.m. Several men working in the lower workings felt the explosion and quickly made their way to the pit eye. When the explosion occurred there were 159 men in the pit but the majority of these escaped. All the men were withdrawn from the pit and exploring parties organised. An exploring party went down and got to within 180 yards of the majority of the men. The party were using Belgian Meussler Lamps.

The bodies of two boys, William Heaton and one named Hilton were found at the pit bottom. Both the boy’s fathers were with the rescue a party. The first of the injured that were brought to the surface was Joseph Oakes who had been thrown down and had a badly cut head. During the course of the exploration the underlooker, James Calland who had worked for a continuous eighteen hours, showed signs of fatigue and was brought up the shaft. He stayed at the surface for half an hour before going down into the pit again. They found John Wooley alive and brought him to the pit top where he asked for his pipe which he began to smoke. He was taken home by Dr. Doyle in his trap. He was badly burnt about his head, face, and hands and he was reported as “being in a very bad state”. A drawer who was working at the lower end of the jig was thrown to the roof three times. He then crawled to his mate and together crawled 50 yards and then got up and ran down the back row to the pit eye.

The owner of the colliery, John Speakman was confined to his bed at the time of the disaster but his son Ernest went down with the exploring party. Between twenty and thirty men went down but because of the afterdamp and the falls, they made slow progress. The first body was found about 1 p.m. and it was much disfigured.

Miners from other collieries arrived at the pit to give assistance. At 4.20 a.m. a party arrived from Bickershaw Colliery, Astley and Tyldesley Coal Company, and Wigan Iron and Coal Company, and the opinion of these men was that there could be no one left alive in the mine. The underlooker, James Calland said:

I went down the pit when the fire occurred. I found flames in No.4 place and there was flame for about 400 yards. We commenced to extinguish it by putting up brattice cloths and restoring the ventilation. As soon as we got to a body, we took measures to have it taken to the surface. From the top of the pit to the place where the fire occurred was about 700 yards. I turned down the pit at half-past five and after breakfast went down again. The afterdamp is very strong and makes the men very dizzy. When they have this feeling they have to come up quickly to the fresh air. Since I started I have got 15 men out. The flame did not last long, dying out quickly. There was no debris of any kind save bits of coal and a lot of dust. The roof, being good, prevented a considerable falling of coal. The men down the mine looked as if they were asleep.  One had his hand over his mouth, whilst another had a handkerchief. Some of the men seemed to have run and then dropped being unable to go further.

The news quickly spread and by 11.30 a.m. crowds of women were soon on their way to the pit head. The police took charge of the pit head to keep large crowds back and in the confusion, no one seemed to have any idea of how many men were in the mine but it was reckoned that between 30 to 40 were working in the jig. The pit head scenes were reported to be heartrending and at about 8 p.m. a crowd estimated to be between 8 to 10,000 had gathered. As the bodies were taken down a ladder from the pit mouth there were cries and exclamations of pity but their faces could not be seen as the bodies were wrapped in tarpaulins. The dead were taken to the joiner’s shop and then to the wheelwright’s shop near the engine house.

Those who died were:

  • Benjamin Hilton, aged 17 years of Down Croft, Leigh. Unmarried.
  • William Heaton aged 15 years of Green Lane, Bedford.
  • John Hilton aged 16 years of 68, Trafalgar Street, Bedford.
  • John Nuttall aged 19 years of Miller Street, Bedford.
  • John Henry Cooke aged 17 years of Capel Street, Bedford. Unmarried.
  • Henry Smith aged 40 years, of Marsh Street, Bedford. Married.
  • Richard Bowden aged 46 years of Bradshawgate, Leigh.
  • James Brown aged 46 years Higginson Street, Bedford, left five children.
  • Peter Stones aged 17 years of Dukinfield Street, Bedford.
  • Thomas Stones aged 15 years of Dukinfield Street. Bedford.
  • William Stones aged 40  years of Dukinfield Street, Bedford, father of Peter and Thomas.
  • Thomas Fairclough aged 34 years of Ellesmere Street, Leigh.
  • Michael Daniels aged between 40 and 50 of Charlton’s Buildings, Bedford who left six children.
  • Allan Hadfield aged 17 years, Charlton’s Buildings, Bedford.
  • Thomas Hilton aged 41 years of Spring View, Kirkhall Lane. Married with two sons.
  • Hiram Pemberton aged 38 years of Etherstone Street, Pennington. Married with six children.
  • Peter Radcliffe aged 25 years of 173, Brigg’s Building, Westleigh. Married.
  • Allen Shovelton aged 26 years of 6, Abbey Street, Kirkahall Lane, Atherton. Single.
  • Thomas Hilton aged 50 years of Brown Street, Leigh who left three children.
  • George Parkes aged 23 years of Brewery Lane, Bedford.
  • Stephen Hampson aged 50 years of Trafalgar Street, Bedford.
  • Robert Hoyle aged 65 years of Marshland Green, Astley.
  • William Eckersley aged 54 years of Kirkhall Lanes, Leigh.
  • William Urmston aged 17 years of Cleworth’s Place Cross Street, Bedford.
  • Isaac Worthington aged 40 years of Kirkhall Lane, Leigh. Thomas Killee, son of Michael aged 17 years of Bach Lane Westleigh.
  • Michael Killee aged 52 years. Father of Isaac who left four children.
  • Thomas Smith aged 18 years, son of Thomas aged 52 years of Glebe Street, Westleigh who left three children.
  • Robert Elliott aged 17 years of Glebe Street, Westleigh.
  • Henry Collier aged 19 years of Coal Pit Lane, Bedford.
  • Joseph Hope aged 42 years of Marsh Street, Bedford. Married.
  • Alfred Mort aged 46 years of Dukinfield Street, Bedford who left four children.
  • Henry Parsonage aged 25 years of Lord Street, Hindsford who left four children.
  • Richard Mort aged 25 years of Hampson’s Court, Chapel Street, Bedford who left a child.
  • Thomas Clayton aged 25 years of Welsh Hill. Married with two children.
  • John Ward aged 21 years of 2, Albion Street, Leigh.
  • William Brown of Sidney Street.

William Brown was found in a remote part of the pit and the Coroner#s jury went to view the body. His body brought the death toll to 38. The joiners shop was used as a mortuary and the bodies were given a number and the relatives asked to make an identification. There were difficulties as some men were known only by their nicknames such as “Ratcatcher” and “Scotty”.

The victims left a total of forty-eight children fatherless and there was a public meeting in the Drill Hall at Leigh of the Relief Committee convened by Mr. James Thorp who was chairman of the Local Board. The meeting was well attended and it met to:

Consider the question of affording adequate relief to those placed in distress by the explosion at the Woodend and also the desirability of forming a preeminent relief fund for cases of an accident in the district.

A Subscription Fund was opened and the Permanent Relief Society allowed relatives of a single man £20 and 5/- a week for each widow, 2/6d. for each child up to the age of 13 years together with a lump sum of £5. They were also entitled to an allowance of £5 from the North and East Lancashire Mining Fund for people over the age of 16 years and £2-10s, for those under that age. Mr Campbell, of the Society, said that all the claims had been promptly paid and that the Society provided for 350 widows and 750 children in Lancashire.

The inquest was held at the Colliery Offices before Mr.J. Edge the Coroner and the Inspector made a special report to the Secretary of State on the 18th. October 1886. In the 1886 Report Mr. Dickinson commented:

It may be briefly stated that the seam was 3 feet 8 inches in thickness and the first opening gave off firedamp very freely and that on the rise to the shafts, the inclination being 1 in 6, the mine was worked as to have three goaves or worked out spaces in the interior, and the ventilation was discensional instead of ascensional which are principles considered to entail danger. The explosion did not, however, occur from this cause but at a goaf where the coal was being worked back from the far end in a manner which is considered to be safest. A large drawing of props was taking place, and as the roof fell, firedamp issued from the breaking strata. The gas was seen firing in the prop-taker’s Davy lamp, when instead of lowering his lamp to the floor and taking it steadily into the fresh air, avoiding jerks, as the old established rule required, he, losing his presence of mind, raised his lamp, shook it and blew at it which passed the flame through the gauze, the Davy not being able to resist such treatment in an explosive current and the gas which had come from the roof was thus exploded and also other gas that was wafted out from the goaf. The explosion went away with the air current from the point of ignition, the greatest force being exerted beyond, and the force pined of almost entirely before reaching the shafts, and without affecting gas that might be accumulated in the goaves, or the explosion might have been very much more serious. The question of props drawing with ordinary miners in the pit, as illustrated by this explosion, was raised at the inquest and has since been considered by the inspectors of mines at their annual meeting. The inspectors are of the opinion that the question if met at all, should be by special and not general rule, as it would disarrange work in some instances and in others be dangerous from shot firing &c.

The jury brought in a verdict after fifty minutes of deliberation that the men’s deaths were accidental and caused by an explosion of firedamp and they commented that in future the fireman should spend more time in his examination before the men were let down the pit, that greater care should be taken in the examination of the lamps. It was regretted that the gas was not reported by the prop-takers. The owners of the colliery bought 150 Masault lamps and 50 new Clanny lamps which had a bonnet fitted.


Mines Inspectors’ Report. 1886.

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

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