BICKERSHAW, Plank Lane. Leigh, Lancashire. 7th January 1942.

Major Hart was the managing director of the Bickershaw Collieries, Ltd., which consisted of five pits. Household and industrial coal were produced from the various seams Fireclay and shale was also worked. Six men were killed and four injured, three detained in hospital, as the result of an explosion at the No 4 pit, Plank Lane Colliery Leigh, shortly before midnight on Monday. The cause of the explosion was thought to have been a ‘blowout’ of gas near where the men were working. A survivor told how suspicions that all was not well arose amongst a party of men, and of his subsequent struggle to a place where the air was fresher.

The following official statement was issued by the Colliery Co:

The directors of Bickershaw Collieries, Ltd. greatly regret the unfortunate loss of several lives through an explosion. The deepest sympathy is extended to the relatives of those who have lost their lives.

The accident occurred in the Rise Unit, east side of No. 4 pit, just as the night shift men were taking over and quickly spread through the district. It was stated that it was probably due to an explosion of coal dust or: what is called a blowout of gas where the men were working. Only 90 men were down the pit at the time and were going to their places in small groups. These were quickly brought to the surface and members of the Lancashire Mines Rescue Station at Boothstown were summoned and recovered the bodies. The managing director of the colliery, Major E Hart, M.C., and the general manager, Mr. J.H. French both hurried to the pit when informed of the accident, and descended the mine.

A survivor, named Neville, interviewed by the local paper, said that Monday was the first time he had been to work for a fortnight after sustaining a sprained back. He told how he, Bailey, Houghton, Kennedy, and two other men named Hagen and Eatock, were seated in the main haulage way, about 180 yards from the pit bottom, waiting for the haulage to start to enable them to take tubs to the workings. One of the men remarked about the atmosphere, and said, “Jimmy, there’s summat funny.” He replied that it was only dust, and might have been caused by a tall of dirt or something like that. They remained talking for about five minutes, when Hagen said, “It’s summat worse than dust,” and so they all went to where the air was fresher. Neville said he stayed behind for a few minutes. “I began to feel alarmed,” he said, “and had a dry choking sensation in my throat. I groped around trying to find one of the cans containing tea, but I couldn’t. It was very dark, and I said to myself, ‘Jimmy, my lad you’d better get out yourself.’ I found the haulage rope and began to grope my way along it to the pit bottom. I must have gone about 80 yards before I collapsed. I remember nothing more until I came to in the ambulance room at the top.”

Neville said he did not hear the sound of an explosion. He did not know that any of the men were in hospital, and when it was revealed to him that Kennedy and Houghton were detained in the infirmary he was surprised, and said, “They were two of my mates. I am sorry to hear that”.

The victims were:

  • Thomas W. Monaghan aged 40, night manager, Sherwood House, Crankwood Road. Abram,
  • John Dykes age 38, safety officer, 115, Plank Lane, Leigh,
  • Ernest Huyton age 30, driller, 3 North Ave. off Crankwood Road. Abram,
  • Albert Brown aged 41, driller, 138, Plank Lane, Leigh,
  • John Bali aged 61, dataller, 15 Ellesmere Street, Hindley, and
  • James Durkin aged 55, dataller, 38, Byrom Streets, Poolstock. Wigan.

The injured:

  • Thomas Rafferty aged 47, 17 Charles Street, Tyldesley,
  • Thomas Kennedy aged 21, 52, Hulme Road, off Wigan Road, Leigh.
  • William Houghton aged 22, 16, Closebrook Road, Pemberton, Wigan,
  • James Neville aged 49, 34, Victoria Terrace, Bickershaw. Allowed to go home after treatment.

Dykes left a widow and three children and Huyton a widow. Monday night was the first time he had been to work for three days. It was his birthday. Both men were members of the Colliery Home Guard.

Mr. DR Grenfell. M.P., Secretary for Mines, sent the following telegram to the manager:

Deeply regret to hear the sad news of the loss of life and injuries caused at Bickershaw. Please convey my sympathy to the relatives of the deceased men and to the men who were injured as a result of the explosion.

This was the second pit explosion within a week, the first in which fifty-seven men lost their lives being at Sneyd Colliery, Burslem Staffordshire on New Year’s Day. In April 1934, four men and a boy lost their lives through an explosion caused by shotfiring at No.3 pit of the Bickershaw Collieries. Two years earlier nineteen men lost their lives through a shaft accident at the same pit when on October 10th. 1932, a cage hurtled to the bottom of the pit and the men were drowned.

At the inquest into the disaster, Peter Shaw, coal cutter, 5 John Street, Higher Ince, said he went down No.4 Drift about 11 p.m. on January 5th and was on his way to the coalface. He was near the Rise Unit when he heard a dull thud followed by clouds of dust. He had not felt any difficulty in breathing until the dust came. They got out to No.4 brow when they felt it was safer and the air was clearer.  Someone remarked about there being men in the level. He could see the lights of the lamps and on going to investigate came across one of the men. He went back for assistance and some men were brought out, several being unconscious. One of them was dead. The men were found lying within a few yards of each other and seemed to have been following one another. They saw smoke was somewhere in front of them. When they decided to return they had covered a distance of 270 yards from where the last body was found. He did not know the cause of his lamp going out or why the one he found was out. The rush of wind or the presence of gas would do it. In his opinion, the rush of wind along the level would put out the lamp he found, but he admitted that his own lamp went out without any wind. He found no sign of fire.

In answer to Mr. Blackledge, Shaw said he had been on this coal face for three years and he had never come across was sufficient to cause alarm. Further questioned he said he believed a “stopping was blown out and then they found they could hardly breathe”. Shaw told the Coroner that recently there had been a little gas at the top end of the face, but it was hardly worth taking notice of. The last time he was down he did not notice gas. He said he could smell it when he got on to his machine. He had never reported it. There was so little it didn’t matter.

Edwin Hunter 5, Whelly Wigan, coal cutter, said he was about 20 yards from the Rise Brow when he felt a gush of wind. Clouds of dust came and he shouted to his mate, James Durkin, but got no reply and turned and went back to the bottom of the jig. There he met Peter Shaw and two other men and guided them to No.4 brow where they were safe and in the fresh air. With Catterall and Benson, he returned to the coal face to see if he could give any assistance because he knew there were some men at the top of the jig. At the top of the delivery, they found that there had been a fall of dirt and they were unable to get any further. He had never known the indicator show the presence of gas, neither had he smelled any.

Frank Rigby, a member of the permanent corps stationed at the Mines Rescue Station at Boothstown, 9, Orchard Avenue, Boothstown, said he was in charge of a team of rescue workers who descended the No.4 pit about 12.40 a.m. on January 6th. They went along the west level and made tests for gas, Things were rather difficult and he could not get a definite show owing to the smoke. The light of his lamp went out. They reached No.4 brow, From the time they reached the pit bottom they had been wearing the oxygen apparatus. They located the first body 100 yards from the belt brow lying face downward on the belt. The second body was 40 yards further on, in the same position as the first. The third and fourth bodies were located shortly afterwards face downwards in the travelling road. The fifth body was about 12 to 15 yards along the belt level. After examining the stopping, which was intact, the team returned to its base. He saw three lamps. two electric and one oil. The latter was not lighted but undamaged. The next day he took a rescue team down to try and ascertain where the smoke was coming from. After going along the belt level, past where the last body was found. They found the bottom of the slant full of water vapour. They turned up the higher side slant and had gone about 60 or 70 yards when they found a fall of the roof which was father difficult to get over and he heat was so intense they decided to return. It was evident that the source of the smoke was somewhere in front of them, When they decided to return they had covered a distance of 270 yards from where the last body was found. He did not know the cause of his lamp going out or why the one he found was out. The rush of wind or the presence of gas would do it. In his opinion the rush of wind along the level would put the lamp he found out, but he admitted that his own lamp went out without any wind. He found no sign of fire.

One of the men who was injured, Thomas Rafferty aged 47, colliery dataller, of 17, Charles Street, Tyldesley, told how he joined a party of shot lighters and two haulage hands, Kennedy and Houghton, and assisted to move some tubs of timber. They were waiting to go along the level when a cloud of dust surrounded them. He turned his back to it and put his scarf around his mouth. It affected his breathing. The others went back to the pit bottom and he made his way out but after he had gone about 50 yards he collapsed. On recovering he found himself in hospital. He had never felt any difficulty in breathing or anything wrong with the atmosphere.

Herbert Holland aged 32, colliery fireman, of 345, Warrington Road, Abram, said he finished his duty at 11 p.m. on January 5th. He examined the pit on several occasions, including the district known as the Rise Unit. The last examination finished at 10 p.m. He tested the district for gas with a flame lamp, but found no gas on the face, only on the top of No.7 brow. He estimated it at one percent, and it was about two feet from the roof. The air was clear at the bottom of the brow. From the top of No.7 brow, it was in the general body of the air to the bottom. It could only be found at the top of the brow and he did not think it was any detriment to working. He thought the ventilation was sound. The condition of the Rise Unit was better on that day than the day before. It had not been good at one time, a week previously. On that afternoon they withdrew the men from the district because they found some indications of heating all around the top of No.7 brow. On that occasion, he went up the higher side slant but found no signs of heating there. He found gas at the same point as the heating. Apart from that occasion, he was quite satisfied with the condition of the mine. The heating indicated to him that there might be combustion in the old workings which began at the top of the No.7 Brow. There was a stopping at each end of the old workings.

After the findings of the week previous, the stopping at the No.7 brow end was reinforced and the other stopping was extended. He examined the work as it progressed and was pleased with it, thinking it to be a big improvement. He had found gas on previous occasions and he had been reporting it in writing for about two months but he had never found more than one percent. The only thing to suggest was better ventilation or the removal of the cause of the gas. He did not think that the gas he had found was coming from the face but that it was bleeding from the stopping at the top of No.7 brow and the work that was going on was to try and prevent it from coming through the stopping on the top level was to prevent the air going around the old workings. The stopping on No.7 brow was 25 yards thick and was built of dirt, stone dust, and two brick walls, each a yard in thickness. The other stopping was built of stone dust and sand in bags. The other fireman, William Cooney, was in charge of the work of building the stoppings and he received instructions from the undermanager.

In answer to Mr. Fraser, he said it was not usual to seal up old workings. This one was sealed off because there had been some indications of heating. He would not call it a fire. There had been outbursts of smoke or gas at times. It could be seen, and was like vapour and had a sulphur smell. He did not think that a gob fire had broken out but that it was an outburst of gas due to it accumulating behind the stopping.

Mr. Fraser asked, “Suppose, after investigation, the stopping was found intact, where would you say the fumes which killed these men came from?”

”I should say they came from the old workings and that the stopping had been blown down by an explosion inside the sealed area. He thought that oxidization of the coal caused heating which developed into a live fire and that the gas, which had collected behind the stoppings ultimately became alight and blew the stopping down and the gas escaped into the airways in which the men were travelling and so overcame them.”

Mr. Blackledge asked, “If I were to put it to you that there had been outbursts of gas as far back as July what would you say?”

“I should say that you were mistaken. They had been canaries at the top of the brow to give warning in case of an outbreak of gas and although I have not seen any of the birds in distress, I have heard of them being so previous to the explosion. My conclusion from that was that carbon-monoxide was present and I warned the men under my charge.”

George Catterall aged 41, night overman, of 17, Bag Lane, Atherton, said he commenced at 10 p.m. in the No.4 pit. He gave instructions to the night firemen. He met Mr. Monaghan and his party on their way to reinforce the stopping at top of No.7 brow. About 11.30 p.m. he was in No.4 brow arranging for some coal cutting when he heard a dull thud. Volumes of dust were followed by smoke. He sent a message for the Miners’ Rescue Brigade but in the meantime organized a rescue team of his own. They went down the intake to the rise unit but they were forced to come back the way they went. Before doing this they safely directed seven men to No.4 brow. Others they directed to the East Level in No.3 pit. It was a blockage that forced them to turn back. There were seventeen men going to their work. Of these, six men lost their lives. Dykes had a cage of canaries, and since the explosion, these had not been discovered.

In answer to Mr. Fraser, Catterall said his theory about the cause of the explosion was on the same lines as that given by Holland.

Dr. G. A. C. Lynch, the pathologist of Wigan Infirmary, stated that he performed a post mortem examination on John Bailey and Ernest Huyton. He took a quantity of blood from their lungs, and a spectroscopic examination showed it to contain concentrated carbon monoxide to the extent of 58 percent of the specimen. In the case of Huyton it was 82 percent specimen. James Durkin, he found, sustained a fractured skull and from an external examination, he thought that three others died from the same cause. The body of Monaghan was not seen by Dr. Lynch, the Coroner stating he had permitted it to be taken to Scotland. Returning to the head injury sustained by Durkin, Dr. Lynch agreed that a sudden burst or blast, which might have blown him down, could have caused the injury.

In order to release men so that they could get back to work at the colliery, the Coroner, at the resumed inquest on Thursday and read a number of statements made at the previous hearing so that the men could sign them.

At the resumed hearing Mr. D. Coatesworth, H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines deputised for Mr. Frazer the Divisional Inspector. Two of the injured James Neville aged 49, Victoria Terrace, Bickershaw and William Houghton aged 22, 16 Closebrook Road, Pemberton, Wigan, were not present as the former was being in a convalescent home and the latter too ill to attend.

First witness was William Benson aged 42, fireman. 38a, Westleigh Lane, Leigh, who said he arrived at the pit bottom at 10.40 p.m. On his way to see the Rise district, he heard a dull thud and saw clouds of dust. Then there was a slight smell of smoke. He turned back at once and caused all his men to be sent to the surface. He and others tried to reach the deceased men by the intake. A fall of the roof blocked their way. They showed this to an official and then went to No.4 brow. None of the men had time to reach their work when this happened.

Benson was questioned about the stopping. His instructions were to pack it up with fine dirt and build a stone wall. They finished with sand and stone dust and built a new wall. Men from both the night and day shift worked on it, and they did it according to instructions. He inspected the work twice every night as the job proceeded. Benson described one stopping as dry stone walling, whilst the other at No.7 Brow included brick built walls.

At the resumed hearing, William Cooney aged 34, fireman, 274, Nel Pan Lane, Leigh, said on December 29th they discovered some heating and they placed sandbags and pillars to prevent the heating from going further. In his opinion, they arrested the trouble. He had never found gas on the face. It was perfect and clear as a crystal. He had not received any complaints about gas, only about it being too cold, a sign of good ventilation. In his opinion, the explosion took place between the stoppings and was caused through gas becoming ignited. Everything that could be done to prevent the explosion was done.

Herbert Booker aged 41, manager of No.4 pit, of 482 Crankwood Road, Abram, said on December 29th about 5.30 p.m, he was notified that there was some indication of heating at the stopping. He found slight heating of the strata just over the top of the stopping. He did not see any sign of smoke or flame but there was a pungent, uncommon smell being given off. It did not smell like gob fire. As a precaution, he gave instructions for the men to be withdrawn and arranged for tests for firedamp and sent for the safety officer. It was also decided to reinforce the stopping by putting a sandbag wall in front of the original wall. After putting the work in progress he arranged for H.M. Inspector of Mines to be notified. The latter arrived about 8.30 p.m. and he agreed with what was being done and stayed the whole of the night and assisted in the work which was completed by 6 a.m. the next day. Conditions were much improved and he was satisfied that what they had done had reduced the smell and the heat. It was afterwards decided to put a 3-foot thick brick and mortar wall in front of the sandbags. That showed a marked improvement. Anything that was being given off would be driven back into the old workings. The sandbag stopping was continued along the belt level. Everything they did was improving the condition. During the progress of the work, they had the advice of Professor DT Jones. who was engaged as an expert advisor by the Company and he could not offer any better suggestion. He took some samples of the air and Booker viewed the result of the examination of the samples as satisfactory. Mr. Coatesworth. H.M. Inspector of Mines visited the place on December 31st and satisfied himself that conditions were safe. He was also satisfied that the improvement was maintained.

During the following week, the place was continually under observation for any further signs of heating and birds were taken on every shift. Normal coal-getting was proceeded with and was approved of he understood, by H.M. Inspector of Mines. He, along with other officials, visited the place once a day, and on each occasion, a thorough examination was made. On the night of January 5th, he received a phone message to go to the colliery and learned that there was something wrong in the Rise Unit district. He went underground and found noxious gases coming out from the direction of the west level. He found Rafferty lying unconscious and sent for the rescue party. He proceeded to the Rise Unit lower side face and found everything normal until he reached the coal face when he saw that one or two props were disarranged and a large fall prevented further progress. Later he learned that five men had been found dead in various places in the brow. It was later reported that the stopping at the top of.No.7 brow was intact, with no signs of fame, smoke, or violence. Coming from the top of the higher side slant was a vapour. After the bodies had been recovered, screens were erected to cut of as much ventilation as possible from that district and all men were withdrawn. The stopping at the top of the old workings was put in to prevent air from going into the workings and the stopping at the other end was to prevent any gases from the old workings from entering the air circuit. The brick walls were put in the stopping at the No.7 brow because if the gas did accumulate it would try and come out that way. Both the stoppings would serve equally well as a means of preventing air or gas from coming through. He did not put the brick walls in because he had any misgivings but merely as an extra precautionary measure. From the information at present available, it was difficult to come to a conclusion as to what actually happened, later the whole of the Rise Unit was sealed off.

Completing the inquest on six men who lost their lives, James Henry French, agent, and General Manager, said that the initial trouble was discovered on December 29th. He visited the pit and spent the entire night there. Mr D.M. Coatesworth, H.M. Inspector of Mines also visited the scene. Birds were taken down the pit, temperature tests were taken and senior officials of the company were always on the spot when the sealing operations were in progress. He received personal reports from them all. The quickest thing they could do was to erect a stone dust barrier and finish with a brick wall.

The area was now being permanently sealed up. This was being done after consultation with H.M. Inspector of Mines. It was generally accepted practice in mining,, that it was one of the most hazardous tasks to open an area which had been heating and re-admit oxygen. They deemed it unwise to take the risk, having in mind all the circumstances. Asked for his opinion as to what caused the accident he replied, “I think there was an ignition of firedamp in the sealed-off area, probably by spontaneous combustion. I cannot subscribe to the view that the stoppings were blown and this is supported by the fact that flame was not propagated through any part of the workings.”

 The reason given by Mr. French why the area was to be sealed off long before the accident happened was that the management did not consider the district an economical proposition, coupled with the fact that it was a district liable to spontaneous combustion. They also had to cut out the resistance to the ventilating circuit.

At the previous hearing, several witnesses had been cross-examined with regard to the difference between the two toppings erected to seal the area up, inasmuch that one included a brick wall. Giving an explanation, Mr. French revealed that had they built a brick wall at one side it would have been on unsafe ground, and it would have given them a feeling of false security. “The ground and the roof were both active,” he said. “Where a good, well-built pack is erected the movement and the weighting would have consolidated this whereas the movement would have cracked and crushed a wall. This would have let air into the area and our job was to prevent this.”

 The Coroner observed to the Jury that it was one of those cases where, despite all they could reasonably have done in the way of inquiry, they could not get to the bottom of the affair. He did not think they could take it much further than Mr. French’s views on the position. He did not want to indicate to the jury that the time spent had been useless. They might, under the circumstances, feel they would like to return an open verdict as to the cause of the explosion, or they might feel that whatever happened was in the nature of an accident. In that case their verdict would be one of misadventure.  The jury, after a brief consultation, decided upon a verdict of “Death from misadventure”, adding that they were prepared to accept Mr. French’s views.  The Coroner paid tribute to the men who bravely did what they could to prevent further loss of life.


Leigh Journal.

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

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