BRYN HALL. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire. 19th. August, 1870.

Bryn Hall Colliery was at Ashton-in-Makerfield near Wigan and was on Sir Robert Gerard’s Estate not far from Bryn station on the Lancashire Union Railway and was owned by Messrs. W. and J.B. Crippin. It had recently been opened to reach the rich coal seams of Lancashire and there were three seams worked at the colliery, the top mine or Five Feet, the Four Feet, or middle mine, and the Nine Feet which was the bottom of the three. There were two shafts at the colliery, an upcast and a downcast. The downcast had a cage and wound men and the upcast had a hoppet. The Four Feet mine had been worked for two or three years and in the previous few months, the Nine Feet had been worked to a limited extent an extended no more than 120 yards from the shaft in a north-south direction and it was in these workings that the explosion took place.

The mine was known to give off a lot of gas and the coal was unusually hard. The men would not cut the side before blasting and a large quantity of gunpowder had to be used for each shot. If the charge was not stemmed properly, then it would blow out and produce a large flame. Mr. Higson, the Inspector, commented in his report:

A large flame in a place giving off gas freely from several blowers at the same time, with the air from some distance, if not actually inflammable, considerably vitiated as it often is in such places, is certainly dangerous.

Firemen were employed to round and inspect the places and if safe, fire the shots. They had orders to examine the holes and then see them charged, and not to fire a shot until anything that might cause danger had been removed. On the morning of the disaster John Low, a fireman, was on duty, and from the evidence, at the inquest, it appeared that he allowed men to drill, charge and fire their own shots. He was believed to have fired the shot which caused the explosion which took twenty lives.

On the morning of the disaster, 140 men descended the mine of which 40 were working in the Nine Feet. Work went on normally until about 9 a.m. when there was a loud report and smoke and flame belched from the upcast shaft which had been used to wind coal and the mouth was covered by a “jiddy” or movable platform which was used when sinking operations were going on. This was smashed to pieces and scattered along the railway line. The shaft was left in such a condition that it was dangerous just to approach it. The downcast shaft was also damaged when the cage was blown free and fell down the shaft causing extensive damage to the guide rods and cross trees.

News of the disaster spread quickly and help came from other collieries to give their help and advice to Mr. Jacob Higson, the manager of the Bryn Hall colliery. William Smethurst, of the Bryn Collieries, Messrs. Mercer and Evans, of the Park Lane Collieries, Mr. J.B. Latham and Mr. Wright, of the Low Hall Collieries, which had suffered an explosion in November 1869, Messrs. Cross, of Cross Tetley and Company and William Pickard the Miners Agent arrived with their underlookers and many of these men tried to descend the shaft.

On the surface, Mr. Mather, surgeon of Ashton was called to the colliery to treat the injured and the first job was to get the uninjured men to the surface. Nearly 100 men from the Four Feet mine were brought up in the hoppet. The parties that went below found the doors in the pit to regulate the ventilation were blown down, stoppings were destroyed and the mutilated bodies of men and horses were lying a short distance from the pit eye. Fifteen men were found alive and sent to the surface. Two or three were completely unharmed but others were found burnt and died later. They were attended to at the surface by Mr. Mather.

As the workings were not extensive it was soon realised that the seat of the explosion was in the north level. The coal was on fire in another part of the mine and there was a great danger from firedamp. The air had not made the gas explosive and the party retreated and went to the surface where people had become alarmed to see that there was smoke coming from the upcast shaft which indicated the presence of a fire below. Orders were given that the bodies already recovered should be brought to the surface and the explorers to follow them.

For some two hours, no one went down the pit but then it was found that the smoke was coming from burning props and brattice and could easily be extinguished. This was done in the afternoon by a few buckets of water. When this was done another party went below under Mr. Watkins of the Pemberton Collieries and they cleared the gas and recovered the remaining bodies from the workings. The rest of the pit was examined with difficulty and the bodies of two horses were brought up from the dib hole. The damage to the shaft was repaired.

Most of the men were in the mine at the time of the disaster and they escaped to give their evidence at the inquest. Most of the men said that the ventilation was so good that they were very cold when they were working. The only evidence that did not agree with this came from a man who had been discharged from the pit who complained about the conduct of another fireman.

Mr. Higson had leave of absence at the time of the disaster but went to the pit the morning afterwards after receiving a telegram. He found that even though the furnace was out, the stoppings had been blown down and brattice cloth had been put in place of the stoppings, the ventilation was very good and it was hard to imagine how gas had accumulated when the natural ventilation was good, there was a very large furnace and the exhaust steam from the engine was passed to the upcast shaft to increase the ventilation.

The underlooker and the viewer of the colliery were both through the workings the day before when they told John Low that he must see the shotholes before they were charged. There were colliers present when this was done with their approval.

As the seventeen dead were brought up they were placed in farm buildings nearby to await identification. Messrs. Crippin did all they could for the families of the victims.

Those who died were:

  • T. Collier.
  • Blackledge.
  • T. Howarth.
  • H. Oakes, who left a wife.
  • R. Greenalch.
  • Bradbury.
  • Liptrot.
  • Jones.
  • Arrowsmith.
  • Hadfield.
  • Cunliffe.
  • Prescott.
  • Turner.
  • Bimbo.
  • N. Fairbrother.
  • Darbyshire.
  • J. Fairclough.

Fellows, Gill and John Low, aged 43 years, the fireman, all died later from their injuries, bringing the final grim total to twenty.

The inquest was opened at the Park Lane Hotel, Ashton, by Mr. C.E. Driffield, the District Coroner. The whole of the first sitting was taken up by a discussion as to whether mining engineers should sit on the jury. It was resolved that they should.

As John Low died in Wigan, there was an inquest into his death held in the Borough. His widow told the court that, on his death bed, he had told her that the explosion occurred when he fired a shot and was due to the carelessness of two men leaving powder about. The inquiry was adjourned to wait for the verdict of the main inquiry held by Mr. Driffield.

At the main inquiry, evidence was taken from witnesses. Elizabeth Oakes told the court that her husband had worked at the colliery for a short time but he was about to move as he did not like the conditions there.

William Gill of Ince said that he worked on the night shift and he had never seen gas in the mine.

James Chapman, a collier, said that he was in the mine at the time of the explosion and the blast set fire to some brattice, he and his drawer had difficulty in getting out of the place.

On the morning of the explosion, the men had received orders not to charge their shotholes until they had been inspected. Before this, they had placed their shots and sent for the fireman to light the fuse.

Another collier who survived, Peter Schofield was in favour of blasting as it made his work easier. Two others who got out alive, John Hart and John Harrison, said they had seen gas in the mine and thought that blasting could be dangerous as a charge of more than two pounds was needed to bring down the coal.

Thomas Shaw, of Downall Green, was working with Chapman at the time of the explosion and said the blast set their clothes on fire. He tried to reach the pit eye but became unconscious by the afterdamp and fell down. He was not taken out of the pit for an hour.

Gresham Gregson, Levi Tootle, and John Bradburn gave evidence and the last two said that they would not go into the mine again if shots were fired.

The fireman, John Darbyshire who was a Staffordshire man, thought that Low would not have fired the shot if he had found gas.

The underlooker of the colliery, Peter Holt said he was at the colliery when sinking was commenced to the Nine Feet coal. This was about ten months before the explosion. He was in the Four Feet mine at the time of the disaster and stayed down until all the men were recovered. He thought that the explosion was caused by a blown out shot on the north side.

Frederick Crippin, whose father and brother owned the colliery, said he was the general surface manager and he had no reason to think that Low was incompetent. Jacob Higson, of Stockport, a consulting engineer to Messrs. Crippin thought that the explosion was one of gas and not one of powder and the Low the fireman was at fault.

Mr. Christopher Fisher Clarke, mining engineer to Sir Robert Gerard and the foreman of the jury recorded his concern of so many explosions in the Wigan area being caused by blown out shots. He did not believe that the fireman was not negligent in this case but the gas had come from the coal as the shot went off and had been ignited by the flame of the shot. Mr. W.L. Watkin another juryman and manager of the Pemberton Collieries did not agree with Mr. Clarke and thought that the shotfirer was negligent.

The Coroner summed up and the jury retired to consider and their verdict which was:

That we are of the opinion that the explosion was caused through the ignition of a quantity of gas by a blown out shot in the first north down brow and we recommend that some other mode of working be adopted, whereby a less quantity of gunpowder would be requisite, and that supervision be exercised over the quantity of the powder taken into the mine each day.

The Coroner commented that the verdict could not be looked on as entirely satisfactory to themselves and the public.

Mr. Higson commented in his report:

If another example had been wanting previously to prove that if the workings below ground are to be free from accidents it is clearly proved by this, that there must be an energetic co-operation throughout, from the manager downwards to the most insignificant operative, or someday or other there will be a collapse. If there be one defective link in the chain of management it will break. However good the ventilation, it may be rendered useless by leaving a door open, or firing a shot, or going into gas with a naked light, or doing many things contrary to the rules of the mine. Although this is a very fiery mine, I thought there was no probability of such a catastrophe, I have no doubt that if every man had done his duty it would not have occurred.


Mines Inspectors Report, 1870. Mr. Peter Higson.
Colliery Guardian.
Wigan Observer.

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

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