BRYN HALL. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire. 2nd June 1873.

Bryn Hall Colliery was the property of Messrs William and J.B. Crippin and was on Sir Robert Gerard’s Estate, Ashton-in-Makerfield, four miles from Wigan. The mine was 178 yards below the surface and there were two shafts at the colliery. The downcast was eleven feet three inches in diameter and the upcast twelve feet in diameter. The mine was ventilated by a furnace which was fed with fresh air direct from the downcast shaft. The colliery was worked on the pillar and stall which was generally adopted in the Wigan district. The coal was very hard and powder had to be used in large quantities and a system had been introduced of blowing the coal on the top side without any side cutting. As many as three shots were required in each place which was ten feet wide.

There had been an explosion at the colliery in the Wigan Nine Foot Seam in August 1870 when the seam was not opened out when twenty lives were lost. The workings were now more extensive and 250 men were employed in the daytime at the colliery. The Inspector had directed that shots should be fired at night and this practice reduced the possible number of victims of the explosion. Peter Higson Jnr., a mining engineer of Manchester, was the viewer of the colliery and Frederick Crippin was the manager.

A very loud explosion occurred at 12.20 a.m. which sounded like a peal of thunder and alarmed the residents. They, along with Mr. Crippin rushed to the pit and found that a terrific blast had come up the downcast shaft. Just as people were arriving at the colliery a second blast came from the upcast shaft. The devastation on the surface was almost total with both headgears at the pits ruined. Guide rods, bell wire, fragments of the cage, and tubs were on the surface shattered by the force of the explosion and making a dangerous situation for all who were at the surface.

As the dust cleared thoughts were turned to the seven shotlighters who were below, the furnaceman in the Wigan Nine Feet Mine and pump boy who was in charge of the engine in the Wigan Four Feet Seam. A descent was attempted by rope and pulley but was abandoned when a hoppet was found. At 4 a.m. Mr. Crippin, the underlooker and the fireman of the Four Feet mine descended the pit. They found the lad in charge of the engine slightly burnt in the upper seam and he was sent to the surface. Beyond this, the passage down the shaft became more difficult through the wreckage which was in the shaft and it was not until 7 a.m. that the bottom of the shaft was reached and the nine Feet Seam was entered.

The furnace man was found dead but there was no trace of the shotlighters and work to restore the ventilation was started as soon as possible. There were indications that the explosion had occurred on the north side by the rescuers could get only 400 yards from the pit eye as the choke damp was very strong and there was a question as to whether the pit would fire again. With the lessons learned from the last explosion the advice of the mining engineers and owners who had gone to the colliery was sought. Mr. George Gilroy of the Ince Hall Collieries was there in the morning and in the afternoon Mr. Bell the recently appointed Inspector arrived. Mr. John and Peter Higson jnr. and Mr. Pickard, the Miners Agent along with Mr. Mercer of the Park Lane Collieries, Mr. John and William Smethurst of the Bryn Collieries, Mr. Cross of Cross Tetley and Company, Mr. John Pearson of Pearson and Knowles, Mr. Charles G. Jackson of the Wigan Iron and Coal Company, Mr. Chadwick of the Haydock Collieries and Mr. Latham of the Moss Hall Collieries. Shortly before noon, it was decided by these men that another descent should be made and Mr. Crippin. John Higson and others were lowered in the hoppet. They were down about three-quarters of an hour and when they returned they reported that there were strong indications of a fire in the workings.

A second party lead by Sixsmith, the underlooker, later explored a part of the north workings and found some wood and brattice burning. This was quickly extinguished. Another small fire was dealt with by another party. Mr. John Higson and a party of volunteers was hard at work below while many at the pithead were discussing whether the thin blue cloud of smoke which was coming out of the upcast shaft showed that there were more fires below.

During the evening the body of the furnaceman was brought to the surface. He had been married for only four months. The rescuers found a lad, John Junn of Scholes, Wigan, alive in the Four Feet Mine and brought him to the surface.

During the afternoon there was an incident at the pit bank which caused much amusement to the crowd who were silently waiting for news. The head fireman Arkwright, who had made several descents of the mine, was about to enter the hoppet when his wife arrived and strongly objected to him making another descent and again risking his life. “The Colliery Guardian” reported:

As her remonstrances were of no avail, she seized her husband – by no means a light-built man – and literally carried him away.

During the night Mr. Bell, the assistant inspector, and Peter Higson Jnr. entered the south side of the workings where they found a smouldering fire which was probably the cause of the smoke coming up the upcast shaft. A fire extinguisher had been got from Pearson and Knowles Colliery and the fire was soon dealt with. A large party of workmen worked through the night and three of the bodies were recovered.

Two of these men had apparently been preparing a shot and had tried to make their way to the pit eye after the explosion. They had left their tools at the spot where they had been working but had met their deaths before they ad covered fifty yards. The third body was headless and shockingly mutilated. It was thought that gunpowder had added to the force of the explosion. The shotlighters had to take a large quantity down and the two who were first found had 20-pound cans of powder each. The cans had been shattered and their contents burned.

The force of the explosion was devastating and reliable witnesses spoke of the roar of the first blast lasting for almost three minutes and added that the flame of the second explosion roared far above the cloud of smoke. Wood and iron from the shafts was found in fields 100 to 150 yards away and the cage which was standing at the top of the downcast shaft was splintered in the headgear and the cage which was at the mouth of the Four Feet was twisted and warped and sent to the mouth of the shaft.

Those who died were:

  • Isaac John Jones aged 26 years of Bryn, furnaceman,
  • John Gorton aged 35 years of Stubshaw Cross, head shotlighter,
  • James Holden aged 32 years of West Leigh, assistant shotlighter,
  • William Hodson aged 38 years of Stubshaw Cross,
  • William Collier aged 28 years of Crippin Buildings, and
  • Peter Hankey aged 40 years of Bryn, all shotlighters.

In the Inspectors Report, James Holden is named “Oldham” and Peter Hankey as “Hartley”. The names in the list are taken from the local papers of the time.

Mr. C.E. Driffield, the District Coroner opened the inquest into the disaster at the Park Hotel, Bryn. The underlooker, John Sixsmith, was the first to give evidence and he gave an account of the devastation that was found below ground. He knew that the mine gave off gas but had never seen the mine full of gas. He stated that John Gorton, the head shot lighter, was an experienced man of good character. He thought the explosion had taken place in John Hill’s place on the north side and the gas there had been ignited by a shot. The bodies of Holden and Hodson were found in a place where they would shelter when a shot was being fired.

Henry Hodson, Joseph Arkwright, and Henry Waterworth all testified to the competency of Gorton. John Heaton, a bratticeman, was working in the mine until 3 p.m. on the afternoon of the explosion and he did not see any gas. William Hermon, the furnace tenter said he was on the day shift at the time of the accident and Isaac John Johns, who was killed, was sober and all right when they parted. He thought the furnace perfectly safe and said it was fired very hard when shots were being fired.

Ralph Miller, the fireman in the Four Feet Mine, was down the pit after the disaster and said it appeared to him that the men had fired a shot and were going to the next one when the explosion occurred.

Joseph Dickinson of Pendleton, Inspector of Mines, gave evidence to the court. He thought there had been two explosions, one which started at the far end of the north level, through the workings and back towards the pit, and one on the south side that went towards the pit. He stated that if the disaster had happened during the day when men were in the mine, there would have been no chance for anyone in the south workings. He went on to say:

We also saw three or four 25lb. powder cans, two of which, I think, had a considerable quantity of powder in. All were empty, some having exploded and others only been battered. Having 25lb. cans is contrary to the Act of Parliament. One of the regulations is that powder is not to be taken into the mine except in a case or canister not containing more than 4lbs. There is not to be more than one of these in use at one time by one man. A workman is not prohibited from having two or three canisters, but he must not have more than one in use at one time. Furthermore, the powder should not be taken into the pit, or be in the possession of any person in the mine except in cartridges.

The practice at the Bryn Hall Colliery was to make the cartridges at the place where they were needed and the powder was not taken into the mine in cartridges.

Mr. Dickenson then turned to the gas in the mine. There had been many working places opened out and they were dependent on ventilation by brattice. The system used at the colliery was the “North of England System” which was appropriate for mines that did not give off a lot of gas but, in Dickinson’s opinion, was not suitable for the fiery mines of Lancashire.

There was no evidence that the gas had fired at any of the men’s lamps but there was evidence that more than one shot had been fired in John Hill’s place. It was a rule that two shots should not be fired together in a bratticed place. Sixsmith was recalled and closely questioned on several points. Firstly, the number of places that were opened out at the colliery, the recording of the presence of gas in the report books of the colliery, and the procedure at the colliery for the use of gunpowder.

Frederick Crippin, the manager of the colliery and the son of the proprietor said he did not think that the explosion was the effect of any defect in the colliery but was the result of an oversight or neglect on the part of the men. The firing of two shots and the fact that the place had not been examined for gas before they were fired were breaches of the regulations. He did not agree with Mr. Dickinson that too many working places had been opened out.

George C. Greenwell, mining engineer to Lord Vernon’s Collieries in Cheshire was invited to inspect the colliery after the disaster by Messrs. Crippin. He said that he considered that coal ought to be cut and not blasted. Mr. William Pickard, the Miners Agent asked if colliers could make a wage by doing this and he replied that the men would do anything for which they were paid. He had seen coal as hard as that at the Bryn Hall Colliery worked without powder.

Mr. Clarke, mining engineer to Sir Robert Gerard of Ashton had inspected the colliery. He also thought that coal should be cut and not blasted and he cited previous disasters that had taken place in Lancashire through blasting coal. He mentioned seven or eight including, Moss Pits, Haydock, High Brooks and Low Hall. He suggested that the mode of working the coal could be improved he suggested:

I would substitute it in this instance either by the “longwall” system or by driving a system of levels and cutting them about every hundred yards in square blocks. There would be double levels and I think this system will effectively drain off gas.

In reply to a question by Mr. Pickard he said:

Lancashire miners would prefer less hard coal, and that there would be a difficulty to get the men to cut the seam, but, as the old saying put it, “money softens coal”.

The jury, after deliberating for three-quarters of an hour returned the following written verdict and recommendations:

The jury all agree as to the first explosion being in John Hill’s place from the gas ignited by a shot but from some cause unknown – probably from the door on the No.2 level being blown open, and taking the air off the places on the lower side of John Hill’s place. The second explosion, we think, took place at some fire left from the first explosion. The jury also thinks that the two shotlighters on the north side have not done their duty. They agree with Mr. Clarke in his mode of working the coal in the future, if the owners can possibly get it done. The jury also recommends that the air should be split into more parts, so that each district may have fresh air and to do away with or lessen the number of doors in the pit, as there is great risk if the doors being neglected. We also think that two shotlighters should not have more than twelve places to attend to, and that there should be a man in charge of each district, whose sole duty it should be to examine the places before the shots are fired. In the road from the engine to the furnace, there ought to be two doors in the place of a brattice cloth. We also think that the returns ought to be taken to a dumb drift, to come into the upcast pit above the furnace drift.


Mines Inspector Report, 1873. Mr. Thomas Bell.
Wigan Observer.
Wigan Examiner.
Colliery Guardian, 13th June 1873, p.718, 20th June 1873, p.749, 27th June p. 781, 11th July p.48.

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

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