QUEEN PIT. Haydock, Lancashire, 30th. December, 1868.
The village of Haydock, which is seven miles from Wigan and three from St. Helens was described at the time as being clean and neat with well-trimmed hedges. It was a long straggling village with rows of terraced miner’s cottages along the main road that ran through the village. Each cottage had a well-tended garden behind the low wall that fronted the road. The well-cultivated farmland ran from behind the houses almost to the pit banks and to an observer, the only evidence of how the village earned its bread was any pit headgears that overlooked the cottages.
Queen Pit was one of seven collieries in the village owned by Richard Evans & Company and was situated a few yards from the colliery offices at the top of the village. The pits were known collectively as the Haydock Collieries and employed about fifteen hundred men in the 1860s.
The General Manager of the Haydock Collieries was Mr. John Chadwick, a well-respected man of great mining experience. The underlooker of the Queen Pit was Mr. Isaac Billinge who was in charge of the Wigan Nine Foot Mine and he was directly responsible to Mr. Chadwick. The Evan’s Company had a good reputation and it was generally agreed that they spared no expense for the safety of their workforce in the collieries.
There were two seams worked at the colliery but development work was in an early stage and coal had been extracted for only about eighteen months to two years. The two seams were the Ravenhead Main Delf Six Foot Mine and the Wigan Nine Foot Mine. The latter is where the explosion took place and it was two hundred and sixty yards from the surface.
The coal in the mine where the explosion occurred was hard and had to be blasted down by gunpowder for the colliers to make a living. The colliers were responsible for making their own charges and for setting them. They bought their own powder and made up the charges in their own homes. The charges were laid by drilling a hole in the coal and ramming in the charge. This was common practice in the district and had lead to many serious accidents in the collier’s homes often with fatal results. By the Law of the time, the fireman should fire the shot but in practice, many of the colliers fired their own but only after the fireman had inspected the workplace. This was the general practice throughout the coalfield and the practice had led to many accidents that were recorded in the Reports of the Inspectors of Mines. The burning fuse or the flash of the explosion igniting the gas that may be present; this resulted in either devastating explosions or more usually, in the gas igniting and inflicting severe burns on the men that were in the vicinity.
As was customary at the time the mine was ventilated by a furnace being continually burning at the bottom of the upcast shaft which was known as Leigh Pit and was about four hundred yards from the Queen Pit which was the downcast shaft and used to wind men, materials and coal. The air was directed through the mine by stoppings and brattice cloths and by air-doors that could be opened to allow the passage of men and materials but were generally kept closed.
Work began at the colliery at six in the morning and although there were forty employees, on that fateful morning, only twenty-three men and boys descended into the Wigan Nine Foot workings. As the work got underway, Mr. Billinge made his inspection of the mine as was required by the Special Rules of the Colliery. He found nothing he regarded as dangerous. The ventilation was in good order and the men were getting on with their difficult, dangerous work in their usual professional manner.
There was an incident below ground that morning that saved the life of a man named Flanagan. He was a collier and his son, John was his drawer. Early in the shift, Joseph Greenall, the fireman, caught Flanagan Snr. smoking which was against the Rules of the Colliery and he immediately ordered him to the surface and told him to go home. Smoking in the pit was not uncommon at the time and there are many recorded cases in the Magistrates Courts of the time. Both John Flanagan and Joseph Greenall were killed in the subsequent explosion.
It was shortly before noon that other men down the pit noticed that the ventilation had altered and when they went to investigate they found that an explosion had taken place. They left the mine as quickly as possible. They would be only too well aware of the dangers of afterdamp, the poisonous gases that are left in the mine after an explosion and lethal in the confined spaces of the workings. When the explosion occurred there was little noise and the three hundred men who were in the Ravenhead Mine knew little of the event. All the damage was confined to about five hundred yards of the workings in the Wigan Nine Foot Mine.
John Chadwick and Isaac Billinge were both aboveground when the explosion occurred and were told of the event by those that had escaped from the pit. Immediately they went to the pit head and started to organise a rescue party. Fortunately, the headgear and the cage were undamaged and there was no hindrance to the rescuers to go below ground.
As soon as they reached the pit bottom they found three survivors who were badly injured and sent them to the surface where, by this time, Dr. Twyford had arrived to attend to them. Peter Marsh aged thirteen years was badly burnt and died at six a.m. on Friday. John Flanagan aged eleven years was suffering from the effects of afterdamp and died the same day at home and Robert Fletcher Room aged nineteen years was badly burnt and died later at home.
It was too dangerous for the rescue party to enter the workings until they had restored the ventilation. This was difficult and dangerous work but they made good progress and entered the workings about an hour and a half later. They found another survivor, Hugh Arnold. His place of work was not ventilated by the flow of air from the main workings. After the explosion, instead of trying to make his way out of the mine, he sat in his workplace moaning and probably suffering from shock. It was in this state that the rescuers found him. He was taken to the surface and recovered to give evidence at the inquest.
The rescue parties worked on, replacing the stoppings, repairing the broken air-doors and erecting new bratticing that had been blown down by the force of the explosion. The violence of the explosion could clearly be seen, tubs and wagons had been smashed and rails were torn up. The centre of the blast was thought to be about two hundred and fifty yards from the pit eye.
As the bodies were found they were given a number and moved to a position near the pit eye from where it would be an easy matter to raise then to the surface by the cage. The teams worked on throughout the night in relays and by seven in the evening seventeen bodies had been recovered. By Thursday morning all the workings had been searched and twenty-three bodies recovered. During the rescue operations, Mr. Billinge became a victim of the afterdamp while he was leading a party. He was taken home and recovered to give evidence at the inquest.
As was usual in the situation, the bodies were brought to the surface at night in an attempt to keep them from the eyes of friends, relations and the curious who had gathered at the pit bank. The works’ carpenters had constructed a wooden shed to house the dead. It had taken one and a half hours to construct and contained raised platforms on which the dead were laid out after they had been washed and their clothes bundled at the foot of the platform.
The friends and relatives were admitted on Friday to make their identification of the dead and Mr. C. E. Driffield, the County Coroner, had been contacted and set up court in the Waggon and Horses Hotel in Clipsley Lane, where the evidence of identification was heard. When the Coroner was satisfied on the evidence of identification the bodies were released for burial.
Mr. Richard Evans ordered that the coffins should be made by the Company’s carpenters in the workshops under the direction of the foreman, Mr. John Smith, and that only the finest quality oak should be used so that there should be no complaint from the families.
There had been an explosion at the Hindley Green colliery, a few miles outside Wigan two or three weeks before and two men who had worked there, but whose names are not recorded, had refused to go down the pit again and had sought employment at Queen Pit. Both were killed in the Wigan Nine Foot mine.
Pewfall Pit, another of the Haydock Collieries, had been flooded due to the excavations that were taking place for the Lancashire Union Railway which was under construction and the whole of the workforce of the colliery, some two hundred men, were thrown out of work. Three of the men, John, Joseph and John Marsh jur., had taken employment at Queen Pit and for some of them, this was their first day at their new work.
Joseph Mercer was working with several other men in Yate’s Level. When the explosion occurred all the men left the district and got out of the pit but he stayed behind thinking that the noise of the explosion was that of a shot being fired. He died from the effects of afterdamp. News of his death was brought to Mrs. Mercer at their home in Clipsley Lane. She went upstairs, very upset at the news. A second messenger came to the house to say that her husband was not dead after all. When she was told this she jumped for joy and unfortunately fell down the stairs and broke her arm. It is not recorded what happened to Mrs. Mercer when she finally learned that her husband was numbered with the dead.
Those victims that had died from the effects of the afterdamp were said to have serene expressions on their faces and were easily identified but identification was difficult on the others who were badly burnt and so many of the victims had taken the full force of the explosion that they were badly mutilated. One poor widow was in doubt about the identity of her husband for a long time but she finally made a positive identification from a slight mark on the body. A large crowd had gathered outside the shed and they heard the heart-rending sobs from the relatives as they recognised their loved ones.
As soon as the news of the explosion reached the offices of Richard Evans, Her Majesties Inspector of Mines for the area, Mr. Peter Higson, was contacted by telegram. Mr. Higson arrived at the colliery at about nine-thirty p.m. with his son who was the Assistant Inspector. Mr. William Pickard, the miners’ agent, also arrived at the colliery. An investigating party of these men, Mr. Chadwick, Mr. Richard Evans, Mr. Clark, who was the mining engineer to Sir Robert Gerard who owned mines in Ashton-in-Makerfield, and Mr. Glover, who was the mining engineer to Mr. W. J. Legh M.P. who was the lessor of the Queen Pit, descended the pit in an effort to find out what had caused the explosion.
There were theories that part of the brattice work had been disturbed by a fall of roof and the resulting interruption of the ventilation had caused a build-up of gas. Several shots were found to have been placed in position but there was no evidence that these shots had been fired.
The day before the explosion, Mr. Chadwick had made a full inspection of the workings and he had found them in excellent order. A correspondent to the Wigan Observer, whose name is unrecorded, expressed great surprise at the accident since he had visited the mine on two occasions and reported to the paper, “that the ventilation was so good it quite chilled me through.”
The firemen had completed their inspections on the Wednesday morning and had reported nothing out of the ordinary in the mine. Both firemen were killed in the explosion. The head fireman, Mr. Greenall, was found some distance from his lamp and it was thought that he had been struck down while racing away from the flames that would have swept through the workings as he tried to make his escape by running for his life.
Mr. P. Higson commented on the devastating effect of the explosion, not in the number killed, but in the fact that it killed twenty-four out of the twenty-six men and boys that were working in the district. The seventeen men that were killed left seventeen widows and fifty-four children fatherless.
Those who died were:
- Edward Blake, aged 15 years, drawer
- William Bunney, aged 26 years, a married dataller.
- John Cartwright, aged 40 years, collier who left a wife and five children.
- William Dearden, aged 38 years, a married collier with no children.
- John Dean, aged 27 years, collier, who was brought out of the pit alive but died later.
- George Gallimore, aged 26 years, married collier who left four children.
- Joseph Greenall, aged 34 years, fireman, who left a wife.
- Joseph Hindley, aged 39 years, collier who left a wife and six children.
- Henry Hindley, aged 12 years. Joseph was his father and he had taken him with him to watch him work.
- Daniel Knowles, aged 27 years, drawer.
- Daniel Leyland, aged 27 years, collier, who left a wife and four children.
- Peter Marsh, aged 13 years. He was brought out of the pit alive but very badly burnt and died later.
- John Marsh, aged 37 years, collier, who left a widow and four children.
- John Marsh, aged 15 years, drawer.
- John Mercer, aged 48 years, dataller, who left a wife and four children.
- John Merricks, aged 30 years, collier. He left a wife and four children.
- Henry Owen, aged 30 years, collier. He left a wife and four children.
- William Pover, aged 33 years, a collier who left a wife and four children.
- Robert Fletcher Room, aged 19 years. He was brought to the surface alive but badly injured and died later.
- Peter Simm, aged 15 years, a pony driver.
- Thomas Stock, aged 26 years, drawer.
- John Wilcock, aged 26 years, collier who left a wife.
- William Wardle, aged 48 years, a married man who left a wife and four children.
- Samuel Yearsley, aged 26 years, dataller, who left a wife and three children.
Mr. C. E. Driffield, the County Coroner, arrived in Haydock on Saturday and set up his Court in the Waggon and Horses Hotel in Clipsley Lane. A jury was sworn in and the evidence of identification of the victims was heard. When the Court was satisfied the bodies were released for burial. Most of the funerals took place on the Saturday and the Sunday.
The inquiry into the cause of the explosion that had caused the deaths of the men and boys was opened the following Friday, 8th January by Mr. Driffield at the Rams Head Hotel, Penny Lane, Haydock. There were several mining experts present. Mr. Peter Higson, Her Majesties Inspector of Mines, Mr. C. E. Clark, mining engineer to Sir Robert Gerard of Ashton-in-Makerfield, Mr. Chadwick, the manager of the Haydock Collieries and Mr. William Pickard, the Miners Agent. Mr. Maskell-Peace, a solicitor of Wigan, represented Richard Evans & Co.
Proceedings began by examining the evidence of identification of the two victims that had been brought out of the pit alive but had since died from their injuries. Margaret Rogerson, whose husband was a joiner in the village, had assisted in the nursing of Robert Fletcher Room who had lodged with Hugh Arnold and had worked as Arnold’s drawer. Room had died from his injuries on January 5th and Margaret made the official identification to the Court. Room was also known as Robert Fletcher and he is referred to as such in some of the papers of the time. Since he lodged with a family it is likely that he had come to find work from out of the village and, as two Christian names were unusual at the time it is very probable that he was known as “Robert Fletcher”.
Thomas Marsh, brother to Peter aged eighteen years died on January 1st. Dr. Twyford of St. Helens had attended him but there was little that he could do to save his life.
The Court then got down to the business of determining the cause of the explosion and the first witness to give evidence was Mr. Isaac Billinge, the underlooker of the Wigan Nine Foot Mine and form his first-hand evidence of the explosion we get a clear picture of the conditions that prevailed underground both in the explosion and immediately afterwards.
On the morning of the explosion, he had finished his rounds of inspection and was at home when the browman came to tell him of the disaster at about 12.10 p.m. He went straight to the pit and descended. On reaching the bottom he went to the west side of the workings and very shortly found a pony and two men dead. He heard some moans and went back to get assistance. John Baines and another man came back with him and found Hugh Arnold alive and he was taken out of the mine. Hugh Arnold’s account of what happened to him was given at the inquest when he was called as a witness.
Mr. Billinge then went to investigate the west side of the workings in the Ravenhead Mine and found nothing. He returned and helped the men to restore the ventilation in the Wigan Mine and was himself overcome by the afterdamp. He had to be taken from the pit but returned the next morning fully recovered. By then all the bodies had been found and removed with the exception of Thomas Stock. It took a further hour to recover Stock’s body.
Mr. Billinge did not know what had caused the explosion but he thought that the combination of gas and gunpowder could have been responsible. A can that had contained powder was found with both the ends blown off in Joseph Marsh’s place. The ventilating air went from Joseph Marsh’s working place to John Marsh’s place where two shots were found. One of these had blown out and the other was partly burnt. This could have been responsible for igniting the gas.
Joseph Greenall, the principal fireman, was found a short distance from these working places and was, in all probability, walking away after making his inspection before the shots were fired. Mr. Billinge stated that Greenall was a very experienced man.
There was a possibility that the gas had been ignited by a faulty lamp and the evidence given by Isaac Billinge gives a very clear account of the system that was used at the colliery to issue lamps. They were given to the men at the pit head and were locked by the banksman before they went into the pit. It was a very serious offence to unlock a lamp in the mine and only the underlooker and the fireman had lamp keys. It was stated that Greenall’s lamp was found unlocked but it was the usual practice for the fireman.
Mr Billinge was then questioned by Mr. Higson, the Government Inspector, about the method of ventilation that was used in the mine. Gas was known to be present in the mine and although the dangers were recognised, it was not considered a major problem provided that the ventilation was good enough to carry the gas away. If the brattice was damaged for any length of time there could be a build-up of gas but, as far as was known, all was well in the mine and the fireman had not reported anything dangerous, like damage to the brattice to Mr. Billinge.
Mr. Christopher Fisher Clark, mining engineer to Sir Robert Gerard of Ashton-in-Makerfield was then called as an expert witness. He had been with the rescue party that had explored the workings after the explosion. His account corroborated what Mr. Billinge had said and he thought that the gas had built up in the workings due to some damaged bratticing. He said that, in his opinion, the mine was safe enough to be worked by candles. In a modern context, this may seem very dangerous today, but at the time it was still the practice to use candles or “open flames” in Lancashire pits and many other mining areas in the country.
Mr. Clark made the remark to underline his high opinion of the system and the quality of the ventilation in the mine. He was of the opinion that the gas had been ignited when a shot was fired in John Marsh’s place and the lesson to be learned for the future was that only the fireman should fire the shots. He concluded his evidence by saying that there was no mismanagement or oversight on the part of either the manager or the underlooker of the mine.
Another expert witness was called, Mr. Samuel Cook, one of the underlookers at Old Boston, another of the Haydock Collieries, who had also taken part in the rescue operations. He gave a graphic account of the conditions and scenes underground in the aftermath of the explosion. He went down the shaft and met some people carrying Hugh Arnold out of the mine. He then went to Mr. Chadwick and they both went down the west side of the workings where they found the body of Peter Simm and a dead pony and discovered the bodies of William Dearden and John Cartwright. He then joined the workers repairing the ventilation and went into the workings on the east side where he found the body of William Pover. He stayed in the mine until eight on Thursday morning and returned at eleven the same day until he came to the surface at four in the afternoon. He told the Court that the men he had found were all burnt and that the greatest signs of burning were in John Marsh’s place. The witness could give no explanation as to the cause of the explosion and stated that there was little gas to be found while the rescue operations were going on. The inquest was adjourned until Thursday at ten o’clock and the jury bound over to appear at this time.
The first witness of the second day was Hugh Arnold, the man that the rescuers had found alive and had taken out of the mine. He stated that he was at work on the morning of the explosion when he heard a very loud noise and a strong wind blowing down the tunnel. Realising what had happened and that the situation was dangerous, he left his place very quickly without even picking up his clothes. He had not gone very far when he was overcome by the afterdamp and he remembered nothing of the events of his rescue. He thought that, when he became unconscious, he must have fallen on his lamp since he had a burn on his hip.
He spoke very highly of the fireman, James Greenall, and he told the court that he knew that Greenall inspected his place regularly since there were always chalk marks, in accordance with the General Rules of the Colliery showing that he had been there. On the morning of the explosion, Arnold had seen the deputy fireman, John Merrick, inspect his place and he told the court that he had every confidence in the man’s abilities. He had fired a shot that morning and there had been no sign of gas.
The next witness was Joseph Marsh, whose brother John and nephew John Jnr. were both killed in the disaster. These were three of the people who had worked at the Pewfall Colliery and had worked for only two or three weeks at the Queen Pit. Joseph did not go to work on that fateful day due to illness and he told the court that his brother was a very experienced miner who could handle explosives well.
In answer to the Coroner’s questions, Joseph said that earlier in the week they had some shots that had misfired and he thought that this was due to the quality of the powder. He saw no danger in the situation since there was no evidence that there was gas present. Mr. Higson, the Inspector, questioned him closely on the arrangements for firing shots in the colliery. Marsh told the court that he fired one shot a day and that he examined his own place before the shot was fired. He did not examine as far as the far end of the workings which were about ten yards away but only the immediate area of his place of work.
Mr. Higson said:
The whole of the top was really your place and under the Special Rules of the Colliery it was your bounden duty to examine it and it is not asking too much that you should make this inspection when the lives of others were jeopardised thereby.
Marsh again stated that he did not go as far as the end of the workings and the Coroner intervened, “He can not say more Mr. Higson. He should have looked but unfortunately, he did not and he was not told by those above him.”
Mr. Higson pressed the point but Mr. Pickard and Mr, Driffield again pointed out the Joseph Marsh had not been instructed by his superiors to search the end of the workings for gas before he fired his shots. At this point Mr Higson let matters rest.
The question as to the use of gunpowder in the mines was a very topical one as there had been two serious explosions in the High Brooks Colliery at Ashton-in-Makerfield a few years earlier which had caused a great loss of life and a gunpowder explosion could have been the cause of the fatalities in this explosion. There was also the question as to how the powder was used in the mine to get coal and this question was to arise later in the inquiry.
Marsh stepped down and Mr. John Chadwick took the stand. He was at Pewfall pit when the explosion occurred and got to Queen Pit between noon and one. He went down the pit and led the exploration. In his opinion, the explosion had occurred in John Marsh’s place. Marsh had fired a shot about an hour before and, judging by the boxes of coal that he had filled and were standing about sixty yards away, he was ready to fire another shot and had done so. The brattice in Marsh’s place had been pulled down so that it could be moved somewhere else in the mine. This could have led to a build-up of gas in the workplace and it was possible that the shot could have ignited it. Another possibility for the presence of the gas was, that there was had been a sudden flow of gas from the coal, called an outburst, but in his opinion, this had not happened.
He went on to say that a few months ago there had been a quantity of gas behind a fault that had exploded and set fire to the coal. Prompted by Mr. Higson, Mr. Chadwick agreed that the method of ventilation could be improved and he outlined his ideas on the subject to the Court.
Mr. Chadwick stepped down and the Court next heard the evidence and comments from Mr. Peter Higson. He had no doubt that there had been a large accumulation of gas in Marsh’s place and he thought that the shot had ignited it. The question was where had the gas come from?
If there had been gas in the other workings then this would have been drawn into the fire and ignited. He thought that this was the case in John Moss’s place where charred props were found. He found no evidence of a sudden outburst of gas, but he commented on the way that the ventilation was split and thought that the area of the workings could allow a greater quantity of air to pass through. The Coroner, no doubt mindful of the questioning of Mr. Marsh, specifically asked Mr. Higson if he thought “there was any want of precaution?” Mr. Higson answered the question by general comments on the splitting of the ventilation and the use of brattice in the ventilation system.
After Mr. Higson stepped down, Mr Driffield summed up the evidence and instructed the jury to retire and consider its verdict. It took a quarter of an hour and returned the following verdict:
That Henry Owen and twenty-five certain others came to their deaths by an explosion of firedamp in the Nine Foot Mine, Queen Pit in Haydock on the 30th. December and we find from the evidence before us that the said firedamp was ignited by John Marsh’s blown out shot but whether there was a sudden outburst, there was not sufficient evidence to show.
The fireman, Greenall, who was not named in the Report, was found in a part of the mine where the brattice was supposed to have been down and he had put it back with little thought of the consequences of his actions. As the airflow was restored it would have swept out any gas that had accumulated and he thought it had arrived at Marsh’s place just as he fired the shot. In Mr. Higson’s opinion, the fireman should have found the gas before the ventilation was restored. The gas had accumulated in a working place that had not been used for some time and had not been examined daily by the fireman as was required by the Rules of the Colliery so he was ignorant of its presence. In the Report he commented:
These frequent casualties have disclosed the painful fact that fireman has omitted to make an inspection of places not actually in work, although situated near those workings in which men are daily employed: this shows serious neglect of duty, into which the owners of the mines should make a constant and minute enquiry, and provide a check on their proceedings, whereby neglect or omission may be detected to prevent accidents occurring.
As to the general use of brattice in the ventilation system, Mr. Higson made the following comments:
It has recently become the practice to conduct the ventilation of the workings by means of brattice cloth to a considerable extent, on the grounds, no doubt of economy, though some allege, for safety in the event of an explosion taking place, the system cannot be allowed to go on, nor be too soon discontinued. Brattice makes but a delicate and unreliable partition, as it is liable to be broken down by the slightest fall from the roof it requires constant and unremitted attention on the part of everyone in any way connected with the working of the mine, which experience shows is seldom or ever given in the manner and form absolutely required. It did not appear that the underlooker of the mine had inspected the place from which the gas was fired for some time previously, relying on the fireman seeing it was safe. Two days before a collier was sent to make a cut through into a parallel road but he did not go to the end by ten or twelve yards. Neither the underlooker nor the fireman went with this man, who was a stranger to the mine, and ignorant of gas and the mode of dealing with it. He was absent on the day of the explosion and thereby escaped the catastrophe. The owners of the mine would do anything to prevent such a casualty as this and I have always believed that the colliery is well managed. In opening out large areas of new ground, it is a great mistake to conduct the ventilation by means of brattice, except only from one cut through into a parallel road, which should not, in any case, exceed twenty yards, and in no instance should bratticed places be suspended until they have been opened out at the extreme ends, and communications made with the adjoining places, so that the ventilation may be free of risk. To leave endways or other places depending for their ventilation on brattice is, in all cases, to provide the means of casualty sooner or later, which the facts contained in these pages prove beyond any question or doubt and such practices will not pass unnoticed.
Mr. Higson’s words went unheeded and there were many more deaths in the coalfield as the practice of using brattice continued for many years.
The Colliery Guardian.
The St. Helens Standard.
The Mines Inspectors Report 1868. Mr. Higson.
With Hearts so Light. Ian Winstanley. Picks Publishing.
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