HIGH BROOKS. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire. 23rd. January, 1866.

The two pits that belonged to the colliery were within forty yards of each other and were the property of Messrs. Turner and Evans. They worked the Orrell Five Foot Coal at 290 yards and the Wigan Four Foot Coal a few yards below this. When the coal was struck, it was on a fault which threw the Four Foot sixty yards upwards. Two downbrows ran from the pit-eye until they met with another series of faults, at which point there was a rise tunnel which had been started and was driven across the faults until it cut into the regular seam again. The cross-tunnel was the return airway with the intake airway being beneath it and was arched over, about fourteen yards from the pit-eye and two hundred and forty yards from the end of the workings.

Nearly forty men and boys were employed at the Four Foot Seam which had been worked for about two years. It was reported that great care had been taken to avoid accidents but there had been several dangerous occurrences at the colliery over the preceding years. It was known that there was little gas in the mine. The Four Foot coal was known as the Arley mine in other parts of the Lancashire coalfield and was recognised as a fiery mine. This was the term that was used at the time to indicate that it gave off a lot of gas. However, the workmen considered it a good place to work and there was strong competition to work there with the result that Mr. Mercer employed who he pleased and he was on record as stating that “All the men in the colliery were fit to be taken as firemen or underlookers and it can hardly be expected that the accident is some result of some rash accident by the workmen.”

The men went down the mine at five and six in the morning and, as was the established practice, the fireman, William Marsh made his inspection of the workings before the men went to work and in his own words, “sound, everything as clear as a bell.” When he had finished his rounds he went to the pit-eye to get something to eat and was just at the point of returning when the explosion occurred. He felt a large rush of wind and knew that an explosion had taken place.

The blast lifted the hooker-on off his feet and blew his cap into the Five Foot Mine. A cloud of dust and small coal was blown up the shaft. Marsh immediately set off to find the extent of the damage. He was the first on the scene and went to the right of the workings where he soon found that this was not the seat of the explosion. He found about a dozen men who had been working in the area, coming out and they told him that the explosion had not occurred there.

He turned back and made his way down the jig-brow, at the bottom of which he found three boys, Thomas Morris, the taker-off at the bottom of the jig, John Ashcroft, a pony driver and John Watkinson. Two of these lads were suffocating in the afterdamp that filled the mine due to the destruction of the ventilation. The arching had been destroyed. Marsh rendered first aid to the lads and got them to the pit-eye from where they were taken to the surface and safety.

Mr. Mercer, the owner of the colliery, had a near escape. He was at the pit bank waiting to go down the mine to inspect one of the working places in the explosion area. A pony was being lowered in the cage which was the cause of his wait when the explosion occurred. The delay probably saved his life.

Before a full search of the workings could take place, the arching had to be repaired and the underlooker, Henry Ashcroft, who was in the No.1 pit at the moment of the explosion, came to the No. 2 shaft as soon as he knew what had happened. He went down to help Mr. Marsh and to supervise the operations.

As in all mining disasters, there was immediate help forthcoming from other collieries in the district with the mining engineers and workmen congregating at the stricken colliery, offering their help and expertise to give aid to their fellow workmen who were down below.

Mr. Clarke, mining engineer for Sir Robert Gerard of Ashton and Mr. Watkin from Messrs. Blundell’s Collieries at Pemberton, near Wigan, immediately went to the pit to offer assistance. As soon as the arch was temporarily repaired, a search party went along the jigbrow and it was there that they found the first body about 3 p.m. Along the top of the brow, they recovered the bodies of three or four drawers and the remainder of the dead were all found in their working places.

The grim task of recovering the bodies was begun. Many of them were very badly burnt and others had met their deaths by the afterdamp that was present in the mine. By 10.30 p.m. all the thirty bodies had been recovered.

The local population had turned out to give whatever assistance they could and Mr. Mather, the surgeon of Ashton, supervised the operations at the pithead as the bodies were recovered. By 1 a.m. all the bodies had been laid out in the fitting shop attached to the works and as the news of the disaster spread throughout the district, and loved ones did not return home, sorrowing relatives and friends went to the pit to identify their dead husbands, sons and fathers and to claim their bodies. There unfolded that all too familiar scene that was the hallmark of mining disasters.

The correspondent of “The Colliery Guardian” captured the mood of the moment very well:

The pen cannot picture the harrowing scene. Extended on hastily constructed benches, in the dimly lighted workshops lay the stiffened corpses of thirty individuals who a few hours before leaving their homes in full possession of health and strength, and now were blackened, charred, bruised, and maimed remnants of humanity.

By 10 a.m. the preparations for the identification of the bodies were ready and Mr. Jolley, the bookkeeper at the colliery, in the company of Police Inspector Peters and Sergeant Thornley admitted people in relays. There were heart-rending cries as the relatives recognised their loved ones. In many cases, the limbs of the dead were distorted and many were burnt in the act or raising their arms over their faces to ward off the flames that swept down the tunnel and claimed their lives.

The correspondent of “The Colliery Guardian” again:

One of the first bodies that were identified was that of a father by a daughter, and when asked how she would know him, she said, “He’s a big old man – that’s him,” and lifting the covering of his prostrate form, she placed her lips to his cheek and sobbed as though her heart would break. Turning from him, she said, “There’s my brother,” and as his body was uncovered, her lamentation redoubled. (The two colliers in question were James Leyland and his son, Robert)

The next female was admitted. a fine well-grown girl of from four to five and twenty, passed tearfully along the silent lines, until, arrested at one well-known form, she clung to it in frantic grief, and was lead away by her friends with her face besmeared with the coal dust gathered from the cheeks of her dead husband.

A nice-looking modestly-clad woman entered to search for her husband, and finding him speedily could scarcely be separated from his inanimate form.

A poor crippled old man entered the building exclaiming, “My lad, my lad,” and having found his boy, still and cold in the embrace of death, buried his face in his bosom, and gave way to the most heartrending expressions of a stricken heart.

The grief was deepened in intensity by the sound of the workmen’s hammers overhead engaged in making the coffins for the deceased.

Even at this early stage, there was speculation as to the cause of the explosion. It was known that the firemen had fired all the shots for the day in the mine with the exception of one since the hole had not been drilled deep enough when he made his inspection in the morning and that the shot had not been fired. The lamps were found to be in good order and in the opinion of Mr. Clarke, the explosion was very severe due to the mine being low. This would account for the damage that had been done, with roads and rails being torn up and scattered in all directions. In some places, the roof had been blown down in large masses.

Mr. Peter Higson, Her Majesty’s Inspector for the district, arrived at the colliery at noon on Wednesday and there was a large crowd of people from Wigan and the surrounding districts at the pit.

Those who died in the disaster were:

  • James Morris aged 18 years, a drawer of Rose Hill, Ashton.
  • Timothy Fairhurst aged 48 years, a collier of Whitledge Green who was married with four children.
  • James Leyland aged 60 years, a collier of Drummonds Lane, Ashton who was married with four children.
  • Robert Leyland, aged 26 years of Rose Hill, Ashton and son of James.
  • Edward Fairhurst aged 24 years, a collier of Goose Green.
  • James Pilling aged 31 years, a collier of Drummers Lane, Ashton, who was married with four children.
  • John Hurst aged 28 years, a collier of High Brooks, Ashton, married with four children.
  • William Hewitt aged 19 years, a drawer of Goose Green.
  • Samuel Liptrot aged 21 years, a dataller of Orrell who was a farmer. He was identified by his old father who said, “Aye that is my son.”
  • William Sutton aged 20 years, a collier who was married only the previous Sunday and was identified by his father-in-law who was accompanied by the young widow.
  • John Unsworth aged 22 years, a drawer of Ashton.
  • John Shepherd, aged 15 years, a drawer of Long Lane, Ashton.
  • John Oldfield aged 20 years a collier of Ashton.
  • Michael Parkinson aged 17 years, a drawer of Ashton.
  • John Hart aged 15 years, a jigger of Ashton.
  • John Shaw aged 35 years, a collier of Simms Lane End, Ashton, married with four children.
  • John Saunders aged 30 years, of Whitledge Green, Ashton who left a wife and one child.
  • Richard Catterall aged 19 years, a drawer of Pemberton.
  • Thomas Ellison aged 29 years, a drawer of Pemberton.
  • Thomas Parkinson aged 40 years, a collier of Pemberton who was married with six children.
  • John Marsh aged 50 years, a collier who left six children besides the two sons that were killed in the explosion.
  • William Marsh aged 17 years, drawer, and brother of John.
  • James Sudworth aged 24 years, a collier of Ashton who was married with one child.
  • Peter Lowe aged 17 years, a drawer of Rose Hill, Ashton.
  • Thomas Fairhurst aged 30 years, a drawer of Aston.
  • John Molyneaux aged 18 years, a drawer of Pemberton.
  • Thomas Hill aged 38 years, a collier of Pemberton who left a wife and six children.
  • Seth Hilcock aged 30 years, a collier of Rose Hill.
  • George Tollitt aged 20 years, a drawer who lodged with Hilcock.

The public were concerned for the surviving eleven widows and forty children that were orphaned by the disaster. The man of the house was often the father of a large family whose only means of support was his work. The loss of a breadwinner meant that the family was looking at the workhouse or starvation.

Support for the widows and orphans was given by general subscription to a relief fund and in many cases, the deceased were members of Benefit Clubs. The Liverpool Mercury reported that Mr. Cartland, the manager of the Old Swan Rope Works, organised his workforce in an event where a sum £10-2s.-2d. was given to the Relief Fund.

After the verdict had been delivered at the inquest, The Reverend H. Newsham, of Ashton-in-Makerfield, made a statement of sympathy for the widows and orphans to the court on behalf of the colliery proprietors. He expressed his concern for the families of the victims now that they had no means of support and he recommended that a committee be formed to raise money for the relief of the sufferers.

Mr. William Pickard, the Agent of the Miner’s Benefit Society said that the owners had been given £1,800 by Mr. Higson, the Mines Inspector from the Hartley Explosion Fund. The widows of the Park Lane explosion were allowed 5/- a week if they remained unmarried and 1/- a week for every child up to the age that the child was old enough to start work.

The inquest was held at the Park Lane Hotel, Ashton-in-Makerfield and took the usual form of inquests into mines deaths at the time. The first witnesses that were examined were the men and boys who worked or had worked, in the mine prior to the explosion. Their evidence gives an account of the conditions in the mine and the working practices. Very often there are graphic accounts from the men and boys who were in the pit at the time of the explosion and escaped with their lives. In relation to this inquest, the Coroner expressed his worry that not many of the workpeople came forward to give evidence.

At the first session of the inquiry which was convened for the identification of the deceased, Henry Ashcroft, the underlooker was sworn and he identified the thirty victims. After the evidence of identification was taken, the jury bound over to appear on Wednesday 7th February 1866.

Immediately after the identification of the bodies, orders were made for the burials which took place on the following Saturday and Sunday in several of the churchyards in the neighbourhood. It was reported in the press at the time that, “the whole was a scene of melancholy”.

The inquest into the thirty victims that were killed at the colliery on the 23rd January 1866 was opened by the County Coroner, Mr. Driffield at the Park Lane Hotel owned by Mr. George Peters which was a few yards from the colliery.

Friends of the deceased occupied the road in front of the public house and it was understood that the proceedings would be formal. A large number of relatives had been summoned to identify the bodies but in the event, they were not needed as Ashcroft, the underlooker, was able to give all the evidence that was necessary.

The gentlemen present were Mr. Higson, Her Majesty’s Inspector, Mr. Mercer the owner of the colliery and Mr. William Pickard, the Miner’s Agent. The jury was sworn in. It consisted of: Joseph Ashton the foreman, Hugh Lyon, James Prescott, Charles Potter Dob, Aaron Stock, Edward Birchall, John Rigby, Charles Rigby, Robert Unsworth, John Parkinson, John Summer, William Melling and George Peters.

The Coroner opened the proceedings with the following speech:

On the former occasion of our meeting, we merely took formal evidence, by which we might inter the bodies. They were more particularly seen by their friends and identified but it was not necessary to call them in succession as the bodies were clearly recognised by the underlooker, Henry Ashcroft and in any case, he should have been mistaken we shall be able to get the particulars with respect to some of the witnesses who may be hereafter be called.

These witnesses, I am sorry to say, are very few, although the inquiry might take some considerable time inasmuch as it will be very carefully made, and no loophole must be left where information can possibly be got, particularly as there are so very few witnesses to be called. The witnesses, I believe, number very few over half-a-dozen and, therefore, it behooves us to take that evidence all the more carefully in order to see what amount of information can possibly be gathered from these statements.

I won’t detain you further by referring at greater length to the matter at present. I think it will be much more in place to do so after the evidence if heard and, I, therefore, propose at once to call the underlooker Ashcroft to let us know under what circumstances that pit is worked, and the result of his own conviction immediately after the explosion and when the measures were taken for getting the bodies out.

Henry Ashcroft, the underlooker at the colliery, was the first witness to be called. He was in the Five Foot mine at the time of the explosion and he went up immediately and descended the Four Foot mine, where he met William Marsh, William Oldfield, a tunneller and a collier named James Whittle. Ashcroft asked Marsh, “What was amiss?”  and Marsh replied that he thought that it had fired but he could not tell where.

They set off to explore and soon found that the arch at the foot of the jigbrow was blown down and this had stopped the air and prevented them from going any further. He gave orders that the place should be repaired with brattice and it took about an hour before they managed to get air into the jigbrow so that the exploring parties could go forward.

They set off into the workings and soon found a dead boy who they thought was a jigger but did not know his name. As they proceeded they found that all the stoppings were blown down and ordered men to set about repairing them. The five or six bodies that had been discovered were sent to the bottom of the shaft. Most of the bodies were found at their working places and by 11 p.m. all of them had been recovered.

As the rescue parties went around the workings, they encountered some firedamp and afterdamp but it cleared away as the ventilating air was brought in. In evidence to the court, Mr. Ashcroft could not say from where the gas that caused the explosion had come.

The mine was lit by locked safety lamps with the exception of the lad in the jigger who was supplied with a glass flame lamp which was considered to be a safety lamp.  Mr. Peter Higson, the Inspector, asked if the lamp was a Clanny or an ordinary lamp and he was told that it had gauze at the top and glass at the bottom so that it would give out more light than an ordinary safety lamp. All but two of the lamps had been recovered. The lamps were taken down the pit by the men and they were locked at the bottom and if they had to re-light them, the men had to go to the bottom of the shaft. As far as Ashcroft knew, only Mr. Marsh carried a lamp key.

Mr. Ashcroft said that he had inspected the workings on the Monday before the explosion and he saw no signs of gas at all. He considered the ventilation of the mine adequate. Before the explosion boreholes had been sunk in the floor of Leyland’s, Pilling’s, Hill’s, Sutton’s, Parkinson’s and Morris’s places and the floor of Hill’s level and they had found a little gas in the floor of Parkinson’s place.

Mr. Higson closely questioned Ashcroft about the conditions in the mine prior to the explosion and asked him about a rope that was found attached to one of the ventilation doors. This could have been used to keep the door open but Mr. Ashcroft said it was there because it was easier for the boy to open the door. He was also questioned about the lamps that had been found after the explosion and the competence of the fireman. He replied that he had worked as the overman at the colliery for eight years and the fireman was there before he came to the colliery and he was a very experienced and competent man.

Mr. William Pickard, the Miners Agent, asked him about the procedure for firing shots in the mine and he replied that the under-fireman, Liptrot had been given permission to fire shots in the mine but he had given Marsh, the fireman, orders that no shots were to be fired if he thought that there was any danger at all. If shots were not allowed then the men were paid for driving with pick, shovel and bar.

This payment was not the general practice in collieries up and down the country and was the cause of many disputes at Lancashire and collieries in other coalfields in the nineteenth century. The use of blasting powder made the work of coal getting quicker and the men could earn better money. The fact that the management of the Park Lane Colliery would pay the men more if they did not use powder was a good move to safer practices in mines and at the time, an unusual one.

William Marsh, the fireman who lived in Downall Green, and was in the district where the explosion occurred was the next witness and he told the court that he had been in the workings twenty minutes before the explosion and was eating his breakfast underground at the pit-eye with a tunneller Thomas Oldfield when the catastrophe occurred He then went down the slant with Oldfield thinking that the seat of the explosion was in that direction and they met two men coming out who said that the explosion had not been in that district and they returned to the bottom of the jig where they found two ponies and three lads. Two of the lads were unconscious and the other was trapped under a box. They released him and sent the others to the surface. He told the court that the ponies were a little cut but did not say if they were alive.

Proceeding to the bottom of the jig, they found that the arching was blown down and this had shut off the ventilation. The afterdamp had collected there and prevented them from going any further forward.

By this time, Mr. Ashcroft had gone down the pit and joined them and work immediately started to erect bratticing to take fresh air down the jig so that they could continue with the rescue operations. They soon found the body of a boy and William Marsh recognised the body of George Pollitt who was HurstÕs drawer and had not worked at the pit for very long.

Mr. Marsh was questioned about the lamps in the mine as they were seen as a possible source of ignition of the gas. He gave evidence that none of the lamps that had been found had been tampered with and not one was found open. Marsh examined the lamps every morning at the pit-eye. It was possible for someone to get past him but he doubted if this as ever happened and he expressed the opinion that if anyone tried to do this, the other men would tell him. He examined all the lamps very carefully by putting them over a naked flame. If any man went into the workings with a lamp that had not been examined, then the man would be fined. All the lamps, which were of good quality, were in perfect working order. If men lost their light them they would go to the pit-eye where the hooker-on would re-light them. At the end of the shift, the men would unlock their own lights at the pit brow where a key was kept for the purpose.

When questioned about the glass lamp at the top of the jig brow Mr. Marsh said that he had examined the lamp on the day of the explosion. It had a lock on the top and which was, in fact, locked and it was intended as a safety lamp but it had never been used to test for gas.

Another possible source of ignition could have been connected with the shots that were fired in the mine. There had been rumours that the explosion was caused by shot firing but the fireman had fired about ten shots on the morning of the explosion and there were four that had not been fired. This was because two were only part drilled and not finished and two others were packed and rammed and ready for firing. Marsh had no doubt that no unauthorized person had fired a shot.

William Marsh testified that he never let anyone fire a shot for him and he always examined the place for gas before a shot was fired. He fired the shot by passing a wire through the gauze of his lamp. The men would wait for him to come and fire the shot and on one previous occasion, they waited an hour before he came. On the day of the explosion, the last shot that he fired was in Tom Hill’s place and one in Sutton’s place was fired half an hour before this.

It emerged that some of the men were found up to thirty yards out of their places and they should have been working at the right-hand side at the top, which would indicate they had been running away from something that alarmed them which could have been a blower. Their bodies were all burnt to some degree or other.

Mr. Peter Higson, the Inspector of mines asked searching questions about the state of the ventilation in the mine and the occurrence of gas. Marsh said that gas had been found in the mine, sometimes coming from the floor and about two months before the accident, gas had shown in the flame of his lamp but he had never seen the gas in the return air to the furnace.

There had been few complaints from the workmen about the state of the ventilation in the mine. On one occasion an old man named Leyland, who came from St. Helens complained that he was too cold while working on the right-hand side at the top of the jig, and the fireman had to prop up his brattice with a pick. A possible explanation for this could have been because the current of air was too strong, indicating that the ventilation was good and the adjustment of the brattice would lessen the draught in that particular place.

The Miners Agent, Mr. William Pickard, took up the questioning. He asked Mr. Marsh about past events at the colliery and the occasions that he had mentioned the presence of gas to workmen in the mine in conversation, and some occasions that shots had been fired and gas had come from blowers in the mine. The witness said that he had seen gas fire at the shot hole when the fuse was inserted and he put out the flame with his cap.

Mr. Higson took up the point later and it was pointed out that the flame was easily extinguished before the firing of the shot. This was easily accomplished with a cap and no one saw any danger at the time. Mr. Pickard pointed out that if the hole had been drilled in the small coal, then the flame could go on burning without the knowledge of the man at the face which could ignite any outburst of gas that might occur. The witness agreed with this could be the case.

Further questioning by Mr. Higson and Mr. Pickard of the witness established that the airways were so small that the men had to crawl through them on their hands and knees. Tunnels this size would obviously restrict the passage of air through them but the witness thought that there was enough ventilation in the mine.

Mr. James Whittle, a collier of Rose Hill, was the next witness. He was in the Yard Mine and felt a “push” of wind after the explosion. He made his way to the pit bottom and met Oldfield and Marsh and went into the workings with them. He helped to recover the bodies and with the work of repairing the mine. He was then questioned about the conditions in the mine prior to the explosion and expressed the opinion that the ventilation was good and he had heard no complaints about gas in the pit nor had he seen very much gas. The procedure for the lamps was very strict and no one fired their own shots in the mine.

The next to be called was Thomas Oldfield, a metalman, who lived at Rose Hill. He had identified two of the dead, John his son and William Sutton who was his son-in-law, both of whom were about twenty years of age and were colliers.

At the time of the explosion, he was in a tunnel and went to the pit-eye where he found the hooker-on, Marsh and a man named Whittle. He went up the jig and found three lads which he helped out of the pit. The lads escaped with their lives. Knowing that his son and son-in-law were in the pit he went to the surface and did not return. He told the court that his relatives had worked in the pit for along time and he had never heard them complain about gas. They provided their own lamps which were in good order.

John Ashton of Goose Green, who was fourteen years of age, and whose father had been killed at the Blundell’s collieries in Pemberton nine years before. His job was to put the empty boxes onto the rope at the bottom of the jig-brow, which he was doing at the moment of the explosion. He had just hooked some wagons on and was sitting down when he felt a wind at his back. He turned around and had the dust blown into his face and his lamp went out. He could remember nothing else until he was at the surface having been rescued by Marsh and his party. The two other boys that were with him were John Thomas Morris and William Watkinson who were pony drivers.

Prior to the explosion, he had heard a noise from the roof about the middle of the jig-brow, and when he asked Hart, the jigger, what it was and he was told it was a “feeder.” He did not know what this was as he had worked in the pit for only two months but he described it as a hissing sound which got louder and the explosion occurred a short time afterwards. Hart was killed in the explosion.

The Coroner said that he thought that there would be little useful evidence from the pony lads but as they were the only survivors of the scene of the explosion and they should be called to give evidence. John Thomas Morris, aged thirteen years, was called but could remember nothing of the accident.

William Watkinson, aged fourteen years, was the next to be called and he said that he had heard the sound of the feeder, just as Mr. Marsh passed by him and when Marsh returned he heard him say that he had heard the feeder himself.

William Marsh was then re-called and one being examined by Mr Higson and the Coroner. He said he knew of the blower but he did not think that it could have been so great as to give off the quantity of gas that had caused the explosion.

James Hilton, a metalman of Goose Green, was the next witness. He was in the pit at the time of the explosion and felt a rush of wind. he collected his clothes and put them on and went to the pit-eye where he met Marsh and Whittle. He went up the pit to get some brattice and then went down to help with the rescue operations.

This concluded the evidence that was given by the men and boys who worked at the colliery and the evidence was then started from the expert witnesses. Mr. W.J.L. Watkin of the Pemberton Collieries was the first. He was at the colliery at 4.30 p.m. on the day of the explosion and went down the pit with his overviewer who he had brought with him.

At that time, there had been about thirteen bodies recovered and he helped to recover the bodies of the remainder. He found that all the lamps that had been recovered were locked and that the greatest force of the explosion was seen in William Sutton’s place. He also noted that the coal had been on fire in James Morris’s place and there was a large amount of gas and after damp in the workings which had to be removed before they could make progress with the exploration. The last body was recovered at 9.15 p.m. and the pit was cleared that night. He thought that the explosion could not be attributed to the ventilation but he thought that the length of the air currents was too long for safe working. He suggested that the ventilation system could be improved and he outlined his ideas to the court.

As to the cause of the explosion, he put forward the idea that the warrant gave off gas as a blower and that this became ignited by some unexplained means at some point between Oldfield’s and Hill’s working places. He also thought that there was gas in the workings that had not been detected by the fireman.

Mr. Watkin did not like the system of lamps at the colliery by which the men bought their own lamps and pointed out that in the Northern coalfield it was the custom for the men to provide the lamps and the mine owners to provide the gauze. This remark prompted an immediate response from Mr. W.J.L. Watkinson, the General Manager of the Pemberton Collieries, Wigan, who wrote to the “Colliery Guardian” pointing out that most of the owners in the North of England provided their workmen with safety lamps.

Mr. Mercer asked the witness about the wisdom of firing shots in the mine and he answered that the mine made gas all the time and he thought that there was enough in the air at any time to feed a flame once it was ignited.

Mr. C.F. Clarke, mining engineer to Sir Robert Gerard was the next witness who went down the pit at 2 p.m. on the day of the explosion and found work going on to restore the ventilation. He helped with the work and gave advice on what should be done. On the following day, when the bodies had been recovered, he made an inspection of the mine and found no trace of gas but he saw the major effects of the explosion at the top of the jig-brow, where the brattice was burned and the coal charred. Mr. Clarke gave evidence on the ventilation of the mine and the figures that he gave to the court were interesting. The air had to travel 618 yards from the bottom of the downcast shaft, 572 yards through the brattice and the through the faces, another 560 yards. This totalled 1,750 yards. The air had to ventilate fifteen working places on the day of the explosion and there were three working places that were not being worked on that day. There were forty-one bends and turns and there were three ventilation doors necessary to direct the air through the mine, one leading to the first east level, a second in the down brow between the first west level and the third in the upbrow out of the east level. Besides these, there were some cloth doors between Whittle’s and Fairhurst’s levels. Coal was brought through these cloth doors and he pointed out that every time they were opened the ventilation would be interrupted. The question of the boreholes that had been sunk into the floor of the mine was investigated. Six or eight had been sunk and only one of them gave off gas but it gave off a large quantity of gas that extinguished the lamps of the men who were present when it was bored.

Despite all this, Mr. Clarke thought that the ventilation of the mine was adequate and he thought the explosion was caused by a large outburst of gas that overpowered the ventilation. In other mines in the district an upheaval of the floor caused by an outburst of gas was known to have occurred and Mr. Clarke referred to such an event at the Bryn Hall Colliery when the gas continued to come out of the floor for months.    As to the cause of ignition of the gas, he did not know but he thought that it was possible that one of the men had rushed out of the place with his lamp when he heard the gas and that it was possible that the flame had been driven through the gauze. The fact that the bodies of some of the men had been found away from their workplaces could be taken as proof of this.

Some time previously, Mr. Nicholas Wood had published the results of experiments that he had done into the effectiveness of safety lamps and had shown by experiment the flame could be driven through the gauze in certain circumstances could ignite the gas.

William Pickard, the Miners Agent asked Mr. Clarke if he thought the mine was safe for men to work in and Clarke expressed the opinion that it was safe to work with safety lamps but agreed that the ventilation would not always deal with a sudden violent outburst of gas. The answer to this problem was to make boreholes and tap the gas off which should prevent any sudden outburst.

Mr. Pickard was the next to give evidence to the court. He had been down the mine with Mr. Clarke and made an inspection of the workings after the explosion and he told the court that he had to crawl on hands and knees and sometimes on his belly to get over many very large falls of roof to reach the return airway. The only place that he found gas was in the borehole that was mentioned by Mr. Clarke and an accumulation in Hill’s place.

In answer to the Inspector’s question, Mr. Pickard expressed the opinion that the ventilation of the mine was not sufficient either in quantity or quality but he said he had no knowledge of the ventilation of the mine before the explosion but none of the men had ever complained to the Miners Association about the state of the mine.

Mr. Pickard did not think that it was wise that the air should have been divided as it was with the crossover. He pointed out that if this place was damaged, then the whole of the ventilation of the mine would be disrupted, as the disastrous events were to prove.

Mr. Mercer, the senior partner of the firm was the next to be examined and he said that every precaution had been taken at the colliery to guard against an outburst of gas. He always asked the men themselves if they had encountered gas in the mine and never took the word of the underlooker and the fireman at face value He said all the lamps were in good order and that there had not been a case of smoking in the mine for about twelve months. This was a possible source of ignition that had to be looked into. There were many instances of smoking in local pits at this time but it was against the Rules of the Colliery and anyone that was found offending usually found himself in front of the local Magistrates and was fined. In some cases, they were sent to prison for the offense.

Mr. Peter Higson, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Mines for the district was the last witness to be called. He had made an inspection of the scene of the explosion and had seen the signs of intense heat in Sutton’s and Hill’s places which lead him to believe, along with other evidence that the seat of the explosion was in the return district.

He believed that the gas came from a sudden discharge from the floor of the mine and he could only speculate on the source of ignition of the gas. Lamps could have become overheated, a shot could have been fired or a man could have been smoking but there was no evidence to show that any of these events had taken place. Mr. Mercer pointed out that when the Inspector had taken his ventilation measurements in the mine, the furnace had been cleared out and repaired and was not working at its full capacity.

Mr. Higson thought that the ventilation of the mine was sufficient for its normal working but there was not enough air to dilute any sudden increase in the volume of gas. The Arley Mine, as the Four Foot was known, was well known in this part of the Lancashire coalfield for its treacherous character and outbursts of gas from the seam were well known. It was known as a fiery mine in Ince, Shevington and Coppull.

This brought the evidence to a close and the Coroner gave his summing up to the jury who retired to deliberate.

The Coroner made his closing remarks and the jury retired to consider its verdict. They returned a quarter of an hour later and delivered the following verdict:

We, the jury, find that James Morris and twenty-nine others came to their deaths by an explosion of firedamp at the High Brooks colliery on 23rd. January but by what means or by whom the gas was ignited there is no evidence to show.

The jury is unanimous in stating that they are of the opinion that the mine in which the calamity has happened has been properly conducted, and that there is no blame to be attached to the proprietors of the said colliery.

Several aspects of the verdict were commented on by letters to the local press, some on the technical aspects of the colliery and some on the more human results of the disaster. In the Wigan Observer of 28th February 1866, it was reported that a correspondent to the Manchester Guardian who signed himself P.H.H. wrote:

A Coroners jury often volunteer answers to questions not referred to them and not infrequently do a little mischief thereby. The jury at the inquest into the High Brooks explosion did this last Wednesday when not content in finding that there was no evidence with what and by whom the gas was ignited they added that they viewed unanimously that the mine was properly managed and that there was no blame attached to the proprietors.

Now that opinion may or may not be correct but the coroner’s jury was never asked to decide competence. The question for them was first, how did the deceased come to their deaths, and secondly was anybody guilty of murder or manslaughter. They very properly declared that they thought no one was proved guilty but they had no reason to go beyond that.

Were the managers of the colliery and its proprietors faultless? It was unjust for the jury to do so for several reasons. First, it is improbable that any colliery in which an explosion has taken place has been properly managed, that it is supplied with ample ventilation to dilute and render harmless any probable amount of explosive gas. Safety lamps were securely locked and examined for gas at sufficiently short intervals so that conditions essential to safety were fulfilled the management of the mine was not proper. Its managers were culpable.

Claims for those who were killed by the explosion for compensation were lost by the owner’s neglect. The coroner’s jury had no right to decide on this important question and prejudice any claims on behalf of the relatives. This decision appears contrary to the evidence and the Inspector said that “omitting that there was sufficient ventilation to keep down the gas that gradually escaped from the workings of the mine I believe that there was not sufficient surplus to cater for any emergency that might arise”, and yet the evidence to the jury was that the ventilation was not sufficient.

The jury decided that the management was a proper management. That could have been a point that was tried in a higher court and before a Judge. Before that is done it will be decided that the management is blameless.

This was a question that was being asked in many of the mining areas of the country at the time. At the inquest into the Ferndale explosion, Glamorganshire, in which one hundred and seventy-four men and boys lost their lives on 8th. November 1867, the Coroner, Mr. Overton, made this statement in his opening remarks at the proceedings:

The Law in connection with disasters is imperfect as it is difficult to say if an offense had been committed and who was to blame. The Mines Inspection Act is badly framed and ambiguously worded. Convictions can not be made certain and few had the courage to attempt to convict. This gives rise to a miscarriage of justice. Parties have been sent for trial at assizes and have been acquitted and the inference is that there is no legal responsibility under Lord Campbell’s Act. It is an illusion to think that a widow or an orphan could take an action against a wealthy and formidable Company.

A letter to the editor of the Colliery Guardian from Mr. W. Hopton of St. Helens, dated 20th February 1866 commented on the more technical aspects of the calamity:


After an accident, many are able to say what “ought” to have been done, but few can show beforehand the course to be pursued to ensure safety. Yet it is well to learn from of the past such lessons as shall ensure prevention for the future. Having read the evidence on the cause of the explosion at the Park Lane Colliery, by which thirty men and boys were killed, it is my opinion that the proprietors had done all in their power to make the workings safe and that there was no deficiency of ordinary foresight, nor any arrangement neglected that could have ensured the safe working of the colliery.

The distance the air had to travel from the downcast around the workings back to the upcast was 1,750 yards, in the which it had to pass around eighteen working places, and then provide ventilation for thirty men and boys. This work of the air would not, in my opinion, be very great under ordinary circumstances, yet in mines giving off much explosion gas, and subjected to blowers, and also the uplifting of the floor, from which a large quantity of gas is generated, it is well to make a change in the mode of ventilation. Much was said as to the distance that the air had to travel, the number of works and persons ventilated by the air, and also the amount of gas generated. I beg to say the quality of air should not be always in proportion to the distance it travels, nor the number of works it has to pass around, not the number of persons for whom the ventilation id provided neither should the air be split in proportion to its distance to travel, nor the number or works to ventilate, or number of persons employed but the quantity of air and the number of divisions should be in proportion to the amount of gases generated because one mine generates more gas than another. If much gas is generated there ought to be much air, and if the explosive power (gas) be great, that great power should be divided by separate air currents. If separate currents are adopted, each division of air should be sent into the workings in a proper way, as there is a right and a wrong way of conducting pure air into the workings. By one way all the gases are brought from the workings into the wagon roads, by the other way they are conducted away with the air therefrom on the returns, where no persons except those duly appointed to pass and repass. This mode Peter Higson Esq. recommended in his evidence when he stated that the air should be sub-divided so that in the event of an explosion it would not destroy the whole of the workmen. Every principle tram-road should be so ventilated with pure air from the downcast that a naked light might be used therein safely. If this result is not attained, something is wrong with the ventilation or with conducting of the air through the workings. When thirty lives have been lost, and the air is still conducted through the workings on the same principle, there must be a danger every day of a repetition of the occurrence, with a similar fatal result. Not that the proprietors of the Park Lane Colliery intended to do so – far from it they, in my opinion, will be too glad to make an improvement if possible for the safety of the men. What I wish to insist upon is this, that if a loss of life is to be prevented, separate and distinct currents of air must be adopted in those mines generating and giving off much and large blowers of gas.

Yours, &c.


On the evening of Saturday 14th January 1866, there was a meeting with Mr. William Pickard, the Agent of the Miner’s Benefit Society and the men who worked at the colliery to review the evidence given to the jury at the inquest.

They were trying to establish that juries at the inquests into mining accidents, should consist of half practical miners. This, they thought, was a way to properly consider the nature of the accident. There was also a feeling among the men that the verdict of the jury was in direct opposition to the facts that emerged in the court hearing and they passed a resolution to this effect.

In another letter to the Wigan Observer which said what many thought at the time:


 Now, Sir, who can doubt after that after what the above two witnesses (Mr. Higson and Mr. Pickard) state but what there was some neglect in conducting the management of the pit in question. The witness said that there was too little air and in consequence, the gas accumulated and the explosion occurred by which the men lost their lives, but had there been an adequate amount of ventilation designed to dilute noxious gas as the Act of Parliament demands there should be, the explosion should not have occurred and the poor families would still have been protected by a husband and father but for all the Act of Parliament, the jury was of the opinion that the mine was properly conducted. We can scarcely believe what we hear but I heard an old collier say the other morning, “They may make the Cockneys believe it but they can’t gull an old collier who has been nine years a fireman”. But, Sir, so long as Government allow blasting and powder to be used in mines so long we shall be startled by these fearful accidents and loss of life but let Government debar powder where lamps are exclusively used and grant compensation in all cases and then I will venture to say that explosions will hardly be heard of

 Yours truly,
 21st. February 1866.


Mines Inspectors Report, 1866. Mr. Peter Higson.
Wigan Observer.
Wigan Examiner.
St. Helens Standard.
Colliery Guardian. 27th January 1866. p.67. 10th February 1866. p.108. 17th February 1866. p.123.
”The Unfortunate Colliery”. Ian Winstanley.

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

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