HIGH BROOKS. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire. 1st. April, 1869.

The colliery stood about a mile from the main Wigan to Ashton road and a railway line about a mile long ran from the colliery offices to the colliery. It was owned by Messrs. Mercer and Evans.

The colliery consisted of two shafts an upcast and a downcast which were both originally sunk to the Orrell Four Foot seam, 280 yards deep. In the downcast shaft, a fault had been found that had the effect of throwing the Orrell Four Feet or Arley mine which should had been sixty yards below the Five Feet to a point sixty yards above it which was 120 feet from where it was expected to be found.

The opening up of the seam presented many difficulties as fault after fault was encountered. The seam gave off a lot of gas and great care had to be taken in working it. All the men had locked lamps and there was strict supervision for the firing of shots. Only the firemen could fire shots and no collier was allowed to do so unless the fireman had first examined the place and given his permission. Care was taken to employ only the men as underlookers and their assistants.

Richard Gorton was the fireman on duty on the day of the explosions and he made his customary examination of the workings which began at 4 a.m. When his examination was complete he returned to the pit-eye to inspect and lock the lamps of the workmen as they went down the pit to work. The day was “making-up day” which was the last day of a fortnights reckoning and the whole of the workforce was in the mine.

Several shots had been made ready to fire on the previous evening and Gortley had been asked to supervise the firing of these shots as soon as was possible. He went to the surface to consult with another fireman and went down the pit as soon as he had done this. When he got to the pit-eye he went into the south workings to make the preparations for firing the shots.

The colliery fired about seven in the morning and the pit bank was quickly crowded with anxious friends and relatives. At that time the colliery employed about seventy men and boys and they were in the pit at the time. About half of them escaped with their lives and there were about fifteen who were brought out of the pit alive but badly burnt and suffering from the effects of chokedamp.

It was soon realised that the seat of the disaster was in these workings and Gortley and all who were working in that part of the mine were feared dead. The force of the blast was localised but the devastation to the south workings was great with stoppings blown down and large portions of the roof as well.

A rescue party was quickly organised under the direction of Mr. Sharrock the underlooker at the colliery who was in the Orrell Five Foot at the time of the explosion. There were many volunteers for the job and the limiting factor limiting the number of men who could go below ground was the quantity of ventilation. The air supply had to be carried slowly forward by brattice cloth.

Help was quickly on hand from neighbouring collieries and Mr. William Smethurst and the underlookers of Messrs. Meryck Bankes and Samuel Stock went down the pit the morning and the Government Inspector, Mr Peter Higson and his assistant Mr John Higson arrived at the colliery about noon.

As the south workings were approached the first bodies were found. They were of two men, Lowe and Ashcroft, who had been working in a tunnel in a part of the mine which had been developed since the last explosion. It was at this point that the rescuers realised that there was no hope for the men in the workings as the afterdamp was causing them a great problem and at that time the death toll was thought to be eighteen to twenty men and boys.

The last man brought out alive was James Cunliffe and he was in a very bad state from the effects of the gas but under the treatment of Mr Pennington, surgeon, he was revived and was considered out of danger by noon.

The explorers made their examination but they were unable to get all the bodies to the pit-eye because of the many falls in the narrow workings that seriously impeded their progress. It was not until 6 p.m. that the falls were cleared sufficiently to bring out the bodies which were assembled at the bottom of the shaft.

The winding of the bodies up the shaft took a full hour and as the pitiful loads arrived at the pit-bank, they were carried through the crowds of sorrowing relatives and friends to a shed which was to serve as the temporary mortuary. The grim count totalled twenty-eight including the two that had been brought to the surface in the morning and there were unconfirmed reports that some of the men who had been got out alive but burnt had died during the day.

The last bodies brought up were those of two lads who had been trying to escape and had fallen over the body of a pony and laid there to die from the effects of the afterdamp. There was speculation as to the cause of the disaster and as there had been an explosion at the Queen Pit owned by Richard Evans in Haydock a few months previously which had been caused by a blown-out shot this was taken to be the cause of the High Brooks explosion.

Mr. Higson went down the pit in the afternoon and made a thorough inspection of the explosion area and on the surface; the local doctors attended the injured. Mr. Pennington of Ashton and the assistant to Mr. Daglish of Wigan did all that could be done for the injured.

Of the injured four were known to live in Pemberton and they were expected to recover. Two boys, Wilcock and Jones, who lived near the colliery, were very badly hurt and there was little hope that they would recover. The back of Wilcock’s head was said to have been burnt to a cinder. Some of the families had suffered terribly by the explosion. The Jones family lost a father and three sons and many had lost a father and a son.

Those who died were:

  • Alexander Latham aged 36 years, a collier of Wigan.
  • Peter Lowe aged 20 years, a dataller of Ashton.
  • Hezekiah Jones aged 13 years of Ashton, a drawer. He was identified by Hannah Hunt wife of Thomas, who was his cousin. Hezekiah helped his brother, Joseph, to drawer for their father. All three were killed in the disaster.
  • John Ashcroft aged 12 years, pony driver of Ashton.
  • William Worsick aged 32 years, a collier of Ashton who left a wife and six children.
  • William Worsick (Jnr) aged 11 years, worked as a drawer and was William’s son.
  • John Worsick, drawer, aged 13 years, of Ashton and brother to William.
  • Richard Gorton, fireman, who was widowed and aged 48 years. He left two children.
  • John Gee aged 36 years. a collier of Upholland who left a wife and five children.
  • John McCulloch aged 32 years, of Rose Hill, Ashton, who left a wife and two children.
  • Samuel McCulloch aged 28 years, a collier of Ashton, who left a wife and three children.
  • Anthony Norton aged 25 years, a collier of Pemberton.
  • James Jones aged 30 years, left a wife and one child.
  • James Hurst aged 16 years, a drawer. Thomas Hurst of New Fold, Upholland said James was his brother and he drew for John Gee who was also killed.
  • William Leyland aged 33 years, a collier of Pemberton.
  • Richard Marsh aged 23 years, of Orrell, who left a wife.
  • Thomas Melling aged 46 years, of Pemberton, left a wife.
  • Joseph Gaskell aged 22 years, a collier of Orrell.
  • John Broderick aged 25 years, a collier of Ashton, who left a wife and two children.
  • Henry Farrimond aged 33 years of Aspull. He was a collier and left a wife.
  • James Walls collier, aged 25 years, left a wife and two children.
  • Samuel Jones, collier, aged 33 years, of Rose Hill, Ashton, who left a wife and three children in addition to the two that were lost in the explosion.
  • James Swift aged 13 years, a drawer of Billinge.
  • Jeremiah Burns drawer, of Ashton aged 13 years.
  • James Barton aged 25 years, left a wife and a child.
  • Joseph Jones aged 17 years, a drawer of Ashton.
  • Richard Baxendale aged 17 years, a drawer of Ashton.
  • John Wilkinson aged 12 years, worked as a pony driver.
  • William Parkinson aged 12 years, a door tenter of Pemberton.

These were the victims that were killed in the disaster and brought out of the mine dead. Most of them were identified to the court by the underlooker. Eight of the victims that were brought out alive but injured and died later and the evidence of identification was taken at the start of the sittings of the inquiry.

James Cayley aged 16 years, a drawer of Billinge. He was identified by William Halliwell of New Fold, Upholland said he worked in the mine where the explosion occurred and was down on the morning of the disaster. James was his drawer. When the gas fired he was at the far end and James had taken a full tub to the top of the jig and he helped to carry him to his house about 11 a.m. and he died about 9 a.m. on Friday from his burns.

A list of the injured who lived at Goose Green, Pemberton were, William Goulding, drawer, Peter Gerard, pony driver, Adam Watkinson, pony driver, and Peter Wilkinson, pony driver.

The injured who lived at Billinge were Moses Wilkinson, collier, and Henry Unsworth, drawer. and those who lived in Ashton were Eliahakim Wilcock, a jigger, Joseph Frier of Mercers Houses, pony driver, Henry Jones, Mercers House, drawer. It was reported that all were badly burnt and not expected to live and the most badly injured were Wilkinson, Jones and Wilcock.

On the 9th April more deaths were reported which brought the total to thirty-three:

  • Moses Wilkinson aged 20 years, a collier of Upholland, left a wife.
  • John Wilkinson of Upholland and quarryman identified him as his brother.
  • William Goulding aged 18 years, a drawer of Goose Green. He was identified by his step-mother Margaret Jenkins of Pemberton and was drawer for James Winstanley.
  • Peter Gerard aged 12 years, of Pemberton, a drawer. He was an orphan and lived with his uncle. He was identified by Ellen Brindle of Goose Green, wife of James, a hand-loom weaver.
  • Eliahakim Wilcock. He died later and was a jigger and aged about 15 years. He lived a short distance from the pit and had both legs broken in an accident at the pit a short time before. He had only just recovered and gone back to work. The body was identified by his father who gave the lad’s age as 17 years and he had worked in the mine for three or four years. He was attended at his home by Dr. Pemberton, until his death.
  • Henry Jones. He died on the Wednesday after the explosion aged 15 years and lived at Rose Hill, a short distance from the colliery. His father, David, identified him and said he was a drawer in the Four Foot mine.
  • Henry Unsworth aged 16 years, drawer for John Wilkinson and was identified by his father.
  • Adam Watkinson aged 13 years, a jigger who had worked in the mine for fourteen or fifteen months. He was identified by Ann Watkinson, his mother, of Goose Green who said he was brought home badly burnt and attended by Dr. Daglish until his death.

A meeting held in Wigan to see what relief could be provided for the dependants of the disaster. There were thirteen widows’ thirty orphaned children and six other dependants that now had no means of support. The Mayor of Wigan called the meeting because there had been other colliery explosions in the district. The Queen Pit at Haydock, the Rainford and Hindley Green Collieries had all suffered recent disasters that left widows and orphans in need of relief.

The Local Committee in Ashton had raised £35 and Messrs. Mercer and Evans had promised £250 for the High Brooks Fund and collections had been started for the other disasters. The committee felt that they could not deal with the High Brooks explosion on its own, but decided to set up a fund for the victims of all the recent colliery explosions in the district with each district making its own contributions to a central, local fund.

Funds were also looked for from The Mansion House Fund of the Lord Mayor of London and from Liverpool. Both these funds had been set up for the relief of the dependants of the victims of other colliery disasters like those of the Barnsley explosions and for those at the Talk ‘O th’ Hill Colliery in Staffordshire.

The inquest into the explosion was opened by the County Coroner, Mr. C.E. Driffield at the Park Lane Hotel close to the colliery.

James Whittle, fireman, of Rose Hill, was the first of the workmen to give evidence to the court. He had made his inspection of the Arley district and Gorton, the other fireman, had done his inspection of the other part of the pit.

The men and boys went down the pit at 5 a.m. When the explosion occurred Whittle was in the tunnel and felt the suction of the explosion. He knew what had happened and shouted to the men to go to the pit shaft. He went with them and saw that they had ascended safely but did not go up himself.

He went towards the direction in which the explosion occurred but he could not get far and went back to get help. The exploration then started and he saw some men brought out alive and helped with the recovery of the bodies.

At the resumption of the inquest, the gentlemen present were reported to be, Mr. Peter Higson, the Government Inspector for South-West Lancashire, Mr. W. Pickard the Miner’s Agent, Mr. Mercer, and Mr. Evans, the proprietors of the colliery and Mr. William Evans and Mr. Christopher Fisher Clarke, mining engineer to Sir Robert Tolver Gerard of Ashton-in-Makerfield.

Mr. Clarke was called and he presented a plan of the colliery to the court. The distance from the downcast shaft to the top of the jig-brow was 260 yards in a straight line and the distance from the jig brow to the fault leading to the Five Foot coal was 160 yards. The ventilating air had to travel 655 yards around the Five Foot workings until it returned to the fault. From that point to the top of the brow where the working places started, the air had to travel 160 yards through the explosion area, pass up the brattice and back to the bottom of the brow, and then another 160 yards. From the bottom of the brow the air travelled to the face, 195 yards, and then to the upcast shaft, a further 805 yards. The total distance travelled by the air from the downcast to the upcast shafts was 2,520 yards.

There were eighty-five yards of bratticing in the five endways and fifty-five yards of brattice in the lower level. There was none in the Five Foot and the whole mine was ventilated by a furnace placed in the upcast shaft about sixty yards below the mouthing where the return air returned into the shaft. The mine was level for the Lancashire coalfield, dipping one in eight.

Henry Ashcroft, of Ashton, who was formally an underlooker at the colliery but had left about a month before the explosion, was the first to be called. He had been at the pit for about twelve years and he thought the ventilation was efficient and he never saw very much gas in the pit. When he heard of the accident he went to the colliery and descended to the workings.

Henry Wilson, a collier, who was in the pit when the explosion occurred, said he noticed nothing wrong with the ventilation and the air was as good as usual.

The next witness was James Rylance who was a collier and was working in the other side of the tunnel where the explosion occurred. Since the explosion, he had been down the pit and through the workings. He expressed the opinion that the explosion had occurred when a shot that was fired in Leyland’s place, had blown out, due to the shothole cut into the roof, and he believed that the air was charged with gas and the shot ignited this. The body of the fireman had been found close to Leyland’s place and appeared to have been present when the shot was fired. Rylance had known Gorton the other fireman for three years and did not think that he was a very careful man and in his opinion, Leyland did not do his work in a professional manner. When he was prompted by questions from Mr. Pickard, he was very critical of the method of ventilation in the mine and a short time before he had suggested that the ventilation should be split. This had been done and he thought he owed his survival to this split. Mr. Mercer said the tunnel had been made before the witness suggested it.

Work was going on at the colliery to repair the damage and about a week after the explosion, there were reports of another. Shortly before 10 am on Tuesday 6th. April, a portion of the brick lining of the upcast shaft fell down the shaft to the Pemberton Four Foot seam. The bricks had probably been loosened in the explosion but the damage had not been noticed. The effects of the bricks falling down the shaft caused the ventilation to be reversed for a few moments and smoke came up the downcast.

People in the district, seeing the smoke, thought that there had been another explosion and the wives and mothers of the one hundred and fifty men in the pit rushed to the colliery from the surrounding towns and hamlets. There were very relieved to hear the true facts. No one was injured in this incident.

James Whittle, who was now the head fireman at the colliery, and lived in Ashton, was the next witness, he had given evidence to the inquiry into the 1866 explosion when he was a collier at the pit. There were two firemen under him, Gorton and Joseph Orrell. After he had examined the men’s lamps at the bottom of the pit, he saw Gorton, who told him he was going up the shunt. The explosion occurred about half an hour later.

While exploring the explosion area the same morning, Mr. Whittle found the shot hole that had already been described to the court. Near the shothole were the bodies of Leyland and Gorton.

The Coroner asked him about the presence of any gas and he did not find any nor did he know of any but he thought that the explosion had been caused by exploded powder tins which fired one after the other and he thought that the men met their deaths, either by being blown up by gunpowder or suffocated from the resulting powder smoke.

Mr. Higson said five powder tins had been found blown apart at the scene of the disaster and these were capable of holding up to two pounds of gunpowder. The resulting explosion would have been strong enough to blow down the stoppings when mixed with the coal dust in the mine.

James Whittle said that he would have trusted Gorton with his life and he was a very careful workman but when he was not at work he was frequently drunk and in his opinion not fit for the post as fireman.

Henry Wright and William Highton, two colliers who were in the Five Foot at the time of the explosion gave evidence to show that the explosion was caused by the prescience of gas.

Wright said that when he was trying to leave the pit after the explosion he was caught in chokedamp which came from the burning of firedamp. The gas made him unconscious for a while and he only recovered conscientiousness at his home. Highton said that the afterdamp was the worst he had ever known and it was impossible for it to be powder smoke.

Highton went on to say that two days before the explosion he had been working in a cut-through and he had seen gas in his lamp. He had told Gorton who had erected a swing cloth by which the gas was cleared. He was not satisfied with Gorton as a fireman and he thought him not to give his full attention to the ventilation but he did act when defects were pointed out. On other occasions, he had found gas but not so much as to cause an explosion. One build-up had been caused by an accumulation up of dirt behind a ventilation door which kept the door open. When this was pointed out to Gorton, the situation was corrected.

Mr. Higson asked the witness if he had ever complained about Gorton to the underlooker. This could have been done under the rules of the colliery. For the benefit of the colliers in the court and miners generally, Mr. Higson pointed out that this course of action could be taken by colliers and this should do if it could avoid accidents.

Matthew Heyes, a collier, was working with Highton at the time of the explosion and he believed the gas encountered after the explosion was afterdamp and not powder smoke. He also expressed the opinion that the explosion was caused by the blown out shot and was due to Gorton’s carelessness.

The underlooker at the colliery, William Sharrock, was the next to be called. He was down the No.1 pit in the Arley Five Foot mine at the time of the explosion where he felt the wind. He went to the No.2 pit through the tunnel and at once started working to improve the ventilation. He had been down the pit every day since the disaster and he thought the explosion was seated in Leyland’s place and attributed to a blown out shot.

The direct cause of the explosion was not gas but coal dust and powder. If the cans that had been found were full, then twelve to fourteen pounds of powder would have caused the explosion and this would have been capable of doing the damage that was done to the workings and roads. He thought this because he had not seen gas in the mine either before or after the explosion. He had, after the disaster, deliberately left doors open and still he could not detect a build-up of gas.

Under Mr. Mercer’s orders he shut off all the ventilation to the mine for five hours and at the end of that time, the mine was gas free. The mine was filled with powder smoke and the smoke from burnt timber and brattice after the explosion but there was little afterdamp. He said he had no proof that coal dust would burn but he produced come coked dust that had been taken from the mine and exhibited it to the court. He thought that the Arley mine being low, dry and dusty would provide a lot of dust that could become inflammable.

William Sharrock was indeed a far-sighted man. It was not until the early years of the twentieth century that conclusive experiments were conducted to show the connection between coal dust and mine explosions. In the intervening years, many men were to die in colliery explosions that were attributed at the time to gas but were in fact explosion of coal dust.

Of the five powder tins that had been found, the nearest was thirty and the furthest, one hundred yards from Leyland’s place. This he thought was the cause of the explosion and he did not think that blasting was safe in the Arley mine.

The witness said he had confidence in Whittle and in Gorton who stayed away from work only on a “play” Monday. The term “play” was used in the Lancashire coalfield to mean that they did not go to work on that day. He had worked at the Park Lane Collieries for twelve or thirteen years and had been the underlooker for fourteen months with five weeks as chief underlooker and had found little gas in the mine in all that time.

The next sitting of the court began with evidence of identification of the survivors who had died since they were brought out of the mine. This brought the total death toll to a final thirty-seven men and boys.

A mining engineer connected with the Winstanley Collieries, Thomas Shortrede was the first expert witness to give evidence. The Coroner asked him directly his opinion as to the cause of the explosion and he thought that it was gas that had fired. The shattered powder tins, in his opinion, could not account for the devastation that was caused in the mine and he thought that gas had accumulated somewhere in the mine but he could not say where.

Shortrede said he had seen the shothole and it was not drilled very well and he thought that this could easily have ignited the gas. As to dust he had carried out experiments in his mine at Winstanley and on no occasion did a blown-out shot ignite the coal dust that was lying around. The mine in which the experiments were conducted was also dry and dusty. Mr. Higson asked him if he had considered stopping blasting in the Arley Mine at his colliery and he said he had considered it but saw no reason to stop the men using shots. He also disapproved of the system of ventilation adopted in the Arley Mine at the High Brooks Colliery.

Mr. G. Holland, the manager at the Winstanley Collieries, went with Mr. Shortrede into he explosion area and he thought that the gas that they encountered was afterdamp but added that there was a little powder smoke mixed with it and he also thought that coal dust could not be ignited from a shot.

Mr. John Mercer, the senior partner of the firm of Mercer and Evans, who owned the High Brooks Colliery was the next to be called to give evidence. He was at his home when he first heard of the explosion but went at once when he learned of it. When he arrived at the colliery he took charge of the operations to recover the dead and descended the pit several times. The other partner of the firm, Mr. Arthur Evans, had gone down before him and it was not until the day after that he got into the workings and saw the scene of the disaster. He was in no doubt that it had been brought about by the blown out shot in Leyland’s place and the main force of the explosion had been in the main brow and that the coal dust had been ignited by the exploding powder that was in the tins. He knew that the mine was dusty and that the dust would burn. He said, a spadeful, thrown on the smithy fire with a blast of air, would make a flame six yards high. The coal dust lay inches thick in the floor of the mine. As coal fell from the loaded tubs, it was crushed and the men’s feet also ground the coal on the floor as they walked. The dust was deposited throughout the mine.

He was aware that Gorton had fired the shot in Leyland’s place and he had every confidence in the man’s abilities. He had been a daywageman at the colliery for many years before he was appointed to the post of fireman on Ashcroft’s recommendation. Mercer had known of little gas at the colliery, only in the Five Foot, and when it was found it was quickly dealt with.

When questioned by Mr, Higson, Mr. Mercer agreed that he had not been down the mine regularly but left the management to the underlookers and fireman, who carried out his instructions.

Mr. Peter Higson, the Government Inspector was the last witness to be called. He had made a thorough inspection of the mine after the explosion and he had seen the shot hole. He was of the opinion that the shot had blown out. He found some unexploded tins of powder in the endways and he did not think that gunpowder was the sole cause of the explosion but agreed that it might have aggravated it.

As to the question of the coal dust being a factor in the explosion, he said, when coal dust burned, it formed carbonic acid gas (carbon monoxide) and sulphurous vapours which were not unlike afterdamp but he thought that burning coal dust would have set the coal on fire which was not the case.

He thought that gas had accumulated somewhere in the mine due to a brattice being down or a door left open, which had either driven gas into, or stopped the ventilation to Leyland’s place. Whatever the case, he was sure that Gorton did hold life so cheap, particularly his own, as to fire the shot without making a thorough examination of the place for gas.

The Coroner asked Mr. Higson if he thought blasting in this mine should be discontinued and Peter Higson replied that he had given the matter much thought and had, a few months before, suggested to the Secretary of State, that blasting should be prohibited, not only in this, but in all gaseous mines. With the Secretary of State’s knowledge and approval, he had sent a circular to all the colliery proprietors in his district concerning the precautions that should be taken to avoid accidents.

With particular regard to blasting the circular read:

The great loss of life from the unskillful use of gunpowder clearly proves that blasting in mines which emit inflammable gas should at one be discontinued in getting coal.

In those mines which do not give off gas, it should be allowed under competent supervision.

After the circular had been read to the court, Mr. Higson said:

It is sufficient for the purpose of this inquiry to say that I issued that circular as the forerunner of what may come someday. Mr. Mercer it appears, who had a copy of it, paid little attention to it, for he did not stop blasting.

Mr. Mercer replied that it was not an order to stop blasting. Mr Higson said that he would not only stop blasting but see that the ventilation was increased.

This brought the gathering of evidence from the workmen and the expert witness to a close and the Coroner made his summing up to the jury, who retired to consider their verdict.

Mr. C.E. Driffield summed up and the jury retired to consider their verdict and after a short deliberation returned and delivered the following verdict:

We think that the accident has occurred from an explosion or explosions of gas in the Four-Feet mine at High Brooks pit on the 1st. inst that it is shown that gunpowder has to a greater or lesser degree contributed to these explosions and further, that these explosions originated, in all probability, with Leyland’s blown out shot, fired by the deceased fireman Gorton, but how the firedamp gas came to be present there is no evidence to show.

The verdict and the proceedings attracted much interest from all over the country and a letter which appeared in the “Colliery Guardian” dated 14th May 1869 was critical of the ventilation at the colliery:

To The Editor,

In looking at the plans of the High Brooks colliery workings, I find it a bad ventilation system, taking it round the Five Foot and then through the Four Foot also having those wooden doors made double with cloth ones near the jig-wheel and all connecting with the main airways.

If any of those doors became defective in any way, say by a piece of coal jamming them, the wind would pass the wrong way into the returns as if nothing were before it. I look upon the doubling of the ventilation doors with cloth a mere show. If it be necessary to have the doors between the intake and the return roads, there should be duplicate wooden ones made close with bricks and lime.

There are too many cloth doors in the pit. So long as they are used as ventilation, the public will hear of more explosions and loss of life.

I hope the Government Inspector will look into this.

A Collier.

Cumberland 6th May 1869.


The Mines Inspectors Report, 1866. Mr. Peter Higson.
The Colliery Guardian.
The Wigan Observer.
The St.Helens Standard.
The Wigan Observer.
The Unfortunate Colliery. Ian Winstanley.

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

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