LYME PIT. Haydock, Lancashire. 26th. February, 1930.

The small village of Haydock in Lancashire lies between Wigan and St.Helens and was typical of many small mining villages in the Lancashire coalfield. Coal had been mined there for many years under the directions of Richard Evans & Co. who owned all the collieries in the village and which were collectively known as “The Haydock Collieries”. The Lyme Colliery was one of five collieries belonging to Messrs. Evans and Co. of Haydock and it was three miles east and slightly north of the Borough of St.Helens.

The Lyme Colliery had a chequered history. Sinking had started in 1876 and had reached a depth of 110 yards when there was a serious problem with water due to the geological conditions. The pumps of the time could not keep the shaft free from water as the feeders were supplying so much water and the operations were abandoned. By 1912 the technology of sinking shafts had improved and the work was continued and many large surface buildings were completed for the processing of the coal that was hoped would be mined but the sinking work again came to a halt by the Great War.

The sinking was resumed in 1919 when again there were further developments in the technology of sinking shafts. Concrete was pumped into the shaft to control the flow of water from the feeders. This technique proved very successful and the colliery, at last, began to produce coal in 1922.

There were three shafts in use with the Nos.1 and 2 being used for coal winding and the No.3 shaft was used as a pumping shaft. The No.1 downcast shaft that was started in 1876, was later widened from 16 feet in diameter to 18 feet and reached the Florida Seam at a depth of 395 yards in 1922. This shaft wound coal from the Higher Florida Seam. The No.2 shaft was sunk to the same depth and was the upcast shaft. Coal from the Potato Delf and the Wigan Four Foot seams were wound in it when the Potato Delf seam was intercepted. Both shafts had steam winders that raised two deck cages which held three 12.3 hundredweight capacity tubs per deck.

The No.2 shaft was the upcast shaft and was 18 feet in diameter and reached the Florida Seams in 1922. New coal screens were installed in 1923 and a coal washery was completed in 1926.

About a quarter of a mile east from the shafts, a large fault with an upthrow of 240 yards to the east, interrupted the strata and brought the Wigan Four Foot seam, in which the explosion occurred nearly to the same level as the Potato Delf seam. The Wigan Four Foot seam was recovered by a pair of stone drifts or tunnels driven across the fault from workings in the Potato Delf seam.

At the time of the explosion, the workings of the Wigan Four Foot Seam and the roadways in the Potato Delf seam connected the workings with the shafts. These workings are known as the No.1 West District of the No.2 Lyme pit.

Immediately adjacent to the fault and for some distance beyond it, the seam was developed by headings driven in the solid coal. At a later stage, a longwall machine-cut conveyor face was opened out from a level known as the “Conveyor Level”. This included a short length on the deep side of the level. The face was 100 yards in length and was advancing nearly parallel with the line of full dip of the seam at a gradient of 1 in 5. Both the coal cutting machine and the conveyor engine were driven by compressed air was also used for drilling shot holes, and for auxiliary haulage and pumping in the district.

The Wigan Four Foot seam had a roof of shale, a roof of coal 1 foot 10 inches thick. The coal was 4 feet 8 inches thick and the floor was of fireclay. The shale roof went on for 16 yards above the seam where a borehole had proved the existence of another coal seam. A boring downwards had also proved a third seam of coal at a similar distance below the Wigan Four Foot seam.

The supervision of the colliery was carried out by the following staff. Mr. F.B. Lawson the General Manager and Agent of all the collieries of Messrs. Evans and Co. Ltd., Mr. Harold Whitehead, the manager and Mr. C.M. Coope, undermanager for the No.1 pit.

At the time of the explosion, the post of undermanager of the No.2 pit had been vacant for five months and an underlooker, Mr. J.F. Pickett, who held a second class Certificate of Competency, was performing the usual functions of an undermanager in the No 2 pit on a temporary basis, but he had not been formally appointed undermanager. In addition to the undermanager, there were nine firemen in the No.2 pit, four on the day shift, two on the afternoon shift and three on the night shift. Normally during the afternoon and night shifts, the workings were not visited by any official superior to a fireman. The inspection required by the Coal Mines Act, 1911 to be made within two hours of commencing work in any shift, was made and reported, generally by the fireman and the preceding shift.

Flame safety lamps were general used throughout the workings, but electric lamps were issued to coal cutting machinemen, conveyor panmen, drillers and fitters and a few working men were provided with two lamps.

Shots were fired in the rippings in the coal in the No.1 West District. The permitted explosion used was Polar Viking Powder with No.6 H.T. detonators. Shots were fired on all of the three shifts, but in no great numbers except on the night shift, during which an average of about twenty shots were fired by a shotfirer in the freshly cut coal. There was a shotfirer on the day shift to fire shots as required in the Conveyor Face and in the pillar workings to the dip. Firing on the afternoon shift was confined almost entirely to the rippings and it was done by firemen without assistance.

The quantity of coal dust in the face and on the roadways did not appear to have had a very great and in accordance with the provisions of the General Regulations of 30th July 1920, it was diluted by the application of Chances Mud, a carbonate of lime which was a waste material of certain large chemical processes and had been proved by experience to be extremely suitable for the purpose. In a period of six months prior to the date of the explosion, Chances Mud was distributed in the roadways of the mine at the average rate of 2lbs. per ton output.

There was also inert dust which was applied by hand, daily in the roadways of No.1 West District and in the face, prior to the firing of shots in the coal. The dust was applied by means of a blast of compressed air from a pipe placed in a bucket of dust at the intake end of the face.

General supervision of the stone dust arrangements was exercised by an assistant of the Agent, who was responsible for taking samples and for having them analyzed. When the results of the analysis were known, each manager was given them and he was then responsible for seeing that remedies were applied in any case in which the analyses showed they were necessary.

The Wigan Four Foot seam was a seam that was recognised to give off firedamp freely but in these workings, the general ventilation of the mine was so good,  that firedamp was rarely present in sufficient quantity to be detected on the flame of a safety lamp, but after the opening of the longwall conveyor face, the first heavy weighting was accompanied by water being driven into the workings and a very large volume of firedamp which, for a short time, overpowered the ventilation current and compelled a temporary suspension of work in the district for several days.

The roof in the conveyor’s face was supported by steel props (tubes with a timber core) and corrugated bars or straps. The roof in the roadways was supported, were supports were required, by steel arch girders which used right up to the face of the caunches in the Conveyor Level and the Main Slant. A considerable length also of the Main Brow was supported in this manner. In the pillared portions of the district, where the top coal was left up as a roof, little artificial support was necessary but where support was required props or props and bars were used as well as a chock here and there.

The explosion, which occurred in the main haulage way of the No.2 pit at about 6.15 p.m. on Wednesday 26th February 1930, was the worst in the Haydock Collieries since the Wood Pit explosion of 1878. Forty-five men on the afternoon shift went down the pit at 3.10 p.m. and were due to be on the surface again by 11 p.m. The explosion of firedamp occurred in the Wigan Five Foot Seam following the firing of a shot. The first that was known of the disaster on the surface was when a telephone call came from a man named Burrows to tell that something was amiss and there had been an explosion.

An official statement from the Evans Company stated:

A local explosion of firedamp following the firing of a shot in the Wigan Four Foot Seam at Lyme Pit, Haydock last night took place in the evening. Rescue parties headed by the General Manager, Mr. F. B. Lawson, Mr. D.J. Whitehead, the manager, and Mr. C.M. Coope descended the mine and proceeded to the seat of the explosion.

There were five killed by the full force of the initial explosion which occurred on a conveyor face where compressed air was being used. Twenty-six men were injured and fourteen escaped from the workings.

Directors of Richard Evans and Co., Colonel Pilkington and Mr. Gardener were told of the disaster by telephone and went to the pit as soon they could. H.M. Inspectors of Mines, Mr. Davies and Mr. Roberts quickly arrived at the colliery and took an active part in the rescue operations. All the men in the pit had been withdrawn after the explosion and everything that could be done had been for the unfortunates.

On going into the mine, Mr. Lawson found that the coal was burning in two or three places and the workings were filled with smoke and fumes. The party had to put on gas masks and carry oxygen bags on their backs. In addition to the fumes, the rescue party had great difficulty in getting to the injured as there were some very nasty falls of roof and smashed and more than half a dozen trucks that were standing near the scene of the explosion had been reduced to a twisted mass of broken metal and wood.

Mr. Lawson said that shots had been fired in the Wigan Four Feet mine in the No.2 Pit and soon afterwards there was an explosion. The men that were nearest were badly burnt and others many yards away were thrown against the walls of the pit and badly scorched as the burning atmosphere flashed round the workings. The first that was known about the accident at the surface was from Burrow’s telephone call.

A local female doctor, Dr. Winifred Bridges, described as “a good looking and comparatively young woman of athletic build”, went into a mine for the first time in her life and did heroic rescue work as she tended the injured underground. In the 1930’s, women doctors were not common and the fact that she went down a mine in these circumstances was a very notable event. She won a place in the hearts of the mining community of Haydock when she went below ground to tend to the injured.

On the night of the explosion, she was in surgery about 6.30 p.m. when the call came for medical help as there had been a serious accident at Lyme pit.  She contacted Miss. Bone, the Matron of Haydock Cottage Hospital and both of them went in the Doctor’s car to the pit about three-quarters of a mile away. The journey was made in darkness, along the railway lines and rough paths.

When they arrived at the colliery they saw the colliery officials at the pithead with Dr. Dowling of Haydock and Dr. Jones of Ashton. Dr. Jones had just recovered from a serious illness and it was impossible for him to go down the pit. Dr. Dowling had served the people of Haydock for many years as a general practitioner and as the Medical Officer of Health. He had often been down the pits to injured miners but he was not a young man and Winifred Bridges had no hesitation in going down the pit with him.

Dr. Bridges, reluctantly, gave her account of the events to the “Guardian” reporter:

They gave us miners lamps and we went down in the cage to the bottom of the shaft. After that we went along the colliery road we found ourselves walking and occasionally climbing over boxes which had been strewn about the roadway after the explosion. We had to travel like this for about three-quarters of a mile, stooping in the low portions. We came to the scene of the explosion where we met colliers carrying a stretcher on which lay a man with a broken leg. By the fitful lamp of the miners’ lamp, Dr. Dowling and I put the limb in splints and made him as comfortable as possible.

Our work went on in the pit for an hour and a half and we put arms and legs and fractured thighs in splints and was to the menÕs injures as best we could. We saw the bodies of three men who had died before we got into the pit and when we got to the pithead again we found Miss Bone doing valuable work in assisting the injured men before they were removed in the ambulance. It was an extraordinary experience and one I do not wish to have again but I would do it again if necessary.

Other first-hand accounts of the rescue work were given to the press. Sammy Forshaw, of Common Row, Earlestown, was called from his bed to help in the rescue operations and was accompanied by John Gaskell a worker in a neighbouring pit. He said the pit was about 500 yards deep and 900 yards under the surface. The explosion occurred at the face. He went down the pit with fourteen other men including Mr. Kay and Paddy Crehan, Mr. Whitehead, the manager, Mr. Coope, the assistant manager, Mr. Lawson, the general manager, Col. Pilkington, Dr. Dowling and his woman assistant.

Mr. Forshaw was very impressed with Dr. Bridges as were many in Haydock and further afield. He said she went straight down the pit and never hesitated, to the face, and stayed down for about an hour and a half until everyone was attended to. The first two bodies that the party found were huddled together under a big iron tub large enough to carry 15 cwt. of coal and the bodies were terribly mutilated and difficult to recognise. A further three dead were found at the face, badly disfigured. The colliery was fairly clear of fumes except for the last 100 yards to the face.

One of the men involved was comparatively uninjured and that was a man named Burrows. He was knocked out by the explosion and had the prescience of mind to crawl through the inky blackness his lamp being useless. He went through the stone and dust and got to the telephone about twenty yards from the face when he gave the alarm.

The evacuation of the dead and injured from the mine was speedy and efficient and an official statement was issued at 11 p.m. on Wednesday by Mr. F.B. Lawrenson, the general manager of Richard Evans & Co, who had come from down the pit after being involved in the rescue work. The statement said:

At 6.15 tonight an explosion of firedamp owing to shot-firing occurred in the Wigan Four Foot Seam. A party headed by the General Manager (myself) and the Manager, Mr. Whitehead, and the undermanager, Mr. Coope, made a descent of the mine and organised a rescue party. Two small fires were put out and the injured were bright to the surface on stretchers. The mine had been cleared by 11 p.m. The casualties are 5 killed and 20 in the hospital with burns and shock, Two the others were able to proceed home.

There were ambulances waiting at the surface when the men were brought out. Matron Bone, who had gone to the colliery with Doctor Bridges, was there and administered first aid before the injured were taken to Hospital. There were so many casualties that the St.Helens Hospital had to be asked for help and some of the injured were transferred there.

The sad scene at the pithead was captured by a reporter of the “Newton and Earlestown Guardian” who was obviously very moved by what he was seeing. The crowd had had a long wait for news of their friends and loved ones:

Heart-rending were the scenes near the pit shaft when over a thousand relatives and friends were keeping acts of vigil. It was a horrific sight to see the tear-stained faces full of hope and yet fear as the solemn stretcher-bearers filed past. There was no moon and only the glow of the colliery lights. The hiss of steam and the clouds of smoke brought the pallor of death to the scene. Mothers, whose sons were not yet out of boyhood, had gone to the pit on that afternoon shift, to hear news of their dear ones and were told: “No news yet”.

Everywhere there was the impression of eagerness but we could only wait and see. The waiting continued. They did not know. They could not say a bit I had heard when I said “I can not say”. It was wiser to spare the pain in such a truth like that.

At the shaft itself, there was a crowd of officials all waiting helpless until the rescue party came up. “Make way”, they cried. With a rumbling the door opened and a solemn face grimy-faced Lancashire Lad backed out and then another. A gentle heave and the stretcher with its dreadful burden came into view. Not a sound. Not a word. Only bowed heads here and there and a hat or two removed. Some poor mother’s son passing for the last time from the colliery to be interred this time in a grave not so deep or as large as the one from which he had just emerged and one that would smell sweetly of flowers.

At the slow pace, the five stretchers bearing five corpses which, but a few short hours before had been full of joy and living. The crowd looked on and wondered how men could give their lives for the lives of others for their sacrifice was as great as any warrior that laid down his life for another.

A survivor told the press of his experiences as he was having his injuries dressed at the surface:

We were ready to take coal from the coal face when I heard a rumbling at the far end of the pit. There was a terrific pressure of gas and someone shouted, “Firedamp”. I heard one or two men cry out and with a couple of others, I rushed down but could not get near the scene of the explosion. We were driven back by the fumes and we struggled to the pit face. Someone telephoned from above and when I donned a fire mask. I helped to drag out some of my friends. It was terrible to have to drag them out like that when a few moments before I had been talking to them.

Accounts of what had happened below ground were given to the Press by the injured men that were released from hospital after treatment. James Sowerbutts was sent home suffering from shock and he told Reporters:

I was working in a dip in the road and had just left me mate to draw a tub. When I got about ten yards away there was a terrible crash and everything seemed to be falling about my ears. I was unable to speak and after a minute or so I heard my mate calling “Are you alright Jim?” but I could not answer. Again he called and I was able to shout back to him. We then both made towards the motion where we thought there might be a way out, but after running about one hundred and fifty yards we were overcome by the gas and fumes and forced to turn back. We ran in the opposite direction and met the rescue party. We reached the scene of the accident and there we picked up some of the injured men and decided to get together, Everyone was wonderfully patient and all willing to do their best for the injured, Somewhere we heard voices calling “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me”, and once again we tried our best to find a way out. We half carried and half dragged the injured with us but several times we were forced to lie down to get fresh air. I was nearly dropping when we did eventually ranch the brow. Keenan, whom I had been carrying, was my first care as I knew I was not seriously injured. One of my mate’s hands was terribly cut and burnt and he eventually fainted, Some of those reported injured must have been in the rescue party. I know almost all the men in the district but I don’t recognise some of the names.

Another eye-witness account came from Jack Burrows, the man who phoned the surface with the first news of the disaster:

I owe my life to the fact that I had just left the spot where the explosion occurred, to have a drink of tea. We had just finished one job and we were awaiting further orders. No sooner had I left the working place that I heard the terrific explosion. This was followed by a blinding flash and a thick wall of coal dust seemed to come towards me. I was temporarily blinded but I had an electric lamp and immediately returned to see if I could help any of my mates. I came across one of my pals. He had been badly injured and was burnt about the body and his clothing ripped off. I took off my shirt and wrapped it around him and then crawled back to the telephone and inform them at the haulage house of what had happened.

I then started to make my way back to see if I could do anything to help some of the injured men, but before I had gone many yards I collapsed and the next thing I knew was that I was in company with Bert Chick and two other men and I was being attended to at the bottom of the pit shaft.

Two brothers named Hennigan spent four hours were searching the mine for their brother Jack, whom they knew had descended the mine during the afternoon. They did not see him among the injured and he had not returned home after the accident occurred. They made their frantic journeys to the hospitals and back again to the mine and finally, their search came to an end when it was discovered that he was among the dead who had up to then not been identified.

Among the men who were taken to the Haydock Cottage Hospital and were treated for their injuries, some were later allowed to go home. They were, James Sowerbutts of Newton Road, Parr, Albert Lowe of Juddfield Street, Haydock, Arthur Burrows of Cheery Street, Earlestown and William. J. Plant of Clipsley Lane, Haydock.

Arthur Burrows, aged 23 years, of 26, Cherry Street, Earlestown was in the explosion area when it occurred. He scrambled and crawled two hundred yards over debris to the telephone and raised the alarm on the surface. He was exhausted when rescued he was taken home suffering from very severe shock and the effects of the gas. His statement to the Press read as follows:

I have worked down the mine for about two years. Just after six o’clock I was having a drink when I heard a loud bang and a big black cloud rushed towards me and I was thrown 6 or 7 yards backward but I managed to get up and scrambled and crawled along the ground for perhaps 200 yards. On the way, I had to climb over overturned tubs and when I came up some of the fellows were nearly done up and I carried on to the telephone as they urged me on. It seemed like hours to me but it was about twenty minutes to cover the two hundred yards. George Parr and Bill Muldowney found me and took me to safety.

Another collier who had a lucky escape was William Plant, of 272, Clipsley Lane, Haydock. He was filling boxes at the time of the explosion and he could not say what time it was but he thought it about seven o’clock. He was working in a place that was about eight feet high and about the same in width. He said:

I could see nothing. Like a fog of dust came across me and I went as best as I could to the shaft. I was working with James Cunliffe of Clipsley Lane who was killed and T. Ogden of Ashton-in-Makerfield. Near us were J. Garbutt of Parr and Albert Lowe of Juddfield Street, Haydock. The shock mesmerized us for a moment or so and drove us back we put our caps over our noses and mouths and used them as gas masks. After several attempts, we made our way from the Cinder Brow to the main haulage way. We met a party of the injured man and one of them was Duggie Conway who was badly injured and almost worn out. We were not much better ourselves but we did what we could. The men were badly burnt and had little clothing left. They were shouting for help. We only missed being burnt to a cinder.

Clambering over the 15 cwt. tubs which had been swept over by the force of the explosion and they almost blocked the way. They were met by a second rescue party led by a fireman named Spurgeon Green of Grosvenor Avenue, Haydock. The lamps were going out and they were going along in single file. He continued:

I had a man in front of me and one behind and we would not leave go of each other. The one behind me, I don’t know who he was, said “Don’t leave me” and I said, “I’ll not so long as I can keep on.”

James Cunliffe, of Clipsley Lane, Haydock who lived opposite the Cottage Hospital was another who got out of the explosion area. He was suffering from shock and the effects of the gas. He was working with William Plant when a cloud of gas bore down on them. It was so bad that they used their caps to cover their noses and tried to make their way out. They met a party of thirteen men all of whom were badly burnt and together they stumbled over tubs and staggered along rather dazed:

We had done all that we could for the injured men. I have never seen anything so terrible as the sights I have seen in that pit. It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen and I never want to see it again.

Continuing out of the pit, he said he came across the youngest casualty in the disaster, Kenneth Forshaw, only 17 years of age, who was suffering badly from his injuries but he kept a stiff upper lip and they gave him drinks and rallied him. James Cunliffe stated that at that time he never thought that they would get out of the pit alive because the smoke and gas were so bad.

Eight of the injured died in the local hospitals as a direct result of their injuries. The medical treatment that they received was primitive compared to the technology that we have today. The final death toll reached thirteen.

All the men were badly burnt and had coal dust fused with their skin in addition to broken limbs that had been caused as they had been thrown around by the violence of the explosion. One man was so badly charred that he was so easily identified until late on Thursday morning. Clemment Elliot, of 28, Burley Street, Newton-le-Willows, was in the Haydock Cottage Hospital, so swathed in bandages and recognised by the fact that he was known to have a nail missing on his big toe. There was a rumour that he had died in the explosion gave but his condition was very serious with terrible burns to his face, body, and arms. When he was rescued, the greater part of his clothing was burnt away.

Eight of the men who were taken out of the mine alive and taken to the hospital died giving a total death toll of thirteen.

  • John Hennigan aged 37 years, a haulage hand who had extensive burns and other injuries,
  • James Cunliffe aged 34 years, a fireman who had extensive burns,
  • Frank Thomasson aged 27 years, a daywageman who had extensive burns,
  • William Seddon aged 33 years, a collier who had extensive burns and other injuries,
  • Roundel Cecil Page aged 20 years, a daywageman who had extensive burns and other injuries.

These were the men who died in the initial explosion.

The eight that follow were taken from the pit alive but badly injured and died of their injuries later:

  • Kenneth Forshaw aged 17 years, a haulage hand and the youngest of the victims. He had extensive burns,
  • John Foy aged 39 years, a daywageman who had extensive burns and fractured thumb,
  • Clement Elliot aged 49 years, a daywageman with extensive burns,
  • William Conway aged 45 years, a collier who had extensive burns,
  • Albert Page aged 29 years, daywageman. Extensive burns,
  • George Franklin aged 43 years, a collier with extensive burns,
  • George Hollis aged 43 years, a putter-on who had extensive burns and
  • William Molyneaux, aged 45 years, a collier with extensive burns.

The men that were injured were:

  • Joseph Muldowney aged 42 years, a panman suffering from burns,
  • Arthur Pilling aged 25 years, a fitter suffering from burns,
  • John Duffy aged 40 years, a daywageman suffering from burns,
  • Francis Keenan aged 22 years, a collier who was burnt,
  • Thomas McGuire aged 39 years, a contractor also burnt,
  • Sidney Marsh aged 44 years a daywageman who was burnt and had severe head injuries,
  • George H. Chick aged 34 years, a pumper who suffered burns and a fractured leg,
  • John Brown aged 25 years, a coal-cutter man who had burns and a fractured leg,
  • Thomas Clarke aged 34 years, coal-cutter men with burns and fractured thigh and
  • James Clarke aged 26 years, a coal-cutter man suffering from burns and a fractured thigh.

With the human toll of the disaster known it was for the formal inquest to ascertain the cause of death of the men. The first inquest was opened by Mr. F.A. Jones, the Deputy County Coroner, at the Waggon and Horses Hotel, in the billiard room, when evidence of identification was taken and the proceedings adjourned until the 14th March.

After expressing his personal sympathy to the relatives of the dead he read a message from Mr. Samuel Brighouse, the County Coroner. Mr. Brighouse had been the Coroner for many years and in 1930 was an old man. It had been his painful duty over the years to visit Haydock and officiate at many inquests into the deaths of men in the mines.

He sent a letter to the court which Mr. Jones read out in which he expressed his sympathy at the disaster and was sorry that he could not conduct the inquiry as he was suffering from a cold. He went onto say:

Would you say to the relatives of the poor dead fellows that I am sorry? They will know what I mean. I Say this. During the many years that I have held inquests, it has been my unfortunate task to be present at many colliery disasters and I never do so without wishing that some means could be designed to prevent them. The Lancashire collier is a brave fellow, a man of character, and one who is always prepared to carry out his duty to the best of his ability. He will always do anyone a good turn. I have great admiration for the Lancashire collier and I can safely say, we like each other. Tell them at the inquest that I am full of grief for those that are left behind and we all appreciate the great usefulness of those who labour in coal mines and that they shall be assured that an impartial inquiry into the circumstances of the explosion and the manner of their deaths and we pray for their souls departed.

Signed S.BRIGHOUSE (Coroner).

At this first session of the inquiry, evidence of identification was taken from the relatives of the dead. John Victor Page, a driver, of 36, Vista Road, Earlestown, said that Roundall Cecil Page was his brother he had worked in the pit for only two weeks and he had made no complaints.

Mr. Lawson, the general manager of the Haydock Collieries,  expressed sympathy on behalf of Richard Evans and Co. The secretary of the Miner’s Association said that were many brave deeds done below ground that day and he would like to express sympathy to the grieving relatives.

With the formal identifying over, the court was adjourned to a future date when the causes of the men’s deaths would be examined and the grieving relatives could bury their loved ones.

The formal inquest was opened at the Colliery School in Haydock with a large attendance of local people and mining experts. The Deputy Coroner, Mr. F. Jones presided over the proceedings and also present were Mr. J. Charlton, the Divisional Inspector of Mines, Mr. D. Coatsworth, Mr. T. E. Davies and Mr. D. McBride, the Inspectors of Mines. The inquiry opened at 10 a.m. and a break was taken for lunch and on returning, the business went through till 4 p.m. when the verdict was returned.

Addressing the jury, the Coroner said that the inquest was being held to find the immediate cause of the deaths of the victims and to find out how those deaths came about. He went on to instruct the jury:

If you find the deaths were caused by the explosion, then you can say how the explosion was brought about. If you satisfy yourselves how brought about then you will have to satisfy yourselves if it could be avoided. You have only two verdicts, Misadventure or Manslaughter against the individual. In this court, however, you can say anything that will save a life in the future. If you return a verdict of misadventure I will ask you if you have any recommendations to make which will be carried out.

Mr. Peace, solicitor, on behalf of the directors of Evans and Co. repeated his message of sympathy and referred to Miss Bone of the Haydock Cottage Hospital as a “ministering angel”. Evidence was given as to the cause of deaths.

With the formalities over, the court got down to the business of looking for the cause of the men’s deaths. Several men were able to add to the story of what happened underground immediately after the explosion. The first was Clarence Edbrook, the manager of Lyme pit No.1, who lived at 212, Haydock Street, Earlestown, said he was called from his home at 6.20 p.m. on the 28th. February. When he descended the mine, he noticed two coal fires and two dead bodies. Thomas Hughes then joined him and they found the body of Cunliffe, the fireman, about thirty yards from the face. They then came across a man with a broken leg and he told the witness that there were two further up. they went to search and found Thompson but there was little hope for him. His electric light was burning all right.

Spurgeon Green, a fireman at the colliery who had worked in the mine for twenty-three years and had been a fireman for twelve years. He was at work on the day of the explosion in the No.2 district and left at 5.45 p.m. having been delayed by repairs that had to be done. He was going towards the pit bottom when he suddenly felt a change in the ventilation. He was about one hundred yards from the seat of the explosion and by his watch, it was 6.02 p.m.. He knew that an explosion had occurred in the No.1 District and he gave orders that telephone calls should be made to the hospitals. He said Mayor was the first man out of the No.1 and then he came across John Folley twenty yards down. He had three others with him suffering from shock, one of which was Thomas Hughes.

John Canny, contractor, of Vicarage Road, Haydock had worked in the pits for thirty years and stated that he had found no gas. After the disaster Cunliffe, the deceased fireman had come towards him and the dust nearly choked them. He turned off the compressed air and went to look for Hennigan. Elliot and Conway then stumbled up to him and Elliot’s feet were on fire.

The course of the inquiry then turned to the question of shotfiring in the mine and Mr. Lawson, the manager was called. In reply to questions, he said he was surprised to find four other shot holes charged at the scene of the explosion. In reply to a question from the Divisional Inspector of Mines, he said that after the explosion he examined the place and found that a shot had not been fired but four shot holes were charged. This did not necessarily breach the Coal Mines Act but it was against the Rules of the colliery and the orders given by him were that only one shot had to be charged and fired at one time. Mr. Lawson added that the shots were vertical and not horizontal as they should have been.

Mr. Whitehead. the manager of the colliery also gave evidence of the events underground during the rescue operations. He came across Albert Page and had to ask who it was. Page said he was not so grand. The manager continued along and found four shot holes with the detonators hanging out and he knew that it was against orders that had been issued. The witness described, with diagrams, the pattern of the shot holes and showed how a break ran right across the coal over the holes.

Mr. A.J. Cook, the Miners Secretary and Mr. Jack Jones, Secretary of the Yorkshire Miners Federation took up the questioning of Mr. Whitehead and pointed out that there were regulations stating:

That no shot should be fired unless it is inspected by a fireman with an approved safety lamp and satisfied that there was no gas within a radius of twenty yards.

If there was a cavity where gas could be lurking then the shot should not be fired. Mr. Whitehead said that he had seen a break in the coal. The seam had been opened about two years ago and there had not been much gas since it had been opened. The manager stated that Cunliffe, the firemen, had booked the number of detonators before the accident at 20 and 15 were found in the tin.

Mr. Whitehead continued:

I was not there when the shots were fired and I do not know if the regulations were carried out but the holes were all together and against my orders. I came here from Abram Colliery and had been mining since about 1900.

It was put to him that he was responsible for seeing that the regulations were carried out. There were vertical holes drilled by the contractor who was paid by piece work. It emerged that it was easier to make vertical holes than horizontal holes.

John Francis Piggott of 306, Newton Road had worked in the mine for twenty-eight years. He had tested for gas and found it all right and he accepted the fireman’s report. On Thursday he noted a little gas and noted four shotholes that had been drilled and he thought the shot had been fired at night he did not think that the four vertical holes contributed to the cause of the accident.

The Coroner began his summing up and the jury retired. They returned a verdict of “Misadventure”, stating that the accident was caused by gas and they also thought that the afternoon shift was too big for one fireman and drilling one hole at one time was common practice at the pit and thought that it should be stopped but in no circumstances should coal be thrown in the gob and left there. Vertical holes should not be drilled because it was not always possible to stem the holes satisfactorily. In conclusion, they thought that H.M. Inspector of Mines should visit the mine more frequently. The foreman also said that all the jury had worked in the mines until recently.

The formal verdict read as follows:

”Death due to misadventure, through ignition of gas unforeseen by the fireman”.

To this, the jury saw fit to add the following five riders.

1) The Jury thinks the work in the district in the afternoon is too much for one fireman.

2) We are of the opinion that the stemming of more than one hole at a time is a common practice and should be stopped.

3) We are of the opinion that under no circumstances should coal be thrown into the gob.

4) We strongly object to vertical holes being drilled, as we think it is not always possible to stem the holes satisfactorily.

5) We are also of the opinion the His Majesty’s Inspectors should visit the mines more frequently.

The verdict was recorded and the only other formality following the disaster was the Government Inquiry into the cause or causes of the calamity.

The Official Inquiry into the disaster was ordered by E. Shinwell, Esq., M.P., Secretary for Mines and a full report was submitted to Parliament. The report was made by Mr. F.H. Wynne, B.Sc., H.M. Deputy Chief Inspector of Mines and the report was submitted to Mr. Shinwell at The Mines Department, Dean Stanley Street, Millbank, London S.W.1. on the 12th. September 1930.

The Inquiry was opened into the Council Chamber of the Town Hall, St.Helens, on Tuesday 29th April and was went on until Friday 2nd. May 1930. There were many eminent mining people present at the proceedings. Mr. W.J. Charlton, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines, Mr. T.L. McBride, H.M. Senior Inspector of Mines, Mr. Edwin Peace of Messrs Peace and Darlington, Solicitors of Liverpool, who acted for Messrs. Evans and Co., for Mr. F.B. Lawson, the agent, and for Mr. W.J. Whitehead, the manager.

Mr. A.M. Henshaw, JP, FGS., M.Inst. CE. represented the Institution of Mining Engineers, Professor R.V. Wheeler, D.Sc., appeared for the Safety in Mines Research Board, Mr. Arthur Roberts and Mr. James Hilton attended for the Lancashire and Cheshire Colliery Undermanagers and Underlookers Association, Mr. A.J. Cook and Mr. Joseph Jones represented the Miner’s Federation of Great Britain and  Mr. John McGuirk, J.P. and Mr. M.W. Foster. For the Lancashire and Cheshire Miner’s Federation. Mr. W. Frowen J.P., represented the Federation of Colliery Firemans and Deputies Association of Great Britain, and Mr. W.T. Miller and Mr. J.T. Hesketh for the Lancashire and Cheshire Colliery Deputy’s Association.

At the inquiry, a detailed account of the accident was heard. and confirmed that five were killed outright and twenty-three were injured by the explosion. Of the injured, eight later died from shock due to severe burning. The places where the bodies of those killed were found are seen on Plan 2 as well as the approximate positions of the injured at the actual moment of the explosion.

The evidence collected after the explosion showed the passage of force and flame in the roadways,  There was much flame in the Conveyor Face and some force but the flame produced by the explosion was the most destructive and it came, outbye along the conveyor Level for a few yards only. It must also have found its way out via the Main Slant in which, prior to the explosion, there were seven brattice screens that were completely destroyed. At the main junction of the Main Slant to the Pump Dip, indications of it ceased although the effects of force were observed further inbye on a set of trams. Flame apparently extended outbye along the Main Brow as far as the fault for near this point the timber lagging of steel arches supporting the roof and sides of the haulage road was found to be on fire the three places.

There were indications of great force after the explosion. A tram of full tubs in the slant at the entrance to the Conveyor Level had been pushed in the Brow near the junction had been literally flung about pell-mell. At the junctions of the Main Slant and the Main Brow with the Conveyor Level, chocks had been dislodged and the single blocks scattered all over the place.

In the Main Brow, the air crossing built of steel joists and concrete had been lifted bodily from its seating and collapsed in fragments on the floor below. No doubt the force was augmented in this locality owing to obstruction caused by the bends in the path of the blast and also by the tubs standing in the roadway.

One feature commented on by the inquiry was that two ponies stabled in the Conveyor Level in stalls consisting of only a few props and battens with brattice cloths nailed on them and situated 120 yards from the coal face, were not injured at all and the flimsy erection in which they were housed showed no signs whatever of any disturbance.

The majority of the men in and near the Conveyor Face, after they had recovered from the initial shock of the explosion and the air current had resumed its normal course, were able to find their way out toward the Main Brow where they were met first by some of those who were injured and later by parties coming inbye from the pit.

The conduct of a fireman, Spurgeon Green, who had worked in the No.2 District, took the initiative in organising exploratory operations and relief of the injured was complemented by the inquiry. It will be remembered that he sent men to the surface and gave instructions for messages to be sent by telephone to the agent and the manager asking for ambulances, medical assistance and helpers generally.

The inquiry then turned to the question of the cause of the disaster. There was no doubt or difference of opinion at any time either as to the point at which this explosion originated or as to its cause. It was caused by the firing of a shot of Polar Viking Powder in a shot hole in the caunch of the so-called Main Slant which was, in fact, the return airway from the conveyor face. This is proved by the evidence of Mr. James V. Clarke, a coal cutting machine attendant, who was present with the deputy James Cunliffe when the shot was fired. Clarke said in evidence that he was sitting beside Cunliffe when the shot was fired. He saw him turn the handle of the firing box and the explosion followed. He was with two other coal cutting men, T. Clarke and J. Brown.

Clarke’s evidence proved to be quite conclusive and it was corroborated by what was found after the explosion. The positions of the shot cable and the battery, the rammer and the handle of the battery, and the body of the dead fireman and the signs of force and coking.

It was a rare event that men who have seen an extensive pit explosion survive to tell the tale and the evidence of James Clarke and of another man named Ernest Pilling. They gave their evidence to the inquiry and Mr. Wynne commented:

The evidence of these two men established that there was a small initial explosion immediately the shot was fired, followed after an interval of a few seconds by a bigger explosion. The first explosion caused a large volume of firedamp to be sucked into the slant from crevices in the strata and from cavities in the goaf and that this firedamp was ignited by the flame of firedamp left burning after the first explosion.

Examination of the caunch after the explosion revealed that the shot hole, bored horizontally, had penetrated a break which crossed the roadway diagonally and extended over the dip side of the pack towards the waste or goaf below. In the shale roof outbye of the caunch several more breaks existed which were easily to be seen. There was a further break crossing the roadway at right angles in the top coal inbye of the caunch.

It was possible that these breaks were interconnected with each other and also with further breaks and cavities in the roof over the goaf on the dip side and over the pack on the rise side of the slant and that firedamp was present in these breaks and cavities goes without saying. After the explosion, a number of samples of gas were drawn from some of these breaks at depths varying between 12 inches and 4 feet 6 inches by means of a copper tube with an aspirator attached. The firedamp content in some instances was small and almost negligible in others it was present in proportions that were within the explosive limit of a mixture of firedamp and air.

It was because firedamp is so likely to be lurking in breaks that the charging of a shot hole in which a break has been detected is strictly prohibited.

The commissioner thought that coal dust played little or no part in the explosion. He based his conclusions on the small extent to which coked dust could be observed afterwards in any part of the mine and the results of a minute investigation carried out by Professor R.V. Wheeler at the Safety in Mines Research Laboratory in Sheffield. A large number of samples of dust were collected systematically in the face and roadways after the excursion and the absence of carbon monoxide in the afterdamp. As far as is known neither those killed or injured showed any sign of the symptoms usually associated with the instillation of this gas.

Without the presence of inert dust in ample quantity in the roadways, there is little doubt that the explosion whole have been extended throughout the workings of the mine instead of being confined as in fact it was to a comparatively small portion.

The evidence as to the origin of this explosion was so clear. It was due to the firing of a shot in contravention of the provisions of Clause 6(d) of the Explosives in Coal Mines Order of 1st. September 1913 as amended 30th March 1915, 14th November 1919, 31st August 1922, 1st September 1924 and 10th November 1926 which read as follows:

d) Every shot shall be charged and stemmed by or under the supervision of a shotfirer. Before the hole is charged a shotfirer shall examine it for breaks running along or across and if any such break is found the hole shall not be charged except in stone drifts if special permission had been given in writing by the manager or the undermanager.

It was not clear from the evidence whether or not James Cunliffe, the fireman who fired the shot, made an examination for breaks in the shot hole, but he had the knowledge of the presence of a beak in it. Cunliffe was killed and had had therefore no chance to defend himself and in order however to avid the possibility of doing Cunliffe an injustice, the evidence of the manager, Harold Whitehead, and the fireman, Spurgeon Green, relating to a conversation between the former and Albert Page upon which the opinion is founded.

Albert Page was the contractor who bored or supervised the boring of shot holes in the caunch and which, in this instance, had actually bored the shot hole in question. Page was also killed and could not give evidence on this crucial point. There was no reason to think that he would not have confirmed the very circumstantial account of the conversation as given by these two witnesses.

Under examination by Mr. Charlton in reference to the events following the explosion Spurgeon Green said:

Mr. Whitehead after he had examined for gas looked underneath the caunch and I assume he saw the wires hanging down. He said to me, “Now then this is not fair Spurge” and then all at once a voice replied, “It was straight in the shot he fired, Mr. Whitehead. On looking around we saw this Albert Page laid up against the face. So Mr. Whitehead said to him, “Now then Page what are you doing here?” and he said, “I couldn’t get out. Parr had gone for some more assistance to get him out, so Page said, “I drilled through a break Mr. Whitehead.” Mr. Whitehead asked him if he had informed the fireman. He replied “Yes” Then Mr. Whitehead asked him if it had been stone dusted and the man replied “No”. Mr. Whitehead had informed both shotfirers and firemen that they must not ram more than one shot at a time and we found four. They disregarded the rule.

Under examination by Mr. McGuirk, Harold Whitehead the manager said:

I met Albert Page about 70 yards from the face. That is the first time I saw Page. Spurgeon Green and Parr were busy with artificial respiration with a man and I saw a man sitting down beside them. I said, “Who is that?” Either he said or one of the other said, “It is Page,” and I said, “How are you?” or something like that I cannot exactly remember now. He said, “I am not so grand but I can walk out.” The next time I came in contact with Page was when he spoke to me in reply to a remark I made to Spurgeon on the face of the slant. He heard me say to Spurgeon Green “This is not fair Spurgeon”, and Page replied, “I did not know Page was there at the time- “The hole that was bored (I am not quite sure whether he said the hole that was fired) was a straight one” I said “Oh” and he said “Yes” He said, “Yes I bored into a break with it”. I said, “Did you tell the fireman?” He said “Yes,” I said, “Was it stone dusted?” He said. “No” That is all the remark I had with Page.

It was evident that the shotfiring practice was at the root of the matter it was only natural that a good deal of evidence was led to ascertain whether the shot firing practice at the colliery was in accordance with statutory requirements. Three firemen were closely examined in this respect but they stoutly maintained that as far as they knew no irregularities had occurred.

The Commissioner commented:

I should have been glad for Cunliffe’s sake if I could have come to the same conclusion in regard to him and to have been able to suggest that this was an isolated instance of neglect of statuary requirements on his part. I regret however that in view of the evidence I am unable to do so.

It was definitely established that both the agent and the manager had gone to considerable lengths to warn the firemen and shotfirers about their duties generally but especially and particularly on two points connected with shot firing. In the first place, against charging more than one shot at a time and secondly against firing shots in holes bored vertically into the roof. Yet in the coal roof under the caunch, there were four vertical holes positioned roughly at the corners of a four-foot square, and every one of these holes was charged ready for firing. In addition, two other vertical holes were found uncharged, one in the roof a few feet outbye.

There was an attempt was made by the representatives if the Fireman’s Association to gloss over the charging of five holes at once by suggesting that Clause (g) (ii) of the Explosives in Coal Mines Order suggested that it be left to the shotfirer to decide whether or not the firing of one shot would be liable to relieve any part of the work to be done by another and that Cunliffe had exercised the discretion allowed to him. This might have been Cunliffe’s favour were it not for the definite instruction that had been given to all the firemen and shotfirers on this point.

Cunliffe’s competence as a shotfirer and fireman was not questioned and those who are in a position to speak on the subject gave him an excellent character and it was not to believe that he charged and fired the hole without regard for the possible consequences, In fairness to him the Commissioner thought it reasonable to suggest that his sense of danger was dulled by the freedom of the air in the vicinity of the caunch from detachable firedamp.

There was little doubt that there were greater risks of firing shots in caunches in long-wall workings than in any other situations since breaks are more likely to be formed in roof strata there. For this reason the fewer the number of shots in such caunches the better. It was known that ripping in certain classes of rock can hardly be undertaken economically without the use of explosives. There are many rippings however in which although explosives were extensively used it is a moot question whether any advantage is derived from this practice.

From the conditions in the Wigan Four Foot Seam it was suggested that the firing of shots in such start cold be reduced, almost, if no quite to vanishing point. It was pointed out that for some time prior to the explosion shotfiring had been discontinued at the caunch in the Conveyor level and it was a matter of regret that it was not discontinued in the Main Slant at the same time. Shotfiring in the caunches was not carried on after the explosion.

An effort was made by the representative of the Fireman’s Association to establish a case that the district allotted to the fireman on the afternoon shift was too large for him properly to carry out his statutory duties and that owing to the pressure to get through his work, he was hurried and it was possible he did things in a hurry that he would not have done with plenty of time on his hands.

The fact that steel arch girders were used extensively for supporting the roof in the roadways minimised the effect of the explosion. If props and bars only had been used, falls would have occurred and created difficulties of escape and rescue which might have added seriously to the toll of dead and injured.

In the 1930s coal faces were becoming mechanised and the new methods called for new arrangements in supervision. Earlier in the report, it was mentioned that during the afternoon and night shifts supervision was normally exercised only by the fireman who happened to be on duty. No official superior to a fireman visited the workings during these shifts.

Mr. Wynne felt that if visits to the workings by superior officials during the afternoon shifts had been the custom in the mine, better discipline would have been maintained and the probability of detection would have kept by the fireman from disobeying the very definite orders that they had received.

Mr. Wynne finished his Report by saying:

It is not out of place here to mention the fireman and workmen witnesses who gave evidence at the Inquiry. Speaking from a fairly wide experience, I can say that generally, the manner in which they approached the questions put to them and gave their answers was most impressive. They exhibited a degree of intelligence considerably above the average and seemed not only to know exactly what they wanted to say but also how to say it.

With the publication of the Report, the village left the public gaze and was left to cope on its own with the feelings of sadness and sense of loss.


The Mines Inspectors Report.
The report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at Lyme Colliery, Haydock, Lancashire, on the 26th February 1930.
The Newton and Earleston Guardian.
The Wigan Examiner.
The Wigan Observer.
Colliery Guardian, 14th November, p.1785.

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

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