BILSTHORPE. Mansfield, Nottingham. 26th. July, 1934.

The colliery was owned by the Stanton Iron Works Company Ltd. and was about eight miles from Mansfield. It had been getting coal only since August 1927 when the Top Hard seam was reached by shafts 482 yards deep. There were two shafts 20 feet in diameter and both were equipped for coal winding but only the Top Hard seam was worked. The colliery employed 1,250 persons below ground and 260 on the surface. Mr. N.D. Todd was the General Manager and Agent for the whole of the mines of the Stanton Company and the colliery Manager was Mr. L.T. Linley and the Undermanager Mr. A. Holmes.

The colliery was worked on the longwall system with some coal being got by hand and by cutting machines. The filling on all the faces was done by conveyors. The disaster occurred in the North West No.6 district which was worked by three shifts. The day and night shifts got coal and filled and the afternoon shift moved pans, ripped, timbered and packed. There were no coal cutting machines in this district, shots were fired to bring down the face ripping in the gates but no coal was got by firing shots.

The coal was from five feet nine inches to six feet thick and one foot three inches of Coombe coal was left as a roof. In the loader gate the ripping face was five feet three inches to five feet six inches thick including the Coombe coal was taken down which gave a height of almost twelve feet and the road was twelve feet wide between the packs. Wood chocks were erected opposite each waste in line with the packs and these advanced with the packs and the backline of chocks were withdrawn daily. The rate of advance of this face was about ten yards per week.

The No.6 district had a face 300 yards long which was approached by two main roads, the haulage road, which was the intake and the supply gate, which was the return, was the No.5 road. On the left of the loader gate the face was 100 yards long and the right 200 yards long and each had a conveyor delivering coal to the loader gate and then delivered the coal into tubs at a loading point 200 yards away from the face. At the ends of the face there were two auxiliary airways, one as an intake to the face and the other as a return connecting the loader and supply gates.

The ventilation entered the district down the haulage road, up the airway to the left end of the face, along the face and down the airway to the supply gate. From there it passed down a cross-gate to join the currents from the Nos.3 and 4 districts and then to the main return, In the loader gate there was a brattice sheet to direct the ventilation up the left airway.

The daily reports of the fireman showed that there was firedamp in the No.6 district over the three months before the explosion. There had been eight reports from the 5th to the 8th May. There had been a heavy fall and gas was coming from the top of this but it was stated that the ventilation was good enough to clear the gas. The fall was cleared on the 8th. May and from that date to the explosion no firedamp had been reported in any part of the district.

The last inspection was made by the day shift deputy, Joseph William Sutton between 1.20 and 3.10 p.m. when he left the district and went to the pit bottom. He did not report any firedamp. On 26th July the afternoon shift of 66 men descended to the North-West No.6 district at 2.30 p.m. and met Bertram Meakin, a deputy, at the pit bottom where they tried their lamps and searched some of the men. Meakin had spoken to Sutton on the telephone, found that all was well and sent the men forwards and afterwards followed them inbye. The two men met and had a short conversation.

On arriving at the loader gate, Meakin stood on a scaffold and tested for gas and found it clear as was the face. He saw that the waste on the left bank had broken down and it was not safe for him to go beyond the timber. From the left bank he went down the airway to the loader gate where he fired a back ripping shot about eighty yards from the face for William Storer and continued up the loader hate to the face. Later he fired another ripping shot in the left airway.

Arthur Caudwell was the contractor in charge of the face work and as responsible for moving the conveyors, packing and drawing the wastes. He arrived at the face about 3.15 p.m. and he examined the face with the flame lamp that he carried as well as an electric light. He returned to his men at the gate end and saw the deputy test for gas at 4.15 p.m. Caudwell and Meakin went together down the right bank and there they parted, the deputy going to see some men in the return and Caudwell going back to the loader gate.

As he went back Caudwell heard two shots fired and when he was about thirty yards from the loader gate he was stopped by T. Crowder who warned him that a third shot was to be fired in the gate ripping but as this was still being charged by Caudwell, he could go forward. He went passed the gate and passed William Wright, William Burrows and others some thirty yards from the gate and Enoch Reeves, Walter Hardy, T. Worsop and others at various points farther along the left bank. Reeves had drawn off the first waste at about 4.30 p.m. to 5.00 p.m. and Caudwell observed that some of the Coombe coal had fallen and the waste was open to about thirty feet back from the face but beyond that it had fallen.

When he was about fifty yards from the loader gate, Caudwell heard the third shot and “saw a yellow flame and red hot sparks up the face, and a second later they came down the bank.” He told the men near him to drop to the ground and as he lay there several men rushed past him. he said, “The flame and sparks passed over me and they seemed to hang to the roof.” After the flame had died out and most of the men had left the face, Caudwell saw a light along the bank and on going to investigate he found George Stewart lying below the second pack. He was burned and helped to the bottom of the gate. Some of the clothes that were hanging in the bank were collected and used to cover some of the men who had been badly burned. Caudwell went along the bank as far as the first waste and he saw some clothes smouldering on the floor which had been on a chock. He saw – “All the first waste lit up and I saw a yellow flame in the top, and immediately afterwards noticed a blue flame burning near the roof”. He gathered what clothes he could, returned to the bottom airway, took the men out and sent them to the shaft bottom having first checked that all the men were accounted for. All the survivors from the left bank agreed that the flame travelled along the face from the loader gate and appeared to come from the first waste shortly after the shot was fired.

The deputy, Bertram Meakin, was returning along the face to the loader gate and was about 70 yards away when he saw – “A red light which appeared to fill the whole of the face,” near the loader gate. He heard men shouting and hurried to the gate. He had gone thirty yards when:

Something like escaping wind and compressed air came towards me. I saw no flame but I was burned on my arms and face and bowled over. My safety lamp was extinguished, but my electric light was burning. I picked it up and returned to the bank, got the men together and took them outbye via the return airway and Nos.3 and 4 districts.

Harry Wilkinson was on the right bank and saw two flames, the first did not travel along the bank but the second did. It just reached him and singed his nose and hair.

William Henry Bradshaw, a deputy on the afternoon shift in the Nos.1 and 2 headings at the pit bottom, reached the No.6 about 5.30 p.m. where he met Meakin who told him he had fired a shot in the bottom gate and handed over the shot firing battery and cable to him so that he could fire three shots in the ripping at the loader gate where the holes had already been drilled. Bradshaw went off to fire the shots.

Before firing the shots, Bradshaw made a careful examination for gas at the ripping lip and at the back of the gate and then along each bank as far as the first waste on each side. He examined the lip standing on a plank and no trace of gas was found. He then examined the holes and charged with eight ounces of Polar Samsonite No.3 with a No.6 L.T. detonator. Before charging Woodcock posted an man at each bank to prevent anyone approaching and he remained in the gate to assist the shotfirer. When the shots had been fired successfully he made another thorough examination. The place had been stone dusted by the chargeman ripper, Arthur Woodcock.

Bradshaw made a similar examination before firing the third shot on the left side which he charged with fourteen ounces of explosive and stemmed the hole with clay. He retired 30 to 40 yards down the gate with Woodcock and fired the shot. William Bradshaw described the events that followed:

I uncoupled my battery and had taken two steps towards the lip when I saw a light on the gate which was flickering and was near the face towards the left side. I think it was gas ignited. A few seconds afterwards there was an explosion and a flash which appeared to come from the left-hand side of the lip. I shouted for everyone to clear out. The flame seemed to come out along the gate, so I threw myself down on the right side of the belt, Woodcock doing the same behind me. Neither of us was burned.

Bradshaw then went to the gate where William Storer was working and told him to telephone the men at the pit bottom telling them that there had been an explosion and asking them to cut off the electricity. He also requested them to send some men to meet the party that was coming out and to get some rescue men. He returned up the loader gate to the face and found that all the men had gone out. Despite some smoke in the left bank, he was able to go along and he observed a light in the waste which he thought was gas burning in a roof break. There was also some timber burning on the floor which was covered by fall Coombe coal. They met up with Caudwell who said all the men from the left side were out of the pit.

Meanwhile Francis Wheatcroft, the overman who was on the South-West haulage road, had been informed of the explosion, sent for F. Pemberton who was a trained rescue man who was working nearby and some canaries. He instructed the men at the pit top to call the Rescue Brigade, the Manager and the Undermanager and set off along the North West No.6 haulage road. After about fifty yards he met Bradshaw, Woodcock, Caudwell and Smith who told him where the explosion had taken place and on reaching the face he found that it was not possible to go down the left bank because of smoke and fumes. Other deputies arrived and reported that all was well in the rest of the mine.

The eighteen men who were injured all walked from the mine. The manager had called for medical assistance which was given to the men at the surface and the more seriously burnt were sent to hospital. Six subsequently died from their injuries.

Bradshaw and Caudwell and two or three others returned to the loader gate near the intake airway and waited for the arrival of the first Rescue Brigade. While they were waiting, Bradshaw, with the full approval of the others, decided that the ventilation screen in the loader gate should be taken out and erected in the intake airway and this was done. They thought that this would cut off the air from the fire and ensure fresh air along the right bank and down the return airway where he understood, men were still travelling to the bottom of the shaft. Wheatcroft, the overman and Mr. Holmes the Undermanager both knew that this had been done and it was to have important repercussions.

The Mansfield Rescue Brigade was the first to arrive and reached the colliery at 6.57 p.m., changed into their apparatus and descended at 7 p.m. arriving at the junction of the loader gate and the intake airway at 7.30 p.m. this was thirty-five minutes after the position of the screen had been changed. The man in charge of the Brigade, Francis Bates, met Bradshaw and the overman, who explained the position. They did not know that there was fire and did not have extinguishers with them. Their chief concern had been to get underground as soon as possible to rescue any one who may still be in the explosion area. Frank Pemberton returned with the canaries and the Brigade had brought him an apparatus. He then assumed control of the situation.

The Brigade established a base near the face and wearing apparatus, they examined the left bank. They found a fire in the first waste of burning coal and timber on the floor, burning red but not giving off much smoke. Some clothes were found that had been on fire and had been put out with the water from bottles that were hanging nearby. The Rescue man tried to put the fire out with what stone dust and sand was available but they could not quite reach the seat of the fire. They used some of the ripping dirt to build a barrier to prevent the fire extending towards the coal face.

Bates handed a safety lamp to Pemberton who tested for gas at the first wood chock. He and Mallinder saw the gas “go right up into the gauze” and the men were withdrawn to the telephone beyond the loading point where they waited half an hour for the arrival of the second Rescue Team.

Meanwhile the haulage was out of action and both roads were blocked with tubs and Mr. Holmes had gone to help organise supplies of dust to go to the face and a barrel of water to replenish the extinguishers which had been sent for.

The Brigade from Chesterfield reached the colliery at 7.43 p.m. and treated a number of injured men in the ambulance room. At 8.10 p.m. they descended the mine under Superintendent Taylor where they went to the No.6 junction telephone where Mr. Holmes explained the situation. Both Holmes and Taylor feared that gas might have accumulated in the left bank by the erection of the screen. They contacted the other Team by telephone and Bates reported that the men had been withdrawn because of gas near the fire. At the inquiry Mr. Taylor said:

It seemed plain that to remove the brattice sheet would precipitate a crisis and it was considered imperative that the fire (which was not thought to be of serious proportions) should be subdued before the gas percentage should rise and spread the fire.

The men of the Chesterfield Brigade went forward with the fire extinguishers to deal with the fire and stone dust was being applied along the loader gate to check any secondary explosion which might occur. Mr. Taylor followed them in and asked the Mansfield men to stand by to give assistance. On finding the air clear he moved the base to within ten yards of the ripping lip and arranged for workmen to take positions behind so that they could pass extinguishers and buckets of stone dust to those at the face.

W.A. Gent, the captain of the Chesterfield Brigade with William Preater, John William Jones and William Beardsley went to tackle the fire which according to Wilcock of the Mansfield Brigade, had got worse. They had some difficulty in directing the extinguishers directly at the fire but the flame was subdued and Preater and Jones thought it was almost mastered when it flared up again.

While this was going on Beardsley tested for gas in the bank near the first chock. He found four and a half percent and pointed this out to Gent. Beardsley and Gent relieved Preater and Jones and Mr. Taylor went to the gate-end and asked the position. At this time smoke was seen coming from the pack through a roof break into the loader gate.

Through the smoke, Taylor saw that the safety lamp at the face had a large flame. At 9.20 p.m. and he was about to make a second test when the second explosion occurred. Gent was on his way up the gate to report to Taylor and William Beardsley was the nearest to the fire. He was kneeling in the waste trying to clear a fall when he:

Felt a puff of cold air and immediately afterwards heard a slight hissing and saw a flame which reached from the fire to the roof over the waste and what seemed like coloured balls coming out of the region of the fire.

If it was not for the fact that he was kneeling and wearing breathing apparatus he would have certainly been killed. Taylor described the events like this:

As I looked from the gate around the corner into the hole the body of smoke struck me in the face. It seemed to hesitate for an instant before venting itself in a dull heavy blast, upward through the hole, to strike the roof over the heap of debris and go searing its way back along the main airway outbye.

He fell between the belt run and the gate side and remained there for some time and when all was quiet he made his way out along the belt in the dark until he reached the telephones.

In the gate, carrying fire extinguishers and stone dust were, Bradshaw, Woodcock and Caudwell. Bradshaw described the explosion:

We had been near the lip about five minutes and I was standing to the right of the belt, with others both near the face and behind me, when just opposite me on the left side of the gate about 20 yards from the face I saw smoke issuing from a break in the roof. I called them all clear, and had made about six or seven steps out the gate when it burst into flame above us, and I was knocked off my feet. There seemed to be another rush of flame as I lay on the floor.

The men got on the belt and made their way out picking up an electric light which was still burning and they went to the pit bottom; all these men wee burned and Woodcock later died.

At the fresh air base, Superintendent Taylor was burned about the face gave oxygen to men as they passed. Alfred Selby and one or two others went in search of any missing men. After about 50 yards he found Gent and 80 yards further up, Preater and Jones were found badly burnt. Jones had to assisted out but Preater managed to walk to Mr. Brown, the Rescue Station Manager, who removed his apparatus and covered him up. Jones and Preater were carried out on stretchers and taken to Chesterfield Hospital where they later died.

Beardsley was still missing and Mr. Taylor went back to the base to seek help. The party got to the gate end and were enlarging the hole over the fall when Beardsley, who had a light and breathing apparatus, came out of the right bank to the loader gate where he collapsed. In his anxiety to get out after the explosion his electric lamp had gone out and had missed the gate and gone into the right bank. He was badly burned and was taken to Chesterfield Hospital and made a good recovery. He was well enough to give evidence at the inquiry.

The manager had informed Mr. J.R. Felton, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines, shortly after 8 p.m., that all the men were out and that seven had been sent to hospital and the rest sent home. Mr. T.E. Pickering, the Junior Inspector, and Mr. A.H. Steele, the Senior Inspector, went to the pit and were informed that a wood chock was on fire but the Rescue Brigades had the situation in hand and the fire was almost out. At about 10 p.m. Mr. Felton received a telephone message that a second explosion had occurred and he went to the colliery at once.

With all the men out and the fire still not out it was decided to seal off the North West No.6 district by erecting a stopping in the main intake 300 yards from the face and in the return if possible. These two stoppings were made of brattice cloth backed by sand and these were closed simultaneously at 5.30 a.m. on the 27th July and then strengthened.

About three hours later Mr. Brown reported that the return air was full of firedamp and it was considered unwise to continue the work and it was decided to erect another stopping in the North West No.3 return road, near the North West main return. On the morning of 28th July this area was sealed off by men wearing breathing apparatus. during the work thirteen or fourteen explosions were heard behind the stoppings, the first of the 27th July and the last at 12.10 a.m. on the 30th July.

There were two explosions at the colliery, one shortly after 6 p.m. which injured eighteen people, six of whom died from their injuries and this was followed three hours later by a second which injured twenty-two, three of whom later died.

Those killed in the first explosion:

  • T.W. Crowder, ripper who had severe burns to the upper body. Died 27th July 1934,
  • E. Warsop. Drawing wastes and a packer who died from burns to the upper body 27th. July 1934,
  • Walter Hardy. Drawing wastes and a packer. He died form burns 28th July 1934,
  • Enoch Reeves. Drawing wastes and packer who died 29th July 1934,
  • William Burrows. Drawing wastes and a packer who was badly burnt and died 31st July 1934,
  • William. J. Wright, ripper who died from burns 7th August 1934.

Those who died in the second explosion were:

  • Arthur Woodcock, ripper who died 27th July 1934,
  • John William Jones. A Permanent Rescue man who died 27th July 1934,
  • William Preater. A Permanent Rescue man who died from burns 3rd August 1934.

Two of the injured died in Nottingham General Hospital, two in Mansfield Hospital and two in the Chesterfield Royal Hospital and by arrangement of the three Coroners who were concerned the inquest on all the mine that were killed was held at Mansfield Police Court on the 25th and 26th September by Lt.-Col. H. Bradwell, the Coroner for that part of Nottinghamshire. The owners and management were represented by Mr. F.H. Jessop, the Nottingham Miners Association by Messrs. V. Coleman and W. Bayliss, The Nottingham Miners Industrial Union by Messrs, G.A. Spencer and H.W. Cooper and the National Association of Colliery Deputies by Messrs. R. Price and T. Buddle, H.M. Senior Inspector of Mines, Mr. A.H. Steel, was present.

The medical evidence was presented and the evidence of identification. Twelve witnesses were examined and the verdict of the jury was:

That death was due to toxaemia and shock following burns the first explosion of firedamp by which six men lost their lives was brought about through unforeseen circumstances, and the second explosion causing the deaths of three men was also accidental.

The jury added a rider that chemical fire extinguishers should be available in the future as a precaution against similar occurrences.

The official report on the explosions at the colliery was made by J.R. Felton, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines to Ernest Brown, Esq., M, M.P., Secretary for Mines on the 23rd November 1934.

The causes of the accident were self-evident but the disaster lead to some recommendations by Mr. Felton on means of dealing with underground fires. He recommended that water under pressure should be available at the pit bottom and at each inset from which coal was raised and that hydrants and connections should be provided, where conditions permitted, the water pipes should be carried along the main haulage roads.

A supply of sand a stone dust should be kept at the junctions and at convenient points in each district and chemical fire extinguishers of at least two gallon capacity should be kept and clearly labelled where they were and how to use them.


Report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at Bilsthorpe Coliery, Nottingham, on the 26th July 1934 by J.R. Felton, O.B.E., H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines.
Colliery Guardian, 25th January 1935, p.162.

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

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