WHITEFIELD. Hanley, Staffordshire. 7th. February, 1881.

The Institute workings of the Whitefield colliery, about five miles from Stoke-on-Trent and owned by the Chatterley Iron Company, were all in the Cockshead seam which was inclined at about 1 in 3. The coal was about 7 feet 3 inches thick and included a small band of cannel. The roof was good, made of a strong shale. The Institute pit was the downcast and 431 yards deep. The Laura Pit was the upcast and was 215 yards to the rise of the Institute Pit and 330 yards deep. The levels from the Institute it were driven for 600 yards to the north and 1,100 yards to the south where work to drive them further was going on. Levels were also started from the Laura Pit, 200 yards to the north and 550 yards to the south. The Institute workings lay between these levels and those of the Laura to the rise of the Laura levels. There were also dips being driven to the west from the Institute pit.

The coal was worked by “bank and pillar” method called, in Staffordshire, “drift and pillar.” The jigs were about 50 yards apart and the pillars about 20 yards wide. The North Side Institute was almost drifted back leaving a gob of about 27,000 square yards. On the south side 14 small drifts were either finished or at work and there was a gob area of about 10,000 square yards. Pillars were left at the top side of the gobs so as to secure an air road to the rise and ensure their ventilation.

One current of air with minor subdivisions ventilated the North Side Institute and Laura workings and another passed along the Institute south levels and back over some of the drifts of the travelling dip. A split went up the Box dip to go to the upper south drifts in the Institute pit and the joined another split which went along the main jig to the South Laura workings. A fourth current ventilated the dip workings and was joined on its return journey to the Laura by the exhaust from the smithy flue. These were all united in a dumb drift which entered the Laura Pit about 20 yards above the furnace chimney.

When the colliery was first worked, a smithy was placed in the main intake about 70 yards from the bottom of the downcast shaft. The hot air and smoke from the smithy fire was carried away by a flue made of 10 inch cast iron piping. For the first 15 yards the flue was carried long the main level intake and then it turned off into a side passage, through a pair of doors up a steep travelling way rising towards the level of the upcast shaft and forming part of the return airways of the colliery. About 20 yards above the doors this travelling way was crossed by a crosscut through a small door and terminated in the crosscut about 30 yards inside this door. There was always a lot of coal dust in this crossway and the outside flue was coated with dust consisting of either coal dust or soot of both.

The Assistant Inspector of Mines, Mr. Robert Arthur Sawyer, had visited the pit on several occasions prior to the disaster and found the ventilation very good but he commented that he had never seen a smithy in a pit before and when he saw it working the flames were very small and he considered nothing wrong on his casual inspection. Mr. Thompson, the manager, told him that the smithy was to be moved and it did not occur to the Inspector that the flue would them be shortened and the intake pipes would have a cooling effect.

Mr. Wynne, the Inspector commented:

It is, under almost any circumstances, improper to place a smithy underground in a fiery mine but in its original position any danger of heating from the flue was diminished by the circumstance that the first 10 or 15 yards of the flue leading immediately from the smithy fire, were in the main intake near the downcast shaft at the coolest part of the mine.

About May 1880, in the course of opening out the mine, it was found by the manager that certain alterations of the main intake would be obstructed by the smithy. Consequently, he removed the smithy into a room which was excavated for it, which was out of the main intake. The effect was that the flue not only shortened by 15 to 20 yards but was entirely out of the cooling current in the main intake. The regulations for the use of the smithy were not clear but it seemed that it was not unusual and perhaps common, for men and boys to light them smithy fire at night to clean gauzes and other purposes.

It was stated that the practice was not to take the flue to pieces and clean it inside and out once a month. At the time of the accident, it was due to be cleaned and had not been examined for three or four weeks. It was uncertain whether it had been cleaned the month before because the man who looked after it was killed in the disaster.

Mr. James Atherton was a certificated manager and was employed at the colliery as an underlooker. He examined the workings on the south side of the pit on the 5th. February and found that the ventilation was as good as usual and he had heard no complaints about it. There was always some gas to be found in the two main levels on the south side which came from blowers which were not strong but were strong enough to hinder blasting.

The evening before the disaster was very cold and the fire in the smithy was kindled about 10.30 or 11 p.m. by some of the boys. It was not known whether they did it to do some work or because they were cold which they had no right to do. There was evidence that they fed it with coal and not breeze and that it was a larger fire than usual and the boys were blowing it. They were cautioned by one of the men about 11 p.m. that the fire was too large and at that time, it was noticed that a small portion of the flue was red hot.

About 1 a.m. the alarm was given that smoke was spreading into the roadways. The cross-cut in which the flue ended was found to be on fire. Water was brought and efforts mad to extinguish the fire but there was nothing with which to fight a fire, no hoses, extinguishers or buckets. The fire gained control, came out of the travelling dip and all efforts to put it out were abandoned about 2.30 a.m.

At about 2.15 a.m. on the morning of the explosion, James Atherton was sent for by Mr. Thompson and told that the pit was on fire and about 20 minutes before the explosion Thompson came out of the pit in a very excited state and said “that the pit was lost and the company ruined”. He decided to withdraw the horses from the mine and sent the men down telling them to hurry. None of the men refused and Atherton told Thompson that he feared an explosion as he had seen that the fire was gaining. Thompson told the men to hurry and get the horses. The explosion took palace before this could be done at a time when there were twenty-six men in the pit. None came out alive. The explosion occurred at 3.10 a.m. and there was ample time to get the men out of the pit and evidence came from a fireman named Vickers at the inquiry saying that Thompson had warning of the fire at 12.30 a.m. Both shafts were affected by the blast and probably killing all the men underground as well as injuring men in the cage and at the pit bank.

The manger’s son was getting into the cage and was blown away from the cage. He later died from his injuries. Another of his sons was in the cage had his leg broken. A man was thrown into winding gear where he lay for about two hours before he was discovered and he later died. Two men in the cage were thrown onto the air and fell down the shaft and were killed.

Mr. Wynne, the Inspector said when he arrived at the colliery at 12.30 p.m. flames and smoke was coming from the Laura Pit. When the water barrel which was at the bottom of the Institute Pit at the time of the explosion was wound up it was found to contain a body. The general opinion was that no one could have survived the explosion but there were one or two men who wished to go down and see. Before the Inspector would allow this he ordered that the barrel be sent down containing three torches so that the guide ropes could be inspected and if there was anyone alive at the bottom of the pit they would have a light. This was down three times before Mr. Wynne and Charles Lowe got into the barrel and descended. When they were down about 330 yards they saw the flames and smoke were actually crossing the bottom of the pit as if coming from the direction of the lamp cabin. They called out but got no reply and they were brought to the pit bank. Mr. Wynne then gave orders to close the pit about 1.30 p.m.

Those who died:

  • John Bailey 42, Whitfield Sun St, Tunstall, Dataler
  • Christopher Beech 49, Whitfield Married & 5 Children, Lampman
  • Joseph Beech 22, Whitfield Son of Christopher, Single, Dataler
  • A Bickerton, Whitfield Pit`s Hill
  • Henry Boulton 29, Whitfield, Thrown Into Gearing, Broke Arm & 2 Ribs Died 10pm On The 7th, Fireman, Married
  • Richard Cottonberry 30, Whitfield Norton Green, Collier
  • George Dale 33, Whitfield Married, Brother of Joseph Bradeley, Collier
  • Joseph Dale 22, Whitfield Single, Brother of George Bradeley, Collier
  • John Davi(e)S 46,   Whitfield, A Stranger Recently Come To Work At Colliery, Dataler
  • William ( George ) Dean 17, Whitfield, A Boy, Jigger
  • James Fletcher 34, Whitfield, Married & 7 Children, Turnhurst, Dataler
  • Samuel Gaskell 45, Whitfield, Married & Family, Lane Ball, Collier
  • William Gidman 19, Whitfield, A Boy, Chell Heath, Jigger
  • Thomas Hargreaves 37, Whitfield, Woodhouse Lane, Green Ball, Dataler
  • Arthur Holdcroft 25, Whitfield, Married & 2 Children, Hayes Fegg, Dataler
  • William Locket (T) 38, Whitfield, Married & 5 Children, Underlooker
  • Cain Mayer 40, Whitfield, Married & 11 Children, Whitfield, Engineer
  • Robert Miles 60, Whitfield, Married & 3 Grown-Up Children, Hayes Fegg, Fireman Morton Edward 40, Whitfield, Married & 8 Children, Fireman
  • William Morton 16, Whitfield, Son of Edward, Single, Taker-off
  • Arthur Poole 25, Whitfield, Collier
  • John Sargeant 33, Whitfield, Married & 2 Children, Ball Green, Fireman
  • Henry Stubbs 33, Whitfield, Married & 7 Children, Whitfield, Carpenter
  • Edward Thompson, Whitfield, Eldest Son of The Manager, Broken Leg & Concussion of The Brain – Died Early Hrs of The 8th
  • John Thompson 26, Whitfield, Asst Manager, Son of The Manager, Married But No Family
  • Samuel Vickers 53, Whitfield, Married, Whitfield, Fireman

At the inquiry, was held before Mr. John Booth, Coroner for North Staffordshire, at the Norton Arms, Norton-in-the-Moors.

James Watson, a collier, who went down the pit at 11 p.m. said:

I went to the smithy where he saw a boy, William Morton, come in with a piece of oily cotton waste and put it on the hearth. He told another boy to go and get some coal. Breeze was usually used in the smithy but coal was sometimes used. I saw the boy kindle the flame and went to work where he stayed until 2 a.m. when I was called out and told there was a fire. I went to the pit bottom and found Mr. Thompson who told me to go and fight the fire. Later the men were allowed to go out if they wished. I came up as I was afraid and I did not think there were many in the pit and I did not know if efforts had been made to get them, out of the pit. There was time to get the put before the explosion but after it there was no hope of them being alive.

William Moss, a wagoner, went to the smithy about 11 p.m. and saw Morton blowing on the fire. He told him to be careful and not to get the pit on fire. He knew there was soot in the flue and it was glowing red hot.

The cause of the explosion was evident to all and the coroner but in the course of the inquiry it became evident that the manager had habitually been guilty of breach of the general rules with respect to shot firing. The manager professed to believe that shots could lawfully be fired at any time unless gas was seen at the actual tome of blasting. This practice was stopped by a notice from the Inspector of Mines in January.

The Inspector thought it was the pipe from the smithy that had caused the fire. It would have been full of soot which the sparks from the forge ignited and the pipes on the outside would be loaded with coal dust and with the opening and closing of ventilation doors, this would have directed the gas to the fire. When the manager left the pit the fire was already out of control. The Inspector commented:

Considering the situation of the fire in the return airway in the immediate fear of the upcast shaft in a fiery mine, it was as clear as anything can be made clear to an intelligent manager that an explosion was imminent and a minute should not be lost in sending every man and boy out of the pit.

After hearing the evidence and the Corner’s summing up, the jury returned the following verdict:

The jury think the smithy was a mistake and great error of judgement. Also we find that Mr. Thompson did not take sufficient care of the mine under his charge, by not withdrawing them from the pit and by not preventing Henry Boulton and Samuel Vickers from descending the pit, he knowing the dangerous state of the mine at the time and we fond him guilty of culpable negligence, thereby causing the deaths of Samuel Vickers and Henry Boulton. I may say that this is the unanimous verdict of 13 out of 14 of the jury.

The manager Mr. E. Thompson was committed for trial at the Staffordshire Assizes for manslaughter by both the Coroners jury and the Stipendiary Magistrate. He was tried before Mr. Justice Cave and acquitted after his Lordship advised then that what the manager did was not culpable negligence and they ought not make the prisoner responsible for the men’s deaths. The Jury brought in a verdict of “Not Guilty” and the man was discharged.

In order to extinguish the fire, the upcast shaft was filled in and the downcast covered. It remained closed for several weeks with the 21 bodies still in the mine. Work was commenced to recover the Institute pit but eight weeks had gone by and there as another severe explosion which cased a lot of damage but fortunately did not injure anyone seriously. The explosion smashed the cage, headgear and guide rods and parts of these were found in adjoining fields. Two men were on duty at the pit bank and one broke his collar bone in falling over making his escape from the pit bank.


Mines Inspectors Report 1881. Mr. Wynne.
Report of the explosion which occurred at the Whitfield Colliery on the 7th February 1881, C. 2965.
Colliery Guardian 11th February 1881, p.221, 17th June 1881 p.947.

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

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