CORTONWOOD Barnsley, Yorkshire 9th December 1932

Explosion at  Cortonwood Colliery  9th December 1932

Cortonwood Colliery was sunk in 1873 to the Barnsley Seam of coal, first was reached at a depth of 210 yards. The shafts were later deepened between the years 1907 & 1908 to the Thomcliffe Seam. By this time the Barnsley Seam had become exhausted. The Parkgate Sewn of coal at the pit lasted until 1941, this left only the Swallow Wood and Silkstone Seams with viable coal to be won.

The Silkstone Seam which was first developed in 1927, was to become just a few years later, on the 9th December 1932 the scene of a tragic explosion in which 4 men lost their lives immediately and 3 more died as a consequence of it later.

The Silkstone Seam at that time was reached from the Parkgate pit bottom then via a drift about a mile long. The explosion occurred on a coal face about 100 yards from the bottom of the drift. The height of the seam at the shaft side is recorded as being 1 yard 7 inches, but at the coal face where the explosion happened, it was only 2 feet 10 inches high.

The explosion was reported to be confined to a small area of the coal face where shotfiring had been taking place. The deputy in charge of the district, Alphonso Allen was one of the four victims. who died immediately in the explosion.

The coal on this particular coal face was cut by machine and filled by hand. The seam lending itself to this type of work because of its thickness, rather than the Pillar and Stall system of mining which was usual in the thicker seams.

The explosion occurred around midnight on the 9th of December 1932. Nine men were involved in the tragedy, four were killed outright, three later died in the Barnsley Beckitt Hospital. The other two men suffered injuries but survived.

The dead men were:

  • Walter Nutter aged 38, of Barnsley Road, Wombwell
  • Royal Outram aged 45, of Victoria Road, West Melton
  • William Landles aged 31, of Camley Street West Melton
  • Alphonso Allen aged 51, of Cliffe Road, Brampton
  • Albert Windle aged 18, of Firth Road, West Melton
  • Fred Humphries aged 21, of Pearsons Field, Wombwell
  • Norman Scargill, of Goodyear Crescent Wombwell

Walter Nutter, Royal Outram, William Landles and Alphonso Allen were killed in the explosion. Albert Windle, Fred Humphries and Norman Scargill died later in hospital.

The injured men were:

  • John W Eccles who died a short time after the tragedy
  • James E Moore
  • John Eccles

The rescue party which went to the scene of the explosion found all nine men badly burned, the clothes they were wearing hung from their burned and singed bodies in rags and tatters.

It was not long after the explosion that the General Manager Mr. R Graham along with the Manager Mr. H Fawcett and others were organising operations to get the victims out of the pit. Those who had survived the ordeal were quickly taken to hospital in Barnsley.

In a statement early that Friday morning Mr. R. Graham said that:

The explosion had occurred in the Silkstone Seam about midnight, and as a result, four men have died and three men and two boys are in hospital suffering from bums. We sent for the rescue parties, but they were not needed. The men died as a result of burns and though we are not sure what caused the explosion we believe that some gas may have come out of the waste with tragic consequences. About twenty men were in the seam at the time of the tragedy.

Everything is normal now. It has always been the custom to close the mine for a day following a fatal accident, and so the men are not working today. This is the first serious accident we have ever had.

Mr Herbert Smith, president of the Yorkshire Miners Association, came here as soon as he heard of the tragedy, and the Divisional Mines Inspectors, Mr. E.H. Frazer and Mr. C.W. Scott have also been. We are doing everything we can to lessen the grief which this sad occurrence has caused.

In a further statement from the official side, the Manager Mr. H. Fawcett explained:

There was a flash on the machine face and five men were injured and four men killed. Later two of the injured died.

The flash which took place about 50 or 60 yards long the face, is believed to have been a slight explosion, due it is thought to shot firing.

The Cortonwood rescue team, with apparatus, were quickly on the scene, but there was no need for the apparatus to be used.

 The coal face where the men had been working was only 2 feet 10 inches high. So they would be working in somewhat confined conditions with very little space. The face was on the dip side of the pit and because of this water had gathered to a depth of two or three inches. The dead men were all found in one spot on the face.

There were men working in the seam at the time who heard nothing of the explosion. One man Horace Cadwell of Brampton, when told there had been an accident, could not believe that there had been an explosion. Cadwell was working some half a mile distant from where it happened. He thought that he would be returning to his place of work so he did not take anything with him when he went to help. “There was a flash and that was all”. Some of the others working in the seam felt the draught caused by the displacement of the air.

One man, Oscar Frost who lived in Cliffe road Brampton, Said he heard a bump and felt a draught of warm air. He went along with the other to help with the dead and injured.

William Jones of Westmoor Lane, Wath on Dearne had worked in the Silkstone seam since it was first developed. He like Horace Cadwell was working some distance away and did not know anything about it until someone shouted for him to get out. Going with the others to the scene of the accident, he saw the first body to be that of R Outram who had been a personal friend of his.

Fred Jackson of Dearne Road, Brampton had only been employed about 10 months at Cortonwood, His job being that of a “pan turner” in the Silkstone seam. He was about 100 yards away from where the tragedy occurred.

He was reported as saying, “We could hardly realise what had happened. The scene of the explosion was obscured by smoke, and I felt the hot air on my chest”. He said that some time went by before anyone could see anything, and he was able to assist those in giving first aid. He went on to relate how badly injured were the dead, and that the clothes they had on were in rags. The victims were carried to the pit bottom on stretchers, and the foul air and thick smoke making the work of rescue a difficult task.

Alfred Smith of Concrete was apparently one of the first to reach the place where the explosion had occurred. He was reported as saying that he thought that the whole team had been killed because they were all “laying so still”. Though Smith did not see the flash himself, he felt the effect, that of the oxygen being taken out of the air, and the foggy after effect of it. Though he heard no explosion he felt the concussion of it. One of his workmates remarked that they were blowing out a compressed air pipe. A practice used to clear the pipe of any dust before putting on the end cap with the valves attached.

Though he had never before been in an explosion, like any miners he knew by instinct what the real possibility was. Smith was working about half a mile from the tragic occurrence. When he arrived on the scene the dead men had been got off the face and he was one of the party who helped carry them out of the pit. The most noticeable evidence of an explosion was the bad smell that was around.

Smith had formerly worked in that section of the seam and had only been moved to another part, two or three shifts previously.

There were many tributes to the rescuers, one being from Joseph Hall an official of the Yorkshire Miners Association, and who as a workman had previously been employed at Cortonwood Colliery. He is quoted as saying, “The colliery officials worked so hard in bringing the dead and injured out of the mine that they were almost exhausted by their efforts. I understand that there was no lack of helpers, and Mr. Tom Bird and Mr. Tom Abbot officials of the Cortonwood branch of the Y.M.A.) were among those who helped”.

”I know well this part of the colliery where this happened, and can understand the horror of it, and what would have happened had it been a longer face and there had been more men in the pit.”

”The men who escaped told me that they were working on a sixty-yard face in a seam that was only opened out four years ago.”

”Shotfiring was taking place and a sheet of flame suddenly went across the face, doing its deadly work in a flash. There was no actual fire, simply a flash and no more.”

Joe Hall also paid tribute to the work of the ambulance men and said he knew the staff of Barnsley Beckett Hospital were doing everything they possibly could.

The men who died were well known in the district and some took part in the community life of their districts.

Fred Humphries was born in Durham his father worked in one of the pits in that county. He had travelled to Wombwell four year previously and lived with his sister Mrs. Swift. It would seem that there was a large family at his home in Durham and that he had been in the habit of sending money to the family to help them. He was sixteen when he came to live in Yorkshire and got his first job, and would have been twenty-one in just a few days time.

William E Landles was well known in the West Melton and Brampton area. His wife told a reporter of the day, that he had been on the afternoon shift until the Thursday night and that she had tied to persuade him not to go to work that night because she felt that something was going to happen to him. This was a common feeling that some of the wives of miners seemed to have, a sort of premonition of danger befalling their husbands or sons.

Mrs. Landles was reported to have said that her husband had been singing to the wireless before putting his “snap” in his pocket to walk out of the house never to return. W Landles came to South Yorkshire from South Shields about 1925.

Walter Nutter was a player as well as a member of Wombwell Football Club. He had also played for Chesterfield and was known for his football in the Midland League. He had only been married for a short time.

Royal Outram was well Known in West Melton where he lived with his father, J.H. Outram had been secretary of the Y.M.A. Branch at Cortonwood Colliery some years previously. Royal Outram had been a member of the Brampton Parish Church Choir for 34 years and was one of the members of the Victoria Male Voice Choir. He had three sons and his wife was expecting his fourth child when he died. He had worked at Cortonwood Colliery for 32 years man and boy.

Alphonso Allen was employed as a Deputy at Cortonwood Colliery. He was well known in the area of Brampton. He was a leading member as well as a class teacher at the Cortonwood Wesleyan Chapel.

Albert E Windle who died in hospital was a man of eighteen years. He played football for the West Melton Rangers and had been employed at Cortonwood Colliery since he was fourteen. If he had recovered from his serious injuries it was feared that he would be blind.

Norman Scargill was only seventeen and was a member of an old Wombwell family. He was a cadet in the Wombwell Church Lads Brigade. His employment at Cortonwood Colliery had only been for six weeks, Having worked previously at Mitchell Main Colliery. He was one of a family of seven. His brother should have been with him that fateful night, but for some reason or another was sent back home that night.

In the House of Commons on the morning of Friday the 9th of December, Mr E Brown (Liberal Nationalist), the then secretary of the mines department in reply to Mr. Lunn, (labour), the MP. for Rothwell, expressed with regret that an explosion had taken place at the Cortonwood Colliery near Wombwell at 11-50 pm. And that according to a preliminary report he had received, that four people had been killed and five injured three of them seriously.

He went on to explain that the explosion had been caused by shot – firing. He then concluded by saying “that the house would join with him in offering to the relatives and friends of those killed sincere sympathy and to the injured a speedy recovery.”

 Expressions of sympathy came from all quarters as soon as the news spread, and within a few days a colliery disaster fund was opened. A meeting was held between Wath-on-Dearne Urban District Council and Brampton Parish Council at Wath town hall for co-operation in the setting up of a relief fund for those families left behind. The meetings at Wath and Brampton were followed by a conference of the three authorities of Wombwell, Wath and Brampton at Wombwell Town Hall.

On the following Monday, a decision was taken to inaugurate a relief fund. At this meeting, Mr. Fred Ambler of Brampton Parish Council was appointed Chairman and Mr. W Popplewell who was Chairman of Wath U.D and Mr. RT. Preston Chairman of Wombwell U.D was appointed vice chairmen. The clerk to Wombwell U.D Mr. PM Walker was appointed the secretary of the fund. The agreed to start the appeal at once, and that donations were to be sent to either PM Walker, at the town hall Wombwell or to the Midland Bank, Wath on Dearne.

After it was stated that work in connection with the Wath Main Disaster Fund had all been done voluntary, Mr. Preston replied that the officials of the Wombwell U.D. had made the same offer.

The following appeal was published in the local newspapers of the day:


Deep and widespread sympathy has been evoked for the widows, children and parents of those who were the victims of the terrible explosion which occurred at Cortonwood Colliery late on Thursday evening last. Seven deaths are already reported and two men now lay in a critical condition in the Beckett Hospital Barnsley. The relatives of the victims are indeed plunged into deep sorrow. The public will realize how helpless the widows and other dependants will be by reason of the loss of the only breadwinner and it is felt that many would like to make some contribution however small towards the amelioration of their distress. We, therefore, venture to make an appeal for donations from all who have it in their power to give, and we assure all who respond that they will have the sincere gratitude of those who are to benefit.

Will those desiring to help kindly send their donations to:

  • Midland Bank Ltd. Wath-on-Dearne, Yorks.
  • Treasurers of the fund.
  • Any other bank at Wath-on-Dearne, or Wombwell.

For transmission to the fund.

  • Fred Ambler. Chairman of Brampton Bierlow Parish Council.
  • RT. Preston. Chairman of Wombwell Urban District Council.
  • WM Popplewell.
  • Chairman Wath-on-Dearne Urban District Council.
  • PM. Walker. Honorary Secretary, Town Hall Wombwell.

13th December 1932.

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

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