HOUGHTON MAIN. Barnsley, Yorkshire. 12th. December, 1930.

The colliery was about four miles east of Barnsley and was the property of Messrs. Houghton Main Colliery Company Ltd. Mr. J. Barass was the agent and Mr. John Taylor, the Manger of the pit, had been appointed only two months before the explosion.

The colliery employed about two thousand men and the seams that were worked at the colliery were the Barnsley, the Parkgate and the Melton Field. The explosion affected only a small part of the latter and it was worked by three shafts at a depth of 346 yards. The Nos.1 and 3 shafts were downcasts and the No.2 the upcast and coal winding shaft. From the shafts, parallel levels, intake and return, ran north and west to the top of the North West dips. They then turned at right angles and there were two roads driven for three-quarters of a mile at a dip of 1 in 12 and passed four levels, the Nos. 11, 12 13 and 14 at the inbye end. These levels were the gates serving the Nos. 12 and 14 conveyor faces. Nos. 11 and 12 were the centre and main gates of the No.12 conveyor face and Nos.13 and 14 gates served the same purpose for the No.14 face.

Out of No.11 gate, a slant had been driven as an intake airway. Both faces were new, having been started in the spring of 1930. The seam in this area was four feet inches thick and the roof required careful support.

The two longwall faces in 12 and 14 were almost continuous and there was only a step of six yards between the low end of 12 and the top end of 14. Both faces were along the dip, about 1 in 14 and were 170 yards long. The coal was undercut, five feet, by electrical coal cutters and two shaker conveyors on each face delivered the coal to a transfer point in the main gate of each district from which it was loaded into tubs to be taken to the surface. Gates were supported by steel arches and the main gates were eleven feet wide and eight feet high.

The system adopted was called “intensive mining” and involved cutting, pan shifting, ripping, packing and loading in a cycle which was completed every twenty-four hours so that each day five feet was taken from the face and about 700 tons of coal produced. The workforce worked this system by shifts and there were a few times that there were no men in the gates and faces. The coal cutters started at 4 p.m. and worked to midnight and the pan shifters, rippers and packers from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Loaders on the day shift worked 6 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. and those on the afternoon shift from 2 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the 10th and 11th December the face was not cut due to a shortage of wagons and the pans were not moved forward on the night shift but the work resumed on the night shift of the 11/12th December.

Most of the men were supplied with electric hand lamps, the ordinary Ceag, Geag pillarless, Kingsway and Oldham and a few had Cambrian flame lamps. a deputy was appointed on each shift who fired the shots. They looked after 170 yards of face with three levels in the No.12 face and two in the No.14 face. The deputies in the afternoon shift fired shots in the coal but the two on the night shift fired only ripping shots. An explosive permitted under the Explosives in Coal Mines Order, Hawkite, was used for all shots.

Gate side packs, from the ripping debris, three to four yards wide were built and the gob packs, three yards wide at intervals of about twelve yards, were built from the material that fell in the goaf after the timber had been withdrawn. This was the packer’s job and the roof fell easily into the goaf leaving cavities in the roof. This system encountered difficulty when the system was interrupted, which had occurred the day before the explosion. There was a tendency for the breaks in the roof to become wider and for the roof over the goafs to fall more heavily.

The ventilation to the Nos., 12 and 14 conveyor faces entered the No. 11 slant and descended the faces to the No.14 main level returning to the upcast shaft by the main North West haulage road. Firedamp had rarely been seen and the only report was on the 9th September 1930 when Joseph Netherwood reported slight traces on the ripping edge of the No 11 Rise. Two workmen’s Inspectors appointed under the Coal Mines Act 1911, Mr. H. Clarney and Mr. A.J. Poyner made an inspection on the 25th August and reported one and a half percent firedamp at the ripping edge of the loader gate in the No.12 level. The Undermanager Mr. T.D. Watson accompanied these men and a hurdle sheet was erected and the gas cleared away the following day Mr. Clarney was informed. No firedamp was found since and one of H.H. Sub-Inspectors of Mines Mr. F.E. Stone made an examination of the faces on the 14th. May and the 25th June without detecting any gas. The ventilation was prevented from leaking to the return airway along the No.12 level by four brattice sheets.

At the time of the explosion, which occurred at 12.45 a.m. on the 12th December, the coal cutter men had gone home but the rippers, packers and panmen were at work with a party of twelve men in the No.12 level who were preparing a new loading point for the belt conveyor was approaching its full length. There were fifty-five men in the No.12 district and forty-one in the No.14 which was connected to the No.12.

On Thursday 11th December at 10 p.m. the night shift rippers, packers and pan shifters for the No.12 district descended the mine and arrived at their place of work just before 11 p.m. Three of these men, Dudley Chance, John Quinn and David Williams were rippers on the No.12 level and were working at one of the loading gates. They proceeded to drill four holes in the ripping with a compressed air drill with a six foot bit.

The first hole was on the left side to remove a piece of side left by the previous ripping shift. The second hole was in the new ripping, which was intended to be four and a half feet thick and eleven feet wide, two feet up and including upwards and to the left. The third hole was also to the left and inclining upwards so that it would blast out the left-hand corner. The fourth, and as it will unfold, the important shot hole began at two feet two inches up the ripping face and rose at 1 in 2. The mouth was three feet to the right of the centre line of the gate and the hole was inclined at 1 in 5 to the right. The depth of the hole was important and will be discussed later but if it was five feet deep, it’s inner end would have been four feet two inches above the original roof coal and four feet to the right of the centre line of the gate.

The deputy, Joseph Netherwood visited the rippers when they were boring the third hole. He went to the face and when he returned the fourth hole was almost finished and he tested for gas, applied stone dust round the first shot hole, tested the depth with a stemming stick then charged and stemmed it. While this was being done, Chance knocked out a bar under the ripping. The deputy sent men as sentries to the face and after connecting his cable, followed the men along the gate. He stood to the right, back from the shothole, shouted “Fire” and fired the first shot. The rippers were sheltering behind tubs about twenty-five yards away. About ten minutes later, which was probably an overestimation, Mr. Netherwood went back to the ripping followed by the rippers and tested for gas.

He followed the same operation for the second shot but did not apply stone dust. This was fired along with the third after the same routine had been followed and after the third had been fired, David William, ripper, saw the deputy test for gas in the cavity that had been left but he did not turn off his own electric light while the test was being made. The deputy then asked if there was plenty of clay and pushed some to the back before inserting the charge. Dudley Chance, who saw him do this, never questioned him about it as he had seen him do it before. At the inquiry, Netherwood denied that he had done so.

According to the evidence, the fireman did not make an inspection for gas before he fired the fourth shot at 12.45 p.m. Almost immediately an explosion took place. Flames extended along the face for at least forty four yards on the rise side of the No.12 level and through into the No.14 conveyor face for a distance of seventy-nine yards.

The packers in the No. 12 face who had taken shelter behind the pack and others up the face were burned and the three men in the No.14 face who were moving the conveyor were very badly burned. All five men on the No.12 face and twelve in the No.14 face were burned but no one in the No.12 level was injured. All the men in the No.12 face made their way up the face to the No.11 level. Three men came up the No.14 face and out into the No.12 level where they collapsed. Three were badly burnt and died later. The other men on the No.14 face escaped by the No.13 level.

The overman, George Naylor, was in charge of men further back on the No.12 level at the time, opened the sheets and allowed the smoke and fumes from the No.12 face to pass directly into the return instead of being forced down the No.14 face. Some smoke from the No.14 face came back into the No.12 gate.

First Aid was given to the men and despite the distance from the shaft and the gradients, all the men were treated and sent to Barnsley Beckett Hospital by 4.45 a.m.

Those killed were:

  • Albert Holden aged 32 years a panman,
  • James Lackey aged 30 years a packer,
  • Jacob Newberry aged 50 years a packer,
  • Norman Nicholson aged 24 years a panman,
  • John Pearson aged 22 years a panman,
  • William Richards aged 24 years a panman,
  • Charles Watson aged 38 years a panman.

Those injured:

  • Sidney Blackwell aged 21 years a panman,
  • George Burgess aged 24 years a packer,
  • Fred Davies aged 42 years a packer,
  • Joseph Dixon aged 55 years a roadman,
  • William Duffield aged 26 years a packer,
  • James Hopkins aged 30 years a packer,
  • John Charles Parkin aged 42 years a packer,
  • William Penry aged 27 years a packer,
  • James Ramsbottom aged 59 years a packer,
  • Clark Sykes aged 31 years a packer.

The Wakefield Coroner, Mr. C.J. Haworth conducted the inquests into the deaths of the seven men and the proceeding lasted three days. Mr. A. Meal, solicitor represented The Houghton Main Colliery Company Ltd., and a deputy, Mr. Joseph Netherwood. The Yorkshire Mine Workers’ Association were represented by Mr. Joseph Jones, secretary, Mr. Alf Smith, Mr. H. Clarney and Mr. T.W. Illsley and Mr. George Cook, H.M. Senior Inspector of Mines, along with Mr. E.H. Frazer, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines were all present.

Twenty-one witnesses were called and the jury brought in the verdict that:

  1. Death was due in each case to burns caused by than explosion initiated by No.4 shot in Houghton Main Colliery.
  2. We are not satisfied there was neglect, according to the evidence before us.
  3. We believe a longer time should be allowed between shots.
  4. We think something should be provided at collieries to prevent these explosions because we understand that if there is a good hole without leakages there is a sweet shot. If something of the nature of suction or compression could be put into operation it should be possible to tell by a gauge whether the hole is a good one.

The findings were discussed in the Report of the Inquiry.

The “Report on the Causes and Circumstances Attending the Explosion” by Mr. E.H. Frazer, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines, was presented to the Secretary of Mines, Mr. E. Shinwell, Esq., M.P. in April 1931.

The cause seemed obvious, the firing of the fourth shot but other possibilities were investigated. All the safety lamps were tested and ruled out as a source of ignition and no electrical machinery was working at the time. The exploder used to fire the shots was tested at the Mines Department Testing Station and was found incapable of producing a “break flash”.

Examination of the ripping found that firedamp was present in the cavity left by the third shot and gas was coming from the goaf across the path of the fourth shot. This shot was found to have done hardly any work and only a portion of the side towards the centre had been blown down. Drill marks to three feet ten inches could be seen and it was possible to insert a stemmer five feet into the hole.

It was thought that the third shot was bored nearly to a break and had blasted down the ripping to expose part of the break. The ventilation had then forced firedamp from the waste through this break where it was ignited by the fourth shot.

The deputy denied that he detected the break and that he put clay into the hole before inserting his charge which could have plugged a break. There was no suspicion that this was being done until George Cook found a twelve-inch length of an old shot hole filled with clay on 12th December. The back of the fourth hole had disappeared but there was no sign of shattering at the back of the hole.

Netherwood denied plugging the hole before charging it but John Quinn stated on 13th December that he saw him put three “pills” into the hole before charging it but at the inquest said he did not see clay put in first. David William Jenkins, a ripper, said he did not see what the deputy, Netherwood did to the hole.

Mr. Frazer said:

On the balance of evidence, I am firmly of the opinion that the deputy was aware of a break and took the view that, sooner than waste a hole, it would be better to reduce its length and limit the size of the charge. Such a course is illegal.

He continued:

Though the jury was satisfied, on the evidence before them that there had been neglect, I consider that there was neglect in respect to:

  1. The failure of the deputy to make examinations from inflammable gas as required by clause 6 of the Explosives in Coal Mines Order immediately before each of the three shots were fired.
  2. The failure of the deputy to examine four shot holes for breaks running along and across as required by Clause 6 of the Explosives in Coal Mines Order. These two failures, I believe, can be proved. Had the provisions pointed out been observed in the spirit of the Order, there would have been no explosion.
  3. The firing of a shot hole in which a break had been found. Though it has been stated that the deputy did not take steps to examine the shot holes for breaks, I believe that he was aware of a break and used clay in an endeavour to plug it.

The suggestion of the jury to use compression or suction to find breaks in a hole was considered by Major H.J. Humphrys, the Senior Inspector with the assistance of the Manager of the Cadeby Main Colliery. It was found that by placing a handful of stone dust in the shot-hole and blowing in compressed air it was possible to see breaks that could not be found with a scraper.


The Mines Inspectors Report.
Report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at Houghton Main Colliery, Barnsley, Yorkshire, on the 12th December 1930 by E.H. Frazer, H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines.
Colliery Guardian, 29th May 1931, p.1535

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

Return to previous page