HOUGHTON MAIN. Barnsley, Yorkshire. 12th June, 1975.

At the time of the accident, the Houghton Main Colliery was one of eighteen mines in the Barnsley Area of the National Coal Board five miles from Barnsley. a total of 1361 men were employed at the Colliery, 1191 of whom worked underground and 170 on the surface. The colliery produced about 15, tons of coal per week and of this 700 tons was produced from the Upper Measures, the Meltonfield and the Beamshaw Seams. The remainder came from the Lower Seams, the Parkgate and the Silkstone Seams. There was development work proceeding on the Newhill and the Thorncliffe Seams.

There were three shafts at the colliery. The No.1 and No.2 were downcast each with a diameter of 14 feet, and the No.3 shaft was the upcast with a diameter of 20 feet. The shafts were originally sunk to the Barnsley Seam and later Nos. 2 and 3 were deepened to the Thorncliffe seam at 816 yards. The shaft was used to wind men and materials and for ventilation but some coal was raised at the No.2 shaft, about 150 tons a day. In the Beamshaw and Parkgate Seams coal was transported by roadways connecting with the neighbouring Grimethorpe Colliery where the combined output of both collieries was wound to the surface.

An Aerex single inlet radial flow fan, 153.5 inches in diameter extracted 354,000 cubic feet of air per minute at 7.8 inches water gauge from the No.3 shaft. Firedamp drainage from the roof an floor holes was practised extensively at the colliery but not in the Meltonfield and Newhill seams.

J.B. Keirs was the Area Director, A.W. Tuke, the Deputy Director (Mining), C. Shepherd, Area Chief Mining Engineer, H. Widdowson, Colliery General Manager and R. Cant, Colliery Surveyor. L. Fox was the deputy manager and senior undermanager for the colliery and there were four undermanagers, B.D. Bradley, A.N. Lloyd, A. Mellor and R. Sidebottom. Bradley was in charge of the Meltonfield and Newhill Seams which included B02’s, B040’s, B050’s and E21’s districts.

The Meltonfield seam was 50 inches thick on average with a fireclay floor and a shale roof. Access to the seam was by a cross measure and a road driven in the seam from existing workings in the Beamshaw horizon. Two longwall advancing faces B01’s and B02’s had been worked between September 1972 and October 1974. These faces were to have ceased production on 13th. June 1975, when they had met a fault and the face had been reduced in length to 94 yards. The face was to be replaced by E21’s district in the Newhill Sea, and salvage operations were in progress on B20’s district where rails were being recovered from the main gate by way of scourings driven through the ribside of B040’s tailgate. The B040’s district was a longwall advancing single unit equipped with powered supports. Coal was mined by a ranging drum shearer and a tailgate elimination shearer. The main gate was formed as an advancing heading some 10 to 15 yards ahead of the face line by blasting and mechanical loading of the debris.

The B050’s development district had two headings which were extensions of the Meltonfield main intake and return airways and both the headings wee in solid coal and stone supported by arched girders 13 feet wide and 9 feet high lagged with corrugated steel sheets. The main intake heading had been driven 51 yards beyond B040’s main gate and was not positively ventilated. It was intended to start this heading soon afterwards. A road heading machine had been used to drive B050’s return heading 410 yards and the heading had been stopped for three weeks before the accident. It had been driven through a faulted area of the left flank of B040’s main gate. At 170 yards from B040’s junction B050’s tailgate had been driven a distance of 220 yards from B050’s return heading. This heading had been sealed with a concrete block wall and had not been ventilated.

The Newhill seam was 6 feet 6 inches thick and lay about 98 feet above the Meltonfield seam. Access to the seam was gained by driving a pair of 1 in 5 rising drifts off the Meltonfield main airways and the workings in the Newhill seam had been developed from these drifts. A longwall advancing powered support face, 145 yards long and fully mechanised had been opened put and equipped. This had had some problems with bad roof conditions with water breaking into the main gate road head where a large cavity had formed. Repair work was in progress and preparations were made to fill the cavity with fly ash. There is some evidence that there was difficulty in testing for firedamp at the top of the cavity because there was no suitable equipment in the district. It was intended that the face should commence production on Monday 16th June 1975 to replace the B040’s face in the Meltonfield seam. Before the accident, four shears had been taken from the face which was advanced 5 feet 6 inches. This had been done to advance the face into competent strata.

Both the Meltonfield and the Newhill seams were ventilated by the main air current from the shafts and twin intake and return airways were provided over part of the ventilation circuit. The ventilation of the B040’s district had the airflow in the opposite direction to the coal flow and an exhaust fan had been provided for the B050’s return heading as auxiliary ventilation up to a short time before the accident. The fan, coupled to a dust extractor, as placed on B040’s main gate about 15 feet inbye of B050’s junction. A bypass system of ventilation exhausted directly into the Meltonfield return was available to ventilate B050’s return heading during weekend shifts when the auxiliary fan was not in use.

The E21’s district of the Newhill seam was ventilated by air from the Meltonfield main intake which rejoined the intake after ventilation the E21’s face. There was some controversy as to whether E21’s district should have been put on a separate ventilation spilt from the time the connection was made.

In the B040’s district in the Meltonfield seam, work had proceeded normally on the day shift of 12th. June 1975 and the last shearers were being taken off the face in preparation for salvage work. There had been some difficulty with the stage loader conveyor chain which was fast at the end of the shift. the fifteen men of the afternoon shift went down at 12 noon and there were four tailgate rippers, the tailgate shearer operator and his assistant, six men employed on face timbering, two fitters and a fitter’s mate. At the start of the shift the two fitters, Drury and Austin, repaired the stage loader and Austin then started to dismantle the loading shovel in the main gate advancing heading while Drury worked on the face removing powered support relay bars.

At the start of the early afternoon shift at 11 a.m., Norman, a gate end supervisor, was in charge of the district until the arrival of Williamson the district deputy who started his shift at 2 p.m. The early afternoon shift left the district at about 5.30 p.m. and Norman left Williamson at the main gate road-head and travelled outbye along the main gate. He arrived at the pit bottom at about 6.30 p.m. when he spoke on the telephone to Williamson who he assumed to be at B040’s main gate road-head.

In the E21’s district in the Newhill seam, the face was affected by water, particularly in the maingate road-head area, and as a result, the face conveyor motor at the end had failed. During the day shift of 12th June, work had started to replace the motor. There was some degree of urgency as it was planned to continue working during the afternoon shift. The district deputy, Lakin, went underground at 2 p.m. and travelled to the district. At 5 p.m. a late afternoon shift of Copperwheat and Baker, both electricians, Upperdine, a fitter, Woodcock and Bannister, both facemen went down the pit. They were all working changing the face conveyor motor except Bannister who was to be the pumpsman at the main gate. These men travelled inbye on the manriding conveyor as far as E21’s alighting platform. Pull lifts were required to install the new conveyor motor and there was a discussion as to where these could be obtained because Upperdine had unsuccessfully attempted to get some at the pit bottom. Buckley, Woodcock and Bannister went on to the district by the conveyor drift, leaving Lakin and Upperdine at the tandem point where they were later joined by Copperwheat and Baker. After Upperdine had failed to get the lifts in the return airway, it was agreed that Copperwheat and Baker would go inbye as it was thought that there was a set in the B050’s return heading. Wilkinson, the transfer point attendant from B040’s main gate heard this proposal and spoke to some men on his way outbye. He warned them not to go into the B050’s heading because he knew that it was fenced off and thought to be in a dangerous condition.

Lee, a spare deputy on the 5 p.m. shift, also knew that the pull lifts were required for E21’s went underground at 5.30 p.m. and waited at the pit bottom for almost an hour for these to be sent down but they did not arrive so he left the pit bottom on the manrider at 6.35 p.m. After leaving his coat at the inbye end of the raid, he walked to the conveyor boarding point and travelled inbye. It was about this time that Upperdine received the call from Copperwheat to say that he could not find a set of lifts in the B050’s return heading. After a while, Upperdine received a second call from Copperwheat to say that the deputy’s light had been put out twice and they were going to do something about it. Shortly afterwards Lakin left Upperdine and walked inbye along with the Meltonfield intake towards the bottom of E21’s conveyor drift. Upperdine started to eat a sandwich and he thought that 5 or 10 minutes had elapsed after Copperwheat had last spoken to him when the explosion occurred.

At 6.49 p.m. Pearson, the guard signalled the manriding train from 42’s station. It had travelled about 6 yards when there was a thump accompanied by a rush of air outbye, then inbye and the train stopped. The air was thick with dust and Pearson was unable to see anyone. He looked at his watch before starting the train and established the time of the explosion.

Lee, the deputy, was travelling on the manriding belt towards the Newhill seam when he was blown backwards by a violent rush of air. He was very confused but after collecting himself, he managed to make his way inbye on foot by following the conveyor. Although he was unaware of it, there was a possibility that Lee suffered the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and this could account for the discrepancy in the time it took for him to travel to the Newhill cross-slit, which was a short distance, and the other survivors who travelled the whole of the E21’s district.

Buckley, Woodcock and Bannister had walked inbye to E21’s main gate road-head, reviewed the work they had to do and then walked outbye a short distance to the stage loader gearhead where they were waiting for Upperdine to bring the lifts. Suddenly they were blown off their feet by a blast of air which came inbye along the main gate. The air was so thick with dust that it was impossible for them to see each other. In close contact and with Buckley in the lead, they made their way outbye along the main gate until they arrived at the top of the 1 in 5 conveyor drift. Here they smelled burning and decided to go back along the main gate and through the face. They donned their self-rescuers at this point but felt unable to wear them. They turned round and started to travel inbye along the main gate and Buckley changed places with Woodcock because the latter had lost his helmet and was concerned about injuring his head.

About this time Buckley and Woodcock lost contact with Bannister and they made their way through the E21’s face along the tailgate and down the 1 in 5 supply drift. Buckley led the way and found his way by means of the haulage signal wires. at the bottom of the drift, Buckley went towards the Meltonfield return but considered the conditions there to be worse, he was attempting to find his way put when he heard Lee shouting. They made contact in the cross-slit and Lee escorted the two men away from the district through the Meltonfield intake airway.

On their way out they had attempted to raise the alarm but the loud-speaking telephone system had been put out of action by the explosion. When they arrived at the 42’s a man rider road end they boarded the conveyor and rode outbye until they reached the fitting shop where Lee was able to contact the surface control room by telephone. He informed Johnson, the deputy in charge, that there had been an explosion. Johnson received this call about 7.10 p.m. and immediately told Askin, the seam overman, who was with him in the control room speaking to Bradley the undermanger who was told of the disaster. Johnson telephoned Fox the deputy manager and Askin had difficulty in ringing Doncaster Rescue Station but after a short delay was connected to Wright the Rescue Station Superintendent. Fox arrived at the mine shortly afterwards and after satisfying himself that the rescue service had been summoned decided to withdraw all persons from the mine and he instituted the emergency procedure. In the meantime at 7.33 p.m. on the 12th June, Wright at the Doncaster Station, having ascertained that the call from the colliery was genuine, turned out the rescue brigade and informed the standby station at Wakefield.

The permanent corps rescue team under the charge of Fee, the Assistant Superintendent arrived at the colliery at 7.50 p.m. and were ready to go below ground at 8.08 p.m. It was initially thought that the explosion had occurred in the Newhill seam and it was known that there were men working there but Askin, the seam overman, accompanied the team as a guide as far as the first cross-slit to the return on the Meltonfield intake inbye of 42’s man rider road.

The second team from Wakefield Rescue Station went below ground at 8.20 p.m. and they took with them a rough sketch map prepared by a fitter. After establishing a fresh air base, Fee, accompanied by Wilks the team captain, travelled along the first cross-slit towards the main return airway and near the junction, they saw alight. They retreated to the fresh air base and instructed the team to couple up and go into the return where Bannister was located in a crouched position with his opened self-rescuer hanging round his neck although the mouthpiece was not in his mouth. Bannister was carried by stretcher to the fresh air base where a reviver, mouth to mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage were applied but no avail.

The team then continued their exploration along the Meltonfield intake and about 50 to 60 yards inbye of the second cross-slit, they located Upperdine who was badly burned and severely injured. He was brought to the fresh air base where he was treated and then sent out of the mine. Shortly afterwards the Wakefield permanent corps team located and recovered the badly mutilated body of Lakin a short distance outbye of the junction of  E21’s conveyor drift. The teams who were subsequently deployed made detailed searches of E21’s district through the conveyor drift where it was blocked by an extensive fall. No survivors or victims were found in the Newhill seam workings.

The teams then turned their attention to a systematic search of the Meltonfield seam workings inbye the Newhill drifts by successive seams. At 5.30 a.m. on the 13th. June, the body of Copperwheat was located in the Meltonfield return some 25 feet from B040’s main gate junction. The next team left the fresh air base at 6.20 a.m. and it found the bodies of Williamson and Baker in B040’s main gate about 25 feet from the junction of the main return airway. The bodies were recovered later by other rescue teams.

The men who died were:

  • Leonard Baker aged 53 years, electrician
  • Richard Bannister aged 312 years, pumpman
  • Raymond Copperwheat aged 42 years, electrician
  • Irvin Lakin aged 55 years, deputy
  • Frederick Arnold Williamson aged 59 years, deputy


  • Kenneth Upperdine aged 48 years, fitter was seriously injured

When all the victims had been recovered, rescue teams were deployed in the mine to obtain air samples at selected points in the affected workings and they indicated that there was a continuing fire in the area. This possibility together with an observed deterioration of the B01’s junction which had collapsed in the Meltonfield return. The rescue teams had to pass through this area and it made the operations hazardous. With the agreement of all parties, it was decided that the affected workings should be sealed off. This was done and subsequent inspections by the rescue brigade and all interested parties were made while normal working was resumed in the unaffected parts of the Houghton Main Colliery and the interconnected Grimethorpe Colliery.

The inquiry into the disaster opened at the Town Hall Barnsley on the 26th. August 1975 and lasted for nine days under the direction of  Mr. J. Carver, H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines and reported to Mr. W. Simpson, Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission on the 18th. November 1975. All interested parties were present and evidence was heard from 81 witnesses.

Because the district was sealed off it was impossible to carry out an underground investigation but large numbers of samples were collected and analysed. The personal effects of the victims that were recovered, two samples of cables and tests on a Carter Howden radial flow fan of the same manufacturing batch as the one on B050’s return were thoroughly tested. The ventilation system was thoroughly investigated.

The evidence indicated that the way in which some of the overmen and deputies carried out their duties were criticised and the inquiry thought that the management and control at this level left much to be desired. When the B050’s return heading a fan broke down on the 3rd. June it was first attended to by Cieslik, an electrician and his inspection revealed that the motor foot bolts had sheared but the motor was in good electrical order. He disconnected the fan cable and removed the retaining plug from the socket but he did not put a personal padlock on the switch isolator. Cieslik very properly reported the defect on his daily report sheet. Bush, a shift charge electrical engineer read the report but did not transfer the details to the statuary report as he considered the defect to be mechanical and not electrical. On the afternoon shift of 3rd. June, a foreman fitter, Barton, was informed of the breakdown and went to rectify the breakdown but found that the task was beyond him with the equipment he had. he did not make a written report but told K, Adams, the shift charge electrician that a fitter and an electrician were needed to do the repair. This was not brought to the attention of the night shift man. He saw the book but took no action. The afternoon charge shift engineer did not report the defect to Scott the mechanical engineer and did not record it in the report book. The afternoon shift charge engineer claimed that he mentioned the matter to Martin, the night shift overman, but the overman emphatically denied this.

The design and development of the Carter Howden fan was thoroughly investigated. In the late 1960s the National Coal Board made a critical review of fans available for the ventilation of long drivages. The introductions of heading machines had increased dust concentrations on the faces of the drivages and to contain this there was a change from forcing to exhausting systems of auxiliary ventilation. In December 1971, following discussions with the N.C.B., an inline radial flow fan for underground use was designed by James Howden and Company Limited of Glasgow. The first prototype was tested at the N.C.B’s Research and Development establishment in March 1972. The inquiry stated that:

The designers, manufacturers and suppliers of equipment used below ground should recognise their responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work act 1974 (Section 6): a responsibility which was not mandatory during the development of the Carter Howden auxiliary fan.

The site of the explosion was hard to pin down as the seam was sealed but it appeared to be concentrated along the Meltonfield intake. Mr. Carver  stated in the report:

I consider of significance that all the separating doors between the intake and return airways were blown out as far as the Newhill cross-slit. The conveyor belting along the inbye length of the intake airway had disappeared and two large falls had occurred along the intake airway. A further large fall had taken place in the B 01’s main gate junction.

As to the source of ignition, there was no evidence of a fire, contraband or from any of the lamps. The inspector came to the conclusion that it was unlikely that the spark came from electricity and the weight of evidence led him to the conclusion that the firedamp was ignited by a frictional spark produced by the auxiliary fan.

Mr. Carver concluded that:

1) the explosion resulted from the ignition of an accumulation of firedamp in B050’s return development heading which had been unventilated for a period of nine days prior to the explosion.

2) it is not possible to determine whether coal dust formed part of the fuel for this explosion but if its violence was caused by firedamp alone it highlights the severity of the problem and the need to provide constant ventilation in narrow drivages as required by Section 55 of the Mines and Quarries act 1954.

3) the most likely source of ignition was frictional sparking from the impeller and casing of the Carter Howden auxiliary fan. The National Coal Board submitted that the ignition may have occurred in the Meltonfield return outbye B040’s return gate. After close examination of all the evidence, I reject that submission.

Mr. Carver recommended that:

1) There should be amendments to the following statutory provisions:

a) The Mines and Quarries act 1954: Section 10 The person appointed to read reports on behalf of the manager should be a holder of a first or second class certificate of competency.

b) The Coal and Other Mines (Managers and Officials) Regulations 1956:

i) The provisions of Regulation 6A relating to the appointment of a competent person to read reports of behalf of and undermanger should be revoked.

ii) A statutory shift report should be introduced for officials superior to deputies but subordinate to undermanagers.

c) The Coal and Other Mines (Surveyors and Plans) Regulations 1956. The manager should ensure that any information that is necessary for recording on the plans and sections which are required to be kept at the mine is accurate and should certify this by counter-signing all such plans and sections prepared by or under the supervision of the appointed surveyor of the mine.

d) The Coal Mines (Precautions against Inflammable Dust) Regulations 1956. regulation 10A should be amended to include the recording on a plan the position of all the stone dust barriers specified in the managerÕs scheme by virtue of the Regulation.

e) The Coal and Other Mines (Ventilation) Regulations 1956. These regulations should be amended to include the following provisions:

i) Rules should be made for the insulation and operation of auxiliary fans.

ii) Narrow drivages which require at any time to be ventilated by auxiliary means are, thereafter, constantly ventilated by positive means.

iii) The manager should specify the construction of any fence erected to prevent access to an unventilated part of the mine and should ensure that it is maintained constantly in an effective condition.

f) The Coal and Other Mines (Fires and Rescue) Regulations 1956:

i) Regulation 27 should prescribe standards for the size, equipment and facilities of rescue rooms. The room should be maintained solely for rescue work.

ii) Regulations should be made to cover the approval, carrying and training in the use of self-rescuers.

2) The National Coal Board should implement as they arise any interim findings of the National Committee.

3)The National Coal Board Committee studying the design of self rescuers should be reconvened as soon as possible. The membership and terms of reference should be reviewed.

4) The National Coal Board should ensure that wherever possible its specifications for auxiliary fans are completed during the time this new equipment in the prototype stage. Such prototype equipment should be used only in closely controlled conditions. The test and assessment requirements for new equipment of this type should include standards of construction, performance and ease of maintenance underground.

5) When a plan for the ventilation of a development in a mine had been prepared and signed no change should be made without the agreement of all signatories of the said plan.

6) Any change made in a ventilation circuit should be recorded forthwith on the rescue and ventilation plans. Furthermore, a joint working party should be set up to review the frequency of updating all statutory plans and the available methods of plan reproduction also as to reduce the time between survey and issue.

7) The equipment to enable deputies to detect flammable gas in extensive roof cavities should be readily available where needed. Such cavities should be positively ventilated or filled.

8) At large collieries consideration should be given to the appointment of a chief engineer to coordinate the activities of the electrical and mechanical engineering departments. Where there is no chief engineer, arrangements should be made to ensure that, in respect of matters likely to affect safety. There is a daily exchange of information between the mechanical and electrical engineers of the mine.

9) The National Coal Board should provide effective means for the mobilisation of apparatus which may be dangerous by reason of some mechanical or electrical defect or abnormality.

 10) The National Coal Board should review the appointment of managers and safety engineers at collieries. The provision of Section 1 of the Mines Management Act 1971 should be more widely applied in this respect.

11) The duties of safety officers, ventilation officers, roadway dust samplers, and stone dust water barrier supervisors should be specified in writing by the colliery manager.

12) The format of M & Q Forms No.231 and No.232 relating to deputies inspections should be reviewed to take account of current mining practice.



The report of the causes and the circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at the Houghton Main Colliery, South Yorkshire on the 12th. June, 1975 by J. Caver, C.Eng., F.I.Min.E., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines. Health and Safety Executive.

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

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