WARREN VALE. Swinton, Yorkshire. 20th. December, 1851.
The colliery was owned by Messrs. Charlesworth and the explosion claimed the lives of fifty-two men and boys. The colliery had two shafts that were a few yards apart. The downcast was twelve feet in diameter and 127 yards deep to the Nine Feet Coal and the upcast was nine feet in diameter and 65 yards deep to the Five Feet Coal. The downcast shaft took air to both the mines and there was the furnace, nine feet long and seven feet wide at the bottom of the upcast shaft which carried the air from both the mines. The air was split at the bottom of the downcast and sent to the Five Feet Coal, and then on to the deeper thick coal mine. From here it returned through a staple pit that was only six feet in diameter. In the mines, single ventilation doors were fixed where double ones should have been. Brattices were used in some of the bordgates and even during the day there was not a permanent furnaceman. At night the furnace was not attended at all. The mine was lit with candles.
The colliery was comparatively new and there had been about two acres of coal worked and the thick coal, in which the explosion occurred, had not been driven more than three hundred yards in any direction and the goaves were limited. On the west side, where the gas fired there were three banks numbered 1, 2 and 3. They varied from thirty to forty yards in width and the roads into them were supported by pack walls, six feet thick that had been built from the material that had fallen from the roof.
Seventy men and boys worked in the lower coal and they were supervised by a steward who was old, infirm and had very little knowledge, all factors that worked against him doing his job efficiently. He had a “fire trier” who was labourer to help him in the morning but generally, the men went down the pit in a morning without any report from him.
John Roebuck was the engine tenter at the colliery and went to work at 5 a.m. on the morning of the disaster. The men started to arrive at the colliery about an hour later and it was at this time that the “fire trier”, Thomas Sylvester arrived and he was let down the pit first. He did not take a lamp but had a piece of lighted tar rope. The mine was not worked with lamps but considered safe for naked lights. Four or five men went down with Sylvester. Roebuck stated that he had never been told not to let men down until Sylvester had inspected the mine and said it was safe. The practice at the colliery was for the men to go down after him.
Roebuck was in the engine house when the explosion occurred at about five minutes to seven. Two corves of coal were in the deep shaft about ten yards from the bottom. They weighed about two tons and were blown out of the shaft into the headgear where they stuck. The engine house was filled with dust and smoke and metal plates at the pit head were blown up. He then heard a very loud report.
John Hague, a collier, who had two sons in the mine:
I and my son went to work on Saturday morning in the deep level. We went down at a quarter to six and began to work in our usual place. We found no difference in the air. Joseph Shaw and his brother and Joseph Cooper were in the level above. Charles King, Samuel Pearce and Eli Barker were in the back bord and John James and William Dodson were in the centre bord. We filled two corves and had started to fill a third corf when the blast came. We had been working for an hour. The blast knocked out all out lights but one. We walked to the shaft and fourteen of us got out there, but with great difficulty, on account of the sulphur. There was a great wailing from those who were dying. We were 240 yards from the shaft when the explosion took place. It was nearly spent when it reached us. I assisted in getting men out of the pit.
Charles Burgin worked in the pit as a packer and started work at 6.20 a.m. on the bank at the dip side. He had been there half an hour when the disaster happened:
As soon as I felt the blast I dropped down to hide. I hear others crying out, and I told them to throw themselves down. As soon as I thought it was over in about half a minute, I proceeded into the horse-road towards the shaft. I had gone only a few yards when I stumbled over George Lindley. I shook him, but he made no answer. I left him, supposing him to be dead. When I got to the shaft I found seventeen or eighteen others. I told them to remain quiet and I went to the north level. I had not got more than ten yards before I found a dead body. A little further up I found another. I then went to the first bordgate to see if the trapdoor was up, but it was blown away and shattered to pieces. Thinking it unsafe to go further I returned to the shaft, and we all remained there until assistance came from above ground, about an hour after the explosion.
Mr. Burgin went down the pit again and gave an account of the operations that went on to recover and inspect the mine and to recover the bodies:
We then got some tarpaulin sheets and nailed them in place of the trapdoors and stoppings, which were all blown down. We continued on the level where we found six bodies. We then went to the No.3, or far most bank, and found Thomas Knapton, Henry Gothard, Joshua Bugg, Charles Sylvester and Benjamin Lane. They were all dead. We then entered the No.2 or middle bank and found John Pursglove, Abraham Cooper, Henry Pursglove, Thomas Burgin, William Schofield and James Shepherd. On going into the No.1 bank we found Henry James, Thomas Johnson, William Ashton, Henry Ward and William Hobson. We went up the bordgates and found two other bodies we did not know who they were, they were so bruised and discoloured. At the bottom of the air pit I found Henry Thompson. I then came out and after resting four hours I went down again and was down until three o’clock on Sunday morning.
Charles Bailey went into the Five Feet pit after the explosion with his brother. At the inquest he said:
We found two boys dead one in the level and one under the bars of the furnace. There were no others left in the five feet pit. We then went into the deep pit and assisted in getting out forty-two dead bodies. Thomas Sylvester, the “fire trier” was found dead in the No.3 bank. He was elevated about six feet by the stones and coal that had fallen from the roof. There was a very heavy stone upon him. I think Sylvester had crept upon the rubbish after the explosion. The furnace was swept clean out by the blast.
Mr. W. Goodison, the superintendent of the Charlesworth Collieries, gave an account of the operations at the colliery immediately after the disaster. He said:
After the explosion, we immediately began to search for bodies. I and Thomas Cooper made a brattice to convey the air into its regular course. Continued until we found dead men and boys in the level. We were then obliged on account of the afterdamp to ascend and we had a steam jet put down to improve the ventilation, after which we descended again and found a dead boy in the level. We were so fatigued that we obliged to desist, after being down for five hours.
The search was continued by other parties and the last man who was Thomas Sylvester was brought out of the pit about 8 p.m. All the doors in the pit had been blown out and repair work was put into operation.
Those who lost their lives were:
- Thomas Sylvester, fire trier.
In the No.3 bank:
- Thomas Knapton,
- Henry Gothard,
- Joshua Bugg,
- Charles Sylvester,
- Benjamin Lane
In the No.2 bank:
- John Pursglove,
- Abraham Cooper,
- Henry Pursglove,
- Thomas Burgin. Brother to Charles,
- William Schofield,
- James Shepherd
In the No.1 bank:
- Henry James,
- Thomas Johnson,
- William Ashton,
- Henry Ward,
- William Hobson.
At the bottom of the air pit:
- Henry Thompson
The inquest was held under the direction of Mr. Thomas Badger, the Coroner. Mr. John C.D. Charlesworth, the owner was present with his solicitor, Mr. William Smith of Sheffield. The proceedings were delayed because Mr. Charles Morton, Her Majesty’s Inspector and himself had been at York Assizes in connection with the trial of the underground steward at the Woodthorpe pit for culpable negligence.
The coroner opened the inquest by addressing the jury and expressing his deep concern of the frequency of explosions in the area and he referred to the disasters at Ardsley, near Barnsley when seventy people were killed in 1847, Darley Main, 1849 which claimed seventy-five lives and the disaster at Woodthorpe colliery. He went on to say:
Deep responsibility rests with the owners, who ought to employ vigilant and intelligent managers the duty of one of them every morning to go down and inspect the mine, and report on it’s safety before any of the men are permitted to work. It is desirable to have daily reports of the condition of the pits the variations of the weather should be noticed, and their effects guarded against. It is also important to make colliers fully acquainted with the principles the observance upon which alone, both as to light and ventilation, the safety of the whole body of workmen depends.
Mr. Badger then went on to tell the jury in great detail, what the inquest into the deaths of the men would cover:
The first would be, Was the pit in a safe working condition, and efficiently ventilated?
Secondly, how, and from what cause, did this terrible explosion occur?
Thirdly, had the “fire trier” been down on Sunday morning last, and reported as to the safety of the pit before the men were permitted to descend?
Fourthly, Did the top-steward, or the person whose duty it was to see that the men did not go down until the “fire trier” had reported that all was safe, perform his duty in that respect?
Fifthly, had there been any culpable negligence on the part of anyone connected with this pit by which the explosion was caused? And, if so – who were the guilty parties?
The Corner and the jury then left to view the bodies of the victims, a process that took several hours and when they returned, they started to hear the evidence of the witnesses.
Mr. W. Goodison, the superintendent of the Charlesworth Collieries, said Thomas Sylvester’s duty was to examine the workings before the men came to work and report to the men on the condition of the pit and no one else. Mr. Goodison was down the pit on the 13th December and found everything satisfactory and the men had complained that there was too much air. Davy lamps were not supplied to the men but they were provided with candles which were deemed safe.
The Coroner asked Mr. Goodison how he thought the explosion occurred and he put forward the idea that perhaps a trap door had been left open by a boy. Lads of eleven or twelve years were employed to do this job and at least three were killed in the explosion. The trap doors were made of three-inch deal planking and were constructed so that they would close themselves.
Thomas Hague thought the explosion had been caused by a fall of roof in the No.3 bank. It had been threatening to fall for several days and he thought that Sylvester had gone to examine the place for his body was found there. Thomas said in the morning the men were “neck break” to get down the pit and if Sylvester had cautioned them they would have hated him and they had cursed the banksman many a time for delaying them getting down the pit. Sylvester was a labourer and managed the pit under Thomas Kaye who was the bottom steward who rarely went into the mine except to measure. Kaye was an old man of sixty or sixty-five years. After questioning Mr. Hague, Charles Morton observed that there was no regular supervision in the pit and there were no written rules. When asked by the coroner about the cause of the explosion, Mr. Hague said he thought the third bank had broken down and had driven gas into the candles.
William Hague, the banksman at the pit, got to work at 6 a.m. on the morning of the explosion and found that all the men had gone down. He said there was no rule forbidding the men to descend before the “fire trier”.
A collier who did not go to work on the day of the disaster, Matthew James, worked in the Nine Feet coal with a candle and testified that the mine was in good condition the day before the explosion.
Thomas Kaye, the bottom steward, said he was sixty-five years old who could neither read nor write and had previously been a labourer. He never knew of any rules stating that colliers should be kept back until the pit was tested and some men always went down with Sylvester. On the day of the explosion, Kaye went to the No.3 bank to see if things were all right. He continued:
I observed that the No.3 bank was uneasy, and I feared that there would be a break down soon. I told them to beware because it might break down and drive some sulphur out, which would be dangerous I told to keep their candles down.
He thought the explosion was caused by a fall in the No.3 bank.
William Sellars, the bookkeeper at the colliery, stated that there were only two Davy lamps at the pit, Sylvester had been appointed twelve months before and that there were no printed or written rules at the colliery which Mr. Goodison visited once a week.
Mr. Benjamin Biram, who had been the mineral agent for Earl Fitzwilliam for twenty years, agreed that the explosion had followed a fall and that the management of the pit was lax. He did not think that criminal blame could be attached to anyone but the lapses in discipline arose from the opinion that there was no inflammable gas in the mine. He was questioned by the jury of the fact that the furnace was allowed to slacken during the night but he thought the pit was efficiently ventilated.
Mr. J.C.D. Charlesworth who was one of the proprietors of the colliery told the jury of the part that the owners took in the management of their collieries. Since they had a large number of pits, personal management was not possible and they had great faith in the abilities of Mr. Goodison. He brought the court’s notice to a notice that had been printed. It read:
NOTICE. RAWMARSH COLLIERY.
The proprietors direct that no person be allowed to descend the pits until the bottom steward, or a man that he has confidence in, has been down and examined the works, and reported them safe and it is likewise ordered that the engineman shall not allow any person to descend until the bottom steward has so reported them safe.
WILLIAM GOODISON, Agent.
He said that the regulation would be in operation at all their collieries.
Mr. Charles Morton gave an account of his inspection of the mines after the explosion. He thought that the cause was a large fall in the newly opened No.3 bank which had been threatening to fall for some time; this was the place where Sylvester’s body had been found. The roof had fallen in while Sylvester was inspecting it and the gas that was liberated fired at their candles. It appeared that Sylvester and two others were attempting to go over the fall when they met their deaths.
He was critical of the general management of the mine and the fact that lamps were not used. The goaves should be ventilated and the furnace attended to day and night. He made many proposals that might be put into operation at the colliery. In conclusion to his evidence he said:
I am convinced that these recommendations if carried into effect, would much improve the general conditions and safety of the mine, and Messrs. Charlesworth, with advantage to themselves and their workmen, will act wisely in adopting them. I ought in justice to them to say, that they possess the power, and the inclination to effect these improvements in their works and I have reason to believe, from the manifestations which I have seen of their anxiousness to avoid accidents, that they will, as soon as practicable, carry out the suggestions I have offered and, so far as my humble aid will tend to promote this desirable object, I shall at all times be only too glad to give it.
Three colliery viewers, Mr. T.D. Jeffcock of the Warren Vale Colliery, Mr. Charles Locke of Snapethorpe, near Wakefield and Mr. R.C. Webster of Hoyland, near Barnsley agreed with Mr. Morton’s views on the colliery and the cause of the explosion.
The jury deliberated for three and a half hours and returned the following verdict:
We find that the fifty-two men and boys, whose bodies we have viewed, were accidentally killed by an explosion of fire-damp, in the Warren Vale Colliery, in the Parish of Rawmarsh, on Saturday the 20th. December last.
The jury also made the following remarks:
Having agreed to the verdict of accidental death, we feel that although there is not sufficient legal evidence for us to find a verdict of Manslaughter against any particular parties, we should ill discharge our duty if we did not accompany our verdict with an expression of our strong disapprobation of the loose manner in which the works seem to have been conducted. We further regard the instructions hitherto given to the men as quite inadequate to their proper supervision and safety, and it appears to us desirable that there should be stringent rules and regulations at every colliery for its better and safer working. Further, that the proprietors of mines ought to be held, by the legislature, responsible for the efficiency of their agents and superintendents.
The jury expressed their thanks to Mr. Morton and Mr. Biram for their valuable evidence and the proceedings closed.
The recommended improvements were adopted by the colliery to the ventilation and the management. A larger furnace was constructed for the lower mine and fed by fresh air. Three times as much air passed through the mine. The Inspector concluded his report by saying:
The discipline is now stricter, and the superintendence more vigilant and efficient.
The Illustrated London News, 27th. December 1851.
Information supplied by Ian Winstanley and the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.
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