WHARNCLIFFE SILKSTONE. Barnsley, Yorkshire. 30th. May, 1914.

The colliery was about five miles to the south of Barnsley and had been working for a considerable time since sinking operations started at the colliery in 1854. It was the property of the Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Company Limited with Mr. G. Blake Walker as the managing director and agent and Mr. Johnathan Wroe was the certificated manager.

The colliery had four shafts Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4. Nos. 1 and 4 were downcasts and about 45 yards apart and were also used for winding purposes. No.3 was a similar distance from No.1 Pit and was the main upcast shaft. No.2 was also an upcast shaft and used a separate fan to keep the goaf of the former workings clear of gas. The shafts connected with the following seams the Fenton Seam at 26 yards, the Parkgate Seam at 61 yards, the Thorncliffe Thin Seam at 89 yards, the Silkstone Seam at 151 yards and the Whinmoor Seam at 218 yards. The No.1 shaft was 12 feet in diameter and sunk to the Silkstone Seam at 151 yards and the seams that were worked from the shaft were the Fenton, Parkgate and Thorncliffe Thin. Below the Silkstone there was staple pit to the Whinmoor. No.4 shaft was 14 feet in diameter and sunk to the Whinmoor at 218 yards working the Whinmoor and the Silkstone. The Whinmoor was the only seam that was affected by the disaster and the coal in that seam was about two feet six inches thick, the roof of bind which broke in lines parallel to the face as the coal was worked. The holing under the coal was fireclay and coaly matter with pyrites.

The Athersley Whinmoor District, where the explosion occurred was the only part of the seam that was being worked. Longwall method was used and a face length of just over 900 yards had been opened put. The dirt produced by the holing and the ripping of the roof and floor of the gates filled the large spaces in the goaf. Blasting was done by “Kentite” to break down the holed coal and in ripping the roof and roadways but no blasting was done on the afternoon of the explosion. The holing was done by electric coal cutting machines and electrically driven conveyors were employed on the face to take the coal to tubs at the gate end. There was a cutter driven by compressed air on the face.

The main haulage road into the workings ran from No. 4 shaft straight in a south easterly direction for 1,700 yards and the road was fairly level and was used as the intake airway for the District. For 1,200 yards the haulage was by endless rope driven by an engine at the surface. The speed of the rope was two and half miles per hour. Beyond the terminal wheel the haulage was done by horses and this part of the road was known as No.2 Level.

The colliery was ventilated by a Capell fan at the top of the No.3 Pit and this ran at 251 revolutions per minute and delivered about 130,000 cubic feet of air per minute at a water gauge of fine and half inches. The fan was driven by a rope from a Korting two-cycle double-acting gas engine made by Mather and Platt capable of delivering 300 B.H.P. The engine was fuelled by cleaned coke-oven gas. A steam engine was held in reserve and was used periodically when the valves of the gas engine had to be cleaned. The average number of people employed during two coal shifts and repairing shift was 299 but during the largest shift, the number was 207.

The main air intake travelled up No.2 Topside Slant and No.3 Topside Slant and the remainder was conducted by two doors in No.2 level up No.4 Topside slant to William Foster’s gate. From that part, it travelled down part of the coal face traversed by the explosion to the working places beyond. This was called the No.2 Section and for four days after the explosion, when the ventilation had been restored, the velocity of the air was found to be 5 feet per second and the quantity 3,200 cubic feet per second.

Electricity was used for underground lighting, pumping, coal cutting and conveying and there was no cause to think that they had been implicated in the explosion as they were far removed from the scene. The power that was used in the pit was generated at the surface at 500 volts and the main cable taken down No.4 Pit, along the main haulage road and terminated in that level at a junction box a few yards inbye to the entrance to No.4 Topside Slant. At this point, there were switches in the cables for the cutters and the conveyors. Three electric coal cutters were employed in the Athersley Whinmoor workings but the only machine at work at the time of the explosion was in the No.2 Section. It was near J.T. Fisher’s gate and was a disc type machine made by Messrs. Clarke and Stevenson and had made a cut 4 feet 6 inches deep by 5 inches in the holing dirt below the seam. The whole of the coal except that above J.T. Fisher’s gate which was filled out by hand and sent out to the two top gates was carried along the face on a canvas belt conveyors which were electrically driven and loaded into to tubs at the No.2 Level where the motors operating the conveyors were placed.

There was a fair amount of dust produced at the loading place in No.2 level which was caused by the coal falling on to the conveyor and also on the face due to the cutting machine even though some moisture oozed from the coal. The main level right from the pit bottom was damp and the floor wet. The water percolated from the roof from the Silkstone waste 67 yards above. Dust samples were taken and analysed. The dust at the loading points would have been pure coal dust but because the bottom 2 feet if stone and 1 foot of top stone were ripped in the roads, this added stone dust would tend to render it harmless.

The main level was lit by electric lamps from the pit bottom to a point 210 yards inbye. As firedamp is given off in the workings, safety lamps were used throughout the colliery. There was 200 approved electric hand lamp of the Gray Sussmann Type, 700 approved oil safety lamps which were bonnetted Mueselers and 1,022 unemployed oil safety lamps which were unbonnetted Mueselers. All the lamps were re-lit at the surface and after the explosion 13 unbonnetted, 5 bonnetted and 3 electric lamps were found in the No.2 section. The electric lamps were still burning but all the others were extinguished. They were found undamaged and tested at Eskmeals and others at Leeds University.

In addition agent, Mr. G. Blake Walker, and the certificated manager, Mr. Johnathan Wroe, there were separate undermanagers for the Nos. 1 and 4 Pits. Mr. Thomas Fearnley was the undermanager who supervised the Athersley Whinmoor workings and under him there were six deputies, to in each of the three shifts, and two spare deputies, one each for the morning and afternoon shifts who acted as shot firers. As well as these officials there was chief engineer, Frank Faure Mairet who was in charge of the electrical apparatus and Albert Otway was the electrical foreman. Otway had one assistant to make inspections and three assistants for repairs but was responsible for carrying out the inspections himself. Some of the drivers of the coal-cutters had written authority to adjust the apparatus.

The explosion occurred on Saturday 30th May 1914 at 10 minutes to 2 in the afternoon. Up to about 1 p.m. on that date, there were about 108 people in the Athersley Whinmoor workings. After the workings had been inspected by the night deputies William Mellor and William Belcher in the early morning, the day shift started work between 5 and 6 a.m. under the charge of two deputies Dewis Slack and William Clayton. Slack had charge of 62 men in Nos. 1 and 2 Sections and Clayton 34 in No 3. Two of the 26 men under Slack’s charge, Harvey and Lang went to work at 10 a.m. and six others who were killed in the explosion went into the workings at 1 p.m.

During the morning work went on as usual and preparations were made to clear the face and move forward the cables, conveyors and other equipment. It was the Whit holidays and advantage was taken of the moving of the haulage rope in the man level to a new side slant. Two inspections were made of all the workings by Slack and Clayton. Slack’s inspection of the No.2 Section began about noon and was completed by 1 p.m. by which time he had arrived at the “box-hole” in the Level where he reported having found a trace of gas at the top of No.3 Top Slant but the general condition was reported in a satisfactory condition.

When the deputies left the coalfaces many of the men were preparing to leave work and a considerable number which was not known, were actually at the box hole on their way to the pit bottom after the deputies arrived there but it was learned afterwards that at the time of the explosion fourteen men remained in the No.2 Section and several men whom Clayton had left working at the coal face in No.3 Section had continued to work after the others had gone out.

When Slack went down the coalface in No.2 Section, preparations were being made to start an electrical coal cutter. Walter Bailey was running a rope in front of the machine and Slack estimated that the machine had about 15 to 20 yards to cut in the forty-five minutes which remained to the end of the shift. After Slack left the face the coal cutter was started to complete this work.

At about 1.45, after Slack had made his report and went to the pit bottom, and when Clayton was alone in the box-hole, there was a rush of wind from the workings and a reversal of air in the Main Level. Clayton knew something was wrong and went to the telephone which was about 25 yards away and called the manager under-manager. The colliery engineer, Frank Faure Mairet was in the engine house at the surface when he saw the automatic circuit breaker trip indicating that there had been a surge of current. After three minutes had elapsed he closed the circuit but observing his instruments, he concluded that there was something wrong and he opened both switches leaving orders that the switches must not be closed.

Shortly after Clayton rang the surface, he was joined by Joseph Sellars, the afternoon deputy who went down the pit at 1 o’clock with others, they met Thomas Fearnley who happened to be in the pit about 150 yards from the pit bottom. These two-man with eight others were about to take a new haulage rope into the workings.

An inspection was made of the workings by the officials and others and it was found that an explosion had taken place in the No.2 section. One man, Pat Maycock, was found slightly injured in the No.2 Level between Nos. 2 and 3 Topside Slants. Further in between Nos. 3 and 4 Topside Slants, John Thomas Fisher, who had been seriously injured and later died, was being brought out by two men, Harvey and Lang who, at the time of the explosion had been working in te dummy gate of No.4 Topside Slant and had escaped uninjured. They found Fisher during their escape down the No.4 Topside Slant.

Meanwhile, all the men had safely left No.2 Section but the remaining eleven in No.2 Section were found to be dead.

Those who died were:

  • John William Wordsworth aged 24 years, a trammer,
  • William Fisher aged 32 years, collier,
  • Walter Bailey aged 19 years, machineman’s assistant,
  • Joseph Siddall aged 18 years conveyor belt remover,
  • Oscar Wood aged 24 years conveyor belt remover,
  • Fred Walker aged 20 years conveyor belt remover,
  • Harry James Gardiner aged 40 years labourer at the back of the cutter,
  • Henry Littlewood aged 27 years ripper stoneman,
  • George Bailey aged 52 years machineman,
  • John Fearnley aged 23 years ripper stoneman
  • John Thomas Fisher aged 40 years collier who died from his injuries on the 10th. June 1914.

The ventilation was easily restored by the erection of brattice sheets, the rescue work presented no serious difficulties and there was no need to use the rescue apparatus with which the colliery was amply provided.

Notice of the disaster was received at the Divisional Office in Doncaster between 4.30 and 4.50 on Saturday afternoon. By 5 p.m. the information was telephoned to Mr. H.A. Abbott, the Senior Inspector in Sheffield who immediately went to the colliery. Mr. C.L. Robinson was on leave at the time and Mr. H.M. Hudspeth and Mr. Charles D. Mottram went straight to the pit on motorcycles as there was no suitable train. They arrived at the pit about 6 p.m. By this time the bodies had been brought to the surface.

An inspection was made by the Inspectors along with Samuel Roebuck and Mr. Matthewman representing the Yorkshire Miners’ Association. These inspections showed that up to the No.4 Topside Slant in the No.2 Section there was little damage but beyond this the effects of the explosion were quite considerable. The electrical power cable was blown down and disconnected from a junction box in the No.2 Level. Two doors in No.2 level were blown outbye and a tub was found on the top of another about 50 yards from the face. Other tubs were overturned and some were blown from the empty to the full road. A full set of 21 tubs had their buffers locked at the end nearest the face. There were indications of crusted coke dust on the roof girders, the packs and on the coal at the face of the level. All this indicated that the blast was outbye from the coalface along the level.

The ventilation when it had been restored was in good order except at the top of No.4 Topside Slant and the cutting side of William Fisher’s gate. The lamps used by the dead men were picked up and their position noted. They all appeared to be intact, in good order and locked. At the face immediately on the low side of J.T. Fisher’s gate, there was Clarke-Stevenson electric coal cutter. The starting switch was in the “on” position indicating that the machine was working at the time of the explosion. It was noted that the cover of the switch was secured by only one bolt instead of six and that the cover did not appear to be flame-tight. In the dummy gate, there was also a switch which was not flame-tight.

It was ascertained that at the time of the explosion the ventilating fan had been stopped for about 16 minutes to allow it to be changed over from gas to steam. Experiments were carried out by the Inspectors in the presence of Professors O’Shea and Armstrong of the University of Sheffield, to find the effect of stopping the fan for a short period and the result was that they found that gas accumulated quickly in the face in William Fisher’s gate and that it quickly cleared when the fan was restarted.

In view of the defective coal-cutter and the accumulation of gas when the fan stopped it was decided that there was a contravention of Section 29 (1) of the Coal Mines Act, 1911. Gas had accumulated in the cutting side of William Fisher’s gate and when the fan was restarted, the gas was carried over it. There was defect in the coal-cutter which was against General Rule 132.

The inquest into the causes and circumstances of the deaths of the victims was opened by Mr. P.P. Maitland, H.M. Coroner for the Honour of Pontefract and the West Riding of Yorkshire on the 1st. June 1914 and after a further sitting on the 11th, following the death of John T. Fisher was adjourned until the 30th. June. The formal inquiry was opened on the 30th June at the Miners’ Institution, Hoyland Common near Birdwell and resulted in “The report on the circumstances attending the explosion at Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery on the 30th. May 1914” and was conducted by Samuel Pope, Barrister-at-Law and Thomas H. Mottram one of His Majesty’s Divisional Inspectors of Mines. The final report was presented to Right Honourable Secretary of State for the Home Department on the 11th November 1914. All interested parties were represented.

The jury returned the following verdict on the deaths of the men:

The twelve men lost their lives by an explosion of coal gas on the 30th May 1914, caused by the stoppage and restarting of the fan with a defective coal-cutting machine running at the face causing ignition, and the jury is of the opinion that the whole of the management have been very negligent, but not criminally so.

The following rider was added:

The jury trust that the Home Office will give instructions so that the Management will be more careful in the future.

The inquest and inquiry were thorough but no witnesses were called for the Miners’ Federation, Mr. Pope and Mottram concluded their report by saying:

The grave question of criminal responsibility for the deaths occasioned by the explosion was answered by the jury in favour of the Management. We, on our part, have given much thought to this question as it affects the position of the different officials for the care and safety of the men in the district visited by the explosion and we fond no grounds to take a different view from the Coroner and the jury.


Report to the Right Honourable The Secretary of State for the Home Department of the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at the Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery on the 30th May 1914 by Samuel Pope, Barrister-at-Law and Thomas H. Mottram on of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Mines.
The Colliery Guardian, 5th March 1915, p.503.

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

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