WHELDALE. Castleford, Yorkshire. 22nd. February, 1923.

Wheldale Colliery was the property of the Airedale Collieries Limited and was just to the east of Castleford. The Company also owned the Allerton Bywater and Fryston Collieries, Wheldale Colliery being connected to the latter by an underground road.

Two seams were worked at the Wheldale Colliery were the Silkstone and the Beeston, both of which produced gas and household coals. The Silkstone Seam, in which the explosion occurred, had been worked since about 1883 and at the time of the disaster produced about 4,500 tons per week.

There were two shafts, a downcast, 13 feet in diameter and an upcast, 12 feet in diameter. The downcast cut the Silkstone Sea, at 477 yards and the Beeston at 567 yards. Coal was drawn from each level alternately by means of a specially designed drum.

All the mines in the Company were under the supervision of a general manager, Mr. H. Smithson who held a First Class Certificate of Competency under the Coal Mines Act and had held the post since February, 1919. Mr. C.S. Greaves, who also held a First Class certificate, was the assistant manager.

There were three separate managers for each of the collieries. Mr. Hubert Hinchcliffe was in charge of the Wheldale Colliery and had held the post for the previous four years. Mr. Hincliffe’s undermanager was Mr. W. Astley who had been at the colliery for four years and Mr. W. Mowvley acted a spare undermanager.

There were 1,864 people employed at the colliery with 662 in the Silkstone Seam, 859 in the Beeston Seam and 344 at the surface. The mine was worked on a three shift system. The night shift went down between 10 and 10.20 p.m. and came up between 5.20 and 5.40 a.m., the day shift went down between 5.15 to 6.0 a.m. and came up between 1 and 1.45 p.m. and the afternoon shift which went down between 10 to 1. 45 p.m. and ascended between 8.45 and 9.25 p.m. This meant that the workmen were underground continuously except for a period between 9.25 and 10 p.m.

The deputies were organised into four shifts with the evening shift descending at 5 p.m. and ascending at 1 a.m., the night shift descending at 11 p.m. and ascending at 7 a.m., the day shift descending at 6 a.m. and ascending at 2 p.m. and the afternoon shift descending at 10.30 a.m. and ascending at 6.30 p.m. The Silkstone seam was divided into three deputies districts known as Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and for each District there were 4 deputies. The explosion occurred in the No.2 District and there were no shotfirers as the deputies fired the shots that were necessary in his own district.

The number of people below ground in the Silkstone Seam on the morning of 22nd February, 1923 was 243 of whom 69 were in the No.2 District.

At the surface there were two permanent winding engines, one for the downcast and one for the upcast and both the headgears were made of steel joists. Although there were connections to other collieries, the Silkstone Seam at Wheldale was self-contained. The air that went down the downcast shaft traversed the workings and returned to the upcast.

The ventilation was produced by a Walker “Indestructible” Fan made by Messrs. Walker Brothers of Wigan and was first put to use on 4th June 1922. It was 16 feet in diameter and was driven by a pair of horizontal non-compound engines. It was capable of producing 240,000 cubic feet per minute at a 6 inch water gauge and was equipped with the proper arrangements for it to reverse the air current.

An ambulance room was provided at the surface and motor Ambulances were provided for the three collieries of the Company. One was stationed at Fryston Colliery and two at Allerton Bywater Colliery. There was also one horse ambulance stationed at Wheldale Colliery. Each colliery could be serviced by these ambulances in a few minutes.

Each workman was provided with a numbered lamp check and he could not get a lamp without one of these except on the managers or undermanager’s written authority. On going to the pit the man left his check at the lamp cabin and received his lamp in exchange.

Twenty percent of the men descending were searched for prohibited articles and once a week a complete search was made of all persons descending the pit. The results of the searches were recorded in a book. In addition all persons not forming a complete shift were searched when they descended.

The Silkstone Seam was worked on a system of advancing longwall. In the section where the explosion occurred there was s panel of eight stalls and the face was about 3,100 yards from the pit bottom, the coal being worked on the bord. The roof of the seam was Bind with ironstone nodules, 4 feet of coal and roof of strong fireclay, 2 feet deep.

The seam was divided by at thin parting of dirt one foot three inches of Tops and two feet nine inches of Bottoms. Below the floor, there were ten inches of coal which was not worked.

The gateways were driven, 10 feet wide and from 7 feet to 10 feet high, 10 feet being the height of the main gates. The timbering distances were fixed by the manager in accordance with Section 10(4) of the Coal Mines Act, 1911 at 5 feet between each row of props, 5 feet between adjacent props in the same row, 5 feet between the front row of props and the face and 6 feet between the holing props or sprags. The timbering at the face was done by the coal getters while the heavy timbering in the roadways was set by bye-workmen.

The seam was dry and the only water that was taken into the pit was for watering the ponies. No coal getting machines were used and conveyors had not been installed, the coal being worked entirely by hand. as a rule, eight men worked in each stall, four on the day shift and four on the afternoon shift, but in certain stalls, ten men were employed four on the days shift, four on the afternoon shift and two on the night shift.

Horses were used for the haulage between the coal face an the main or auxiliary rope.. The main rod form the face dipped inbye at an average gradient of 1 in 34, and the coal was hauled out along this road by an endless rope which was motor-driven at one a quarter miles per hour.

The ventilation going to the Silkstone Seam was 33,800 cubic feet per minute and of this, 4,725 cubic feet per minute went into that part of the district where the explosion occurred. The main return airway was used as travelling road by the workmen and ponies.

No naked lights were allowed in the mine and the safety lamps were of the approved Hailwood’s Combustion Tube Safety Lamp made by Messrs. Ackroyd and Best and fitted with magnetic locks. On the date of the explosion 597 of these lamps were in use in the Silkstone and Beeston Seams, The pit was also provided with nine Oldham Emergency type Electric Lamps, fitted with lead rivets which were used for special purposes. The lamps were examined at the insets to the shaft by the onsetters and also at the meeting stations inbye by the deputies.

The inspections required to be made within two hours before the commencement of work in each shift were carries out in the Silkstone Seam by the afternoon deputy examining for the afternoon shift between 1.40 a.m. and 1.30 p.m., the evening deputy examining for the night shift between 8.30 p.m. and 10.20 p.m. and the night deputy examining for the day shift between 3.50 a.m. and 5.40 a.m. Two inspections were made by the deputies during the course of each shift. Gas had been reported on three different occasions and the men withdrew. There had also been thirteen occasions on which the men had been withdrawn for “weighting” of the roof.

There was no shotfiring in the coal but a certain amount was done in ripping and only permitted explosives were used. All shots were fired electrically by No.7 High Tension detonators. During the twelve months prior to the accident, 3,541 shots were fired in the Sikstone Seam, 3,006 lbs. of explosive were used with an average shot weight of 13.58 ozs. Out of this number, two shots misfired. The explosives arrived by the colliers to the working places in tin canisters numbered the same as their motty numbers. Only the deputies carried detonators in properly constructed leather cases attached to the waist belt. Surface clay was used for stemming and this was taken into the workings in tubs and emptied into heaps at convenient places.

Stone dusting had been practised at the colliery since 1920. Until December, 1922, the stone was ground at Fryston Colliery and sent in bags to Wheldale. The material that was used was the bind from the ripping measures and showed on analysis 7.1 per cent of combustible matter. The dust was distributed along the roadways by means of the “Oldham” automatic travelling tub and by hand. The records showed that from December to February, 1922-3 approximately 294 tubs of stone dust were sent to the Silkstone Seam. Dust sampling was in compliance with the General regulations of 30th. July, 1920.

The explosion occurred near the coal face in the Silkstone Seam and the effects were confined to a small area of workings in a panel of eight stalls at the top of the 190’s main bord and 3,100 yards from the pit bottom. The area affected was on the rib side of the panel which was made up of three lengths of the roadway, 26 yards, 18 yards and 8 years receptively and about 67 yards from the coal face.

On the morning of 22nd February 1922, out of the 662 men and boys employed in the Sikstone Seam, 243 descended the pit between 5.15 and 6 a.m. to work. The deputies in charge of the districts were Alfred Hopton, in charge of the No.1 District, Enoch Holmes, the No.2 District and Walter Smith in No.3 District. The workings were examined by the night shift deputies before the day shift came down and all the day deputies did not descend until 6 a.m.

Work went on as usual until about 10 a.m., when the noise of shot was heard coming from the 109’s gate in the No.2 District. Following this, a second shot was heard from the same direction. The second report was followed by an explosion of firedamp and a blast of wind which, mingled with dust, blew out the lamps in the three adjoining workplaces. Flame was also seen by some of the workmen in these places. The report of the explosion was described by some of the hewers as being like the “roar of thunder” followed by a crash, while another spoke of a “sort of rumble” and then a bank, “a terrible bang”. The interval of time between the report of the first shot and the report of the second was estimated by different persons at from 4 to 10 minutes.

After the explosion the workers in adjoining 190’s and 181’s made their way out as best they could into the 27th. East Bord, which was the main road from the pit bottom and Main South Ending into the affected area. In this road Enoch Holmes, who had fired the shots, was seen on his way to the pit bottom. He was terribly burned and subsequently died in hospital. Meanwhile, Walter Smith from the No.3 District, who had heard the explosion and had seen a cloud of dust, appeared on the scene and, after making arrangements to assist some of the injured put of the pit he, along with others, started to explore the workings to rescue the others who and not been unable to get out. They entered the 190’s and 181’s and after administering First Aid and rescuing the men they found injures, they found the body of J. Bibb who was the only victim who was killed outright.

On approaching the affected area, Walter Smith and his assistants found smouldering a cap and several pieces of paper, as well a the men’s clothes. On 147’s gate they also found a prop on fire, as a result of the explosion. Bibb’s body was recovered and the eight men who worked in the 181’s and 190’s stalls but had congregated in 181’s gate while blasting operations were in progress, were so badly burned that they subsequently succumbed to their injuries.

Those who died were:

  • J. Bibb aged 14 years, shotfirers’ boy of 41, Wellington Street, Castleford,
  • C. Booth aged 19 years, filler of 99, Hugh Street, Castleford,
  • E. Holmes aged 35 years, deputy of 269, Castleford Road, Normanton,
  • W. Hall aged 32 years, collier of 9, Kershaw Avenue, Airedale,
  • J. Anson aged 33 years, miner of 4, Ferrybridge Road, Castleford,
  • E. Baker aged 33 years, collier of 11, Wainwright Street, Castleford,
  • J. Lowe aged 30 years, collier of 35, Heald Street, Castleford,
  • A. Marsden aged 37 years, collier of 3, Welbeck Street, Castleford,
  • J.H. Moreton aged 54 years, collier of 27, William Street, Lock Lane.

Two inquests were held, one at Leeds on the eight men who died in that city by the Coroner, Mr. William Henry Clarke and the other at Castleford by Major W.B. Arundel, Coroner for the Honour of Pontefract. Major W.B. Arundel, adjourned the hid inquest until proceedings at Leeds had been completed and the inquiry into the disaster was held concurrently with the inquest at Leeds. The proceedings took place in the West Riding Justices Court in the Town Hall, Leeds where all interested parties were represented.

The site of the explosion was thoroughly examined by Mr. Thomas Mottram, H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines. The inquiry came to the conclusion that the explosion originated in the ripping of the 190’s bord and that it was caused or initiated by the flame produced by the shot fired by Holmes, the deputy.


The report on the causes and circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at the Wheldale Colliery, Castleford on 22nd February 1923 by Thomas H. Mottram, C.B.E., H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines.
Colliery Guardian, 23rd March 1923, p.703, 29th March, p.773, 27th July, p.209, 27th July, p.221.

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

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