Reserched By John Lumsdon
At No.1 Burley pit, Apedale colliery, North Staffs, owned by Stanier and Company it was feared that up to 30 lives were lost between 1.30 pm. and 1.45 pm. on 27th March 1878.
A terrific report was heard of an explosion by the inhabitants of Chesterton and the district around Apedale, which was followed by a shock, and rumbling noises, much resembling an earthquake. Indeed it was said that the earth for some considerable distance from the pit was shaken violently for some seconds. The people of Chesterton ran in all directions, inquiring of their neighbours what had caused such a report.
The real cause was soon to be known all over the locality. Then hundreds of people men, women and children flocked to the scene of the catastrophe many of them relatives of the unfortunate men who had gone to work that morning.
The scene at the colliery was awful in the extreme. Ninety men were in the workings at that time. A short time elapsed and all the men with the exception of thirty were got up the shaft. By 5 pm. the sad news of the disaster had become pretty well known in the neighbourhood and hundreds of people had assembled at the pithead, all anxious to see what could be seen and to ascertain what could be done for the missing men.
Thirty men who had descended the pit with no thought of any unusual danger, were beyond human reach and the question was, had they been burnt to death or suffocated, or were they concealed and anxiously waiting to be rescued.
It was found that to get to any of the others in the workings, exploration was necessary, but the explosion had caused quantities of coal and debris to fall, timbers had been blown out, wagons had been overturned and roadways were blocked up, making it impossible to penetrate to where the missing men were. There were indications that the pit was on fire, and the men had to be burnt or suffocated.
A horse was found dead and terribly burnt. Two of the men were found seriously injured and brought to the surface. Another five were found and brought to the surface before 9 pm. their names being; Caleb Walley, John Walley and his son, Joseph Baggalay and William Bostock a boy.
Gangs of rescuers were organised to see what was the fate of the remaining men. Captain Edward Heathcote of Apedale Hall and Mr. R. Wood of Bignall End and two Justices of the Peace were present and other managers were in attendance to render assistance or give advice.
The pit is 488 yards deep and is a fiery one. The disaster is supposed to have been caused by a blasting shot igniting a quantity of accumulated gas.
Great gloom covered the village of Apedale; the mouth of the pit had a pitiful appearance late in the evening.
Wives were there, and fathers and sons all waiting hopefully to see the cage come to the surface with relatives. The opinion was that there could not be anyone alive in the pit, but the relatives maintained a hope that their loved ones might still emerge from the pit and appear in the land of the living.
Prominent amongst many other dangers, there was a large body of gas confined in the workings, the tapping of which required very great care owing to the pressure under which it was confined. Also the probability of smouldering fires being present in the workings, and the danger of them being fanned into a flame by the current of air which was being used for the purpose of clearing the workings of noxious gases.
The pithead presented a very busy scene during the night, some thousands of people anxiously waiting for news then a sixth disfigured corpse was brought up at tea time Wednesday.
One of the other workings a year or two ago had been the scene of an explosion and these workings had been sealed off and on a subsequent attempt to open it up again, fire was discovered to be still raging – evidence of the fiery nature of the mine.
The place where the missing men were working was 150 yards from the pit bottom and falls of coal and debris would have to be removed before they could be reached. It was estimated this could take about two or three weeks and there was no hope of them being brought out alive. The five men whose bodies were recovered were working close to the furnace at the pit bottom.
Mr. Hunter, an engineer of the North Staffs Colliery Company was present giving valuable advice and Mr. Price, the manager of the colliery worked all night to give all possible help to the willing workers. The number of men missing was still a matter of doubt; it was believed that 20 men were either burnt to death or in a black inaccessesible tomb.
The wintry weather did not prevent several women from presenting themselves at the pit where their husbands and sons were beyond human reach. The number of men who had descended the pit on the day of the explosion cannot be correctly ascertained. In addition to the 5 bodies that had been drawn up, one man named Shenton and two boys, Stockton and Handy all of Silverdale were brought up injured, Handy was not expected to recover.
In one house in Silverdale a husband, son and a wife’s brother were all missing in one family. Another poor woman whose husband was missing was at the pit on Wednesday had labour pains; she was conveyed home and confined. A lad named John Hacking, aged 17 years was one of those missing, he was well known in Hanley as the stepson of the Town Crier. No hopes whatsoever were entertained of the recovery of the men alive and another explosion is expected. .
The names of the men in the pit as near as can be ascertained are: Edward Smith, James Higginson, John Edwards, Joseph Braddock, John Sanders, William Bagguley, Joseph Mayer, Abraham Riley, Thomas Dale, Joseph Cork, John Ackling and Thomas Hughes. It was then reported that the boy who was seriously injured had died at his home in Silverdale late Wednesday night. .
The manager, Mr. Price, made an attempt to descend Sladder Hill No.2 pit to ascertain its condition but after descending the shaft a little way, he was to be drawn up again in the consequence of the excessive heat and stifling smoke. The pit is 60 to 70 yards from the one on fire and great fears entertained that almost the whole of the Eight feet workings are either now on fire or will soon be. So quite a number of men would be out of work due to the disaster.
Mr. Wynne, HMI of Mines, had a narrow escape when a seconded explosion took place, he had just moved away from the pithead when an amount of rubbish blown up from the pit fell on the spot where he had stood. Several persons were injured by the fall of the stuff emitted from the pit. Had the explosion taken place a few minutes before it did, a gage load of men would have been blown up the shaft and killed. .
It had been suggested just before the explosion that attempt should be made to recover the horses that were in the Seven Feet seam, but Mr. Wynne gave strict orders that no human life should be risked for the sake of horses. All the horses down the pit were killed.
Mr. Gilroy, assistant Inspector of Mines, arrived on the scene late on Wednesday evening and he at once gave direction as to how the mine should be managed, so as to put out the fire. The explorers were told not to go down the pit, but to put sand and bass down the up cast shaft. The object was to block up the airways so as to let the fire go out. This was continued during the whole of the night but smoke was still issuing from the downcast shaft.
After consultation, about noon on the seconded day, it was decided to make an attempt to build off the Eight feet seam. As they were preparing to descend, an other explosion occurred. It was then decided to fill the downcast shaft with water above the level of the Eight feet seam, so effectually closing the seam and entombing the men. The bottom of the downcast thus being sealed, the smoke from the underground fire ceased, the up cast being filled up to the Seven Feet inset, a distance of 39 yards.
The downcast shaft was 13 feet 6 inches in diameter, and 484 yards deep, passing through the Seven Feet Bambury. The seams here dip at an angle of 40 degrees. The up cast shaft, which was 25 yards distance from the downcast, was 10 feet in diameter and 454 yards deep.
In order to adopt the best plan for re-opening the shaft, consultations were held on the 11th and 13th of May between the proprietors, Mr. Wynne, HMI of Mines, and the different managers of local collieries. Then on the 14th of May, operations for clearing out the up cast shaft were commenced, three shifts of men being employed.
Arrangements were made for ventilating both shafts with brattice cloth and water pipes for fire fighting. The men began excavating the sand and dirt from one shaft and brattice was put down the other shaft almost to the water level where large quantities of gas were given off the surface of the water.
On the 16th of May debris had been cleared out to a depth of 11 yards, on the 17th gas was coming out freely. Work had to cease on the 19th till the gas was cleared. Work of filling out the dirt recommenced on the 20th and a further 12 feet was removed.
The upward pressure of the gas loosened the dirt, so no picks were needed to be used. Three shifts working continued till the 27th when it was decided that no lamps should be used for fear of an ignition, with only one shift cleaning out in the daylight and the seconded and third shifts backing up with brattice and water pipes.
At about 8 pm. on the 31st, it was reported that a fire had been seen at the bottom of the shaft. After consultation it was decided not to go down the shaft again that night but to wait till morning. In the meantime water was pumped down the shaft all night.
A descent into the shaft was made at daylight next morning, and it was found to the relief of everyone that the water, which had been pumped down the shaft during the night, had washed an opening through the Eight Feet inset and had thus liberated a large quantity of gas, which was confined in the workings. The tapping of this large body of gas had been a source of great anxiety to all.
Cleaning out was now proceeded again vigorously. On an inspection being made no signs of any fire could be found and the only reason that could be given for that light seen by the men earlier on, when some said they had seen a fire, the Inspector said that it was probably the phosphorous given off by the decomposition of the bodies, which were afterwards found in the bottom of the shaft. .
By the 2nd of June the shaft bottom had been cleared and here some bodies were found which by the force of the explosion had been blown into the shaft. It being Sunday, large crowds of people assembled on the pit bank to see the bodies brought up, which had been placed in coffins at the bottom of the shaft.
Work continued clearing away into the pit roadways putting on air and water pipes and clearing out gas, progress was made both to the north and south. Several bags of powder with fuses attached were found, also bundles of picks tied together none of having been used or either damaged or broken.
In the south air dip on June 7th there was evidence that a shot had been fired, it was supposed by some, to have been the cause of the explosion. By June 10th the gas had been cleared out of the north side when coke was discovered, as it was hot, water pipes were put into the place and water discharged at full pressure. No signs of a fire could be seen but men were employed to watch it and discharge water continually. .
Other men climbed over roof falls and on June 12th on the north side of No.1 dip two bodies were found at the working face, which were placed in coffins and removed with great difficulty over the falls and down the dips. .
The solid coalface was actually burnt to coke from 1 foot 6 inches to 2 feet deep. Great anxiety was felt least fire should be smouldering under the dirt, the temperature was 120 degrees and for the next 6 days water was discharged into every place likely to contain fire underneath the dirt. Another body was discovered and removed. .
Three shifts per day continued with the wearisome and laborious work of clearing falls and carrying air and water pipes up steep dips. June the 26th another body was found and on June 28th the body of the fireman was found with another workman. On June 30th in the top head, the body of a man was discovered a distance from the face, his drill was in a hole on the head side; he must have been blown backwards while in the act of boring a hole. The night shift came across another missing man. .
By the 1st July you could travel along the south heading to a large fall over which they had to clear a road. More bodies were found on July 5th the last body it was supposed being found. .
All the gas had now been cleared out of the Eight Feet, and then Mr. Wynne, Inspector, and his assistant visited the workings. Their idea was to reverse the ventilation in order to draw the water from the downcast shaft. .
As stated before, it was supposed that all the bodies had been found when to some great surprise, after an interval of nearly two years; another body was discovered at the top of the furnace dip, in a state of extraordinarily free from decomposition, in fact less decomposed than any of the previous bodies, the clothing was also in a good state of preservation, likewise the boots and an old fashioned apron which colliers used to wear in lieu of a strap or belt. .
The fact the body having been there for such a length of time undiscovered, is owing to its being buried in three feet of dry dust and dirt and the return air from both north and south here uniting and bringing with it the stench and noxious gases with the smell proceeding from the use of chloride of lime, which was used in handling the bodies, thereby causing no suspicion of any body being there.
On Sunday an impressive and solemn service was held in the vicinity of Burley pits, when the Rev. W.W. Sandford read the burial service of the Church of England. The service was announced to take place at 3 pm. but long before that hour some thousands of people had assembled on the pit bank. Then the Rev rector took his stand in the field adjoining the scene of the disaster with between 14.000 and 15.000 people present. .
The burial service commenced with the words, “I am the resurrection and the life” and the 90th Psalm, “Lord thou hast been my refuge”. The service continued including Easter hymns sang with Great Spirit. There were many pitmen present and the rector said; “Was there any class of men upon the face of the earth exposed to greater dangers and perils than miners.” They went down the pit in the morning carrying their life as it were in their hands and when they descended into the bowels of the earth, they never new that they would come up alive again. .
It was a solemn service listened to with greatest of order and attention by the assembled thousands. The hymn “Christ will gather in his own” concluded the service.
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