Burley Pit Explosion 1885

Reserched By John Lumsdon

The Burley pits of Messrs Stanier and Co. Situated at Apedale near Newcastle, North Staffordshire, were the scenes of a terrible explosion of gas on Saturday morning the 20th of June 1885 resulting in the loss of nine lives. The pit is on the road from Chesterton to Silverdale and about half a mile from Apedale furnaces of the same firm. About 200 men and boys are employed at the colliery, which works the lower coal seams of the North Staffordshire district, which includes the 10-feet, the 7-feet and 8-feet Banbury.

The winding shafts are 484 yards deep and 13 feet 6 inches in diameter. They are sunk to the 8-feet Banbury seam, from which cruts have been driven east and west intersecting the Bullhurst on one side of the pit and the 7-feet and 10-feet seams on the other. The south level of the 10-feet seam has been driven a distance of nearly a mile, and about 500 yards from the bottom of the pit there is a dip 100 yards in length with a heading at the top which has been driven about 60 yards. It is thought that the explosion occurred in this area and is fortunate that the number of men employed there was small.

The ventilation of the pit is well provided for although great caution is required in the working of the colliery, the seams being of a gaseous character and the pit having been previously visited by disaster on the 28th March 1878 a terrible explosion occurred killing 22 men and boys. On that occasion the pit was on fire and could not be extinguished until it had been flooded with water after that it had to stand for six months before the workings could be explored and the bodies of the dead recovered.

At the usual hour an inspection was made of the workings by the firemen on duty and they reported the roadways and working places to be alright and free from gas, and the pits company of 192 men and boys then descended and proceeded to their working places.

At about nine 0’ clock the explosion occurred in the south side of the 10-feet seam. Due to the location being so far from the shaft there was no outburst from the pit mouth to tell the tale of disaster and death to those on the surface. Information of the sad event was, however, conveyed to the bank and news quickly spread throughout the district, crowds of people hurrying to the pit from all directions.

Steps were at once taken to organize exploration and recovery, and occasions like this never lack brave volunteers to engage in it. The manager of the colliery, Mr. James Cadman, and Mr. Thomas Hulme, underlooker, took charge of the first gang who descended the shaft, and relief’s were organized among others willing to assist. The men and boys in other parts of the mine that were unaffected were called in and sent to the surface as quickly as possible.

Mr. C. H. Hardeman, General Manager, Mr.J. Strick, Consultant Engineer, and others proceeded to the colliery on hearing of the explosion, and from their experience and knowledge were able to render valuable service and advice. The exploring parties worked under great difficulties and at considerable risk, the ventilation having been interfered with and the road ways damaged by the explosion.

They made their way to the place where the explosion had taken place and found that of the twelve men who had been employed there, nine were missing. After witnessing the evidence of the violence of the explosion in the shattered state of the workings, the numerous falls of roof, and taking into account the foulness of the air, the explorers came to the conclusion that none of the missing men could be alive. Attempts were made to examine the scene of the explosion and to recover the bodies but the after-damp was so powerful that the work was slow and hazardous.

Mr. A. R. Sawyer, the Assistant Inspector of Mines, arrived at the mine in the early afternoon and descended to take part in the exploration. At intervals some of the party below had to be raised to the surface, suffering more or less from the effects of foul air. Drs Collonette, and Tiernan and Mr. Peate, surgeon, who had driven to the pit on hearing of the disaster, remained some time to render what help they could. Mr. Cadman, the manager, was overcome by the choke-damp, but being brought round by some of the exploring party, pluckily declined to leave his pit, and continued in the mine until six o clock in the evening.

In the course of the afternoon four bodies were recovered and the search being continued two more were got out in the evening, most of the bodies being recovered in the new heading. Some of the deceased were badly burnt and disfigured, and had apparently been blown down or against the sides of the drift. Others who had escaped the blast had evidently succumbed to fatal gas that succeeds these explosions.

On Sunday the restoring of the ventilation continued to occupy the attention of the working party, and during the day two more bodies were recovered, making eight. The ninth was found early Monday morning. The names of the killed are:

Thomas Heath age 41 leaves widow and 3 children

Henry Heath age 20 son of Thomas, married no children

John Barker age 34 leaves widow and 6 children

Isaac Jones age 47 leaves widow and 14 children

Thomas Jones age 17 son of Isaac, single

Thomas Lear age 36 widower, 3 children

Joseph Underwood age 20 single

Thomas Hampton age 27 single

James Kesteven age 44 leaves widow

Mr. J. Booth, coroner for North Staffordshire, opened an inquiry into the circumstances attending the death of deceased, the jury assembling at the George and Dragon Hotel, Chesterton. Supt. Hall was present on behalf of the police authorities; Mr. E Brittain was foreman of the jury. The Coroner, in opening, said

He was not going on that day further than to show there had been an explosion that day and the deceased had been brought out of the pit dead. The evidence to be called would therefore be what was sufficient to enable him to issue burial certificates. Evidence of identity was then taken and the jury was adjourned until the 15th of July.

The requirements for an explosion are; there must be sufficient gas and air in the atmosphere and there must be a source of ignition.

On Wednesday the 15th July the Coroner resumed his inquiry at the George and Dragon Inn and was attended by Mr. T. Wynne, Government Inspector of Mines plus officials and representatives of the deceased.

The first witness was Mr. W.J. Hancock, a mining surveyor; he stated that he was in the habit of taking note of the ventilation at the colliery. The last time he did so was on the 23rd March when 8,980 cubic feet were passing though per minute. Previously to the 23rd of March the ventilation was measured about every month. The reason it had not been tested since the 23rd of March was because the anemometer was out of order.

John Birkin, the lamp cleaner at the colliery, gave to the deceased men on the morning of the explosion their lamps, which were sound and in proper working order. The custom was for the lamps to be lit at the bottom of the pit by the men and afterwards locked by the Butty. Barker and Thomas Heath, two of the deceased, were co-butties and also acted as firemen. On the morning of the explosion they reported the south mine level to be all right and free from gas and the current of air was good. Heath had signed the report book and Barker had affixed his cross, as he could not write. All the men who worked in the south side that morning were killed except the horse driver, Rhodes, age 16. He was going down the main crut to the stables when the explosion happened, 1,200 yards away.

There were questions on whether a shot had been fired or not. Then the inquiry was adjourned until the following morning. The first witness was Mr. Cadman, the certificated manager, he said the last time he inspected the far end was three weeks before the explosion, when he found everything in a satisfactory state. The only complaint, which had been made between that time and the explosion, was in Hume’s report on the 10th of June that a little gas had been found. Stringent instructions were then given that no shots were to be fired while workmen were in the pit.

On subsequent examination of the mine he described the position of the bodies and found indications of an explosion in the top and bottom levels, but was inclined to believe that the seat of the explosion was in the bottom level. He admitted that he was at a loss to account for the explosion. He could not say whether it arose from a shot or a heated lamp. There was evidence that the body of the fireman was found exactly in the position he would be in if he had fired the shot.

Mr. John Strick, consultant engineer, was of the opinion the occurrence originated at the far end of either the top or bottom levels. His reasons were because the men at this point were severely burnt, in fact perfectly charred while further away the men were less burnt but more disfigured. The direction of the blast was evident and the relative position in which the bodies were found strengthened his opinion as to the locality of the explosion. He had examined the shot hole carefully and believed that a shot had not been fired. Mr. Strick was subjected to a searching cross examination but he adhered to his opinion.

Mr. A.R. Sawyer, Government Inspector, went into great detail on his findings and was of the opinion that a shot had been fired, and this had blown out near the spot where from all appearances he would have expected the explosion, to have originated.

Mr. T Wynne, the Chief Inspector of Mines for the district, said he agreed with Mr. Sawyer as to the origin of the explosion. He had no doubt it was due to a blown out shot. He had much experience in these matters and believed that coal-dust mixed with one and a half percent of gas would explode. Mr. Wynne also said the pit ought not to be left to the management of Butty colliers. It did not come within the words of the Act-“daily control and supervision”. He recommended the owners to have a man of their own in every level as firemen.

Mr. A Littleton, from the Home Office, thought the ventilation ought to be measured accurately from time to time. From the 23rd of March to the 20th of June was too long to leave the measurement unchecked. He thought it too long for men to be left in the care of butties, and that the underlooker or manager ought to visit more regularly and constantly. He held that men who looked after the lives of people ought not to have any interest in hurrying the work.

After a few more exchanges the Coroner summed up, briefly pointing out to the jury the disagreements in the scientific evidence on the origin of the explosion. As to the use of powder, he said no doubt it is a bad thing in fiery seams. It was an almost needless precaution to take down safety lamps into the mine where there was shot firing and a long flame shooting out and possibly igniting the gas and coal-dust. So long as they had blown out shots, this was always a possible occurrence.

After some deliberation, the foreman of the jury announced the following verdict; After careful attention to the evidence given, we cannot come to any positive conclusion as to how this explosion came about by which these unfortunate men lost their lives. Our only alternative will be to give as our verdict “died from an explosion of gas”.

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