One of the many hazards faced by miners was water, and no way could this be more emphasised than the flooding of Diglake Colliery in North Staffordshire on 14th January 1895, with the loss of 77 lives.
Seldom has a colliery born such a prophetic name as Diglake at Bignal End, Audley, where an underground lake was created after the extraction of coal was replaced with water that had drained into the abandoned mine from 1850.
At 11.30 a.m. on Monday, 14th of January, 1895, a vast underground reservoir of water broke into the workings and threatened the lives of 240 men and boys who were in the mine at the time.
In the ensuing horror there were some miraculous escapes, but 77 lives were lost in truly appalling circumstances.
Diglake was operated by Wm Rigby and Sons as lessees of Sir Thomas Boughey and was served by the Keele-Alsager branch of the North Staffs Railway.
The colliery lay close by Audley station, at which point the line crossed the main road from Chesterton.
The pit had three shafts, No.1, No.2 and a third shaft that was formerly part of the disused Hall pit which had recently been reopened for winding purposes and there was an underground connection with Diglake No.1, some 400yds distance.
About 300 were employed with many of the workers being boys of 13 to 19yrs of age, and, as was common practice, fathers and sons would often accompany each other on the same shift.
The pit was sunk in 1870 to tap the rich Seven, Eight and Ten feet coal seams that were the mainstay of a number of collieries in the district.
One of these being a previous Diglake Colliery nearby that had been worked by Sir Thomas Boughey until about 1850.
This pit had been abandoned for 45yrs and left to accumulate water.
It was in the general direction of these earlier workings, known to be flooded that operations were proceeding.
Diglake was regarded as a wet pit, so much so that miners were supplied with special clothing and tin sheeting for protection against overhead seepage.
That winter had seen heavy snowfalls in North Staffs with drifts up to 8ft, rain at times and partial thaw had increased the amount of surface water percolating into the pit, and made working conditions more unpleasant than usual.
Nevertheless no particular concern was felt that morning.
The day shift went down at 6.30 a.m., 166 by way of No.1 shaft and the remainder from Boyles Hall No.3. Which was more convenient to their place of work.
The fireman, Wm. Sproson of Wood Lane, had made his inspection and found everything in order.
He and his son, 25yrs old Enoch, were to lose their lives in the im¬pending disaster, but his second son, 15yrs old William, survived and was able to describe his ordeal at the inquest.
He said his father had just fired a shot at the top end and came round to see him for a minute or two and told him there was a little more water coming out of the top end.
He had gone back in to see if the men had started again.
A short time later a boy came out of the level and said some water was coming in and a ventilation door was open.
Wm.Sproston junior went to close it.
When he returned, the boy had gone.
He never saw him again or any of the 44 others working in that part of the mine.
He had started off down the dip from where he heard a roaring sound but did not know it was water.
He got into a manhole at the side of the road.
The water rushed down in a raging torrent. His foot slipped and the water carried him 200yds to the bottom of the dip. Luckily, he was face upwards so he was able to breathe.
At the bottom, Richard Howle, who had been waiting to load the descending cage, grabbed young Sproson, and together they managed to reach the outlet to Boyles Hall and safety.
At the inquest, Howle was asked why he did not go up in the cage and he replied that the water was up to his waist in seconds.
In the meantime, the rapidly rising water flooded the sump of No.1 shaft putting the Pumping engine out of action and rushed on into the lower levels of the mine where other men were working, leaving behind it, at the foot of the dip, a great mass of fallen roof props, coal tubs, earth and other debris.
It was this dam -like obstruction comprising of many tons of material, mostly submerged beneath several feet of water, that was to render rescue operations highly difficult and dangerous in the extreme and ultimately lead to complete abandonment.
News of the disaster spread quickly and crowds of wives, mothers, and anxious relatives soon gathered round the pithead where icy winds were blowing and snow and slush was underfoot.
By nightfall upwards of 160 men and boys had escaped from the mine, but each passing hour increased the watchers' fear for those still entombed.
All through the night the cage of No.1 shaft was used to bring to the surface whatever debris could be reached from the flooded pit bottom.
But, inspections of both No.1 and No 2 shafts showed that the water was still running freely.
This meant that the mine was still filling up and that the source was no way exhausted.
John Boulton of Ravens Lane, a collier, was at home when he heard of the disaster and went to the pithead.
He descended No.1. Shaft slowly but found the water level was above the outlet road, closing access to and egress from the pit.
He next descended No.2 shaft only to find the same situation there.
Still undeterred, he went down at Boyles Hall where the pit bottom was at a higher horizon, and 300yds from the shaft bottom, he met the colliery under manager, Wm. Dodd, at the edge of the floodwater.
Together they climbed down a narrow airshaft with water cascading upon them from above.
Faced by a swift running stream they were forced to return and take another route by a back air road where they came across 16 men huddled together and exhausted.
These men were directed to safety while Boulton and Dodd made their way deeper into the mine successfully rescuing a further 6 men.
Finally, after struggling breast high through the flood, the sound of rapping on the air pipes lead them to a spot where 4 more men and a boy had taken refuge among the roof timbers.
They were the last ones to be brought out alive to the surface.
John Boulton and William Dodd received medals for their bravery in the rescue work.
During the following night an exploration party found the bodies of Henry Holland, 26yrs years of age from Chesterton, and Harry Rhodes, 16yrs of age from Boon Hill.
Their bodies had been wedged beneath an overturned wagon, which, with several others, formed part of a huge dam near the bottom of No.1 shaft, beyond which 75 men and boys were still unaccounted for.
It was obvious that any break through would be a very lengthy and dangerous operation.
After some difficulty obtaining a supply of steam for the pumping engine, pumping began but the 300 gallons per minute had little effect on the water level.
Salvage teams toiled away at the obstructions, working breast high in the icy flood, but progress was painfully slow in moving the debris.
By the end of the week, little headway had been achieved and there was increasing fear that a massive volume of water could overwhelm the rescuers.
As well, there remained a constant threat of lethal gas displaced from the flooded workings throughout the mine.
Reluctantly, it was decided that all attempts to reach the entombed men, none of whom were likely to be alive, must cease until the floodwater had abated.
This decision, announced late on Saturday the 19th, cast a further gloom on the watchers at the pithead, some of whom had scarcely slept for 5 nights.
The overall scene was harrowing and desolate in the extreme.
Drenching rain had now added to the general misery, despite which small groups trudged through the mud and slush to and from the Diglake and Boyles Hall shafts, hoping against hope for some good news, but there was none.
One poor woman had waited near the pithead for three days and nights with a set of dry clothes for her husband.
Another, whose husband and son were missing, had to be physically restrained from throwing herself down the shaft.
Gradually, however, the waiting sorrowing crowds dwindled away to their homes.
At the end of the inquiry the jury found that the lives were lost by flooding.
the evidence did not show how the water got in, but they were of the opinion that it was an unforeseen accident, and the colliery appeared to have been carefully managed.
The Miners Federation of Great Britain appointed Messrs Cowely and Hasam to attend this enquire as to the cause of this fearful calamity.
At the enquiry held on February 14th 1895 Mr Frank Rigby, Managing Director, accepted entire responsibility for all the work done in the East 10 Feet and admitted that no bore holes had been kept, and gave as a reason that the plans showed that they were 80 yards away from the pond of water.
He also stated that they intended to abandon that part of the workings, while a barrier of 60 yards remained.
So he intended to advance a further 20 yards. (He was aware of General Rule 13) Coal Mines Regulation Act 1887
General Rule 13. ---Water and Bore Holes. Where a place is likely to contain a dangerous accumulation of water, the working approaching that place shall not at any point within forty yards of that place exceed eight feet in width, and there shall be constantly kept at a sufficient distance, not being less than five yards in advance, at least one bore hole near the centre of he working, and sufficient flank bore holes on each side.
On Wednesday June 12th, the enquiry resumed with Mr. Dodd, under manager of East 10 ft since the workings had been opened, was in the witness box.
He stated that he had no idea where the water had come from and contended he was carrying out the Mines act in not having bore-holes on, because the plans showed that they were 60 yards from the pond of water.
The next gentleman called was James Maddocks, general underground manager for Messes. Rigby's collieries, he had not been in the workings since the early part of the previous December, and only went down these pits on special occasions.
At this point came the most serious part of the enquiry. The Company then put in an old surface plan (a land plan) which in our opinion (Cowey and Hasam) was utterly unreliable, so far as to the amount of mineral left as a barrier between the pond of water.
We are impelled to this opinion because it transpired that no platting or measurement had been resorted to as a check on the facts as to the actual workings in any way, and we feel compelled here to state that the whole working the 10ft, seam had been carried on in a most haphazard way, and that ordinary precautions would have ensured bore holes being carried on at the face of the workings.
It appears from the evidence that bore holes had been carried in front of the workings previously, but the Managing Director, Mr. F. Rigby, relying on the surface plan, had ordered the bore holes to be discontinued, but in our opinion if these bore holes had been continued this lamentable disaster would not have occurred.
Coal Mines Regulation Act Section 34 (1.) Plan of mine to be kept at office, states; The owner agent or manager of every mine shall keep in the office at the mine an accurate plan of the workings of the mine, showing the workings up to a date not more than three months previously, and the general direction and rate of dip of the strata, together with a section of the strata sunk through, or if that is not reasonably practicable, a statement of the depth of the shaft, with a section of the seam.
Mr. W. N. Atkinson, HM Inspector of Mines, leaned towards the opinion that the inherited plans of the earlier Diglake pit were misleading, and at a critical point was ambiguous.
Mr. Atkinson, produced a plan in his report that showed old workings between the New Ten Feet Seam and the Old Ten Feet Seam and referred to in his report as the "Unknown Place".
This would have seriously weakened the barrier between the pond of water and when the shot fired by William Sproson on that fateful day, it could have initiated that flood of water that caused so much death and destruction.
Messrs. Warburton (Mining Engineer) and Edwards (Miners' Agent) having descended the mine to ascertain what efforts had been made to reach the scene of the disaster and recover the bodies, reported that it was impossible to get into the East 10ft. by the old way owing to the timbers being washed out, and the weight and crush and general breakdown, together with the large volume of water to be contended with.
But we are of the opinion that if a drift, started through the measures, 20 yards up the shaft had been driven, the seat of the disaster could have been reached, and a number of bodies recovered, with the additional advantage that the exact point of the mischief would have been located and the thickness of the barrier of coal proved.
Furthermore, we are of the opinion that the Mines Act in this particular needs amending to the extent of compelling bore holes to be put in all mines when approaching water, as the plans of abandoned mines cannot be relied upon.
Meanwhile, everything possible was being done to alleviate the suffering of the stricken families. Within 48 hours the North Staffs Permanent Relief Society, formed to combat the hardship resulting from the Talke Colliery explosion of 1866 when 91 men and boys were killed, held a meeting at which it was decided that the bereaved relatives would receive benefit on the following scale; each boy under 16 yrs 10/-; each unmarried adult 20/-; for each married person, funeral expenses of 5/- with each widow to receive 4/- per week for 5 yrs and for a succeeding 5 yrs 2/- per week, and for each child 2/- per week till he/she reached the age of 13 yrs when it would cease.
The Staffordshire Sentinel inaugurated a relief fund, with many generous donations and a wide range of money raising activities, including an England v Scotland football match at the Victoria Ground, a rugby union match, Elphinsons famous circus and the D' Oyly Carte Co. putting on a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore.
By the end of the year 17,000 had been raised for 37 widows and 88 children. In the course of time, memories of the Diglake flooding faded, but, in terms of human life, an even greater disaster came to sadden the hearts of North Staffs people.
This was the Minnie pit explosion of 1918 in which 155 lives were lost.
Meanwhile mining operations at Diglake had been transferred to a new pit at Rookery, several hundred yards to the northeast and it was from this pit in 1932, 37 years later that a heading was driven in the general direction of the abandoned mine.
After drawing off considerable quantities of water, the vicinity of the 1895 disaster was reached on August the 12th, 1932.
Further exploration was then postponed because of accumulations of firedamp.
It was not until September 3rd that it was considered safe to proceed.
The same morning the searchers came across the skeleton of a man.
It was lying on its left side with the right arm extended above the skull.
There was a clog on the right foot, and, inside the clog piece of stocking. Apart from a few remnants of a leather belt and four trouser but¬tons, there were no other remains except the bones, and no means of identification.
H.M.I. of Mines said no action was to be taken until the approach roads had been re timbered and made good.
Then the skeleton was brought to the surface in March 1933.
At the inquest considerable interest was re-awakened locally, and in particular for Wm. Sproson who as a lad of 16yrs had such a dramatic escape.
It seemed his ordeal had not deterred him from a mining career. Now 54yrs old, he was a colliery fireman.
Dr. Riley of Audley gave medical evidence, to the effect that the skeleton was a well-built male of about 28yrs, and 5 feet 8 inches in height.
Subsequently, two more skeletons were recovered. Caleb Johnson, while engaged in cleaning up No.2. Road of the Ten feet seam at 10.30 a.m., came across a powder can and, further on, a skeleton.
Dr.Riley said it was impossible to identify but appeared to be a man of about 40yrs.
On March the 6th, another one was found and brought up next day.
It was decided to abandon any plans to explore further and the road way was sealed up, leaving the remains of the other 72 to rest for eternity in the place where they died.
In conclusion, whilst acknowledging that the miners of today still have no easy task, it would only be fair to say they have benefited with safety regulations and better conditions as a result of the tragedies and disasters of their forefathers.
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