Leycett Colliery Explosion 1871

Researched by John Lumsdon

Extract from HMI of Mines Annual Report 1871 Mr. T. Wynne

Explosions of firedamp have been fewer in number and not nearly so disastrous as in the previous year, but still there is much to complain of in the way mines that are liable to give off explosive gases are carried on, and there dose not appear to be any chance of improvement until the managers of both large and small concerns are brought to feel the heavy responsibility that rests upon them.

There are several managers in my district who are quite alive to the danger of allowing even the smallest quantity of gas to accumulate in the workings and who never rest until it is removed whenever symptoms make it appear that gas is being given off in ever so small a quantity.

There are others who simply turn men into a pit as a farmer would turn sheep into a pasture, and expect the collier to take the same care of himself as a sheep dose, forgetting the unforeseen dangers that surround a collier from the time he leaves the surface until he reaches it again, and who, instead of being expected to take care of himself, should be cared for, as it is the duty of the workmen to do a fair day’s work, for a fair day’s wage, and not to spend his time looking through all the holes and corners of the pit to see if there be any gas or other danger lurking in those holes and corners.

It is clearly the duty of the manager and his subordinates to do this, and see that every place in the pit is made as safe as human foresight can make it. Then, and not until then, will mining become a far less dangerous occupation than it is at present, for experience clearly demonstrates that where the manager exerts all his energies to keep up discipline and to ensure that the safety of his men very few accidents happen.

The most distressing explosions are those that arise from preventable causes and it is a melancholy fact that the majority of explosions that occur are preventable, and it is my firm opinion, based on twenty years experience as an inspector, that whenever an explosion takes place in a colliery from any cause whatever, except a sudden outburst of gas, there are some persons in authority who are well aware of the possible if not probable consequences long before it really happens, for it often comes out at an inquest that the underlooker or the fireman knew there was gas in the place or in the immediate neighbourhood of the workings for some days. But for want of firmness and from the great desire to send out the full quantity of coal, neglected to send the men out until the working places were made safe, preferring to let all the daily operations to go on until a more favourable opportunity turned up to remedy the defect, when an explosion is the consequence, and the blameable and blameless are together hurried into eternity.

The most severe explosion happened early in the year at Leycett colliery, near Newcastle under Lyme, North Staffs, the most unfortunate colliery in my district. Accident following accident in such succession that a change in the underground management became inevitable, and with it a change in the frequency and severity of the accidents, but still it is one of those collieries with a large capital, requiring a large “output” of coal to make it pay, and must necessarily cause great anxiety to an inspector unless he be satisfied that first rate talent is engaged in the management.

The seams of coal lie at an inclination of about 22 inches to the yard, and the explosion was entirely owing to the vicious system of having a great number of levels being driven out at the same time, some 20 and others 30 yards beyond the main air, and nothing but pipe or brattice ventilation, and that sometimes many yards back from the face.

Fearful Colliery Explosion

An explosion that has been attended with very serious consequences, occurred on Thursday 12th January 1871 at the Crewe Coal and Iron Company Collieries at Leycett about 5 miles from Newcastle under Lyme. The “New pit” at the same colliery has been closed for about nine months in consequence of a fire in it, which caused great loss of property and in the course of being got in readiness for working again.

The explosion we have now to record, though not causing much damage to the property, has unfortunately destroyed four lives, while fourteen men and one boy have been more or less seriously injured.

The pit in which the explosion occurred is near the “New” pit, but not connected with it. It is called the “Independent” (No. 1 pit) and is 270 yards in depth. On Thursday morning at six o’ clock, 66 men and boys descended the shaft for the purpose of going to their daily work. The firemen preceded the others in order to examine the workings and having done this without discovering the presence of any gas, they reported the pit to be safe.

Thomas Bagnall was the fireman who examined the South level of the Ten-Feet mine, and he reported to Wm. Leather, the underlooker, upon whose directions the majority of the men went into that mine. About twenty minutes past six o’ clock, one of the workmen, named John Crooks, fired a shot. The hole had been previously drilled, and Crooks, without obtaining the permission of the fireman and procuring a light from him, as he should have done acted independently and too hastily in firing the shot. It would be too much to say that the explosion was entirely attributable to his undue haste; but as soon as he applied the light to the powder, it blew out of the hole. It was ineffectual so far as the coal was concerned, none of it being removed by the powder. Probably if the object of firing the shot, the displacement of a large body of coal, had been accomplished, it would have scattered what gas there was in the workings, and the explosion would have been avoided.

Instead of this, however, as already stated, the powder blew out the hole, and an explosion of gas was the consequence. Immediately on this taken place, such as the work people who could run, hurried from the spot to seek safety, but 4 of them were killed and 15 were injured.

The following is a list of those killed.
John Johnson, Halmerend, married no children.
Samuel Mason, Halmerend, age 23 married one child.
George Longmore, Newcastle, married no family.
George Bower, Halmerend married 3 children.

The following is a list of those injured.
George Allman, of Madeley Heath, single, seriously burnt.
Andrew Wilkinson, of Leycett, single, seriously burnt.
Eli Simcox, of Silverdale, seriously burnt.
James Guest, of Leycett, single, seriously burnt.
John Crooks, of Leycett married, 2 children, seriously burnt.
John Heywood, married, has a family, seriously burnt.
Thomas Roberts, of Leycett, married 5 children, seriously burnt.
Samuel Whalley, of Audley, married 4 children seriously injured.
John Smith, of Audley, married, slightly hurt.
Thomas Trickett, of Onneley, single, suffered from choke damp.
Andrew Jones, of Leycett, and his son George, slightly injured.
George Smith, married, 2 children, slightly injured.
William Scott, married, 4 children, burnt about face.
Ben Hulse, of Halmerend, married 2 children, slightly contused.

Mason was very little burnt but was suffocated by the chokedamp. Longmore had made a great effort to escape, and ran about 100 yards from where the explosion happened. He was evidently overtaken and suffocated by the chokedamp and was found with his face in some water. Johnson was very much bruised. He was found dead in a dip, down which he had fallen in his effort to escape. Bowers was also found in a dip, on the north side of the workings, with his skull broken. He must have fallen a distance of 50 yards. Andrew Jones and his son George a boy also had a very narrow escape. They fell down the same dip as Johnson and were injured by the fall, but were not otherwise affected. Johnson and another person named Smith were working at the dip at the time. Thomas Roberts was taken up insensible from the effects of the chokedamp. Late yesterday afternoon he remained in very critical state and it is scarcely possible that he can recover. Samuel Whalley was a great sufferer from the chokedamp, he was taken up insensible and remained in that state for a considerable time, but yesterday he was a bit better. John Heywood, who was badly burnt, was in a very dangerous state yesterday afternoon and it is feared his name will have to be added to the list of the dead. He was burnt in an explosion at another colliery some years ago. Both Heywood and Roberts received severe injuries besides being burnt. John Smith, William Scott and Benjamin Hulse were not seriously hurt as shown by the fact that Smith walked about on Thursday afternoon and the latter two were on the bank yesterday.

As soon as the explosion occurred, Mr. Cross, the general manager of the colliery, Mr, Thompson, underground bailiff, and others assisted in raising the men and boys from the pit and rescuing those who were injured. The latter had every attention paid to them.

Mr. R. Goodall, surgeon quickly responded to the summons to attend the sufferers as they were brought up. As soon as they could be removed, they were taken or went to their homes. The Rev. J.W. Daltry of Madeley who did his best to administer spiritual consolation to them also visited the injured men

As usual on such occasions there are strange tales of wonderful escapes. It is said two or three of the workmen were kept from their work on Thursday through a premonition that something unusual was going to happen in the pit. It is also said that some of the men who formally worked at the colliery have left and gone to neighbouring collieries on account of the dangerous character of the Independent pit. We mention this for the purpose of saying that we are assured, on the best authority, that there has been nothing seen in connection with the workings of the pit to indicate that there was any danger in working there.

Yesterday Mr. T. Wynne, government inspector of mines, accompanied by Mr. R.H. Wynne, mining engineer and Mr Cross the manager of the colliery, spent two hours examining the workings and could not find any gas.


On Saturday afternoon at the Swan Inn, Madeley, Mr. J. Booth, coroner, opened an inquest on the bodies of the 4 men killed at the Leycett colliery on the previous Thursday. Mr. T. Wynne, government inspector of mines, and Mr. Cross, the manager of the colliery were present at the enquiry.

Wm. Leather, underlooker at the Independent (No 1 pit) in which the explosion occurred, was the first witness. He said he went down the pit about five minutes past six o’clock. When he got there he met Thomas Bagnall, the fireman and asked him if all the places were free from gas. Bagnall said they were. He then went to the cabin at the bottom of the pit. All at once there was much smoke and the lights were blown out. He went up to the pit bank but returned in the next cage. He went along the south side of the workings and met John Crooks and asked him whatever has been done. Crooks who was badly burnt and appeared as if he were senseless said, “I fired a shot and it was the shot that did it.” Mr. Leather asked him if there was any gas in the mine, and he said he did not know what it was.

The witness then found George Longmore in the No. 7 south level about 20 yards from the main dip. He lay with his face in some water, quite dead. He then found George Bowers on the north side No. 2 level in the dip. He was not burnt, but quite dead. They were removed out of the pit and taken home.

Mr. Leather went through the workings on Wednesday afternoon to see how the men were going on, he saw good ventilation and examined the pit for gas and found none.

On being questioned by Mr. Wynne, John Ellis said he went to work at two o’ clock on Wednesday afternoon and stayed till ten. One or two new pipes had been put in since the explosion but he could not say how many. The explosion had crushed several pipes. The witness was asked if he reported to Mr. Thompson that he was aware that the “Jack hole” was not being driven with all speed. He replied that a man, who should have worked there, was off work. Daniel Salt was on the night before the explosion to attend to the “Jack hole” but he could not stop, Salt said he would not work there. Then Mr. Wynne said, “Then it was not forced on with all possible speed”. The witness went on to say in answer to further questions, that it was not usual for each man to fire his own shot, except where he worked with naked candles, and where the men worked with lamps, they were not allowed to fire shot at all.

The day shift fireman (Wm. Scott) went on duty as the night fireman (Bagnall) was going off. If Bagnall had examined that part of the workings where the explosion occurred, he must have seen there was a hole drilled for firing a shot. It was not Bagnall’s duty to fire the shot. The man who worked at night got the hole ready, but he had no powder left. Crooks went into the pit, saw the hole, charged it with powder and fired it without obtaining a light from the fireman. Crooks must have unfastened his lamp, or got a light somewhere else.

The witness was asked whether he was not aware that it had been customary for men to fire their own shots. He gave evasive answers, and was cautioned by the coroner. He said the men were not allowed to fire shots where they worked with lamps. They worked with candles where it was safe to do so. They had naked lights in the Ten feet on Wednesday. They must not work where there is gas. Mr. Wynne asked, who was there to decide whether Crooks should or should not fire the shot. Witness replied no one; he had not patience to wait till the fireman came to him, as he ought to have done according to the rule. The witness upon being pressed further, admitted that nearly all the men worked with naked lights and he could not give an instance in which a man working with a naked light, sent for a fireman before firing a shot.

The witness had been connected with mining for 30 years. He did not know of a case in which a man had been allowed to fire a shot, the first thing in the morning without the fireman being consulted, until the day fireman had been in the workings. A day man could not tell whether he was to work with a lamp, a candle, or whether he was to work at all.

Edward Thomson, the ground bailiff, proved finding the bodies of Mason and Johnson. Mason was not quite dead when found, but died as he was being brought out of the pit. Johnson was not burnt at all. He had one broken leg, and his head and face were cut.

Thomas Bagnall, night fireman, said he went to work on Wednesday evening about half past five. He examined all the lamps that were to be used on the night shift and found them right. He went through the works and tried No. 2 level where the explosion occurred, as well as other places and found no gas. He examined the workings again later in the morning of Thursday with the same results.

George Viggars went in No. 2 level about 3 o’clock with blazing candles. The rule was, if the ventilation was all right and no gas was found in the pit, to give men candles. He had been at the pit nearly 3 weeks and had never seen any gas there. Replying to a question put by Mr. Wynne, the witness said, if Crooks had told him he was going to fire a shot, he would have gone with him. He knew the hole was drilled before he left. He told Crooks that the mine was safe. In answer to Cross the witness said, If he thought the pit was short of air, he put up more pipes.

The coroner said he proposed to adjourn the inquiry so that some of the injured men might be produced to give evidence, and it was desirable that Crooks should be present. Inquest adjourned After the inquest on Saturday, George Allman died and on Sunday John Heywood and Thomas Robert also died. George Heywood, the father of John said his son was very much burnt about the body and head. Mr. Godall, surgeon, said when he attended John, he said before he got his jacket off, the explosion occurred and he was blown down the Jack hole. The coroner said he understood Crooks was lightly to die, Andrew Wilkinson and George Guest were in a critical state. Inquest resumed February On Wednesday Mr. J. Booth, coroner held an adjourned inquest on the 9 bodies of the men who had died as a result of the explosion on the 12th January. The evidence previously taken was read over and Thomas Bagnall, night fireman in Independent pit No. 1 added that the men went to work with lamps, which they used till a fireman examined the pit and pronounced to be free from gas, when they were allowed candles. In reply to Mr. Wynne he said, the night shift before the explosion, the air pipes were within 3 yards of the face of the South level in which the explosion occurred. Men worked there till 10 o’clock on the night shift before the explosion. He served candles out to the men that night, but not to the men who went to work in the morning. The fireman unlocked the lamps for the men and lighted the candles, where allowed to be used. He never saw gas in the pit.

The witness said he new the place where the hole was bored, for firing a shot. He could not say whether powder had been fired in it, the coal was singed a little but he could not say whether it was from an explosion of gas or from firing a shot.

Another witness James Ellis said he worked in the South side of No. 2 till 10 o’ clock the night before the explosion. The air pipes were within 5 feet of the face when he left. In reply to Mr. Wynne he said, the men worked for an hour or so with lamps before commencing to use candles.

Samuel Guest, a loader, who bore the marks of having been severely burnt about the hands and face said, he went to work in the independent pit on the morning of the explosion. He passed by John Crooks in the No. 2 level. Crooks was working at the coal as if boring for a shot. About 10 minutes after he passed Crooks, the explosion occurred. He was blown down. In answer to Mr. Wynne, he said, the flame came from the direction he had left. In reply to another member of the jury he said, if Crooks had nearly finished boring when he (the witness) passed him, there should have been time for him to fire a shot before the he (the witness) was blown down.

Wm. Phoenix, said he worked on the South side No.2 level the day before the explosion and left about 10 o’ clock that night. He bored a hole for a shot before he left. He did not fire a shot because he had no powder. He said he had seen the hole since the explosion but he could not tell whether powder had been used. There were many questions on lamps, gas, ventilation and candles. Wm. Phoenix was recalled, he said that before the explosion Crooks told him the can would hold four pounds of powder, but he could not say how much was taken out. The inquest was further adjourned in order that Crooks may be examined if he recovered.

Resumed Inquest March

The inquest had been adjourned owing to the long suffering of John Crooks one of the men injured by the explosion, which, it was stated on a former occasion, had fired a shot without permission of a fireman, and caused the catastrophe.

John Crooks now said he went to work at the Independent pit at Leycett colliery on the day of the explosion. He went down the pit about 5 minutes past 6 in the morning. He saw Thomas Rothwell and Thomas Bagnall at the pit bottom. He gave his lamp to Thomas Bagnall to be examined and went to his work at the far end of No. 2 level. When he reached there he undressed for work, and tried the place with his lamp. He found no gas. He then finished undressing for work, he did not charge a shot, nor fire one. While talking to Allman, there was a puff, like a puff of smoke. In reply to a question by Mr. Wynne, He said six men went down to the place together and others kept following them. He (the witness) did not work that morning. If anyone said he heard witness tapping or boring, it was a mistake. He did not recollect firing a shot, nor did he remember that after the explosion, he told Bagnall, that he had fired a shot. In reply to a question by Mr. Tennant, He (the witness) did not remember that since his recovery, he told the Rev. Daltry or the Rev. G. R. Bailey, that he had fired a shot.

When he had a shot ready for firing, he always fired it himself, without asking leave of a fireman. He frequently fired a shot from his lamp. In reply to a juror, he said he took down the pit on the morning of the explosion, three and a half pounds of powder, but used none. The hole was not charged before he went down the pit.

Mr. R.H. Wynne, mining engineer, said he examined the pit the morning after the explosion. He saw the shot hole that had been referred to and he took a piece of coal (produced) from it. He was convinced that a shot had been fired. The piece of coal (produced) bearing marks of powder. He found no gas in the pit and there was good ventilation.

Mr. T. Wynne, government inspector of mines, read the following evidence; I inspected the pit the day after the explosion and found a fair amount of air passing through the Ten feet workings and do not attribute the explosion to the want of air, but to the faulty distribution of it. I have no doubt it occurred in No. 2 level, which is the one above the main level. As the effect was very severe, having charred the coal to some extent and although several of the Jack holes or thirlings had only brattice sheets in them, which gave vent to the fire, a brick stopping was blown out, and some of the bricks carried from 10 to 12 yards along the main level towards the pit, where some tubs were smashed.

The main level was driven 21 yards beyond the last Jack hole and No. 2 level 29 yards. But there was another hole nearly through and in my opinion it was a fatal error to push No.2 level on instead of driving down to meet Ellis, and for whatever gas was found in his place, would find its way into No. 2 or Crook’s place.

When I went in No. 2 level, the air pipes were not within a 11 yards of the face and I am certain they were no nearer at the time of the explosion. I fear that the distance was 15 yards, as 2 lengths that I saw, were new ones and no damage was shown to me. According to the evidence no gas has been seen in the mine, Nor did I find any, but the result of my experience at inquiries of this kind goes to show that nearly all explosions occur where, according to the evidence, there is no gas. Hence the necessity, of always being prepared for unseen danger, by having good air as near as possible to the working place. I am quite aware that the coals lying at such an acute angle, as they do here work back with less danger when there are but few openings from one level to another, but in this case the principle has been carried to a dangerous extreme.

I was told Crooks said, when got out, that he had fired a shot that ignited the gas and to all appearances that was so; but had I been aware there was any doubt upon the subject, a more minute examination would have been made. The cause of the accident was the want of a better system of pushing forward the thirlings instead of driving so many at the same time with nothing but pipe air, and to the firing of a shot, or use of naked light where no naked light ought to have been used.

The coroner in the course of his summing up, said he thought the explosion had resulted from a lack of discipline – neglect of the fireman. He had no doubt Crooks fired the shot, but the question was whether there had been a mere error of judgement. The jury after a long consultation returned a verdict to the effect that the explosion was caused by the firing of a shot, but that Crooks was not specifically blameable in consequence of the rule relating to the firing of shots not having been enforced. They recommended that greater care should be taken with reference to pushing forward of thirlings. Mr. Cross, the manager of the colliery, said the recommendation of the jury had been anticipated, and men employed in driving thirlings as close as possible.