Lillydale colliery 1881

Researched by John Lumsden

An accident of serious nature happened at 11.30 am. On Tuesday 3rd May 1881 at the Lillydale colliery, Bucknall, North Staffordshire. This colliery, which was opened about 25 years ago by Mersses Forrester, Gerrard and Hawkes, is not a very extensive one. But judging from the number of times it has changed hands the working of it dose not seem to have been a very lucrative business. Mr. Enoch Perrins, the present proprietor, has been in possession for up to a year and latterly only a small number of hands have been employed.

On the day in question only 16 men were engaged in the pit and they were working with naked lights, according to the custom of this place. Some of them were driving a thirling on the north side of the south dip at a depth of about 160 yards. The possible influx of water from old workings seems to have be anticipated and bore holes had been kept ahead. However, as a precautionary measure, this was insufficient to guard against the danger. The water was trapped and it began rushing into the thirling. The force of the air current thus disturbed some gas hanging about to be driven into the naked lights and a violent explosion was the result.

The water rose so rapidly that within half an hour it had filled most of the workings. As soon after the accident as possible, help arrived at the pit and several volunteers, at great personal risk, ventured down the shaft in the hopes of being able to rescue the work people. Valuable aid was rendered by men from neighbouring collieries who first descended succeeded in bringing out alive Thomas Plant, Anthony Barlow, William Tabbinor of drowning. Attention to him was attracted by a hand moving above the water and a noise like gurgling in the water and he was got out with great difficulty. George Philips was found near the edge of the water, just in time to be saved. He was unconscious from the effects of after damp. Plant, Barlow and Philipps were removed to the North Staffs Infirmary, where Plant died the following day. A boy named Henry Johnson was got out alive.

The only dead body found was that of Edward Clewlow. Owing to the rapidly rising water, the explorers were unable to go through the workings and it was thought when they retired from the mine they were obliged to leave behind them, Alfred Wood, Enoch Barlow, Samuel, Biddulph, Elijah Gratton, and William Eaton, so that altogether seven lives have been sacrificed. Whether they were drowned or killed by the explosion cannot of course be ascertained. Four of the deceased were married men and had families.

Mr. Wynne, Government Inspector, and Mr. Sawyer, Assistant Inspector, visited the colliery. Mr. Sawyer and others descended the shaft on Tuesday evening with a view of endeavouring to ascertain the best course to be adopted, when they were surprised to find the pit on fire on the opposite side to which the explosion occurred and it was considered advisable that the workings should be completely flooded. A long time must consequently elapse before the bodies of the men left in the pit can be recovered. The fire in the pit, it appears, has been burning for several months, within about 15 yards of the up cast shaft.

Mr. John Booth, Coroner, opened an inquest concerning the death of Edward Clewlow age 46 and Thomas Plant age 28, at the Red Lion Inn, Bucknall, on Thursday. The jury having been sworn, the coroner said the deceased met their deaths by an explosion on the 3rd of May. He understood there were several other men in the pit at the time, five of whom have not been recovered. He took evidence of identification then adjourned to give an opportunity for the injured men at the infirmary to attend and give evidence and also to enable efforts to be made to recover the bodies still in the pit.

George Deville, a Waggoner, said he was on his way to the pit bottom with a load from where Eaton, Gratton and Wood were getting the coal. He was only 15 yards from the pit bottom when the explosion occurred and felt the wind and saw dust and smoke, but only a spark or two of fire. The place where he was waggoning from was about 70 yards from the pit bottom.

William Biddulph, butty at Ladydale colliery, where he had worked for four months, said that Joseph Biddulph, his brother was his partner. Biddulph went down the pit at 6 am. on Tuesday. The men were working and Alfred Wood, the fireman, was in the north level. At 8.30 am. Wood called Biddulph to him and said there was as much water as they could do with and there were a few droppers on the head side. He ordered the work to be stopped. Biddulph told the men to leave and came out of the pit and saw Mr. Perris, who was on the bank. Biddulph told Mr. Perris there was a sup of water, that had stopped the men working and he wanted to know what must be done. The explosion happened while they were talking.

Mr. Perris gave instructions as to what had to be done from time to time; there being no certificated manager. They kept the boreholes a yard or four feet in front of them. Biddulph knew he was approaching old workings but was not aware that they were so near them. Mr. Perris left it to them to say how far ahead they should keep the boreholes. They were driving a roadway to tap the water and get the coal. Mr. Perris had the plans and told us how far we were off the water. Biddulph added that the men always worked with naked lights. There was report books kept, Alfred Wood, the fireman, making the entries. From the 17th March till the day of the explosion, according to the report book, everything was “safe”. Biddulph took the reports to be correct and always found it so. He had been in the pit every day since the 17th March but had seen neither gas, nor anything else except a bit of a fire on the north side of the pit bottom, not near the workings. The fire had been burning for six months. The explosion was a heavy one and he thought the gas came out of the old workings where there had been a fall. They intended to tap the water to get the coal beyond the water. Mr. Perris had arranged to draw it when the water was cleared.

In the House of Commons (May 13th ?) Mr. McDonald, Sec)? M.P. asked the Secretary of State if his attention had been called to the statements that the mine was carried on without a certificated manager and was on fire for a considerable time, and where at least seven persons had lost their lives. Also the owner had been fined in the past for negligence. And further, he would direct someone to attend the inquest on 24th May.

Sir W. Harcourt replied: It is a fact the mine was carried on without a certificated manager. It is a small mine in which only 12 men are usually employed and under these circumstances, the owner being a mining engineer, he was allowed to manage it himself. It is also true that the owner was subjected to fines and costs to the extent of £30 for negligence, some little time ago and I need not say that if repeated acts of negligence are proved he will be held legally responsible.

The inquest was resumed Tuesday 24th May Henry Hales said he was a collier, and on the morning of the explosion he was engaged in the bottom level. By the direction of Wood, the fireman, Hales, punched a borehole in the face, one yard two inches in length. About 9 am. He saw some water was leaking on the side of the heading, and left the place to help Joseph Biddulph to put out a fire near the shaft bottom and while he was thus engaged, the explosion occurred. Before going he told William Biddulph about the water leakage. Hales had previously worked in the heading in question three days and he did not see any bore holes till the one he punched on the morning of the explosion. If there had been any, he must have seen it. He also said, he had worked in the upper level, where there were no bore holes done to ascertain whether there was water while he was working there.

William Tabbenor, engine tender, said he was in the pit at the time of the explosion, he went with Philips to connect some pipes to the Tangy pump that was being put down, and he had been there for about half an hour, when he heard a report and there was a big flame that came from down below. Tabbenor was badly burnt and Philips had since died from the effects of being burnt on the occasion. William Biddle, a pit fettler, gave evidence of the finding the dead body of Edward Clewlow, about sixty yards down the dip after the explosion.

Peter Kirk, colliery manager, stated that he had been the certificated manager at Lillydale, but left on the 9th March. The top level was driven and the bottom one was just started when he left. They had 12-foot boreholes in the heading. When they noticed dampness in the boring they stopped working in the top level. They did not have side boreholes, because they thought they were far enough away from the old workings. The top level had been standing since he left.

Hargreaves was in the level above till the explosion took place. When the water broke in he started up the dip and when he was halfway up, the explosion took place. That would be a few minutes after the water coming in. He could not move after the explosion and remained in the dip till he was brought out. The flame came out of the thirling, up the dip and met him. Before the water came in he had seen very little gas in the pit.

Mr. Sawyer, Assistant Inspector, said the heading had been driven with entire disregard of the general rule of the Mines regulation act of 1872 which enacted, that where a place was likely to contain a dangerous accumulation of water, the workings approaching such place should not exceed eight feet in width, with a bore hole not being less than five yards in advance and sufficient bore holes on each side.

The 7th general rule was also ignored which stated, the use of locked safety lamps in every working approaching any place where there was likely to be an accumulation of explosive gas. For it was well known among mining engineers that the workings often contain both water and gas. The disturbance produced by the sudden inrush of water displaced the gas and it was ignited at the lights of the men who were trying to escape from the water.

There was other evidence given through cross-examination about the fire, water, gas and plans. The Coroner summed up at great length, and the jury after deliberating upwards of half an hour returned a verdict of manslaughter against the Mr Perrins as manager of the colliery. Mr. Perrins was admitted to bail.