Inrush of Water and Blackdamp
Apedale Footrail 1923

Researched By John Lumsdon

An inrush of water and blackdamp occurred about 10.30 on the 25th April 1923 in the Great Row seam of Apedale Footrail in North Staffordshire belonging to the Midland Coal and Coke Co. Ltd.

Ernest Thornton, colliery fireman of Chesterton was found dead and another seven men were missing.
W. Ashley age 54.
W. Ashley jun. age 34. (His son) L. Deakin age 29.
J.B. Russel 28.
J. Thomasson age 25.
D. Tilstone age 18.
W. Barratt age 33.

Rescue operations continued throughout the night. Relatives and friends of the entombed men as well as hundreds of miners and members of the public had been waiting at the mouth of the Footrail hoping for news of the missing men.

During the morning of the 26th a body was recovered which later was identified as that of W. Ashley jun. of Ashfield Rd. Newcastle.
The debris was then in process of being cleared, and it was expected that further bodies would be reached in a short time. Unfortunately, there was little hope of any of the men being found alive.

Mr. A Abott, Divisional Inspector of Mines, Mr. T. Boydell and Mr. T.H. Hull descended the workings at 1.25 pm. and remained there till shortly before 3 pm.
An inquest was to be held the following day but only evidence of identification would be taken.

By then more information was being made available. The water and blackdamp came from disused workings adjoining the mine.
It was evident that the 8 men named could have had no warning of what was about to happen. The place where they were working, was separated by some distance from where the rest of the miners were engaged.
Coal getting in this particular part of the mine had ceased and the missing men were employed in making the necessary preparations for letting out the water by means of a bore hole.

When the water rushed in upon them from the disused workings adjoining, it brought with it a large quantity of earth and other debris, and it is possible that the men were swept off their feet and wholly or partially buried, besides being trapped in an area charged with blackdamp.

Mr, Charles Davies, the under manager of the mine, was below ground at the time, and as soon as he knew what had happened he communicated by telephone with the mine manager, Mr. T. Roberts, who was on the surface and rescue operations were organised with all speed.

It is a remarkable fact that the great majority of the men working in the other part of the mine were not aware of the nature of the occurrence. They themselves were not in peril, but word was sent round that they were to leave the workings and they were all able to walk to the surface. Altogether 115 men escaped. It was not until then that they gathered information as to what had actually happened.

Meanwhile the rescue brigades of the Midland Coal and Coke Co. Ltd had been summoned, and the North Staffordshire Rescue Brigade later reinforced them. Before the rescue men reached the scene of the disaster,
Mr. Charles Davies had found the dead body of Ernest Thornton, a colliery fireman, who was his son-in-law. Thornton was some distance away from where the other men were entombed, and he must have either being going towards them or coming away from them when death overtook him. His body was brought to the surface, and efforts to reach the other men were begun. Thornton, who was a married man and lived at Chesterton, was a prominent player for the Bignall End Cricket Club.

The work of the rescue brigades, who had been continuously at work in relays, had been attended with considerable difficulty, and the previous evening it was realised that there was little hope of finding the men alive. The first step that had to be taken was to restore the ventilation in the effected area.

This was a protracted task, owing to the presence of so much debris, but the work was pushed forward as speedily as possible. The company's pumping machinery was well able to deal with the water that had inundated the mine.

By seven o'clock the previous night the rescue men were within thirty yards of the spot where the entombed men were supposed to be but the state of the mine, owing to the accident, was such that their progress was necessarily slow.

The prompt steps taken by the colliery officials to deal with the situation deserved the highest commendation. Not a moment was lost in warning the 115 men to leave the mine or in obtaining the required help to clear the inundated area and reaching the missing men.

At the Newcastle County Court on June 10th 1924. Judge Ruegg, K.C. approved the settlements made in the cases of 5 of the victims. The awards made in the 5 cases amounted to 3,650 and the total claims, as Mr. B. Robertson, from the office of Messrs Hollingshead and Moody, who appeared for the applicants, told his Honour, came to 8,000.

There had been an inquest and the jury found there was no negligence attached to the colliery company or their servants, in proceedings under the Coal Mines Act 1911 before the Newcastle County Branch. The manager and the agent of the colliery had also been relieved from blame. But an appeal to the Divisional Court had resulted in the case being sent back to the magistrates with directions to convict. Not withstanding the verdict of the Coroner's jury and the result of the Police Court proceedings, he contended that there was a claim at Common Law and it was because of that view that the test action was began in the High Court under the Common Law.

Agent and Manager Fined

Sir William Goodwin, presided on Monday 15th June 1924 at the Newcastle County Police Court, by the order of the Divisional Court, to convict in respect to the summonses against Mr. T. Roberts, manager of the mine and Mr. O. Bromley, agent to the colliery, for offences alleged in connection with the disaster at the Apedale Footrail on April 25th 1923. The summonses were for alleged breach of the Coal Mines Act 1911, and were heard on October 24th 1923 and dismissed.

In each summons it was alleged that,
"In a working that had approached within 40 yards of a place containing or likely to contain an accumulation of water or other liquid matter, or of disused workings, the defendant unlawfully did fail constantly to keep extending to a sufficient distance, not being less that 5 yards in advance, at least one bore hole near the centre of the working, and sufficient flank holes at each side at intervals of not more than 5 yards, as required by Section 68 of the Coal Mines Act.

The magistrates retired to consider the situation and on their return the chairman said.
No option is left to us but to do as we have done, to convict in each of these cases. We are of the opinion in reading this order from the High court that we have to look at the matter now, as if we had convicted in the first instance. Therefore taking that into consideration, we shall impose in each case the maximum fine of 20.

The chairman said that throughout the whole of the hearing, we have had but only one idea and that was to apply ourselves to the exact meaning of Section 68 of the Coal Mines Act. You know what our opinion was, that has been reversed. We still think that section is not as precisely drafted as it should be, and we are glad to know that the matter is having every consideration, and that section is likely to be re-drafted.