Bignall Hill 1836

Researched By John Lumsdon

About 8am on Monday 26th September 1836 a dreadful explosion of firedamp took place in a pit belonging to John Wedgwood, Esq. at Bignall Hill, in the parish of Audley, North Staffordshire.

The loss of life far exceeds that of any similar event, which has occurred in the past within our recollection. Several of the men who had come to work in the pit, were, shortly after the explosion brought out of it, lifeless, and in a shockingly mangled state. Others so much bruised and scorched, that they only survived a few hours. It is our painful task to state that 11 individuals have been thus suddenly been deprived of their existence.

The neighbourhood soon became acquainted with the awful event, and the scene on the bank of the colliery was heart rendering. The wives, children and relatives of the unfortunate men who worked in the pit soon assembled to ascertain the fate of those who had only a few minutes previously left their peaceful homes.

The cries and lamentations of the widows, children and relatives, were most distressing.

The pitmen from the neighbouring collieries having become acquainted with the melancholy accident, immediately made for the scene of destruction, where they showed the greatest courage, by descending the works at the risk of their own lives in the hope of extricating the sufferers.

During Monday twelve of the men were got out, two of whom are now living, one however is not expected to survive. One body still remained in the pit, and although every exertion was made up to 11am on Wednesday, then it was brought out in a lifeless and mangled state.

Mr. William Harding, Esq. The coroner for the district, issued his precepts for a jury to attend at twelve-o-clock on the 28th September at the Boughey Arms Inn, Audley, where several witnesses attended. The result of their examination was, that between seven and eight o'clock on the morning of the 26th, about twenty of the colliers had entered the pit, and commenced their work.

A man named Sim, (witness) was the last who descended the pit, his son, a boy about 10 years old, was with him. He had not been in the pit more than five minutes when he heard an explosion.

Mr. John Dean, ground bailiff, to Mr Wedgwood, was at the mouth of the pit when the explosion took place, immediately attempted, by all the means in his power, to render every possible assistance. But in consequence of the foulness of the atmosphere in the pit, some time elapsed before any of the bodies could be discovered.

It also appeared in evidence that this pit had been at work a number of years and that the colliers considered it well ventilated and perfectly safe until Friday last, but on that day symptoms of firedamp were perceptible. On the following morning these symptoms totally disappeared and the workings were considered by the men, in good working condition, and work was continued up to the usual hour that day.

On Sunday the pit was visited by some of the colliers , who went down at two different periods for the purpose of feeding the their horses, when no foul air was perceptible. A witness stated that the method of working this pit was according to the general manner of working collieries and that every thing required for the use of it was readily granted them.

There was no evidence to show how this fatal accident occurred, but it is supposed the unfortunate man who was last found was the cause of it in consequences of his body being discovered far in advance of the rest, the workings extending to a great length, and there being a large gap or void at the extremity, owing to the removal of the pillars.

The evidence appeared quite satisfactory to the Jury and the Coroner, and a verdict of accidental death was returned in each of the cases.

The Following Are Names of Those Killed

William Riley age 35 leaves Pregnant wife and six children
Thomas Lawton age 44 leaves a widow and six children
James Proctor age 27 leaves a widow and two children
John Holditch age 25 leaves a widow and two children
Thomas Riley age 27 leaves a widow and two children
Elijah Billington age 21 leaves widow (only married 7 weeks)
John Johnson age 44 leaves widow
Charles White age 23 single
Tom Cartwright age 18 single
George Riley age 8 a boy
John Chambers age 10 a boy.

It is fortunate that there were no persons at work in the adjoining pit or the loss of life would have been perhaps more extensive. A crut or tunnel runs from it, to the one where the appalling accident took place.

The boiler of the engine was found empty, and the men in consequence were unable to go to work. Upon examination of this pit, after the explosion, two horses were found dead in their stalls, as likewise one in the pit were the explosion took place..

The lamentable catastrophe has so much affected the proprietor, John Wedgwood, Esq. That he has decided that no further occurrence of a like nature shall take place in that pit, as he has in consequence given orders for the pit’s mouth to be closed..

R.E. Heathcote, Esq. who is an extensive proprietor of coalmines in the immediate neighbourhood, attended the inquest. He took a lively interest in its proceedings and was deeply affected with the melancholy event..

He was also desirous of impressing upon the minds of the colliers the necessity of using the improved safety lamp and explained, that by experiments made before the House of Commons, the Davy lamp was not considered safe. His presence upon the occasion was a source of satisfaction both to the coroner and the jury. He has placed in the hands of his agent, five guineas in aid of the families whom these unfortunate men have left behind them.

It will be seen from an advertisement in this week’s paper that an appeal is to be made to the public at large, on behalf of the families of the sufferers, and we doubt not, it will be responded to in an effectual manner. .

Further Particulars

It would appear from the state in which the bodies were found, that the poor fellows were variously employed at the time of the explosion, some having commenced work, and others stripping off their cloths for the purpose. One man, who was at work at a distance of seven hundred yards from the shaft, was so astounded by the awful noise of the explosion, that he was deaf for some time afterwards..

The first man to be brought out of the pit was in a state of perfect insensibility, and a few moments of delay would have terminated his earthly existence. He states that he recollects the dreadful moment of the explosion, and immediately ran a considerable distance towards the shaft. He distinctly remembers treading upon one or two human bodies in his progress. He eventually fell senseless..

Joseph Rowley, another survivor, was if possible, nearer death than him, his teeth were clenched, as if in natures last struggle but he revived gradually when brought into fresh the open air. The mortal remains of the unfortunate men were interned at Audley, on Thursday afternoon, amidst an immense concourse of spectators, who had congregated from the districts for miles around..