Bignall Hill 1874

Researched By John Lumsdon

On 24 th December 1874 a sad catastrophe happened at Bignall Hill colliery near Newcastle-under-Lyme, North Staffordshire, which by 17 men lost their lives, caused by the use of naked lights in a fiery seam. And yet after a warning so terrible there was some difficulty with the colliers about the exclusive use of safety lamps; but, fortunately the owners were firm and no naked lights were allowed. It would have been well to prohibit the use of gunpowder in such mines also. .

An inquest on the bodies of the unfortunate men killed in the explosion was held on the Saturday at the Plough Inn, Audley, before Mr. Booth, coroner. Mr. George Fryer, underlooker, said he was employed at the pit in question. He was in the Bullhurst seam when the explosion occurred. On Thursday forenoon he heard a report. He then ran out of the seam, and his lamp was extinguished. He then made his way out of the pit. He went to the offices for lights, returned and had the cage run up and down to drive out the chokedamp. He met with David Riley, a butty from the Seven Feet seam and Billington and they went down and in as far as possible, some 100 yards. Fryer remained placing brattice, and Riely and Billington went searching.

Soon bodies began to be brought out, and they all worked in the Bullhurst seam, which had been considered the safest in the pit. Jos. Rhead, collier, the only one to be found still alive, but insensible, was affected by choke-damp There was no one killed in the Seven and Eight seams, where they worked with naked lights. Sometimes they were obliged to use lamps. The inquiry was adjourned.

The adjourned inquiry was held at the Boughy Arms before Mr. Booth, the district coroner. Mr. Wynne, H.M.I. of Mines and Mr. Gilroy assistant inspector were present and Mr. Arkrill on behalf of the owners. George Fryer, the underlooker, was re-examined, he said that ventilation was all right on the morning of the explosion, and apparently everything was safe. Authority had been given him to order lamps, but he did not order any, because he saw no necessity for doing so.

In reply to Mr.Arkrill, he said he did not allow naked lights to be used until the gas had been cleared away from the “bolthole”. Machin’s body was the nearest to the bolthole after the explosion, and his lights appear to have fired the gas. If Machen had done his duty, and gone into the working with a lamp before work was commenced, the explosion might have been prevented.

David Riley, a butty, who had been previously examined, had his evidence read over to him. In answer to Mr. Akrill he added that he had seen the place since the explosion, and the water, which naturally accumulated slowly, had been forced up by a fall of roof.

This would, to a certain extent, impede the ventilation of the Bullhurst seam. Mr. Wynne, government inspector, had Mr. Fryer the underlooker, recalled and called his attention to one of the colliery rules, which directed that when gas was detected in any of the workings, it should be cleared out, and before the men were allowed to go to work they should be supplied with locked safety lamps, until the manager said it was safe to use naked lights. Mr. Wynne asked, “Are you aware of this rule”? Fryer said yes sir. Mr. Wynne asked, “Do you consider that you complied with it”? Fryer replied, the gas was so small. Mr. Wynne said. This rule does not say small, but “any gas”. Did you carry it out? Fryer replied no.

Joseph Rhead, collier, was recalled and said that he had worked in the Bullhurst seam and was down the pit when the explosion happened. During the whole of the four years he was employed there the pit had been worked with candles. He saw the fire from the explosion, which went up the dip, but he could not say where the men were at the time. He ran 20 or 40 yards, when he was overcome by the after damp and fell down, and was carried out of the pit.

Mr. S.B. Gilroy, Assistant Inspector of Mines, stated that he had visited the pit on the evening of the day of the explosion and observed that portions of various air stoppings had been blown upward from the main level, and that the inner side of the settings of timber, all the way from the shaft, was more or less smutty. The first strong indication of a recent fire was at the top of the three-quarter dip, where the coal had been subject to a hot up-hill blast. In the first west level he found two boards had been blown west- ward out of the air door, and that the bottom iron door band was bent inwards. The top band and frame remaining intact. The timber was shattered on the side next to the dip and the coal on the lower side was here and there charred. At the end of the level he tested and found no firedamp but very high temperature, and the after damp was very strong.

He again examined the pit on the 26th and 30th December and went through the whole of the workings.

The description he had given of the first west level was applicable to the second except that the symptoms were more palpable, indicating the intensity towards the bottom of the dip.

A portion of a stopping on the bottom west level had been blown down. In the bank opposite one of the east levels, Cotton, the fireman, and others were found. The fire had come across the dip from east to west with great force at this point. These remarks applied to the west side of the dip. The most striking effects of the explosion were found on the east side, where stoppings had been swept bodily upwards, timber charred and masses of coal loosened from the sides of the roads.

In Machen’s level and the thirling on the deep side of it the swing cloth on the level and the brattice in the bolthole had been blown outwards. The bolthole and the level beyond the deep side thirling were on the 26 th December full of explosive gas, as was also the wide level below, to within four or five yards of the thirling.

His opinion was that the explosion happened at the loader’s naked light in Machen’s level at the bottom of the bolt hole, the flame rushing down the thirling into the wide level, before mentioned, which was connected with the east goaf, and so ignited a larger body of gas, then recoiling north and west with a much heavier destruction than before flashing along the east levels, with the results described.

There were no falls of roofs on the road, no wagons broken and very few props blown down. The traces of concussion in the workings generally were not so severe as might have expected after an explosion of such magnitude.

The manager, Mr. Enoch Gater, had informed them that it was a standing order at the colliery that no one was to be allowed to enter any working place after a cessation of work for meals ect. except with a safety lamp. The coroner asked, and if this had been adhered to, the explosion would not have happened? The manager replied “No sir.”

Mr. Gilroy, assistant inspector, said he was down the pit about a fortnight before the explosion, and the ventilation was then not satisfactory. He advised the manager to improve the ventilation, and he promised to do so. He did not advise the manager not to use naked lights, because he did not find any gas in the pit. This was, on the whole, one of the safest pits in the district.

The next witness was the government inspector, Mr. Wynne, who said he went down the pit with Mr.Gilroy and others on the 26 th December and was surprised o find that 17 out of 18 lives could have been lost and so little damage done to the roadways and workings. And although some coal had fallen from the sides, scarcely any of the roof had been brought down by the explosion. The seam in which the explosion occurred was the well-known “Bullhurst” which was admittedly, the most fiery seam in the North Staffordshire coalfield, and in which a naked light never ought to be used, also should never be worked with unlocked lamps. It might, with safety be worked for years, but in an unexpected moment, a sudden influx of gas would bring about a dreadful catastrophe like the one they were inquiring into

. He left it to the jury to say if there had been any neglect, and if so, by whom. After a short consultation, the jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death” and the foreman handed to the coroner the following presentment:

We desire to express our opinion that here has not been sufficient care exercised in working this mine, and naked lights ought never to have been used and we recommend that for future locked lamps be used in all the Bullhurst and Banbury seams in the district.

The local newspaper commented;

It seems men who have escaped perils, get into the habit of treating them with impunity. Precautions have been taken when they appeared to be unnecessary, and being neglected in consequence, dangers suddenly arise that work terrible mischief. Most of the causalities of life arrive from this cause.

Among the men who have to face and brave death, and associated with who’s labour should be an ever vigilant watchfulness to lessen by needful precautions the dangers that threaten, are the miners.

But the facts connected with the frequent direful catastrophes, which cannot always rightly be called accidents, shows that thousands of lives are lost from easily preventable causes. The Bignall Hill explosion, in North Staffordshire and others, both show the force of the argument.

At the adjourned inquest held in the former case, one witness stated, that he observed gas in the pit; he did not think it was necessary to order the use of safety lamps instead of naked light.

The government inspector called the witnesses attention to one of the colliery rules, which directed that when gas was detected in any of the workings, it should be cleared out, and before the men were allowed to work they should be supplied with locked safety lamps until the manager said it was safe to use naked lights.

The witness in reply, said he thought it was not necessary, as there was so little gas. The inspector properly replied that the rule did not say any small, but “any gas”.

It is quite certain that no danger was apprehended, that all responsible managers and underlookers of the mine considered the workings were safe. But the fact that 17 lives were lost proves how treacherously fatal these mere assumptions of safety are.

It is thought that the immediate cause of the accident was the taken of a naked light by the man, Machin, (one of the slain) into the bolthole where gas had been observed, though he had been told to take his lamp with him and examine it.

Another comment was:

It would appear as though the year 1874 was determined to be remembered more for the events of the last few days of its life than for the previous eleven months. First we have the colliery explosion at Bignall Hill, which adds another to the long list of mining disasters. From the report of the inquest upon the bodies of the sacrificed breadwinners, it will be apparent that it is the old tale, the constant working with naked lights tempting danger and death, which comes in the shape of an unexpected accumulation of gas, which, catching the exposed light, destroys all within its reach.

It was admitted in the evidence at the coroner’s inquest that gas was observed, but no effective means were taken to get rid of it, nor were the men stopped working. No doubt gas in small quantities has been observed before, and it would therefore be though a trifling matter that did not call for inconvenient and extreme remedy. It is taking this risk that is the cause why many accidents in mines are not prevented. But is it not time that the prayer of the sturdy advocates of the miners’ rights was granted, and that no pits be allowed to be worked that have not sufficient means of ventilation to prevent the accumulation of gas in dangerous quantities? And besides, their request should be granted that a clause be inserted in the Mines Act, making it imperative on mine owners to have a fire damp indicator fixed in every mine which is worked with naked lights.

Lord Kinnaird lately stated that the objection which the masters had to this, when the Act was under discussion in the House of Lords, was not so much the expense, but the conviction that the men had not gone the pits, if they knew the risks they were running. Wherever mines are worked with naked lights, and the coal is at all liable to give off gas there is an element of danger constantly present.

This explosion, we contend, is one of the preventable calamities, which lie at the door of society, which in this day and in matters such as the regulation of working in mines, is held to be the guardians of its members. The Mines Regulation Act is not perfect yet, and will some day have to be made more comprehensive and stringent, if our hard-working colliers are not to be snatched in a moment away from their families.

Names of the men killed:

J.Ashley W. Bentley F. Browning L. Browning
W. Cotton G. Cotton W. Dudley H. Halfpenny
J. Hanley J. Lunt H. Machen J. Mayer
A. Obery S. Plevin J. Plevin E. Proctor
T. Turner