THE BIRCHENWOOD COLLIERY EXPLOSION 1925

Reserched By John Lumsdon

There was an explosion at Birchenwood colliery, North Staffordshire on the 18th December 1925 causing the deaths of seven men and injuring another seven. The Government Inspector’s report was delayed for various reasons but was presented on July 30th 1927

Birchenwood colliery is situated at Kidsgrove at the Northern end of the North Staffs coalfield. At that time there were five shafts and one footrail in use for the purpose of winding, ventilation and pumping. The principal shaft No.18 is the only shaft used for winding coal and from it some 5,000 to 6,000 tons were being raised per week at the time of the accident.

At various times thirteen seams of coal have been worked; but operations have been confined to three, the Seven Feet Banbury, the Eight Feet Banbury and the Bullhurst. The inclination of the seams varies greatly throughout the mine, but in general steep and in parts of the mine with which this report is concerned the measures were inclined at an angle of 45 degrees, the general direction of the dip being to the Southeast.

The explosion occurred in the Wakefield’s Dip District of the Seven Feet Banbury seam. A plan of the seam shows greater detail of the scene of the explosion and shows the places at which the workmen were stationed at the time of the explosion, and the positions in which the bodies of those killed were subsequently found.

Persons employed underground was 1,126. At the time of the explosion 374 persons were underground. The report goes on to describe the character of the seam and method of working it, also the ventilation and interestingly precautions against coal dust. The systematic application of stone dust has been carried out since 1914, and during 1925, 1,197 tons of stone dust were distributed, an average of 8.67 lbs of stone dust per ton of coal drawn. In the Wakefield Dip District 40 tons of stone dust were applied during the three months prior to the explosion.

During the morning shift no indications a heating had been observed, work had been proceeding normally in every respect and nothing had happened to cause serious anxiety in the working places. At about 1 pm. G.H. Forrester, an assistant surveyor, going through the main separation doors near No.18 shaft bottom noticed an unusual smell in the return air. He eventually mentioned this to Albert Hughes, a spare fireman, who thought it was gob stink. They decided between them that Forrester should find the under manager and make a report to him. Before that, he met the over man, George Wilcox, and reported to him.

Wilcox went to investigate but at that time the unusual smell, which barely an hour previously had alarmed Forrester and Hughes had now disappeared. Forrester apologised for raising a false alarm. Accordingly it was not deemed necessary to prevent the afternoon shift from proceeding to their work. At 4.15 pm. the explosion occurred, and out of a total of fifteen persons, including the fireman, who was working in the upper panel, eight survived.

Isaac Ball age 45 was one of the men severely burnt in the explosion, died at his home on Sunday bringing the total death roll to seven. Amos Whalley and Ball were quite close to each other at the time of the explosion. Amoss said, just before the explosion I heard a noise in the gob in some old workings, Isasc Ball who was near me said, “what’s that”. I scarcely had time to answer him before the place where the explosion occurred collapsed. There was a great gush of wind and a long flame shot straight across us. Both Isaac and I had been rolled over two or three times by the explosion and when I picked myself up I shouted to Tom Grocott, who was about ten yards away from me, but I could not get any reply. I also shouted to Fred Lownnes and the two Owens, but none of them answered. No doubt the poor fellows were dead or unconscious.

Ball and I had only one light between us, I tried to get Ball out for I guessed he was burnt and dazed. I got him on my back; it was 180 yards to the top of the dip where there was some fresh air. All around us was stone dust and foul air; you would not think a dog would have lived in it. I had already shouted to all the men in that part of the area and as soon as I had got Ball away I could do no more. I said its all over there’s not an earthly chance. I shall never forget that long dull red flame that came across us; it would be 20 yards long. It was a good thing that the place had been well stone dusted. That and that alone saved the pit from much greater wreckage and kept down the loss of life.

Whalley’s simple unadorned narrative really dose less than justice to his own heroic conduct. In spite of his injuries, which were severe his first thought was for the safety of Ball and single handed he succeeded in getting him away from the immediate danger.

Ball was so overcome by the effects of the explosion that he could not have got away unaided, and the fact that Whalley was very near to the point of collapse made his act one of all the greater bravery. Ball was severely burnt on the body, hands, arms and legs and doubts were entertained from the first, as to his recovery. Whalley was also severely burnt in the arms and body, besides receiving injuries to the head. It is a tragic circumstance, that, although Whalley enabled Ball to get out of the pit alive, his heroism after all proved unavailing.

Four youths engaged in the main level were injured only slightly, and none of the fifteen persons working in the “Bottom Shunt” level appeared to have suffered at all except one who was affected to some extent by after-damp. A rescue party was speedily organised, but by the time it reached the foot of Kelsall’s dip practically all hope of further rescue had disappeared, for a fire had broken out there. A tub of coal, which was standing at the bottom of the dip was found to be alight and the fire spread into and up the side of the dip, igniting both timber and coal. Strenuous efforts were made through the night and early morning, first by Rescue Brigades and later by relays of other helpers, to subdue the fire but without success. After consultation at which representatives of the owners, the men, and the Inspectors of Mines were present it was decided to seal off the district by means of stoppings in the intake and return dips. The condition at this time (about 10.30 am. On Saturday) being such that it was certain no one could be left alive on the return side of the fire, and danger to the rescue parties owing to the existence of the fire being imminent. Temporary stoppings, were, therefore rapidly erected in the two dips forming the intake and return and the work of sealing off was completed early in the afternoon of the same day.

John Swingewood age 19 who was in hospital in Chell suffering from extensive burns to the back and arms and an injury to his head is making good progress. He is the brother of Daniel Swingewood, one of the men who lost their lives in the disaster Five bodies remained in the affected area when the intake and return dips were sealed off. All persons were then withdrawn from the mine for a period of 30 hours. An inspection was made on Monday when it was agreed for the re-admission of workmen, and coal drawing.

In the meantime plans were had been set on foot for exploring the explosion area and recovering the bodies. These operations were commenced on 4th January 1926, by three colliery rescue brigades working inside the airlock. The operations were completed on 1st April 1926. The recovery work performed was probably more hazardous and arduous than any previous recorded in the annals of mining in this country and was carried through persistently and methodically in the face of great difficulties without a hitch or accident of any description.

To enter into great detail necessary to do justice to the subject of these recovery operations is beyond the scope of this report, said the inspector, he hoped it would be published in the form of a paper read before one of the Institutions of Mining Engineers.
The greatest credit is due to all the members of the brigades who took part in the operations and all the men and officials, whose careful organisation inspired confidence and made success possible.

There was a great deal of questions and answers on the cause, the point of ignition, the source of ignition, spontaneous combustion, methods of work and ventilation.

The jury’s verdict in the form of replies to questions formulated by the Coroner was as follows; “The cause of the explosion is apparently spontaneous combustion. We do consider that the provisions of the Coal Mines Act, 1911, and the Regulations made there under have been duly carried out. We have no suggestions to offer with a view to obviating a similar disaster.”

Men Killed I Ball age 45 L Canton age32 T. Grocott age 38 F. Lowndes age 34 D. Owen age 35 J. Owen age 32 D. Swingewood age 32

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