A lamentable accident occurred on Saturday 29th January 1859 at Bycars Colliery, Burslem, North Staffordshire, and belonging to John Wegwood Esq. When four persons met with violent and untimely deaths, and two others were seriously injured. The accident arose through an explosion of firedamp and it is believed, is traceable to the loose management of the safety lamps and in particular to the defective state of them. It seems that there was an accumulation of gas in an old working in the north side of the mine, and that two men named Isaac Tavern and John Brereton were engaged on Saturday morning in putting in a stopping to improve the ventilation. About five other persons were working on this side of the mine and everything had gone well up till about noon, when there was an instantaneous explosion of fire-damp and the utmost consternation was produced throughout the workings.
A man named Daniel Rigby was working 160 yards from the shaft bottom, which is about 200 yards deep and perhaps 70 yards from the spot where the gas is believed to have exploded and he was blown over by the force of the explosion but fortunately managed to escape to the shaft bottom comparably uninjured. Rigby and others endeavoured to get to their companions, but it was not until after several ineffectual attempts (arising from the strong choke-damp) had been made. At about 3.30 pm. the extent of the catastrophe was discovered. Four individuals were found lying on their faces more or less scorched and quite dead, and two others, Joseph Howle and Ralph Malpas, were severely burnt but were alive and were moved out of the pit, as were their dead companions.
The persons killed are: John Leigh age 52, John Brereton age 21, Edward Hawthorne age 14 and Isacc Tavern age 40. The two other men, who are living, are married and one of them (Howle) who is in advancing years is now suffering from the effects of the explosion by which he has unfortunately been injured.
All the men had, what should have been “safety lamps” but such was the loose way in which Francis Amos, the butty, has been proved to have discharged his duty with regard to locking them and seeing that they were in proper repair, not only were the lamps, when found, all unlocked but by far the greater number of them were out of order. It is conjected, from experiments made by Joseph Dickinson Esq. One of the Government Inspector of Mines, who inspected the workings on Monday, that from a defect at the bottom of the gauze of the lamp of the deceased lad Hawthorne, the inflammable gas, which was driven by the stopping from the old workings, had come in contact with the flame in his lamp, and hence the explosion.
On Tuesday morning an inquest on the bodies was held at the Red Lion Inn, Burslem, before Mr. Harding, Coroner, with the jury and all the appropriate officials were present. The inquiry, as will be see from the adjoining evidence, was a minute and searching one. The only person living and uninjured who could give any account of the accident was Daniel Rigby, Who said I am a miner and work at the Bycars colliery where John Leigh and the other three deceased persons were employed. He went to work on Saturday morning about five o clock and found some men had gone down the pit before him.
When he went down he met Francis Amos the butty, who told him to go and see if the pit was alright, as he was the fireman appointed by Amos 12 months ago. He examined part of the workings and was satisfied all was clear.
He said he was getting coal, and was about 70 yards from Leigh, Hawthorne, and Malpas, all the men had lamps with them. It was about twelve o clock when the explosion took place: it blew me over, and I then made my way to the pit bottom for safety. The place where I was working was about 160 yards from the shaft. I gave information to the “hooker on” and told him to tell all the men whom he might see, what had happened. I then made my way back again towards the place where the accident had occurred. I got about 160 yards but could not proceed further on account of the after damp. Isaac Fielding and Richard Humphries also joined us and in about 15 minutes we made another effort to get to the men but could not succeed. After more attempts we got to them about half past three. I found Leigh, Hawthorne, Tavern and Brereton, all dead. The two injured men Howle and Malpas were further in the workings. I found three lamps some distance from the men.
There followed many searching questions on lamps, ventilation, gas and supervision, some of the answers given were: The butty delivers the lamps to us, we clean them ourselves; the lamps that were found were all unlocked. No7 lamp was the one Leigh had, No 1 lamp belonged to Tavern, I know it from its having a crack in the glass. My lamp is No 23, I clean it myself and take it home with me, I have no key for it and during the last six months I’ve had it, it has never been locked.
Mr Dickinson, Inspector, was standing in for Mr. Wynne, the government Inspector, who is suffering from the effects of an accident said, I examined the pit where the explosion took place, with the view of ascertaining how it occurred. I have heard the evidence of Daniel Rigby, and there seems no doubt from my own inspections and the evidence given, that the gas which was allowed to lay accumulated in the old workings, was the gas which ignited and caused the explosion.
There seemed to be only five persons who could have caused it. Howle, who is living and is said to be much burnt and the four deceased persons: or it may not be improbable that Ralph Malpas may have ignited the gas. I have examined all the lamps and the four davy lamps are in an imperfect state, having no rings to the gauzes, and are not of the standard mesh and the want of a ring is therefore a serious defect. I can, as you have seen, fire the gas, through the gauze, which dose not fit closely to the bottom of Hawthorne’s lamp.
I consider it very reprehensible that the gas should have been allowed to remain so long as it is said to have done, and very wrong to begin to turn it out whilst the workmen were in the pit. On the south side of the pit I also found an accumulation of gas. In my opinion safety lamps appear to have been more relied upon instead of effective ventilation. It is very proper to have safety lamps in the pit, but they should be used as an adjunct in the mine and by no means as a substitute for ventilation.
The furnace ought not to have been allowed to go out (a furnace in the up cast shaft was a means of heating the air and making it rise faster, thereby inducing air down the downcast shaft)
Many of the lamps were in an improper state; as out of 20 I only found 2 or 4 with rings at the bottom of the gauze. Several of the jury suggested whether Amos, the butty should not be examined. The Coroner intimated that he would call him if desired, but he would not be bound to answer questions, which might incriminate him. There was no doubt that his conduct was marked with a great deal of carelessness and culpability, but not to make him criminally responsible.
The jury considering that there was no necessity for adjourning the inquiry returned a verdict of “Accidental Death” in each case. Amos was called into the room and the foreman told him that the unanimous opinion of the jury was that his conduct was highly censurable, both as regarded the state of the lamps and the ventilation of the mine.
The Coroner referred to the highly responsible position in which Amos had been placed, strongly censuring him for his gross inattention to his duties, and pointing to the melancholy proof of it on the table before him, 10 of a dozen lamps safety lamps used in the mine, and not one of them locked. The Coroner asked “how long is it since the lamps were locked” Amos replied perhaps not for the last three months, there was sensation in the court. The coroner told him that he could hardly find terms sufficiently strong to mark his indignation at his conduct.
The foreman having conveyed the thanks of the jury to Mr. Dickinson, Inspector, for the valuable assistance he had rendered them. The proceedings terminated at 3.30 pm having lasted between four and five hours.
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