By John Lumsdon

Twenty-one persons were killed and several injured by an explosion, which occurred about 3.15, am. On the 7th Feb 1881, at the Whitfield Colliery of the Chatterley Iron Company, near Hanley.

An inquest held on the 8th, 9th, and 14th June, terminated in a verdict of manslaughter (by 13 out of a jury of 14) against Mr. E. Thomson, the manager of the colliery. The questions principally discussed at the inquest related to the conduct of the manager during the hour preceding the actual explosion.
It was alleged that he had been guilty of negligence in allowing the men who were killed to remain too long underground after danger had become apparent, and the majority of the jury adopted this suggestion.

The colliery is situated near the outcrop of the North Staffordshire coalfield, and is worked in different seams by entirely separate and distinct shafts and workings. The explosion occurred in the Coxhead Seam, which is about 7 feet thick, and dips at an inclination of about 1 in 3. It is worked by two shafts. The downcast shaft is called the Institute Pit, and is about 410 yards deep to the seam. The up cast shaft is situated about 215 yards to the rise of the downcast, and is called the Laura Pit. It strikes the seam at a depth of about 330 yards. The main ways consist of long horizontal galleries at different levels, connected by dips or roads rising at a steep inclination from the lower to the higher galleries.

The system of working is board and pillar. The workings extend over 250 acres. The output was about 800 tons a day. The number of persons employed was 350. There was only one working shift on each day. The ventilation was by three furnaces fed entirely by fresh air. The ordinary velocity of the air along the working faces was 1000 feet per minute; the quantity of the air was ample. The colliery was fiery and dusty.

The origin of the disaster was not in doubt. When the colliery was first worked a smithy was placed in the main in-take at a short distance (about 70 yards) from the bottom of the downcast shaft. A flue consisting of 10-inch iron piping carried off the hot air and smoke from the smithy fire. For about 15 yards from the smithy this flue was carried on the level along the main in-take, and then it turned off into a side passage, and so through a pair of doors up to a steep travelling way or dip, rising towards the level of the up-cast shaft, and forming part of the return airways of the colliery. 20 yards above the doors this travelling way was crossed by a crosscut road of small dimensions. The flue turned off from the travelling dip into this crosscut through a small door. There was always much coal dust in this crosscut and the outside of the flue was usually coated with dust or of soot, or both.

In the opinion of Mr. Wynne, the Inspector of Mines for the district, it is, under almost any circumstances, improper to place a smithy underground in a fiery mine; but in its original position any danger from the heating of the flue was diminished by the circumstance that the first 10 or 15 yards leading immediately from the smithy fire, were in the main in-take near the downcast shaft, and at all times exposed to the cooling effect of the fresh air from the downcast at the coolest part of the mine.

About May 1880 in the course of opening out the mine, it was found by the manager that certain intended alterations of the main in-take would be obstructed by the smithy, which he therefore removed out of the main in-take into a room or excavation made for it in the side of the intake. The effect was that the flue not only was shortened by 15 to 20 yards, but also was removed entirely out of the cooling current of the main in-take air into a comparatively warm and still situation. This change, in Mr. Wynne's opinion, involved a considerable increase of danger of fire from the heating of the flue.

The regulations for the use of the smithy did not very clearly appear, but it seems to have been usual and perhaps common for men and boys to light the smithy fire at night for the purpose of cleaning wire gauzes, or other purposes of the colliery. It was stated to be the practice to take the flue to pieces and to clean it both inside and outside every month. At the time of the explosion one of the monthly intervals had not quite expired, and the flu had certainly not been examined for three or four weeks. Whether it had been duly cleaned at the commencement of the monthly interval, or in any former month, could not be ascertained, it being stated that the duty of cleaning it lay upon one of the men who was lost.

The evening before the explosion was unusually cold. The fire in the smithy was lighted about 10.30 or 11pm. by some of the boys. It was in dispute whether they lighted it for warmth (which they would have no right to do) or for purpose of work. There was evidence that they fed it with coal (instead of breeze), which was said to be unusual, and it was a larger fire than usual, and that the boys were blowing it. They were cautioned by one of the men about 11 pm. that the fire was larger than was safe. A small portion of the flue was then red hot.

About 1am. An alarm was given that smoke was spreading into the roadways. On examination the crosscut in which the flue terminated was found to be on fire. Water was brought and efforts were made to extinguish the fire; but there were no fire hoses or extinguishers or other apparatus, and only six buckets. The fire soon obtained a complete mastery in the crosscut, and issued out into the travelling dip, up which the smoke and fire began to rise; and all efforts to extinguish the fire were from that time necessarily abandoned at about 2.30 am.

Three quarters of an hour later at 3.15 am. a violent explosion occurred, affecting both shafts and probably destroying at once all who were underground, as well as injuring some who were on the pit bank or in the cage.

The immediate causes of the explosion can only be conjecture, but in the opinion of Mr. Wynne, the Inspector and Mr. Sawyer, the Assistant Inspector, it was certain to happen sooner or later from one or another causes.

It may have been wholly or partly the effect of ignition of coal dust, or what the manager called "unconsumed smoke," or both, by the strong draught of fire streaming up the steep roadway towards the level of the up-cast; or it may have been wholly or partly the effect of gas.

During the attempts to extinguish the fire the pair of doors already mentioned, which separated the in-take from the travelling dip in the return, were necessarily in frequent movement for the purpose of passing water through. If as was probably the case, the doors were occasionally open at the same time this would make a short cut for the air from the down-cast to the up-cast, and would momentarily stop or derange the ventilation throughout a great part of the mine.
Then so soon as the fire became strong towards the up-cast, it would greatly increases the draught and cause a large pull of air from all parts of the workings, and it would probably draw out whatever gas there may have been in the goafs or faces.
No great quantity of gas would be required to produce destructive effects in the immediate neighbourhood of the fire.

In the course of the inquiry it appeared that the manager had habitually been guilty of breaches of the general rules with respect to shots. It had been an ordinary practice to fire shots in the daytime with the ordinary shift of 200 to 300 men underground, at such places, and under such conditions with respect to gas, that the plain letter of the general rule was contravened.

The manager professed to believe that shots might lawfully be fired at any time unless gas was observable at the actual time of blasting. This improper practice was stopped in January by a notice from the Inspector of Mines.

At the inquiry on the 14th June, Mr. Whynne, HM Inspector, said;
"When the manager of this colliery introduced the notion of having a forge in the pit, he ought to have taken extraordinary care himself that no danger could arise from it, as most likely no one else had ever seen a forge in a pit and would not see the danger that experienced persons would at once perceive; and I am bound to say, that had my attention been called to the matter, I would have protested against so dangerous an innovation, especially when the position of the forge was changed; for it was a very different thing when the first ten yards of the pipe passed through an atmosphere sometimes as low as 40 degrees, to what it would be when the air around the pipe would be nearly twice as warm.

In my opinion the pipe itself became foul with soot, which the sparks from the forge ignited; and as the pipes in the return air would be loaded outside with coal dust, the heat from the pipes would set the dust on fire, most likely at a point just through the door in the crosscut where there would be no current, and it may have been that the door was the first wood to take fire.

The opening and shutting of the doors on the main travelling brow would partially cause the air to pass directly from the down-cast pit to the up-cast, and thus cause a partial lull in the ventilation at the far end of the workings where gas was known to be produced, and when those doors were closed and the men ceased working, the whole of the air would take its usual course and bring the gas direct on to the fire.

When the manager left the pit the fire had already got beyond control, and considering the situation of the fire in the return air-way in the immediate neighbourhood of the up-cast in a fiery mine, it was as clear as anything can be made clear to an intelligent manager that an explosion was imminent, and a minute should not be lost in sending every man and boy out of the pit."

The coroner in his summing up to the jury said: I shall have to direct you to take into your consideration the fact that you are only sitting here to inquire into the death of three men, one of them being a man named Samuel Vickers, who at the time of the explosion was at the bottom of the shaft, and the other two being John Thompson, the manager's son and Henry Boulton, who were in the cage for the purpose of descending, at the time of the explosion. So that you will only have to consider the evidence so far as it bears upon the death of those three men.
It seems rather a curious arrangement that the other men having been killed, we are not able to take into consideration the cause of their death, but that is, as the law stands, our duty, so that we shall have to abide by it.

He went on to explain the evidence of both Inspectors of Mines, that the ventilation at the pit was adequate.

But his next point was the furnace, and in this case there cannot be the slightest doubt that the explosion was occasioned by the heating of the flue from the smithy which set fire to the coal in the cross-cut and that in the spreading of the fire, from which some place or other gas was communicated to the fire and so caused the explosion. During the excitement of trying to put out this fire the two ventilation doors, for a large proportion of the time were left open thus causing a short circuit of the ventilation, there by allowing gas to accumulate there. When it was found the men were unable to subdue the fire and closed the doors, normal ventilation was restored and the accumulated gas was then carried on to the fire and exploded, causing the deaths of the miners.

The coroner made two other points, first as to the question of the smithy. There is no doubt that in this district a smithy has never before been heard of at the bottom of a colliery. The Cockshead seam gives off a great quantity of gas, and anything that would give an unnecessary light of any description was a very bad thing to have at the bottom of the pit.

The other important question to be considered, relates to the steps that were taken by Mr. Thompson after the fire was out of control, to protect the lives of the workmen who were down the pit. One witness Mr. Atherton, said Mr. Thompson, the manager came up from the pit about 25 minutes before the explosion and was much exited, and said the mine is lost and the company ruined. He called Stubbs to arrange a scaffold to draw the horses out and Mr. Slater to prepare the stables. Others were told to make great haste and get out the horses as soon as they could.

Mr. Hollingshead, the prosecutor, said he intended to confine the evidence to the matters bearing upon the question whether or not Mr. Thompson, after he saw there was no hope of saving the pit, took the necessary precautions to save the men which he ought to have taken.

A fire was discovered in the part of the workings between the Laura and Institute pits soon after midnight and Mr. Thompson, who was at once sent for, came to the colliery about 1.30 am. descended the pit and remained there till a little after 2.30 am. He endeavoured to put out the fire but it was represented to him that the fire could not be conquered and he sent up a number of men and returned himself to the pit bank. He left others in the pit and his explanation of this was they were free agents and could leave the pit when they pleased.

Mr. Hollingshead contended that when the manager saw the danger it was his absolute duty to see that everyone was got out of the mine without a moment's delay. He read the 12th and 13th special rules, the former of which laid down that every overman or fireman is hereby expressly ordered in all cases to give his first and chief attention to ensuring the safety of the lives and limbs of those under his respective charge and suspend any and all operations attended with unusual risk; and to stop the working of any pit that may not appear safe until the removal of the danger.

The 14th special rule requires the overman or fireman "If at any time during the day any part of the pit shall be reported as unsafe, to withdraw the workmen (except such are appointed to remedy the defect) from that part of the pit until a proper and safe state of ventilation has been restored."

He substituted manager for overman or fireman because the manager when in the mine is supreme and all others were subservient to his orders. While in the pit he was solely responsible for the safety of people under him and it was his bounded duty to do every thing in his power to ensure their safety and to remain with them to the last.

When he got to the surface the defendant remarked that the pit was lost and the company ruined and it was his first duty to get the men out, but though he ordered the horses to be brought up he gave no order with reference to men. He must have contemplated an explosion and it was his bounded duty to withdraw the men at once.
(The case was adjourned for a week)

The verdict of the jury as delivered by the foreman, was in the following terms;
"The jury think the smithy was a mistake and a great error of judgement. Also we find that Mr. Thompson did not take sufficient care of the men under his charge, by not withdrawing them from the pit, and by not preventing Henry Boulton and Samuel Vickers from descending the pit, he knowing the dangerous state of the mine at the time, and we find him guilty of culpable negligence, thereby causing the deaths of Samuel Vickers and Henry Boulton. I may say that this is the verdict of 13 out of 14 of the jury."

After the explosion the fire then appears to have extended throughout the workings igniting the solid coal so that it raged to such an extent that the flames leaped out of the mouth of the pit some 30 or 40 yards upwards in the air. With no ventilation the gas on Monday night gathered quickly so that two more explosions occurred blowing out the covering put on the downcast shaft with the view of putting out the fire.

Of course there was no hope whatsoever that any person could be alive in the pit, so on Tuesday it was determined to throw down a large quantity of rubbish into the shaft but this did not appear to have the desired effect. It was then considered desirable to flood the workings with heavy volumes of water and thus extinguish the fire.

Extract from the Sentinel March 1st 1919
A touching incident, recalling a colliery explosion at Chatterley Whitfield 38 years ago occurred recently when miners in the workings of the pit discovered the bodies of two of the victims of that disaster.

The deceased were George Dale aged 33 of Bradeley and his brother Joseph Dale aged 22. They belonged to a well know and highly respected family in the Smallthorne district, many of their relatives, including the widow and daughter of George Dale and a sister and brothers of the two men still residing there.

The remains of the deceased were enclosed in the same coffin and were interned at the Smallthorne Cemetery, the reverent Jas Shepard officiated.

The Colliery Company kindly made all the arrangements for the funeral, were represented by Mr. E. B. Bain the agent, and Mr. E. Thomson; the manager. Mr. Wain received the following letter of thanks from the family:

Dear Sir,
At the request of the widow and daughter of the late George and Joseph Dale, write to express our sincere thanks to you, and through you, to the directors of the Whitfield Colliery company for the reverence and respect you have shown to the remains of the late George and Joesph Dale, and for the kindly you have given, in order that they might have a decent Christian burial. Also we express our sincere thanks to your officials and workmen, who carried out the recovery of the remains with such reverence and respect.
J. Dale.

The explosion at Whitfield took place on Monday, February 7th 1881 and some 24 lives were lost, about half a dozen bodies not being recovered. It was reported that a fire started down the mine on Sunday night in the blacksmith's shop situated about midway between the Institute and Laura shafts. The men in the pit did their utmost to extinguish the flames, but in spite of all their endeavours, the fire spread.

The explosion occurred about three o clock on the Monday morning, the report being heard two or three miles distance. The fire continued to rage furiously, flames issuing from the shafts as though from a gigantic furnace. It was found necessary to tip earth down the shaft to stifle them. Later streams were diverted to the scene and the mine thereby flooded.

During these 38 years the particular workings had not been reopened, but work had been proceeding in the neighbourhood and the roads leading to these places, and it was thus that the two bodies had been discovered.