Six miners were killed and one seriously injured in an explosion at Dales Green Footrail , Harriseahead, North Staffordshire 2nd February 1953. It was not known at what time the disaster overwhelmed the men, who were on the afternoon shift there being a space of nearly four hours between the last load of coal being hauled from the men, and the raising of the alarm when they did not come out at 10pm. The engineman on the surface, Mr. Leslie Keeling, of Mow Cop, heard nothing during the shift and was not unduly worried when he received no signal from the men after 6.20 pm. Mr. Keeling said he believed the men were gathering coal and would send up several loads just before the end of the shift. When the men did not signal or come up at 10 pm, he began to get anxious and after trying to contact the men, he raised the alarm.
The sole survivor was Percy Woolrich; a single man aged 27 of The View, Chapel Bank, Mow Cop. He was injured and sent to the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary. The bodies of the dead were located and recovered by rescue teams on the morning of the 3rd February. Names of those killed:- D. Hancock 20yrs. W. Mansall 47 yrs. J. Oakes 48 yrs. J. Bailey 54 yrs. J. Lawton 62 yrs. T.W.L. Meaking 45 yrs.
On raising the alarm, Mr Keeling called Mr. Birchall, one of the directors of the company working the Footrail, who lived some 150 yards away. Mr. Birchall and his son-in-law immediately descended the working and found and brought out Woolrich and promptly called the rescue services of the National Coal Board, who were quickly on the scene, as also were N.C.B. officials led by Mr.Roland Bennett, Area Divisional Manager.
The area Production Manager, Mr. E. Cope and Mr. H. Foden, Superintendent of the Mines Rescue Station and Mr. F. Facey, his assistant together with Mr. Dennis Minshull went down and discovered one of the bodies about 2 o clock.
Two hours later the first rescue team found four more bodies and the second rescue team found the other body. Rescue teams from the Victoria colliery and the Chatterley Whitfield colliery were called out. After the bodies had been located, Mr. Bennett told a Sentinel reporter that ventilation was being restored in the workings before the bodies were recovered and brought to the surface. The accident shocked a district where many of the people are miners and work in collieries in the vicinity. Today 3rd. February, anxious relatives visited the footrail for news of their men folk.
In an official statement, Mr. Wilmot Wilcox, Sub Area agent, North Staffordshire NCB remarked, Woolrich, the survivor said that an intensive explosion occurred in the Whinpenny seam 100 yards from the bottom of the shaft, Woolrich was found 50 yards from the shaft bottom and the other five were a further 100 yards away in very steep workings. There was no fire and very little debris Mr Wilcox, indicated that the precipitous workings had been hampering the efforts of the rescue party who were impeded by their gear. Because of this it had been decided at noon to establish good ventilation throughout the workings so that the men could proceed without their cumbersome breathing apparatus. It took some hours before all the bodies were recovered, but once good ventilation had been established the work proceeded very quickly.
Mr. Wilcox said the workings were so steep that tubs could not be used to convey the coal, which had to be manhandled in metal skips. Watched by a small group of relatives, rescue workers brought up the first body shortly before noon. The engineman, Mr, Leslie Keeling, who lives at 2 Moorland Rd. Mow Cop, described how his anxiety grew when he received no signal from the men when their shift normally ended. Mr. Keeling who is 24 has worked in the engine room at the colliery since leaving school ten years ago He said he lowered the men on the noon shift at 2.25 pm. And about 4 o clock began to lift coal to the surface in the cage. The working was very slow and up to 6.30 pm. had only had four loads. There was no further signal from the shaft bottom but that was no unusual and I was not unduly worried. Mr. Keeling explained that he thought the men would be collecting coal, loading it into a hopper and he would receive several loads close together near the time when the shift was due to end. He went on, I expected a signal about 10 o clock, when I heard nothing I began to get anxious. I rang and rang the electric bell and I got no reply. I went to the mouth of the shaft and knocked on the rails and water pipes but there was no answer. I could tell from the rope, which was quite still that no one was walking up. I went to the air-shaft on the bark dip and no one was walking up there. By this time I was quite worried.
Mr. Keeling said he telephoned to Mr. Alfred Birchall and advised him that the shift was overdue. Mr. Birchall came along with his son-in-law about 11 pm. and they slithered down the main shaft holding on to the rope because it was considered inadvisable to draw up the cage. When they returned to the surface in the cage, about 11.35 pm. They had the injured man, Woolrich. He was semi conscious and was able to tell them, that he had his snapping about 7 o clock then went in again, he could not remember anything else. Mr. Keeling said after the injured man had been taken away, Mr. Birchall and his son-in-law again went down the shaft, this time in the cage, but they had to return because of gas. They had no breathing apparatus. At the bottom of the shaft they found evidence of an explosion.
Heard no Explosion
Mr. Keeling said he remained in the engine room the whole of the time that the shift was down. He heard no explosion and felt no vibration. The electrical circuits were in order and the ventilator fans were running.
At Bottom of the Shaft
Mr. Gordon Birchall told a Sentinel reporter of his father's description of his descent to the workings, his rescue of Woolrich and his attempt to reach another man. His father who is 62, he said, scrambled down the 300 yards shaft with his son-in-law, Mr. Jack Barlow, who is a collier employed by the firm. At the bottom they found Percy Woolrich, who Mr. Birchall senior thought would have died because of the foul air if they had not been able to get him out. He saw another man, Dennis Hancock, lying on the ground apparently dead, eight yards away from Woolrich. He tried to get him away but the foul atmosphere prevented him. After returning to the surface with the injured man in the cage they gave the general alarm. Mr. Birchall said there was a test for gas when the shift went on. We have never known gas in this particular spot before.
The weekly output of the colliery was approximately 300 tons working on two shifts. There were about 19 or 20 men on the day shift. The colliery was not mechanised apart from electric drills. The Footrail stands in some fields on gently sloping land, about 150 yards from the main road through Harriseahead from Tunstall to Mow Cop. The workings are about 300 yards down and access is gained down a slope of about 67 degrees from the vertical. The men go down in steel skips operated by surface winding gear.
Main Charge Submission Fails
On the 28th September, the third day of the hearing of Dales Green colliery case, Alfred Birchall, the colliery agent, told the court he had often been down the mine at week-ends with the ventilation fan not working and the air was quite in order. There are 35 summonses alleging contravention of the mines safety and health regulations against the agent and owners. They have pleaded not guilty. At the conclusion of the prosecution evidence yesterday afternoon, Mr. Ryder Richardson, Q.C. defending, submitted that as far as the main charge was concerned, a joint count alleging failure to ensure that an adequate amount of ventilation was constantly produced in the mine, all the prosecution had done was to prove the defence.
Yesterday's first prosecution witness was Mr. Albert Lewis Alexander, electrical equipment specialist, who continued the evidence he began on Friday of his visit to the mine to see if electrical equipment had any bearing on the explosion. He described ineffective earthing of machinery at various points. Witness said when he finished his electrical investigations; he told Mr. Birchall he was not satisfied with the installation and maintenance work on the electrical equipment. Mr. Birchall told witness he was not an electrical man and must have been let down by his electrical staff. He also said he would obtain another more reliable electrician to do the work.
There were questions and answers regarding the electrical equipment, the Mono pump and haulage. It appeared that this had nothing to do with the actual explosion. On the matter of ventilation, a map was produced and a question was asked, " if there was leakage of air through any of these cross-cuts, would you say that the mine was not ventilated adequately"? Mr. Bates, mining engineer, replied that there was always a leakage in every mine, but it was a question of degree.
An officer from the Mines Research Station at Buxton collected a fan from No.3 level, a coupling, a metal elbow and buckled sheeting. Cross-examined, the officer agreed that as a result of explosion the pieces of metal may have travelled with considerable velocity and may have been considerably damaged. The research establishment examined the objects and concluded that the fan was distorted and that the fan tubing had been burst open by an internal explosion, and that re-circulation of air had taken place. Witness was questioned at length on the results of internal explosion and outward blast, and the possibility of a shot being fired and setting fire to methane gas, which had collected in the fan, duct, following a sudden choking of the ventilation. Mr.Richardson stated, "It is quite possible that the explosion goes into the tube with sufficient force to blow that tubing to pieces, is it not?" Witness, I don't agree.
Defendant on Ventilation
Alfred Birchall then gave evidence. He said he was 62 and had been running the Dales Green colliery for about 15 years. All his life had been spent in and about mines. Towards the end of last year, he decided to install electrical equipment in the Winpenny seam, and gave notice to that effect without opposition. He had a qualified working electrician and another who was employed by the N.C.B. to whom he gave a free hand. There were notices in the stores, "if they had gone to the trouble of putting them up." Defendant said before the introduction of electricity he had been complimented by the Mines Inspector on the airflow. In or about September 1952, an old return airway began to get blocked up. A new one was cut through and the ventilation improved. He often went down the mine at weekends with the fan not working, and the ventilation was quite in order and free from gas.
Referring to the surface crown hole, defendant said it had been there for about four years. He had a channel cut round it. The Farmer had no right to cut a way through it and let water into the crown hole. When, after the explosion, Mr. Adis, (a pit deputy) told him of the blockage in the new airway, he told the Inspectors, who were then in charge of the mine. Mr. Richardson asked, do you think they understood? The defendant replied, they just looked at me and took no notice. Continuing, the defendant said the Mines Inspectorate had never informed him it was wrong to put brattice sheets instead of doors. They did not have doors because of the severe "heave" due to the angle at which they mined. The "heave" damaged doors and surrounding brickwork.
Defendant said some of his men (he employed about 26) had been with him from leaving school and were well trained. Neither the Mono pump nor the haulage had ever been worked, the electrical installations not having been completed before the explosion. He said there should have been about 10 firedamp detectors on the surface. He had also provided fire buckets and had seen them there one day and gone the next. Cross examined by Mr. G.A. Preston, for the Ministry of Fuel and Power, the defendant said he did not take any steps to ensure that any detectors were at the working places on the coalface. That was a lamp man's job, or the fireman's. He did not know whether they had done what they ought to have done. They knew what to do and what not to do. The defendant agreed that the return airway shown on the plan was not the same as that existing before the explosion. He had known about the "heave" for about five years but never had occasion to mention it to the Inspectors. Asked about the crown hole and ditch, the defendant said he discovered the cut in the ditch on February 18th. He used it to go to the crown hole very often, he thought the previous occasion was perhaps a week before the explosion, but he did not notice it particularly.
When the 5-day hearing concluded the Potteries Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr. R.M. Macgregor, reserved his decision to a date to be fixed. Mr. Ryder Richardson, Q.C. defending, submitted that it was clear that the cause of the tragedy was sudden, unexpected and unforeseeable and that all the rest of the prosecution's case was an endeavour to cross the Ts and dot the I s.
Adjourned Hearing October 14th
There are 37 summonses; two had been withdrawn, during the hearing, alleging contraventions of the mines safety and health regulations against the owners, Alfred Birchall, of Red Lion Farm, Harriseahead and Birchall Collieries Ltd. There was cross examination of the defence and prosecution regarding the effects of "heave", the auxiliary fan, whether to have doors, or brattice sheets, due to the gradient, the crown hole and the farmer messing with the drain which skirted it.
Magistrate's Reserved Decision
Giving his reserved decision, fines were imposed on the company and agent. The defendants, Alfred Birchall, of Red Lion Farm, Harriseahead the agent and Birchall Collieries Ltd of 12 Price St, Burslem, the owners of the colliery, were fined a total of £68, with £57 five shillings costs. Alfred Birchall alone was fined £2 on 24 of 35 counts, 10 being dismissed, and one having previously been withdrawn. The Magistrate went on to say, it seams clear that the cause of the failure of the explosive gas to be carried through the mine and out up No 3 dip (the air retune route) was due to cessation of ventilation. After the explosion, it was discovered that this cessation was due to a blockage of the air return route and it seemed that the cause of the blockage was water getting into the crown hole and so into the workings and carrying down boulder clay and debris, which crept along No1 level from the old workings and so into No3 dip.
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