Fair Lady Pit Explosion 1879

Researched by John Lumsdon

The Fair lady pit at the Leycett colliery, near Newcastle, North Staffs, the property of the Crewe Coal and Iron Co. was the scene of a fearful explosion of gas early yesterday morning, 12 September 1879. Four men and a lad were killed and three men were seriously injured, two of them lying in a precarious position. The accident occurred about 3.30 am. when the men, who formed the night shift were at work driving a level for the purpose of forming a second connection with the up-cast shaft where a new ventilation fan is in the course of construction.

The pit is a new recovery and the shaft is 430 yards deep. The place in which the explosion happened is 360 yards from the shaft and is in the Seven feet Banbury seam, which is well known to be a very fiery one. There seems to be no doubt that the pit was well managed and properly ventilated, and that every precaution was taken to prevent accidents. No naked lamps were allowed and the lamps used were the most improved Belgium safety lamps, which are said to have the double advantage that they cannot be opened without the light being extinguished, and the light goes out on the approach of gas. If this latter theory is correct, however, there was something extraordinary in the action of the gas upon the lights yesterday morning, or the cause of the explosion has yet to be ascertained.

The explanation given by a very competent authority, of course accounting only to an assumption in the absence of proof, is that during the night there was a sudden and fierce out bust of gas, which travelled with great velocity, came rapidly upon the lamps, and reversed the ordinary, being its self ignited, instead of putting out the light. The view, however, is supported by the fact that when the explorers entered the level, gas was heard blowing off like steam about ten yards back from its face.

When the accident occurred, the engine tender and stoker were on the bank and no time was lost in summering aid. Mr Stevenson, the manager, and a body of men were shortly on the ground, but it was found that the shaft was obstructed by the timbers of the leading place being blown into it, in addition to which the signalling apparatus had been broken down in the shaft and a tub had been forced into the sump. No cage could go down until the obstruction could be removed, and some time elapsed before a passage could be cut to the inset.

At five o clock however, the descent took place and it was found that very little damage had been done to the workings in the immediate neighbourhood of the explosion, and not much trace of gas or afterdamp except the report already referred to. Five bodies were met with, and three men severely scorched. Only one of the dead seemed to have been killed by the explosion, the others appearing to have falling victims of afterdamp. One had his arms up as if in the act of picking coal at the moment of his death.

As quickly as possible, the dead bodies and the injured men were brought to the surface, the latter being sent to their homes. All had been recovered by eight o clock. The names of the dead are; Thomas Ford, age 20 single Joseph Pepper age 40 leaving widow and 7 children Joseph Crowder age 32 leaving widow and 7 children Edward Milard age 37 leaving widow and 4 children William Wardle a lad.

The injured men are; Thomas Pearce, Thomas Jones, and James Burgess. Mr. Wynne, the Government Inspector of Mines, examined the pit yesterday. Mr. Booth, the coroner, opened the inquest yesterday afternoon, but only evidence of identity of the bodies was taken and the inquiry was adjourned. The three injured men died shortly after they were brought out of the pit.

The inquest on the eight bodies was resumed in October at the Old Swan Inn, Little Madeley. Mr. Wynne, H.M.I. of Mines and Mr. Sawer, assistant inspector was present, Mr. Wheelhouse, Q.C. attended on behalf of the home Secretary and Mr. Holden, solicitor, watched on behalf of the colliery company.

George Richard Burgess, fireman at the Fair Lady pit giving evidence said; He had acted in that capacity about 3 months. He was employed on the day the accident happened on the afternoon shift. He went down at 2 pm. At that time the day shift had not gone out, and the fireman told him everything was all right. He went round the whole of the workings, but not to the end of the Bangup pit. He made the examination with a Davy lamp and found no gas in any of the places, except at about twenty five minutes to ten, a boy was throwing the coal from No. 2 to No. 1 level and a piece of coal knocked the pipes down and there was a slight accumulation of gas. He replaced the pipes and that had the effect of clearing away the gas. That was the only gas he had seen that during the afternoon. There were 9 men working in his shift, they left off at 10 pm.

He saw the night shift men down, James burgess was the fireman of that shift and to him, gave a report on the state of the pit, then came out. He had put it in his report book and explained, when gas was found, and cleared away. It was not entered, but the report was that the pit was safe.

He was called out about 4.30 am and told he was wanted at the pit. He was the first to go down. The cage struck against the fence, which was removed and they went down to the bottom, where he found there had been an explosion and there was a deal of rubbish and dirt lying around, but no afterdamp. He went along the bottom or North Level and some distance along found James Burgess, the fireman, who was alive and called out "hello". He took him out of the pit, and Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Fletcher went on.

He went down again, went up to No. 2. Slant where he found Millard, he was dead. He then went on to No. 1 and met with the other explorers He returned to the top of No. 2 and went through the levels and rectified the pipes in No. 1 Slant to clean away the afterdamp. There were many of the pipes damaged, which were replaced and there was afterdamp down to the third thirling of the back slant. He next went up to the thirling to the back slant, finding a little afterdamp, and the pipes were knocked down. It was giving off gas in No. 1 level he could hear it plainly. The blower was not there in the afternoon, and this was the first time he knew anything about it.

The workings had gone though several small faults but they did not give off any gas to his knowledge. This fault was at the far end and was cut through after he left by Edward Millard, one of the deceased. The blower was by this fault in the far end of Millard's holing. The fireman always fired the shots. No shot had been fired that night. There were two holes ready for firing and one of the shots, which had been left, was charged.

He could not tell where the accident happened, nor what had been the cause of it. He had seen the lamps, and as far as he knew they were locked and in working order except for the accumulation of dust. G.R. Burgess had asked James his brother, (deceased) if he had fired a shot, he replied "no" and that he did not know how the accident had occurred and that he was at the top of No. 1 landing at the time.

Mr. Holding said the ventilation was not so good after the accident as before, some of the stoppings having been blown out, but there was some wind finding its way round. He never had cause to complain since the workings commenced. From his five years experience of mine working, he had considered there was sufficient ventilation when he left, to render the working safe.

Mr. Wheelhouse said there was given out one Davy, one Lancashire lamp and nine Teal's lamps. One was afterwards broken all to pieces at the bottom of the pit. All the lamps were numbered and the one broken to pieces was one of Wardle's. He had two and used to leave one at the pit bottom. This was about 300 yards from the blower. He could not tell from the charring, which way the blast had come. He thought, the cutting through the fault had released the blower: and that fault was 60 yards from the place where the men were found. The gas was still coming from the fault and the wind took it away. He considered it was safe if the wind were kept up to the men, as it was now. The charge in the hole that was left had not been altered. He heard no complaint from the men about ventilation or firing.

Thomas Salmon had worked the engine in connection with the Fair Lady pit; he was on night shift and went to work at 5 pm. On September 11th. The engine was merely used for the purpose of raising and lowering men. They were not winding coal. He lowered the nightshift down, and between that time and the explosion he did not lower anything down to them or receive any signal. He heard the explosion at 25 minutes to 4. At that time there was only him and the stoker on the bank. He sent the stoker for assistance and when Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Millington arrived, he let them down. The shaft was 420 feet to the Seven feet Banbury seam. He had given out the lamps to the nightshift after lighting and locking them. They were all in working order. (The broken lamp was No 32, which was given to William Wardle.)

William Fletcher, under viewer, in the employ of the company, said he was one of the exploring parties and assisted in finding the bodies. Thomas Edwards and Jesse Salmon, colliers working in the Fair Lady pit, said that the workings were all clear of gas on the previous day and the ventilation was good. Salmon said there was a small blower on the Thursday, the day before the explosion and he called William burgesses attention to it. It was in the cutting end on the top of No.2 dip in the bottom level. Burgess came and examined it and found no gas and ventilation was good.

The inquiry was then adjourned, the proceedings, having lasted upwards of 4 hours. The inquiry was resumed at the Old Swan Inn, Little Madeley on September 9th. Mr. R. Stevenson, manager of the colliery at the time of the explosion was called. He said the works where the explosion happened were started in January last and had been going on regularly since that time. The workings, which were being driven at the time, comprised of two Slants and two Levels. All the other workings in connection with the colliery had been suspended for 12 months.

From the pit bottom to the end of the workings would be 300 yards. There was no open work. He was in the habit of going down the pit periodically and was down 8 to 10 days before the explosion happened. The workings were ventilated by heat from the shaft. When he was down the pit he tried the air passing through the pipes and found it to be sufficient. It would be 10.500 feet per minute.

At the time of the explosion there would be more than that quantity passing through. He had not had any complaint later than 4 months before the explosion. It was, that there had been an accumulation of gas on the South side but not on the North side, where the explosion took place. They were driving the Slants and found a slight show of gas in the Cutting, it was cleared out in his presence. In answer to Mr. Wynne, Mr. Stevenson, referring to the plan of the colliery, explained that the Levels where the explosion occurred were carried further than he intended by reason of a misunderstanding of instructions on the part of William Burgess, an Underlooker.

Butties were employed as firemen and Underlookers at his suggestion and were he to start again, he would do the same. If trade had been good and the workings extended, there would have been a fan put down before now. Questioned by Mr. Wheelhouse, Q.C. Mr. Stevenson, manager, said it was his duty to go down the pit and see that the Burgesses were carrying out his instructions with regard to the mine. If he known the level was being driven so far, he would have stopped it.

The reason why he did not go into that part of the workings during the 8 to 10 days before the explosion was that his attention was solely devoted to the Harrison and Woodburn pit, where there was a gob fire. He trusted to the Underlooker telling him when the thirling, near the point of the explosion was completed. The work was paid for by the yard. William burgess was the contractor and acted as Underlooker. He was the best man that could be had. The men were only driving for a connection. If the pit had been working he should not have adopted that system. Ordinarily there was sufficient air to ventilate the pit. He believed there was too much air on the day in question and the increased velocity of air would tend to cause an explosion in the case of a sudden outburst of gas being driven by that increased velocity against a Davy lamp. There was always a small quantity of gas in a fiery mine like this and it was only necessary to report when there was an accumulation of gas.

Mr. Wynne, the Government Inspector, said he visited the colliery on September 12th, the day of the explosion. Having described the conditions of the workings when he saw them, he proceeded to say, in his opinion the gas was either fired in attempting to fire the shot in the top Level, or, what was more likely, by Ford having incautiously hung his gauze lamp exactly opposite the air pipe that would bring any gas that was given off in the lower Levels directly on to his lamp. The force of the air would act upon the lamp like a blowpipe, and either pass the flame through the gauze, or cause the gauze to be so heated that it would lose its properties of safety.

He could not understand any colliery manager would think of allowing Levels to be continued further than the first thirling, known as he must have known, that a large quantity of gas was given off at each of the small faults that were passing through and that whatever was given off must pass over the lights and shots of all the other men, and particularly so, as there was no object in doing it. He should have thought it quite enough, to have ventilated two Slants of such inclinations without driving any Levels until such time as he had got them through the Level above and until the fan which was now in course of erection had been completed.

Had this explosion not occurred when it did, he saw no reason to think that it could have been long deferred if the same course was pursued of driving through these faults, throttling the air with pipes, and firing shots in all directions. In answer to Mr. Wheelhouse, Mr. Wynne said, when he spoke to the manager, he meant Mr. Stevenson, who however he must say, accused Burgess in his (Mr. Wynne's) presence of doing what he done without his knowledge, and Burgess did not deny it. But still Mr Stevenson was responsible, because he ought to have a man upon whom he could rely.

In reply to Mr. Holden, Mr. Wynne said 10.000 feet of air per minute was sufficient to ventilate a small space with 8 or 10 men. But he had not found that to be the quantity. There could not have been more than 2.000 in one place. In answer to further questions, Mr. Wynne with regard to the Butty system, it was usual in the district, but it was no usual to make Butties firemen or underlookers. It is true Mr. Stevenson said if it had been a working colliery that arrangements would not have been made, but he should have appointed somebody on whom he could rely to report to himself. The first desire of a man who contracted was to do the work; the primary object of a fireman should be to prevent danger from arising to the work people. The coroner said, but it is common practice to appoint Butties to act as firemen, is it not. Mr. Wynne replied no.

Mr. A.R. Sawer, Assistant Inspector of Mines, in the course of his evidence said; 18 inches from the end of pipes in Ford's place in No 1 Slant, could still be seen the hole in which a stud had been placed and to which a gauze lamp was suspended. The position of the stud the lamp must have been hung immediately facing the last pipe at a distance of 18 inches. Ford was evidently cutting his place when the explosion occurred, judging from the position of his pick, which was still at the face and of which one end was blunt and the other end sharp. There was a charged shot ready to be fired in the top Level.

The first impression would naturally be, that the fireman was overtaken in the act of lighting it, by the gas, which, without doubt proceeded from the Levels. The fuse of the charged shot had not been lighted, and he did not think the fireman could have been in the top Level at the time of the explosion, but that his statement that he was on No 1 landing was true. The gas must have been coming out the last fault with great force, ever since Millard encountered it. This might have been 4 hours judging from the amount of work done beyond the fault. The gas would then go up directly to Ford's place.

The conclusion that he came to was, that gas, which had been continually given off in the Levels, issued with great force from the last fault in the bottom Level, and was carried through the air pipes to Ford's place where it emerged directly on the gauzed lamp, suspended 18 inches from the orifice. The continuous action of the gas on the lamp, aided by the great velocity, caused it to be ignited. The gas in the pipes, acting like a train of powder, reached the larger quantity of gas, which both Levels and the Slant must have contained at the time, and communicated the flame to it. The force of the explosion was extremely violent in the vicinity of both pits, but almost greater at the bottom of the Bangup pit.

In answer to the coroner, Mr, Stvenson the manager, said he agreed with Mr. Wynne HMI of Mines, and Mr. Sawer, Assistant Inspector, as to the way the explosion had happened. The coroner, having summed up, the jury after a few minutes deliberation returned a verdict of accidental death.

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