Fair Lady Pit Explosion 1880

Researched by John Lumsdon

An explosion occurred at Leycett, North Staffordshire, on Wednesday 21st January, which will rank among the great colliery disasters of a district, too famous for such disasters. The damage to property is unusually great; the loss of life is almost commensurate with the number of persons in the pit. At least 70 men (including the newly-appointed manager and his son) went down into the mine; only 12 came out alive and of these, 4 have since died of the injuries they received, and the lives of most of the remaining 8 are despaired of.

Fifty-two dead bodies many of them frightfully mutilated have been brought to the surface, an unknown number still remaining in the pit. There is ground for the opinion that death in almost every instance has been instantaneous. Only one of the survivors says he was conscious of nothing until all was over, when the sense of pain from the burns he had received revived him.

The sudden shock of the explosion did its work effectively, and the burning and mutilation occurred to dead bodies, not to living men. The long agony is reserved for the friends of the dead, for wives who have seen the mangled remains of their husbands, for fathers and mothers whose sons are now unrecognisable heaps of charred and mangled flesh. The scene on the pit bank after the explosion maybe conceived. The slow heartache, which will follow in many a home, whose lamp has been quenched in darkness, cannot even be conceived.

It is natural to suppose, when such a catastrophe occurs, that somebody was to blame. But at present there seems no reason whatever for attaching blame either to the company, their manager or the miners. Since the last accident at the same pit a change in management has taken place and everything seems to have been done which science could suggest, to secure the safety of the mine. The ventilating arrangements were apparently unusually complete and efficient. The lamps used, of the very best construction. Some flaw in the arrangements, or some act of recklessness on the part of a miner, may here after be brought to light. At present the lesson of the catastrophe seems to be that when human skill and science have done their utmost there will still remain a residuum of risk to be face by those who work underground. The lesson is a saddening and humiliating one; but it is never the less true.

Complete exemption from danger is given to no one, to miners least of all. They are the soldiers of civilisation, and must often die that others may live in security and comfort.

Exploration

During Thursday slow progress was made in the work of exploration and the flames had been extinguished. The explorers were vigorous and undaunted in their work; but under the direction of Mr. Sawyer, Assistant Inspector of Mines, who stuck to his post manfully, care was exercised in the work, so as to guard against any further accident. As the morning advanced spectators increased in numbers, many coming out of curiosity, but others burdened with terrible forebodings and anxious care, being conscious of the fact that all remaining in the mine must be dead. Many women with sad and tearful faces were seen wending their way to the ill-fated colliery.

We had not overestimated the extent of the disaster at the Fair Lady pit, for it became clear that at leased 60 men and youths had perished through this explosion. As may be imagined the effects upon the workings, of so fearful an explosion as that indicated, has been terrible in destructiveness. It was not, therefore, a work of mere exploration of the brave bands of men who have been hard at work since, but there had to be a fight with the fire which had got good hold of the workings. This greatly retarded progress of course, but it was work necessary to be done, even in the interests of the explorers.

The last recovered bodies were brought out at long intervals; then there was a lull. It was known that there were about a dozen bodies in the mine and in a higher part of the workings, a place difficult to reach, as there had to be an approach made through the debris, and shattered roof and sides of the mine. While the dread enemy gas, was lurking in some of the sections. It was understood that the work of exploration would go on through the night or until all the bodies were got out, if it was found they could be reached.

There was any quantity of volunteers to carry on the work. Eventually the bringing up of bodies ceased to produce much excitement, even in the crowd, for it was simply one bundle of shattered humanity after another that was borne away to the room for the dead.

Opening of the Inquest

The inquest on the bodies of the deceased was opened on Thursday afternoon in the engine house, Mr. John Booth, coroner for the North Staffordshire district, addressing the jury said he was very sorry it was necessary to call them together again to inquire into another accident, which he was told occurred at the Fair Lady pit.

At present he was totally without information on the subject and therefore it might not be advisable that he should say anything with regard to the matter, but should reserve any remarks, which he might have to make till he was given further knowledge on the subject. He believed that the list of dead would at least reach the number of 60 and what he proposed to do was, simply to view the bodies that were at present lying near and then, so far as he could, issue burial orders, so that the remains might be removed and interned.

As to the bodies then in the pit, under a recent order of the Secretary of State, he could only hold one inquest and after issuing orders for the burial of those already recovered he should communicate with the Home Secretary for instructions as to the bodies yet in the mine. The jury then proceeded to view the bodies and identifications took place. The coroner said it would not be necessary to detain the jury any longer that day and proposed to adjourn until the 15th of February in order to give the government Inspector an opportunity to make an examination of the mine and some of the men who were in the pit at the time of the explosion might be so far recovered, as to be able to attend and give evidence, which it seemed to him it was most desirable that they should hear. The inquiry was adjourned until the 15th of next month.

The Workings

Mr. Settle, manager, who has been one of the foremost amongst those who so readily volunteered their aid in rescuing the unfortunate colliers was down the mine exploring for about 24 hours. He states there’s not much timber in the mine, work not having been prosecuted for any lengthened period, but the workings have sustained considerable injury, his estimate of damage being about £2.000.

At one time during which he was labouring in the colliery, gas was issuing again, but those at work had been able to clear it away and continue their operations. He further said that in the course of the operations the relief party discovered and put out 11 fires and there were 50.000 sq feet of air per minute. In his exploration he was able to get very easily into the mine, with exception of the higher portion.

The explosion took place in the South side of the workings and with regard to its cause two different theories were advanced. First it was contended that the firing of a shot might have occasioned it and secondly it was considered possibly it might have risen through a disarrangement of the air by a fall of coal. On the South side, where the explosion took place, the use of powder was allowed, but we were informed that only 10 lbs of powder had been used in shots in the course of 12 months. Further more, that the employment of powder was by no means encouraged by the authorities, is evident by the fact that the men were paid six pence a yard extra for” wedging”. That is to say for getting out the coal by means of wedges, instead of by the use of shots. What actually has been the cause of the explosion remains unknown, but some light may yet be thrown on the subject.

The Exploration

As anticipated, there was not a complete recovery of the bodies of the victims by Thursday evening and much remained to be done in the mine. The excitement at the colliery had greatly subsided yesterday, though large numbers of people, including many from the Potteries and Newcastle were present in the course of the day.

During the night, the work of restoring the ventilation and making search for the remaining dead was unremittingly continued. Gas was frequently found but happily no serious results attended the operation of the search parties. During the night no bodies were brought out. There was found a half of the body of a youth named Herbert Walker, of Madeley, and that was brought out yesterday morning, the head and shoulders having been brought up on Thursday. With unabated vigour the exploration work went on, Mr. Settle, the manager, being in charge and Mr. Sawyer, assistant government inspector of mines joining in the work. Up till 4pm. Only three bodies were got out and one could not be identified.

During the day the work of clothing the bodies went on. Good Oak coffins were provided and the remains wrapped in flannel and when placed in the coffins were packed with light straw. A number of women performing these duties, the coffins were sent away to the homes of the deceased in conveyances, and it may be imagined how their entrance helped to thicken the dark cloud of sorrow, which this disaster had spread over many homes.

There was much difficulty by the explorers in getting at the remaining bodies. Penetration of the workings could only be effected, by making their way through the debris, which was thickly strewn along the roads; and it was also necessary to carry on the ventilation and arrangements concurrently with the advances made. The air doors had been blown into slithers and the bratticing had to be extensively done in order to make the approaches safe. One of the last recovered body bodies had to be dug out of the debris, and over it the exploring parties had sometimes passed, unconscious of what they were treading upon.

The full extent of the disaster may now be summed up thus; Total loss of life 62 of which 56 had been recovered up to yesterday afternoon and 6 were still in the mine. Every facility was afforded yesterday for visitors who were likely to identify the deceased, to see the remains. Anxiety was shown to get the poor fellows identified, as it was desired to get them coffined as soon as possible. One difficulty in the way was that little of the clothing or articles of the deceased were recovered; and so great was the disfiguration that the features could not be recognised. In one case a pair of clogs were placed beside the dead and these were carefully examined. In another case there really was no article to give a clue to identify, it was hoped that in some way or another, the recognition would eventually be made.

Recovery of More Bodies

There were 4 bodies unidentified on Friday afternoon, and they were all recognised by relatives or acquaintances later. The work of exploration went on and when the evening was advanced 4 other bodies were recovered and brought to the surface and identified. The only known person in the mine unaccounted for, on Saturday morning was Joseph Viggars, the hooker on. It was surmised that he had been knocked through the sump platform at the bottom of the shaft and had perished in the sump, said to be 30 yards deep. With the object of recovering this body efforts were made at once; and about 1 pm the body of Viggars was found. It was buried beneath the shattered woodwork and some pit tubs. There was a coffin awaiting the body and sent to the surface. It was assumed that all the bodies had been recovered, but the officials were not certain, as more lamps had been given out on Wednesday morning than agreed with the men alive and dead who had been brought out of the pit since the explosion. On Saturday morning another injured man died, his name is Thomas Mayer. Of the 12 who were rescued alive on the day of the explosion 5 have succumbed to the injuries they received and go to swell the list of the dead.

Saturday Afternoon at the Colliery

There were not many visitors to the colliery on Saturday afternoon; and by four o clock, the works presented something like their normal appearance. There were a few workmen engaged at the mouth of the shaft; but their occupation gave not the slightest indication of anything unusual having occurred. When the last coffin had been sent away nearly every tangible relic of the dead colliers had disappeared. The stable at the entrance to the colliery ground, where so many of the dead had lain, had been cleared of every vestige of what had been used in relation to its temporary character of a mortuary. In and about the other buildings where the dead had lain there was littered straw, and here and there, shreds of clothing belonging to the deceased, and that was all. The wind swept across the pit bank in bitter gusts, and soon drove visitors back from the colliery. In the rows of houses at the village of Leycett, seen from the colliery bank, all the blinds were drawn, giving indication of the reign of death in the place.

The Burial Grounds, Sunday

Sunday was indeed a “black Sunday” in the locality of Leycett, for, dead bodies had been distributed over a wide radius, the majority lay in the villages in the immediate vicinity of the catastrophe, and it was arranged that nearly all should be interned on Sunday. Talke o’th Hill so often the scene of large burials of colliers, who had perished by colliery explosions, was once more a place of bereavement, sorrow and weeping. The internment of Mr. Greener, the Manager of Fair Lady pit and his son, increased the mournful interest.

At Audley about 12 had to be buried, and the same number at Keele whilst others found their last resting place in the burial grounds at Chesterton and Silverdale and a few more distant places. But it was Madeley where the interest seemed to concentrate for there the majority of the dead were to be interned. Large numbers of people went by the morning trains along the Market Drayton line, and so many of them being in morning attire indicated how wide spread was the family and relationship influence attending the fatal results of the explosion.

The weather was bitterly cold, but fine and so far was favourable for the sad and business of the day. Nearly all the graves were dug in the slope of Madeley burial ground, at the entrance from the village. Relief boxes were placed about and one was tied by a piece of rope to the churchyard wicker gate.
The yarning graves just in view, furnished a silent but strong appeal, which few could resist and the contributions at this point were considerable. Graves were dug for 33 bodies.

The Relief Funds

There has already been a large inflow of contributions to the relief fund. In one case 6 children have been left almost to starvation by the sudden death of their father. In Silverdale another family of 4 children, the eldest only 11 years of age are entirely alone in the world, their mother, having died 12 months ago and their father was killed by the explosion. These are illustrations of the state of utter helplessness in which the catastrophe has over 200 persons. Their wants are beyond the local resources. People should not hesitate to give because they can give but little.

Relief Meeting at Newcastle

An large influential meeting was held in the Town Hall Newcastle the Mayor presiding and many dignitaries from North Staffs also Government Mine’s Inspectors and representatives from the Crewe Coal and Iron Company. The Mayor said that they all sympathised with the object that had brought them all together. He had received a number of letters from gentlemen who could not be present but who expressed deep sympathy, they either enclosed cheques or promised to contribute when a treasurer was appointed.

Message from the Queen

On Friday 23rd January a telegram was received from the Queen stating that her Majesty desired that there should be telegraphed back at once particulars of the explosion for the information of the Queen. Her Majesty expressed her deep sympathy with the sufferers.

Theory of the Explosion

It is very likely, we understand, that at the adjourned inquest the evidence as to the probable cause of the explosion will be explicit. The generally accepted theory is, that it was the result of a blown out shot. The force must have been terrific and the deceased must have been sent to eternity in a moment. It is not likely that a single man died from afterdamp alone, but all at one felt sweep were killed by the force of the explosion, being dashed in most cases against the rugged sides of the mine, or down to the floor. The fearful way in which all the bodies were mutilated substantiates this theory.

Inquest

On Wednesday, Feb 21st at the Offley Arms Madeley, the inquiry was resumed into the circumstances of the deaths of the 62 colliers by an explosion of gas in the Fair Lady pit at the colliery of the Crewe Coal and Iron Company on the 21st January. All the usual dignitaries were present including witnesses. The coroner opening the proceeding to the jury said that although it was improbable that the inquiry would conclude that day, he proposed to sit late and take as much evidence as possible. The surveyor produced plans of the colliery. Then Henry Beech, collier, gave evidence to the effect that he was in the pit on the day of the explosion and came out at two o clock in the morning, having being employed in the South Side of the “Bang up” level. He came out because there was a missed shot. But for that, he should not have come out till about six o clock. The working places were all right when he came out, and had been during the night. The rule was to come out of the pit when a shot missed.

The fireman was Isaac Johnson; and he went through the workings several times during the night, and fired a shot after examining the place. There was no ground for complaint as to the ventilation, the air supply being good while he worked there. Replying to a question by Mr. Wheelhouse, Q.C. M.P. Henry Beech, said he had left his mates a day or two before the explosion and worked alone in consequence of some difference to the work that arose, and not because of any belief that the workings were unsafe. In reply to Mr. Wynne, Mine’s Inspector, he said that he left the powder canister with George Smith, when he left his work on the morning of the explosion. There were two cartridges in it at the time; but now there was only one. When there was a missed shot, Tomkinson would have to drill the hole, and he would have the right to use a cartridge from the canister.

In reply to Mr. Wheelhouse, Fletcher said that in the place where he worked 4 or 5 shots a week were fired, and in reply to Mr. Wynne, the Mines Inspector, he said; The fireman blew the light through the gauze of his lamp to light the touch paper with which to fire shots in the mine.

Henry Thornton, miner, gave evidence as to being down the pit the night before the explosion, the workings were free from gas and there was plenty of ventilation. In answer to Mr. Wynne, Inspector, he said that since the explosion, he had declined to work at the Fair Lady pit, and in reply to a juror, he said, he always found the place safe for firing of shots. In reply to another juror the witness said, he new another man who was too frightened to work in the Fair Lady pit, but he was not afraid of gas, though it was gas he talking about when he said he should not go there again.

William Fletcher, underviewer at Harrison and Woodburn pits gave evidence of going down the pit after the explosion and finding the roadways considerably blocked with broken tubs, he described the passage made, and finding the dead and injured. He believed the explosion was caused, by the firing of a shot in the “Bang Up” level. Some brattice had been taken down, and left a fault in the coal unventilated. Gas must have been hanging about the place before that was done. Replying to Mr. Wynne, Inspector, he thought there must have been a large flame from the shot; and there must have been some gas in the level, or the explosion could not have occurred. The bratticing must have been taken down to the far end.

Other witnesses were called and formal questions asked and answered.

Samuel Lawton, certificated manager at the Harrison and Woodburn pits adjoining the Fair Lady pit gave evidence of his having heard of the explosion and going at once to the pit. Described his descent of the pit with the exploring party about one and a half hours after the explosion, the state of the place, the bodies found and numerous fires, bratticing blown down, stoppings blown down and doors blown away.

He stated he was of the opinion that the rock shot caused the explosion, he thought it was probably over-powdered, there might have been a small accumulation of gas there, as there was a “fault” in the coal. As to the workings; Mr. Lawton said that Mr. Greener, the manager, (who was killed by the explosion) had said the roads and airways were too small; and he was of the same opinion. In reply to questions by Mr. Wheelhouse, the witness said that since the former explosion the amount of air being sent in the mine was about 50.000 cubic feet per minute and Mr. Greener, the manager, ((killed in the explosion) told him he had greatly improved the ventilation since the explosion in September.

Mr Greener had prohibited the use of powder in the North side altogether and only allowed it on the South side for the purpose of blowing away rock. Witnesses theory of the explosion was that there had been in the “Bang Up” level, a missed shot as described by Beech, which had been left by a workman. It was then the duty of the following man to put in another shot to release the first cartridge and the rock.
The second shot must have of gone off in a blaze instead of doing its work, for the rock was not shattered, but simply blistered.
That blaze would ignite what little gas there might be at the spot and that, travelling along the course, would be fed by the loose coal dust and culminate in the explosion. He agreed that this accident was more of a dust explosion than of gas. In reply to Mr. Wynne, Inspector, the witness said he did not think it was imprudent to have so many different places worked at the same time, he did not think more than 19 “Faces” were being worked at that time; All the rest of the men would be working at the crossings, improving the galleries and ventilation etc.
The witness had spent, with the authority of the directors, the sum of £3.491 for the purpose of improving the ventilation, endeavouring to make the places safe for the men.
The inquiry was adjourned until the 10th of March.

The adjourned inquiry continued with evidence from Hugh Thomas who was in charge of ventilation fan and John Viggars who was in charge at the time of the explosion. Alfred Bowers, lamp man, gave evidence to the effect that on the morning of the explosion he gave out 78 lamps and after the explosion examined them as they were brought up and found the fireman’s Davy lamp unlocked. That was the only one unlocked. This lamp was found in Isaac Johnson’s hands.

Thomas Fletcher, miner, was called next and said he came off at 6 a.m. on the morning of the explosion. He was working on the top end of the “Bang Up” level on the South side and went to work at 10 p.m. on the night of the 20th. He was cutting all night and the ventilation, as far as he was aware, was good. Isaac Johnson fired a shot for him about one o clock and he worked till six o clock. He had worked at that place for about three months, he had seen gas in the pit, but the fireman to drive it out had put up the bratticing. The bratticing was blown down a week before the explosion by a blown-out shot, and as a consequence of that, a little gas had accumulated. He was sent up for bratticing, and that cleared the gas out of the place

. Mr Wynne, Mines Inspector, was next called and he gave evidence as to the state of the pit. He had 25 years experience in regard to mining. He heard of the explosion and went at once to the colliery and descended the pit. He found there were a number of stoppings blown down, some partially; and several were standing. Considering the situation the ventilation was extremely good, he was surprised at that. After consultation with others he came to the surface. In the evening he descended the pit again, engaged in the exploration and assisted in the recovery of the bodies. Going along the South side first, a small quantity of gas was found just beyond a fault. A sheet was put up, and the gas cleared out. He then went along the main level to the far brows; and going to the end of the “Bang Up” South level, he found a shot hole drilled in the coal. He thought that the hole had not been charged. He afterwards saw where a shot had missed fire; and it appeared to him that there had been an overcharge of powder.

It was his opinion that the explosion resulted from this overcharged shot. There might have been a small accumulated in the roadway, and that, combined with the large quantity of coal dust caused the explosion. In his opinion the airways were sufficient for the ventilation of the mine so far as it was opened out. In his reply to a question he said that, it was a fiery mine, and that he should not fire shots in the main return air way. He said it was a very dusty mine, 2% of gas mixed with very fine coal dust would explode on coming in contact with a light.

He left the pit in the evening in what he considered a safe condition, at this point; Mr. Sawyer directed attention to an elaborate plan showing the extent of the workings at the time of the explosion. Proceeding with his evidence he said that powder was used throughout the South side, and 5 canisters were found. On the North side powder was restricted in its use to the erection of a crossing; and cartridges were found in the men’s clothing at that point. There was nothing to report about the lamps except that the fireman’s was found unlocked.

The explosion was instantaneous all over the mine, and the bodies were all almost found in the working place. Edwards age 18 was found with his pick in hand, in the act of striking the coal. Rowley age 57 and Brookshaw age 58 owed the escape to a fault against which the return blast expended itself and to the fast end.

The bodies were all, more or less burnt mummified. In the level where Tomkinson worked, was an overlap fault. Four yards had been driven beyond that in the down throw coal. The sand stone had not been sufficiently removed and would evidently interfere with the erection of brattice cloth for ventilation. In that projecting mass, a distance of 7 yards from the face, he found a missed shot, and 6 inches south the remains of another one. There was evidence of a shot having been fired in the work place of Morris a short time prior to the explosion. From the indications he saw, he concluded that the fireman on coming to the South side, went first to Morris’s place and fired a shot; He next went to Tomkinson’s place and lighted the stone shot, taking refuge at the bottom of the second thirling. Neither on the day of the explosion nor subsequently, had he found gas in Tomkinson’s place.

Mr. Sawyer, Assistant Mine’s Inspector, described the direction taken by the explosion blast and its effects, after which he proceeded to say that, considering the dimensions of the explosion, it was impossible to believe that gas was the only combustible which supported the flame of the blast. Coal dust raised up by the latter must have been ignited in the presence of such a large quantity of air as was passing through the mine at the time.

Evidence of the force of the explosion was afforded by the fact of one body being found, cut in two and pieces lying three yards apart; and the bodies of the manager and his son being unrecognisable and having all their clothing torn off. Considering the distance the air travelled, it would have been better to have kept it back until a separate split had been made arranged for the Fair Lady pit level, but above all not to have blasted in such a fiery seam in air that had travelled such a distance, and aired so many places.

Mr. Wynne, the Government Inspector of Mines, said he made a though examination of the mine on the 23rd of January and he come to no other conclusion that the explosion was caused be a blown out shot nearly at the end of the South “Bang Up” level. It appeared that a Shot had been placed in a projecting piece of rock in the upper side of the level and had missed fire. Another shot had been placed in the same piece of rock for the purpose of blowing down the dead charge and this had blown out.

Unfortunately, the whole or nearly the whole of the return air from the South side had to pass within a short distance from the spot where this shot was fired. This level had been driven though a fault and several yards beyond, would naturally be deprived of brattice while the shot was being fired.
He had no doubt a little gas would be given off when that was down, while the return air was some what charged with gas and the position of the shot was such that the flame from it would ignite the gas on either side of the point where the flame struck the lower side of the level. In his opinion, there were too many places being driven at the same time, as the only means of ventilating these places was by brattices and what ever gas was being released by these workings would have to pass a point in or about the “Bang Up” level, where shots were constantly fired. There was scarcely a place in the pit to which the flame had not extended or in which fire was not found after the explosion, or indeed which traces of the blast were not visible.
Through being a dry, and very dusty mine, where a very large number of men were employed, the gas, once ignited, would extend to every part where the air was charged with gas and would be intensified by combustible matter floating in the air; this would to some extent, account for the numerous fires found in the pit and for the severity of the blast on the North as well as the South side.

He had no reason to think that Mr. Settle was aware that powder was being used in getting the coal, although the fact that it was used to a large extent was beyond doubt. In his (Mr.Wynne) opinion the indiscriminate use of it had led to this sad calamity and unless prohibited by legal enactments in fiery mines, hundreds of poor fellows would meet the same fate as the 62 had done at Leycett. Where it was considered necessary to use blasting, he would suggest that no level or brow should be driven a yard beyond the last thirling until the blasting was completed between the last two thirlings and that no powder be used again until another thirling had been made so that none would be used where brattices were necessary. Nor should powder be used where places were ventilated with return air from other places.

Mr. T. Evans. Government Inspector of Mines for the Midland District made his inspection of the mine at the request of the Secretary of State in the week after the explosion; he was of the same opinion as Mr. Wynne.

The coroner in his summing up, referred to the use of gun powder in mines and said it was a great farce to insist upon the use of safety lamps and the adaptation of other precautions in fiery mines as long as blasting was allowed, because, as the jury knew if a mine was in an inflammable condition every charge fired was a source of the greatest danger.
Whilst powder was used, it was utter nonsense to have regulations as to safety lamps.

The jury were then left to consider their verdict;
And after due consideration they returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased met the death by an explosion, caused by the discharge of a shot in the “Bang Up” South No.1 level, and that no blame was attributable to anyone connected to the pit. They appended to their verdict, the following recommendations; That blasting by powder should be discontinued altogether in fiery mines, while men were working therein, and that there should be more frequent underground inspection of mines at uncertain intervals.

The jury also begged respectfully to represent to the Home Office the great inconvenience they had been put to by the prolonged inquiry, and expressed a hope that the authorities would see fit to grant them an adequate remuneration in proportion to the time spent over the inquiry; and they requested the coroner to forward its recommendation to the Home Secretary.

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