Fair Lady Pit Explosion 1883

Reserched By John Lumsdon

An explosion occurred in North Staffordshire on Sunday evening, the 21st October 1883 at the Fair Lady Pit of the Madeley Coal and Iron Co. at Leycett. Being the scene of the disaster, which has caused the death of six brave men and the injury of three others. The seams worked being of an unusually gaseous nature.

On Monday the 15th Oct. Mr. Sawyer, H.M. Assistant Inspector of Mines, visited the colliery, and was informed that a gob fire had broken out in the Bullhurst seam. He at once descended and made a careful examination of the condition of the mine, and of the means which had been adopted to cope with the gob fire. He found that 14-inch brick and mortar stoppings had been built in most of the 17 places where it had been determined to shut off the seat of the fire. Gob stink was seen by him at many places on the rise, in the form of heavy white vapour oozing out of the stoppings, and it extinguished his lamp on several occasions. He found that several of the bottom stoppings leaked, and expressed surprise that no sand was rammed in against the stoppings to prevent this leakage. As, however, the manager seemed averse to this being done on the score that it was unnecessary, and felt very confident that the course he was adopting was the right one. Mr. Sawyer deferred from giving any orders at the time, though he distinctly said that he would use sand if he had to do that work.

On further consideration, Mr. Sawyer seems to have felt that Wainright, the manager did not see the danger, which must inevitably arise if the stoppings were not made good, and that the matter required no delay, and he wrote the following letter:

To Mr. Wainwright, Re. Gobfire in Bullhurst. Dear Sir, After a careful consideration of the facts I think that unless the seat of the fire is hermetically sealed off by double brick and mortar stoppings, with about three yards of sand between them, the heating will gain much in proportion, and will imperil the remaining Bullhurst workings, and certainly make it unsafe for men to work on them. Please let me know as soon as this is done. Yours faithfully, A.R. Sawyer.

On Saturday 20th Mr. Sawyer Inspector, again visited the colliery, and was astonished to find that his warning had been unheeded, and that the matter had got considerable worse. He met Mr. Setlle managing director, and went down the pit with him. They made a careful examination of the mine, and Mr. Sawyer raised no objection to the plan, which was proposed, of putting stoppings in the bullhurst seam if they were done without delay

Early on Sunday morning, Mr. Settle managing director, accompanied by Mr. Wainwright colliery manager, and Mr. James Kirkwood, mining surveyor, descended the pit with a number of colliers to carry out the scheme decided upon. The workmen were principally obtained from the Harrison and Woodburn pits, which are adjacent. Great caution was of course observed to ensure the safety of those employed in the operations, and during the day work was pushed forward without any untoward event. In the evening, however, about half past eight when the work had made considerable progress, a slight explosion occurred in the vicinity of the fire and the men hastened to a safer part of the mine, operations being suspended for a while.

A consultation was held as to the course to be taken. It was decided to resume the building up of the roadways. The men then returned to work and after a short time had elapsed, another explosion of a more serious nature occurred. The lamps were blown out and the men thrown to the ground. Six poor fellows who had been employed at the stopping nearest to the explosion were either killed immediately or were suffocated by the fatal afterdamp. The survivors at once made their way to the shaft, and as one of them, a collier named William Davis was hurrying along one of the roads, he came across Mr. Settle and the fireman named Albert Rowley. They were lying prostrate and unconscious. Grasping one of the insensible bodies in each hand, Davis dragged them to the shaft, a distance of 400 yards. Mr. Wainwright, who was also affected by the afterdamp, was also rescued and the party were drawn up out of the pit.

One of the survivors William Vines, a collier, told a painful incident. He was hastening to the shaft bottom when he heard a voice, which he recognised as that of Thomas Webb exclaiming, ďO Lord Iím done foreĒ. No help could however be afforded to the unfortunate man, for the air was so foul that it was perilous to delay and he had to be left to his fate.

The report of the explosion did not appear to have been heard on the surface and the knowledge of its occurrence being for some time confined to those engaged on the pit bank. The painful scene so often witnessed after the noise of an explosion has attracted the wives and relatives of the workmen to the spot was avoided. With as little delay as possible, an exploration party was organised and descended the pit. This intrepid band consisted of Joseph Boulton, Henry Reynolds, Peter Leese, William Roach and Richard Roberts. They penetrated the workings to within a short distance of the spot were the victims of the explosion were supposed to lie and called out loudly to them. No answer was returned and it was concluded that the poor fellows had perished. The explorers were then obliged by the condition of the mine to retrace their steps and were raised to the bank.

Mr. Settle lay unconscious for several hours from the affects of the afterdamp while Rowley who was rescued with him in so remarkable manner, was in a more serious condition, having been cut badly on the head.

The names of the six men who were left in the pit were: James Kirkwood age 23 married 1 child Thomas Webb age married 6 children Joshua Leek age38 married 7 children William Cartledge age 32 married 5 children George Fox age 29 married 1 child Richard Lewis age 26 married 3 children

With the exception of Webb who lived at Madeley, all the deceased men lived at Leycett. Mr. Kirkwood, the surveyor, had only been married about twelve months.

On Monday morning, Mr.T. Wynne, Government Inspector, and Mr. Sawyer Assistant Inspector, visited the colliery and consulted with some of the officials of the neighbouring pits as to the line of action to be adopted. The smoke and foul air ascending the shaft indicated that the fire still existed and that its area had probably increased. It was therefore thought wise not to risk a further sacrifice of life by permitting another exploration of the of the workings with a view of recovering the bodies, and measures were taken at once for the filling of both the upcast and downcast shafts to such a height as to preclude air entering from entering the workings and thus to overcome the fire.

Accordingly a strong body of men were set to work some filling the pit wagons with refuse and others wheeling them to the mouths of the shaft and tipping in the rubbish. This work was continued till Wednesday, when no smoke ascended and it was found that the shafts had been filled to a height, which would prevent the ingress of air. As to the time that must elapse before the fire had been stifled and the pit re-opened safety so that a search may be made for the bodies, nothing can be said for the present. About 300 men are employed at the colliery, and they will be thrown out of employment unless work can be resumed in the upper level, which, is considered now to be cut off from the lower seam.

The circumstances of this explosion vary from those, which generally attend a mining disaster, when colliers perusing their daily vocation are suddenly cut down by the dreadful blast. Because the six deceased formed part of a gallant band that accepted a dangerous task in order to render the mine safe to the workmen usually at work there.

With the exception of Mr, Kirkwood, the deceased were members of the North Staffordshire Minersí Relief Society and their widows and children will be entitled to pensions from this valuable institution.

It was considered that the conduct of the manager in not having carried out Mr. Sawyers suggestions of effectually stopping off the seat of the fire, and, of its spreading. Also not taken any steps to try and save the part of the colliery, which was not effected, was open to censure: and an inquiry was ordered as to his competency to hold a certificate. The inquiry was held before Mr. Jordan, The County Court Judge with the result that his certificate was returned to him. As none of the bodies have been recovered, a regular inquiry into the whole of the circumstances connected with this lamentable affair has had to be postponed for the present.

A Coronerís inquiry regarding the death of the six men who lost their lives on October 21st 1883 was held on Wednesday the 28th of May 1884 at the Offley Arms Inn, Madeley. Mr. J. Booth, Coroner, and all the witnesses attended along with representatives, officials, and several mining engineers were present. A large model of the pit was shown in the room.

Mr. Wainwright, the former manager of the pit described the fire and the efforts made to extinguish it up to the 21st October. On that date he descended the pit about six am. with several others. Going to No.2 crut they found the fire had extended. They broke the air crossing in order to keep the air from the fire and after consulting with the manager from the adjoining pit; he decided to fill the up-cast shaft. He had commenced to fill it, when Mr. Settle arrived and stopped him. Mr. Settle made some suggestions to combat the fire and Mr. Wainwright said if that were done he should give up the management, as he considered the pit unsafe for men to be in. Settle called him a coward and Wainwright resigned. Mr. Sawyer, Inspector, told Wainwright, Settle was taking all responsibility on himself and asked him to remain at the colliery. He afterwards went down the pit as a volunteer and helped to put in the stopping.

When the third stopping was nearly finished, Leek, who was in charge, suggested the opening of the air door so as to allow air to pass up No1 slant to give fresh air to return in, on completion of the work, and also to afford means of escape if necessary. He opened the door and about twenty minutes later the explosion occurred.

Mr. H. Wynne, H.M. Inspector of Mines was called, he said it was a proper and judicious thing to do to put in the stoppings and with proper precautions was not attended with more than ordinary risk. The effect of opening the door would be to increase the danger, he also said the remote cause of the explosion was the idleness displayed in not putting in the stoppings earlier. Mr. J. Strick, mining engineer, Silverdale, expressed his concurrence with the evidence of Mr. Wynne.

After all the evidence had been heard the Coroner summed up, and the jury, after deliberating considerably over an hour found that the deceased were killed by an explosion while voluntarily trying to erect stoppings to extinguish a fire in the pit and that no responsibility attached to any person for the explosion.