HOLDITCH COLIERY EXPLOSION 1937
By John Lumsdon

Holditch Colliery was known locally as Brymbo Pit. No.2 shaft was sunk in 1912 and No.1 in 1916. They were approximately 2,000 feet deep to the stone drifts or roadways by which the two working seams, Great-Row and the Fourfeet, were reached. From the shafts two parallel stone drifts had been driven, dipping in a S.W. direction to tap the Fourfeet seam through the Apedale fault, estimated to be a 700 yards down throw. A fault is a fracture of the coal seam caused by earth movement; (is called an up throw where the seam continues at a higher level) or a down throw where it continues at a lower level. The intake road - this is an airway along which fresh air is taken into the workings, as opposed to 'return' airway carrying foul air from the workings to the upcast shaft - was level for a distance of 125 yards from the downcast shaft and continued in a straight line for a further half mile at a dipping gradient of 1 in 11 and through the Apedale fault.

At this point it became evident that the Fourfeet seam was at a lower horizon than anticipated, so the gradient was increased, at first to 1 in 4 and later to 1 in 3 until the seam was reached. Therefore, a straight road, 1,390 yards long from the shaft to the coal face, had been developed into a double unit face 230 yds long. The floor of the seam was of fireclay, and the coal seam was 4ft 9ins thick with soft blue shale in the roof. The coal was undercut to a depth of 6 ft and then blasted down and loaded onto the face belt conveyor, which went onto the main gate belt conveyor to the haulage road.

The managing director Mr John Cocks carried out the supervision of the colliery. Other victims of the disaster were the manager J.O.Davies, and under manager, H.L.Adkins.

In the Fourfeet seam there were 8 firemen, 3 on days, 3 on noons and 2 on nights. An overman was on each shift. There was an average of between 60 to 70 miners on each shift, producing about 350 tons per day.

On the morning of the 2nd July, 1937, two coal cutter men, Herman Payne and Wm. Beardmore, at about 5.45 a.m. were cutting along the face with the machine when Beardmore, who was shovelling away the coal cuttings, saw a flame which seemed to run round with the picks for a moment then extended under the cut coal. The flame flashed back along the holing to where cutting had begun, a distance of 7 or 8 yds, then came out of the cut and spread up the coalface towards the roof. It was described by Beardmore as being like a wall of fire. The extent of the flame and the heat arising from it was such that the first thought of those near it was to get away as quickly as possible.

At this time there were 55 persons engaged in various ways in close proximity to or at the coalface. Amongst these 55 were 3 officials, an overman and two firemen. Jesse Moore and Ernest Astles, the firemen, were quite close to the machine whilst overman Trevor Hughes was at the top end of the face near the left hand road. All the men in the proximity of the coal-cutting machine withdrew into the main gate. Others on the face withdrew via the right hand gate.

The overman, Trevor Hughes, had already taken steps to get men out of the upper end of the face. However, two men, W.Hystead and A.Stanton, who were engaged in building a pack in the middle waste, failed to come out.

By the time they realised their danger and made the effort, the smoke was so dense that instead of retreating by either the back dip or left hand gate, they lost their way and were overcome by smoke.

Eventually, at about 6.15.a.m., all the men, excepting Hystead and Stanton, gathered at the bottom connecting crosscut roadway to the seam and made plans to extinguish the fire. The men were instructed to carry bags of stone dust down the main dip to the face, whilst the overman and two deputies went forward to investigate. It was found the fire had taken a good hold. The timber on the face was ablaze and crackling, and with the timber no longer acting as a support, the roof near the face of the main dip was threatening to collapse.

As no one could get near the fire, the overman ordered the stone dust to be dumped and spread about as near to the fire as possible. When the futility of these efforts was apparent, another retreat was made and a roll call taken. It was not until this time, about 6.35.a.m., that the absence of the packers, Hystead and Stanton, was discovered and efforts were made to find them.

The would-be rescuers tried to explore the left hand gate and back dip, which were now the only means of access to the face or egress from it, but they were met by smoke and fumes of such density that they could make no progress. The search was abandoned, and little hope remained of the missing men being alive.

In the meantime the day shift officials, having been notified of the fire, arrived in the district. One of them, H.Bentley, under the impression that some of the searchers had gone in the right hand gate, asked a night shift ripper, J.Hassall, to conduct him there. At about 6.50 a.m., whilst Bentley and Hassell were there, an explosion occurred. They were just on the fringe of the explosion. Bentley was burnt and his hair singed. With some difficulty he managed to find his way out to the main gate dip, where he learnt Hassell had not come out. Although burnt, he went back along the roadway, accompanied by a collier named E.Beech whom he had met in the main dip, to search for the missing man, but failed to find him.

The effects of this explosion were felt at the pit bottom of the downcast shaft, where the manager, Mr Davies, ordered the men to withdraw, telling them at the same time that he and others were coming down the dip. Whilst the night shift was walking out, the effects of three further minor explosions were felt, one about 7 a.m. and the other two a few moments later. At this time there was nobody in the Fourfeet workings except the three missing men.

Proceeding up the main crut at about 7.10 a.m. the night shift party met Mr Davies, the manager, and Mr Wilfield, the under manager, who already knew about the fire and loss of two men. They were now informed that a forth explosion had occurred and that a third man had been lost in one of them.

After an examination of the atmosphere in the return airway, and consulting with his officials, the manager decided that stoppings should be put on in the cruts. He gave orders for materials - sand, stone dust etc. to be brought in for that purpose.
(A stopping is to plug the roadway to prevent the access of air to the seat of the fire, and so extinguish it.)

At 7.20 a.m. the night shift was instructed to go home and the day shift set to work getting the stopping material in. Whilst this was being done, the manager and under manager, accompanied by two overmen and four deputies, went into the Fourfeet district to make an examination. On their way down the main crut they perceived a reversal of air, indicating an occurrence of a fifth explosion. However, like the others, it was of a minor character.

Mr.Cocks, the managing director, decided to change the locations of the stoppings in spite of the expressed disagreement of the manager who foresaw the difficulty in making sound and reliable stoppings in unsettled ground. Davies wanted them on further out bye in solid ground to seal the district off. The under manager stated that Mr.Cocks did not discuss the matter with him, but merely told him of the decision. The complete change of plan for stopping off the fire led to the disaster.

The first plan, decided by Mr.Davies, the manager, was in solid ground and entailed the erection of only two dams, or stoppings, where there were easy means of transporting the necessary materials over a distance of no more than 500yds from the pit bottom.

The second plan, adopted by Mr.Cocks, involved the erection of three stoppings, and the sites were in broken ground that could give access of air to the fire.
The distance material had to be transported was 1,300yds and the number of persons required to carry out the work was necessarily larger than in the former plan. The reason for Mr.Cocks' plan was to save the seam. That is to say, it would have left available the development of a new face, which was already in process.
However, the decision had been taken.

It was now 9 a.m. and two government inspectors, Mr.Finney and Mr.Bloor, who were to be victims, arrived and met Mr.Davies at the pit bottom. He outlined the position to them and told them what Mr.Cocks intended to do. On their way down the main crut at 9.10 a.m. a sixth explosion occurred. It was again slight. By this time men and material were arriving in the district. There were thirty-eight men in all, including the three missing men.

A moment or two before 10.10 a.m., there was a seventh minor explosion, followed immediately by a very large one, the force of which blew men off their feet at the pit bottom 1,000yds away, and reversed the whole of the ventilation system between the shafts and the Fourfeet workings. Every man in the seam itself was badly burnt. Thirty men were killed and eight injured.

A certain amount of danger must always attend the operation of sealing off an underground roadway as slowly blocking off the road decreases the air supply and allows a build up of gas.

It is worthwhile to compare the two plans in respect of their relative safety. The first plan was as safe as any plan could be in such circumstances. There were facilities for maintaining the inbye side of the stoppings, (inbye means towards the coal face, outbye towards the shaft) until the very last moment of closing them, plus there was an atmosphere free from inflammable gas. Under the second plan, the intake stopping was to be located very near to the entrance of the right hand gate and it was known, before 9.30 a.m., and before the plan was adopted, that this right hand gate was fouled with firedamp.

The building of the stopping was bound, in due course, to result in an increase in the firedamp percentage at the place where it was to be built and it followed, that persons working there would have to work in or at the brink of an inflammable, explosive mixture of firedamp and air, which was liable at any moment to be ignited by the fire. As history has shown us, this is exactly what happened, unfortunately with the loss of 30 lives.

In his report the inspector, Mr.F.H.Wynne, stated, "It is my considered opinion that at the time the second plan was adopted, very dangerous conditions existed, and were known at the time to exist which made the attempt to follow this plan a matter of imminent peril to the lives of the unnecessarily large number of men required to execute it." Clearly there was in this incident a motivation for production, superseding the safety factor.

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