MOSSFIELD COLLIERY EXPLOSION 1889
Part Two

Centenary Talk Addeley Green Workingman's Club
By John Lumsdon

Later investigations of certain colliery explosions disclosed the dominant part that coal dust had played in them. Midlands experiments were reported before the Chesterfield and Derbyshire Institute of Mining in 1878 "Explosions of coal dust and air were obtained in the absence of firedamp" and this increased activity led to the problem being considered more seriously and in 1879 the Royal Commission of Accidents was appointed and attention was directed to the coal dust problem and after the Seaham explosion in 1880 the problem assumed great public importance.

The Government sanctioned official experiments and the first mention of stone dust to conduct the inflammability of coal dust was mentioned. Mr. Atkinson, H M Inspector of Mines, the same one that conducted the Old-Sal inquiry, stated on this experiment that the intake traveling way was not damaged by the explosion but the parallel haulage road was completely wrecked. The difference in effect he attributed to the presence of stone dust in the traveling road and this foreshadowed the future methods of combating this problem.

At the Elmore colliery explosion in Durham in 1886 Atkinson said he believed the explosion to be entirely due to coal dust combustion in pure air. He suggested that concussion caused by a shot raised the cloud of dust which was ignited by the issue of a flame at the same moment, and that same day Atkinson with his brother, who was also a mines inspector, published the results of their investigations in a book called Explosions in Coal Mines which also incorporated Galway's and other scientists' views.

On that evidence all senior management would be aware of the potential hazards of coal dust. In those days, safety was often diluted in the pursuit of profit and at the inquiry it was stated that the Cockshead seam was a dusty seam (and I am sure that all miners will agree with that) and in both the intake and return roads it was about 2 or 3 inches deep on the floor. The men had used water to lay the dust until Mr. Potts had objected because this made the floor heave up and lift and of course this had to be repaired and this added costs to production. He had also reduced the number of men doing repairs in the pit to cut costs and in the Bambury seam the dust was only removed when it covered the rails and wagons of coal could no longer run so if it was preventing production they cleared it up and it was due to these conditions that the 37 victims died, not by the direct violence of the blast but from its toxic effects.

At this point I would just like to refer to the Mossfield colliery explosion of 21st March 1940 in which 11 miners were killed. The inspector's report stated, "The loss of life in the 1889 explosion was catastrophic compared to the present occurrence. There is little or no doubt that this was because that explosion was propagated by coal dust there is also little doubt that the effects of the recent explosion would have been greatly magnified but for the fact that the roadways were copiously treated with stone dust". As it was, the explosion was limited both in extent and violence. So much for the coal dust aspect.

Now a little about the ventilation and state of the roadways. Several places were ventilated by means of brattice cloth and there had been complaints on many occasions regarding this, the last time a few days before the explosion. Mr. Potts was told by one of his overmen "This kind of ventilation won't do. We shall have something seriously amiss with only brattice cloth to trust to, and horses and wagons going through. It may be pulled down and the place get full of gas". Actually this did occur before that and the official had the men withdrawn until it was rectified. He continued, "We should have a new roadway through to the bottom air road and put in overcasts". So here he was giving a practical way to improve the ventilation but this of course added cost to production. In evidence at the inquest it was also stated that the return dip on number 2 main gate was impassible and that a new air road near the top was seriously obstructed by falls of ground and was on weight at the time of the explosion. This means that the roof was slowly crushing down.

These conditions were such as to be likely to cause that part of the Cockshead seam in which men were working to become in a dangerous state when stopping D was closed and a dangerous condition was likely to be caused in the upper level in jigs 15 and 23 (these are roads where coals are hauled out) in all of which, by the way, men were working.

These would be affected by the partial closing of the stopping. It was also stated that the upper level between 2 and 3 main jig was seriously contracted in area by falls of ground and that gas had recently been known to come out of the old drifts on to this road. It was also known that drift number 2 was full of gas four hours before the explosion and there was gas in number 5 drift owing to the removal of the doors by William Fletcher on the upper level in order to cut off the air supply to the gob fire. Mr. Atkinson said "I am of the opinion that Potts made a grave error in ordering the stopping to be put on in the main area of the pit while men were working in other parts. Such an act would have been wrong if there had been no gob fire, no accumulation of gas and no obstructions of the airways as it is not possible to foresee all the consequences which may be caused by such an interference of the ventilation". Mr. Atkinson continued, "The supervision exercised in the colliery was defective. The accumulation of fire damp in no. 2 drift should have been removed before the explosion" and William Fletcher stated that he had made preparations for restoring the ventilation there and more than once has asked Mr. Potts to allow him to remove the gas but it remained at the time of the explosion. Fletcher asked Potts to come down and look at the situation for himself so that he could have it cleared out at the weekend and Potts said "Don't meddle with it until I give you orders to." Fletcher in fact had booked men to come in on the Sunday, but they were put on other work instead of shifting the gas, and the gas of course, was still there on Wednesday 16th October when the explosion took place.

In concluding his report Mr. Atkinson said the system of ventilating the Cockshead seam was not a good one and would have been better if the air had been more divided and not taken continuously from one district to another. The details of the ventilation with regard to doors, regulators and stoppings did not receive the great care, which was required for safety in fiery mines.
Some parts of the airways were in a bad state of repair and had been so for several weeks before the explosion. The airways referred to, which had been described were possibly of sufficient area for small quantities of air which were required to pass through them before stopping D was erected but when that stopping was closed or nearly closed it would be inadequate to pass sufficient air for proper ventilation of the workings. He said airways should never be allowed to get in such a bad state of repair as a slight additional fall may close them altogether.

As I mentioned before, the ventilation of the colliery was interfered with by the movement of the cages which occupied one third of the area in each shaft and during every alternate journey the cages moved rapidly against air currents in both shafts at the same time, and he continued "This disaster is another example of how an explosion is extended by coal dust and the loss of life greatly increased as a consequence. The normal condition of a dry and dusty colliery or a colliery in which the roads connecting different districts are dusty is such that a terrible explosion is possible at any time. However much the number of such explosions may be reduced by enforcing the use of safety lamps and restricted use of explosives and regulations, etc, they are likely to continue to occur as long as the mines remain in their present dusty state". That was the Inspector's contribution.

A barrister representing the Home Secretary, a fellow called Mr. Harold Thomas, whose job it was also to prepare a parliamentary paper on the Mossfield colliery explosion, said the nature of the explosion was a dust explosion. The Cockshead seam had in it much dust of an inflammable nature in both intake and return cruts and the horse level of the Bambury seam. It must have been ignited by a considerable flame coming into contact with it, possibly from an explosive gas, and the explosion was carried by the dust to every place it reached. Of the cause of the explosion he said that there are a number of suggested causes that were ruled as improbable but he said it is possible, though evidence is very slight, that a collier working in jig no. 15 struck pyrites with his pick which gave off sparks and ignited an explosive gas there and thus started the explosion. On neglect of falls from the roof he said falls were sometimes permitted to remain a long time without repair. In the deep heading and about 100 yds along the north end a fall was reported on 29th September 1889 in the fireman's report book as wanting "loading out", that is, it required the stuff which had fallen from the roof to the floor needed to be removed.

About ten days before the explosion a fall obstructed the return area to a height of 4 or 5 feet and across the whole width of the roadway and this fall had not been made good at the time of the explosion. There was also a fall at least a fortnight before the explosion, an obstruction in the return area of no 3 main jig which left a way of only 2ft high for air to pass through and this was un-repaired at the time of the explosion and he said no portion of the return area of no. 3 jig appeared to be traveled for more than 12 months and it was not known what state this was in when the explosion occurred.

After a searching inquiry extending over 7 days the jury returned their verdict. They said: -
1. That the deaths were caused by an explosion.
2. That the evidence did not show how the explosion was caused.
3. That the manager was not guilty of culpable negligence in not withdrawing the men from the pit on the night of 15th October.
4. They said, "We the jury are unanimous of the opinion that the manager Mr. Potts is deserving of severe censure for not personally inspecting the mine for so long a time previous to the explosion
Then the coroner censured him on three grounds:
1. First he said you have systematically broken rule 21, which requires your daily personal supervision.
2. Also you have disregarded rule 7 which requires you to withdraw the men from the pit in case of danger
3. You are also worthy of censure with a gob fire in the mine to have thought that it might be managed by deputy.
At the conclusion of the inquest Mr. Potts resigned his position as manager and sometime after that he left the country.

Another point I think we should look at is relationships. Unfortunately a good relationship between the manager and his staff was not evident at Mossfield in 1889. Constant needling between Potts and his subordinates fostered mistrust, which was bound to have repercussions among the miners. The government inspector said that some months before the explosion Mr. Potts, the manager, and William Fletcher, the under manager, had not been on good terms. But it must be pointed out that any grave misunderstanding or want of confidence and mutual reliance between officials of the colliery such as appeared to exist in this case may be a serious source of danger and should not be allowed to exist. But exist it did

On the fourth day of the inquiry held at Longton town hall William Fletcher, the under manager, was being cross examined on what occurred on 5th September before the explosion when Potts said that he would reduce the number of datelers employed doing repair work in the pit.
(Datelers by the way are men who are paid a day wage as against piece rates or contract work.)
Fletcher said, Potts sent for me, Joe Emery, William Booth, Arthur Fletcher, James Smith and Thomas Owen. They are all pit officials. He said I called you here today to see about the quantity of coal we are drawing and the expense it is costing us. He asked the five men one by one if they could not get more coal out for less money and if they could not they must consider themselves on 14 days notice. He said he would give them a chance to improve the position in the 14 days.
Then he said to Fletcher, "What are you and Josse doing about this affair?" Fletcher replied that well, there was nothing he could do, and Josse said there was nothing he could do either. "Well" said Potts, "Datelers must be stopped, all but four on the noon shift in Bambury and four on noons in Cockshead "and Fletcher asked, "Well what happens on the day shift if there is a fall or anything and there are no datelers in the pit?" Potts said, "Well in that case I'll allow you two on days". And Josse said, "If these roadways are to be put in order we shall have to have men to do them and men will not work for nothing." He was implying that dateler men should not be doing this kind of work but piece workers for contractors. Potts replied "Do you know that the cost has gone up 4d a ton since you started in the Cockshead?" and Joss told him that if he could get a better man to do the job then he was willing to pack in at any time and he stormed out of the office. Fletcher then said to Potts "Do you know that deep end has not been cleared out yet?" And Potts replied that that it must stand a bit until the costs come down. He pulled papers out of his pocket and said, "William do you know that every ton of coal that comes out of the Cockshead seam is costing us 4s 6d a ton?". Mr. Dutton, who was Mr. Potts representative, objected to the line of questioning he said, "I think it is simply to prejudice the unfortunate party. This inquest is to inquire into the deaths and I do not see how these disputes between the manager and others as to the cost of coal have anything to do with it. "

The coroner said "I suppose they want to draw the inference that the object was to get coal without reference to saving or not saving life." and then the questioning moved on to other aspects. It is my opinion, looking into all the aspects of this incident, it was a disaster waiting to happen and a contributory factor in this was putting profitability in a much higher priority than workers lives, and when one looks at comparatively recent disasters such as the Zeebrugge ferry where 195 lives were lost, Kings Cross where 31 were lost (and it could have been much worse), and Piper Alpha where 167 lives were lost there is something of a similar vein here.

Now regarding the burials. 45 of the victims were buried in Longton cemetery and 14 elsewhere, and of course 5 still remain in the pit. There is a large Celtic cross in Longton cemetery with all the names engraved on this monument, and this marks the spot where the 45 are laid in a mass grave. Services were held in churches and chapels and pathetic scenes were in evidence at all the graveyards. Crowds were present to pay their last respects, parents, relatives and friends as groups of mourners shouldered the coffins to the graves around which stood the solemn families, and the dead from 14 years of age to 60 were lowered into the earth for the last time by their workmates.

Ministers of Religion spent much time trying to console the bereaved and now a housing estate is spread over and all around Adderley Green. Nothing now remains of Mossfield Colliery, the Old Sal is no more nor are the heartbreaks with which the mine is associated. The events of 100 years ago underneath the estate fade into oblivion and the Mossfield colliery explosion is just another chapter in our local history.

As in all disasters relief is always organised and of course this followed suit and it was called the Longton Colliery Explosion Relief Fund. On October 17th, the day after the explosion, the Mayor of Longton, Alderman John Aynsley presided over a meeting that was hastily summoned at Longton town hall, when subscriptions were received and promised to the extent of over 1,000. By October 25th the fund had swollen to 4,300 and on October 28th a letter was received from Balmoral castle. Queen Victoria expressed her sincere sympathy with the sufferers and relatives of those who had perished in this terrible calamity at Longton and contributed 50 towards the fund.
On November 8th the secretary of the fund, Alderman Leak stated that the small amount received from the Mansion House for relief of the sufferers was accounted for by the fact that the people of London had no adequate idea of the destitution this calamity had made when 64 men lost their lives and left 39 widows and 82 children under 13 years of age to be provided for, and 6 yet unborn along with 11 dependent relatives who had come under the fund.

The trustees of the fund met sometime later and heard the actuary's report.
An allowance of 6s per week (3Op) was made to the widows and 2s (lOp) to the children until they reached the age of 13 and it ceased. The widow's allowance ceased either on remarriage, death, or attaining the age of 60. It was also reported that the total fund stood at 8,871 and it was pointed out that the fund raised was not nearly sufficient to meet the estimated requirement and does not include expenses hitherto incurred, and called for any outstanding subscriptions to be sent in as soon as possible. So it was not a very satisfactory state of affairs for the dependents. One woman had a family of six split up. She took in washing every day and she made oatcakes on Sundays, - kept her children in bed and made and sold oatcakes in order to keep the family together as a family unit.

There was a claim of damages put in for [van Price. Now the body of [van Price who was 27 years of age was found in 6 or 7 yds from the face at the low south level which was his normal working place. His body was completely divested of clothing by the blast and flame and his belt was found 4 yards further out from his body. Mrs. Elizabeth Price, his widow, of 14 George Street, Fenton, put in a claim through Hollinshead and Moody, the solicitors from Tunstall, for damages of 281 8s, for his death: -
1. By reason of negligence by U Potts and others.
2. By reason of defect of works and plant.
3. In his negligently omitting as manager to take due and proper precautions for the safety of workmen in his mine.
4. By negligently omitting as manager to see that the requirements of the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1887 were carried out
5. In his negligence omitting as manager to exercise daily supervision of the workings.
6. In his failing or neglecting to withdraw the workmen after the mine had been found to be in a dangerous condition.
7. In negligently giving orders that the ventilation be diverted by erecting a stopping and opening doors in airways where the working places levels, and traveling roads were not in a fit state for workmen to be therein.

There were another half dozen charges on this claim but it did not come to anything and I will say something on that later.
So, in conclusion I would just like to say a little bit on the money involved. In the August of 1890, ten months after the explosion, questions relating to the Mossfield explosion came up in the House of Commons and Mr. Fenwick called attention to the evidence given at the inquest. I thought Mr. Fenwick was a Staffordshire Member of Parliament and I had him looked up in the Who's Who in the House of Commons, but the Right Honorable Charles Fenwick MP was born in Cramlington village, Northumberland, in 1850. He went to work on the pit bank at the age of nine years, and commenced underground at ten years. He served on the executive committee of the Northumberland Miners Association and was a miners' representative on the Trades Union Council in 1884. He was elected MP for the Warnsbeck division of Northumberland in 1885 until his death in 1918, so here we had a practical miner and MP and he knew what he was talking about. He said in evidence that there had been the greatest mismanagement of the mine and he enquired why the person responsible had not been prosecuted. The mine was a fiery one and subject to spontaneous combustion.

Fires were breaking out again and again in the mine but in spite of the risk that these facts indicated gas was permitted to accumulate and no amount of effort was made to remove it. A month prior to the date of the explosion, No. 2 drift where the explosion occurred was known to be full of gas but no steps were taken to get rid of it. Another danger existed, and was known to exist, was that fire had broken out or was breaking out in No. 5 air course. The usual procedure under such circumstances was to completely seal off the fire.
However, closing an air current is always a delicate operation and precautions must be taken to prevent accidents under ordinary circumstances, but it was infinitely more so where gas was known to exist and a fire was known to be breaking out. Mr. Potts, who refused either from cowardice or some other cause to go into the mine, and he did not declare that the men should be withdrawn until the mine was perfectly safe.

The Honorable Member proceeded to read extracts from Mr. Potts evidence at the inquiry and he said that even after all his admissions the Commissioner held that there was simply an error of judgment on his part in not withdrawing the men. In his opinion, that is Mr. Fenwick's, the offence was much more serious for it was a direct violation both of the spirit and letter of the law. He asked whether the Home Secretary did not consider that some further steps should be taken in this matter and he pointed out that if so great a case of mismanagement was allowed to pass while workmen were being fined or imprisoned for comparatively trivial offences against the Mines Act, a dangerous contempt for the law would be created.
He was told that the owners of the mine had so far admitted their responsibility, that rather than have proceedings brought against them under the Employers Liability Act they had paid 3,000 to be distributed amongst the relatives of the deceased. If it had been three times as much he would still have thought it his duty to urge on the Government the desirability of sifting this case to the bottom.

Now that was ten months after the incident and they say that time is a great healer but those relatives of the victims would have to live with that all their natural lives and now 100 years later it is almost forgotten and I hope that this talk tonight has revived the memory of this terrible disaster when men were going about their daily toil to the best of their ability hoping that managers and owners were doing the same. But unfortunately, in my opinion, it appears that the profit motive was put before miner's lives.

To end with, I would just like to quote from the one verse poem that was on the memorial cards at the time of the burials and it states:

In perfect health they left their homes,
not knowing that their time had come.
A sudden change upon them fell,
no time to bid their friends farewell.

JOHN LUMSDON, 16th October 1989

To the men who lost their lives at Mossfield Colliery
On Wednesday, October 16th, 1889.

Only a few days ago they were patiently toiling for bread,
It seems so strange that friends we knew, friends whom we loved, - are dead;
Each at his post like a Briton fell.
But who is to blame, can nobody tell?

Look on the faces of the fatherless ones, glance at each vacant chair,
Think of the hearts bowed down by grief, sunk by a load of despair.
Look o'er the list, glance at every name, comrades are missing, but who are to blame.
When shall the hardy sons of toil, true sympathy enlist,

When shall we guard the lives of those who struggle to exist?
From danger is there no release, will these disasters never cease.
Farewell old mates, a loving, last farewell, alas! 'tis no imaginary dream.
You sought to do your duty, but you fell, your sacrifice shall often be our theme.

In life's hard fight you did your best, peace follows strife, and after turmoil - rest.
Good bye old mates, we place you 'neath the sod.

You have not lived unloved and wasted lives;
We leave you to the mercy of your GOD,
And when your bodies molder with the clay,
We'll show our offspring's where the humble workers lay.

A.C.

Found while researching the disaster.
John Lumsdon

The author wishes to thank Tom Byrne for permission to draw upon his writings on the Mossfield disaster.

BACK to DISASTERS BACK to NAMES BACK to INDEX