On the 5th November 1859 the whole of district of North Staffordshire was thrown into a state of considerable excitement owing to a very serious accident, which had occurred at the “Big Pit” Far Green, Hanley. While a number of men were being brought up in the cage, and a number of others were being lowered, by a momentary over-site on the part of the engineman, the cage was not stopped at the mouth of the pit as usual, and indeed the brake was not applied until the cage had been completely drawn over the headgear of the pit.
The effects were appalling. Six occupants of the cage were thrown out and fell down the shaft, a distance of some 507 feet. Of course they received terrible injuries, the nature of which cannot be described. Three others were thrown onto the plates and killed and one received such injuries that he died shortly afterwards.
There were, as generally happens in such cases, some very remarkable escapes. One youth was lodged on the woodwork between the two wheels, and lay insensible for some hours, but was ultimately rescued without serious injury. Six others, who were in the same cage, received more or less serious injuries, one, Thomas Jones, receiving such a shock to the system, that his death took place shortly afterwards.
There were twelve men and boys in the descending cage and all of these were more or less injured. The evidence which taken at the inquest showed, that immediately preceding the accident, two men entered the engine room and made some remark to the engineman, and the latter alleged that as a consequence of their entry and observation, his attention was momentarily diverted from his duties, the accident resulting.
The jury added a rider to the verdict to the effect that in their opinion the accident would not have happened but for the entrance of these two men. The killed were mostly young men range from 11 years of age.
The following is a list of those killed
E. Knowles age 14 T. Jones age 14 H. Walklate age 22 E. Griffiths age 18 O. Williams age 11 W. Vernall age 16 W. Hughes age 14 W. Blore age 11 R. Yates age 17 T. Bellas age 36
T. Williams, broken thigh E. Leese, broken arm and contused back. T. Leighton, injury to head. G. Rhodes, uninjured. T. Jones, shock to system. A. Cope, slightly injured.
The above were in the ascending cage; and the following persons were in the descending cage. D. Gould, contused back. J. Morris, contused back. T. Price, severely hurt J. Northwood, slightly shaken. W. Jones, shaken a good deal. J. Clark, ankle injury. W. Leese, injury to feet. J. Edwards, injury to back and feet. H. Chorleton, foot hurt, W. Pierpoint, slightly shaken. H. Davis, slightly shaken. J. Watkin, slightly shaken.
The inquiry was held in the Mason’s Arms Inn and after the Coroner addressed the jury they proceeded to North Street to view the remains of the deceased, then on to the Big Pit, the site of the disaster, where the engine was worked in their presence. They inspected the indicator and various objects on the bank and full information was given to all.
On returning to the Miner’s arms the Coroner informed them that the engineman Gallon, was in custody. The first witness called was Robert Jones, fireman. He was on the bank at the time of the accident looking after the banksmen and said the engineman at the time would know he was drawing up men and not coal. He said it was about 16 to 17 yards from the pit mouth to the engine house and he was 6 to 10 yards from the pit mouth. He saw the bottom of the cage going up to the pulley wheels, in another moment the accident happened.
In reply to a question by the Coroner, Mr. Owen Roberts, the ground bailiff said as a rule the engineman slackened speed as the cage approached the top. Jones resumed, I saw it go over the headgear and fall onto the iron plates with which the pit bank is paved. He observed the men falling out of the cage, but could not say how many there were. Some fell on the bank and some fell down the shaft, he knew this from their bodies brought up afterwards. Three were killed on the spot at bank and one died afterwards. A brief conversation took place at this point in which the Coroner, Mr. Wynne HMI of Mines and several members of the jury took part as to the number of men legally allowed to come up in the cage, plus other rules and regulations.
In answer to the foreman, it was stated that the engineman’s position is so sacred that it is of the utmost importance that he should not be interrupted in any way. Rule 33 is as follows: No engine tender shall allow any person to come into the engine house, except persons authorised by the colliery engineer or the manager. Jones, the witness, in reply to Mr. Wynne, the Mine’s Inspector, said he saw a man named Edward Williamson with Samuel Tillett about two o clock, but saw no more of them till after the accident, when they were picking up two of the injured men.
Thomas Marsden was called next. I am hooker on at the Big Pit and was engaged there on Saturday and recollect the first cargo of men going up about two o clock and two others followed, it was with the forth that the accident happened. George Rhodes, the youth who was lodged in the headgear, was called next: I live in Hope Street and am a horse driver in the Big Pit. I was one of those who went up in the cage to which the accident happened, I was in the top of the cage. I do not know how I escaped, when I came to myself, I was between the two pulley wheels. I recollect running along the beam. The hooker on knocked a signal of 3 before we were drawn up; we went up at the same speed from bottom to the top. We did not slacken when we got near the top. We feared no danger before we came out of the pit, we were laughing and talking as we come up.
A conversation took place in which several parties joined, from which gathered that the engineman must have stopped the engine, but not in time; that the cage was lying just where it fell at the time of the accident, and that it would take the engineman 10 to 12 seconds to stop the engine. At this stage of the proceedings the coroner appealed to the jury whether they had obtained sufficient evidence to enable him to issue his authority for the internment of the bodies. With this suggestion the jury unanimously agreed and the inquest adjourned till next morning.
The inquest resumed next day and Margaret Faulkner was the first witness called. She said I live at North Street, Hanley. I knew the deceased William Vernall, from a little boy. His body was brought home on Saturday afternoon in a cart. I helped to wash and lay it out. His head was completely cut off and was in two parts. I could tell it was his body by his clothes, by his tobacco box in his pocket and by three buttons on his waistcoat, one of which I sewed on myself. His face was so mutilated that I could not tell any part of his features.
Edward Shufflebottom, porter of the North Staffs Infirmary proved that the deceased, Thomas Bellis, was taken there between 3 and 4 o clock on Saturday afternoon, where he died an hour and a half afterwards.
When Samuel Tillett was called he said, I live at Southhampton Street, Hanley and am a collier. I work at the Big pit and went to work on Saturday morning and remained in the pit until two o clock, when I came up in the first cage with some other men. When I got out of the cage I met with Edward Williams, who was talking to another man. I stood between the pit mouth and the engine house. I asked Williams to give me the time of the men who had been working and he went into the engine house with me. I had just got my book out and had started to take the time, when the accident happened. I had been in the engine house about a minute at that time. When I went in Gallon was at the handle at the engine. I went through the double window into the engine house, I sat on the windowsill, which is about four feet from the floor, and Williams followed me through the window and sat by my side. The engine was at work and Gallon was at the handle, I never saw him away from it. I did not speak to him either before I got though the window nor afterwards, nor he to me. I have been through the window once before.
Williams said the engine house is not the usual place to take the time in, only when it rains. Gallon has never complained of our going in there because it intercepted his view. When questioned by the coroner, he said I heard the accident and jumped down and ran through the door, Gallon was at the handle as I passed him. When I got out the cage was down. I saw some men lying on the bank, but I do not know whom they were. I saw a little boy Thomas Jones, creeping out of the cage. I went for Mr. Roberts the ground bailiff and when I returned they were removed.
After more questions and answers, Mr. Wynne HMI of Mines was sworn, and said: In consequence of information I received, I went to Lord Granville’s works on Monday morning; I examined the engine and measured the distances. The winding engine at the Big Pit was worked in my presence. The rope was let down and drawn up several times, and stopped and started again whenever I requested it, by Peter Griffiths the other engineer. I did not perceive the slightest difficulty in stopping it at any point whenever I wished. I consider it as good an engine as can be used and in every respect proper for what is required of it. I found the distance between the mouth of the pit and the handle of the engine to be 63 feet, which is a short distance. The height of the pulley wheel axle is 39 feet from the bank.
The last stroke of the engine would raise the cage about 50 feet. I paid particular attention to the indicators during the working of the engine, and found them working exceedingly well. As far as my knowledge goes of inventions I do not know that up to this time there is any better in use. There is one suggestion I would make as to the machinery. I should consider it more complete if the brake was made, and ordered to be applied regularly. The brake as I found it was used for the purpose of fastening the engine. In my opinion it would be better if it were to be applied regularly. It would be better as the engineman would then get habituated to it. I suggest that it be done and is the only recommendation I have to make.
I can only account for the accident by the man neglecting to stop the engine when he ought to have done. I myself have been up and down the pit more than half a dozen times and I never knew the cage to go more than a foot above the plates. The Coroner said, supposing the engineman was at the handle in the way the two witnesses have described, is it still your impression that he must have neglected to use it? Mr. Wynne replied, undoubtedly it must have been neglect. There is no other possible way of accounting for it that his neglecting to stop the engine when he ought to have done and that was only a second and a half too late. I cannot too strongly express my disapprobation of those two men going into the engine house window, but that does not excuse the engineman, because he might of worked the pit without seeing its mouth, only when the banks man drew the catches. No doubt the two men attracted his attention at the moment.
Mr. Chief Superintendent Sweeting was then called and said: Between 5 and 6 o clock on Saturday evening I went with Superintendent Cole to the house at which the prisoner was lodging. I told him I wanted to know how it was that the cage went over the pulley, and he said, while I was drawing up the men, two men came to the window and spoke to me. I said, “what do you say?” and they said, “are we in your way?” and I was then an instant too late to stop the engine in time. If the men had not been there, it would not have occurred. The engine and indicators were all in good order, the fault was entirely my own. I asked him who the men were? And he said Williams and Tillett.
Gallon was then brought in. He looked very dejected, and kept his eyes on the ground nearly the whole time. The evidence of Mr. Sweeting was read to him, when he said, “it is all quite right, but I did not leave the handle”.
When asked if he had any statement to make, he said he had nothing further to say and handed the Coroner two certificates to character from previous employers and testimonial signed by a large number of Lord Granville’s workpeople.
The Coroner then briefly recapitulated the leading facts as detailed in evidence by the witnesses and explained to the jury the law as it relates to the crime of manslaughter. The foreman said they were not clear in respect to the two men who went into the engine house, as they thought the accident would not have occurred but for them. Mr. Wynne, Inspector of Mines, said that he had been discussing with Mr. Bourne, Lord Granville’s mining agent, and others, whether they could reach these two men: but they were of the opinion that they could not. The engineman was the guardian of his own place and he only was responsible for allowing them to be there.
The jury then returned a verdict of Manslaughter against Gallon, accompanying with the expression of an opinion, that if the two men had not been in the engine house, the accident would not have occurred. Gallon has since been convicted of manslaughter at Staffordshire assizes and sentenced to 6 weeks imprisonment.
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