Britain was at war with Nazi Germany and many people were being killed as a result. On the home front, high explosive bombs were dropped over a wide area of Stoke-on-Trent and the surrounding districts. Fires were extinguished by householders, firewatchers and civil defence workers as these explosive devices were triggered off. Nationally there had been failures and disappointments during the early parts of the war, and families had borne their losses with fortitude and patriotic pride. They had seen the fall of country after country, the battle of Flanders lost, the nation desperately engaged in the battle of the Atlantic and the enemy were ferociously endeavouring to bomb and burn Britain into submission, but courage and determination was maintained.
We all accept that the armed forces are vital to the nations defence, but just as vital were the army of miners.
On January 1st. 1942, fifty-seven men and boys lay down their lives for King and Country just as if they had been fighting with the armed forces. Their deaths were not caused by enemy action but by a horrific underground explosion at Sneyd Colliery on the outskirts of Burslem and Smallthorne, bringing great sorrow and grief to the community.
Its sad to think that in normal times the pit would not have been worked on New Year's Day, but due to the urgent demand for coal to make the instruments of war, the manager appealed to the men to work, and they whole-heartedly responded.
The tragic explosion occurred at 7.50 am. on January 1st. 1942, 800 yards below ground. The first report was that seven men were dead and fifty-one were missing. Rescue work began immediately, and four of the victims, two of whom died in hospital later, were found close to the pit bottom. The other three bodies were recovered as rescue workers forced their way through the debris.
The trapped men were working in the Seven Feet Banbury Seam of No. 4 pit. There were two faces in the district concerned, 21s and 22s, one being 1,000 yards from the pit bottom and the other 600 yards. One road was clear and an investigation being made along it, but the other road was blocked by falls of roof.
There had simply been an explosion but there was no exact idea as to where it had occurred. The explosion had not affected any other part of the pit, so immediately after the occurrence all workers were withdrawn from No. 4 and No. 2 pits.
Assistance was readily available from other colliery managers in the district and from rescue teams, the cream of the industry, from other pits, Chatterley Whitfield, Black Bull, Hanley Deep and Shelton. Three of the Shelton team had survived when their team was caught up in successive explosions at Holditch Colliery in 1937.
Representatives of the men and officials arrived, as did H.M.I. of Mines, Mr. E. H. Frazer, the Rev. H.H. Treacher, rector of Hanley, and other clergymen. The Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Ald. M. W. McBride, was at the pit head and was kept informed of the progress
Sadly, later on in the day all hope had been abandoned of recovering alive anyone left in the pit.
Mr. I. W. Cumberbatch, director and general manager of the Sneyd Collieries, made the following statement at 1 pm. on January 1st: "An accident happened in the Seven Feet Banbury Coal Seam in No.4 Pit at Sneyd Colliery at about 7.50 this morning. Rescue teams have been sent down and have made an examination; and further teams have been sent down to continue investigations up to the coal face. The cause of the accident is at the present time unknown. There were 53 men in the area affected, and immediately after the occurrence all other workers were withdrawn from No. 4 pit and also from No. 2 pit.
The pits will remain idle until the trouble has been decided. the district where the accident happened is about 800 yds below, and there are two faces, one a 1,000 yds from the pit bottom, and the other about 600yds. One road is clear and an investigation is being made along it; but the other road is definitely blocked by roof falls. So far as it is known, there is no fire. We are making another check of the men known to be in the affected district and who, unfortunately, are still trapped. Details will be issued as soon as possible."
Rescue work went ahead unceasing with all possible speed, but by 6 pm. the rescue workers were still 200 yds from the coalface.
Another official statement was issued on Friday morning: "It is agreed by the workmen's representatives, H.M. Inspectors of Mines and management that there is no hope of any of the unfortunate men being alive. Heroic efforts were made yesterday by the rescue parties, and by a small group lead by the manager; and it is regretted that all efforts were in vain. Rescue operations are being carried out continuously by the men in fresh air. Two teams of rescue men with self-contained breathing apparatus are standing by, in case any emergency or necessity for their use arises. Sixteen bodies so far have been recovered today. To reach the remainder of the bodies two large falls have to be cleared. To do this, recovery work is proceeding in an orderly manner, and by a carefully prepared plan, having due regard to the safety of the men at work in the rescue operations. It is expected the pit will resume coal drawing on Monday morning next."
Seventy nine per cent of the under-ground workers employed on the day shift reported for duty on Monday when work was resumed at the colliery. High appreciation of the workers' response was expressed by Mr. Cumberbatch, who in a statement said: "The spirit shown by the men in making this wholehearted response to the back to work call is absolutely marvellous.
It is really wonderful that 79% of the normal day-shift should report for duty to-day and the percentage would undoubtedly have been higher if news of the official decision to resume work in the pits had reached all the men concerned." I am deeply appreciative of the workers' support and co-operation in the vital national service of coal production."
On Tuesday morning, 94% of the day shift workers in No. 4 pit, reported for duty and there was a 100% attendance in respect of No 2 pit. By January 9th, the bodies of every man and boy had been recovered. This represented a marvellous achievement, recognised by anyone having knowledge of the dangerous conditions that prevail following an explosion.
The greatest admiration of the rescue efforts was expressed, by Mr. Cumberbatch: "They were simply magnificent in all that they did, and they cannot receive too much praise". At a later date, the coroner made reference to the chief lady telephone operator at the colliery, Mrs. Mable Cain, who had remained on almost continuous duty for five days and nights, with practically no relief because she was more conversant with her duties than were her assistants.
Mr. Ellis Smith, M.P. for Stoke, speaking at the Hanley town hall, after referring to the disaster said: "We might not be able to prevent some explosions in the future, but we could minimise them by taking all precautions. There have been several royal commissions in recent years, many investigations and committees. We want action now, the miners were entitled to such promises, one of which should be a five day week with a six hour day after the war." Its strange that the coal industry is now advocating a twelve hour day.
As in all disasters of this kind, a fund was immediately set up to help the dependants of those killed, many of whom were the breadwinners. This relief fund was opened by the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent. Among the earliest contributors were the following: Sneyd Collieries Ltd., £5.000; I.C.I. Ltd. £500, Shelton Iron Steel and Coal Co. £262 10s, Staffordshire Sentinel Newspapers Ltd. £200 And the Nat. Ass. of Local Gov. Officers S.O.T. Branch £52.10s. It was also announced that Sneyd Collieries Ltd would pay the funeral expenses of the victims. By Jan. 9th, the fund had reached a total of £12,278 and it was decided to make an immediate payment to the families, the amount based on the number of dependants and circumstances of the various homes.
In order to find the cause of the explosion there was a most searching investigation, with the services of experts in mining, electricity, and under-ground ventilation being enlisted from all parts of the country. Evidence showed that at the top of the Banbury Crut Jig (a haulage roadway) the force of the explosion was inbye (towards the coal face) and from the bottom it was out bye (towards the shaft). The inference is that the explosion originated somewhere in the jig.
Two questions at once arise, namely;
(1) What was there and what happened in the Banbury Crut Jig by which an explosion could be caused?
(2) By what means could the explosion be propagated in-bye into the two faces and over all the roads in the Banbury Seam and out-bye towards the downcast shaft?
In answer to the first question, the Banbury Crut Jig is a roadway some two hundred yards long rising 1 in 3.5 from the Cockshead seam to the Banbury seam. It was driven in the latter part of 1937. Down this jig all the coal from the Banbury seam, about 1,700 tons per week, was sent out-bye. The haulage was self-acting, the loaded tubs going down the incline, always on the same side, pulling the empty one up.
The jig wheel, for the haulage rope, was place horizontally at the top of the jig. Six tubs of coal formed a full set and six tubs an empty set.
On the right hand side looking in-bye there was a six-inch diameter pipe to convey compressed air to haulage, coal cutting and machinery in the Banbury Seam. Also on the same side slung in canvas slings, there was an electric cable carrying 3,000 volts to feed the 50 hp motor driving the main and tail gear operating the haulage on 21s level.
After the explosion, many tubs were found near the bottom of the crut, some overturned. Near these tubs were roof falls. One of the stones measured 6 feet long by 3 feet wide and 3 feet thick.
Travelling up the jig on the empty side was found a rope capel. This is an implement for holding the haulage rope in at one end. And making provision for coupling on to the tub at the other end. There was as well in this area a damaged compressed air pipe and a roof cavity, presumably from the large stone found lower down had come from. A tub coupling chain was found, and further up, one end of the jig rope with its capel and coupler intact. Another 5 yards further on was a damaged electrical power cable, and continuing up the crut was the other end of the jig rope without its capel. At the top, due to some force, the jig wheel had moved some 8 feet out-bye and near by was a damaged electrical light fitting. It was from these findings that the cause of the explosion had to be deduced.
Mr. H. Cook, the undermanager, stated that after the explosion he found evidence of a runaway set of full tubs which in their career down the crut had knocked a pair of glands exposing a hole in the 6 inch compressed air pipe in which there was 80 lbs per sq. inch pressure. The rope capel was sent to the Safety in Mines Research Board to be examined by Mr. A. E. McClelland. He found 4 of the 6 strands in the rope had been broken in the capel and the other two had been pulled out. He remarked the capel was not reliably made. He also found some small flakes of mild steel, not rope steel, between the wires of the rope, and these flakes had been heated to a temperature in access of 700 deg. Cent, by friction.
In answer to a question at the enquiry, he replied that the force needed to break the rope was 9.5 tons. Asked if there would be any sparks if the rope were broken very quickly, he replied, there would be a moderate shower of sparks. It was not possible to say whether the run-a-way on Jan 1st. was, or was not due to a failure of the breaking system of the jig wheel and it cannot be said with certainty how the jig wheel was pulled out, but it was probably by the empty rope getting fast at some point in the jig.
At a later date, it was generally agreed that the explosion had originated in the Banbury jig and was one of coal dust alone, not a gas explosion.
The conclusion was that six full coal tubs had been ready at the top of the Crut to come down and they had run away and careered down the incline at a speed of about 40 miles per hour. There were no tubs on the empty side of the up coming rope, which was joined to both caples by a five-linked chain. (Normally six empty tubs would be in place of this five-link chain.) I think possibly there had been some hold up and therefore no empties were available, so in order to keep production going they were sending the coal out. And as the empty rope was coming up fast, remember about 40 mph, the capel was arrested as it met the wheel of the front tub with the result that the jig wheel was pulled down and the haulage rope broken, which would give rise to considerable sparking.
It was thought merely a coincidence that the electric cable was damaged about the same time as the explosion occurred. As regards the damaged compressed air pipe, Prof. Cotton believed this would produce considerable turbulence in the road-way, and produce electrostatic sparking from escaping air.
Now to the second question, as to the means by which the explosion could have travelled in-bye to the two faces, and over all the roads in the Banbury Seam and out-bye towards the downcast shaft.
The two faces were, respectively about 350 yds and 210 yds long with one road at each end, and the method of working by undercutting the coal with machines, blasting down the coal, then filling it on to conveyors, which discharged into tubs at the intake end of each face.
This led to the making of much dust, the finest particles of which were carried by the ventilating air current at the return end of each of the faces and deposited.
Furthermore, there could have been spillage and dust blown off the laden tubs as they travelled out on the roads.
Coal dust, when suspended in the air by the turbulence of an explosion, is highly explosive itself and can be ignited, thereby propagating the explosion to all parts of the mine as long as there is a sufficient supply of dust.
Having assimilated the evidence given at the inquiry and visiting the site, the Government Inspector issued the result as follows; That the up-going rope got over the inside wheel of the first tub of the set coming down at the time of the runaway;
That the marks between the strands of the sample rope examined by Mr. McClelland were made by the rope rubbing against the front right hand corner of the first tub coming down and that the small flakes of mild steel he found embedded in the rope came from the bottom of the tub;
Also the capel of the up going rope was caught against the sole of this tub and so pulled off, the Jig wheel being pulled down and the set derailed at the same time; this occurred when the first tub of the down-coming set was about ten feet above the flange of the air main;
Thereafter, the derailed tub or tubs displaced the flange and then damaged the electric cable; and I think that the dust, which was ignited, was dust from the jig and not from the runaway tubs;
He concluded that the dust had been ignited before either the hole in the air main had been exposed or the electric cable damaged; And that the ignition of such dust was due to the heat generated by friction between the up-going rope and the underside of the first down-coming tub of the runaway set.
The Inspector recommended modifications to improve the safety of the system. But of course, when all the procedures, inquiries, and investigations had been gone through to ascertain the cause of this disastrous explosion, it was no consolation for the bereaved, who had their loved ones suddenly snatched away on that fateful New Years Day. The ages of the victims ranged from 16-17 year olds to veteran miners.
Thomas Gibson, aged 64, said it was knowledge of the pit workings that saved his life. He was near the pit bottom, when a blast of air blew him off his feet hurling him against the side of the roadway; then he fainted. The next thing he remembered was coming to and finding himself lying in total darkness covered with dust.
It was difficult to breath, but he managed to crawl on hands and knees off the main road of the Banbury Seam into the return road of the Holly Lane district (that's another coal seam). It was a narrow passage, just enough to take a mans body. Had it not been for his knowledge of the whole underground workings, he should not have found his way into the Holly Lane district. He crawled on his hands and knees for 200 yards then came across other workers who gave him some water then he fainted again and the next thing he remembered was coming to in the hospital.
One lad of 16 was working in the pit bottom when the initial blast blew him to safety around a corner, bowling him over and over until he was halted by an open oil drum that was full of water. Everything and everywhere went black with coal dust, dense and suffocating. He remembered immersing his head in the water until his lungs were near to bursting the crying out for his mother. When the dust settled and the gas had dispersed, he looked around to see what had happened.
Where there had been whitewashed walls illuminated by electric lights, now there was darkness and everywhere blackened by coal dust. He searched in the darkness for his mate and found him dead. Another man nearby had also died, Staggering on, he came across another man devoid of all his clothing but still alive. The young lad, alone and frightened, but filled with compassion, took off his jacket and put it over his colleague.
A shadow was thrown on many homes in the Potteries. For one woman who lost her husband, it was their wedding anniversary New Year's Day, and in others the wives of the victims were expectant mothers. Mrs. Bennett of 88 Moorland Rd suffered a double bereavement, losing her husband aged 41 and her son aged 17. The family came from Scotland in response to an appeal to Scottish miners to come and work in the Staffordshire coalfield. Another victim of the same name though not related had worked at another colliery with his father, but three weeks before the disaster he moved to Sneyd to gain more experience.
Joseph Sheratt. a fireman aged 38, living at 102 Dimsdale View, Porthill, was married with two children aged 7 and 11 and his wife shortly expecting a baby. Only a few hours earlier he was entertaining his own children and their playmates at a party. Knowing that the father of one of his little guests was serving in the navy, he had obtained a puppet show of "Sinbad the Sailor" with which to amuse the youngsters. He was not superstitious about working New Years Day but before he left home that morning his wife handed him a silver three pence piece as a good luck keepsake.
These are just a few of the stories appertaining to the disaster. Many more were not recorded but will be in the memories of some relatives and friends.
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