12th January 1918. Death Underground.
Death rate per 1000 for the years between 1875-93 was 2.09% for coal mines, but exceeded in slate mines which had a figure of 3.23%.
However slate mining relative to coal was small so coal pits have over the years seen the most disasters.
The worst for the Author’s home county of Staffordshire, was at the Minnie Pit, Halmerend Today on 12th January 1918 when 155 died.
Bilsthorpe Colliery in Nottinghamshire, once owned by the Stanton Iron Works in the 1840.s saw many tragedies: in 1927 fourteen were killed, in 1934 nine fatalities, and 1993 in the declining years of mining, three.(1)
Even rural Somerset saw disaster at Coal Barton (Coleford) when a Fire-Damp explosion killed nine in 1869 and at Norton Hill Old (Midsomer Norton) ten died as a result of coal dust explosion in 1908.
Fire Damp or Methane is a flammable gas especially prevalent where bituminous coal lies in a pocket known in the old days as a ‘bag of foulness’.
Damps being a collective name for all mine gases includes Blackdamp (Carbon Dioxide), poisonous and explosive; Stinkdamp (Hydrogen Sulfide) with rotten eggs smell.
These and other gases resulted from explosions of Firedamp and Coal-Dust causing much loss of life before the invention of George Stephenson’s (1815) ‘Geordie’ and the Davy Lamp.(2)
However explosions still constituted a high risk and the 1812 Felling Colliery explosion which killed 92 jerked the conscience of the local gentry and in 1813 a Society was formed to reduce accidents killing hundreds a year as mines went deeper.
Davy’s safety lamp, later improved by Dr William Clanny in 1812, was shown to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society in 1813 and tested in a Durham coalmine two years later.
Davy didn’t patent his invention leaving it to the Rector of Jarrow to experiment at Hebburn Pit where there was a high risk of firedamp.
However the litany of mine disasters continued in 1837 Chapel Bank Pit collapsed when 27 men and 28 horses drowned at the Curwen owned mines in Workington, and 1866 saw 340 killed with one survivor on December 13th at the Oaks Colliery, Barnsley.(3)
The 1872 Act introduced inspection by ‘Firemen’ or ‘Deputies’ and managers were required to have ‘competency’ certificated, and more rigorous conditions were imposed on safety lamps and explosives.
Six years later 189 men and boys were killed due to gas at Wood Pit in Haydock, Lancashire. On 23rd June 1894 at Cilfynydd, South Wales, 286 miners were killed. The Whitwick No. 5 Colliery disaster on 19.4.1898 killed thirty-five.
The new century saw new levels of disaster at Bolton 21st December in 1910, when over 300 died and the Aber Valley, Universal Colliery mid- Glamorgan of 1913 when over 400 died.
Proving that safety issues can be forgotten was seen on 22nd September in 1934 when the explosion at Gresford, near Wrexham killed 266 with the inquiry showing a catalogue of management failures, poor safety and ventilation.
However the Court dismissed most charges against the owners United & Westminster Colliery Ltd, (represented by Hartley Shawcross), who were only found guilty of lack of adequate records. The pit was closed in November 1973.
Miners have served Britain well over the years in dangerous working conditions and it is no surprise they refused to roll over under the onslaughts on the industry under Thatcher’s government.
(1) Slate mines were included in the Metaliferous Mines Acts of 1872-75.
(2) One advantage of the ‘Geordie’, which continued in the north east until electric light, was that it extinguished when Firedamp was present; the Davy Lamp became dangerously hot.
Faraday investigated the explosion at Haswell Pit which killed 95 caused by coal dust a problem ignored until the Senghenydd Pit disaster of 1913.
(3) The actual dates were 1.3.1927; 26.7.1934 and 18.8.1993.
Ref: Jevons-Coal question R. Darent and Dartford Creek.