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The Eppleton Colliery Explosion on 6th July 1951
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Eppleton. Hetton-le-Hole, Durham. 6th July 1951

This explosion was caused by a build up of methane being ignited by electric arcing in a faulty 'Joy Loader'.

The Joy Loader was a machine made by the Joy Sullivan Company of the USA, a number of types of machines were introduced into UK mines during the years immediately after the end of World War II and this was one such machine. The US standards for flameproof enclosures housing the electrical parts of mining machines differed from UK standards and some modifications were carried out on some of the machines to improve things. These were carried out either by the Safety in Mines Research Establishment (SMRE) or by a suitable UK company and then approved by SMRE. For mains powered equipment, such as the Joy Loader, the modifications usually included the fitting of a UK type standard socket to take the flexible trailing cable.

The machine used five electric motors for its operation and the Eppleton explosion was caused by defects in the control box for the electric motors. There is a description, sketch and photo in the book 'Coal Mining - Electricity', by H F Banks, published by Virtue and Company Limited.

A few years after the introduction of the US machines the UK Company Mavor and Coulson, Bridgeton works, Glasgow produced their 'Samson Loader' - often also called a Joy Loader. This used one electric motor with a number of machine operations being carried out by hydraulic motors.

Other types of USA manufactured equipment that were introduced into the UK included the Joy Sullivan 'Flit Truck' and the battery operated 'Shuttle Car'.

More About The Colliery

The colliery was sunk in 1825 and was an extensively worked mine. It was situated near the village of Hetton-le-Hole in East Durham about six miles north west of Durham and south of Sunderland. It was in the Group 'C' of the No. 2 Area, Durham Division of the National Coal Board. The seams that were worked at the colliery were the Five Quarter, Main Coal, Maudlin, Low Main and Busty. The Hutton Seam which lay between the two last named had been worked out.

The mine had three winding shafts.

The Jane Pit was 12 feet in diameter and went to the Busty Seam at 434 yards. The Caroline Pit was 11 feet in diameter and went to the Hutton Seam and the Lindsay or New Pit was 16 feet in diameter to and 10 feet diameter from, the Hutton seam down to the Busty Seam. The Jane and Caroline shafts were downcasts and the Lindsay was the upcast shaft. The coal from the Busty Seam, in which the explosion took place, was wound up the Jane shaft. The ventilation was by an electrically driven double inlet Sirocco fan, 154 inches in diameter with a capacity of 287,000 cubic feet per minute at a water gauge of 2.3 inches. During 1939 in order to develop the Busty Seam and to balance the relatively high water gauge required to overcome the extra resistance due to the small shaft area and the extensive workings, a large booster fan was installed in the seam near the upcast shaft. This was an electrically driven Sirocco fan, 120 inches in diameter with a capacity of 130,000 cubic feet at a water gauge of four inches. This was kept running constantly to serve the whole of the Busty workings.

A total of 1,689 persons were employed underground and 403 at the surface and the daily average output of the mine was 2,300 tons, half of which was obtained from the Busty Seam. The Area General Manger was Mr. A.H. Kellett with Mr. J.N.O. Rogers as the Area Production Manager. The Group Agent was Mr. W. Stokoe. The Manager of the colliery was Mr. W.C. Elliott and the Undermanager of the Busty Seam, Mr. S.B. Martyn. The Undermanagers on the other seams were Messrs. T.W. Stout and Mr A.K. Nutman.

The seams were not particularly gassy but firedamp was a hazard in all of them and safety lamps had been used throughout the mine for many years. The lamps in general use for the workmen and deputies were the Oldham G.W. electric cap lamps (self servicing) and Patterson h.c.p. flame lamps. The deputies also carried Patterson G.T.L.9 flame lamps and senior officials Patterson G.T. re-lighter lamps for gas testing purposes.

Automatic firedamp detectors were not required by the regulations but they were available if they were required. Selected workmen carried the Patterson Type A.1 flame lamps as gas detectors.

  • The Busty seam at the colliery ranged between 5 feet and 6 feet thick in a full section with a varying middle band of stone which was very thick in some places. The seam was overlaid with a strong sandstone about 30 feet thick and in some areas this formed the roof.
  • The floor was of dark shale 6 to 15 inches thick underlain by grey metal. The coal had a volatile content of 36 per cent and gave a good gas coal.
  • The seam had been extensively worked for 25 years, mainly by bord and pillar mining using pneumatic picks and loaded into tubs but in an area that had recently been acquired from the defunct Hetton Colliery, which lay to the south of the Eppleton shafts and below a 48 feet drop fault, it was decided in 1945 to adopt American machinery and British arcwall machines to form pillars for later extraction where the question of surface support permitted.
  • The district was developed in 1946 from the South Main Plane to work the seam in a trough area, 200 yards wide, lying between two large faults running in a westerly direction, by forming pillars 37 yards by 17 yards with headings five yards wide to give 33 per cent extraction.
  • From the beginning, the district was worked by arcwall cutters, Joy loaders and shuttle cars which transported the coal to the No.4 main Board where they discharged on to a Huwood 30-inch belt conveyor feeding a short scraper-chain conveyor loading into tubs which were hauled in sets of 30 by main and tail haulage to the pit bottom.
  • The district was advanced to the working boundary, a distance of about 1,300 yards from the Main South Plane. Support had to be left for surface property on the inbye length and the workings were stepped back for extraction of the pillars, by ''brokens'' working which commenced in September 1950. At the time of the explosion about 300 yards had been retreated and some 12 acres of goaf laid down.
  • The loading point was stationed about 350 yards from the main line of extraction at the time of the explosion and about 400 yards from the Main South Plane or half a mile from the Jane shaft.
  • At the face of the section of the seam included a top coal 1 foot 8 inches, a dirt band and coal 1 foot 1 inch and a bottom coal of 2 feet 6 inches, totalling 5 feet 3 inches working height with a bedded sandstone roof.
  • The arcwall machine normally cut in the dirt band to a depth of 7 feet. The band was then loaded by a Joy loader into a shuttle car which discharged into stowbords which were completed or disused headings, but this practice was rather difficult during extraction working and the dirt occasionally was loaded out on to the conveyor belt.
  • The holed faces were broken down by separate rounds each of four shots in the top and the bottom coal, and the coal was then loaded out and conveyed mechanically.
  • At the time of the explosion the electric machinery installed at the face consisted of one A.B. Universal arcwall coal-cutter, two Joy loaders, two shuttlecars and two portable drilling machines. Electric power was supplied from a sub-station in the district transforming from 5,500 to 500 volts A.C. and a battery-operated shuttle cars were served by an outbye charging station by two 7.5 K.V.A. rectifiers.
  • All the electrical equipment was to British flameproof standards except the Joy loader and the shuttle cars which carried the overall Permissible Certificate' of the U.S.A. Bureau of Mines.
  • The mine produced about 150 tons per day and the work was organised on three shifts.
  • The first or fore shift descended at 12.22 a.m. and came up at 8 a.m.
  • The second or Back shift descended at 8 a.m. and came up at 3.34 p.m.
  • The Third shift descended at 3.34 p.m. and came up at 11.24 p.m.

Each shift was in the charge of a deputy, under the general supervision of an overman for the whole of the South Side of the Busty.

The normal complement of persons employed in the district on each of the three shifts was 12 and a deputy, which included one shotfirer, one driller,two cutter-men, two Joy loader operators, two shuttle car drivers and one machinery maintenance man, with one conveyor loader attendant and two haulage hands outbye.

Those Who Died

  • Thomas Laverick, aged 54, Joy Loader Attendant, died by the explosion
  • Ronald Foster, aged 25, Shuttle Car Driver, died from carbon monoxide poisoning, Buried: Hetton-le-Hole Cemetery
  • William George Hicks, aged 32, Shuttle Car Driver, died from extensive burns caused by the accident, Buried: Hetton-le-Hole
  • Norman Holmes, aged 38, Deputy, died from extensive burns caused by the accident
  • Allan Hunter, aged 38, Cutterman, died from carbon monoxide poisoning, Buried: Hetton-le-Hole Cemetery
  • Richard Parkin, aged 33, Shot Firer, died from carbon monoxide poisoning, Buried: Hetton-le-Hole Cemetery
  • Albert Patterson, aged 40, Driller, died from carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Robert Tait, aged 39, Joy Loader Attendant, died from carbon monoxide poisoning
  • James Walker, aged 44, Cutterman, died from carbon monoxide poisoning, Buried: Hetton-le-Hole Cemetery

Ian Winstanley


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