Oaks Colliery Explosion
12th December 1866
It was two weeks before Christmas, early on a Wednesday afternoon when the mining community of Barnsley heard a sound that no mining community wants to hear – a violent explosion. "The Convulsion shook the whole neighbourhood as if the earth had been rent by an earthquake." Dense black smoke and coal dust belched from the pit mouths and a "black snow" fell on the fields of Cudworth, five miles away.
The Oaks Pit at Hoyle Mill had exploded. It was twenty past one on the 12th of December 1866.
Wednesday was "making up day", the day when the miners made up their weeks work. With less than two weeks to go before Christmas there was "an additional inducement for the unfortunate victims of this sad accident to be more than usually regular at their work in order to supply their humble boards with a bountiful supply of Christmas cheer." There would be no Christmas cheer this year. No one knew how many miners were down the mine that day. It would be the Union who, in the coming weeks compiled the list of the missing.
Representatives of the Oaks Branch of the South Yorkshire Miners Federation visited the homes of all their members who had died in The Oaks to give comfort and assess their needs. On Friday 14th December they visited Ingleton.
Coal had been mined in Ingleton for centuries. It was a small and isolated coalfield mainly supplying the local neighbourhood as far as Settle and Kendal. The 1850's had been a particularly hard time for Ingleton, the cotton mill had burnt down and the mines were struggling. 1866 had been a bad year; in October the Wilson Wood mine flooded and "silence reigned all around". As work ceased many miners had to seek work elsewhere. Some had gone to Barnsley and to The Oaks.
"The explosion was heard; all the women and children, with pale anxious faces they hastened to the mine. When the truth was made known the hills rang with their mourning for all of their men folk who died down the mine".
Those who heard the explosion came "from all directions men, women and children"; the roads leading to the Oaks were choked with the relatives and friends of those "who had left home at five in the morning so unsuspicious of danger." With the wives and mothers came the shopkeepers and other small tradesmen whose livelihood depended on the miners. Miners from other mines and other shifts also came to help, rescue any who may have survived.
By 2 o'clock Thomas Dymond, the managing partner and David Tewart, the Under Viewer, were precariously descending No 1 shaft. A new cage had been fitted but the rope was badly chaffed and there was not time to replace it; if there were any survivors to save speed was essential.
On reaching the bottom of the shaft they found, to their astonishment, 20 to 30 survivors huddling there, badly scorched and suffering from the effects of afterdamp, but they were alive, just. Some were so badly burned "that the complete extinction of life would have been a merciful consummation"
At the Inquest, Robert Cadman, Fireman at the Oaks, said he went down "in the second draw" and "I saw some dead 'uns and some wick 'uns." With Tewart and Sugden he helped put Hughes, Brooks and George Borrowdale into the first cage and got them to the Surface.
George Borrowdale died of his injuries within the week. Of those brought out alive only six were to survive.
Even with the real risk of further explosions there was no shortage of volunteers, miners and officials from other mines, to search the workings.
As the rescue parties penetrated deeper into the mine bodies were found; as one rescuer said "everything on my way was dead" men, boys, horses and donkeys "all the bodies only slightly burned but the clothes were blown (off) or torn by the Blast"
At the Inquest, Matthew Hague, Night Deputy at the Oaks, testified that:-
"I found many dead bodies from about 100 to 200 yards in the dip north plane, between the engine-plane and the stone drift. There were Edward Cartwright, Peter Day, William Abbott, Joshua Leathers, Thosmas Leathers, Michael Gaunt, Israel Illingworth, Thomas Island, Thomas Barker, William Barker, Andrew Barker, and several others, about sixteen altogether. They were not burnt or scorched in the least, but they appeared as if asleep.
There were some of them fractured by the explosion. Some of them were in their working clothes, and some of them put their clothes away as fast as they could."
James Marsh, coal miner of 'Worsbro'dale', told the Inquest that he went down the mine about 3:15pm on the day of the explosion and "saw George Barker, Matthew Hague and David Tewart at the bottom. They went with us to get the men out." At a level past Jones's Jinney George Barker said he had two sons "further on, and we tried to get into them, but had to turn back as the air was so bad" "Barker failed there and we had to bring him out"
"We came out about 6 o'clock."
The rescue parties worked in shifts through the night; at about 8:30 next morning Matthew Hague and William Sugden, both under deputies, were with a party, about 750yds from the pit bottom, when the mine "sucked"; they knew this was a sign of an explosion. Sugden ordered them out. Throughout the mine rescuers rushed to the pit bottom. One after another six cages were brought to the surface all full of men and all overladened - some with 16 men in. Sugden, staying to see all out, was not one of them. The mine exploded at "5 minutes to nine".