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Oaks - Colliery Explosion, 12th December, 1866

Two explosions killed 384 men and boys - The Disaster

THE OAKS. Barnsley, Yorkshire 13th December 1866.


The inquest into the disaster was conducted by Mr. Thomas Taylor, one of the

Coroners for the County of Yorkshire and lasted 13 days. Mr. Morton was the

Government Inspector for the district but had been taken ill during the events and the evidence was presented to the inquiry by Mr. Joseph Dickenson, Inspector for the Manchester District. Mr. Dickenson noted that-

'Mr. Morton's health broke down under the intense excitement and anxiousness consequent upon the calamitous explosions at the colliery.'

When Mr. Dickenson made the report into the disaster, the pit was closed and attempts were going on to put out the fires that were raging below ground. There were 286 bodies down the pit and it was the most serious loss of life in a colliery disaster in Great Britain. It was also very difficult to investigate as it was impossible to enter the workings and draw any conclusions from the evidence.

From the testimony of the witnesses, it was obvious that there had been large accumulations of gas in the goaves and in addition to this were sudden outbursts of gas which the safety lamps, which were used in the mine, had dealt with safely. At the time of the first explosion, work had been proceeding in opening up fresh faces which would have liberated a lot of gas and the explosion took place at the warmest part of the day when the ventilation would have been at its least efficient. One of the ventilation furnaces had been slackened for cleaning at the time and the barometer was falling.

How the gas had become ignited was unknown. All the lamps were locked and in good order but there were gas lamps extending from the bottom of the pit for 150 yards along the Old South Level and for 400 yards down the Engine Plane. Several of the survivors were firing a shot in a place near the shaft and said that they fired the shot and the explosion occurred about two seconds later. The charge was a big one of six pounds.

The usual one was two pounds and the shot blew out the bottom of the hole. Wilson, who fired the shot, was found dead in the Engine Plane and he appeared to have gone there to prevent people walking past the place as the shot was fired and a partition blown through. It was thought that the effect of such a shot would be felt throughout the mine and the flame would go a considerable distance and the concussion would disturb the gas in the goaves.

Gas had been found in the goaves by the fireman, Cadman and by Bates and

Thompson and there were some naked lights along the South Level. The Special Rules of the Colliery were stringently followed and the Manager, Mr. John Thomas Woodhouse was one of the most competent managers in the country and the ventilation was skilfully laid out. In the North Deep Level, firedamp came from a fault and was piped to the downcast shaft where it was used to light the mine. It was supposed that this could have been a source of ignition buy Mr. Dickenson dismissed this theory as the practice was used in some Lancashire mines and there had never been an ignition of gas from these lights.

Joseph Dickenson thought that the basic cause of the disaster was the system by which the Eight Foot Barnsley Coal was worked. The seam was known to be fiery and was worked on the longwall system. At the time of the explosion, the face was a mile long and the working places rose 1 in 12 to the goaves. When this system was used at the Wallsend Colliery, there was an explosion.

Regarding the events after the explosion, Mr. Dickenson commented-

"It is difficult to restrain people from going down the pit when there may be the possibility of saving life, or for rescuing bodies but feelings should not overcome judgement, and the danger of any unnecessary number of person being allowed to go down at one time for this purpose ought not to pass unimproved. The deputy who in this instance saved so many lives, was, it seems, called a coward whilst rushing out whereas, in reality, he was showing good judgement. On similar occasion a few years ago, Mr. Morton, the Inspector of Coal Mines, Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Brown, colliery viewers, were hooted from the pit bank for preventing persons going down, the soundness of their judgement being proved by a serious explosion which followed in the course of a very short time."

With regard to the second explosion Mr. Dickenson went on to say-

"It would have been much sadder but for the observation of the slight change perceived in the direction of the air by one of the deputies named Matthew Haigh who attributed it to flue gas and made his escape alarming a great number of persons on the way and so saved the lives of six cage loads of men who rushed in panic from the pit. The number of cage loads being stated as 15 in one cage. The timely waning given by him was therefore?

The Coroner summed up and the jury retired to consider its verdict which was-

"That Richard Hunt and others were killed by an explosion of firedamp or gas at the Oaks Colliery on the 12th., December 1866 but there is no evidence to show how or where it was ignited. The jury think it unnecessary to make any special recommendations as to the workings of the mine saving that the Government are collecting information no doubt with a view to a better protection of life but they think a strict inspection desirable."

Commenting on the verdict, Mr. Dickenson wrote-

"It is not intended nor is it desirable that Inspectors should act as viewers or managers of the collieries but to be in the Districts where matters are referred to them that in case of complaint or reason to suspect danger, the pits maybe inspected and the requisite steps being taken to remedy it without an accident occurring and that when an accident had occurred, which appears to require it, investigation to be made, in order to ascertain whether the provisions of the Law have been complied with, and that, if necessary, the penalties for neglect may be proceeded for. It is apparent that when accidents have occurred, investigations press the responsibility for the management upon the parties to whom it attaches, and are the means of causing precautions to be taken which are likely to prevent a recurrence. Mines continually require attention. New roads are daily being made as the coal is worked, requiring renewed propping and frequent changes in ventilation arrangements, and the ventilation power must regularly kept up wear and tear are also constantly going on the ropes, steam boilers, machinery, pit shafts, etc. If the view is taken by one parties, therefore, that inspection should reach further than this, were acted upon, it would tend to relieve the owners and managers of the responsibility which now devolves upon them, and throw it upon the Government, which, unless the Inspectors were made as numerous as the managers and had an equally numerous staff with the power of control over the expenditure, they could not possibly undertake."

As a postscript to the disaster, years later when Mr. Mammett was giving evidence to the Royal Commission on Accidents in the mines 1879-81, Sir George Elliott recalled-

"I believe you were at the Oaks when I was there with Mr. Wooodhouse. I remember you performed a very daring deed in going down with Mr. Embleton for which I thought you ought to have been awarded the Victoria Cross."

There were still eighty bodies not accounted for and Mr. Mammett remarked to the Commission that the men were quite reconciled to it now and that ' we never hear anything about it now'. He was asked how the men overcame the sentimental feeling for those who were still in the mine and he answered-

"We have a different set of men at the colliery now. For a few months there was that feeling but is had quite died out now. We sometimes come across some bones and we have them sent up to the top but nobody claimed them and they were buried.

There was only a skull and a piece of leg bone."


Yorks Post

After 150 years, volunteers finally dig up the truth about
Barnsley mining disaster that killed 384

ENGLAND’S WORST pit disaster, which took place in Barnsley 150 years ago, killed far more people than had been thought, according to new research. Some 384 people, including 91 children, are now believed to have died in the explosion at Oaks Colliery, as 400 miners worked underground in December, 1866. The figure is 23 more than previously recorded.

Another 27 people died when rescuers were caught in a further explosion a day later. Volunteers from the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership said burial records suggest 169 bodies were never recovered and remain in old pit workings beneath the Hoyle Mill, Ardsley, Kendray, Monk Bretton and Stairfoot areas of Barnsley. The group‘s community officer Stephen Miller said: “Sadly, we knew that poor record-keeping and the chaos in the aftermath of the disaster meant that the exact number of people killed at Oaks Colliery has never been properly revealed and it has long been known that the figure of 361 was only based on an estimate by the mine owners. “Our aim from the outset was to try and find a more accurate figure and find out more about the individual stories of those that died.”

Mr Miller added: “Our first aim was to identify and find out about the unnamed victims. The overall number was never the most important thing for us, but it was very interesting to see our list of names go beyond the 361 figure that has been accepted for so long.” Researchers spent more than 3,000 hours going through records. Volunteer Noel Shaw said: “This research presented an unmissable opportunity to delve into the lives of those who perished and their families, whilst also working to produce a more accurate list of fatalities. “I was surprised to see how many people travelled the length and breadth of the country to Barnsley for employment in the dangerous coal mines.”

Commemorations of the disaster will culminate in an exhibition at the Experience Barnsley Museum in December. The Oaks explosion was the worst pit disaster in the UK until the 1913 Senghenydd explosion in South Wales, which killed 439 miners.



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