|Although coal had been mined in Swannington and Coleorton from 1204 the coal under the village is deep under a layer of clay and it was the Industrial revolution which produced the technology that made Whitwick coal viable. William Stenson opened Whitwick Colliery in 1826 and in 1827 the Leicester Chronicle reported that two shafts had reached a depth of 26 yards. Coal was finally reached in April 1828 when the Minge seam was reached some 100 yards below ground and later that month a waggon laden with Whitwick coal was drawn about Leicester preceded by a band.
In May 1834 the main coal was reached and great celebrations were held at the Railway Hotel on Long Lane.
It was reported that 50 gentlemen dined and 200 colliers ate roast beef and plum pudding, with due allowance of ale. The celebrations were further enlivened by music and cannons!
Leicester Bright was mined from Whitwick; the coal being called this by Londoners who noticed that when burning it sparkled and shone when compared to coal from the Welsh coalfields. In total six shafts had been sunk at the colliery over its years in operation it was in pit No 5 that a Disaster occurred on the 19th April 1898 killing 35 miners. The colliery was the property of the Whitwick Colliery Company who had worked the mine for a long time. The colliery consisted of a number of shafts which worked two seams of coal, the Lower Main at 309 yards and the Upper Main at 249 years. The fire which caused the deaths of 35 men and boys occurred in the Upper Main Seam.
The ventilation of the pit was produced by a Guibal fan,
30 feet in diameter and 10 feet wide which ran at 48 r.p.m.
The air current in the Upper Main Seam was about 10,000 cubic feet per minute, and the air current passing along the intake of the district in which the fire occurred was measure as 9,600 cubic feet per minute a few days before the fire broke out. The min was worked with open lights as firedamp was unknown.
At about 2.30 a.m. on the morning of 19th April 1898, the official in charge of the night shift, working in the South District, was travelling down No.88 bank into the main road when he found smoke passing along the intake and main roadway. Fearing that something was wrong, he sent a boy to tell all the workmen to make their way out along the return airway and he went to find the cause of the smoke. He went down the main intake which was also the haulage road and found that the smoke’s intensity was increasing as he approached the bottom of the No.47 bank.
Whitwick Colliery Disaster1898
He got far enough to see that the timbers of the main road about half way between No. 47 and the box-hole road were on fire near the roof. He had to go back and, by passing through the separation doors on No.47, he made his way into the return airway and reached the box-hole road with great difficulty.
When he got through the intake and the main road he was in fresh air and on the outbye side of the fire. He saw two workmen some distance away, nearer the shaft and ordered them to go for the under manager while he went towards the workings along the main intake. He had not gone far when he saw that the roadway was on fire and that some of the men had come out of the workings by passing under the fire. These men were exhausted and were lying on the floor of the roadway. It was then clear to him that the timbers along the roadway were well ablaze and with a strong current of air passing along the road, there was no chance of reaching the workmen until the fire had been extinguished.
A telegraph message had been sent to Mr. A.H. Stokes, H.M. Inspector of Mines who had contacted his Assistant Inspectors. One of these, Mr. Hepplewhite arrived at the colliery at 3.15 p.m. and immediately went down the mine to see the seat of the fire. He found the officials attempting to enter the return airway by means of a brattice and a fresh air current form the main road. The smoke was as very dense, and the attempt looked hopeless. Men were attempting to remove the fallen debris which blocked the main road and water from buckets was being thrown on the burning timber.
Mr. Stokes arrived at the colliery about 7.45 p.m. and his other Assistant, Mr. Hewitt about 9 p.m. Mr. George Lewis, the Consulting Engineer had arrived some hours before. These men had a consultation and after a short examination of the plans, all descended the mine. When they arrived at the fire they found that the men were doing their best to get through or over the fall. Some of the timber was breaking into flames over the fall and there was no doubt that the timber ahead was burning and the fire was extending rapidly due to the good air current that was passing over the fall. That part of the roadway was dry and well timbered for a considerable distance. The small hand-pump was at work and was well supplied with water but, although the water extinguished the flames it was doing great damage to the roof.
Mr. Stokes came to the conclusion that any attempt to push through the fire, either over or by the side of the fall was useless. The men working there had put in great efforts but had advanced about 4 feet in eighteen hours. To enter the return airway at the box-hole would have been fatal as the atmosphere there was full of carbon monoxide. It became evident that the men beyond were caught in a death trap.
Mr. Stokes commented:-
“I had been at the front and had clearly seen the hopelessness of getting to the entombed men through the fall and fire, but what had given me intense anxiety was the safety of the party of workmen acting under our instructions. I had not forgotten the Baddesley disaster in the neighbouring county, when 23 lives were lost trying to rescue 9 persons entombed under similar conditions, and, to add to this anxiety, I heard ominous sounds over my head when at the fall, which I feared, indicated small explosions of gas generated by the fire. This conjecture was strengthened a short time afterwards by one of my assistants, and an official of the mine, who, without knowing what I had heard, and the conclusions I had drawn reported to me the opinion as to the sounds and the checking of the air current, and that the men working at the fall, were alarmed at the repeated heavy falls which were taking place. Some of the officers in charge intimated that explosions were taking place, and therefore instructions were given to commence the erection of a strong stone dam, so that we might be ready to cut off the air if necessary.
It now became a question of sealing up this part of the mine and with it all hope of rescuing the entombed men, or an attempt to reverse the ventilation, and to enter the mine by way of the return airway. The responsibility of such a serious step, and the difficulties we had to encounter, were so great that it was thought advisable to withdraw the men working at the fire, and call together all the colliery managers within a few miles radius, and have a consultation as to the steps proposed to be taken. Men were dispatched in the early hours of the morning to various managers, to ask them to meet at the colliery offices at 8 a.m. At the time named every manager requisitioned (16 in all) willingly appeared, some of them at much personal inconvenience.
The working plans were produced and sketches made of the exact position of affairs and every detail necessary for a decision placed before the meeting. After a long and exhaustive explanation and discussion, I put the following question to each manager separately, viz. Is it probablethat any person is alive beyond the seat of the fire? The answer was a unanimous No! I then put a further question, viz. Is it possiblefor any person to be alive beyond the seat of the fire? And each individual manager again gave the same answer, No!”
After this dramatic meeting, instructions at once went out to complete the dam in the main intake which was called stopping No.1, to prepare to cut off the ventilation to the fire. This was finished without incident and by 2 p.m. on the 20th, a stone dam, 6 feet thick, was constructed across the roadway and had been lined up with a brick stopping and flue dust to within 115 yards of the edge of the fire. Two rows of iron pipes, 12 inches in diameter had been built into the stopping so that air was still passing to the fire which enabled men building the stopping to work in fresh air and also prevented the products of the fire backing up on the flames and perhaps exploding before the stopping was complete. While the work was going on, the question of reversing the air was considered. This proved to be difficult. It would have been quick and easy to reverse the air at a point 370 yards from the shaft but this would have lost the use of 1,200 yards of the main haulage and the prospective rescuers would have had to use a long airway which could be used only for men to travel.
It would have cut off access to the main road dam, and made the work of exploration and recovery very difficult and dangerous. Furthermore the mine could not have been reopened until the air current had again been reversed.
It was clear that there would have to be reversed at the box-hole slit or the opening between the main intake and the main return road which men and materials could travel. A detailed plan had to be devised to carry this out but during Wednesday night a plan was drawn up which catered for every anticipated emergency and it was decided to carry it out by gently diverting the air into a figure 8 path. Another dam was built in the intake airway, leaving a space of 5 yards between it and the dam nearest the fire. Two pipes were built into the dam similar to those in the first but nether connected nor in line. In the event of an explosion behind the first dam, it was hoped that the space would absorb the blast.
An explosion was anticipated not from firedamp but from the products of combustion from the fire. The pipes from the last stopping where continued down the main intake, through the box-hole slit and into the return airway where a door had been made through which passed the pipes. The door was a regulator about 18 inches square with a chain attached, supported by props and passing to the intake corner of the box-hole slit. The aim was to make an immediate diversion of the main current through the slit. An observation box with a glass door was fixed in one row of pipes, so that the air current coming from the fire could be tested. Only one row of pipes was used the other being sealed near the front of the stopping.
At about 2 p.m. on Thursday, all was ready and the door was gently closed and the ventilation reversed. The effect was soon seen in the observation box and in about 15 minutes, the foul gasses from the fire started passing through showing that the current had been reversed. The reversal was done so gently that there was no explosion. All persons left the mine about 5.30 p.m. except those who were required to watch the return air from the fire and report on its state from time to time. The temperature rose slowly through the night until it reached 81 degrees Fahrenheit.
By 11 a.m. on Friday Mr. Hepplewhite, Mr. Lewis jnr., Mr. Hay, the manager and a party of volunteers started up the return airway. They found it clear of noxious gases and a current of about 600 cubic feet per second was flowing but the temperature in the return air pipes was high as was the temperature in the old return airway that they had to travel. They had not gone far when they found Clamp’s body. They pushed on and arrived in No.47 road. This was the point where the first smoke would have entered the return and it was important for them to know if the doors separating this return from the main intake were open or closed. Some of the party venture down the roadway and found both doors closed, but beyond the second door, a heavy fall had blocked the road. It was the clear that the noxious gasses from the fire had been passing into the workings.
Some of the exploring party became affected by the fumes in the road and others, finding No.47 a good travelling road, decided to press on. They went to the top of the road where they found eight bodies in an old road, lying a few feet from the entrance to the return airway. The men appeared to have got into this place to get out of the direct current of foul gas. The exploring party then retired and picked up the men who had been stationed along the roadway for verbal communication. They returned along the airway to the entrance to the box-hole and the main intake. Many of them were in a state of exhaustion and required the attention of Drs. Burkitt and Griffen, who had accompanied the party and whose presence gave confidence to the explorers.