One of the many hazards faced by miners is water, and no way could this be more emphasised than the flooding of Diglake Colliery in North Staffordshire on 14th January, 1895, with the loss of 77 lives.
Seldom has a colliery born such a prophetic name as Diglake at Bignal End, Audley, where an underground lake was created after the extraction of coal was replaced with water that had drained into the abandoned mine from 1850.
At 11.30 a.m. on Monday, 14th of January, 1895, a vast underground reservoir of water broke into the workings and threatened the lives of 240 men and boys who were in the mine at the time.In the ensuing horror there were some miraculous escapes, but 77 lives were lost in truly appalling circumstances.
Diglake was operated by Wm.Rigby and Sons as leases of Sir Thomas Boughey and was served by the Keele-Alsager branch of the North Staffs Railway. The colliery lay close by Audley station, at which point the line crossed the main road from Chesterton.
The pit had three shafts, No.1, No.2 and a third shaft that was formerly part of the disused Hall pit which had recently been reopened for winding purposes and there was an underground connection with Diglake No.1, some 400yds distance. About 300 were employed with many of the workers being boys of 13 to 19yrs of age, and, as was common practice, fathers and sons would often accompany each other on the same shift.
The pit was sunk in 1870 to tap the rich Seven, Eight and Tenfeet coal seams which were the mainstay of a number of collieries in the district, one of these being a previous Diglake Colliery nearby that had been worked by Sir Thomas Boughey until about 1850.
This pit had been abandoned for 45yrs and left to accumulate water. It was in the general direction of these earlier workings, known to be flooded that operations were proceeding.
Diglake was regarded as a wet pit, so much so that miners were supplied with special clothing and tin sheeting for protection against overhead seepage.
That winter had seen heavy snowfalls in North Staffs with drifts up to 8ft. Rain at times and partial thaw had increased the amount of surface water percolating into the pit, and made working conditions more unpleasant than usual. Nevertheless no particular concern was felt that morning.
The day shift went down at 6.30 a.m., 166 by way of No.1 shaft and the remainder from Boyles Hall No.3 which was more convenient to their place of work. The fireman, Wm.Sproston of Wood Lane, had made his inspection and found everything in order. He and his son, 25yrs old Enoch, were to lose their lives in the impending disaster, but his second son, 15yrs old William, survived and was able to describe his ordeal at the inquest.
He said his father had just fired a shot at the top end and came round to see him for a minute or two and told him there was a little more water coming out of the top end. He had gone back in to see if the men had started again. A short time later a boy came out of the level and said some water was coming in and a ventilation door was open. Wm.Sproston junior went to close it. When he returned, the boy had gone.
He never saw him again or any of the 44 others working in that part of the mine. He had started off down the dip from where he heard a roaring sound but did not know it was water. He got into a manhole at the side of the road.
The water rushed down in a raging torrent. His foot slipped and the water carried him 200yds to the bottom of the dip. Luckily, he was face upwards so he was able to breathe.
At the bottom, Richard Howle, who had been waiting to load the descending cage, grabbed young Spronson, and together they managed to reach the outlet to Boyles Hall and safety.
At the inquest, Howle was asked why he did not go up in the cage and he replied that the water was up to his waist in seconds.
In the meantime, the rapidly rising water flooded the sump of No.1 shaft putting the pumping engine out of action and rushed on into the lower levels of the mine where other men were working, leaving behind it, at the foot of the dip, a great mass of fallen roof props, coal tubs, earth and other debris. It was this dam -like obstruction comprising of many tons of material, mostly submerged beneath several feet of water that was to render rescue operations highly difficult and dangerous in the extreme and ultimately lead to complete abandonment.
News of the disaster spread quickly and crowds of wives, mothers, and anxious relatives soon gathered round the pithead where icy winds were blowing and snow and slush was underfoot. By nightfall upwards of 160 men and boys had escaped from the mine, but each passing hour increased the watchers' fear for those still entombed. All through the night the cage of No.1 shaft was used to bring to the surface whatever debris could be reached from the flooded pit bottom. But, inspections of both No.1 and No 2 shafts showed that the water was still running freely. This meant that the mine was still filling up and that the source was no way exhausted.
John Boulton of Ravens Lane, a collier, was at home when he heard of the disaster and went to the pit head. He descended No.1 shaft slowly but found the water level was above the outlet road, closing access to and egress from the pit. He next descended No.2 shaft only to find the same situation there. Still undeterred, he went down at Boyles Hall where the pit bottom was at a higher horizon, and 300yds from the shaft bottom, he met the colliery under manager, Wm.Dodd, at the edge of the flood water. Together they climbed down a narrow air shaft with water cascading upon them from above. Faced by a swift running stream they were forced to return and take another route by a back air road where they came across 16 men huddled together and exhausted.
These men were directed to safety while Boulton and Dodd made their way deeper into the mine successfully rescuing a further 6 men. Finally, after struggling breast high through the flood, the sound of rapping on the air pipes lead them to a spot where 4 more men and a boy had taken refuge among the roof timbers. They were the last ones to be brought out alive to the surface. John Boulton and William Dodd received medals for their bravery in the rescue work.
During the following night an exploration party found the bodies of Henry Holland, 26yrs years of age from Chesterton, and Harry Rhodes, 16yrs of age from Boon Hill.
Their bodies had been wedged beneath an overturned wagon, which, with several others, formed part of a huge dam near the bottom of No.1 shaft, beyond which 75 men and boys were still unaccounted for. It was obvious that any break through would be a very lengthy and dangerous operation.
After some difficulty obtaining a supply of steam for the pumping engine, pumping began but the 300 gallons per minute had little effect on the water level. Salvage teams toiled away at the obstructions, working breast high in the icy flood, but progress was painfully slow in moving the debris.
By the end of the week, little headway had been achieved and there was increasing fear that a massive volume of water could overwhelm the rescuers.
As well, there remained a constant threat of lethal gas displaced from the flooded workings throughout the mine. Reluctantly, it was decided that all attempts to reach the entombed men, none of whom were likely to be alive, must cease until the flood water had abated.
This decision, announced late on Saturday the 19th, cast a further gloom on the watchers at the pit head, some of whom had scarcely slept for 5 nights. The overall scene was harrowing and desolate in the extreme. Drenching rain had now added to the general misery, despite which small groups trudged through the mud and slush to and from the Diglake and Boyles Hall shafts, hoping against hope for some good news, but there was none.
One poor woman had waited near the pit head for three days and nights with a set of dry clothes for her husband. Another, whose husband and son were missing, had to be physically restrained from throwing herself down the shaft. Gradually, however, the waiting sorrowing crowds dwindled away to their homes.
At the end of the inquiry the jury found that the lives were lost by flooding. The evidence did not show how the water got in, but they were of the opinion that it was an unforeseen accident, and the colliery appeared to have been carefully managed.
The Miners Federation of Great Britain appointed Messrs Cowely and Hasam to attend this enquire as to the cause of this fearful calamity.