An explosion occurred about 7.30 p.m., on the 27th May 1901 and caused the death of four persons, these, fortunately, being all who were in the mine at the time. Twenty-seven horses and ponies were also killed.
H. W. Adams, Esq., coroner for the North West District of Staffordshire opened the inquest, on the 29th May, when evidence of identification only was taken; adjourned sittings were held on the 20th June and 23rd July. The Rev. M. W. McHutchin, Rector of Talk-o'-th'-Hill, was Forman of the jury.
The owners of the colliery were represented by Mr. D. K. Johnson, solicitor, and the relatives of the deceased by Mr. H. D. Moody, solicitor. There were also present: -
Mr. Enoch Edwards, JP. and Mr. F. Finney, officials of the North Staffs Miners' Association.
On the conclusion of the evidence the jury returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased men were accidentally killed by an explosion, which occurred in the Eight Feet Banbury Seam, caused by a gob fire. They added a rider to their verdict recommending that no one should be employed in the pit when the fan was standing except such as were absolutely necessary.
Talk-o'-th'-Hill Colliery was situated on the western side of the North Staffs coal-field, and belonged to the
Talk-o'-th'-Hill Colliery, Ltd. Mr A. M. Henshaw was the general and certificated manager, and Mr. Walter Roebuck, the under-manager of the colliery.
About 700 persons were ordinarily employed underground of whom 19 were firemen or officials.
The colliery had three shafts, No.1 pit was an up cast shaft and was eleven feet six inches in diameter; this shaft was fitted up for winding, but at the time of the explosion was not in use for coal drawing. No2 pit was the principle downcast and coal-winding shaft. It was 999 feet in depth and eleven feet six inches in diameter. It was also used as a pumping shaft. No's. 1 and 2 pits were 65 yards apart. No. 3 pit was about 600 yards northwest from No's 1 and 2, towards the rise of the measures and was 765 feet deep. This shaft was the downcast for a small area of workings in the Eight Feet Banbury Seam, which were not effected by the explosion.
The coalfield at Talk Colliery was considerably disturbed by geological faults.
All the workings affected by the explosion lay on the east side of a down-throw fault of 65 yards.
The coal on the west of the fault was practically exhausted and had no connection with the explosion.
The method of working was by pillar and stall, followed by the removal of the pillars. The Two Row seam was worked by longwall system.
All the seams yield firedamp, and were worked exclusively with safety lamps, the conditions being dry and dusty.
The coal was got by blasting with an explosive called ammonite, fired electrically.
The portion of the coalfield where Talk Colliery was situated, the coal seams were liable to gob fires, these being frequent in the Bullhurst Seam and in November last a fire had occurred in the Seven Feet Seam.
There were two gob fires built off within the area traversed by the explosion.
One of these was in the Bullhurst Seam near the bottom of the Main East Crut, but on the west side of the fault. This fire broke out in 1895, and was built off by stowing and strong brick stoppings.
It was know that this fire was not extinguished, but the other one had been flooded and built off. It was later stated that there was no reason to believe that either of these fires caused the explosion.
The 27th May, being Whit-Monday, was a holiday at the colliery, and advantage was taken of this to effect some repairs to the fan and pumps.
The underground workings were first examined by a shift of six firemen, who went down about 6 a.m.
Each fireman inspected their own districts to satisfy themselves that there were no indications of gob stink or any other danger, and that the ventilation and main roads were safe and in good order, making written reports to the effect that all was right in their districts; after which about 9 a.m., the fan was stopped for repairs, and remained standing until after the explosion.
It was the custom to have an official always in the pit during the weekends and holidays, whose business it was to examine the gob fire stoppings, ventilation, and to the general safety of the mine. Thomas Scragg fulfilled this duty from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the day of the explosion when Thomas Becket, one of the victims, relieved him.
The explosion occurred at 7.30 p.m. at which time there were in the workings
Thomas Becket, the official in charge, and with him Wilmot Harrison, who had gone down at 6 a.m. to attend to some Tangye pumps. There were also two shaft men working at the pumps in the downcast shaft 100 yards from the surface. The explosion killed these four men.
Mr. Henshaw, the general manager, was on the pit bank at the time, and he describes the effect of the explosion as a rumbling noise increasing in force, followed by the ejection of dust and debris from the downcast shaft, and afterwards of smoke, these phenomena occupying probably half a minute. Steps were taken immediately to get down the pit. For several minutes it was not possible to get close to either of the shafts for smoke and after damp. The first attempt to go down was made by Messrs Henshaw, Roebuck, Scragg, Leek, and Barnett, by way of the up cast shaft, where there was least smoke and after damp, but they could not get to the bottom on account of the after damp. Orders were then given to start the fan and the downcast shaft was tried, but it was found that the cages were obstructed by the capstan rope or pump rods.
But a second attempt at the up cast shaft the bottom was reached, and it was found that both the intake airways were blocked by heavy falls within a short distance of the shafts, and that the return airways were so charged with after damp and firedamp that they could not be travelled. Doors and stoppings separating the intake and return air currents were destroyed, and the only ventilation going on was by short circuits between the downcast and the up cast shafts, and a small current going down the main east dip, which returned by the old and new south returns. The new crut return was heavily charged with firedamp, and in this return there was a strong smell of "gob stink", or the products of spontaneous combustion. This smell also pervaded the air in the up cast shaft and fan drift and continued for three days, during which time it was observed by a number of experienced persons, who were unanimously of the opinion that it was caused by a gob fire.
The bodies of Highfield and Birks, the two men who were working in the downcast shaft at the time of the explosion, were recovered about two hours after the explosion. They were on the cage top when it was drawn to bank. These bodies showed no signs of burning. It was a cause of some surprise that they had not fallen or been blown off the cage top by the explosion. A pump rod was being lifted by the capstan rope at the time, and the men would probably be in a sitting or crouching position under the tacklers or cage chains, which are short and would help to keep them on the cage top.
The bodies of Beckett and Harrison were recovered on the 29th May. They were found near the bottom of the main east crut. They appeared to have been sitting in a side road leading to one of the gob fire stoppings, where there was also a pump. They were both burnt and their safety lamps were found near them, locked and unbroken. Although these two lamps were not in the condition they ought to have been, there is no reason for supposing that they had any connection with the explosion.
After the bodies of the victims had been recovered, a consultation of mining engineers considered the best mode of proceeding to reopen the mine. Due to "gob stink" in the return airways and the possibility of another explosion it was decided to cut off the ventilation altogether from the workings. This was done on 30th May till 3rd June with the result the smell of "gob stink" greatly reduced and finally disappeared.
The recovery of the mine was then continued by restoring the ventilation in sections, and in this way the workings in the different seams were gradually reopened.
The exploration and recovery of the pit was a long and arduous task, owing to the numerous large falls in the roadways, the disorganisation of the ventilation, and the uncertainty as to the place from which the "gob stink emanated.
The flame and force of the explosion extended over 8.000 yards of roadways causing vast devastation and into the Ten Feet and Two Row Seams.
A search began to find indications of the direction of the blast in order to ascertain the place and origin.
The indications of the direction of the explosion pointed to the Eight Feet Banbury Seam as the place of origin and appeared to converge on "Millington's level," near the bottom of "Gater's dip." This point was first reached on the 2nd July at which time there were no indications of any means of ignition.
On the 15th July steps were taken to force the ventilation up Gater's dip in order to continue the exploration, and soon after this was done a peculiar smell began to come out of the goaf on the north side of Gater's dip. This smell was discernible coming out of an old fallen-in road, about 15 yards up Gater's dip and leading into the goaf.
At this point on the 16th July the only conclusion we could come to, was that the smell was due to spontaneous combustion in the goaf. The appearance of this smell was accepted as a warning not to push the exploration further in this direction. The ventilation was at once cut off from Gater's dip, and all entrances to the goaf were made up with dirt packings.
A stone and mortar wall was built across the old road leading from Gater's dip, into the goaf, with a pipe through the stopping. Observations subsequently made, by opening a tap in the pipe, showed the goaf to be full of firedamp, and the smell at once abated and eventually disappeared.
The Inspector said the existence of a gob fire on the 27th May, near Gater's dip, where the smell believed to be due to spontaneous combustion was observed on the 16th July, would, I believe, account for everything observed in this explosion, and it is the only cause to which I can assign the explosion
Owing to the stoppage of the fan firedamp would accumulate in the rise workings and fast ends of all the seams, and if a gob fire existed at the place referred to it was certain, sooner or later, to ignite firedamp.
The explosion once initiated would be extended through the mine by firedamp and coal dust; it traversed all roads on which there was much coal dust. The extension of the explosion from one seam to another and along the main intake airways to the downcast shaft was probably due to coal dust alone.