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A lamentable accident occurred at Berry Hill colliery, North Staffordshire, on the 12th March 1872 whereby seven men were badly burnt. The first who succumbed to the injuries two days after the accident was Joseph Roberts, and since then five others have died. Their names are:

  • Robert Hughes
  • Isaac Hughes
  • Michael Matthews
  • John Phoenix
  • Martin Duffey

This sad accident is attributed to the reckless use of a naked light, instead of a safety lamp.

The inquest on the bodies of the six unfortunate miners was held on Wednesday 10th April at the Glebe Hotel, Stoke.

Present were Mr Booth, Coroner, Mr. Wynne, Government Inspector of Mines, Mr, Brown, the agent of the Miners' Association and Mr. Welch appeared on behalf of the victim's relatives. Evidence was taken as to the deaths.

The wife of Martin Duffey stated that her husband, who was burnt about the face and arms, died on the 29th March at Chapelfields, Hanley. He told her that Phoenix had a candle.

Mary Phoenix, the widow of John Phoenix, stated that her husband was brought home burnt all over his body. He had four doctors attending him, but died on the 19th March. He told her that he was in the workings and saw a candle, and requested it to be put out. He did not say who lighted the candle.Mary Evans, of Plough Street, Hanley, stated that Robert Hughes died on the 19th March and Isaac Hughes on the 26th.

A nurse from the Infirmary stated that Michael Matthews died of burns on the 24th March. She heard him say that working with naked lights was the cause of the explosion.George Keeling, a collier living at Bucknall, repeated the evidence given by him on a previous occasion and said he worked at Berry Hill colliery where the explosion took place, and he was about a hundred yards from the men. He had been there about half an hour before, and fired a shot, but he examined the place with a safety lamp before he fired.

Before that shot was fired there was some gas in the waste, he and Phoenix put some brattice up to keep the gas out of the way of the shot. He did not examine the place after that. When the shot was fired, the coal knocked down the brattice. There was no naked candle where the loaders were at work, and that was on the face. He did not know who put the candle there.

John Phoenix had charge of the place and ought to have put it out. Phoenix was his master. The mine was not worked exclusively with lamps; it was the duty of Phoenix to tell them where to take them. It was not the rule to take candles to the far end.

On being cross examined by Mr. Wynne, the mines inspector, Keeling said he fired the shot, as it was his duty to fire shots. It had been a more general rule to have naked lights at the near end of the drift. In answer to Mr. Welch, he said as a rule gas was more or less in the gob. The explosion took place about forty to forty-five minutes after the firing of the shot. Phoenix was responsible in reference to the lights, as he was the master.

In reply to various questions by jurymen and the coroner, Keeling said that the candle was burning after he had fired the shot; it had been removed when the shot was being fired, but was taken back again.

John Wooliscroft, the underlooker, residing at Berry Hill said he had the management of the mine, and acted under the direction of Mr. R.H. Wynne, mining engineer, and viewer of the colliery. Wooliscroft was in the drift the Saturday before the explosion occurred, and they were working with lamps entirely that day.

Mr. Wynne, the government inspector, said he visited the colliery on the 28th March and made an inspection. He found gas in the last three wastes, but not in such a state as to be dangerous with lamps supposing they were careful, but on no account should a candle be taken into that drift. It was pointed out to him, by Keeling and Wooliscroft about the spot where the candle was found afterwards. Taking that the information he got, he had not the slightest doubt the gas floated onto the naked light light, because there was a depression in he roof which would force the gas on. That was the exact place to put the candle if they wanted it to explode. It happened in his opinion from using the naked lights. Phoenix was responsible, and he also thought that Keeling should have taken more care that he did.

The coroner summed up the case to the jury and said there could be no doubt that the explosion was caused in consequences of the exposure of naked lights in a drift where gas was known to exist. He had had to enquire into a great number of these cases, and it appeared to him a perfect farce to use lamps and naked lights in the same place. To him it showed the height of foolhardiness to use the naked light.

The ground bailiff said he had ordered that the mine should be worked entirely with lamps, and ordered the naked lights to be put out, and for the last several weeks he had seen none in place. Supposing Phoenix had been liable, as it seems he was responsible, and had been alive, he would have been liable to a verdict of manslaughter at their hands. The only question for them to consider was, weather ordinary and proper care, had been taken by the various persons.

The jury took some time in considering their verdict. The foreman, Mr. Buckley said they had come to the conclusion that it was a case of "Accidental death" caused by the careless use of naked lights, which practice the jury condemned most strongly.

Pit Terminology - Glossary

John Lumsdon