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On 24 th December 1874 a sad catastrophe happened at Bignall hill colliery near Newcastle-under-Lyme , North Staffordshire , which by 17 men lost their lives, caused by the use of naked lights in a fiery seam. And yet after a warning so terrible there was some difficulty with the colliers about the exclusive use of safety lamps; but, fortunately the owners were firm and no naked lights were allowed. It would have been well to prohibit the use of gunpowder in such mines also.

An inquest on the bodies of the unfortunate men killed in the explosion was held on the Saturday at the Plough Inn, Audley, before Mr. Booth, coroner. Mr. George Fryer, underlooker, said he was employed at the pit in question. He was in the Bullhurst seam when the explosion occurred. On Thursday forenoon he heard a report. He then ran out of the seam, and his lamp was extinguished. He then made his way out of the pit. He went to the offices for lights, returned and had the cage run up and down to drive out the chokedamp. He met with David Riley, a butty from the Seven Feet seam and Billington and they went down and in as far as possible, some 100 yards. Fryer remained placing brattice, and Riely and Billington went searching.

Soon bodies began to be brought out, and they all worked in the Bullhurst seam, which had been considered the safest in the pit. Jos. Rhead, collier, the only one to be found still alive, but insensible, was affected by choke-damp.

There was no one killed in the Seven and Eight seams, where they worked with naked lights. Sometimes they were obliged to use lamps. The inquiry was adjourned.

The adjourned inquiry was held at the Boughy Arms before Mr. Booth, the district coroner. Mr. Wynne, H.M.I. of Mines and Mr. Gilroy assistant inspector were present and Mr. Arkrill on behalf of the owners. George Fryer, the underlooker, was re-examined, he said that ventilation was all right on the morning of the explosion, and apparently everything was safe. Authority had been given him to order lamps, but he did not order any, because he saw no necessity for doing so.

In reply to Mr.Arkrill, he said he did not allow naked lights to be used until the gas had been cleared away from the “bolt” hole. Machin’s body was the nearest to the bolt hole after the explosion, and his lights appear to have fired the gas. If Machen had done his duty, and gone into the working with a lamp before work was commenced, the explosion might have been prevented.

David Riley, a butty, who had been previously examined, had his evidence read over to him. In answer to Mr. Akrill he added that he had seen the place since the explosion, and the water, which naturally accumulated slowly, had been forced up by a fall of roof.

This would, to a certain extent, impede the ventilation of the Bullhurst seam. Mr. Wynne, government inspector, had Mr. Fryer the underlooker, recalled and called his attention to one of the colliery rules, which directed that when gas was detected in any of the workings, it should be cleared out, and before the men were allowed to go to work they should be supplied with locked safety lamps, until the manager said it was safe to use naked lights. Mr. Wynne asked, “Are you aware of this rule”? Fryer said yes sir. Mr. Wynne asked, “Do you consider that you complied with it”? Fryer replied, the gas was so small. Mr. Wynne said. This rule dose not say small, but “any gas”. Did you carry it out? Fryer replied no.

Joseph Rhead, collier, was recalled and said that he had worked in the Bullhurst seam and was down the pit when the explosion happened. During the whole of the four years he was employed there the pit had been worked with candles. He saw the fire from the explosion, which went up the dip, but he could not say where the men were at the time. He ran 20 or 40 yards, when he was overcome by the after damp and fell down, and was carried out of the pit.

Mr. S.B. Gilroy, Assistant Inspector of Mines, stated that he had visited the pit on the evening of the day of the explosion and observed that portions of various air stoppings had been blown upward from the main level, and that the inner side of the settings of timber, all the way from the shaft, was more or less smutty. The first strong indication of a recent fire was at the top of the three-quarter dip, where the coal had been subject to a hot up-hill blast. In the first west level he found two boards had been blown west- ward out of the air door, and that the bottom iron door band was bent inwards. The top band and frame remaining intact. The timber was shattered on the side next to the dip and the coal on the lower side was here and there charred. At the end of the level he tested and found no firedamp but very high temperature, and the after damp was very strong.

Pit Terminology - Glossary

John Lumsdon


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