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The colliery district of Apedale near Newcastle, which had in the past contributed somewhat heavily in the death-role resulting from colliery disasters in North Staffordshire was on Thursday 2nd April 1891 the scene of another disastrous explosion, whereby eight men and two boys were killed. The explosion took place at the Sladder Hill pit, which, with other collieries in the neighbourhood was worked by the Midland Coal, Coke and Iron Company, of which Mr. W.Y. Craig was the managing director.

The pit was situated within a hundred yards of the company's Burley colliery where previous disastrous explosions had occurred.Three seams of coal were worked at this colliery, the lowest, where the explosion took place being the Bullhurst, which had proved formally to be of a fiery character. Two shafts reached the seam, about 200 yards in depth, and the scene of the explosion was about half a mile from the pit mouth, in the direction of the Apedale Hall. The explosion was not attended by the harrowing spectacles, which were usually seen on the occurrence of such disasters, as it took place during the night shift, and there was no indication of anything unusual apparent on the pit bank.

The first intimation obtained of the accident was when a fresh shift of men were lowered at about quarter to nine. They were proceeding to relieve the men and boys employed in the Bullhurst. They noticed that the customary ventilation of the workings had changed; they re-ascended the shaft and reported the circumstances. Mr. S. Lawton, the manager of the pit and Mr. W. H. Wain, of the companies Podmore Hall Collieries, was at once communicated with. They descended the mine accompanied by several officials and on penetrated the workings they found that an explosion had taken place which had blown out some of the stoppings, caused several falls of roof, and had thus interrupted the ventilation. They then proceeded to repair the air current, and about half past eleven, were able to reach the face of the workings.

About one o clock Mr, W.N.Atkinson, Her Majesty's Inspector of Mines, arrived and the exploration was continued. The eight men and two boys who had been at work when the explosion occurred were found killed in their working places. That the explosion had been a violent one was evident from the mutilated conditions of several of the bodies, which had met with its full force, and the appearance of the workings in the vicinity. The effects of the explosion did not extend more than 300 yards from the spot where it originated, and this accounted for the men engaged on the pit bank not being aware of the occurrence.

Reliefs of men were engaged during the night in restoring the condition of the mine and recovering the bodies which, by ten o'clock Friday morning, were all recovered and brought to the surface. They were removed to the carpenter's shop and laid out for identification. The bodies, as they lay in the temporary mortuary, presented a saddening spectacle. George Hall was the only one who escaped charring or mutilation, his death probably being caused by the effects of afterdamp. The terrible destructive energy of the blast was visible in the broken limbs and other injuries sustained by the other unfortunate miners.

Most of the bodies were also badly burnt. About twelve months previously all the men and boys employed on the Apedale collieries, decided to join the North Staffordshire Coal and Ironstone Workers Permanent Relief Society, so that the wives and families of those killed in this explosion received financial aid on the scale in force. Mr. R. Green, the secretary of the Society paid the funeral allowance due to the relatives concerned.

The results of the examination, as to the cause of the explosion, made by the Government Inspector, along with all the officials who were engaged in the mine, was to be made known when the inquest was held.

  • The names of those killed:-
  • George Hall age 34 married three children
  • John Warburton age 40 married no children
  • Arnold Allen age 14 single
  • Joseph Birch age 20 single
  • James Holland age 33 married no children
  • William H. Oakley age 19 single
  • George Wetnall age 19 single
  • Fred Webb age 26 married
  • Sampson Knight age 41 married seven children
  • Richard Parsons age 14 single

On Thursday morning, 16th April, Mr. J. Booth, Coroner, resumed the inquiry at the Red Lion Inn, Chesterton. Mr. W.H. Emery was the foreman of the jury.
The first witness was the general manager for the company, Mr. Wain; he gave a description of the ventilation, the layout of the pit and the work done over the previous twelve months. Marsaut's safety lamps being used and shot firing being allowed, using gunpowder, roburite and gelignite: but since about four months previously, when they were blasting with roburite in the return of another district, gunpowder was prohibited from being taken down the pit. On the 31st of March, running short of roburite, they allowed the water cartridge to be used and both had been used up to the accident.

On being advised of the explosion Mr. Wain descended the pit, and in the company of Mr Lawton, the manager went some distance along the main level until they were stopped by the afterdamp. They then proceeded to restore the ventilation and were able to penetrate to the far end. They found at the bottom of No 4 jig that all the stoppings were blown in towards the main return. The timber in places was blown out and there were falls of coal and dirt from the roof and sides. At the bottom of No 10 thirling they came across the body of a horse, which appeared to have been burnt and had its gears blown off. Mr. Wain pointed out the spots where the bodies lay and said that Warbuton, the fireman, had a lamp close to him and had some fuse in his hand. There was a can containing gelignite cartridges and some water bags close to, and afterwards they found a piece of burnt fuse and more bags.
Of the deceased, Webb, Oakley and Hall were not burnt, but all the rest were, more or less. Under cross-examination, Mr, Wain said under certain conditions there was flame from an explosion of roburite and gelignite.

The Inspector examined Mr Wain at great length, and he said Warbuton's lamp was unlocked, and drew the conclusion from that, that he had fired the shot with an open lamp, which was an infringement of the rules of the colliery.
He could not say whether this had been a blown out shot although there were no traces of a bag in the shot hole. The charges had been exploded by means of a fuse. There were more witnesses examined regarding firing gelignite with or without water and the inquiry was adjourned for a week.

On the 25th April after a searching investigation lasting two days the jury, who have inquired into the circumstances attending the loss of ten lives in the explosion on the 2nd April, returned a verdict of accidental death, combined with grave censure for laxity and neglect in the management.

The jury found that the origin of the explosion was a blown out shot, in one of the last thirlings, and although they did not consider the pit to be a dry and dusty one, they had the prepared evidence of the government Inspector of Mines before them, attributing the explosion to the ignition of coal dust and a small percentage of gas, by flame proceeding from the shot hole. There was much reason to fear that the shot had been charged with gelignite in a dry state, though it was a flame producing explosive when not used in conjunction with a water cartridge.

The fireman who charged and fired the shot was one of the victims of the explosion: but the evidence of a fireman and a number of colliers who worked in the seam went to show that gelignite had been used previous to the explosion in a dry state, without the necessary precautions being taken in enclosing it in a water cartridge. The officials of the colliery asserted that this reckless use of gelignite, if it did take place, was contrary to their instructions: though the jury did not attach criminal responsibility to anyone they condemned the carelessness, which appeared to have prevailed.

Pit Terminology - Glossary

John Lumsdon