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Safety Lamps Became A Major Issue

Researched by John Lumsdon
John Lumsdon

In 1914 the Mines Inspectorate said: that only 1 in 10 miners had electric Lamps (e.g. flame lamps 679,572: electric safety 75,707).

When I worked in the mines in 1950s we had the luxury of battery headlamps, and my recollection of Davy safety lamps, for travelling underground, was very restrictive indeed.

It is very enlightening to revive a dispute about the use of safety lamps (1890). At Coates Park Colliery, Derbyshire.

The men argued that the feeble light given by their primitive lamps, so impeded their work that their earnings were reduced, they demanded an increase of 4d (2 new pence) a ton compensation, they refused to comply with the managers proposal that they should bear half the cost of the lamps and complained that their eyesight was effected.

Research by John Lumsdon

Coal is the greatest of Britain's natural resources and contributed more than any other single factor to the rise of the Industrial Revolution and Britain's prosperity as a major industrial nation. But, violent deaths on a large scale of men and boys in the mines of Britain were an all too regular occurrence.

Accidents of appalling suddenness put an end to hundreds of lives, leaving whole communities virtually bereft of their men-folk. Below is a newspaper report of a House of Commons Committee in 1835 that describes the potential knowledge of the hazards and their recommendations, better ventilation. But the death rate continued relentlessly for many years since, as history has recorded.

Accidents in Mines
Staffordshire Advertiser 12th Dec. 1835

The report and evidence taken before the Committee of the House of Commons appointed during the last secession to enquire into the accidents in mines has just been distributed. During the time the investigation was being on, an explosion of inflammable gas in one of the Northern coal mines destroyed in an instance a number of men and boys; and the frequency of such dreadful occurrences as well as those occasioned by the presence of carbonic acid gas, or choke-damp, has begun powerfully to excite the attention of those interested in mines.

The report of the Committee serves rather to show the dangerous nature of the evil to be contended with than anything else. In many instances not one of those engaged in the mines that have exploded has survived tell how the accident arose; and the causes of explosions and the means of obviating them have not been subjected to the continued or searching investigation of scientific men. In this respect indeed the government and the public have evinced culpable inattention.

Sir Humphry Davy
Sir Humphry Davy

It appears that during the 18 years which have elapse since the introduction of the Sir Humphry Davy's lamp, more accidents have taken place in the northern mines than during the same time previously.

This however is not to be ascribed to the instrument not realising the expectations of its illustrious inventor, but to the fact of what are called, in very significant phraseology "fiery mines," being now wrought by its means, that must otherwise have been abandoned. It is however clearly established, that in certain circumstances, and especially if exposed to, a current of air, the safety lamp is no protection at all.

As matters now stand, all the fiery or dangerous mines require in their working a degree of vigilant and continuous attention that can hardly be expected from ordinary workmen, and especially from boys.

The smallest inattention, the placing of a lamp where it should not be placed, the closing of a door that ought not be closed, or the opening of one that ought to be kept shut, the accidental striking of a spark, or any such occurrence, may in a moment dispatch hundreds into eternity.

It would be well to see, under such circumstances yield greater security; at least the attempt is surely worth being made.

At present it would seem to be the opinion of the most experienced miners, that efficient ventilation is the only thing to be depended upon. But the statements in the report go to show what we have been otherwise well assured of that in very many mines this indispensible security is too little attended to. The question as to how far the legislature might interfere in such a case is one of the greatest nicety and difficulty, and involves various considerations. Certainly however it does appear that what we call “fiery pits” ought not to be permitted to be wrought until they have been so ventilated, or otherwise secured that the risk of danger may be obviated with ordinary attention.

To this extent, at least, government would be justified to interfering. It is useless to trust to the disinclination of the pit-men to engage in dangerous mines. By daily exposure to danger they are apt to trust the become habituated to and careless about it; and besides they are apt to trust implicitly to the reports of “viewers” and others who are quite as much interested in getting the coal brought cheaply to the pit mouth as in security of the mine.

A Commission, if it consists partly of eminent scientific men, and partly, though in a less degree of the most skilful mining engineers, might be advantageously appointed to inquire into the state of the miners, with a view of preventing accidents and of increasing the security and comfort of the miners.