Blackwell 'A' Winning
Hello again Fionn
I'm attaching an extract from the Notts. Free Press dated 20th October 1978, detailing an explosion at Blackwell Low Main pit which I thought you might find of interest.
HANGING for many years in the village barber's shop at Newton was a framed poem entitled "Verses on the Sad Explosion in the Low Main Pit at Blackwell."
Now owned by Bentinck miner Stuart Thornley of Church Street, Pinxton, the melancholy verses commemorate the worst disaster in the 66 year history of the Blackwell Colliery Company, on Monday. November 11, 1895, when seven men were killed at the old A Winning Colliery.
In those pre-Welfare State days copies of the poem were sold for a 1d to raise money for the families of the victims.
Sunk in 1871, A Winning in 1895 employed over 800 men producing about 400,000 tons a year from the Deep Hard and Low Main seams. Although production ceased in 1969, the headstocks remain for access to pumps currently draining nearly two million gallons a day from local pit workings.
No doubt the superstitious saw as significant that it was almost 13 years to the day since the last serious accident in the coalfield, when 45 miners died at the Parkhouse Colliery, Clay Cross. But it is worth noting that in the same period, over 800 men had been killed in major disasters in the gassy pits of South Wales.
Despite the small death toll, Blackwell is important in mining history since it was found to be a purely coal dust explosion. Although two earlier such accidents had alarmed the Inspectorate many mining men were still not convinced that dust could be fired without the intervention of methane.
Arthur Stokes, the H.M Midlands Inspector, had unknowingly predicted the A Winning tragedy in his annual report for 1894, when he warned managers that “in dry and dusty places dust on the roadways of mines in which gas is unknown has been ignited by the flame of a gunpowder shot," — the very circumstances of the Blackwell explosion.
At midnight on Sunday, November 10. a night shill of 28 men was lowered the 237 yards down to the Low Main scam to prepare and examine the workings before the arrival of the day shift.
About 4 a.m. a loud report and a cloud of debris from the shaft heralded disaster underground. Living close by the manager, William Elliott, was soon at the pit top and with two deputies. William Bowmer and William Prince and Aaron Wilson, all of Blackwell, formed the first rescue party.
They realised that an explosion had occurred in the South or South West districts where 11 men were known to be at work.
Finding the main haulage road blocked by a huge fall, they very bravely switched to the return airway despite the obvious danger from carbon monoxide.
NO RESCUE SQUADS
No professional rescue squads then existed, but as the Free Press pointed out there was no shortage of volunteers willing to face any dangers to reach their trapped comrades, reporting that "some scrambled in places not fit for a rat. There is not a braver man anywhere than a miner." Sadly when the explorers regained the South Main road, they found only four men still alive.
But roughly 400 yards from the pit bottom were discovered the vital clues to the cause of the tragedy. Near the bodies of John Jones and 16 year old ganger lad John Gibson from Blackwell, and Thomas Shaw from Sutton were blasting tools, and powder can and a half section of shot hole for a length of 15 inches. Nearby lay Gibson's pony, still attached to his tubs. Further in were two more Black- well victims, night deputy William Martin and James Mee.
To their surprise, the explorers found another body over 200 yards down the South West main road. Curiously, the blast, instead of going on to the downcast shaft, had turned at an angle of 50 degrees on reaching the junction with this road, and struck down and severely burnt Joseph Renshaw a morning examiner from Normanton.
But the unluckiest victim was surely James Fryer from Blackwell. Untouched by the explosion, he was killed by after damp swirling along the faces he was checking deep in the South West district.
Experienced local colliers regarded A Winning as a particularly safe pit, so what had gone wrong on that November morning 83 years ago?
Apparently, Jones, Shaw and Gibson had been detailed to clear an obstruction which was fouling the tail rope of the haulage gear in the South main road about a quarter of a mile from the pit bottom.
The Inspector reasoned that when Jones decided to fire a shot he must have realised that he would be breaking the colliery rule forbidding blasting within six hours of the arrival of the coal getters.
So, to avoid a misfire, he prepared a double cartridge — two brown paper bags each filled with six ounces of black grain gunpowder, fused and tied with string.
Although the three men had splashed the contents of a 90 gallon water barrel on the roadway floor, this was only a tenth of what Stokes estimated was needed if the floor, roof and sides were to be made safely wet.
As his report said, the overcharged shot would have very little to do and "the broken side giving way easily would offer every facility for the flame of the gunpowder to ignite the dust which was so thickly found in the cracks and crevices on the sides of the roadway."
According to William Bentley, the undermanager, the floor of the roadway was watered periodically, "to give the horses a firmer footing."
But the jury at the inquiry at the Blackwell Hotel, to the obvious surprise of the Inspector, was reluctant to confirm that Jones had inadvertently detonated a purely coal dust explosion.
Their verdict recorded that "the evidence fails to clearly define the secondary cause,” despite the fact that all the skilled witnesses agreed that this was coal dust.
Yet it was difficult to see how fire damp could have played any part. Both on the day of the explosion, when the normally powerful ventilation was practically blocked off, and two days later, no trace of methane could be detected at any point near the seat of the blast.
The 1887 Coal Mines Act forbade the firing of shots on "dry and dusty" main roads unless certain stringent precautions were observed including the thorough watering of floor, roof and sides for a distance of 20 yards.
But the Act unfortunately failed to define what constituted “dry and dusty," and it was left to the discretion of individual managers whether Rule 12 applied to their pit. Maurice Deacon, the Blackwell Company’s General Manager, argued successfully that he had considered, before the tragedy, that the South main road did not fall within the scope of the Act, though he would, in future, apply the regulations to A Winning.
Stokes commented that the management had made an “unfortunate error of judgement" concerning the state of the roadway, "but not such an error as would carry a conviction for contravention of the Coal Mines Act of 1887."
Luckily, all the victims were members of the local Miners’ Fatal Accident Relief Society which paid £7:10s funeral expenses, and 5s per week to the widows with 2/6d for each child until they left school at 13.
In addition, the vicar of Blackwell, the Rev. E. E. Morris, reported that he had received donations totalling £210 by December 6.
Some of the Blackwell victims were buried amid memorable scenes in the picturesque hilltop churchyard. Led by the Colliery Band, hundreds of sympathisers walked in driving wind and rain to witness the service conducted by the Bishop of Southwell.
Though of little consolation to their families, it could have been said of the seven that by their deaths many miners’ lives would be saved in the future. For as the Inspector said: "The cause and effect of this explosion cannot be too widely made known" adding "previously a number of them (mining men) had thought that dust required a certain quantity of gas before gunpowder would set fire to it.
Now, however, they had found out that either with gas or without it, dust would fire.”
Now, kind friends, come listen here
To this dreadful tale of woe.
Seven poor colliers Iost their lives
While working down below.
At an early hour on Monday morn
The village was thrown in gloom,
When six poor colliers and one poor boy
Had met with an early doom.
The explorers did their level best
Their comrades to redeem;
Men like heroes with brave heart
Were soon upon the scene.
James Fryer was the first they found,
According to what’s said.
They tried their best his life to save,
But he is numbered with the dead.
Joseph Penshaw was the next,
Who was in a shocking state,
His head and limbs were blown away,
Which is awful to relate.
Gibson, who was a ganger lad,
Was the next they came across,
Side by side poor John was found
Along with his dead horse.
Then John Jones was next they found:
As you will quickly hear;
He leaves a wife to mourn his loss,
And seven children dear.
The next it was poor. Thomas Shaw,
And he from Sutton came;
He left his home that stormy night,
And plodded through the rain.
James Mee was a dreadful sight,
And the next they had to lay;
Beside his comrades he was placed
Till he was carried away.
William Martin was the last
The explorer had to find;
So they went, and they did search
O'er heaps of wood and bind.
Sixteen others were in the mine,
And to God they ought to pray,
As he has spared them for to live
Until some other day.
I sympathise with the widows dear,
Likewise the orphans too:
Look to heaven one and all.
And our father will help you through.
Composed by James Childs, Newton