The Blackwell ‘A’ Winning was one of four large collieries belonging to the Blackwell Company, Limited. The colliery was under the control of Mr. Maurice Deacon who was the general manager and agent. He held a manager’s certificate and frequently went down the pit to inspect the workings. Mr. William Elliott was the certificated manager of this and another similarly sized colliery. Mr. William Bentley was the undermanager for the Low Main and the Deep Hard seams and his duties were confined to the workings in the two seams called the ‘A’ Winning Mine.
The sinking of the shaft started in 1871 with the plan that three seams might be worked, these were the Deep Hard, Low Main and Silkstone Seams. The Silkstone was the lowest and had been worked before it was abandoned in 1881. At the time of the accident there were only two seams being worked, the Deep Hard and the Low Main. The coal from the Deep Hard was raised at the upcast shaft and that from the Low Main at the downcast shaft. The downcast shaft was 14 feet in diameter and reached the Deep Hard at 180 yards, the Low Main at 237 yards and the Silkstone at 2929 yards. The upcast was also 14 feet in diameter and reached the seams at the same depth. The Deep hard was 3 feet 6 inches thick, the Low Main 4 feet thick and the Silkstone 3 feet 7 inches thick. The explosion occurred in the Low Main seam where the bituminous coal was produced for house coal and manufacturing industry. About 400 men and boys worked in the Deep Hard workings and about 390 in the Low Main seam. The colliery produced about 1,500 to 2,000 tons per day.
The workings in both seams were ventilated by a Guibal fan, 45 feet in diameter and 12 feet wide which ran at 44 r.p.m. and produced 140,000 cubic feet per minute. The Deep Hard workings received 63,000 cubic feet per minute and the Low Main about 77,000 cubic feet per minute. The air that went to the Low Main was further divided to the four districts and the stables. At the time of the accident the fan was running normally.
The seams were almost flat and were worked on the longwall system. The whole of the coal, after leaving the shaft pillar, was extracted as the workings advanced. The coal was brought away from the faces of the four districts by horses and mechanical haulage. The workings were well laid out both in respect of getting coal and the general working and ventilation of the mine.
Naked lights had been used in the mine since it started working, except occasionally in a few stalls or headings where safety lamps had been used when they were passing through faulty ground or when firedamp was found but gas had been reported only on two occasions in the ten months before the accident. A small explosion had occurred on the 1st June 1891. On investigation, this was found to have occurred in a rise heading passing through faulted ground and was due to a brattice sheet being disarranged. It was the rule that the Sunday night shift of repairers used locked safety lamps until the deputies had completed their official inspection of the workings. Afterwards naked lights were used throughout the whole mine.
The haulage roads of the mine were both dry and dusty and water barrels were used daily for damping the floor of the roadways. The coal face was also dry but there were parts of the mine that were damp and free from dust. In some places water came from the roof and floor but generally the mine was dry and dusty. The sides of the main haulage roads were through broken strata and the roof was a worked out coal seam. There were many cracks and crevices that could accumulate dust. The loaded tubs, drawn by rope haulage at 12 m.p.h., were swept clean of fine dust by the intake air current. The dust was deposited on the roof and sides of the haulage road or was driven into cracks and crevices until they became full of the finest dust.
Blasting by gunpowder had been carried on since the mine was opened and shots were occasionally fired in the main haulage road. Shotfiring certificates were give to the stallmen or contractors which gave them permission to fire shots in any part of the mine. The gunpowder charges of six ounces of grain powder were placed in brown paper bags with a gunpowder fuse inserted and tied at the mouth.