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Oaks - Colliery Explosion, 12th December, 1866

Two explosions killed 384 men and boys - The Disaster

THE OAKS. Barnsley, Yorkshire 13th December 1866

Peter Lindley pointed out this disaster was not covered :-

For almost 50 years the worst mining disaster in the UK was at the Oaks Colliery, near Barnsley, where two explosions killed 361 men and boys.

However on the 14th October 1913 an explosion ripped through the heart of the Universal Senghenydd Colliery in South Wales killing 436 miners. Of the 436 who died, only 72 bodies were recovered.

The colliery was one and half miles from Barnsley and was the property of Messrs. Firth, Bamber and Company. It had been worked for a great number of years and there had been a disaster there in 1846 when seventy three men and boys were killed.

Engraving taken from the 'Illustrated London News'.

NewspaperThere were several explosions in this disaster and the first took place on the 12th. December when 340 people were down the mine. Only six of them survived which gave a death toll of 334.

In addition to this 27 others who belonged to the colliery and 23 volunteers were killed in a succession of explosions which arose from the pit being set on fire by the first and started in the morning when the workings were being explored.

The first explosion occurred shortly after 1 p.m., and, at the time, it was thought that there were nearly 400 men in the pit when the gas suddenly fired. When the explosion occurred, the banksman was horrified to hear the rumbling explosion in the pit immediately followed by a tremendous rush of air up the shaft. He knew what it meant and ran to give the alarm but the noise carried to the village of Hoyle Mills where a great number of the workforce resided and within a few minutes, anxious men and women arrived at the pit. Immediate steps were taken to find the cause of the calamity. One of the cages was damaged but despite this, no time was lost in descending the pit. At the bottom of the shaft, eighteen survivors who had come from the workings were found.

They were alive but injured and were got up to the surface as quickly as possible. Local Doctors, Dr. Blackburn and his assistant and Drs. Smith senior and junior, had gone to the scene and attended these men at the pithead.

A newspaper reporter gave a graphic account of the scene at the pithead:-

“From all directions men and women came, the most frantic terror and anxiety depicted on their countenances of those whose husbands, fathers, sons and brothers had, that morning, descended the fateful shaft, were all hurrying breathlessly to the Oaks. To endeavour to describe the streams of human beings as they rushed along to one common centre, would be a task of some difficulty.

Here was a wife and mother who had been arranging her toilet against the anticipated return of her loved ones she had seen leave home at five in the morning so unsuspicious of danger - alas for the mutability of human anticipation – half running, half walking in dishabille with a babe in her arms and dragging a young one by the hand another with no children or who had left them in the care of a neighbour, rushed widely along, heedless of obstructions, not staying to pick her way along the muddy roads.

Below ground, four bodies were found at the face, mutilated and difficult to identify but were identified as John Chesterfield and John Jackson of Silver Street, Barnsley and a boy named Hurst who lived in Hoyle Mills. The following men and boys were got out of the pit alive:-

  • S. Bates
  • Henry Willoughby
  • Henry Brookes
  • Henry Marshall
  • John Hardcastle
  • William Hart
  • John M’Gugh
  • William Washbury
  • Thomas Hurst
  • Robert Thompson
  • William Wilson
  • George Borrowdal
  • Giles Walmesley
  • Robert Robinson
  • Joseph Keither
  • James Beever
  • William Narran.

The scene at the pit bottom was described in the Press as ‘being changed from a place of industry to a vast Golgotha.’ The stables were destroyed and burned and eighteen horses and ponies had been killed. The workings were unapproachable due to large falls of coal and afterdamp that was encountered and it was realised that the hundreds who were in the workings must be dead.

The exploring party had been down for about an hour when it was decided to repair the damage to the rope and cage and they came up while this was done. The work took about two hours and then the exploration was resumed. A large quantity of brattice was sent down the pit and an attempt made to repair the broken stoppings and renew the ventilation to the pit.

The rescuers worked in relays and as they came up the pit they were besieged by the crowd waiting for some news. The few police that were at the pithead had little control of the crowd who invaded the landings and interfered with the operations. A telegram was sent to Colonel Cobb, the Chief Constable of the West Riding and he soon arrived with a large body of police and the pit top was soon cleared.

The survivors who had recovered at the pit head had no shortage of volunteers to take them home. Brandy was freely available to restore them to consciousness. A man named Tasker had a remarkable escape. He was the furnace man at the pit and heard a noise like a loud peal of thunder and felt a hurricane which knocked him to the ground, senseless. When he was found he was still unconscious but had a dead cat in his arms.

Mr. Dymonnd, the proprietor of the colliery and Mr. Brown, a mining engineer were at the pit, supervising operations and by that time it was realised that all the three hundred and fifty men in the pit were dead. Up to mining of that first day, fifty bodies had been recovered and a large number of volunteers from surrounding pits provided the relays of rescue teams. The scenes at the pit head were harrowing as bodies were brought up and hastily wrapped in blankets on the landing to be removed to the death house to be identified by their loved ones as they were brought out of the pit and placed there.

The coffins were made at the pit. There were many people from the surrounding districts weeping and wailing at the pit head as carts surrounded by grieving relatives, carried the bodies to their homes. One young man who had been identified had a wife who was confined with the birth of their first child and she also lost two of her brothers.

The village of Hoyle Mills was desolated and women wept openly in the streets and wandered around the village in shock.

Work was still going on at the pit the following morning and the crowd at the pithead was mainly from surrounding collieries. The mood was different. There was no outward demonstration of grief but a sad resignation. Between 8 and 9 p.m. there was an incident at the pithead which stirred the crowd to feelings of indignation when a party of sixteen men returned to the surface after only a short time down the mine. They had been affected by the bad air and the crowd thought they had left the pit because they were afraid and called them cowards.

These men were replaced by seven others which made the total below, twenty eight.

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