The Minnie Pit Disaster
In the Minnie pit at Halmerend, North Staffordshire , on January 12 th 1918 the conditions prevailing at the time were, begging disaster. A spark was all that was needed, and this was provided, resulting in the deaths of 155 men and boys.
On that fateful Saturday, Mr. Smith, the colliery manager, was in his office at the surface of No 3 pit. He was informed that haulage lads were at No1 pit bottom and wanted to come out of the pit. There had been a sudden gust of wind against the air current, and pieces of small coal and dirt had been projected out bye (towards the shaft) and they thought something was wrong. At the same time his attention was drawn to the soot and smoke issuing from the fan chimney at the up cast shaft. He went round to the fan house, where he found the fan running all right, but the fan attendant informed him that a few minutes previously, it had slowed down.
He then went into the hauling engine house, where the engineman said; that the haulage rope was fast (stuck) and the engine could not be moved.
Mr. Smith then rang up the Banbury seam haulage, and got in communication with Frank Halfpenny at the top of the Banbury dip, who told him that the men and boys were lying around in the dark owing to their lamps having been extinguished.
Mr. Smith told Halfpenny not to allow anybody to go through the separation doors into the return airway, as it would be contaminated with poisonous gases, and he instructed the winding engineman not to allow anyone down the No. 3 up cast shaft. He also rang up the Central Rescue Station at Stoke-on-Trent and asked for apparatus and teams to be sent to the Minnie pit immediately.
The agent manager and under manager went to the Minnie pit immediately, and after a brief consultation, it was decided, that the agent and under manager should descend the pit, whilst the manager should remain on the surface to take in hand the general organisation of the rescue operations.
On descending the pit, they found a party of men from the West district and preceded them up the haulage road in the direction of the area affected by the explosion. A lad was found dead about 20 yards out bye of the Rearers junction.
Three more bodies were close by, seven men and boys were found alive, though suffering from the affects of afterdamp.
The party divided at the top of the Banbury dip, one going to the Rearers district and the other down the Banbury dip. No one was found alive below the top of the Banbury dip haulage road, but all the men and boys in the Rearers district were alive and safe.
In the meantime Mr. Smith, the manager, who had called for the rescue brigades, made arrangements for the reception and treatment of any injured men.
The top of an old disused shaft in connection with the Bullhurst workings was taken off, so that the shaft acted as a downcast to provide a direct supply of air to the men in that seam. The rescue apparatus from Stoke Central Rescue Station soon arrived, also rescue brigades fully equipped and with instructions to travel as far as they could in the direction of the workings.
By noon , all the injured men had been brought out of the pit and the rescuers continued with their work. The Minnie pit brigade reported a large fall of ground at the entrance to the Bullhurst crut had obstructed them going any further, but ventilating air was travelling through to the Bullhurst. They then made their way to the top of Lockett’s dip, where their progress again obstructed by another large roof fall. They came back and went into the return airway, where smoke was seen coming out of the Bullhurst seam.
After receiving this report, a conference was held between Mr. Saint, H.M. Senior Inspector of Mines, Mr.Henshaw, the managing director of Talke-o-th-Hill colliery, and other mining engineers and management.
A gob fire was feared in the Bullhurst seam and it was decided to seal the seam off temporarily.
To do this, the Silverdale rescue brigade, wearing self contained breathing apparatus (to enable the wearers to breath and work independently of the surrounding atmosphere), descended the Minnie pit at 4.30 pm . With Mr. Bull, Sub-Inspector of Mines, Mr. Davies, and the manager. They found that the separating doors between Lockett’s intake and return roadways were blown out, but 50 yards further inbye another set of doors were intact. They took air samples at various places, and also reported that an air crossing over the Bullhurst main intake was destroyed and that air was going into the Bullhurst seam. This team returned to the surface at 7.30 pm. and was replaced by the Burley colliery brigade. A bird, taken to the place where air samples had been obtained, died at once.
At 10.45 pm . The speed of the fan was reduced from 350 to 300 revolutions per minute and canvas brattice stoppings, replaced later by wooden ones, were fixed across the Bullhurst main intake and return airways. Then, the destroyed separation doors were temporarily repaired. As the team advanced they found the dead bodies of a man, boy and horse. Rescue brigades continued to attempt to enter the Bambury workings in advance of the air until 4 pm .
On Sunday, when it was decided to carry forward the air with them, and at 8 pm. Holland’s place was reached. Here three more bodies were found.
Hugh Doorbar’s Death
Early on Monday morning the captain of Birchenwood colliey rescue brigade, Hugh Doorbar, lost his life when engaged in the work of exploration in the Seven feet seam. The team consisted of 6 men, and, after Hugh Doorbar had consulted with the captain of the team coming off duty, they proceeded in bye. On reaching the top of what is known as Lockett’s dip, the men noticed an unpleasant smell. Tests were made for the presence of gas without result. However, the flame safety lamp burned dimly and it was decided to couple up their self-contained breathing apparatus. The team proceeded slowly and ultimately reached a point where the safety lamp went out, indicating an irrespirable atmosphere. As they were going forward slowly, a sharp report was heard and Hugh Doorbar said, “oh my apparatus”. His comrades tried to assist him, but he struggled violently. Efforts were made to get him back to fresh air, but owing to his struggles, during which he repeatedly knocked off the nose clips of the other men and actually knocked one man down, they were unsuccessful.
The forcible removal of their nose clips resulted in other men being affected by the atmosphere, and they were finally obliged to leave Doorbar. When they left him, they were satisfied that he was dead. Birchenwood colliery No. 2 team recovered the body the same day.
The apparatus worn by Doorbar was sent to Dr. Briggs, director of the government research on mines rescue apparatus, at Herio-watt college, Edinburgh, for examination, where it was found that Hugh Doorbar lost his life due to a combination of faults on two valves of his breathing apparatus, whilst exploring in a irrespirable atmosphere. It also recommended the use of a new type of nose clip that could not be displaced easily.
On the 16 th January, the chairman of the North Staffs Colliery Owners Association, realising that the exploration of the workings devastated by the explosion was going to be a long and anxious matter and would in all probability have to be done by means of rescue brigades wearing self contained breathing apparatus, called a meeting of the Association Rescue Committee. This committee was made up of all interested bodies. They were to consider the difficulties and procedure with regard to the opening of the Bullhurst seam and the provision of rescue teams.
On the 19 th January, the organisation of rescue teams and the work done in the in the Seven feet seam were discussed at a meeting of the consultative committee, and, on the 22 nd January, analyses of air, taken from the Bullhurst back crut, showed that it was charged with an atmosphere that would not support combustion. The exploration of the Seven Feet workings was completed on the 7 th February, and all the bodies were recovered from that seam. There remained 98 bodies in the Bullhurst seam, 3 of which were shortly afterwards recovered from the entrance to the Bullhurst crut.
Investigative work and various steps were taken. Analyses of air samples indicated leakage of air from the seven feet workings into the Bullhurst crut or and it was agreed to build a stopping to prevent this. A fall of roof at the entrance to the main Bullhurst crut had been effective in preventing circulation of air and it was agreed to commence opening the district.
On the 23 rd of February, gob stink was found over the fall and steps for preventing circulation of air was proposed and it was agreed, to put in temporary stoppings and the smell to be closely watched. On the 25 th of February, a clear passage had been made over the fall and a rescue team took an air sample 138 yards inbye side of the fall. Analyses of the samples showed 16.5% of oxygen and 13.5% of firedamp, a dangerous atmosphere. It was agreed therefore, to build board stoppings, to make the doors as tight as possible and to suspend recovery operations for 4 days.
On the 1st of March, a meeting of representatives was held to discuss the situation and it was agreed that there was still gob stink present. It was a decided to put in further stoppings to prevent leakage of air from the Seven feet workings and to strengthen the existing stoppings. At this meeting, the chairman of the colliery company raised the question of risking further loss of life. Operations were then suspended for 7 days.
An inspection was made on the 8 th of March. It was found that the workings were charged with firedamp. They adjourned for a week, and in the meantime the stoppings were to be carefully watched and air samples taken. A further inspection on March 15 th found that leakage had occurred at a stopping and the position was not as satisfactory as the week before. An additional stopping was built and measures taken to prevent air leaking into the Bullhurst area. On the 27 th of March, it was found that the gobstink had disappeared.
The committee met the same night to discuss the position and the procedure to be adopted in re-opening the workings. Three schemes were submitted, setting a plan to be followed and it was agreed to go along with the scheme submitted by Mr. Saint, H.M. Senior Inspector of Mines.
The owners of the colliery were averse to proceeding with the exploration of the Bullhurst seam. They were of the opinion that it was dangerous to do so, and that serious risk of a further explosion and loss of life would be run if it were attempted.
The Miners Federation and the North Staffs Miners Association were of the opinion that it could be done safely. The Inspector of Mines agreed with this view and urged that the bodies remaining in the mine should be recovered and the cause of the explosion ascertained if possible. Considerable pressure had to be exercised by the Home Office and representatives of the Miners Federation on the owners to get the work done. It was only undertaken after a meeting with them at the Home Office on the 27 th June 1918 , at which the Rt. Hon. W. Brace, M.P. then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, said:
“The department is strongly of the opinion, that the workings should be explored, the bodies recovered and the cause of the explosion thoroughly investigated”. The owners eventually agreed to carry out the work.
The work of exploration was done in stages, in close co-operation with the representatives of the workmen and Inspector of Mines, on the lines of the report of the consultative committee, by means of rescue brigades wearing self-contained breathing apparatus. The roads and workings in front were kept flooded with carbon dioxide to avoid any risk of spontaneous combustion.
The work started on July 18 th 1918 and four brigades were engaged for more than twelve months. Thirty-four stoppings were built in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen and the seam was opened up step by step, until the last body was brought out, on August 19th 1919 .
The test to which the apparatus (proto type) and the brigades were put, is probably the greatest ever applied to rescue brigades wearing self-contained breathing apparatus, and, its successful completion reflects the greatest credit on the manager, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Biddington of the Miners Federation, both of whom wore the apparatus and accompanied the brigades during the whole time, in fact on everyone who had to do with the operations.
Verdict of Jury
In pursuance of section 83 of the Coal Mines Act 1911, a formal investigation of the causes and circumstances of the disaster was held, and, after hearing the evidence of forty witnesses, the jury returned the following verdict:
- We consider that the deceased persons met their death from a medical point of view as follows.
- 144 from carbon monoxide poisoning
- 11 from violence plus carbon monoxide poisoning
- The cause of death was an explosion of gas and coal dust in the Bullhurst and Banbury seams of the Minnie pit.
- That there is not sufficient evidence to show what caused the initial flame.
- We consider that the pit has been carried on in accordance with the Coal Mines Act 1911, and general regulations as far as they have been issued, but, we are of the opinion that, if the dust had been systematically removed, the explosion would not have been so extensive.
- We do not consider that any particular person is to blame for the explosion.
- As a result of the inquiry, we consider that further regulations should be issued at once for the treatment of coal dust. But we agree with the miners representatives, that nothing what so ever should be introduced, which will injure the miners, or young life in the mine and that there is great scope for inquiry by government experts on this point, particularly making coal dust itself inert.
- The jury consider that any shot-lighter should report in writing anything he considers unsafe in the mine.
- It appears that the workmen have not taken advantage of Section 16 of the Coal Mines Act, relative to the periodic inspection of the mines by workmen and we consider that they do so.
Outstanding Cases of Bravery
There are two cases of outstanding bravery to be recorded. One of them is that of James Thomas Machen, leader of the Rescue Brigade on the occasion when Hugh Doorbar collapsed. The other is that of Frank Halfpenny, who, when the explosion occurred, was 500 yards from the No.1 (or Minnie) pit bottom at the top of the new haulage. He stated that there was noise caused by reversing of the air current, followed by dust and smoke. He lay down on the floor and after the air current resumed its natural course he got up again and attempted to telephone to the top of the Banbury dip, but got no answer. Then, without the slightest hesitation and although there was smoke all round him, he went to the top of the Banbury dip, a distance of 800 yards, and telephoned to the surface to inform the manager, Mr. Smith, of the state of affairs below ground. He received instructions not to go into and not allow anyone else to go into the return airway. His going in bye a distance of 800 yards in the circumstances, which existed, was a brave act. Most men, instead of doing so, would have made at once for the shaft, but Halfpenny proceeded in bye to see if he could render any aid, regardless of the risk he him self ran in doing so. On the way he found a body of a lad lying in the gutter, and lifted him out and put him on the side of the road, while he also found another lad lying unconscious, who ultimately recovered.