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On Friday morning May 24th 1855 at about 10 am. A most terrible explosion took place at Oldfield colliery in Fenton, North Staffordshire belonging to W. H. Sparrow.

The pit was 400 yards deep; and the dip of the workings was about 600 yards more. On the South side of the dip the workings extended about 180 yards.

The noise of the explosion was described by those near the spot as resembling the report of loud artillery and was heard for a distance of several miles. The issue of dense and sulphuric vapour followed the blast from the mouth of the two shafts of the pit.

At the top of the shaft a large number of cast iron plates, which surrounded it, were torn from their places and the bottom of the skip (cage), which hung suspended over it, was blown completely out while at the cottages in the vicinity, the shock was very perceptible.

Fortunately the engine situated at the pit bottom, described as requiring some repairs after an accident about 4 pm. the previous day, had a broken drum shaft and as a consequence the men were obliged to leave off work that afternoon. The majority of colliers employed at the mine numbering 30 men and boys were not at work due to this accident, or the death rate could have been much worse.

At 6 am. On Friday May 24th 1855 nine men and one boy descended the pit to proceed with their work and as Friday was the usual day for the ground bailiff (surveyor) to dial the works, (measure up work done) he was accompanied by a young man 17 years of age. The Bailiffs name was John Lloyd and was a native of Wolverhampton. He was a very respectable steady man, was married with five children and had been for many years a local preacher amongst the Wesleyans. He had worked at the colliery for 12 months. These ten men were in the pit when the explosion took place about one hour after they had descended.

Twenty men descended the pit half an hour after the explosion to bring up the bodies of the dead and injured. One young man named Samuel Williams, who was standing at the pit bottom was turned completely around by the force of the blast but escaped without injury. George Bentley was twenty yards from the shaft and escaped comparatively unscathed. Thomas Birks was brought out in a mangled state with one arm and both legs broken. He was conveyed groaning piteously, to his home in Longton.

After they had put the air in proper circulation the rescuers went to search for the missing men. Richard Yates and James Hollings were found about 200 yards the dip; both were badly burnt and quite dead and Hollings clothes were torn from him.

From here on in-bye the roadway, roof and sides had collapsed and the roadway was full of debris. So bad had been the explosion, a pause was put to further exploration in search of the remaining five sufferers until a way could be made through it.

At 4 pm. a party of miners, provided with picks and shovels were engaged in this task, but it was feared that this would lead to the discovery of the lifeless remains of the five persons still known to be in the pit.

Their names;

  • John Lloyd, Robert Roberts, married with several children,
  • Joe Atkins, 35 yrs. married with four children,
  • Levi Thorley, 25 yrs. who's wife was pregnant and had one child
  • Ralph Derbyshire aged 17 all residing near Longton.

The cause of the explosion at the time could only be surmised; probably an unprotected candle was used. At 5am. On Saturday morning, the burnt and blackened corpse of Ralph Derbyshire was found, and subsequently the bodies of Joseph Atkins and John Lloyd. The other two were still unaccounted for so the rescuers worked on but as a consequence of deadly gas, some men being overpowered, they were compelled to fall back.

Matters proceeded up to Sunday noon when a fire was discovered, increasing the danger and difficulty of proceeding. By Sunday evening it was deemed prudent to retreat and put a stopping on at the bottom of the dip in order to prevent air reaching the fire and so extinguish it. But on Sunday night an explosion occurred and blew the stopping out.

On Monday the fire was still raging and it was considered advisable to close the pit entirely by stopping up the shafts as the only means of checking the fire. The bodies of the other two unfortunate men, Robert Roberts and Levi Thorly were to remain in the mine and it was doubtful whether they would be recovered for some weeks to come.

An inquest was held on the five recovered bodies at 11 am. On Monday morning at the Canning Inn, Fenton before Mr. W. Harding the coroner and a jury of whom Mr. John Higginbottom was the foreman. Thomas Wynne, the Government Inspector, and W. H. Sparrow, the proprietor of the colliery, and colliery officials were present.

A number of witnesses were called to give evidence and after a time it was decided not to proceed further with the evidence as to the general management and working of the mine until after Mr. Wynne had made a careful inspection of the pit.

With the mine being on fire it was impossible to fix any time for the re-assembling of the jury, and the coroner having issued his warrants for the internment of the bodies of the five unfortunate sufferers, the proceedings were adjourned sine die and the jury bound over to attend when called upon.

Mr. Wynne, the Mines Inspector, made frequent visits to the colliery but it was impossible for him to go down until August 2nd when he saw fearful evidence of the effects of the explosion, something like a 1.000 tons of coal and rubbish having been displaced in the workings.

With a view of getting as quickly as possible to the missing bodies it was agreed that a cutting should be made through the coal in a direction where the bodies were supposed to be lying.
The work of cutting through the coal, a distance of 70 yards and clearing and repairing the mine, was commenced and continued until late October when Mr. Wynne was able to make an inspection of the mine.

The next day between 1 and 2 a.m. William Kelsall, a miner, met with the body of one of the sufferers, which from a previous acquaintance he recognised as that of Robert Roberts. The poor fellow who had been entombed for nearly five months, lay on his back and had in all probability died from the effects of suffocation. The body of course was much decomposed. The remains of the other poor fellow were not at present recovered.

On Wednesday afternoon an adjourned inquest took place at the Canning Inn, Fenton on the victims that had been recovered. Mr. Wynne said, from the evidence I heard at the inquest last May, and from the inspection I have made I have no doubt that the explosion took place at the time John Lloyd was dialling with a naked candle which I do not hesitate to say was most improper, and, more like the act of an insane man.

Questions were asked regarding the ventilation and the jury and Mr. Wynne were of the opinion that letting out the fire under the engine boiler when there was a break-down, caused the accumulation of foul air, and persons going in a certain position with naked candles was sure to lead to an explosion.

Mr. Wynne strongly advocated the placing of furnaces in mines independent of any steam engine boilers being placed there, as a most valuable means of promoting ventilation.

The jury deliberated for 20 minutes and returned a verdict that the lives of the deceased had been lost by the explosion, but how the explosion was occasioned, there was no evidence to show. The jury however gave an expression of their opinion as to the cause of the accident which was in effect that it was produced by John Lloyd and the parties engaged by him in dialling, carrying naked candles, and that the accumulation of foul air was caused by the fire under the boiler at the shaft bottom being extinguished

Pit Terminology - Glossary