Twenty-one persons were killed and several injured by an explosion, which occurred about 3.15, am. On the 7th Feb 1881, at the Whitfield Colliery of the Chatterley Iron & Coal Company, near Hanley, North Staffordshire.
An inquest held on the 8th, 9th, and 14th June, terminated in a verdict of manslaughter (by 13 out of a jury of 14) against Mr. Edward Thomson, the manager of the colliery.
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The questions principally discussed at the inquest related to the conduct of the manager during the hour preceding the actual explosion.
It was alleged that he had been guilty of negligence in allowing the men who were killed to remain too long underground after danger had become apparent, and the majority of the jury adopted this suggestion.
The colliery is situated near the outcrop of the North Staffordshire coalfield, and is worked in different seams by entirely separate and distinct shafts and workings.
The explosion occurred in the Coxhead Seam, which is about 7 feet thick, and dips at an inclination of about 1 in 3. It is worked by two shafts. The downcast shaft is called the Institute Pit, and is about 410 yards deep to the seam. The up cast shaft is situated about 215 yards to the rise of the downcast, and is called the Laura Pit. It strikes the seam at a depth of about 330 yards. The main ways consist of long horizontal galleries at different levels, connected by dips or roads rising at a steep inclination from the lower to the higher galleries.
The system of working is board and pillar. The workings extend over 250 acres. The output was about 800 tons a day. The number of persons employed was 350. There was only one working shift on each day. The ventilation was by three furnaces, fed entirely by fresh air. The ordinary velocity of the air along the working faces was 1000 feet per minute; the quantity of the air was ample. The colliery was fiery and dusty.
The origin of the disaster was not in doubt. When the colliery was first worked a smithy was placed in the main in-take at a short distance (about 70 yards) from the bottom of the downcast shaft. A flue consisting of 10-inch iron piping carried off the hot air and smoke from the smithy fire, for about 15 yards from the smithy this flue was carried on the level along the main in-take, and then it turned off into a side passage, and so through a pair of doors up to a steep travelling way or dip, rising towards the level of the up-cast shaft, and forming part of the return airways of the colliery. A crosscut road of small dimensions crossed 20 yards above the doors of this travelling way. The flue turned off from the travelling dip into this crosscut through a small door. There was always much coal dust in this crosscut and the outside of the flue was usually coated with dust or of soot, or both.
In the opinion of Mr. Wynne, the Inspector of Mines for the district, it is, under almost any circumstances, improper to place a smithy underground in a fiery mine, but in its original position, any danger from the heating of the flue was diminished by the circumstance that the first 10 or 15 yards leading immediately from the smithy fire, were in the main in-take near the downcast shaft, and at all times exposed to the cooling effect of the fresh air from the downcast at the coolest part of the mine.
About May 1880 in the course of opening out the mine, it was found by the manager that certain intended alterations of the main in-take would be obstructed by the smithy, which he therefore removed it out of the main in-take into a room or excavation made for it in the side of the intake. The effect was that the flue not only was shortened by 15 to 20 yards, but also was removed entirely out of the cooling current of the main in-take air into a comparatively warm and still situation. This change, in Mr. Wynne's opinion, involved a considerable increase of danger of fire from the heating of the flue.
The regulations for the use of the smithy did not very clearly appear, but it seems to have been usual and perhaps common for men and boys to light the smithy fire at night for the purpose of cleaning wire gauzes, or other purposes of the colliery.
It was stated to be the practice to take the flue to pieces and to clean it both inside and outside every month. At the time of the explosion one of the monthly intervals had not quite expired, and the flu had certainly not been examined for three or four weeks.
Whether it had been duly cleaned at the commencement of the monthly interval, or in any former month, could not be ascertained, it being stated that the duty of cleaning it lay upon one of the men who was lost.
The evening before the explosion was unusually cold. The fire in the smithy was lighted about 10.30 or 11pm. by some of the boys. It was in dispute whether they lighted it for warmth (which they would have no right to do) or for purpose of work. There was evidence that they fed it with coal (instead of breeze), which was said to be unusual, and it was a larger fire than usual, and that the boys were blowing it.
They were cautioned by one of the men about 11 pm. that the fire was larger than was safe. A small portion of the flue was then red hot.
About 1am. An alarm was given that smoke was spreading into the roadways. On examination the crosscut in which the flue terminated was found to be on fire.
Water was brought and efforts were made to extinguish the fire; but there were no fire hoses or extinguishers or other apparatus, and only six buckets. The fire soon obtained a complete mastery in the crosscut, and issued out into the travelling dip, up which the smoke and fire began to rise; and all efforts to extinguish the fire were from that time necessarily abandoned at about 2.30 am.
Three quarters of an hour later at 3.15 am. a violent explosion occurred, affecting both shafts and probably destroying at once all who were underground, as well as injuring some who were on the pit bank or in the cage.
The immediate causes of the explosion can only be conjecture, but in the opinion of Mr. Wynne, the Inspector and Mr. Sawyer, the Assistant Inspector, it was certain to happen sooner or later from one or another causes.