This is an extract from a paper read by Mr. P.H. Holland, at a recent meeting of the Society of Arts in 1859:
Though I have no immediate connection with the management of colliers, my attention has been very strongly called to the subject by having been instructed, in my capacity of Inspector of Burials, under the Home Office, to report on the safest method of burying the numerous victims of the great explosion of Lundhill colliery near Barnsley on 18 th February 1857 by which 189 lives were lost.
Two months elapsed before any of the bodies could be removed, and at the end of five months some still remained in the mine. Of course the removal and the burial of so large a number of putrid corpses, required the most careful precautions, but neither skill, care, nor expense was spared. And the free ventilation secured, the use of M’Dougall’s disinfecting powder, Dr. Stenbruse’s charcoal respirator, and other precautions were effectual in preserving all the men employed, in this dangerous, difficult and disgusting work, from any serious injury.
It was of course impossible for me to have thus forced on my attention, a calamity so tremendous, by which 189 human beings were suddenly killed, 90 wives made widows, 220 children orphans, and a whole village at once deprived of so many on whom they were dependent for their daily bread, without strongly feeling of the importance of adopting every practicable expedient for diminishing the recurrence of similar disasters.
During the last eight years there have been reported 8,015 deaths by colliery accidents, or 1002 a year, showing a death rate from violence exceeding 4 per thousand. I cannot calculate the exact proportion, because I do not know the increase of the number of colliers since the census, but the death rate by accident among colliers is at least six to seven times as great as the death rate from violence among the whole population, including suicides, homicides and the dangerous occupations.
If these were excluded, it is possible that colliery work would be seen to be eight or ten times as great as the average. In confirmation of this I may state that the charge of the insurance company against death by accident is for colliers eight times the ordinary rate. If the simple and common rule were universally followed of not allowing any un-protected light in any mine, unless and until the part of the mine worked was found safe, there could be no explosions, except in those very rare instances in which an explosive mixture of gases and air is rapidly formed.
Mr Macworth reported that 72 out of 73 explosions, and 171 out of 172 deaths, were attributable to the use of naked lights and that out of 1,154 deaths from explosions reported in the last five years, 12 only occurred where safety lamps had been used, all of which were in a defective state.
Falls of Roof and Coal
Falls of coal and roof are the most frequent cause of injury. The deaths from these accidents alone have been 2,971 in eight years or 371 a year. Besides those killed by coal falling upon them, a very much larger number have been maimed and injured, often very seriously. It is probable that no reasonable degree of care will completely guard against these accidents, but it is certain that they will be very much diminished, as is proved by the fact that in the northern district, which employs one fifth of the men, that are only about one eighth of the fatal accidents of this class.
This great difference appears to be chiefly owing to the plan adopted in the north, of employing men for the especial duty of looking after the safety of the colliers. It is a special rule, nearly always ordered, but very generally neglected, that every collier shall securely sprag (i.e. Prop) coal while holing (cutting away beneath it to make it fall) and shall also, where necessary, prop the roof. Any collier who neglects to do this is liable to a fine or imprisonment. But it is neglected, and 126 men are sacrificed annually and probable some thousands lamed in consequence. If a small part of the money lost by these accidents was expended in preventing them, the standard of danger might be reduced at leased to that of the Durham mines, and 126 of the 370 annually killed, saved.
Upon whom ought such loss justly to fall? Clearly not upon the families of those killed, who must inevitably suffer so deeply in addition to the pecuniary loss, and who have done nothing to cause, and could do little to prevent their misfortune. Clearly not upon the charitable, who have difficulty meeting other claims, on their benevolence. Nor upon the ratepayers of the parish which is so unfortunate to be the scene of such disasters.
It is clear that those alone who profit by a dangerous employment should pay for its risks, and that any loss that might have been avoided by care should fall as exclusively as possible on those who could and ought to observe and enforce precautions. The cost of precautions, and the accidents that occur in spite of them, should be borne by the consumers of coal. The loss occasioned by accidents which might be avoided, but are not, should be borne by those whose culpable negligence or cruel miserly was the cause of them.
This just and beneficial result might be attained by one or two plans. By a system of insurance against death by accident, or by such an extension of Lord Cambell’s Act as would secure compensation to the families of those killed apparently in consequence of the neglect of any of the precautionary regulations legally ordered to be observed. Unless it can be proved that the death was caused by the deceased himself, instead of its been necessary for the claimant of compensation to prove that death was caused by the direct act of default of the master, whereas it is generally the neglect of some servant or fellow worker, who alone is pecuniary responsible, but from whom substantial damages can rarely if ever be obtained.
The theory of the law in this respect seems to be, that the workman undertakes to bear all the risks attending the employment and the danger and possible loss to himself and family is, it is presumed, paid for in the form of higher remuneration.