THEY DIED IN THE DARK

By  Sammi

I was researching my family History some years ago and my Great-Great-Great Grandfather was William Martin. 

He was Married to Mary, and between them, they had 10 children.

William was a Night Deputy, and he was killed in a Pit Explosion on the 11th November 1895 at the age of 46, and was buried on 14th November 1895 in a mass/pauper's unmarked grave in South Normanton, Derbyshire.

His job description:

1849: 

A set of men employed in setting timber for the safety of the workmen ; also in putting in brattice and brattice stoppings. They also draw the props in the workings from places where they are no longer required for further use. There cannot be any fixed rule for the number of deputies to be employed in a pit, this depending altogether upon the nature of the roof and consequent quantity of timber required to be set for its support, also on the greater or less quantity of fire-damp produced by the coal. Upon an average the number of deputies may be stated at 1 for every 7 or 8 scores of 6 tons each.


 1892: 

The deputies go to work two hours before the hewers. Each deputy, during the absence of the back-overman, is responsible for the management of the district of the pit over which he is appointed. Their work also includes that of supporting the roof with props or wood, removing props from old workings, changing the air currents when necessary, and clearing away any sudden eruption of gas or fall of stone that might impede the work of the hewer, or in delegating these duties to others.

I decided to put music to the poem, adding another verse and a chorus or two ....

I came across a newspaper clipping about the explosion, and a poem that James Childs had written, originally titled ‘Sad Explosion’ AKA ‘Colliery’s Poem of Death’. It appears to be from an account of what happened and is pretty graphic. I am not hiding the horrors as it shows the reality of the horrors this this explosion. 

The reason for the explosion was caused by the firing of an overcharged shot there. This happened in the A. Winning low main pit of the Blackwell Colliery Company, Blackwell Road, Blackwell, Derbyshire 

The Jury agreed that an overcharged shot of gunpowder caused the explosion, but said that the evidence failed to clearly define the secondary cause. They said: 

“We further find that no blame can be attached to the management, and we believe that all concerned, will have benefitted by the results of this calamity.”

A skilled witness found it difficult to understand the remark of ‘failing to find a secondary cause’, as it was agreed that the secondary cause was coal dust. 

The failure of the jury to recognise this, was probably due to the general reluctance of many mining men and others to admit that coal dust alone can be fired and give rise to such devastation.  

The names of the lost are:

William Martin (night deputy)

Joseph Renshaw (examiner)

James Fryer (examiner)

James Mee (day man) – a day man was given work on a daily basis as required

John Jones (day man)

Thomas Shaw (day man)

John Gibson (driver)

And a pit pony

My Great-Great-Great Grandmother ‘went into service’ I have photos of her as a servant (or maid) on the steps of a large house, in a group photo. She had several children to support, and looking at the Jury’s verdict, it was unlikely that the company gave her much in the form of a Widow’s pension. 

Compensation Payments

Compensation payments made by the Company for the widows and family of the men killed in the explosion of 12/11/1895 ranged from £7/10/- (£7.50) down to 2/6 (12.5p). £1 equivalent at 2011 would be approx £58.

I cannot even being to imagine to horrors these men had to face. "There but for grace of God go I"

Mining was never just a job. It was a community built from shared hardships and tragedies which extended far beyond the pit head. Everybody in a mining town was touched by the coal dust in some way.

The sense of purpose was as strong among the women as it was in the mine. Tending for the sick workers and the widowed women, helping the elderly, raising the children and working every bit as hard as the men to make tomorrow better than today.

HANGING for many years in the village barber's shop at Newton was a framed poem entitled "Verses on the Sad Explosion in the Low Main Pit at Blackwell." Now owned by Bentinck miner Stuart Thornley of Church Street, Pinxton, the melancholy verses commemorate the worst disaster in the 66 year history of the Blackwell Colliery Company, on Monday. November 11, 1895, when seven men were killed at the old A Winning Colliery.


 Some of the Blackwell victims were buried amid memorable scenes in the picturesque hilltop churchyard. Led by the Colliery Band, hundreds of sympathisers walked in driving wind and rain to witness the service conducted by the Bishop of Southwell.

MARY

  My Great-Great-Great Grandmother.

No wonder she is not smiling. 

RAISING MONEY

In those pre-Welfare State days copies of the poem were sold for a 1d to raise money for the families of the victims.

Sunk in 1871, A Winning in 1895 employed over 800 men producing about 400,000 tons a year from the Deep Hard and Low Main seams. Although production ceased in 1969, the headstocks remain for access to pumps currently draining nearly two million gallons a day from local pit workings.

SERIOUS ACCIDENT

No doubt the superstitious saw as significant that it was almost 13 years to the day since the last serious accident in the coalfield, when 45 miners died at the Parkhouse Colliery, Clay Cross. But it is worth noting that in the same period, over 800 men had been killed in major disasters in the gassy pits of South Wales.

Despite the small death toll, Blackwell is important in mining history since it was found to be a purely coal dust explosion. Although two earlier such accidents had alarmed the Inspectorate many mining men were still not convinced that dust could be fired without the intervention of methane.

MANAGERS WARNED

Arthur Stokes, the H.M Midlands Inspector, had unknowingly predicted the A Winning tragedy in his annual report for 1894, when he warned managers that “in dry and dusty places dust on the roadways of mines in which gas is unknown has been ignited by the flame of a gunpowder shot," — the very circumstances of the Blackwell explosion.

At midnight on Sunday, November 10. a night shill of 28 men was lowered the 237 yards down to the Low Main scam to prepare and examine the workings before the arrival of the day shift.

About 4 a.m. a loud report and a cloud of debris from the shaft heralded disaster underground. Living close by the manager, William Elliott, was soon at the pit top and with two deputies. William Bowmer and William Prince and Aaron Wilson, all of Blackwell, formed the first rescue party.

ROAD BLOCKED

They realised that an explosion had occurred in the South or South West districts where 11 men were known to be at work.

Finding the main haulage road blocked by a huge fall, they very bravely switched to the return airway despite the obvious danger from carbon monoxide.

NO RESCUE SQUADS

No professional rescue squads then existed, but as the Free Press pointed out there was no shortage of volunteers willing to face any dangers to reach their trapped comrades, reporting that "some scrambled in places not fit for a rat. There is not a braver man anywhere than a miner." Sadly when the explorers regained the South Main road, they found only four men still alive.

But roughly 400 yards from the pit bottom were discovered the vital clues to the cause of the tragedy. Near the bodies of John Jones and 16 year old ganger lad John Gibson from Blackwell, and Thomas Shaw from Sutton were blasting tools, and powder can and a half section of shot hole for a length of 15 inches. Nearby lay Gibson's pony, still attached to his tubs. Further in were two more Black- well victims, night deputy William Martin and James Mee.

To their surprise, the explorers found another body over 200 yards down the South West main road. Curiously, the blast, instead of going on to the downcast shaft, had turned at an angle of 50 degrees on reaching the junction with this road, and struck down and severely burnt Joseph Renshaw a morning examiner from Normanton.

But the unluckiest victim was surely James Fryer from Blackwell. Untouched by the explosion, he was killed by after damp swirling along the faces he was checking deep in the South West district.

Experienced local colliers regarded A Winning as a particularly safe pit, so what had gone wrong on that November morning 83 years ago?

Apparently, Jones, Shaw and Gibson had been detailed to clear an obstruction which was fouling the tail rope of the haulage gear in the South main road about a quarter of a mile from the pit bottom.

The Inspector reasoned that when Jones decided to fire a shot he must have realised that he would be breaking the colliery rule forbidding blasting within six hours of the arrival of the coal getters.

So, to avoid a misfire, he prepared a double cartridge — two brown paper bags each filled with six ounces of black grain gunpowder, fused and tied with string.

Although the three men had splashed the contents of a 90 gallon water barrel on the roadway floor, this was only a tenth of what Stokes estimated was needed if the floor, roof and sides were to be made safely wet.

As his report said, the overcharged shot would have very little to do and "the broken side giving way easily would offer every facility for the flame of the gunpowder to ignite the dust which was so thickly found in the cracks and crevices on the sides of the roadway."

According to William Bentley, the undermanager, the floor of the roadway was watered periodically, "to give the horses a firmer footing."

But the jury at the inquiry at the Blackwell Hotel, to the obvious surprise of the Inspector, was reluctant to confirm that Jones had inadvertently detonated a purely coal dust explosion.

JURY VERDICT

Their verdict recorded that "the evidence fails to clearly define the secondary cause,” despite the fact that all the skilled witnesses agreed that this was coal dust.

Yet it was difficult to see how fire damp could have played any part. Both on the day of the explosion, when the normally powerful ventilation was practically blocked off, and two days later, no trace of methane could be detected at any point near the seat of the blast.

The 1887 Coal Mines Act forbade the firing of shots on "dry and dusty" main roads unless certain stringent precautions were observed including the thorough watering of floor, roof and sides for a distance of 20 yards.

‘UNFORTUNATE ERROR’

But the Act unfortunately failed to define what constituted “dry and dusty," and it was left to the discretion of individual managers whether Rule 12 applied to their pit. Maurice Deacon, the Blackwell Company’s General Manager, argued successfully that he had considered, before the tragedy, that the South main road did not fall within the scope of the Act, though he would, in future, apply the regulations to A Winning.

Stokes commented that the management had made an “unfortunate error of judgement" concerning the state of the roadway, "but not such an error as would carry a conviction for contravention of the Coal Mines Act of 1887."
Luckily, all the victims were members of the local Miners’ Fatal Accident Relief Society which paid £7:10s funeral expenses, and 5s per week to the widows with 2/6d for each child until they left school at 13.

MEMORABLE SCENES

In addition, the vicar of Blackwell, the Rev. E. E. Morris, reported that he had received donations totalling £210 by December 6.

Though of little consolation to their families, it could have been said of the seven that by their deaths many miners’ lives would be saved in the future. For as the Inspector said: "The cause and effect of this explosion cannot be too widely made known" adding "previously a number of them (mining men) had thought that dust required a certain quantity of gas before gunpowder would set fire to it.

Now, however, they had found out that either with gas or without it, dust would fire.”

Blackwell A Winning Colliery (North Derbyshire) Was Closed After 97 Years 

Fatal Accidents for Blackwell A and B Winnings: