On 12th December 1866 a terrible mining disaster occurred, caused by a series of explosions, igniting gas underground and claiming the lives of hundreds of workers, changing the lives of many more family members and friends.
Now, in 2016, 150 years later, we remember the tragedy and horror of those events, and commemorate the lives lost to what remains the worst mining disaster in England’s history.
The Oaks Colliery Disaster
Mining historian Alan Hill, author of The South Yorkshire Coalfield: a history and development, (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2001) has kindly written the following overview of the disaster:
An earlier explosion at the Oaks – 5 March 1847 – when 73 men and boys were killed is regarded as the first really serious explosion in the South Yorkshire Coalfield. Until theSenghenydd Colliery disaster in 1913 the Oaks was the worst in British mining and the worst in the 19th century/Victorian times.
The Oaks was one of largest collieries in Yorkshire, regarded as a well appointed and managed colliery. Two large underground furnaces provided ventilation and open gas lights were used underground at the shaft bottom.
In all there were 17 ignitions (explosions), the first about 1.20pm on Wednesday 12th December 1866. This was heard 3 miles away, and 5 miles away at a farm at Cudworth men winter ploughing found the ground covered in a sprinkling of fine coal dust soot.
By 2.00pm three rescuers had descended the pit, meanwhile the roads leading to the pit were thronged with relatives and friends. A few badly burned survivors were brought to the surface. The three rescuers then found some 20-30 survivors who were terribly burnt, huddled together near the foot of the shaft – these were raised to the surface – of these only 6 survived their burns. The rescuers then penetrated deeper into the workings and found 38 unidentifiable charred victims. A little further they found the bodies of many more who had been suffocated by the gas.
Requests for more rescuers went out and more rescuers descended the pit – though the risk of further explosions was very high. Ventilation was slowly restored and the rescuers pushed deeper into the mine.
The following morning, 13th December, at about 8.30am a party of explorers witnessed a disturbance in the air current and expecting an explosion rushed back the shaft bottom where they were drawn to the surface. Just before 9.00am the pit exploded violently for the second time.
The disaster took the lives of at least 361 men and boys; of the 340 persons in the pit on 12 December only 6 would survive. Twenty seven were killed the following morning – 23 of whom were volunteers from other pits in the area.
A public disaster fund for the miners reached £10,000 within two weeks.
New shafts were sunk and additional workings developed to replace the old ones, and new labour recruited to replace the men lost. The remains of some 80 men were unaccounted for, though occasionally pieces of bone or a skull were found.
Barnsley miners have never forgotten the grey, cheerless Christmas of 1866.
Alan Hill, 12th December 2016
In a series of commemorative events and activities starting at the weekend, volunteers, local community groups and others are coming together to remember the disaster.
The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund) have worked closely Barnsley Museums prepare a new free exhibition at the Experience Barnsley Museum and Discovery Centre, entitled “When the Oaks Fired”, it runs from 30th November 2016-8th February 2017.
The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, have also sought to engage local people in researching the history of those who died at the Oaks. Steered by Community Heritage Officer Stephen Miller, volunteers have spent thousands of hours searching a variety of parish and civil records to try to confirm the true extent of the casualties of the Oaks disaster. although 361 is the figure often used, in fact it is likely the victims number more like 383. See the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership website for the results of the research, and the new list of details of the 383 casualties. Linda Hutton, one of the volunteers, has also blogged about her experience being involved in the DVLP work.
The National Union of Mineworkers (Yorkshire Area) are hosting a public display of materials, from 12th-16th December 2016. They have also supported the local People and Mining campaign which has sought to fund the casting of an Oaks Colliery Disaster memorial statue, dedicated to the men and boys killed in the disaster. The sculptor is Graham Ibbeson, and the monies raised are funded by public and private donations. See: http://www.oaks1866.com/
The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership and Barnsley Council’s Central Area Team have also been instrumental in establishing a new volunteer group, the Barnsley Main Heritage Group to interpret and care for the remaining listed headgear at Barnsley Main, in Dearne Valley Park, at Barnsley. The site is built on part of the earlier Oaks Colliery site, and the heritage group took part in the commemorative events in December, with wooden crosses for each of the victims, and a striking hilltop beacon burning in memory of each of the victims.
On Friday 9th December 2016, The Barnsley Chronicle produced a special commemorative cover edition of the newspaper containing a range of historical and commemorative articles, family photographs and illustrations from contemporary newspapers which have been especially colourised to bring a new life to the pithead scenes of the disaster.
Writing in the Chronicle, noted local mining historian Brian Elliott also contributes his thoughts on a lifetime of research on mining disasters in South Yorkshire.
Calendar of events
- Saturday 10th December, 2016
- 10am-11am | Barnsley Cemetery – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/barnsley-cemetery-oaks-disaster-walk-3/ (booking required)
- Sunday 11th December, 2016
- Morning | Barnsley Main Colliery – Barnsley Main Heritage Group members plant wooden crosses for Oaks victims
- 3pm | Christ Church, Ardsley – Oaks Colliery Disaster Memorial service – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/oaks-colliery-disaster-memorial-service/
- Coverage of these events is available from ITV News here:
- Monday 12th December, 2016
- 1:15pm | NUM (Yorkshire Area) offices, Victoria Road entrance, Barnsley – wreaths and floral tribute to victims and opening of display in Miners Hall (12th-16th December 2016 from 10am-3pm each day)
- The new Oaks Memorial on display
- 1:15pm | Christ Church, Ardsley – Reading the names of the Oaks victims
- 1:15pm | Barnsley Main Colliery – Barnsley Main Heritage Group light a beacon in memory of disaster
- 1:20pm | Local church bells peel to remember the disaster
- 6:30pm-9pm | Experience Barnsley, Barnsley Museums
- 150 years after the Oaks Disaster – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/12-december-1866-150-years-disaster/
- Barnsley Poet Ian McMillan – new commemorative poem.
- 1866 Oaks Colliery in Virtual Reality – a short film by Alan Andrews, from the ART of Mining
- Introduction to the exhibition – Stephen Miller, Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership
- Wednesday 14th December, 2016
- 2pm | St. Edward’s, Kingstone – Commemorative illustrated talk, part of the Kingstone Heritage Group meeting, featuring a performance by Alan Wood (£2 entrance fee)
- 7pm | St. Mary’s, Barnsley – A service of commemoration with Rev Canon Rodney Marshall, with Dodworth Colliery Brass Band
- Saturday 17th December, 2016
- 10am-11:30am | Christ Church, Ardsley – Guided walk – Two Memorials Oaks Disaster – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/two-memorials-oaks-disaster-walk-3/ (booking required)