The weather was not looking entirely promising as the Friends gently enquired as to the advisability and willingness of volunteers of attempting a winter work-out on site. By Friday evening, however, the regular attendees (or usual suspects) were firmly signed up to drop in first thing for a wee while, and see whether the rain gods would be kind.
A little light re-leaf at Hemingfield
First on site was Paul, who opened up and donned a hi-viz to sweep up outside in the gloom of the overcast morning. Some brusque brushing kept things neat, clearing the way as four more regulars appeared and set about keeping things tidy at both ends of the site.
Picking up where previous sessions ended, with a shovel and a pick but no walking stick, one set of volunteers continued levelling out the ground level around the concrete pad to improve access and manoeurving around the site for parking. A nice steady job this, although ‘eye’-ing gradients is quite a subjective pursuit at times!
During the morning we were also pleased to welcome three visitors, including two returning volunteers, touring the site before getting stuck in and having a go. Definitely our youngest repeat helper yet at 10 years old! Many barrowloads later, the ground was levelled up to the lip of the pad. More work to do when the earth settles down, but certainly a smoother ride in and out.
Fun, in Spades
Meanwhile, over the other side of the site, at the Pump House Cottage, our team of dedicated gardeners continued their steady work of renewal. Working through a plan to set out new plant beds, turning over the long-unworked soil, and carrying out new planting, this part of the site is really being transformed. Returning volunteers commented on the big difference they see with each visit; the impact of some TLC and a lot of elbow grease is really starting to make it feel like a garden again.
Site Manager Glen dropped in to check how everyone was doing. A busy morning, the Friends Director visited Elsecar where local charity Westwood 2015 very kindly offered to share some heritage artwork and creative materials they no longer needed. It is always great to hear from local groups, and encouraging to see the impact people are having in their communities. We hope to work with them in future.
Comings and Goings
Around midday another regular volunteer arrived, together with 2 visiting family members: more friendly faces supporting the Friends’ work. As some arrive, others depart; there are always people to catch up with and hear new plans, throw out questions or make new suggestions.
However, the overcast sky was beginning to turn to rain, so a tactical retreat was ordered, with ventilated and distanced refuge being sought in Pump house cottage.
Over sandwiches, hot drinks, mince pies and chocolate, the group covered their Christmas plans, shared impressions on Covid vaccine boosters and new restrictions, and enjoyed hearing the ‘punchy’ memories of one volunteers underground mine work experiences.
The rain continued to fall on and off after lunch, so outdoor activities drew to a close, and instead indoor tasks came to the fore. In the winding engine house, building survey and recording work continued down low in the depths.
Elsewhere, brush in hand, and dust masked up, another volunteer continued cleaning up the remains of the pumping shaft electrical winder. Coated in years of oily dust and grime, there is no shortage of material to clear away. Working in an unlit space with, a battery floodlight, the bright beam really picked out the texture of the old wire rope on the winding drum, as though it were an ancient artifact discovered in a hidden tomb; mining machinery once silenced, and now rediscovered. A poignant image when remembering the darkest days of England’s coal mining industry.
Oaks Colliery Disaster, 1866
It is now 155 years since England’s worst Colliery Disaster occurred, underground at the Oaks Colliery in Barnsley, on the 12th and 13th December 1866, claiming over 361 lives, and forever changing hundreds more.
What follows is an attempt to bring forward voices of some of the people present or who responded at the time, noting that some voices remain under-represented in the nineteenth century printed record, particularly those of women and children who survived the devastation brought to their families.
Setting the Scene – The Pit
“The colliery has been carried on under the style of Firth, Barber, and Co., since 1835. In 1862 Mr. Dymond joined the firm, and took the management. From that period the development of the colliery was rapid, so that up to the time of the accident, and also since, the amounts paid in wages have been very much in excess of those paid at any previous time. […]Mining Journal, Vol.XLI, No.1872, 8 July 1871, p.593
The old colliery is situate about one mile and a quarter south-east of Barnsley, and close to the hamlet of Hoyle Mill, where many of the colliers reside. In it there is one long block of between 60 and 70 houses belonging to the colliery, and which have been see under many different phases during the last few years […]”
“There are three shafts. The two “downcasts” are only a few yards apart, situate close to the South Yorkshire Railway; the upcast, or cupola being at a distance of about 500 yards from the former… There was a furnace, constantly burning under this upcast shaft to accellerate the draft, drawing up the return air, charged with gas. […] We are now sufficiently aware that, in the vast dip levels of this pit there were frequent and dangerous accumulations of fire-damp, which needed only a spark to produce the most disastrous results.”John Tomlinson, Stories and sketches relating to Yorkshire, London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1868, pp.227-228
Disastrous Days in December
- Wednesday 12th of December, around a quarter past 1pm, an explosion of gas occurred shortly after some stone shot-firing had taken place. There were 340 underground workers in the pit are the time. The vast majority were killed. Around 20 injured survivors were brought out, but of these 14 would later die from the effects of their injuries. Exploration and recovery workers collected 61 bodies in the hours that followed the first disaster.
- Thursday 13th of December, around 9 am, a second explosion occurred killing 26 members of the exploration party still underground, including local volunteers, managers and engineers from other collieries. A third explosion occurred during the day.
- Friday the 14th of December, between 4 and 5 am, one man from the Thursday volunteers, Samuel Brown, though injured and unconscious for a time, had survived and was brought up out of the pit.
The Law – Regulating Mines
“If and when Loss of Life or any personal Injury to any Person employed in or about any Coal Mine, Colliery, or Ironstone Mine occurs by reason of any Explosion … the Owner or Agent of such Coal Mine, Colliery, or Ironstone Mine shall, within Twenty-four Hours next after such accident, send Notice of such Accident, and the Loss of Life or personal Injury occasioned thereby, under the Hand of such Owner or Agent, in England to One of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State…and shall specify in such Notice the probable Cause of such Accident, and such Notice may be sent through the Post Office by Letter addressed to such Secretary of State…and to the Inspector of the District at his usual Place of Residence; and every Owner or Agent who neglects to send or cause to be sent such Notice as aforesaid within the Time aforesaid shall for such Offence be liable to a Penalty not exceeding Twenty Pounds.” An Act for the Regulation and Inspection of Mines, 1860 23 & 24 Vict c 151, Section XIX
As required by law, Oaks Colliery, via their cashier, Joseph Orgill Carr, notified the Government of the accident. The then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department was Somerset Richard Lowry-Corry, 4th Earl Belmore. He acknowledged the report of the explosions at the Oaks Colliery on behalf of the Home Secretary, Spencer Horatio Walpole.
Mr J.O. Carr, Oaks Colliery, Barnsley 15 Decr 66 Sir, I am &c. 13th Instant, notifying an explosion, attended with fatal results, in the Oaks Colliery, near Barnsley. And I am to express to you the great regret with which Mr Walpole has received your report of such a melancholy loss of life.
[The National Archives, Mines Entry Books – Correspondence with Inspectors, HO 95/4/3 p.280]
Immediately after the notification, the Inspector of Mines for the District, Charles Morton, was dispatched to investigate and report, and the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Horatio Waddington invited scientific and professional support from John Kenyon Blackwell on behalf of the Home Secretary, Rt Hon. Spencer Horatio Walpole MP:
Kenyon Blackwell Esq
6 Rue Leroux
Avenue de l’Impératrice
17 Dec /66
Sir, As it may possibly be thought desirable that a Gentleman of professional eminence should be present, on the part of the Government, at the Inquest on the bodies of the unfortunate persons, whose death was caused by the recent explosion in the Oaks Colliery near Barnsley. I am directed by Mr Secry Walpole to request that you will inform me, whether in such case you would be able to give the Government the benefit of your valuable services. Mr Walpole would recommend to the Treasury that the remuneration should be on the same scale, as that which you received on former occasions for your attendance at Inquests in South Wales.
As time is of consequence, you will be so good as to communicate your decision to me by Electric Telegraph.
H. Waddington [The National Archives, Mines Entry Books – Correspondence with Inspectors, HO 95/4/3 p.284-285]
A Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths caused by the Explosions began on Friday 14th December 1866 at the White Bear Inn, Hoyle Mill, under County Coroner Thomas Taylor. The scale of the Disaster had immediate effects on even the professional men: Mines Inspector Charles Morton who also attended a gathering of mining engineers in those first days, later resigned from his post due to the impact of the scale of the tragedy evolving before his eyes. The remainder of the adjourned inquest was attended by Inspector Joseph Dickinson from Manchester.
The Worker: Charles Crossley, banksman
“I live at Beechfield, Barnsley, and am a banksman at the Oaks Colliery. I was at the colliery on the 12th of last month, and was just going off the bank or pit hill, at a quarter past one o’clock, when the explosion occurred. I heard a rush of air, and saw smoke come out of No 1 and No.2. Dust and debris consisting of smoke, slack, and soot, were strewed about, and the head gearing all appeared to be standing good at the time. I went back to the pit mouth directly, and all was still when I got there.
At the time of the explosion the engine was running, and both the cages were in the shafts. No.1 cage was going down, and the other cage was coming up loaded. No. 2 cage broke loose, and snapped from the rope. The engine man stopped. We drew the No.2 chain up, in about half an hour after, and found that the cage had left it. We sent for assistance, and Mr Dymond was the first on the ground. It took us about half an hour to get the rope of No. 1 disentangled, and the cage of No. 1 being broken, we had to take it off and put a fresh one on. Before No. 1 rope could be let down No. 2 rope had to be taken off, and that occupied about two hours.”
Charles Crossley (1831-1915), Oaks Colliery banksman, in evidence to the Inquest, reported in the Barnsley Chronicle, 12th Jan 1867, p.3
The Reporter – Wemyss Reid
“When I reached the colliery a few hours after the explosion occurred I found that some two hundred of the men who had been working in it were known to have been killed, but that many more were believed to be still alive in the distant workings, and that a large rescue party had gone below to recover them. Having sent my last despatch to Leeds, I went to an inn at Barnsley to snatch a few hours of sleep before resuming work at daybreak.
In the morning, as I was hastening back to the colliery to learn what progress had been made during the night, I suddenly saw a dense volume of black smoke shoot out of the mouth of the pit, and, rising high in the air, spread in a fan-shaped cloud of enormous size. Immediately afterwards the dull reverberation of an underground explosion fell upon my ear. A rough collier was walking beside me, and when he heard that ominous sound he turned white, and staggered against the wall which lined the road. “God have mercy on us!” he cried, ” she’s fired again.” It was an awful moment. Both I and the pitman knew that, in addition to any survivors of the first explosion, there were twenty or thirty brave men risking their lives in a work of mercy when this new catastrophe took place.”
Wemyss Reid (1842-1885) then a journalist for the Leeds Mercury, from Reid, Stuart J., (ed.) Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid 1842-1885, London: Cassell and company, 1905, pp.102-103
The Medical Professional – Dr Blackburn
“The treatment adopted in every case has been to wrap the patients up in blankets immediately on their arrival at the pit bank, and to administer brandy freely. They were then conveyed home as quickly as possible, where their burns were covered with cotton wool saturated with oil and lime-water. In the course of a few days this was removed, and turpentine applied; in some cases calamine and oxide-of-zinc ointment. The patients preferred the latter.”
Dr Blackburn’s cases (anonymised at the time but details given/corrected where now known):
- William H.[enry] H[art], aged fourteen, very severely burnt over the face, hands, and arms, is in a weak state, and not expected to recover. [William survived and lived on until 1913.]
- Matthew S[cales], aged twenty-six, hanger-on at the pit bottom, was severely burnt about the face, head, chest, arms, and hands. His death was expected almost from the beginning. On the 19th an attack of acute bronchitis set in, and he died the following day.
- [George] T[asker], one of the furnacemen, escaped most miraculously, and landed at the top, bringing the dead body of a cat in his hand. He was suffering from partial stupor from the effects of the choke-damp, and appeared perfectly amazed at the number of people about the pit top. He was removed home, and after the repeated application of cold water to his head, the administration of brandy, sal volatile, and chlorate of potash, in large doses, he gradually recovered, and the following day was able to go out.
- Thomas C[artwright], one of the explorers, who remained some considerable time at the bottom of the pit after the explosion, was obliged to come to the surface in consequence of the serious effects of the choke-damp. He was suffering from a smothering sensation, with a feeling of great distension about the chest and abdomen, and having also an intense desire to sleep. He recovered in twelve or fourteen hours, under similar treatment to that adopted in the previous case, and by that time was able to walk to the pit, a distance of half a mile.
Dr John Blackburn (1834–1906) Surgeon and later Mayor of Barnsley, The Lancet, 29th Dec 1866, p.736
Supporting the Bereaved – The Bishop of Ripon
My duties led me to Barnsley to visit the homes where some of the sufferers were lingering in sad torture from the effects of the fire, and where many more were enduring the anguish of bereavement. […]
House after house which I visited presented similar scenes, only varying in the degree of sorrow and distress produced by this unexampled disaster. […]
The scene on the Sunday afternoon at the cemetery, when twenty-six of the bodies which had been recovered were buried, was deeply affecting. Thousands were present, but there was no noise or confusion; every countenance betokened either seriousness or sorrow.
Right Reverend Robert Bickersteth (1816-1884), Bishop of Ripon, text reproduced from The Home Visitor, Vol.1 1867
Stopping the fires: Filling the pits
Additional explosions continued to be heard, appearing at each of the three shafts, upcast and downcast, after the last survivor had been removed. Fires burning underground were fed by air from the surface. The mining engineers present on the ground concurred that no-one else could possibly have survived the ongoing disastrous atmosphere down below.
It was agreed that the cupola or furnace pit should therefore be filled up with spoil and clay in order to begin to control the fires. This work began on Monday 18th December 1866. The following day the workers also began filling up the No.1 pit. By Christmas Eve 1866 it was agreed to fill the No.1 shaft still higher, and that a special scaffold should be built and lowered down into the No.2 shaft, on top of which clay would be piled to seal up all air connections to the inferno beneath.
The scaffold contained some iron pipes to allow for the monitoring of gas, temperature and pressure rising from below. A second scaffold was later lowered down above the first to completely seal the shaft. These painful decisions effectively confirmed that the bodies of most of the victims from the 12th and 13th would remain entombed for some considerable time to come.
A Nation Responds – The Queen
“Windsor Castle, Thursday Afternoon.
The Queen desires to make inquiry as to the probable extent of the explosion, and whether the loss of life is as serious as reported” Telegram sent by Sir Thomas Biddulph to the Chairman of the Barnsley Magistrates, Walter Spencer Stanhope, 13th December 1866
Thomas Horncastle Marshall, Clerk to the Magistrates replied confirming the situation, prompting the response:
“The Queen learns with deep regret the extent of the frightful calamity, and desires, if a subscription is set on foot, to put down her name for £200 for the relief of the families of the unfortunate sufferers.”
A Nation Responds: Relief funds
Similar responses to subscribe funds appeared around the country shortly afterwards, most notably in Barnsley, but also at the Mansion House in London where the Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Gabriel called for funds to be subscribed, building on the Mansion House funds previous efforts at the time of the Hartley Colliery Disaster in 1862.
“That the funds raised be devoted to the relief of the families of the sufferers by the recent colliery explosions; and that in the event of public benevolence furnishing funds more than sufficient to meet the requirements of these objects, the balance will be retained in the hands of trustees as the nucleus of any similar subscription that may be thought necessary at some future time to raise for the purpose of meeting a like calamity”.
Resolution passed at a Mansion House meeting on 18th December 1866 convened by Sir Thomas Gabriel, Bart., Lord Mayor of London
The Oaks Colliery Explosion Relief Fund
“The first object of the Committee was to provide for the immediate and most pressing wants of the sufferers; the next, to make such provision for their future maintenance as the different cases seemed to require. It then became a matter for the serious consideration of the Committee how far they could provide for the future well-being of the children of whom they were now the guardians. It was accordingly decided, as a first step, that each child should receive the basis of a good education, which combined (in the cases of the boys) with the knowledge of some trade would enable them to take worthy places in one or other of the various branches of skilled industry. […]
With regard to the girls the Committee decided to adopt a similar course of education; adding to the primary instruction such industrial training as would thoroughly qualify them for domestic service. With this in view they selected the industrial Homes at Ripon and Bradford, and on this choice they have every reason to congratulate themselves.” G.E. Swithenbank, Supplemental Report to the Subscribers to the Oaks Colliery Explosion Fund, for the four years to the end of 1875, reported in Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 24th July 1876, p.3
To the Editor of the Manchester Guardian,
Sir.- The time has arrived when the Oaks Colliery Relief committee can give the public reliable information
respecting the extent of the calamity and the amount of money required to meet the necessities of the case. […]
RETURN OF THE NUMBER OF SUFFERERS RELIEVED.
Class 1. Widows and Children: Widows, 153; children, 346 499
Class 2. Parents wholly supported by their sons lost: Men, 4; Women, 10 14
Class 3. Parents partly supported by their sons lost: Men, 47; women, 52 99
Class 4. Families of men living, but burned: Men, 3; women, 3; children, 10 16
[…] There is reason to believe that several widows have not yet applied for relief. G.W. Atkinson, Secretary”
The Manchester Guardian, 7th January 1867, p4, letter from Wm. H. Peacock. Hon. Secretary, Barnsley, January 4. 1867
In 1867 8 girls were sent to the Bradford Industrial Home for Orphans and Deserted Girls (also known as the Bradford Orphan Girls Home) , and 13 by 1871. There, they were taught “washing, cooking, breadmaking and household duties“. At the the Ripon Industrial Home for Girls, there were 6 Barnsley girls in 1869.
Ultimately 690 people were covered by the relief funds, although the numbers changed dramatically over time as widows remarried (losing relief), as posthumous children were born, and as fatherless or orphaned children reached 12 and so fell off the relief, unless special circumstances arose. The funds continued to pay benefits to ever-dwindling numbers of claimants into the twentieth century.
The Coroner’s jury took an hour and a quarter to return their verdict on the causes of the death, without assigning blame:
“That Richard Hunt and others were killed by an explosion of gas or fire-damp at the Oaks colliery – on the 12th of December 1866 ; but there is no evidence to prove where or how it ignited. The Jury think it unnecessary to make any special recommendations as to the working of mines, seeing that Government are collecting information, no doubt with a view to the better protection of life; but they think a more strict, inspection of mines desirable. ” Barnsley, 31st January 1867.London Evening Standard, 1 Feb 1867, p.6
Tragedy compounded, recovery delayed
“Of the 361 lives which have been lost in the Oaks Colliery on the 12th and 13th of December, 286 now [April 1867] remain in the pit. It is the most serious calamity which has occurred in any colliery in this or perhaps in any other country. Excepting, however, in the greater magnitude of the number of lives lost, there is nothing in which the explosion differs from a large number of similar occurrences.”Joseph Dickinson, Inspector of Mines, REPORT UPON THE OAKS COLLIERY EXPLOSION, 1867, p.4
The Price of Coal – James Greenwood
“Never was there pictured a more impressive example of the vanity of the world and the hollowness of its pleasures and properties. To be sure we must have coals, — civilization and human progress demand them. Science itself would grow cold without them. We have need to husband our coal rather than sacrifice it, since there is a chance that we may exhaust our stock; otherwise the proper thing to do would be to consecrate this vast sepulchre, and set a great stone over its mouth, inscribed with the names of the buried slain, and close it up forever. […]
Therefore, in mercy to these poor bereaved ones, pray, good gentlemen, hasten your preparations towards clearing of its dead your vast and venomous pit. If you are doing the best that you can towards that most desirable end, you can do no more; but if it should happen that considerations of commerce offer an impediment, though never so slight a one, — if it should so happen, I say, — not that I for a moment suspect such a thing, — for mercy sake, set it aside. Else, with Christmas coming again, when “faces in the fire” are seasonable, with what comfort will you be able to sit at your cosey hearths and contemplate them, thinking of the widows waiting, and still waiting, out in the cold by the cruel pit!”
James Greenwood (1832-1927), prominent journalist and writer on social issues (Pen name Casual Amateur), writing in 1867 on a visit to the Oaks, 9 months after the disaster (reproduced from Every Saturday, 17 Oct 1867, p.478)
New hope for the old Oaks
On 30th March 1867 at the Railway Station Hotel in Normanton, a special meeting of the mining engineers concerned in the Oaks Colliery recovery was held. It would come to mark the beginning of the painfully slow process of recovering the Oaks pits and its victims. The participants included renowned mining engineers from around the country, from Newcastle in the North East, Wigan from the North West, Derby in the Midlands, and from all around Yorkshire.
At the meeting they assessed the results of the sealing up of the pit, and considered the state and extent of the fires underground, reviewing data carefully recorded over many weeks. After reviewing the evidence, and considering a new plan of the workings they came to the following resolution:
It was only in August 1867 that efforts began to reopen the pit at Oaks. So began a slow process of accessing the workings, before the task of digging through debris and repairing collapsed workings. And then the unimaginably horrendous job of retrieving the bodies of the victims which had lain underground since the previous December.
Once again County Coroner Thomas Taylor began his investigative work, identifying the bodies after they were retrieved before conducting inquests on the causes of death. Taylor recorded notes in his own hand at the identifications, records which have survived to this day, as these examples from 7th October 1867 show:
“Eliza Seddon of Hoyle Mill, Ardsley, Widow, Sw[orn] says the dece[as]ed Christr Seddon was my husband. He was 50 years old & a Deputy in Messrs Firth Barber & Co’s Oaks Colliery. He last left home to go to the Pit between 1 & 2 o’clock in the morning of Thursday the 13th Decr. last.” West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield, C493/K/2/1/27 p.1328
“Hannah Hoyland of Sheffield Road, Barnsley, Widow says, The dece[as]ed Alfred Hoyland was my husband. He was 54 years old and a colliery underground laborer. He had lost one arm. He had not been at work for a fortnight before the 12th Decr. last as he was poorly but after the explosion he went to the Oaks Colliery. I did not see him alive after about 1/2 past 9 o’clock at night on that day. I saw his body at the Colliery last Friday afternoon. I had not any difficulty in recognising him.” West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield, C493/K/2/1/27p.1329
Coda: The Old and the New
After 2 more years of sinking new shafts at Stairfoot, in what became the ‘New Oaks’, the ‘Old Oaks’ pits were finally reconnected in 1870, and the bodies of more victims could be recovered. Some individuals could only be identified by the clogs. Some were never found.
This December, 155 years later, we remember the loss and also reflect on the commemorative renewal of 2016 when a magnificent new public statue was unveiled in Barnsley, and new research into the disaster was brought to light.