On This Day, 1866 – The Oaks Colliery Disaster

On the 12th December 2020, we remember the terrible mining tragedy of the Oaks Colliery Disaster of this date 154 years ago – Wednesday 12th 1866, at a colliery site now maintained by the Barnsley Main Heritage Group, and commemorated in a permanent public sculpture unveiled in Barnsley in 2016, 150 years after the event.

Oaks Colliery was just by the Barnsley to Doncaster line of the South Yorkshire Railway, between Ardsley and Barnsley itself, near Hoyle Mill (Crutchley’s Railway and Station Map of Yorkshire, 1861)

Providing a grim glimpse into that past, when the scale and impact were fresh in the mind, we can do no better than share extracts from contemporary words of a local writer and newspaper contributor, John Tomlinson (1834-1889) of Doncaster, as he visited Barnsley in February 1867, published in his Stories and Sketches relating to Yorkshire, Doncaster, R.Hartley, 1867:-

The Oaks Colliery two months after an explosion.

I took a bird’s-eye view of the landscape, which is here very irregular. The hills rise abruptly, with deep valleys between… I observed two rows of stone cottages; but all were silent. There were no busy steps passing in and out; no gossipping at the doors. A stranger passing this way might conjecture, without any previous knowledge, that some calamity had overtaken the inmates.

I stood between the two shafts down which so many had gone to the region of death… It was not necessary to linger on that gloomy pit-hill – a few moments sufficed for my eye to take in all objects on the surface – so I enquired the way to Hoyle Mill, where many bereaved families are congregated. As a result of this single calamity, we learn that there are here 50 widows and 113 fatherless children. Out of about 60 cottages which form this hamlet, there is left a male population numbering only thirteen who are capable of earning a living.

The Oaks Colliery

It is above thirty years since the first “corve” was brought to bank at the Oaks Colliery. For eight or ten years, while the mine was limited, no serious accident occurred. In 1845, however, there were two explosions, during one of which the pit was fired. Fortunately, on each occasion but few colliers were in the workings, so that only three or four lives were sacrificed.

Two years afterwards (1847) a far more terrible explosion occurred, and it was generally understood that the gas had accumulated in an old abandoned working. There were about a hundred men and boys in the pit, seventy-three of whom were killed, and twenty-six rescued alive. True, about that time (1848) some material changes were made in the organisation of the pit. The downcast shaft was converted into an “up-cast” or cupola, while the present no.1 and No.2 shafts, which had been sunk only to the upper seam and afterwards abandoned, were carried down to the lower levels, and employed as down-cast air and drawing shafts.

The depth of these is now about 280 yards, but the seam, which is above eight feet in thickness, dips so considerably that some of the workings would be at least 400 yards below the surface. It is computed that about 300 acres of coal had been got at the Oaks Colliery, the average yield being about 4,000 tonnes per week; that the pit contains about 60 miles of wall, and when the explosion occurred there were men in those distant levels, two miles or more from the bottom of the shaft.

The retrospect is very painful.

It is generally acknowledged that the Barnsley seem is peculiarly liable to emit sudden and extraordinary effusions of gas. The “goaves” are almost always more or less surcharged with gas, which, at times, is given off in such volumes as to necessitate the most careful working.

The reader is already acquainted with the general plan of the colliery. 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. The workings, as we have seen, are the most extensive in Yorkshire. There was a furnace, constantly burning under this upcast shaft to accellerate the draft, drawing up the return air, charged with gas.

Wednesday 12th December 1866

On the 12th of last December, three hundred and forty men and boys were down in this pit, alive and working. Of this number fully one-third would be husbands and fathers. It was nearly half-past 1 o’clock, p.m., when a terrible shock was felt, as if some heavy cannon had been discharged in the neighbouring hollow. But the colliery population knew well what such a sound betokened, and they rushed in consternation to the old pit-hill.

The sickening spectacle presented for the next few hours on that pit-hill will live for ever in the memory of the observers – charred, blackened, but not utterly lifeless forms are delivered to weeping relatives; and when such breathing remnants of humanity could no longer be found, disfigured corpses were brought up. Twenty human beings were recovered alive, but of these fourteen were so seriously injured that they have since died. These few living workers had made their way towards the shaft, where there was some measure of ventilation: those found in the distant workings were all dead, killed, probably, not by the explosion, but by the poisonous after-damp.

During twelve hours succeeding the explosion, about fifty bodies, in various conditions of ghastliness, were brought up from the pit. But there were scores of wives, mothers, and children who had not even these relics to comfort them; they went home in despair, if home it may be called, where the bread-winner could enter no more.

Thursday 13th December

On Thursday morning, about nine o’clock, another and louder report was heard. The earth shook and trembled, for the Fiend of Fire-damp was wroth. The shafts belched up smoke, coal-dust, soot, and broken timber, scattering the fragments far and wide. The bystanders were awe-strucken, and strong men wept with anguish as they recollected that twenty-seven explorers were then in the pit. The empty cage was lowered in silence and fear. It was afterwards drawn up, but it remained empty still; and then the bystanders felt that all hope for the brave volunteers was gone. Two men lay at the pit-mouth, and amidst a profound stillness “chucked” their voices down the heated shaft. There was no response.

During the day (Thursday, Dec. 13th) a third explosion took place, and in the evening a column of white smoke was emitted from No.2 shaft, accompanied by volumes of sparks. At this time all surface lights had been extinguished, while, excepting the presence of police, with a few coal-mine officials, the pit hill was quite deserted.

Friday 14th December

Between four and five o’clock on Friday morning, the watchers were startled by hearing the pit bell ring. It was not a mere hallucination, the sound was repeated, proving, contrary to all expectation, that there was life in the mine. A bottle of brandy was let down by a string; and when the latter was drawn up, the bottle was absent. Presently a rope and small cage, or tub, were extemporised (the winding-gear of both shafts being totally disabled), when two gentlemen descended the shaft.

At the bottom was Sam Brown, one of the twenty-seven volunteers, alive but nearly exhausted. The two explorers went some distance through the pit, searched and shouted; they discovered that the mine, in one place was on fire, but could find no other living human being. It excited great surprise that this Samuel Brown should remain alive twenty hours after that second explosion, in which all his associates had perished.

Saturday 15th December

On Saturday, December 15th, three or four more explosions took place. The reports were loud, and there was still a great emission of coal-dust, soot, and broken timber from the two shafts. The task of exploring the mine had long since been abandoned. To stifle the fire that cupola was first filled up. It was probably the best policy to choke the up cast; but during the next fortnight not less than a dozen distinct explosions were heard at the surface, some of them very powerful. Meetings of colliery proprietors and mining engineers continued to be held, and it was decided to stop the down-cast air in both No.1 and No.2 shafts. This was done. Then followed the coroner’s inquest, occupying many days.

Inquest and Aftermath

So far as we know, no catastrophe in Yorkshire, at any time, has cut off so many human beings at a stroke. After the first thrill of consternation had passed away, people said to one another – Now the public mind will be thoroughly aroused, and something must be done to prevent such disasters. The Coroner and jury sat thirteen days, and after listening to some evidence, and a great deal of scientific disquisition, returned the following verdict:-

That Richard Hunt and others were killed by an explosion of 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 the Government is collecting information, no doubt with a view to the better protection of life, but they think a more strict inspection is desirable.

Public excitement in relation to this great calamity is gradually subsiding. And now – What? The subject will certainly add another item to the details of local chronology. There has been two months’ twaddle about cause and effect, and now – What? I speak to men in authority, and practical men. Is the whole matter to be shelved, or evaporate in a few vague resolutions, until another similar casualty excites a parallel consternation?

There is one fundamental question which, to my mind, has never been satisfactorily answered:- Can explosions in these deep, extensive mines be entirely prevented?

The preponderance of testimony from mining engineers (and such men ought to know) is, that they cannot. Increased care, and superior ventilation, may lessen the severity or frequency of such accidents; but so long as the world lasts, while there are mines to be worked, and coal to be got, there will inevitably be jeopardy of life. It is so with our mariners. The ship may be good, and the hands may be experienced; there may be systematic and unceasing watchfulness; but some unprecedented storm, or treacherous quicksand, may render futile all human endeavours, and the coast will now and then be strewn with wrecks.

Commemorating the Oaks Colliery Disaster, 150th Anniversary programme of events.

From Pit to Pump: 100 years ago today, 15th May 1920

View of Hemingfield Colliery in May 2020: the 2 concrete headgears over the old winding pit and the pumping pit and the 2 engine houses can be seen
View of Hemingfield Colliery, May 2020

100 years ago…

A hundred years ago today, on the 15th May 1920, the last corf load of coal was raised from Earl Fitzwilliam’s Hemingfield Colliery. It marked the end of an era for the pit, as silence fell, albeit temporarily, at the main winding shaft.

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Storm force from Hemingfield, or the Shipping Forecast.

What with Storm Ciara (pronounced keera) threatening proceedings, and suggestions of Storm Dennis barely a week away, the Friends threw caution to the – admittedly light – wind on Saturday 8th February 2020, and ventured down to site for a surprisingly storm-free open day at Hemingfield Colliery.

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Bright, shiny and new, Saturday 18th January 2020

Wath Road entrance to Hemingfield Colliery

2020! The first Open Day in the new year and what a beautoful day. Bright blue skies above, clear views all around, and a quickening coldness which suggested frost, but was soon chased away by getting to work as the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery and the regular volunteers returned to the pit for another year of activity, in a new decade of life for the colliery.

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Milton Gala 2018 and Milton Dig!

Milton Gala, Sunday 22nd July 2018

Arriving at the crest of an extraordinary heatwave, the 2018 Milton Gala was a scorcher! Organised and managed by the Mates of Milton community group, and held on the Milton Forge recreation grounds, the day was busy with food, fun, music, rides, displays, dancing, dogs (not dancing) and a great turnout from members of the local community in Hoyland, Elsecar and further afield.

Beneath striking blue sky and the direct sun, the day was glorious; the parched grass like straw, turned yellow-brown, encouraging picnics and sunbathing, as well as gentle conversation as the crowds gathered to join in the fun on the upper field. On the lower field, for the first time, a volunteer cordon for parking ensured no snarl ups, and encouraged everyone to enjoy the whole of the recreation ground.

Young and old, families and friends walked around the Gala grounds, stopping to admire the shops and stalls surrounding the performance and display area. Local community, volunteer and faith groups were out in force, including Holy Trinity Church Elsecar, Wentworth Castle Volunteers and others, as well as a strong presence from the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service, with a fire engine on site and a rolling series of demonstrations on the dangers of domestic fires – leading to some spectacular flames!

Amongst the stalls of books, plants, crafts, gifts and sweets, was the great group from Old Martha’s Yard Community Garden, just up Milton Road in Hoyland, tucked away behind the Belmont club, off West Street.

Also present was a joint stall hosted by the Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar team,  with Heritage Specialist Megan Clement, together with the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) officer Dr Tegwen Roberts; both are experienced commercial and community archaeologists with a passion for sharing their expertise.

Milton Dig

The Great Place WE and Elsecar HAZ teams were on site to share the progress of their Milton Dig project – a two week community archaeology project on the Milton Forge fields to investigate the history of the site and any remains of the former Milton Iron Works which occupied the site from c.1799-1885.

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#MiltonDig – a community archaeology project from 16th-28th July 2018.

Building on the findings of Historic England’s national Geophysics Team, who used a number of techniques to investigate the Milton Forge playing fields area, including caesium magnetometry and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR).

Linford, N.T., Linford, P.K., Payne, A. W., Elsecar, Barnsley: Report on Geophysical Survey, May 2017 (Report number: 62/2017), Historic England Research Report series ISSN  2059-4453  (Online).

The Milton Dig project, from 16th-28th July 2018 was designed to excavate a number of features identified by the geophysics, together with indications of structures from old Ordnance Survey maps, and some archival plans from Barnsley Archives, to determine what if anything remains of the original iron works and ancillary buildings.

Teamwork

The Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar team worked closely with ElsecarHAZ project officer Dr Tegwen Roberts to design a programme of archaeological and creative activities. The dig itself was delivered by an experienced team from Arc Heritage, supervised by Richard Jackson. It also provided an opportunity for young people in the area to be inspired by their heritage, and the Great Places WE team enlisted local writer and poet Michéle Beck to lead creative writing workshops with local children during the dig period.

The Heritage Action Zone for Elsecar is a 3 year project resourced by Heritage Lottery Fund monies and led by Historic England to undertake new research into the area to reveal its heritage and help develop future plans for its visitor economy. The Great Place WE scheme brings together work by Barnsley and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Councils with the resources and expertise of Arts Council England to engage and inspire young people locally with the creative opportunities of the heritage found at Wentworth and Elsecar, as well as arranging a series of fantastic events to remember in the two villages.

Local schools and members of the community were invited to come and see the dig and learn about the emerging finds as the work progressed. There were daily opportunities to volunteer on site, and many members of the local community, including families were quick to reserve a spot to get down in the trenches to see their history emerge first-hand.

Gala update

At Milton Gala, a highlight was a series of tours of the ongoing archaeology. Historic England Elsecar HAZ Project Officer, Dr Roberts led groups around the site, explaining the choice of excavation sites, and the emerging discoveries to date. The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery were delighted to visit and learn more about the history of the area, and how interconnected the collieries and ironworks were through the years.

Elsecar HAZ Project Officer Dr Roberts explaining the context and understanding of one of the Milton Dig excavation trenches, showing the re-uses of the Milton iron works site in the late 19th through to the mid-twentieth centuries.

Trench 1 at Milton Sunday 22nd July 2018, Careful excavation showing the many different levels of material filling to the current surface – the layers (stratigraphy) of the trench and the discovery of features including elements of a stone building (top-centre).

Dr Roberts explaining the initial interpretations of Trench 1 in the Milton Dig excavations.

Context is everything

After explaining the progress of the Milton Dig to-date, Dr Roberts led visitors to the project cabin where the cleaned and sorted finds were bagged and tagged with individual labels, giving the trench and context numbers relating to where they were found.

Following the Dig #MiltonDig

In the week following the Gala, the Milton Dig concluded. The recording work will lead to a study of the findings and the results will be shared with the community in a report produced by Arc Heritage in the near future. To learn more about the exciting progress of the dig, and the many local people and professional archaeologists who got down in the trenches, or who visited to see the progress being made, please see the videos presented by Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar:

  • Introduction to the Milton Dig project, Megan Clement, Heritage Specialist, Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar.
  • Introduction – Richard Jackson (archaeological project supervisor, Arc Heritage)
  • Day 1 – Opening trenches, Megan Clement, Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar
  • Day 2 – Schools visit (Dr Tegwen Roberts, Elsecar HAZ officer)
  • Day 3 – Update (Richard Jackson from Arc Heritage)
  • Day 4 – Megan Clement Great PLace Wentworth and Elsecar Heritage Specialist
  • Day 5 – Michéle Beck, Freelance Author and Poet – creativity from shared heritage
  • Milton Dig and the Gala – For local people and their history, Dr John Tanner, Barnsley Museums
  • Day 7 – Richard Jackson, Arc Heritage
  • Day 8 – Richard Jackson, Arc Heritage
  • Day 10 – Drawing the Milton Dig to a close, Richard Jackson, Arc Heritage

Open Day Saturday 27th January 2018

The Next Shift

The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery were keen to return to site this Saturday – to open the gates, collect tools, and return to the dig at the rear of the winding engine house.

Friends Chair Steve welcomed regular volunteers John, Keith and Paul, followed by Chris. The crew returned to the scene of the earlier discovery of the coal tub, and picked up where they left off, removing the spoil in what is quickly becoming a fascinating area of hidden features.

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Open Day and Working Party Weekend, 12th November 2016

 Works in Progress

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Saturday was a busy day at Hemingfield, ushering in the first working party in November. Following a week filled with US election drama and the sombre reflections of remembrance day, Site Manager Glen opened the pit gates, joined by Directors Ian and Christine. Chairman Steve and regular volunteers John and Chris were also on hand as the Friends welcomed a number of new visitors to the site, all eager to see the progress in the winding engine house roof, and to discuss some exciting opportunities throughout the valley.

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Saturday 9th July 2016

Water, water everywhere

Summer’s here and the weather is…very British.

When the clouds signally fail to roll by, and the heavens descend, it can certainly put a dampener on plans and postpone progress on site. Being chased indoors by the elements may prevent the pit gates from opening, but it also gives the Friends chance to delve deeper into the history of the site; open days become research and volunteer days. So, on to writing up research, raising awareness of the group’s activities and generally carrying on regardless!

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Open Day and Working Party, 6th February 2016

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Falling Skies

The Friends and their doubty volunteers looked skywards this past weekend as the heavens opened and the water descended. There was every likelihood that the weather would indeed stop play. However, our volunteers are most definitely made of sterner stuff, and donning waterproofs and not a modicum of plucky determination, they set forth to Hemingfield, to get stuck in to another day of site clearance activity. Continue reading