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.

Remembering the Oaks Colliery Disaster

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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

Commemoration

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.

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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

http://www.itv.com/news/calendar/2016-12-12/service-planned-to-mark-150th-anniversary-of-oaks-colliery-mining-disaster/

  • 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
  • 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

Open Day and Working Party Weekend, 26th November 2016

Fixing the roof while the sun is (still) shining…

After a cloudy and unpromising start to the weekend, the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery were treated to a glorious autumnal day, with blue skies and sunshine smiling on the pit yard. Site Manager Glen and Friends Chair Steve opened the gates to catch up on the progress in the restoration of the roof of the winding engine house, and welcome regular volunteers, Nigel, Alan, John, Keith and Chris to another day’s working party activities.

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