A tribute to the 168 men and boys (and numerous pit ponies) who lost their lives on 16th February, 1909.
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On this, the 109th anniversary of the West Stanley (Burns) Colliery mining disaster – the largest in my town’s history – I thought I needed to do a blog about this horrendous event, which I have also written a song about in tribute to the 168 men and boys (and many, many pit ponies) – 59 of whom were under the age of 20 – who lost their lives. (The song follows the Wikipedia article.) Stanley was the town I grew up in, but, strangely, I only heard about this awful disaster many years later.
Stanley is in northwest County Durham in the Northeast of England, and was once a major coal producer; in fact it owes its existence to the coal. Before getting to the 1909 disaster, I’d like to play you anther song I wrote, this time about how Stanley – in its present form – came into being. The song is called Stanley’s Dawn.
Stanley had at least 10 collieries in the sprawling town, and 40 within its environs. In 1909 (the year of my coal mining dad’s birth) the various Stanley collieries were employing thousands of men and boys between them. There was plenty of work, but it was dangerous work, and always came at a price; sometimes a very heavy price. On the 16th of February, 1909 this fact would be writ large. To explain more about the disaster itself, please excuse me if I quote in detail from Wikipedia, to which I’ve added images from the event and funeral.
“The 1909 explosion occurred at 3:45 p.m. on 16 February. By 2 a.m. the downcast shaft was available for rescue parties to descend. They entered the Townely and Busty seams, and from thence went into the Tilley seam. In the latter they found and brought out 26 men. From the Townley seam four men were found, but one died from the effects of afterdamp after 30 hours. Eventually another 165 bodies were retrieved, two were unaccounted for when the search was called off. In 1933 later workings broke into the Busty seam and two skeletons were discovered. They were identified as the missing men.
BEFORE THE EXPLOSION
By this date a significant amount of electricity was being used underground. Two electrically driven coal cutting machines were used in the Townley seam and one each in the Tilley and Brockwell seams. The largest motors underground were the 100 horsepower (75 kW) pump in the Busty seam near to the Busty shaft and the 100 horsepower (75 kW) haulage motor in the Townley seam. There were also two smaller 25 horsepower motors and three 5 horsepower motors elsewhere in the colliery. To power this a 40 Hz 550 volt 150 amp three phase generator was installed on the surface which delivered the power through insulated (but unarmoured) cables down the Busty shaft.
As well as the motors, there were a few incandescent lamps around the shafts. All other illumination was from Marsaut and Donald type safety lamps. The lamps were lit and locked on the surface, and if extinguished had to be sent back to the surface for relighting. However, following the discovery in 1933 of the two skeletons an inquest was held (as required by law). At this inquest J B Atkinson attempted to present fresh evidence that another type of lamp was in use. This was the Howart’s Patent Deflector lamp which was larger than the standard lamps. As a result of the increased volume the lamp was unsafe; an explosion inside would be large enough to pass through the gauze and ignite the surrounding atmosphere. The coroner allowed him to read the statement, but the jury were directed to disregard it in their determination of the identity and cause of death.
Other preventative measures were watering, control of shot firing and inspections. Watering to keep coal dust damp was performed regularly, however the inspector cast doubt upon its effectiveness having observed pools of water next to dry dust. Shot firing to bring down stone and, in some seams, coal appears to have been tightly controlled. Inspections on behalf of the men were meant to be carried out every three months. The reports from January 1909 could not be produced. Those from September 1908 were produced and were all satisfactory.
Five minutes before the explosion the man in charge of the large pump in the Busty seam advised the generator house that he was about to start the pump. This was normal procedure. Five minutes later there was a “burring” noise from the generators indicating an electrical overload, followed by two of the three (one per phase) fuses blowing. Smoke issued from the downcast shaft, in other words moving against the air flow, followed fifty seconds later by a fireball and cloud of smoke. A few moments later the cloud was sucked back down the downcast shaft as the air circulation re-established.
Both main shafts were damaged by the explosion. The downcast (Busty) shaft suffered damage all the way to the surface, and then the casing between the pit top and the heapstead[d] was blown down. The upcast (lamp) pit also suffered damage, but fortunately the fan was uninjured and continued to run. Before the district inspector could arrive the shaftmen had already started to clear away the debris from the downshaft. A temporary hospital was established at the pithead. Medical and rescue stores were brought in and by 2 a.m. the cages could be lowered down the pit. The men mentioned above were brought up, but there were no further survivors. Recovery and exploration work went on “unceasingly” until 6 days after the explosion all but two of the bodies had been recovered and brought up. The search for these two (the ones found in 1933) was abandoned due to increasing danger to the recovery parties.
The first step in investigating a colliery explosion is to determine where the explosion occurred. In the case of West Stanley the official report states “in no case that we [ie Redmayne and Bain] have investigated has it been more perplexing than the one under consideration”. The first thought was that the seat of the explosion might have been in or near the engine house in the Towneley seam, but further investigation rendered this unlikely. The Brockwell seam was next considered. There was evidence of some burning; this being the only place in the mine where it was observed. No cause of ignition, accumulation of gas or the presence of a blower[e] was found. Further damage to the props and the separation door indicated that the explosion had swept into the seam (“inbye”) before sweeping out (“outbye”).
There was no damage to the Tilley seam and the men working there had been saved, so it was not considered further. The only seam left was the Busty coal. The onsetter, Matthew Elliott, was the only man to have survived from the Busty seam and his evidence is quoted at length. Critically the electric lights went out at the time the explosion was heard (“Yes, it was instantaneous”), some time before the cloud was observed by a safety lamp. Two mining engineers who had arrived at 8 p.m. following the explosion were cross examined and agreed that the explosion occurred in the Busty seam and was due to a coal dust. Neither could say how the dust was ignited.
The inquiry then considered how the coal dust might have been ignited. Four possibilities were considered: Open lights (lamps or matches), shot firing, sparking from friction and electricity. No evidence of faulty lights or contraband was found (though there remains the question of the Howart’s Patent Deflector reported at the 1933 inquiry). All shots were accounted for and every shot hole inspected; none was fired at the time or shortly before the explosion. Friction from tubs (coal wagons) against the rails or following a derailment was considered and dismissed.
Electricity was then considered. The fuses within the mine did not blow, but evidence from the colliery electrician mentioned a previous occasion when sparking had burnt through a cable and not blown the fuses. Dr W M Thornton, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Armstrong College was then called as a witness. He considered three causes but settled on one in particular as the most likely; that a train of coal dust between the terminals of a junction box or switch causes arcing between the terminals which ignited the coal dust causing an explosion within the box. This explosion raised enough dust to trigger a bigger, fatal, explosion which spread throughout the mine.
The report concluded with a number of recommendations including better mechanical protection of electrical equipment (impact and ingress of gas or dust), trip coils in place of fuses and better cleaning.
A pit-wheel memorial was erected at Chester Road in Stanley. It shows all of the people who died in that incident. A memorial service was held in 2009 to mark the centenary of the disaster.”
-END OF WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE-
For more images about and relating to this event, take a look HERE. For detailed information on the disaster and the subsequent enquiry, click HERE. (My thanks to Roy Lambeth, Chairman of the Durham Mining Museum for this and other invaluable extra information.)
In Stanley today, as with every 16th February, there will be a remembrance service, and I only wish I could be there. If my extreme travel sickness allows it, I would dearly love to attend next year’s 110th anniversary.
MY SONG – ‘AND FAR BENEATH THEM’
I actually recorded this song, using GarageBand, in 2009 to commemorate the disaster’s centenary. I was recovering from shingles at the time, sitting in an armchair in the living room, so my voice is a little wobbly. Apologies for that. I did try to re-record the vocals late last year, adding in lyrics about the two coal seams l hadn’t mentioned – the Brockwell (where a great many also died) and the Tilley (where the 26 survived) – but it just didn’t seem to have the same feel, so I left it as it was; but those of the Brockwell especially and their descendants are forever in my heart. All I did last year, in the end, was slightly re-mix and remaster the song.
Pitmatic, dialect words used: bairns=’children’; owld=’old’; cracked=’chatted’/’bantered’;
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