Spectacular mine explosions have always been national news, whereas the death of the odd coal miner let alone the injury of one crushed and left without employment, rarely made the local press. There has always been an impression that apart from the odd disaster mining has been a relatively safe occupation. Such an impression is incorrect.
Between 1851 and 1890 explosions caused merely a fifth of deaths in coal mines. Yet such explosions have been national disasters. The most costly was that in 1913 when 439 died at the Universal Colliery at Senghenydd, Glamorgan. Prior to this the dubious distinction had been held by the Oaks Colliery at Barnsley in Yorkshire.
"The Oaks has exploded!"
Such was the terrible message which reached Barnsley in the early afternoon of Wednesday 12th Dec 1866 and thousands of people flocked to the mine. The sight which presented itself on the pit end in the immediate vicinity was truly heartrending to witness, the females and the poor children crying and calling aloud for their husbands, fathers, and brothers.
The explosion itself occur about 1.20pm. It could not have come at a worse time. Wednesday was "making up day" when miners made up work missed in the previous week and the approach of Christmas had been an extra inducement for working. Normally there would be 147 sets of tools employed, which accounted for almost 300 men but in addition there would be at least 70 day labourers and officials. The working of the day had nearly ended. About one hour later the greater part of men would have left the pit. The management had no complete record of who were in the mine and it was the union which was best able to compile a list of the missing.
THOMAS NAYDEN, a fireman at the colliery was living with his wife Charlotte and their three sons, Ephraim, George and Thomas at Hoyle Mill. At the time of the explosion, he was not in the pit but his two elder sons, George and Ephraim were. One can only imagine his horror at the scene which faced him at the bottom of the shaft as he rushed to the mine..
The conditions for THOMAS and other men who had volunteered to attempt
rescue work was appalling. WILLIAM CHARLESWORTH had worked at
Wombwell Main but for a year had been a deputy at the Oaks. He reported "I went down in the third draw with WILLIAM SUGDEN and THOMAS NAYDEN. NAYDEN and SUGDEN had been down before and had come up again to bring out some men. When I got down I found there was only one lamp lighted there, which TEWART had. There were no lamps nor any lamp keys to be had on the top when we came down. We felt about, going by the cries we heard, and got out those we could find. I sent some lamps up which I found on a bench. They were sent down again lighted in about 10 minutes.
THOMAS NAYDEN went searching on his own, perhaps in a desperate
attempt to find his two sons. Afterwards he joined the other two rescuers in the level. "We found the furnace-man TASKER standing with a sprag in his hand about 15 yards from the far end of the furnace drift" They then put out the fires in the furnace where the doors had been blown off by the blast. By about 5.00 over twenty men and boys had been brought out alive but they were all frightfully burnt, many with their skin hanging off and without any hair. Some shortly died. Three dead bodies, those of a man and two boys were so disfigured as to be unrecognisable. It was feared that few others would be found alive.THOMAS was still searching in the mine below. It is likely that he worked well into the night though he must have come up and rested at some stage. Perhaps he had a chance to meet and comfort his wife on the loss of their children.
By breakfast time next day most of the rescuers had been relieved. A few of the original rescuers however had returned underground including SUGDEN, HAIGH and NAYDEN. About 9.00am the pit fired with great violence and the men around the pit mouth were "tumbled back one over the other". No 1 cage was blasted up into the headgear. Twenty seven rescuers known to be below were lost. They included beside THOMAS NAYDEN, PARKIN JEFFCOCK, SMITH the colliery steward, DAVID TEWART, WILLIAM SUGDEN, CHARLES SIDDONS and W STEPHENSON. All agreed that not a living thing could have survived.
This is an abridged article from Roots and Branches Vol 7 No1. copies available.
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