Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster

14th November 1872

The following article was written by Mr Reg Neville of Cornwall and appeared in Issues 17,18 and 19 of Pelsall Times in 2003

Day 1  Thursday 14th November 1872

Little did Michael Cash realise what would be the dreadful aftermath as he swung his pick into the coal face in his heading in the deep seam at Pelsall Hall Colliery at about nine o clock that November morning.

What started as a trickle soon developed into a swiftly flowing stream. "Come and look at the River Dee!", Cash was reported later as calling out to his workmates.  But what was not too alarming at first soon developed into a full flood as pent up waters from an unknown previous working, burst out.  There were about 35 men and boys below and their cries of "we shall all be drowned" were clearly heard on the bank above.  Mr Charles Starkey, manager and joint lessee of the mine, with three others descended the shaft where they encountered a swirling mass of water and about ten men, who they helped into the cage, together with a further two who were flung into the cage by the rush of water, just as they were about to ascend.

A roll call on the surface revealed that there were a total of twenty two men and boys still in the mine and frantic calls down the shaft received no response.

In the meantime, the water continued to rise up the shaft of the mine, which was sixty yards (180ft) deep and measurements soon showed that the water had quickly risen to a depth of 28ft, covering the inlet and cutting off any hope of early rescue attempts. Hopes were entertained that the more experienced miners might have been able to lead the others to a higher ground where there might be an air pocket and with this in mind efforts were concentrated on trying at first to counter the rising flood and later to reduce it.

The pumps were set at full speed and with the arrival of a tank from a nearby pit, this was raised and lowered in the drawing shaft at a rate sufficient to deliver 60,000 galls per hour, and there were hopes of quickly lowering the water level. (The tank constituted in effect, a baling operation).

There was a shallow level about eight yards above the deep and accessible by a steep roadway and the decision was taken to try to drive a road from the main shaft towards this working as soon as the level was lowered.

All through the day and into the evening a crowd of relatives, miners and friends gathered on the pit bank hoping against hope for good news.  The rescue attempts heavily dependent on the 'tank' and also the pumps, rescue work went on all through the night.

Day 2  Friday 15th November 1872

The effect of drawing 60,000 galls per hour barely held the level and plans for increasing the draw to 100,000 gallons per hour were put in hand by installing a second tank in the pumping shaft. To this end two traction engines were sent for from the Black Country, one to use and one as stand by.  In this way it was hoped to reduce the level sufficient to enter the shallow seam in the next few hours. (In the next seven days, some 6 and a half million gallons of water were raised by this means).

Day 3  Saturday 16th November 1872

Drawing of water continued until late on Saturday when the donkey pump supplying water to the colliery boilers failed causing a delay for some hours.  Hopes of a successful rescue began to fade and at this time, coffins were sent for from Birmingham and stored in The Station Inn, (today, a private residence)

Above: The Station Inn - Now a private residence

Day 4  Sunday 17th November 1872

From an early hour roads into the village were clogged with traffic and special trains were laid on to bring people from far afield.  A crowd of 30,000 was estimated to have assembled as near as possible to the scene of operations and the Bishop of Lichfield conducted a service in the Church then moved onto a further service at the pit bank, the Bishop speaking from a trolley and the crowd joining in singing a hymns and hearing his address.  A collection for the families of victims realised the sum of £84.

News of the disaster spread nationwide and a reporter from the London Times reported on the stoicism and heroism of this tiny community.

Day 5  Monday 18th November 1872

At last, the floodwater had been lowered sufficiently to expose the inlet to the pit, but then a new problem was encountered in the form of 'choke damp' (carbon monoxide) in large volumes which in the private opinion of officials, sealed the fate of the entombed men.  Ventilating equipment was put into operation to replace the foul gas by fresh air and the HM Mines Inspector and three officials entered the pit for a distance of twenty yards, where they encountered a wall of silt washed along by the flood and they had to retire, but not before discovering part of a pair of trousers which had probably belonged to Thomas Starkey who had turned back for them earlier on the point of rescue only to lose his life in doing so.  They also found the remains of dead horses, (the presence of which today gives some indication of the extent of the underground workings).

Day 6  Tuesday 19th November 1872

Now that it was possible to enter the workings, clearance work began.  The main obstacle, apart from the presence of gas, was the large amount of sand and clay which had been swept along by the flood, together with the necessity to re timber the roof where supporting columns had been swept away.  

Progress was slow and a diver was bought in from London with special gear, but due to the precarious situation he was unable to operate and remained on standby.

By Tuesday night, only one lonely widow remained of the relatives of the entombed men, whilst the wife of the young man Starkey was reported to be in critical condition due to premature confinement bought on by the shock of the terrible accident.

At about 7pm on Tuesday evening it was seen that a further remnant of clothing had been bought up by the tank and it was identified by the watch in the pocket, as belonging to the eighteen year old Thomas Starkey.

Day 7  Wednesday 20th November 1872

Continual pumping night and day succeeded in lowing the water sufficiently as to enable the culvert between the drawing and pumping shaft to be opened, enabling fresh air to flow more freely into the part of the mine which was now open and accessible.

At about the same time, the gruesome discovery of three severed fingers were seen in the water being discharged on the runaway channel on the bank and when the proprietor and a party descended the pumping shaft, the operation of the scoop tank having been suspended, they found the body of Thomas Starkey in about seven feet of water in the sump.  The body was badly bruised and battered due to the violent motion of the tank as it went up and down the shaft.

As further progress into the workings was made searchers came to the stables where the bodies of two horses were found and also the body of Michael Cash, entangled in the harness and his arm around one of the support timbers where he had been swept by the inrush of waters.  It was shortly after this that having reached the stables, they came upon the body of a youth, Thomas Coleman hanging across one of the dividing bars of the stalls.  The body was bought to the surface at about nine o clock and was taken to The Station Inn.

Day 8  Thursday 21st November 1872

A further forty yards in from where Cash's body had been found they came upon an opening about a yard square, the site where Cash's pick had tapped the pent up waters behind the wall.  Peering in they could make out an ancient roadway to the right and left and one of the party, Mr Mills took out a tree as firm and solid as when it was put in by the miners of a bygone age.  They also found as evidence of previous mining, fragments of old baskets used for transporting coal, these fragments were bought up by the pumping operations.

Further progress into the workings was met by the presence of gas although by now they had reached the place where many of the men had been working, but all they found were a few garments, tea cans and small items.  The conclusion was that the men, probably led by the 76 year of Thomas Starkey had made their way to the higher end of the shallow seam.

Day 9  Friday 22nd November 1872

At the instigation of HM Mines Inspector a steam operated ventilating device called a 'Blow George' was set up at the pumping (ventilating) shaft with the purpose of more rapidly clearing the accumulations of gas.

It was about 4pm on Friday afternoon that a party of four men penetrated to the extreme end of the workings, a point past the heading where Cash had been working.  Here they came upon the bodies of 17 men and one boy.

Others were lying in tubs and skips.  The boy was lying in the arms of one of the older men.  All but one were fully dressed with coat collars turned up and appeared to have suffered extremely from cold.  They all had the appearance of having gone to sleep, probably due to suffocation by the carbon monoxide gas.

The party returned to the surface and wisely avoided disclosing their discovery until they had returned to the office where the news was released.

Day 10  Saturday 23rd November 1872

As soon as possible, men were set to work to clear the road in order to facilitate the removal of the bodies and during the morning, seven bodies were recovered and taken to a room at The Station Inn and laid in coffins previously prepared.

Further work of recovery went on during Saturday but had to be abandoned frequently when lamps flickered and went out, warning that gas was still present.

Day 11  Sunday 24th November 1872

With work at the mine entering its final stage, crowds of visitors began once again to assemble and at 10.30 the remaining bodies of the miners who had been found were bought out. The remaining body, that of a boy named William Richards? was never recovered.

Later on Sunday, relatives of the dead men were allowed to enter the room where the bodies lay.  Among the visitors once again was the Bishop of Lichfield who went among the bereaved offering sympathy and consolation.

Day 12  Monday 25th November 1872

The final scene in this tragedy came with the burial of the dead miners in St Michael and All Angels churchyard.

St Michael and All Angels Church, Pelsall

The Staffordshire Advertiser of November 30th 1872 records that '....the common presented a curious though mournful spectacle'.  Along the narrow roads from Rushall came a long procession of doleful mourners, headed by the band of the Bloxwich Volunteers, playing the Dead March in Saul.  At the junction of the two roads the two processions joined, that from The Station Inn being headed by the Rev F G Littlecote, Vicar of Rushall and the Rev J Turner, curate of Pelsall.  They were also joined by other clergy from Blakenhall and Walsall Wood as the cortege moved onto the parish church where the coffins were reverently laid along the aisle.  It was reported that the bearers of the bodies of the unmarried were distinguished by trimmings of white and those of the married wore the usual trimmings of black.

After the funeral service, the bodies were taken to their final resting place at the spot where the granite memorial stands today.

The Obelisk in St Michael and All Angels Churchyard

The coffins were laid out in the vault beneath the obelisk stone

After committal according to the rites of the Church of England, members of the Nottingham Order of Oddfellows, in full regalia, remembered those of the miners who were fellow members by reading their own prescribed funeral oration and with the playing of solemn music by the band, the sorrowful proceedings were bought to a close.

The photograph above shows the Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster widows receiving Bibles from the Rt Reverend Selwyn, Bishop of Lichfield.

Clara Starkey can be seen in the photograph standing to the immediate left of the          Rt Reverend Selwyn, Bishop of Lichfield. The very elderly lady, third in line from the left is believed to be the wife of Thomas Starkey Snr.

The Inquest

The Inquest in December 1872, was held at The Station Inn and was conducted by the deputy coroner, Mr W H Phillips and among those present were the Government Inspector of Mines,      Mr J P Baker, Mr Ellsworth, for the Amalgamated Association of Miners, Mr Charles Starkey, one of the lessees of the mine (the other being Mr I Morgan), and the Rev J Turner.

Evidence was given by Mr J J Gittings, colliery manager, one of the first to locate the bodies of the 18 men all found together.  He stated that he had thoroughly examined the mine after the disaster, but found no evidence of negligence or carelessness in the working of the mine, nor had he heard of any expression of blame attached to the working of the mine.  

Mr J W Baker, a mine owner and old miner himself was of the opinion that had boring rods been used they might have prevented the inundation, whilst had they been there, he himself would not have seen reason to use them.  Others testified that the mine was always regarded as 'wet'.

As for the presence of old workings, there were no records or indications of their presence.

After similar opinions by other experienced officials and miners, the coroner, in summing up told the jury that if they were of the opinion that no criminal negligence had occurred and that this was purely an accident, they should return this as their verdict.

The foreman of the jury concurred with this summary and a verdict in accordance was returned.

In Conclusion

There are still some uncertainties regarding the names of the miners who lost their lives.  The article in Pelsall Times, November 2001 gave two names for the missing person and this writer now has added another name - that of a lad, William Richards.  Even this name is uncertain, as the list of names on the memorial stone in the Churchyard already bears the name William Richards and as being aged 30 years old and not a lad as contemporary reports claim.

Most of the information from which this article was compiled was taken from the Staffordshire Advertiser for the weeks covering the disaster and inquest.  The report, of the seven bodies bought up on Saturday November 23rd states clearly that George Hubbard was among that number and his name appears on the memorial.  If this is correct then reading again from the memorial would suggest that George Hubbard was buried elsewhere. I believe that one of the number was buried at either Aldridge or Walsall Wood.

It might be puzzling as to why some of the miners were unclothed or only partly clothed, but evidence at the inquest makes it clear that this pit was known to be 'wet' and that being the case, stripping off of dry clothes before working would have been sensible.

Whilst not associated with mining myself other than through my father, a miner, I recollect that in the immediate post war years of mining in this district, it was not unusual to hear of miners in local pits known to be 'wet', resorting to wearing a pair of women's bloomers down the pit.  My own father also spoke of a pit nearby which was very wet and known by the name of 'Spottlebrook'.

Also, I am intrigued as to why Michael Cash should call out to his mates,..."come and look at the River Dee." It is doubtful if at that time any of the local miners would have known of or ever seen the River Dee in North Wales. At that time there was a considerable migration of iron workers to and from the Shropshire coal and iron works to the Midlands.  It is possible that Michael Cash was such an incomer to the village?  Just another of the things we shall never know about this tragedy.

 

It may be of interest to consider that if the reports at the time are correct and 6.5 million gallons of water were bought up, this is nearly 30,000 tons, no mean feat at that time.

 

Whilst so much is already known about this dreadful event which even today casts its shadow on the village, there is still more to be discovered, what is still needed perhaps is for any snippets which have been passed down through the generations to be added to help build up the known history of Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster. 

Above and Below:  The Official Mining Inspectorate of Pelsall Hall Colliery Disaster published in 1873