A non-partisan journal of the left.

Mining The Past

Sun 9th Sep 2012

On the 25th June 1915 a coroner’s Inquest was convened in the Market Hall, Aspatria, Cumbria. The hearing had been arranged to investigate the deaths of seven colliers who had been labouring in Brayton Domain, No 4 Pit, Aspatria, when on the 26th of April 1915 an explosion occurred that led to the men suffering horrific burns and, over a period of weeks, eventual death.

The seven men came from Lawson Street and Springkell in Aspatria and the nearby village of Harristown, as it was then known. These street names, and the houses still standing, testify to the effect that coal mining had on the area. Lawson Street was named after Sir Wilfred Lawson, the radical MP for Cockermouth, under whose land the coal was won. Harristown, a pit village, was named after the Harris family - mine owners and proud enough of their role to name the back to back one up one down, waterless pit houses after themselves.

The miners who died:

Thomas Little (29) (single) Spingkell, Aspatria. Died 3rd April 1915;
Robert Lightfoot (20) (single) of Harriston. Died 28th April 1915;
Henry Wilkinson (32) (single) Lawson Street, Aspatria. Died 29th April 1915;
Paul Rayson (25) (single) Harriston. Died 3rd May 1915;
Thomas Birney (64) (married) Harriston. Died 2nd May 1915;
James Wilkinson (59) (married) Lawson Street Aspatria. Died 21st May 1915;
Joseph Rumney (51) (married) Harriston. Died 5th June 1915.

From this brief inventory, questions arise about the fate of the families left behind, children without provision, questions of poverty and social benevolence. Were the families compensated? What happened to them? Were they able to remain in their homes? The other fearful aspect of this accident is the time line of suffering; it took Joseph Rumney five weeks to die. Before the advent of the NHS how would he have been cared for? Dying from burns in 1915 less than 100 years ago, would have been a hard business, nursed by family at home while communal life went on around.

Another significant factor here is that of the common occurrence of death.

Deaths in the pit in the coalfield areas were inglorious everyday affairs, something to be contrasted with the glorious death of those fighting on the Western Front in 1915. However both share common features: the industrial production of death, death waged primarily against the working class, death in the service of capital, and death seemingly unstoppable until ultimate exhaustion. In Cumbria there are many memorials to those who died in the first and second world wars but few to those who died in the class war fought in the underworld of industrial production, where often the fatalities were diachronically higher for towns like Aspatria.

The account of the hearing makes interesting reading. The accident had occurred when a shot (explosion) was fired into an area of the mine that contained gas.

Testament from different witnesses indicates that it was unknown for gas to be found in this particular part of No 4 Pit. It would appear that there was an overhanging rock in the wall of the pit which was considered to be too dangerous to dig under, so the decision was made to use an explosive charge.

Shots had been fired prior to the firing of the fatal shot but the shot firer was apparently unaware of this. The pit deputy stated that he had tested for gas in the area and found none. It was also stated that the exact number of men working below ground at that time was unclear. There is a brief exchange between the pit deputy and a Mr Sharp. The deputy affirmed that additional cost would be associated with hewing down the overhang as opposed to blasting it down – extended labour time that would have to be paid for – but this had no bearing on the decision to use Stowite to take down the rock. Mr Elliot commented that: they did not consider the question of pay when safety was concerned. Rumney was allowed to fire a shot through the rock into a goaf (the worked out area of the mine) and this triggered the explosion.

Messer’s Hillary and Askew strenuously asserted that there was no gas in the goaf and if there had been it might have accumulated in the rock above the goaf. They all affirmed that the goaf did not contain gas but that the shot firer should have checked this before the fired the fatal shot.

Mr Lightfoot, representing the owners of the pit, commented on the use of Stowite. Referring to the question of permitted explosives, their use depends on the provision of the order. When there was no indication of danger from the presence of inflammable gases, they could use explosives not classed or permitted. In this case, gas had not been found in three months.

Mr Askew, manager and agent of Brayton collieries, commented that they had tried several explosives, and were trying to get a satisfactory one. They had had two explosives that caused injury. The only one due to gas was the case of a man who burned himself in lighting a shot 12 or more years ago. Another man was also burned but it was not clear whether it was due to gas or the blowing out of the powder.

Mr Askew remarkably confirmed that contrary to a lot of the evidence that went before, the pit had a history of fatal gas related explosions. He finally said that No 4 was a wet pit throughout in attempt perhaps to safeguard his own career.

The coroner observed that the shot should never have been fired under the circumstances,
despite the fact that the pit deputy and others affirmed that there was no gas.

Perhaps more accurately he should have said ‘as a result of the consequences’.

The coroner located the blame with Rumney, the shot firer, and in part with the deputy. In respect of Stowite, he stated that Mr Askew had interrupted the Order – directions of the use of explosives – to use any explosive. Mr Atter the coroner for West Cumberland finally girds his loins to pronounce that in the future there could be no question but that they would only have to use permitted explosives.

In his concluding remarks, the coroner levelled some of the blame at the pit deputy – middle management in its usual role of soaking up the opprobrium – before saying that it was unpleasant to say anything about a man who was gone, referring to Rumney the short fire.

The jury found a verdict of death caused by burning from explosion and recommended that shot should only be fired into tested areas. They were silent about the use of Stowite and no doubt Mr Askew, manager and agent of Brayton collieries, and the pit owners themselves adjusted the belts of their trousers and slept a little more comfortably, save in the knowledge that they were without admonishment or any portion of blame.

In summary, the Stowite explosive the shot firer used in the dust and darkness was unlicensed and sold by the colliery company. By the representatives own words, Stowite should not have been used, or for that matter sold, to the colliers to use in the mine. This is the first cause of this tragedy. Stowite, sold no doubt for profit, was unlicensed and extremely volatile in such conditions. The pit had a history of gas. Those who sold the explosive should have been culpable for the results of their actions.

There was indeed gas in that part of the pit. The order should have gone out to hew down the rocky overhang but it was never issued, probably due to the additional costs of buying labour time to undertake the work.

No-one had bothered keeping a record of the number of men working underground, a remarkable admission, and conveniently the coroner effectively blamed the dead shot firer. This was a time before the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the labour movement had yet to bring all its muscle to bear on the issue of safety at work. Today we take it for granted that an employer has a duty of care towards its employees but it wasn’t always like this and the gains have been hard won and need to be maintained. True, the standards of 1915 may be different to ours but the value placed on human life must surely have been the same.

The powerful were in a position to protect their own interests, to shape the narrative, and define the problem and the solution in a manner that best suited them. The pit manger and the owners, at one end of the hierarchy, are protected by occupational structure and the illusive application of the law. These are the repeated lessons from history that can often appear absurdly senseless when the facts are lived through by those who truly understand them. Ideology flounders in the reality test but then it can always rely on the use of power alone to undermine the burgeoning insurrection of truth.

The men who turned up in the pit in the days after the explosion would have their own understanding of what went wrong and who was to blame but no one would listen.

There is an account of the inquest available in a link from the Durham Mining Museum website http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htmtohttp://www.rumneys.co.uk/braytondomain/index.htm .

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