Mexborough & Swinton Times – Friday 19 December 1930
Disastrous Explosion at Houghton Main
Early Morning Calamity Explosion Follows Shot Firing.
Five Dead: Twelve Injured. Sad Scenes at Darfield and Great Houghton.
Survivors’ Stories. Gallant Rescue & Ambulance Work.
Inquest Opened and Adjourned.
Seventeen men were Injured, five fatally, as a result of an explosion to the Houghton Main mine on Friday.
The death roll is as follows:
Norman Nicholson (24), Thurnscoe Lane, Great Houghton.
John Pearson (22), Rotherham Road, Great Houghton.
Albert Holden (35), Nanny Mar Darfleld.
James Lackey (30), Pitt Street, Low Valley: and
William Richards (23), 23, Turner Street, Great Houghton.
The following are still in the Beckett Hospital, Barnsley :
William Duffield (26), Henry Street, Low Valley.
George Burgess (21), Springvale Road, Great Houghton.
Charles Parkin (42), Hough Lane, Wombwell.
Fred Davies (42), Doncaster Road, Goldthorpe.
William Penry (38), Pleasant Avenue, Great Houghton.
Charles Watson (38), Barnsley Road, Darfield.
Jacob Newberry (50), George Street, Low Valley.
James Hopkins (30), Queen Street, Wombwell.
Clarke Sykes (31), Millhouses, Darfield.
The following were Injured but not detained in hospital:—
James Ramsbottom (83), Albert Crescent, Little Houghton.
S. Blackwell (21), Nanny Marr, Darfield.
Joseph Dixon (55), Station Road, Wombwell.
Some Of The Victims.
The disaster occurred in the Melton Field seam shortly after midnight, and some hours elapsed before the news was spread about the district. Relatives of the injured had been informed by special messengers. Though all the men were brought out alive, the death roll was daily added to over the week-end.
The disaster has cast a gloom over the vicinity of Houghton Main Colliery. Great Houghton has suffered a heavy blow, for three of those who have died lived in that village.
Two hundred men were working in the Field seam at the time, but the mishap was confined to the west aide. Men in the other sections of the pit were not aware of the accident at the time. According to various accounts, there was a sudden gust of wind, “like a whirlwind,” followed by a terrific bang and a flash. Shot-firing operations were going on at the time, and the impression of some of the men is that the firing of a shot ignited gas, the presence of which could not have been suspected. Some the men were badly scorched and their clothing set alight. Cries for help followed the explosion, and the scene as the men groped their way out of the working places through clouds of dust and smoke can be better imagined than described.
Prompt First Aid.
The working places, so the men say, were choked with fumes so dense that it was difficult to breathe. Naturally they were all apprehensive of a further explosion. No sooner had the men gathered their wits than rescue work was improvised, first aid being rendered on the spot of the colliery, Mr, J. Taylor, the manager, Mr. J. D. Tilley, undermanager, overmen and deputies, were quickly on the scene, and all precautionary measures were taken. With all possible speed the injured were taken to the pit bottom, where further treatment was given them , and so to the ambulance room at the surface, where they were made as comfortable as possible for the journey to the hospital, the Houghton Main, the Dearne Valley Colliery , and the Wombwell U.D.C. ambulances being used for the purpose. Two or three of the less seriously injured were transported in a car.
Dr. Castle’s Devoted Work.
One of the first to arrive at the colliery was Dr. W. F. L. Castle, of Darfield. Called out of bed by ‘phone, he rushed to the mine, and descended the shaft to receive the injured as they were brought along. Dr. Castle worked under trying conditions unceasingly for nearly three hours. At the surface Dr. W, Crofts, his assistant, dealt with the injured as they were taken to the ambulance room. To a “Times” representative one of the injured remarked, “We were glad to the pit doctor on the job.” While being treated at the colliery the injured bore their suffering” bravely, and seemed only concerned about the welfare of their comrades. One elderly miner refused to be carried a stretcher. He set out for the pit bottom on foot, but collapsed before he had travelled far. Each man spoke of some other being “more in need of a ride.” Most of the injured were young men. Notified by telephone, the hospital staff was ready to receive the men when they arrived about 3 a.m., and everything possible was done by Dr. Owen and his colleagues and the waning staff. Patients of the hospital cheerfully gave up their beds to meet the emergency. One Wombwell man who was awaiting an operation recognised many of the injured, and being a skilled ambulance man was able to render practical service.
A Tragic Coincidence.
One in-patient, James Holden, of Nanny Marr, Darfield, who had entered the institution for a minor operation, was one of the party who surrendered their beds, and immediately he heard about the accident his thoughts flew to his brother, whom he knew to be working on nights. There came in first a man whom Holden at once recognised as one of his brother’s workmates, which caused him to enquire, “Will the next be our Albert”? By a strange stroke of fate the next victim was Albert Holden, though he was so badly burned that his brother would never have recognised him. James was at Albert’s bedside until 10 on Friday night, and at 9 the following morning the news was gently broken to him that his brother Albert had passed away, three hours earlier. Holden was a member of the Darfield Wesleyan Church, and will be much missed in the village.
Among the injured were two well known local footballers, Clarke Sykes. of Ardsley, and Wm. Dutffield of Darfield. Both have played for Wombnell.
Graphic stories of the disaster have been related to a “Times” representative by men who escaped the worst effects.
This is an account given by Henry Thorpe, of 7. John Street, Little Houghton. Thorpe has been working in and about mines since he was eight years of age, and has never before been through such an experience, though for many years he was employed at a Durham colliery, where gas was tapped through a borehole and kept alight day and night by a hugs torch, to prevent a dangerous accumulation. He has worked in the Melton Field seam at Houghton Main for 20 years, and his four sons are all employed at the colliery. He said that on Thursday night he was drawing off timber in “12’s face,” along with Jack Carrol; two of the injured men, Fred Davies and another, were working on No. 2 pack, and they had gone to No. 3, nine or ten yards away.
“We had just started drawing timber.” he said. “when the draught came up the face like a whirlwind. This was followed by a flash and a bang that knocked us both out of the main draught current into the goaf. This was lucky for us, because all who got the full blast of the flame were badly burned. I was untouched, except that my hair was slightly singed. The place was full of dust immediately, and with our lungs full of fumes it was difficult to breathe. It was so sudden we could hardly tell what it was, but in a second I got the impression that there had been a gas explosion. We rushed out of 11’s gate. We all got out together, and some went over the top of me. Poor Billy Duffield’s clothes were on fire, and other men were beating themselves with their hands to put the flames out. It was like a nightmare for a few minutes. Some of them were shouting out, and must have been suffering excruciating pain.
The deputy, Netherwood, and George Taylor worked like heroes in trying to get the men out and at the same time doing all they could for the injured. Bandages were taken out of the first-aid boxes near the working places and these were used as far as they would go. Tommy Sandham, a first-aid man, rendered splendid service, as did many others who knew something about first aid. Stretchers were available for the worst cases but many of them would have walked if we had let them. In this way they were all got to the pit bottom.”
Mr Thorpe said the workings were about a mile and a half from the pit bottom and half the distance was fairly steep climbing. This made the task of carrying the injured very laborious, especially as many of those who acted as stretcher bearers had experienced a shock themselves. “But,” he said. “everybody was willing. Even the worst injured forgot themselves and wanted to know how their pals were going on.” He said that when they reached the pit bottom Dr. Castle was there to meet them. Nothing was left undone that could give the men comfort in their terrible plight.” Dr. Castle worked like a hero, and so did the manager, Mr. J. Taylor, and the undermanager, J. D. Tilley. The officials did not spare themselves, and in that trying time we realised what brotherhood really means. We felt we were all is the same box. The men will not forget the feeling shown by the officials in their crisis.”
As to the cause of the accident, Mr. Thorpe said he formed the impression that the explosion was originated by the firing of a shot where there was a small and unsuspected accumulation of gas. “The best man in the world could not have suspected this accident,” he said. “and I don’t think the manager, the deputy, or anyone else was to blame. It was just an ill chance and might not occur again in a hundred years. No one would know that the gas was there. This is a well-ventilated district, and the last place in the world in which you would expect a thing like this to happen. It is comfortable working as pit conditions go.” Mr. Thorpe explained that it was possible for gas to be concealed in a break in the roof and remain there unsuspected for weeks. The firing of a shot would have the effect of releasing it. He said, “It could not possibly have been caused by an electric spark, as all the electrical machinery was shut off at the time.
After The Event.
When our representative interviewed Mr. Thorpe on Tuesday night he was going to work for the first time since the accident. Asked if he was timid, he said, “Not I—not half so timid as my wife.” He added that he had “never worked in a safer place.” Mr. Thorpe said that the east side of the Melton Field seam was nearly two miles from the west district, where the explosion took place, and the men in that part of the pit would not have an inkling of the mishap.
Sydney Blackwell, 3, Nanny Marr, Darfield, was working as a panman in 12’s face at the time of the explosion, along with Fred Beck, Joe Woodhead, and Albert Shelburn. Blackwell explained that the pane convey the coal along the working places and are driven by an electric engine at the top of the faces. The coal is propelled by a shaker. He said their job was to move the pans forward as faces advanced, dismantling them and putting them together again. He said, “I was kneeling in the gob side hammering at the pans, when I heard a bang like an explosion. It seemed to me that the whole of the face was coming in, and I thought for a moment that we were doomed. Instinctively, I dropped flat, thinking I should be safer on the ground. Looking down the faces at that moment I saw a vivid orange and bine flame, and as it passed me I felt it scorch my hair and back.”
Some of The Effects.
Here Blackwell showed that the back of his head had been burned nearly bald, and his arms were swathed in bandages. “Jack Carrol was at the side of me, and when we saw that the explosion had spent itself we got away as quickly as we could. The place was fall of smoke and fumes. We rushed to the level end, thinking that it was safer than in the faces. The flame came up to meet the ventilation, and as far as I can make out it spent itself just at the top side, where I was working. The fellows at the low side of me got the full force of the flame, and most of them were badly burned. My clothing did not get alight and only the exposed part of my body was burned. At the level end we met our mates. I there saw Duffield coming out of 12’s faces, where he had been working as a packer. I could see Duffield was badly burned, and the skin was coming off him like orange peel. They all stuck it bravely, and there was no complaining, although they must have been suffering agonies. All they asked for was something to drink.” Blackwell also paid a great tribute to Dr. Castle, and also to the Chief Ambulance Officer. Mr. Knowles. He said it was all over in a moment, but the explosion left a bad smell. He added, “The seam is well ventilated, and if you sit down for ten minutes you want wrapping up, or else you are frozen.”
Charles Parkin, of Hough Lane Wombwell, said he first felt himself knocked over. “There seemed to be a wall of flame in front of me. I put up my hand to shield my face, and that is all I know.”
Fred Davies, of Doncaster Road, Goldthorpe, said a shot was being fired at the time. “I was near to it,” he said, “and ‘apparently it had burst back. There was a flash. I was thrown to the ground and knew nothing more.”
A Gust and A Flash.
James Ramsbottom, of Albert Crescent, Little Houghton, said: “All at once we were startled by a gust of wind, and we knew something unusual bad occurred. Immediately after this there was a flash like forked lightning, and a loud explosion. We were knocked completely off our legs and all fell in a heap. When I looked round I saw that the clothing of my mates was burning on their backs. “They were all in a sorry condition. They all rushed out of the face to the gate, where they met other men coming from other places. “The flash,” said Ramsbottom, “seemed to be travelling waist high and was jagged.” He said it was strange that a man named Tommy Higgins, who was working near by, was not burned at all.
“My clothes were all on fire,” he said, and Burgess’s clothes were also ablaze. Parkin’s vest was burning on his body My face and arms were burned. My cap was blown away and I don’t know where it went to. I came home with someone else’s.”
Ramsbottom said the men showed great presence of mind and fortitude, though some of them were crying out with pain. He said they wanted him to go home in the ambulance, but he walked away without being seen. “I knew there were some more in need of a ride than I was.”
A deputy, Ernest Cutler, and the overmen, George Naylor and W. Roberts, were quickly on the scene.
Ramsbottom said he wished to pay a tribute to these men for the splendid manner in which they acted. “They did all they multi to help the injured,” he said, “and prevent any undue excitement.”
Joseph Dixon, of Station Road, Wombwell, said that at the time of the accident he was laying rails about twenty yards from the coal face, along with a man named Walter Matthewman. “The first thing I noticed,” he said, “was a sharp draught. Then there was a bang, which I can only liken to fire- works. The sparks seemed to me to be coming off the coal face. The bang knocked me down and I hurt my hip. I thought it safer on the floor and remained where l was for some moments. We could see nothing for smoke. I got up eventually and managed to walk to the level end. There I met men coming along with their arms badly burned.”
Dixon said shot firing was going on in the seam. There was a loud bang, but whether it was a shot or not he could not say. He did not think there was any gas about at the time of the explosion.
The injured men were visited in the Hospital by the Mayor of Barnsley (Coun. R. J. Soper), who was accompanied by his chaplain, canon Hone, and the Rev. G.I. Thorn.
First Husband, Then Son.
Great Houghton was plunged into deep sadness again on Tuesday by the death of William Richards, of 23. Turner Street. His grief stricken family had watched by his bed, hoping against hope. Fifteen years ago this Christmas, Richard’s mother lost her first husband as the result of a colliery accident. Richards was a young man with a quiet, amiable disposition, and was well liked in the village of Sandhills. Mrs. Richards said she was knocked up at 5-30 am., and got to the hospital about 9 o’clock. Her husband told her that he “thought his time had come, and that there was no hope for anyone. She said he was improving nicely, and added with a smile, ” He was quite cheerful today.”
As a precaution, the lifesaving apparatus was prepared for use, and the equipment was brought down the pit by one of the deputies. Robert Thompson. Mr. Thorpe escaped without a scratch, and after the injured had been got away to hospital he was able to walk home.
James Hopkins, of Queen Street, New Scarboro’, is a son of Mr and Mrs. Michael Hopkins. Although only 30 years of age, he served in the Army during the war, enlisting when he was only 17. His father also is a war veteran. Hopkins was badly burned but is showing improvement.
Three seams of coal are worked at Houghton Main, the Melton Field, the Barnsley bed, and the Parkgate seam. The coal in the Melton Field is worked by electric coal cutters and mechanical conveyors. The seam is worked in three shifts.
Mines inspectors visited Houghton Main’ immediately after the explosion and made an exploration and examination of the Melton Field workings. There also descended for the purpose of inspection Mr. Harry Clarney and Mr. A. Poiner, the men’s inspectors, and T. W. Illsley (secretary of the branch), and Mr. Alfred Smith, a headquarters official of the Y.M.A.
Full work in the seam was resumed on Wednesday. It was stated by an official that the flame had travelled along roughly 110 yards of face, and the whole of the men who suffered from burns ware in that area. He said that when work was returned there was nothing to indicate that anything untoward had happened except that the coal dust on the props had been carbonised by the flame.