Fatality Important Test Case over Boy’s Death at the Mine

August 1897

Sheffield Independent – Monday 04 October 1897

Fatality Important Test Case

At the Doncaster Wert Police Court, John Fenton and 10 others were summoned by Cadeby Main Colliery Company, under the Employers and Workmen’s Act.

Mr. H. H. Hickmott, solicitor, Rotherham, appeared on behalf the prosecution and Mr. Lodge, Wakefield, represented the defendants.

There matter attracted great interest, being of special importance to the miners as a body. The point involved was whether they can carry out the custom of leaving work when case of fatal accident has occurred.

Mr Hickmott announced that after consultation with Mr. Ledge he had agreed that the case of Fenton should be heard, and that would governed the others.

Mr Lodge said he thought that would the the best way of dealing with the matter they did not wish to repeat me evidence.

Mr Hickmott said, in opening the case, said the amount which the company were claiming from the defendants would were five shillings each, by reason of their absenting themselves from work on 7th September.

There was a written contract between the parties, and the book was signed by the men. Before leaving work it was necessary for them to give 14 days’ notice. According to the fourth bylaw, the men were to attend work unless prevented by illness or accident, or having previously obtained permission. Such a legislation was very necessary in a concern when there was a large amount of capital invested, because there was very great expense and it was absolutely necessary for the owners to have control over the men. Some time ago the men started a practice that, if a person was injured in the mine, they all ceased work. Every possible precaution was taken that known to science, and that money could afford for the protection of the men. The act of the men in leaving the pit in a body, was improper and the company were determined to put a stop to it.

The same issue was before the court on 29th May

Mr Lodge: It is not the same issue.

Mr Hickmott: I say it is precisely the same issue.

Mr Lodge: The Court is differently constituted, and the facts are entirely different.

The Chairman: This case will have to be proved on its own merits.

Mr Hickmott, continuing, said the men had no justification for staying away on 7th September. The same point was decided on 29 May and a conclusion come to that the men were wrong, and it would, therefore, be seen that the men in this case had not at all acted blindly. He then briefly stated the facts which were to the effect that on 7th September about 7 o’clock in the morning a boy was injured by corves. He was afterwards carried out of the pit and taken to the Mexborough hospital.

The men summoned that day had demanded to leave the pit, they were told they must go back to work. They asked if the boy was dead, and were told that he was not. They refused to work, and ultimately left the pit. This was an important matter. It appeared to him that, unless different facts could be shown, the action was really undefended. If men went out to set down the pit, notwithstanding a written contract, then the owners were in a very precarious position; and they would be bald men who would put capital in undertakings unless they could have some security. Only nominal damages were being claim, but if this kind of thing was repeated the full penalty would have to be asked for, and that would be over 10 shillings each. Unless this kind of thing was stopped, steps must be taken to alter the law.

Evidence was then taken.

H.W. Cambell, under manager at Cadeby Main, produced the signed written contract in the case referred to

Mr Lodge said they admitted the contract book was signed.

Mr Hickmott also put in a copy of the byelaws.

The witness went on to say that a boy named Gloyne was injured on the morning of September 7th: he was taken to Mexborough hospital and died the same day. The men in the pit, after the accident, declined to work; at least half of the men left the mine. A body of the men went to the pit bottom and said the boy had got killed. The hangers on said the boy was not killed, though there had been an accident. But the men would not work.

By Mr Lodge: it has not been the custom to cease work when an accident has occurred – not in any particular district. It had not been the custom to let men go out – if they insisted on leaving there were allowed to go.

Mr Hickmott said such evidence was not relevant, owing to the written contract.

Mr Lodge said the question of a perfectly legitimate even in view of the contract. The men had a just cause of leaving – a kind of fear or terrorism. There was a custom, and he must not be precluded from giving evidence as to that. The man was bound in law by the rules, but the custom was in force. Although the accident was not fatal at the time, it was soon afterwards. There were instances where men were ordered out of the mine after a fatality.

Mr Hickmott further argued the point, and said the whole question of jurisdiction was one of pecuniary amount. The written contract could not be vitiated and made useless.

Mr Lodge said he was entitled to fight on a question of custom.

The Chairman (Mr Streatfeild) said the matter was one that could be argued, and the Bench would take it into consideration.

The cross examination was then continued. The witness said men had previously left the pit after fatal occurrences. The pit had not always stopped when there have been a fatal accident – even when a man was killed within a hundred yards of others (Dissent amongst the men). On June 25 last there was a deputation of the men, and witness was present, on a question of the right to leave the pit under such circumstances. They specify that certain men could scease after a fatality. The accident in the present case was not fatal in the pit.

Mr Hickmott objected to the document been put in. He said it was an irregular way of doing things.

The Chairman said the document was not signed.

Mr Lodge said he was surprised at the defendants been brought to the court after what had been done in the question.

The witness admitted he had said, “Let these fellows go out,” but it was because of what they had said. The men had said “they could not go back and work with any heart.” There was a notice put up at the pit about the stopping of the colliery from Tuesday to the following Saturday in the same week. The work was to seize at 10 p.m. on Tuesday and that was posted up in the morning. It was Doncaster race week. There was no wish for the pit to be stopped in the races, but they had found it was no use keeping it open, they knew that from experience.

Mr WH Chambers, managing director, said he had had experience as to mining in South Yorkshire for upwards of 30 years. He never knew a man leaving work – except in the case referred to – when a person had not been killed in the pit. A deputation had been to him as to the right of the man to set down the pit. He told them it was a useless custom. He could understand men been unnerved when a worker was killed near them, and he would not object to such men leaving work. In order to settle the matter amicably he had argued that if such an accident happen in the morning shift the remainder of that shift in the afternoon shift should play; the other men should go on as usual. Also that if the occurrence was in the afternoon, that should “play;” if at night the men who knew about it could learn and the rest will go on with their work. It was clearly understood at the time that this only referred to a fatal injury. The deputation was after the hearing of the other case that was before the court. It was distinctly understood that work should not stop if the accident was not fatal in the pit.

Cross-examined: There document produced was in Mr Witty’s writing. The boy spoken of died two hours after admission to the hospital. If the death had occurred in the pit he should not have objected to stop it; he had entered into a compromise with the men on the matter, and that should have been adhered to. He had wished for a clear understanding.

Mr Lodge said the agreement did not say “the accident must terminate fatally in the pit.”

Mr Chambers said that was not his fault.

William Soar, deputy, said he had asked the men why they were leaving, they said, “because the boys got killed.” He said the boy had not got killed. One man then said the workers had no right to leave.

Cross-examined: All the men in the district where the boy who was killed worked, left the pit. The men in the East district went on working.

HS Witty, manager said the loss sustained in the present case to the company, owing to a stoppage amounted to over eight shillings per man, but only five shillings was charged. He was present at the interview with the men. He made a copy of notes of what took place. It was clearly understood by the men that the agreement only referred to fatalities in the pit.

Cross-examined: He had not taken account of any profit – there was not any profit (Laughter)

Mr Lodge: No profit at all?

Witness: All gone. (Laughter)

Mr Lodge: Is that why you stop the pit? If there is no profit, where does the damages come in?

Witness said the absence of the men from the pit resulted in a greater loss.

The Defence

Mr Lodge, for the defence, contended that there had been no damage, inasmuch as Mr Witty had stated there was really no profit. If there was no profit, they could be no damage.

Mr Hickmott said the witness pointed there was a further loss by reason of the absence of the men from work.

Mr Lodge maintained there was no satisfactory evidence as to the damage. Another point was whether the men were not justified, on the local circumstances in leaving the pit that morning. He contended after the statement made by Mr Chambers that the men were able to leave the pit. They fully believe the injured youth was dead. This wealthy colliery company did not seem to appreciate life and death, but humanity ought to be appreciated. One would have thought that the company would have settled such a matter with the men.

John Bennett, miner, said he was working 100 yards from where the boy was injured. He had entered the pit at 5.30. The accident happened at 6.20. In consequence of what was said he went to where the deceased was. He was underneath the first and second tubs in the Jenny, and want to run over in. The lads chest was very much pressing, and there seemed no sign of life. It was said the lad was dead. Witness could not have worked after this sight. Campbell said the boy was not dead, and that they ought to work.

Cross-examined: In the event of a man been in a dying state he thought himself justified in leaving the pit.

Mr Lodge said it was not an ordinary accident; it was a fatal accident.

Mr Hickmott continued to cross examine the witness. He knew a pit in Nottingham where men left work under similar circumstances. He had only been in South Yorkshire a few weeks.

Mr Lodge said every case must stand on its own bottom. He re-examined the witness, who repeated that the lad was to all appearance, dead.

John Speight,  miner, also spoke as the appearance of the deceased boy. It was reported in the colliery that he was dead. Campbell did not tell them to go back to work. The manager had withdrawn the summons against him (witness).

Cross-examined: He had seen so many cases of serious accident that he knew what it would be fatal or not when he saw one.

Re-examined: The men were not supposed to leave work in case of a slight accident.

John Henry Hancock, miner, said he had been at the pit about three years. They have been allowed to leave in cases of fatal accident. In the present instance he was told the lad was dead. He was not told to go back to work.

Cross-examined: He had not known of the case in which men are left the pit excepting in cases of death.

John Bonner, miner, spoke to like effect.

Frank Holbrook, miner, also gave evidence to the effect that when he saw the lad he believed in to be dead. Witness was not a fit state to work afterwards. Campbell said the boy was not dead. But another man said the boy was dead. The summons in the case of witness had been withdrawn.

Mr Hickmott said the withdrawal in this another case was because the men had assisted the injured youth.

Mr Lodge: So did the defendant.

Mr Hickmott: We did not know that.

The witness said he believed a similar case to the present happened at Manvers Main a short time ago. He had known such instances in Durham.

George Henry Hirst, Checkweighman, spoke of another case at Denaby in which men left the pit. He was present at the interview with Mr Chambers. The agreement read out was what was agreed to.

Cross-examined: The case of George Rowland at Cadeby was similar to this. The workers left the mine, but the man was still living. As the agreement, Mr Chambers had suggested what was written, and he had read over was written when in the office.

Mr Lodge said he had a number of other witnesses but he did not think it necessary to call any more. After the fillers were summoned, he argued that if the colliers were at fault the fillers should be discharged as they had not the power to work without the colliers.

Mr Hickmott said the men were acting in concert; they all went to the pit bottom together.

Mr Lodge said the response was not on the filler in the case, it was on the minor. The rule showed that.

The magistrates retired to consider the evidence given in the case of Fenton, and, returning to court, the Chairman said: “The bench have very carefully considered the case. It appears that, under rule four of the bylaws, there is no doubt the men were not justified in leaving the pit except for certain reasons specified in the bylaw; but he has been admitted in evidence that in the case of fatal accident the management does not take any action in a case of men leaving the pit. The question then arises as to whether in this occasion there was a fatal accident. There could be no doubt that the line at a fatal accident must be drawn at some intelligible point. The accident should be fatal in the pit, and it makes no difference whether death ensues very shortly after, or at a longer period.

At the same time there is another question, and that is where the defendant in this case honestly believed the boy was dead when excavated from the corves, and whether he had reasonable cause to believe so. We have come to the conclusion that the defendant believed the boy to be dead; the appearance presented by the boy at the time was such as to cause him to think so. Under the circumstances we dismiss the case.

Mr Hickmott remarked that he should advise his clients to ask for a case to be stated to the court above.

The Magistrates Clerk: You will make the application in the usual way stop

Mr Hickmott said the case in question was concerning a man who had seen the boy. The majority of the men did not see the boy, and that made a difference.

Mr Lodge: The information went all over the pit that he was dead.

Mr Hickmott: They did not see the boy. (To the magistrates): Will you find the same decision in the case of those who never saw the boy at all?

The Chairman: Our decision will be recorded for the one case.

Mr Hickmott: I will take the case where the boy was not seen.

Mr Lodge: They all believing to be dead. You are honourably bound by the arrangement entered into. This was a test case.

Mr Hickmott: You said there was no special circumstance.

Mr Lodge: Where could the special circumstance come in?

Mr Hickmott: You deceived me.