Denaby Main Great Fire

December 1887



While ` Peace on Earth, Goodwill To All Men ` was resounding throughout the length of ` Merrie Olde England ` and in fact all through the civilised world. While ` A Happy Christmas ` was being echoed in every home, while the `waits´ were pursuing their intention of awakening Christians in every street of every town in the Kingdom — there occurred a disaster in our midst whose cruelness in it´s consequences to many hundreds of homes, is in sad contrast to the joy which is always associated which is always associated with our annual festival, the celebration of the Birth of Our Saviour.

Early on Sunday morning, Christmas Day 1887, when those who were not lying snugly in bed, were sitting round a cosy fire listening to `glad tidings´ which were being proclaimed on every hand, there arose the awful cry of `Fire´, and people were awakened by the clanging of the fire bell, and the rattle of the fire engine thundering past on it´s way to the scene of the conflagration

At first it was said the pit had `fired´ – and everyone knows what that means and what fearful results are likely to ensue.

Viewed from Mexborough and Swinton there was a lurid glare overspreading the heavens, and it was conceived that a conflagration of immense proportions was in progress. Denaby Main Colliery with it´s capacity employed fifteen hundred men and boys, and the great part it takes in the prosperity of the district was on fire, and varied and numerous were the speculations as to it´s cause and extent.

A little before one o´clock everything was peace and quietness : there was not a man to be seen about the place, except those who were on night duty and who had the care of the premises entrusted to their charge : in a few minutes everything was confusion.

William Gough, the night engineman, who, with his mate Samuel Hague, having performed the onerous task of lowering and drawing the miners and their helpers, who labour hour after hour in the darkness of that huge subterranean workshop – first gave the alarm. He had nothing to do for the moment – this would be about one o´clock, and was standing at the door of the engine house listening to a party of singers carolling, when his sense of smell detected something burning. He looked and traced it´s origin ; at the end of the big engine house ; from which is worked the main shaft ; the hydraulic engine shed was on fire, he ran towards it, and then the flames broke out, as he says `like a flash of lightning´. The whole of the shed seemed to be one mass of flames in a moment, and he could not discern their origin. In less time than it takes to write, the fire leaped up the `gantry´, which is a wooden staircase by which the miners ascend to the pit bank to go down the shaft, and blazed and hissed as it devoured the woodwork surrounding the pit mouth, and the timbers of which the screens are largely composed.

By this time many people had gathered on the road side and in the pit yard, attracted by the sight, but nothing was done for a short time, the flames appeared to be issuing from the shaft, for there it had got strong hold of the timbers, and this, of course, led to the supposition that some terrible disaster had occurred down below, some terrible explosion which had wrecked the workings. This fear however, was soon dispelled when those on the spot came to look closely, and it was seen that the conflagration was only a local one, and had started in the engine – house.

There was at that time down the pit, eleven men and one hundred and twenty ponies, and the thoughts of everyone present flew to them. As is well known the ventilation in the workings is kept up by a fan, and it was conjectured that if it´s working with the atmosphere would become vitiated of the clouds of smoke now issuing from the engine-house and the pit bank, were to pour down the shaft.

Mr. Rose despatched a telegram from the signal box of the M.S.&L. railway which runs through the colliery yard, and the news quickly spread in other directions. P.C. Midgely, of Rotherham Division of the West Riding Police, was immediately communicated with, if indeed he was not attracted to the spot by the conflagration which could be seen for miles around. Realising the importance of speedy help he procured a horse and trap in Denaby Main, and drove off to Swinton, Rawmarsh and Rotherham. He called Sergeant Ford up at Swinton and also informed Inspector Harper at Rawmarsh ; after which he went on to Rotherham and acquainted the authorities there. The Fire Brigade at Rotherham were warned and in an incredibly short space of time, with Captain Hurst in command, they were dashing along the roads to the scene of the fire.

Notwithstanding the proximity of Mexborough and it´s Fire Brigade , the men from Rotherham were first to work on the flames ; but no news was sent to Mexborough until nearly 4 o´clock. Then a telegram was wired from the signal box at Denaby to the signal box at Mexborough, and a messenger was despatched with it to Inspector Barratt, he received it at 10 minutes to 4 o´clock, and the first thing he did was to send a boy to the house of Mr. Perkins, the school master, to give the alarm by ringing the fire-bell. Thus by 4 o´clock those in Mexborough who were capable of hearing the warning note of the fire-alarm were perturbed to know the reason. Doubtless the great majority would turn over and go back to sleep again, not many got out of bed. Even at this hour there were many people knocking about, keeping Christmas up. : nearly half an hour before this two or three bands of carollers who were at the East end of town were attracted to Denaby Main by the fire, and it´s a pity that none of them had sufficient presence of mind to warn the Police or the Fire Brigade, for if they had been acquainted an hour earlier there services would have been greatly more valuable that they undoubtedly were when they did arrive.


After the `tocsin´ had been sounded, Inspector Barret, and P.C. Webber proceeded to the fire engine house, but finding it locked and impatient of delay, they committed a burglarious entrance, and forced their way in. But when they got in there were no means by which the engine could be conveyed to Denaby Main, and they decided upon affecting another burglary, which they accomplished by proceeding to Mr. Dykes´ stables, which are close at hand, and taking therefrom a horse, which with another was soon hooked up to the engine.

The firemen by this time had arrived, with their helmets, coats, `Wellingtons´ and belts on, and in a very short time Denaby Main was reached and operations commenced.

The Rotherham brigade reached the spot first, but although Mexborough was the smallest it did it´s work in first class style, and as well as any of them. The Doncaster brigade was delayed owing to a misunderstanding, a telegram was sent from the signal box to Doncaster, informing the police there of the state of things : but leaving it optional with them to send the Fire Brigade. Placed in this fix there was nothing to be done but to see Mr. Nicholas, Commercial Manager to Denaby Main Colliery, who lives in Avenue Road, Doncaster, who of course, gave immediate instructions for the Doncaster brigade to proceed. The men forming the brigade were warned about five or ten minutes to four o´clock, and by twenty minutes past four the echoes of sleepy old Doncaster were aroused by the fire-engine, driven through the town by four horses which were ridden by two postillions, manned by Superintendent Gregory and six men.

Denaby Main was reached before five o´clock, and by that time the three brigades of Mexborough, Rotherham, and Doncaster were in full play. There was plenty of water at hand, the river Don flowing past the colliery on the opposite side to the railway.

The Mexborough brigade worked splendidly headed by Capt. Jaques : and each brigade vied with each other in subduing the flames, which had now got a fair hold of the pit bank and engine house. A cordon of police, in charge of Inspector Barratt, of Mexborough and Inspector Harper of Rawmarsh, was stretched round the blazing mass, so as to keep back the crowd from interfering with the operations of the firemen.

The Doncaster and Rotherham brigades were working from the river side of the colliery : Mexborough brigade played on the flames from the railway side.

Just when the flames were at their height Capt. Jaques and P.C. Midgely went up the steps to the engine house in which is located a lot of valuable machinery.

The principal engines are embedded on a solid mass of masonry, about fifteen or twenty feet deep in the centre of the building, and around the sides the space is filled up by a flag flooring supported on beams. While Capt. Jaques and P.C. Midgely were standing on the flooring which looked so substantial, without a moments notice it gave way and fell with a crash down to the bottom of the masonry. How the two men escaped with their lives is marvellous, when the flooring gave way they threw up their arms, and just managed to catch on to the sides of the walls. By dint of great exertion they raised themselves, but their escape from a terrible fate was miraculous. Deputy Superintendent Gregory at once perceived the treacherous nature of the flooring, gave instructions to his men to only stand on the masonry, and he no sooner said the words and his orders fulfilled than the rest of the floor gave way.

Mr. W.H. Chambers and his men worked assiduously in directing the operation and by about six o´clock the firemen obtained the upper hand although the flames were still raging. The intense heat twisted the iron about the headgear in all sorts of shapes, and four hundred yards of thick wire rope, which is used for drawing the cages up and down, fell with a crash to the bottom of the shaft.

The pulley wheels came down, broken and battered, but they stopped at the pit mouth, which now presented a tangled mess of iron work in extricable confusion. The screens too, suffered considerably, and the engine house was gutted of every thing except the ironwork, although that is damaged.

Dr. Sykes, Dr. Martin and their assistants, were early on the scene, and it was expected that their services would be required. It was feared that the men in the Pit would need assistance, and Dr. Sykes gallantly volunteered to go down the cupola shaft, Mr. Chambers however, resisted his intention, but he remained on the spot until the first man was brought up, and told the reassuring news that his mates, although kept in terrible suspense were alright. They went down at four o´clock, and were principally banksmen and fitters, and others who were engaged in making necessary alterations and repairs.

The work of the rescue commenced directly the flames had been subdued, but in consequence of all the engines having been destroyed, including the one which works the cupola shaft, there was nothing for it but to devise some means whereby the cage might be worked and the imprisoned men got out. It was decided to attaché the rope to the colliery locomotive, and by running it along the line, draw the men out with this slow, but sure process. There was an eager crowd waiting outside the door to the shaft, and when the `taps´ were made for the engine to stop, eager anticipation was depicted on every face. The door at last opened, and out walked the first two men, Vincent Rose and William Fearnley, somebody shouted ` are they alright Silas – (meaning Mr. Silas Schofieldwho had been communicating the signals to the men in charge of the locomotive) and the answer came, `Yes they´re alright´. There was a feeling of relief and somebody said, `Let´s give them a cheer´.

The Rotherham brigade went away about a quarter past twelve. The rest of the men were got out all safe and sound before one o´clock. The ponies will be left underground, as it is impossible to get them out until the headgear to the main shaft is replaced by a new set, and an engine capable of working the cage, and the immense length of wire rope is put down in place of the old one, which is utterly useless.

Vincent Rose when asked if he knew what had happened, replied in the affirmative : or rather said he knew something was on fire. Our representative expressed the fear which was felt that the men would suffer from want of ventilation, but was surprised on being told that there was too much ventilation that there was the danger from the burning mass from the top, setting something on fire at the bottom, where lay one of the cages, and a lot of debris. A fireman named William Pashley, the oldest member of the Mexborough brigade, was taken ill owing to the excitement, cold and want of food, and had to be led home.

Now for the cause of the conflagration, there is one thing everyone is agreed about, and that is that incendiarism had nothing to do with it. The fire, what so ever the origin, was purely accidental, and owes it´s cause to one of those most unaccountable accidents, which it is impossible to prevent or foresee in such a big undertaking as Denaby Main Colliery. It is said by a gentleman who is most likely to be able to form a correct judgement, that a probable reason is the friction of the brake on the huge iron drum, and that the fire spread to the engine house. But there is a multiplicity of reasons assigned, and it is impossible to judge.

There will doubtless be an inquiry made, and then we shall be able to speak with more authority. During the day Mr. F.N. Wardell, Her Majesty´s Chief Inspector of Mines, visited the scene of the conflagration, and there was also present at one time or another, Mr. J.F. Thompson, Manager of Manvers Main Colliery, Mr. Gommersall, Mr. Caseby, and Mr. Egerton, officials of the Manvers Main Colliery.

Crowds of sightseers, hearing of the disaster, flocked to the place, which was viewed with interest until darkness set last night. Then every vestige of fire was overcome, but there were watchers there all night under the charge of Mr. Gascoyne, the assistant manager, so that flames did not break out again.

The damages variously estimated at about £10,000, a truly great amount, but which fortunately we understand, is almost all covered by insurance.

It will be many a long day before the 1,500 men and boys employed by the colliery company will be able to resume work. The labour of dismantling will be proceeded with at once, but there will be needed a new enginehouse in place of the four walls which now do duty for one, new head gear, and a great many other things, without which it is impossible to carry on the work of a large colliery, and which suffered by the conflagration.

The men perhaps more than ever before, will receive the sympathy of the inhabitants of the district and appeals for help will be made in their name. The disaster will also affect the shopkeepers and tradesmen of Mexborough most seriously, and to all concerned there has never been,a sorrier Christmas in their recollection than that of 1887.

Mexborough and Swinton Times of December 30th 1887

Past History of the Pit.

` Denaby Main and Disaster `, are strong terms, but there is no doubt that the Denaby Main Colliery has had more than it´s share of ill luck, during 1864 – 1865, the amount of water encountered in sinking the pit was enormous and for a long time sinking was not proceeded with.

When the place got fairly open a strike of twenty six weeks took place : and shortly after an underground fire originated, which has caused no end of trouble, culminating in the stoppage of the greater proportion pf the pit about ten years ago. Since that time the colliery has had to be almost entirely re-opened, but in such an energetic manner as to have recovered, if not exceeded it´s dimensions at any previous period of it´s history.

During the past ten years several strikes have taken place, in 1878 the men came out on strike against several grievances, which lasted about fourteen weeks, and in 1880 a short strike took place. In 1885 the pit was laid off with a strike of about twenty eight weeks ; but the leading features are still fresh in the minds of our readers, and some of whom have good reason not to forget them. In the same year as the strike just referred to a bad fire also broke out underground, which cut off a portion of the workings ; and now with the close of 1887 a disastrous fire takes place at the surface, doing considerable damage to the permanent plant of the colliery.

It cannot be said the past history of the place is very pleasant reading, but, despite this fact, it is pleasant to be able to record the fact that none of the disastrous explosions have occurred here, as has been the case at most pits of a similar age in South Yorkshire.


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