Destructive Fire at Denaby (picture)

December 1906

Saturday December 22nd 1906

Destructive Fire at Denaby
Huge Blaze at the Colliery
Thousands of Pounds Worth of Machinery Demolished
Brilliant Spectacle
Gallant Work of the Firemen

The Slack Washer House

Since the great fire which broke out on Christmas Eve, 1887, and practically destroyed the whole of the surface buildings and machinery at the Denaby Main Colliery, no such colliery conflagration has occurred at Denaby Main, as that which originated in the coal washer house in Denaby Main Colliery yard on the afternoon of Saturday December 15th 1905.

Up to £70,000 in buildings and machinery was involved, and estimate places the damage done at between £7,000 and £8,000. The damage being fully covered by insurance.

Gallant work was done by the Mexborough and Conisbrough Fire Brigades, and in the early hours of Sunday morning the blaze was got completely under control, a good portion of the fabric being saved.

The origin of the fire remains a mystery. Fortunately no one was injured.

Saturday afternoon is the recognised half-holiday for almost all classes of colliery workers. It is the one period in the week where there is a slight cessation in the perpetual throb of a great industry, both on the surface and throughout the long lines of black roads underneath, and at Denaby Main – a colliery which can vie with the largest and best equipped in the world – the absence of surface workers is noticeable to the most casual passer-by on Saturday afternoons. True, the external coal trains are to be seen passing to and fro as usual, and here and there one notices a man engaged in shunting duties.

But the ordinary surface worker has cleared off for a well earned period of relaxation, stepped aside from the whirl of exacting industry in which he is engaged, so that he may return to it again with renewed vigour.

The Discovery of the Fire

To this fact may be attributed the discovery of the fire by a canal boatman, on Saturday afternoon ; and it´s early recognition by some of the shunters or other indispensable workers was also prevented by reason of it´s having, as far as can be ascertained, originated at the foot of the elevators, directly in centre of the new machinery portion of the washer house. It was about 4-20 pm when a boat man, passing along the canal on one of those slow-going barges with which we are all so familiar, had his attention attracted by an unusually bright sheet of flame, which he saw now creeping, and now jumping along the elevator at the washer house. Immediately grasping the situation, he lost no time in giving the alarm, for directly he got to the first lock, he is said to have told his story to a colliery employee, who hastened with all despatch to the offices of the coal company.

This set the colliery officials on the alert, and the seriousness of the situation was at once realised. For the splendid Luhrig slack washing plant which was erected five years ago, stood in grave danger. At the time the plant was erected it was the most modern then in existence. It is capable of washing between sixty and seventy tons of coal in the hour. At the sister colliery -Cadeby- however,

A more modern washing machine, called the Baum, was erected last December.

It has a capacity for washing as much as one hundred and twenty tons of coal per hour.

Without a moments delay, Mr. Tom Soar, son of the undermanager Mr. John Soar, a member of the Surveying department of the Company, cycled with all speed to Mexborough and gave the alarm, another messenger was despatched to Conisbrough to warn their fire brigade.

A Splendid Rally.

It was about ten minutes to five o´clock, when the clear, chilling notes of the fire-bell, which were accentuated by the thick darkness of a December night, rang out on the frosty air and set a crowded market into panic.

A moment later the siren´s call added it´s mournful, banshee like note to the persistent clanging call of the bells. Hardly had the machine buzzer terrified the town with it´s eerie cry, which struck upon the hearts and homes of Mexborough like the portentious wail of a night bird of ill-omen, ere stalwart firemen came hurrying and scurrying from every street wherein a member of our volunteer brigade lives.

Theirs was not to reason the why or the wherefore of the call, but to respond like the gallant firemen they subsequently proved themselves to be.

In an incredibly short space of time the fire-engine was manned and the horses in their places, and amid a scene of great excitement and the shrill warning notes of the fire-men´s whistles, the brigade rattled on to Denaby Main.

An enterprising member of the `Times´ staff, who also heard the call to duty, sprang upon the fire-engine and went to the scene of the fire, and he details his experiences later in this missive.

No time was lost in getting to Denaby Main, and at ten minutes past five, hardly twenty minutes after the alarm had been given, the fire-engine was at the pit. Three of the fire-men, who did not come on the engine, followed on foot and in buses with all haste.

Indeed, Saturday evening was the bus drivers harvest for the news of the fire spread like wild-fire, and crowds came from Mexborough as well as other neighbouring districts, to witness the conflagration. Some amusing incidents were witnessed on the route between Denaby Main and Mexbotough.

The fire brigade was in charge of Superintendent, Mr. G. Fenwick Carter, and there was a splendid rally of firemen.

An initial difficulty had to be overcome, for the burning building, being some distance off the road and near the river, the maze of colliery sidings which intervened, had to be reckoned with.

Yet the firemen were undaunted, and unyoking the horses they practically lifted the engine, which was of the manual type, over the rails, their path being lighted by the miners´ lamps and flames from the building.

The washer house is largely built of pitch-pine and brick, with corrugated iron roofing, and in the space of half an hour, the fire had gained complete mastery over the new portion of the fabric, the flames shooting skywards, and lighting the country for miles around.

The position which the Mexborough brigade had to face was a very formidable one, but soon twenty yards of hose were coupled up, and aided by a plentiful supply of water from the river, which is directly beside the building, a plentiful volume of water was soon playing on the flames.

Hardly had the Mexborough brigade started work, when the brigade under Capt Jones, from Conisbrough, arrived. Their engine is also of the manual type, and they had to overcome the same difficulty in getting it over the rails.

Both brigades were soon working in unison, and realising the utter hopelessness of saving the new portion of the structure, which was held fast in the grip of the flames, they turned their attention to the older portion, which contains the hoppers and storage. Up to the present the flames had not injured it to any appreciable extent, although the portion which connected it with the shooting fire burned brilliantly they spared no effort to save it.

Their efforts were well seconded by a number of civilians, and Mr. W.H. Chambers, the managing director of the Colliery Co. was also very early on the spot, and lent every assistance he could by suggestion or otherwise. He remained until it was obvious the fire had been conquered.

A number of policemen from Mexborough and Conisbrough, who were in the charge of Inspector Watson, of Mexborough, kept order at the gates, but no serious difficulty presented itself to them, and the huge crowd which had gathered was kept outside, as the colliery is on private property.

An Awe-Inspiring Spectacle.

About half past six the spectacle was an awe-inspiring one. Long red tongues of flame shot through the windows and the walls and roof, and ever and anon a weighty piece of machinery which had been erected at a cost of thousands of pounds, came through the floors with a crash which sent a myriad of sparks followed by a huge sheet of flame skywards. Periodically, the flames cast a lurid glow, impressive in it´s wondrous vividness, far over the snow-capped landscape, lighting up the country for miles around, and showing, at various points groups of spectators. Even the hills of High Melton were delineated in the vivid glow.

Steadily the brigades worked, pouring volumes of water into the midst of the flames. Soon the rafters showed through the roof and now and then a detached and twisted piece of machinery fell on the ground outside, and a general stampede to get out of it´s way was noticeable on the part of the fire-men and civilians engaged in combating the flames. It was necessary for them to exercise the greatest caution, and although they were again and again in very precarious positions, it is satisfactory to note that not a single accident occurred.

Towards eight o´clock, the fire in the machinery portion of the building showed signs of abating, but the brigades did not for one moment relax their efforts.

At about two o´clock in the morning, after four hours of continuous working the men working the pumps struck, and cleared off, some difficulty being experienced in getting other helpers to man the pumps.

The Mexborough and Conisbrough fire-engines and appliances worked splendidly and considerable assistance was also derived from the less formidable appliances of the Colliery Company.

The Captains of the men of both brigades also deserve to be heartily congratulated on their admirable combined and successful efforts.

The Scene On Sunday.

On Sunday morning after about ten hours strenuous and unceasing labour nothing remained of the of the demolished portion, save the walls and an unrecognisable mass of smouldering woodwork and machinery.

At noon on Sunday, in a muggy and uninviting atmosphere, and a continuous drizzle, a `Times´ reporter again visited the scene of the fire.

From outside the building a few colliery employees were engaged on the fire which was still smouldering. All danger was now passed, but it was still considered necessary to keep up the supervision. The roof of the machinery portion of the building underneath where the fire originated, had completely collapsed and twisted pieces of the corrugated iron roofing hung across the blackened half charred rafters, which were laid bare. The brick walls remained intact.

Inside, one beheld a gloomy mass of wreckage. Massive iron machinery was twisted into most fantastic shapes. To this scene of destruction was added the continuous dripping of the water from the roof.

One of the factors, which, coupled with the efforts of the fire-brigades, proved undoubtedly the saviour of the building, was the bursting of a large water pipe, connected with the old portion of the building to the big water tank above the washer, which weighed ten tons. From this a strong volume of water was poured on the very part where the fire raged fiercest. Singularly enough the water-tank retained it´s position, and was to be seen on Sunday wrapped about with the iron sheets which had fallen from the roof.

Another piece of machinery which had a remarkable escape was the 30 h.p. steam engine, which is situated at the threshold of where the fire was strongest This also escaped without the slightest damage.

Interview With Mr. Chambers.

Mr. W.H. Chambers, managing director of the Denaby and Cadeby Main Coll. Ltd., was interviewed by a `Times´ representative at the offices of the company on Monday morning December 17th 1905.

He said the amount of the affair which had already appeared in the papers was substantially correct, although the damage was much less than £15,000 to £20,000. It was £7,000 to £8,000 perhaps.

He placed the cost of the building in which the fire occurred, including the machinery at something like £70,000.

The fire would not in any way, interfere with the working of the colliery, nor would it throw any hands out of employment. On that morning they had started sending the coal from Denaby Main Colliery to be treated at the Baum Washer at Cadeby Main Colliery.

Mr. Chambers paid high tribute to both fire-brigades, which, he said, were at the fire in very quick time and worked wonderfully well together.

[ We learn that two members of the Conisbrough Fire Brigade were injured at the recent fire at Denaby Main Colliery. Sergeant Dunning got his hand cut with some glass whilst working at the elevator, and Sergeant Senior had his arm crushed. Both men are incapacitated from work as a consequence.]


On Saturday evening December 15th 1905 , at about five o´clock a youth cycled to Mexborough with intelligence. Five minutes later the whole town was agog with excitement, to which that intelligence had given rise. As well it might, for the news was to the effect that the great slack coal washer at the Denaby Main Colliery was in flames, and the offices of the fire-brigade were desired with all despatch. The news went from mouth to mouth with incredible rapidity, and the shop-gazing fraternity rushed, with one consent to the Market Hall, where the decidedly un-musical bell was ringing out it´s tidings of devastation, destruction and who knows what else ?

From all sides rushed the eager townsmen and the firemen, who appeared to spring from the very ground, cut little time to waste on ceremony as they threw open the doors of the Fire-engine´s abiding place and dragged out into the market the instrument which was to combat the all-devouring element a mile and a half away. To harness the horses was no sooner thought of than accomplished, and some ten minutes from the reception of the ill-news, the equipage bearing the five firemen and a representative of this newspaper, were careering madly past the bottom of the market along Church Street. – And what a ride it was !!.

Everyone clung desperately to the crazy vehicle as the horse galloped on over the frost-bound ground. Had it not been for the thought of the conflagration, the extent of which could only, as yet, be dimly conjectured at, the joy and elation of motion through the keen crisp air to the regular accompaniment of the hooves of the likely-looking animals, the pleasure of such an experience would have been unalloyed.


Stopping for a second only, to take up their leader, Superintendent Carter, the horses again went forward, and a bend of the road revealed to them the dark outline of the colliery, rendered more gloomy, ominous and forbidding by reason of the horrible glare which threw it into such strong relief.

Straight ahead they went, to the firemen watching in silence the ravages of the destroying element, whose fell work they would surely have to combat.

At the colliery gates we stopped, and hundreds of willing hands assisted to carry the fire-engine bodily over the net-work of rails and other obstacles, and in this manner was engineered and carried into execution one of the smartest and most dexterous turn-outs, which have yet stood to the credit even of that highly trained body of men, of which Councillor J.W. Soops stands in the light of the guardian angel.


[ It appears that arson was suspected as the cause of the fire, since in a copy of the Mexborough and Swinton Times early in 1907 a reward of £500 was posted for information leading to the arrest of the miscreants. ]

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