Denaby Main Colliery Fire – The 11 Entombed Men During The Fire

January 1888

Mexborough and Swinton Times January 13, 1888

The Denaby Main Fire

The Experiences of The 11 Entombed Men During The Progress Of The Fire

(By One of Them)

There are circumstances sustaining such a relation to accidents as sometimes entitles them to rank as extraordinary events; such a one was the fire at Denaby Main Colliery on the eve of Christmas Day.

It is also a truism that there never was an occurrence so extensively disastrous; and which might not have been more disastrous and had it not been for the presence of mind and prompt action of the men this would have also been the case at Denaby.

In the reports which have appeared in the Public Press there has been an absence of detailed particulars of the imprisoned men’s movements and their circumstances which are specially interesting and important, not only to colliery officials, but to many of the public.

On Saturday, 24 December, 1887, coal mining operations ceased at about 3 p.m. for the Christmas holidays, which were to extend to Wednesday the 28th.

During this recess it was arranged that certain repairs were to be carried out in connection with the underground machinery, and for this work extensive preparations were made during the week ending the 24th.

11 men, fitters and labourers, were told off for this work and their orders were to descend (the hour at which the general body of employees ceased work for the holidays), to effect as much of the repairs as would enable the party to make a break in the work at 10 p.m. so that Christmas might be spent at home with their families. However, their movements were much harassed owing to certain delays for which no special reason could be assigned, and instead of the party being able to commence their work at 3 p.m., operations had to be deferred until nearly 4.30 ; a. fact which formed one of the most important items in preventing the spread of the fire to the underground and with it the loss of 120 ponies ; if they had commenced operations at the time appointed—the men would have finished the shift at 10 p.m. and consequently there would have been no individual in the pit at the time of the outbreak of the fire.

The valuable services, therefore, rendered by these men in putting out the fire which fell from the burning “headstock” and other portions of the surrounding plant into the bottom of the shaft, would not have been available had the men left at the time appointed. Another circumstance which contributed to the men being in the mine at the time of the fire, was the omission to take off the “top,” or “covering,” of one of the cages which was rendered necessary owing to the size of the wheel, with a view of admitting a portion of the underground machinery, which had to be drawn to the surface for the purpose of dislodging the “boss” of a wheel for the reception of a stronger shaft.

The Foreman, in charge, on arriving at the bottom of the shaft, found that this preparation for the reception and winding up of the machinery had not been carried out. He (the foreman) therefore said to the men, “Shall we go home, or go out and get supper and return?” The reply was, “So long as the night is broken into, and this part of the work is finished, let us go out and get our suppers and return.” This was resolved on and out the work men came.

After an interval of about an hour the 11 men again descend the shaft, little thinking that in so short a time their condition would be rendered so perilous, and the safety of their lives made the subject and speculation of thousands watching the progress of the flames stop

Arriving at the base of their operations the 11 men, commenced their work, the first part of which was to get the wheel in readiness to be drawn up the downcast shaft. This was about one to 1:20 a.m.

Blocks having been fixed with which to put the wheel into the cage, a signal was given, but the foreman, to his astonishment – but not to his bewilderment, for it is evident from his subsequent action that he was a man possessed with abundant resources – the means of signalling to the surface were destroyed. This led to a visit to the upcast shaft for the same purpose, but here also the party were doomed to disappointment, and their fears were that something more than an occurrence of one ordinary nature had occurred, which had cut off this means of communication.

The fire had now, unknown, though suspected by the imprisoned men, been raging for about 15 or 20 minutes, evidence of which was seen by the falling of the rope down, the upcast shaft, after being liberated by the flames. The men were eyewitnesses of this, and state that the sound created by the falling rope, and its frequently coming into collision with the iron conductors for a distance of about 445 yards, was of the most alarming nature.

Notwithstanding that there had as yet been no visible signs of fire, there remained not the slightest doubt in their minds as to what had caused the liberation of the ropes, which with the cage, greatly interfered with the ordinary way of access to the entrance of the shaft; in fact it had so blocked up the passage to the bottom of this shaft that it was deemed both unwise and unsafe to attempt to force a passage of return by the same way they had come.

The foreman now ventured to suggest what he believed was the matter – namely, that a fire had actually broke out in the locality of the engine houses. This expression of opinion naturally led to the fears of the men assuming a different form to what they had done previously; but the courage, together with the discretion of the foreman (V.Rose) buoyed them up, and prevented anything like a scene, which, under the surrounding circumstances, might have been excused.

We believe we are correct in stating that owing to the rush of the men out of the way of the falling rock, and a great concussion of the ventilating current, they lost no less than nine of their lights, leaving only three; this circumstance greatly added to their consternation.

Another matter, which was not without its effect upon the minds of the men, was they were unaccustomed and totally unacquainted with the runs of the mine, except a few of them (chiefly the fitters), who are acquainted with the locality of the shaft and the engine houses.

The foreman, however, was an exception to this rule, having, in the early years of life, worked in the mines at Thorncliffe. To this fact, coupled with the knowledge he had of the main “intake and returns” at Denaby Main for some distance round the shaft is to be attributed – it is not too much to say – the rescue of the whole of the men from suffocation by smoke, and the colliery from total destruction by the spread of the flames to the interior workings.

A return to the bottom of the other shaft and now to be made in order to ascertain how matters stood there, and whether any additional confirmation of the foreman’s original convictions with reference to the existence of fire, could be gleaned.

The foreman now had to begin and draw upon his resources, as no one knew the road but himself, which was by the way of what is called the “East plane return.” “Follow me,” said the foreman, and follow him they did.

After travelling some distance they had four ventilating doors to pass, fixed at very short intervals of space from each other, for a special purpose.

Between these doors, there was only a little space for four men, and knowing this, the foreman suggested that they should pass into each division two at a time; but the men said, “Nay, let us all be together.” And it turned out that 11 each time passed into the section between the doors. How they managed it is a matter best known to themselves. At all events it would appear that excitement and fear would have a wonderfully contradicting influence on the “corporations” of men under such circumstances.

Emerging from this “East plane” returning to the main “intake,” they were soon at the down cast shaft bottom, when the original idea of the foreman was unhappily confirmed, as fire in large quantities was falling down the shaft, and in some instances pieces of flaming timber of considerable size on the top of the cage, which was standing in the bottom, rebounded to distance from 20 to 30 yards on the “Montagu level,” in a burning condition.

There was no question with the foreman as in what direction their duty at this critical moment lay. Haste was made to the “donkey engine” with a view of pumping water on the burning piles . Their discouragement, however was, the “donkey” refused to move, and no amount of physical force used by the party could induce him to show the least signs of life.

It then occurred to them that the steam at the top and either been turned off or the means of communication have been destroyed by the falling of material upon the steam pipes. The former was the correct view, as the engineman during the first stages of the fire deemed it prudent to turn off the steam, fearing the steam valve gearing might get deranged, and the main drawing engines set in motion. Another pipe was visited, but this refused to discharge; and they therefore came to the conclusion that its connection had been broken by accident at the top.

The foreman said, “Lads, it looks as if we were doomed; but run to the stables and fetch the buckets.” Without a moment’s delay this order was obeyed, and water secured from a well on the floor a short distance away. With these they kept up an attack for fully three hours, during which time they often anxiously look for signs of the arrival of the fire brigades.

The men’s anxiety, not for themselves, but for the horses and other property, and the awful possibility of some timber, on which some portion of the surroundings of the shaft rested, in addition to a drum belonging to the hauling machinery, hard by the bottom of the shaft taking fire, was very great. They feared that these might take fire and render their condition a totally hopeless one.

The smoke by this time was getting very inconvenient, their lights only being visible some 2 feet distance from each other. About this time the fireman paid a second visit to the upcast shaft by himself, and found that the other cage and rope have been liberated by the action of the fire and fallen to the bottom, locking up in a great measure the ordinary means of access to the cages. Fire was also falling down this shaft. This event he decided to conceal from the rest of his comrades, knowing their fears would be considerably increased if he were not to do so.

At this stage of the business, the men’s attention was drawn to a body of fire which was lodged on a “bearer” or “stay,” about 6 yards up the shaft. One of the tallest of the gang tried to reach it with a bucket of water but his strength was not sufficient for the task, and the water fell short of its intended mark. The foreman said, “Your load is two heavy, try a quart.” The hint was taken, and this time the fire was reached, and the last remains of it were dislodged by the men with a piece of iron gas pipe.

Another circumstance which caused the imprisoned men some degree of anxiety and uneasiness was the fact that their lights were only calculated to burn from 8 to 9 hours at the farthest; and having been linked at 2.30 for 3p.m. on the 24th the time for exhaustion was according to ordinary calculations about 2 p.m. on the 25th, and this hour had arrived.

From causes already explained they had lost nine of their lights, leaving them now with only three. This led to a conference on the subject, and the foreman said, “We have a Clanney lamp, have we not?” “Yes,” was a prompt reply. “Well then said the foreman, “we must be careful of the oil that will only burn in the Clanney.” But the lamps contain that kind of oil were, of course, all locked up. The foreman said, “I have a key that will unlock them.”

“Where?” “Oh, down the engine house; I mean a hammer and chisel, for we certainly under the circumstances and in the main air course, cannot be bound by hard and fast regulations. While there is oil in the pit that the lamp will consume, we shall have a light.”

We cannot speak to a few minutes, but it was near to this time (2:15 a.m.) when it was as if a whole wagon of fire had been poured down the shaft in one mass. This no doubt was when the burning “headstock” gave way and the huge pulleys, 16 feet in diameter, came to the ground, an event which would have caused more ruin but for the time the action and engine displayed by the head manager (Mr W.H.Chambers), and Mr J Rose, engine wright and brother to the foreman in charge of the men in the mine. They, with other assistance, succeeded in covering over the mouth of the shaft with iron rails and other fireproof material. This was done at the point of the upper landing, leaving a clear course for the ventilation of the lower landing, on a level with the surface.

As time passed away, the want of rest and the effects of the smoke and the steam began to tell upon the men, and but for frequent urgings of the foreman they would probably have yielded to sleep.

Between three and 4 o’clock in the morning a very agreeable improvement had set in, for it was evident that the fire brigade had got to work; and to change the monotony of things, the men were sent off to feed the 120 ponies, which were in three different sections, but not far apart. This having been accomplished, a good sleep was taken, which greatly refreshed them all.

The ninth hour of imprisonment had now been reached and no signs of release, the only changes in the condition of things – of course, most inspiring to them – meant that the fire ceased to fall down the pit. This to them was a sure indication that the danger was decreasing.

The foreman in whom all the men at the fullest confidence, now assured them that there rescue was certain, but he remarked, “The two ropes and cages having fallen down the shaft and the “headstock” at the “downcast” having been destroyed, appliances will have to be secured from other collieries, and it will be considerable time before we are out.”

The doors on the “Montagu level” and being close some length of time, and seeing that the danger arising from the fire and smoke had so far passed away, the other two doors, opened in the first instance, were also close, and the ventilation was allowed to pass through its ordinary channels.

Fixing the time at 6 to 7 a.m. it may well be imagined how drearily the hours pass by before the moment of rescue dawned upon them. But they had confidence in the men at the top, and a settled belief that everything was being done to reach them cheered them up in a most surprising manner.

The glad moment nevertheless did come, the first notice of which was conveyed by one of the men who had absented himself a little while from the other 10. He came rushing towards the “downcast” from the direction of the other shaft, shouting, “Come on lads, they are coming down the other shaft; I can hear them calling to each other.”

And so it was, for when the former reach the bottom of the shaft, the “cage,” or “trunk,” which contained the rescuing party, was within a short distance at the bottom. He at once called out to the men in the trunk informing them that they could not land in the bottom, because of the ropes and cages which had previously fallen down; but, said he, “Can you see the ‘steam pipe drift end’ at the other side?” Yes.” “Then we will go round and up the drift” – up which one at a time could only pass.

Between the moment of ascent and return of the party, the large number of spectators were in great suspense, because their condition was not known. The first expression from the crowd were those given utterance to buy the rescue party.

“Are you all right?” “Yes, we are all right.”

By 3.15 p.m. the last of the 11 men were brought to the bank, and this gave rise to another outburst of satisfaction.

Speaking in general terms, the fire is one of those events which are frequently occurring and that too, after the safest methods have been adopted and the best precautions taken. They may occur from very simple causes, arising in quarters least expected.

Some three years ago fire broke out in the engine house at the bottom of Carr House colliery, the cause been nothing more than has led to the death of a person in a cottage by the setting of a lamp.

The destruction at Denaby Main might have been far greater than it is. For instance, if the water engines have been allowed to play indiscriminately in the main drawing engine, considering the pitch of heat to which the cylinder and other parts of the engine had been raised by the flames, this would have been broken beyond repair. The service, the steam was again turned to the in the cylinders. When in full working trim these engines work and not less than 500 hp, with 42 inch diameter cylinders.

The engines belonging to the “upcast” were two 15 in cylinders, and were made a total wreck. The hydraulic engine was a 12 ½ inch diameter, although not so badly wrecked, will in many parts have to be replaced by new work. The two 16 foot diameter pulleys are rendered useless, notwithstanding that they are new – one being put up in September last year and the other early in December.

The engine house will have to be brought down to the 6 feet of the ground. It was a substantial built structure.

The weigh house, the corf repairing shop, with the pink sharpening cabin, were completely demolished.