Editorial – Home Office Inquiry

August 1912

Mexborough & Swinton Times – Saturday 10 August 1912

Editorial – Home Office Inquiry

The Home Office Inquiry into the’ causes and conditions of the Cadeby Main explosions of July 9th was commenced in Doncaster this week, and so far as testamentary evidence can be supplied, it is nearly completed. It only remains for the Chief Inspector of mines, Mr. R. A. Redmayne, together with the gentlemen who are assisting him, to go down the mine and inspect the fatal area—when it is in a condition to be inspected—for themselves and then we may have a complete report of the result of very earnest and painstaking investigations.

That report will he awaited with the keenest anxiety by all mining engineers, but more especially by all mine managers in the new Doncaster area. Terrible as the Cadeby disaster was, and grievous though the loss of life, the Inquiry was not primarily occupied with the death-roll. It was concerned in the probing and searching and sifting of every jot and tittle of evidence which could throw light on the cause of the disaster. The most trifling incident in the plainest narrative was of interest to these wonderfully patient men.

Was there a charring of the props? They wanted to know how far round the props that charring went. Was a lamp found lying in the road? They asked in, what position it was lying, and how much it was damaged. All was fish that came into their net, for a great visitation like that at Cadeby cannot have too full and glaring a light thrown on it. We now know with some degree of certainty that, the Cadeby explosions were caused by what Mr. Chambers calls an unfortunate and an extraordinary combination :

(a) the existence of a large cavity charged; with accumulated gas;

(b) the sudden outbreak of a gob-fire; and

(c) the admission of air despite some attempt to, seal off that area.

The Cadeby authorities got their warning in the shape of the “gob stink,” the smell which is always the precursor of this particular form of fire. To do the management no more than justice, they were thoroughly alive to the danger, and took all reasonable precautions – short of withdrawing all the men from the district, to prevent the disaster. It was that combination which I beat them, and the awful suddenness with which the fire must have broken out. They had almost completed an elaborate arrangement of stowings and stoppings to cut off the air from the fire region, and probably in another twenty-four hours the fire would have been reduced to impotence. But in the race between the management and the destructive elements, the elements were ahead, and broke loose, spreading death and disaster all around.

Now we know, crudely, both cause and effect. It has been made very clear to us that Cadeby Main is probably one of the most difficult pits in the world to handle and control and to keep safe, and with everything tending against the complete ventilation of this pit, some modicum of credit is due to the management for the ingenious and persistent way in which, up to July 9th, they kept top side of their difficulties. It cannot, we think, alleged against the colliery officials that they have been lacking in the exercise of a proper vigilance. And when it is reflected that within Mr. Chambers’ experience there have been fifty-six fires at Denaby and Cadeby, thirty-five of which have been in the deeper and more modern mine of Cadeby, we get some faint conception of the heavy natural odds against which these engineers have been continually contending.

The gob-fire has been the curse and scourge one of the most up-to-date and finely-equipped mines in the coal industry, and, as Mr. Inspector Wilson has pointed out, it is a rising menace to the new Doncaster area. Therefore, it was no small part of the business of the inquiry, after determining the cause and the general state of control exercised in the pit, to devote very close attention indeed to all that could be learned of the gob-fire, from its initial symptoms to the latest theories for combating it. That is what is embraced in the comprehensive term, “general working conditions of South Yorkshire coal-fields,” which it was said to be the business of the Inquiry to investigate. We are told that the Barnsley coalfield is free from this pest, while the Doncaster area is destined to be greatly troubled with it, but we are not told why this is so. We can, of course, hazard the theory that the deeper the mines the hotter and the more liable to spontaneous combustion, and that the faultier the district the more scope there is for the outbreak of fire and the lodgment of gas. The fault has played a great part in the outbreak of tires at Denaby and Cadeby.

Probably the most fascinating feature of a very interesting inquiry was the animated argument on Wednesday between two accomplished mining engineers, Mr. Redmayne and Mr. Chambers, upon rival theories of safeguarding the mine from fire. Mr. Redmayne persistently urged the claims of the hydraulic pressure system ; almost pleaded for its adoption at Cadeby, as it were. But he could not win Mr. Chambers to that opinion. Mr. Chambers will not call water to his aid in dealing with fires in Cadeby. Water in the curiously-constructed Cadeby mine, instead of good, would probably add further terrors and difficulties, and would eventually mean the closing of the pit altogether. That is his firm and unalterable opinion, and apart from his voluminous experience of general mining engineering, we are bound to take notice of the man who knows his pit like a book, and to whom Cadeby Main is the child of his fancy’s creation.

Mr. Chambers argues that the elements of fire will gather in the Cadeby mine, and cannot be suppressed. The coal dust will percolate through the fissures, the air will get to it, and it will generate heat, and incandescence, and at last active combustion; and no hydraulic pressure—even if that were a practical system for Cadeby—could prevent fissures forming. The only thing to do, according to Mr. Chambers, is to make these elements innocuous by limiting the supply of oxygen, and to this end he proposes the preparation of an inert, exploded gas, which, so soon as the first indication of fire is found, can be pumped to the region, and, supplanting the fresh air, choke the fire at its birth. Roughly outlined, that is Mr. Chambers hope and stay for the future, and we are to see it applied in the form of an actual experiment in the, course of a day or two, when an attempt is to be made to recover the bodies of the poor fellows who are still lying in the mine. The process will be followed with the keenest interest by mining scientists all over the world, for no one interested in mining will willingly neglect an opportunity of educating himself on so vital a subject as the suppression and destruction of fires in mines.

Taking the inquiry throughout, the officials of the colliery may be said to have come through their ordeal well enough. There was some suggestion that the management ought as a necessary precaution to have withdrawn all the men from the district so soon as threatening’s of a fire were reported, but Mr. Chambers cleared himself of this charge with the startling statement that if men were withdrawn every time gob-stink was reported, the pit would be kept going for nothing else but putting gob-fires out. Mr. Chambers was quite clear and definite in stating that the Cadeby pit has to be kept working constantly in order to keep the outbreak of fire down, because the pit is infinitely more liable to combustion when it is standing than when the coal-face is advancing. He does not instruct the uninitiated in the why and wherefore of this curious condition of things, but the statement is a perfectly responsible one. Again it was suggested that too many men were allowed to go down the mine after the first explosion, and we believe the unwisdom this course is not seriously contested, though much may be excused in the way of error of judgment to those who within the range of the awful chaos and confusion which followed on the disaster. The apparent failure to report the gob-stink to the Inspector was also irregular, but there is nothing to show that had it been reported the usual way It would have altered the natural course of things.

The Home Office inquiry has fulfilled a very useful purpose. It has enabled us to understand many things that were not quite clear to us, and it has enabled the general public to appreciate the disheartening difficulties which mine engineers, mine officials and miners themselves have to contend with every day of their lives. And it has enabled those in high places to obtain a thorough grasp of this lesson of Cadeby’s sinister teaching.