Washington County Durham


Memories of Mining

Usworth Colliery Disaster - 1885  (2/2)

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

Articles from The Durham Chronicle

( Starting Friday, 24th April 1885 )


The inquiry into the cause of death of the forty two men and boys who lost their lives by the explosion at Usworth Colliery, on March 2nd, was resumed on Tuesday morning, in the Infant School, at Usworth, by Mr Coroner Graham. The Home Office was represented by the Hon Mr Lyttleton; the owners of the colliery, Messrs Bowes and Partners, by Mr John Edge, instructed by Mr Cooper; the National Miners’ Union and the Durham Miners’ Association by Mr Atherley Jones, instructed on behalf of the former by Mr Brewis, Sunderland, and for the latter by Mr H Forrest. The Coroner was assisted by Mr Shepherd, the Deputy Coroner. There were also present Messrs, Forman, Patterson, Crawford and Wilson of the Durham Miners’ Association; Mr Joseph Toyne of the Cleveland Miners’ Association; Mr Willis (Newcastle), Mr Bell (Durham), Mr WN Atkinson (Durham) and Mr JB Atkinson (Stocksfield), Government Inspectors of Mines; Mr John Daglish, Marsden; Mr George May, Harton; Mr G Foggin; Mr S Hedley, Wardley; Mr G Baker Forster, Backworth; Mr EF Boyd, Moor House, Durham; Mr Alfred Palmer, Managing Viewer, Usworth Colliery; Mr HW Wood, Coxhoe Hall; Mr Richard Forster, South Hetton; and Mr WM Parrington, Monkwearmouth. The schoolroom was filled with miners belonging to the village, who evidently took a close interest in the proceedings.

The Coroner, in addressing the jury, said they were called together to inquire into a matter of extreme gravity and it was very desirable, in the interests of everyone concerned, that as much time as possible should be devoted to investigating the causes of the explosion. That really would be the important point with which they would have to deal; and as there might be some dispute – he was not aware whether there was one – on the part of the gentlemen who represented the miners and the relatives of the deceased, it would be desirable that every opportunity should be afforded for the fullest investigation of the circumstances bearing upon it. They would begin by taking evidence as to facts – those undisputed first, and then as to theories. The owners of the colliery would be called upon to describe the state of the mine before and after the explosion, and to account, if they could, for the occurrence.

Mr Charles Lindsay, assistant manager of the colliery, produced plans showing the workings in which the explosion took place and gave evidence descriptive of the West Pit, and also as to the method of working the pit. When, he said, the explosion took place, the windows of his house shook. He narrated the course of events from the time of the explosion to the recovery of the bodies and described the state of the pit after the explosion. By Mr Jones: They were not much troubled by gas in the pit. Occasionally the presence of gas in the narrow head had been reported but he did not remember any ‘blowers of gas’ coming from the roof. A week or nine days before the accident gas was seen on the lamps. There were no parts of the mine that were not ventilated.

Several witnesses were next called to speak to the finding of the bodies. It was stated that some of the killed were found at a distance of twenty or thirty yards from the place at which they had been working and several of them had not their lamps beside them.

Dr Wilson, Birtley, gave evidence as to the condition of the bodies when examined at the surface. He said that the bodies found at the middle north landing showed no signs of burning; those found between the middle north and low north landings were not burnt, although the hair in some cases had an appearance of being singed. This, he said, might have been caused by the high state of the temperature after the explosion. One of the bodies found in the low north landing showed decided signs of burning. Several of the men had died from the effects of after-damp.

Matthew Hull, master wasteman, examined by Mr Edge, said that on March 2nd, the day on which the explosion took place, he was in the West Pit from 4am until 11am, and traversed a large part of the workings, going as far in-bye as the narrow bord. The air in the district he travelled was very good. It was very pleasant, and he heard no complaints from any of the men. There were no signs of ‘fouling’. After the explosion he travelled into the Barmston way and found that the doors were blown in the in-bye direction.

By Mr Atherley Jones: It was his duty to report any case of a lamp being extinguished by gas and also the presence of gas in any quantity. When, however, the gas was present in only very small quantity, he would make no report on the subject. No stone work was being done in West Pit on 2nd March. He knew of no places in the pit in which there was any ‘hanging’ or ‘choking’ of the air. He knew of no unventilated parts of the workings. The furthest in-bye caution board with regard to lamps was at the hitch north end. He had never seen any naked lights used in the pit. The lamp used by the men was the ‘Geordie’. There was nothing unusual in the state of the barometer on that day.

Cross examined by the Hon Mr Lyttleton: The weather was fine on the day of the explosion. The men’s (sic) inspectors sometimes inspected the mines.

Mr Edge said that a book showed that prior to the explosion the pit was last inspected by the men’s representatives on July 11 1884.

By Mr Lyttleton: he, as master wasteman, was responsible for the ventilation of the pit. He was not able to examine the ventilation of the pit every day, as it was too big a district for him to travel over. The deputies, overmen and others would inspect the various parts in which they were employed and report to him should they find any deficiency of air. They had never made such reports to him. He did not examine Lawson’s way from Feb 22nd to March 2nd. A cross-cut drift had been driven in for about three yards. There was no bratticing in the cross-cut and he did not think it was his duty to examine it. He did not know whose duty it was to examine it.

By Mr Edge: He did not think that any gas could gather in that cross-cut. It was not his duty to examine the working place.

William Blenkiron, examined by Mr Edge, said on March 2nd last he was a deputy in Lawson’s district of the West Pit. On 2nd March he was in Lawson district from ten in the morning until half past five in the afternoon. He examined the working places for the ventilation and found nothing wrong. He had never received complaints as to the ventilation.

By Mr Jones: He had never seen gas in the low north. He had seen stythe (sic) in the middle north, but no gas. He had entered in his report book that gas was present in the pit near the middle north.

By Mr Jones: You always report the presence of gas? Witness: We generally set it down that way (laughter). By means of the Davy lamp he had observed gas in the middle north; but it was only in small quantity. He had never seen any shots fired in the returns.

Henry Morland examined by Mr Edge, said he, as deputy overman in the middle north, low north and Lawson’s way, on March 2nd was in the pit from 2am to 11am and travelled his district to examine the ventilation. He found it very good. His report for March 2nd was made up before the explosion. In his examination he went into all the working places in his district, if possible, twice a shift.

By Mr Jones: He found gas in the middle north on January 28th and hung a canvas door across the place to remove it. He had never found gas in the low north. The gas he found in the middle north came off the goaf (sic); it was not a blower of gas, simply standing gas.

George Ross, examined by Mr Edge said he was a deputy overman. On March 2nd he was in charge of the cross-cut, hitch north and the right hand flat. He travelled all the ways in his district on March 2nd and found the ventilation good.

By Mr Jones: he had never found gas in the main intake during the nine months he had been deputy at Usworth. He had never found gas in the hitch north or the right hand flat but he had seen it in the cross-cut, where it accumulated through a fall of stone breaking down some bratticing.

The inquest was then adjourned until the following morning.

Day 1

[ Transcript prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]

Pit Terms
The Waste (aka The Goaf) - the (very dangerous) area behind the coal face where coal has been removed.
Wasteman - a miner employed to build roof supports in parts the waste and also to keep the airways open and in good order.
Master Wasteman - The man in charge of The Waste and the Pit's ventilation system.
Inbye - towards the coal face.
The Geordie - Miner's Flame Safety Lamp invented by George Stephenson.  (Independently of Sir Humphry Davy and his Safety Lamp.)
Stythe - foul air, containing (weak) Carbonic Acid - often found in old, poorly ventilated, workings.

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

Articles from The Durham Chronicle



George Ross, deputy overman, questioned by Mr Jones said that the bratticing which was broken down by the fall of stone was in the ‘face’ at a distance of about twenty yards from the intake.

By the Hon A Lyttleton: he saw on March 2nd two empty tubs near where the Browns, father and son, were working in the cross-cut north hitch. He saw them untressling, preparatory to beginning their work. What they were engaged upon was the removal of stone in the cross-cut.

Mr Lyttleton: Were they authorised to fire shots? – I do not know.

Mr Lyttleton: You do not fire shots yourself, do you? – No.

Mr Lyttleton: Did you know that they were going to fire the shot? – I cannot say that I did.

Mr Lyttleton: Do you think that they might be going to do that? – I do not know.

Mr Lyttleton: Would you be surprised at them firing a shot there? – No, not in the least.

Mr Willis: Did you find drops of water coming out of the face of the workings at any time? – Yes.

Mr Willis: Did you ever hear the gas singing out? – Yes.

Mr Willis: Would you call the whole of the workings in the cross-cut district very ‘fiery’? – Nothing extra.

Mr Edge: In his report book were two entries of the finding of gas in the cross-cut, the dates being December 11th and January 15th. In both cases the gas escaped through the breaking down of bratticing by stone falls. On March 2nd he did not observe the presence of gas in any part of the workings.

John Dyne, foreshift deputy, said that on March 2nd he was on duty in the cross-cut, hitch end and hitch north districts. He went through the workings at 2am and examined them for the presence of gas. He found the ventilation good.

By Mr Jones: He had found gas in the cross-cut twice or thrice in the ten months that he had been at the colliery. It escaped in each case by the bratticing being broken by falls of stone. He had no idea as to when the brattice was broken. He had never heard of complaints as to gas getting into the intake. He had heard of the cross-cut workings being watered. There was a great deal of coal dust there and he had known of it being swept up and sent to bank. When the tubs came along that way the dust would fly about a good deal. He had never seen any shots fired in the main intake.

By Mr Lyttleton: he had heard gas ‘singing’ off the face at other times than when the brattice was down. He did not report that because gas was ‘not found’ until it showed on the lamps.

By Mr Edge: A very little quantity of gas would ‘sing’. He knew of no necessity for the Browns to fire a shot.

By the Foreman of the Jury: He did not know what the Browns were doing at the cross-cut, for they were not under his charge.

By the Coroner: The places at which gas was found on December 11 and January 15 were nearly a mile from the point at which the Browns were working on March 2nd.

Heath Dobson, deputy, examined by Mr Edge said that he went into the pit on the morning of March 2nd at 2 am. The ventilation was as good as ever on that morning.

Mr Jones: Did you know where Brown’s shot was fired? – I have passed the place.

By Mr Jones: He had never seen dust flying in the main way when the tubs were passing. He had never known the ways watered on account of the dust. A week or two before 2nd March it was watered between the Hylton way ends and the high landing. He did not know that the Browns were going to fire a shot on March 2nd but he had heard, since the explosion, that they had done so. He had found gas in the pit but did not observe any on March 2nd. On February 24th a fall of stone on the brattice in the narrow bord caused an escape of gas.

By Mr Lyttleton: He admitted that he had not gone round the boundaries once each quarter as required by the general rules.

By Mr Edge: At different times he had found gas in three parts of the workings in the narrow bord, which was about 500 yards from where the Browns were working on March 2nd.

Thomas Baird, back shift deputy in the narrow bord, in reply to Mr Jones, said that the gas which was found on December 11th was not cleared away until the 19th. If an extra effort had been made it could have been cleared away in three days. It was not dangerous and was removed by ‘holing’. The delay arose from the pit being idle part of the time.

Thomas Prest, shifter, said he was in the Hutton Seam of the east Pit on the night of March 2nd. He heard a report and was blown down. When getting up again he heard another report and was blown down again. He was knocked backwards.

James Quin, Stoneman, said that when the explosion occurred he was working at the back shaft. He noticed nothing until he was thrown up the back shaft. He did not hear any report. He had noticed nothing unusual prior to being thrown up the back shaft.

Robert Harrison, bankhead lad, said he came out of the pit from the middle north landing about 8.30pm on March 2nd. He left the pit because he did not feel well. When leaving he did not notice the presence of gas in the main way or the shaft. No one mentioned to him that a shot was going to be fired.

Robert Marshall, back overman of the West Pit, said he was in the West Pit on March 2nd. He went down at 6am and returned to bank at about 5.30pm. The pit was in good condition as far as he went, with the exception that there was a small unimportant fall in the middle north landing. During the day he went round Lawson’s district and the middle north. He saw nothing wrong with the ventilation.

By Mr James: The two tubs laden with stone, found near the low north, appeared to have been blown in the out-bye direction from the main intake. He did not know that a shot was to be fired by the Browns. He had simply heard since that the two Browns were to have fired a shot that night. He did not know who gave authority for the shot to be fired. The master shifter was in charge of the mine when the explosion occurred. There was no barometer in the pit, nor at bank.

Mr Jones: Since you have been in the mine, has there ever been a barometer in it? – No.

Mr Jones: Have you drawn the attention of any of the officials of the colliery to No 26 of the general rules, which say that a barometer must be provided at all mines in which a dangerous gas has been found? – No.

Mr Jones: Has anybody else done it? – Not to my knowledge.

Mr Jones: have you had any thermometer in the mine? – No.

Mr Jones: Nor at bank? - No, not for our use. There was a great difference between the temperatures of different parts of the mine. Some places were warmer than others. He had not worked in a hotter mine than Usworth.

Mr Jones: Has nobody drawn the attention of the Company to the violation of the rule 26 of the general rules? – Not to my knowledge.

By Mr Lyttleton: He had heard that there was a barometer in the East Pit. There was no barometer which he had access to and which he could adjust.

Mr Lyttleton: Are there not certain operations which you would perform safely when the barometer is high, and which you would not perform when the barometer is low? – I think when we examine the place we know whether it is right or not. The atmosphere might change in a mine before the movement was apparent in a barometer.

Coroner: That is a very proper explanation to make.

Mr Jones said he had simply examined the witness as to the rule which said that it was his duty to adjust a barometer at certain points.

By Mr Edge: He was in a mine every day and examined into the state of the ventilation.

Mr Lindsay, assistant viewer, produced a record of the state of the barometer, the thermometer, the water gauge and the revolutions of the fan. The temperature was registered at intervals of four hours. There were, he said, seven barometers about the colliery, one underground in the east Pit and six at bank within a radius of one hundred yards. The fan-blast engineman recorded the state of the barometer every four hours. The record showed that the indications of the barometer in the fan-house on March 1 at 12pm was 30.09; March 2, 4am, 30.09; 8am, 30.07; 12am, 30.02; 4pm, 29.96; 8pm, 29.89.

Mr Jones: Where do you say there was a barometer placed in ‘conspicuous position near to the entrance of the mine,’ according to the terms of the rule? - There was one in the fan house.

Mr Jones: Do you mean to say that that is in conformity with the 26th general rule? - I don’t know.

Mr Jones: Are you aware that the overman did not, according to the general rules, register the indications of the barometer? – The indications of the barometer were registered by the East Pit overman.

Mr Jones: I am not speaking about the East Pit. – Witness: He did not register them, because the barometer was in the other pit.

Mr Jones: Then these overmen committed a breach of the rule? - Yes.

The Coroner said that questions of an incriminating character should not be put. The inquiry was simply for the ascertaining of the facts, and Mr Jones had obtained them in regard to the supply of barometers at the place.

Mr Jones said that for the purposes of the inquiry he was only asking whether the back overman had an opportunity of seeing the barometer.

The Coroner: He has given us his evidence on that point.

The witness, in reply to Mr Jones said that, in going to the pit, the overman had not to go into the fan engine-house. If they wished to see the barometer they would have to go specially to the fan engine-house. They would not be prevented from going there. He did not remember any case of an overman going to the fan engine-house to see the barometer. There was a thermometer in the fan engine-house and a record of its indications was kept by the engineman. If he wished to do so the engineman could caution the deputies with regard to the barometer by going to the shaft head but he was under no instructions to do so. It would not be a breach of duty on his part if he left the engine, leaving no one in charge of it. It had been a practice for a long time for the fan engineman to leave the engine when he chose to do so. There was a barometer at the bottom of the West Maudlin shaft, so that an overman could not, he admitted, according to the rule, adjust a barometer at bank and again immediately on descending.

Mr Jones: Who is responsible for seeing that the barometer is in the place required by the statute? – The certificated manager.

Mr Jones: Were you aware of the non-existence of these barometers? – The question is one for the certificated manager.

The Coroner objected to the line of examination as it seemed to imply a charge, which could not be considered at that inquiry.

Mr Jones said that the witness was put forward to produce and give evidence with regard to the books recording the atmospheric pressure and he must assume him to be the proper person to question on the subject. The certificated manager should have been examined on the matter. His questions had a bearing on the management of the pit, which was one of the matters under consideration.

Mr Edge: If Mr Jones wishes to quarrel with the management of this mine, we are ready to meet him in the proper tribunal.

Mr Lyttleton: My instructions from the Home Secretary are, if possible, to ascertain if there has been any violation of the rules, such, in my opinion, as to justify a prosecution; and when a rule appears to have been broken, as in this case, as regards the back-overman, I should like, for my own knowledge, to have an explanation of it.

Witness, in reply to Mr Jones, said that he did not know that the rule stated, strictly, that a barometer had to be placed in a conspicuous position where it might be seen by all concerned. None of the workmen had ever desired to see a barometer.

The Foreman of the Jury: Would you not have been surprised if any of the men had gone to the fan-house or the office to look at the barometer? – I should have been surprised.

The inquest was afterwards adjourned until Thursday morning at ten o’clock.

Day 2

[ Transcript prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]

Pit Terms
Bord - usually, a short Tunnel.
Shifter - a Miner paid by the day for doing shiftwork.
Outbye - towards the shaft (opposite to inbye - towards the face / workings).

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

Articles from The Durham Chronicle



The inquiry into the origin of the explosion at Usworth Colliery was resumed on Thursday 23rd inst., in the Infant School at Usworth, before Mr Coroner Graham. The Home Office was again represented by the Hon Alfred Lyttleton; the owners by Mr John Edge; the National Miners’ Union and the Durham Miners’ Association by Mr Atherley Jones.

The examination of John Robinson, head overman, was resumed. In reply to Mr Lyttleton, he said if there was any gas in what was known as ‘Brown’s Cross-cut’ it would rise to the level of the main intake.

Henry Robinson, fore-overman, said that at 4am on March 2nd he went into the West Pit and travelled in a large part of the mine. The ventilation was good. Since the explosion he had been through the workings with exploring parties and had noticed from the way in which the tubs had been struck, and also by other indications, that from near the middle north landing, where the stopping was put in, the blast had travelled in an out-bye direction, and that on the inner side of the place stopped off, it had moved in the in-bye direction.

Mr Edge: We know that the Browns fired a shot near the cross-cut at the hitch north. What was that for? Was it to take off the angle in the way near the cross-cut? – It was to get a good road through.

Mr Edge: Did you find the upper part of the hole which had been made by the Browns for the shot? - Yes, I have seen that.

By Mr Jones: The stone brought down by the shot was about three feet long and fourteen inches broad, and it was lying in the middle of the waggonway. It came from the roof and lay about four feet from the place it had occupied. He did not think it was likely that the shot could have projected the stone to where it was lying. If the cross-cut made gas it would rise to the level of the main intake.

Mr Jones: I suppose, then, that it is common ground with us that to the west of the middle north landing all the indications of the blast go northward or out-bye, and when you go east, where Brown’s body was found, all the indications go in the in-bye direction? – Yes.

By Mr Jones: He found signs of charring on the in-bye side of where Brown’s body was found. On the out-bye side of the stopping at the middle north he had seen no signs of burning.

Mr Jones: During the past two years how many times have you had shot-firing in the mine? - There was shot-firing about a couple of weeks before the explosion. We have had shot-firing about three times during the past two years.

Mr Jones: How long is it since the first of these shots were fired? - About twelve months ago. It was fired in the narrow bord. The second was fired about three months ago.

Mr Jones: On either of these occasions had you the superintendence of the shot-firing? – No.

Who gave the directions with regard to the shot-firing? – The manager

Who was the manager when the first shot was fired? – I cannot tell.

The Coroner: is it pertinent to this inquiry to ask these questions?

Mr Jones said he was anxious to get all the information he could on the subject.

Mr Edge said that he would call two or three other witnesses who could speak to that matter.

The witness, in reply to Mr Jones, said he had not considered it unsafe to fire shots in the mine. He had not discountenanced shot-firing in the mine; in fact he had never had anything to do with it. He did not consider the mine a very hot one. It was a dry, and in parts dusty, mine. Hitches were generally troublesome with regard to gas and the hitch near Brown’s Cross-cut was no exception to the rule.

Mr Jones: I put it to you, on your responsibility, and being myself quite aware of the gravity of the question I am asking you – did you not think it was a dangerous thing to fire a shot in immediate contiguity to a hitch? – I would rather not answer that question.

By Mr Jones: A week before the explosion the dust in the main intake had been shovelled up and the dust between the hitch north and the shaft had been watered. There was no thermometer at the bottom of the West Pit. The finding of gas on the lamps was always reported in writing. There was no part of the pit where the ventilation was normally difficult.

By Mr Lyttleton: he had seen a blower of gas in the pit but not within the last three years. Eight or ten years ago he saw an outburst of gas there but never a blower. Mr Morland had been certificated manager of the colliery only for the last five months; Mr Lindsay was the manager for about eighteen months prior to the engagement of Mr Morland. He (witness) had been overman of the colliery for about twenty years and knew every inch of it and also what were the safe and the dangerous parts, as regards gas. On the morning of 2nd March Mr Morland consulted with him as to whether the angle near the new cross-cut was a safe place to fire a shot and he told Mr Morland that he thought it was. The air travelled past Brown’s cross-cut around the face of the coal.

By Mr Willis: His consultation with Mr Morland had reference chiefly to the arrangement of the work. They did not consider the firing of a shot where the Browns were working a question of danger at all. Generally speaking, they had no difficulties with regard to ventilation in the West Pit. He had never thought or said the ventilation was feeble. It was not a common occurrence for places in the workings to be foul. Fouling generally arose from a bratticing falling or a door becoming closed. He had come to no conclusion as to the cause of the explosion and could scarcely venture to give an opinion on the subject. He did not think that the explosion could have been caused by the firing of the shot. He thought it must have taken place in the low north.

Mr Willis: How do you arrive at the conclusion that it occurred in the low north? – I think it has come into the low north and gone up over and down over. It is just a matter of opinion.

Mr Willis: Was the low north more particularly liable to the presence of gas than any other part of the pit? – I have not seen gas in the low north in the past two years.

Mr Willis: Would that not have been a good reason for its not occurring there? – No; but he had seen evidence of burning and singeing there. He also came to that conclusion after having traced the course taken by the blast.

By Mr Edge: He believed that the big stone found between the rails where the shot was fired was placed there by the two Browns after removing it by means of the gunpowder. It was ten years since had had known gas to come off the goaf (sic).

By the Coroner: he thought that the Browns would fire the shot about 7pm, or two hours before the explosion and that they were occupied during the remainder of the time in filling the tubs with stone, as two of them were full and the third appeared to have been standing nearby.

By Mr Jones: He supposed that it would take the Browns an hour to fill the two tubs. The big stone was between the rails, as if put there to more easily be placed in a tub by means of tilting it. The bodies of the Browns were found near the shot-hole, while if they had been firing a shot they would have gone thirty or forty yards away, one on the in-bye and the other on the out-bye side.

By Mr Bell: There might be some rough stones to remove before the drill was used. It was a practice among the miners to retreat to a distance of thirty or forty yards in order to be out of danger from the shot and also to warn other men from going near the shot-hole.

Joseph Robson fore-overman of the East Pit, examined by Mr Ridge, said he was one of the explorers and was one of the first men who found the Browns lying dead. The tub that was ready for filling was standing opposite the shot hole. One of the Browns was lying under the shot-hole. One big stone was lying between the two rails in the way. He was of the opinion that after the shot was fired the two Browns lifted this big stone into the waggonway.

By Mr Jones: The two waggonway men were found in a stenton, about fourteen yards from the shot-hole. There had been a rule for many years that two men who were firing a shot should retreat to a distance of thirty or forty yards, one on the in-bye and one on the out-bye sides. This the Browns had not done. He supposed that when the explosion occurred the Browns were employed filling tubs with stone. He found the only shovel that would be used by them in the cross-cut a few yards away. It must have been blown there by the force of the explosion and from the hands of one of the Browns. The drill and beater were found side by side lying in the cross-cut, evidently having been placed there by one of the men. The shovel was a few feet away. He would not say whether a pitman would be likely to ‘chuck’ his shovel into the cross-cut instead of quietly laying it down. From the position of the Browns and the stone, he would not think that the explosion had been caused by the shot. He had been employed at Usworth Colliery only since the explosion

The inquiry was then adjourned until next morning.

Day 3

[ Transcript prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]

Pit Terms
Hitch - a geological fault: a place where the strata has moved a short distance, up or down.
Blower - a substantial escape of gas from the roof, floor or coal seam. ( Could be due to a lowering of Atmospheric Pressure! )

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

Articles from The Durham Chronicle



Joseph Robson, resuming his evidence, said, in reply to Mr Lyttleton, that his examination of the mine was made on March 27th. That was the day on which he found the tools of the Browns. He never mentioned to the officials of the colliery or to the Government Inspectors who examined the mine that he had found the wedge and mallet used by the Browns. He had never been asked by the officials of the colliery what he had found.

William Greenwell, master wasteman at Wardley Colliery, examined by Mr Edge, said he was with the party of explorers who found the bodies of the Browns. He corroborated the evidence given by the previous witness.

By Mr Jones: In his opinion the position in which some of the tools of the Browns were found showed that the explosion had not been caused by the firing of the shot. The shovel and other tools were in the stenton, not in the cross-cut.

By Mr Lyttleton: He could not find indications of a second shot having been fired by the two Browns.

Matthew Short, master shifter at Wardley Colliery, said he was one of the explorers and was among the men who found the bodies of the Browns. His evidence was corroborative of Joseph Robson and William Greenwell.

By Mr Jones: He had known two shots fired in one ranch in order to bring down stone. He did not think it possible for the second shot to destroy the indications of the first (laughter).

Thomas Smith, master shifter of the Usworth East Pit also gave corroborative evidence as to the position of the Browns and their tools when found by the explorers.

James Morland, certified manager, said that he had been engaged in the mining industry for thirty five years but he had been at Usworth Colliery for only five months. He knew the place where the Browns fired the shot. There was no danger in firing the shot from gas at the hitch, which was about 70 yards away. There was part of the mainway, between the the middle north landing and the low north landing stopped off, on account of the heated state of the air there.. The men Quinn and Harlow were stonemen and would, at the time of the explosion be working somewhere about the low north on the main waggonway. They would be on the out-bye side of the low north. He could not state the precise place but it would be near where the mainway was stopped off. The lamp of only one of these men had been found. He had travelled between the middle north and the low north looking for indications likely to lead to a conclusion as to the source of the explosion. In the travelling way, between the middle north and the low north, he had noticed that the coal in the face was charred. Between the low north and this place where the Browns were working there were indications of the blast having come from the former district. He noticed there a 9ft balk, which appeared to have been blown from the out-bye side of the way.

By Mr Jones: He had had previous experience in exploring an exploded mine and he knew there was nothing more difficult than to ascertain the source of the blast from the indications of force. It was nearly impossible to come to any judgement on such a matter from these indications. He could not say whether any of the indications were caused by the blast or by the rebound. The mainway between the low north and the middle north was a very dusty part of the pit. He would expect to see decided signs of fire in a dusty part of a mine and he was not surprised to see the signs of fire between the middle north and the low north. The great majority of the stoppings in the main intake were blown out. He thought there was no danger in firing the shot near the hitch. It was not a general rule with mining engineers that it was dangerous to fire a shot near a hitch. He gave direction for the shot to be fired and gave the licence to William Brown. The master-shifter, Craik, who was now dead, would give the directions as to the firing of the shot and had the whole responsibility of the operation. John Robinson, the overman, and he, had no conversation as to the safety of the place at which the shot was to be fired. He would consider it dangerous to fire shots in contiguity to places where there were large quantities of dust. There were no balks within forty yards of the cross-cut. As it was a dusty mine there would be dust on the balks. He thought the plan on which the pit was laid out with regard to ventilation was adequate to the safety of the mine. So far as safety was concerned it would not be an improvement to have ‘splits’ on the main intake. Too many ‘splits’ in an intake were not good. It might, under some circumstances, be an improvement to have a ‘split’ nearer the shaft; but he did not think one was required, as the mine worked well enough without one. As a general rule, he admitted, it was an advantage that there should not be such a number of air-courses worked from one main intake. When they got to such a distance that they could not ventilate, they should make a ‘split’; it all depended upon the generation of gas. The main intake was a very long one and he did not know of any longer one in the county of Durham. He thought it extended to a distance of 1,000 yards from the shaft but he would not be surprised to learn that it was 2,000 yards long. He did not know of any intake in the county of Durham which was 2,000 yards long. He did not think that the mine generated gas very freely. He did not think it was a particularly ‘gassy’ mine.

Mr JB Atkinson: Can you tell me how the stonemen fired the shot? – They lit the touch at the lamp and put the touch under the straw. They unscrewed the bottom off the lamp to light the shot. They did not use wire. They could not use a wire with the Clanny lamp.

Alexander Boy, a deputy overman said he helped to bring out the bodies of the Browns on March 28th and, when lifting one of them, he saw at the feet a broken lamp. [The lamp was here produced and examined.]

Mr Jones: It is the rule for a man to lock his lamp immediately after firing a shot? – Yes.

John Robinson, recalled, said that the lamp produced was brought out of the mine by him. It was unlocked when he brought it away.

Henry Morland, deputy, recalled, produced a portion of a lamp supposed to have been used by Samuel Brown. He found it, he said, on the in-bye side of the stenton.

This concluded Mr Edge’s case as regarded the facts.

John Curry, coal hewer, examined by Mr Jones, said that on March 31st he went into the main intake as far as the place where Brown fired the shot. He found the lamp produced. It was unlocked when found. He screwed the bottom off in the pit and re-screwed it. It was two yards out-bye from the stenton and on the north side of the way, standing against the wall.

It was arranged that Mr Jones should next call his witnesses as to facts and that the scientific witnesses on both sides should then be called.

The inquiry was adjourned until Friday 1st May.

Day 4

[ Transcript prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]

Pit Terms
Stoneman - a Miner who mined rock (rather than coal) to form main roadways.
Balk (baulk) - a large piece of timber, especially a squared-off timber beam.
Split - a place where fresh air is 'split' from an Intake roadway to go in a second direction.

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

Articles from The Durham Chronicle



This inquiry into the Usworth Colliery explosion was resumed on Friday last, at the school-house, Usworth, before Mr Coroner Graham. Mr Edge represented the owners of the pit and Mr Atherley Jones the National Miners’ Union and the Durham Miners’ Association. Mr Lyttleton of the Home Office and the Government Inspectors, Messrs Willis, Bell and Atkinson were also present – George Wilson, assistant wasteman, and Matthew Hill, master wasteman, were called on behalf of the owners and gave evidence to the effect that the returns were in good condition a short time previous to the explosion. The latter, in reply to Mr Jones, said the narrowest air-way, either in the intake or in the returns, was about five feet broad and four or five feet high. He never suggested to the management that any improvement could be made in the ventilation. – The Coroner: Can you suggest any improvement now? Don’t be afraid to speak out. – Witness: I cannot say that that I can see there can be any improvement in the ventilation; it was always considered to be very good.

Matthew Turner, hewer, identified the charred pick-shaft produced as the one he had left at the cross-cut prior to the explosion. It was not burnt when he left it. Robert Marshall produced a charred chaulk, which he had found between the middle north and the low north. John Robinson said he found the burnt prop produced in the low north, in the workings. He had brought it up that morning at the request of the Coroner. Henry Robinson proved finding the bottom part of a lamp in the place where the Browns were working. Mr A Palmer, in reply to a remark by the Coroner, said none of the other lamps were blown to pieces. The injuries to the others which had been found were comparatively slight. At the request of the jury it was arranged that several of the lamps should be cleaned, with the view of further evidence being given respecting their discovery. Mr Jones then proceeded to call evidence.

Mr WH Patterson, agent of the Durham Miners’ Association, stated that he first descended the mine seven hours after the explosion. About the 1st of April he got to the low north, accompanied by Mr Palmer, Mr Morland, and, he believed, by Mr Dyne. They could not get very far in on account of the fall. He saw some tubs at the low north. The tubs could not have been in the position they were if the blast had come out of the low north. Between the hitch north and the low north the indications were very slight. Witness was examined at length as to the indications at Brown’s stenton and said he did not think any stone was moved after the shot was fired.

Mr Jones: From the shaft so far as Brown’s shot, in your opinion, which way were the indications going, along the main intake? They were out-bye.

Mr Jones: And from Brown’s shot going to the face in-bye, which way were the indications going? - They were in-bye. In reference to the supposition that the tubs had been partly filled with stone subsequent to the firing of the shot, witness suggested that previous to the firing of the shot some stone had been loosened by means of hacking and that it was this stone which had been found in the tubs. It would take a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, to fill a tub but it depended on the condition of the stone in the first instance. His opinion was that the Browns never got away from the shot – that it went off before they expected it would do so.

In cross examination by Mr Edge, witness was questioned as to a wedge and mallet which it was stated had been found near the bodies of the Browns. It would have been reasonable to expect them to remove these things before firing the shot. As a matter of fact, he did not think the mallet and wedge were found in the position which had been described. – Mr Edge: Do you mean to say the explorers have perjured themselves? – Witness said he didn’t wish to make a charge against anyone but in the work of exploration things were often shifted about. – Mr Edge asked how the witness explained the fact that the body of one of the Browns was found in a cavity under the under the spot where the shot had been fired, if that shot caused the explosion? – Witness said that in his opinion the shot went off unexpectedly, before the Browns had time to get out of the way. – Mr Edge: What is your theory as to the cause of the explosion? – Witness said he had some practical idea but he would not pretend to speak scientifically. His idea was that it occurred through the firing of the shot close to the return doors and the cross-cut. With reference to the firing of the shot close to the return doors, he believed that return was heavily charged with gas, though he did not say it was visible on the lamp. There was a machine which could be obtained for testing the presence of 2½ per cent of gas. (Witness alluded at length to experiments which had been made by Professor Abel.) Part of this gas escaped through the stoppings (canvas stoppings were not air-tight) and mixed with the dusty air, and the two combined, on the firing of the shot, caused the explosion. – Mr Edge: Where did the dust come from? - - It would be lodged on the walls round where Brown’s shot was fired. – Mr Edge: Do you admit that, unless you can show there was gas coming through the stenton doors, you cannot say how the explosion occurred? – Witness: If you can get 2½ per cent of gas you can get an explosion. Mr Edge: Very well.

Mr John Wilson, Treasurer of the Durham Miners’ Association, was the next witness. He said he had heard Mr Patterson’s evidence. There was nothing in it from which he differed. Peter Docherty, miner, was the next witness. In cross-examination he said he said he did not remember telling Greenwell that if the Browns had fired the shot they would find the bodies in two opposite directions. – John Robinson having given evidence, the inquiry was adjourned.

Day 5

[ Transcript prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]

Pit Terms
Hack - a large pick-like hammer that could be used to prise loose rocks from the roof (hacking).

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

Articles from The Durham Chronicle



Robert Bolam, miner, Waterloo, stated that on the previous night he attended the cleaning of the lamps which had been found in the pit on behalf of the men. He subsequently compared the numbers with the lamp book. All the lamps were locked except the one found at the Browns’ place. One lamp was broken but still locked. The lamp that was found unlocked belonged to the younger Brown. Witness first descended the pit after the explosion on 3rd March, along with Mr Patterson, and, he believed, Mr Swallow and assisted afterwards to move the bodies of the Browns. He was the fourth to arrive at that spot. He did not see a pricker or a hack lying about. He saw the two drills and the beater lying inside the cross-cut; the shovel was more to the face. Did not see a mallet or a wedge lying about. If the mallet had been there they must have seen it. Did not see Brown’s lamp until they had lifted both the bodies. He first saw the lamp in the hands of Mr H Morland. Near the bodies of the Browns there was some stone that would probably have been brought down by the shot. Referring to the stone contained in some tubs, witness thought it was the result of hacking. – Cross-examined by Mr Edge: Did not see the waggons emptied; he only saw the top part. There were about eight men in the shift referred to; their principal object would be to get the bodies out as soon as possible. –

By Mr Atkinson, jun, (Assistant Government Inspector): William Brown was lying under a tub. His head was lying to the south and his feet were inclined to the north. There was one wheel over the top of his shoulders. His head was lying between the wheels. Witness lifted the body but did not notice that the legs were broken. The other Brown was lying by the side of the tub, against the wall, having his face to the wall. Witness lifted the body and noticed that one of the legs was broken. – Mr Jones intimated that this concluded the list of his witnesses.

Mr T Robson, Lumley Thicks, mining engineer, examined by Mr Edge, stated that he had been in all the parts of the pit that were open except the returns. He first descended the mine on the morning after the explosion and had been down many times since. The indications west and north were consistent with the explosion having occurred at the place where the bodies of Quinn and Harlow were found. All the indications in this district might have been produced by the gas being fired at Quinn and Harlow’s place, at the end of the low north. The explosion must have gone in the direction of the cross-cut and narrow bord. He had seen certain tubs in a position in which he would have expected to find them if the gas was fired at Quinn and Harlow’s place. No doubt the blast had passed from south to north down the low north. Witness described various indications and said he differed from Mr Patterson in some of his conclusions. In one district the explosion had not been felt with so much force because of the dampness of the district but when it came into contact with the dust at the cross-cut the force was greater. It was no doubt a fact that dust increased the force of an explosion. On 1st April he got to the place where the Browns were found.

Mr Edge: In your judgement, could that big stone which it has been suggested had been above the shot, have fallen and then rolled from the side into the middle of the waggonway? I think it is almost impossible. – Would you expect that stone to remain where it fell? – My opinion is that it had been rolled away with the intention of being placed in a tub. – Did you see any stone lying under where the shot had been fired? – I did. Did you come to any conclusion as to whether any stone brought down by the shot had been removed? – I came to the conclusion that some of it had been removed.

Mr Jones said Mr Edge was putting leading questions. Mr Edge denied that he was doing so. Mr Jones: Then I don’t know what leading questions are. Mr Edge: I don’t think you do. The Coroner suggested the point might be settled elsewhere. Witness, in reply to further questions, said he had great experience and, in his opinion, if the Browns had been firing a shot their bodies would not have been found in the described positions. He had known shots explode accidentally but in such cases the men had been mangled about the head and shoulders. If one man fired a shot he would not expect the other to be close to him. It was a very unusual thing for two men to remain close to each other under such circumstances. He had had considerable experience in mine ventilation. - Mr Edge: It has been suggested that gas found its way through the door into the stenton. - Witness: I say it is impossible. - Is that the result of your experience? - It is. – Have you, in all your experience, found gas going through the stenton doors from the returns into the intake? – Not unless there has been an enormous fall of stone. – In the normal state of things, apart from the fall, you consider it impossible? – If a heavy fall did occur the gas might be forced through? It would be forced through mechanically. – It has been suggested by Mr Patterson that there might have been 2½ per cent of gas at the place where that shot was fired; do you think there could by any possibility have been 2½ per cent of gas in that intake? – I think there could not have been. – There was a pure air current of 28,000 feet per minute? – What would 2½ per cent of gas in that amount to? – Seven hundred feet per minute. – Is it possible that seven hundred feet of gas could have come through that stenton door, or come off the coal in the cross-cut? – It is not. – It has been suggested that 2½ per cent of gas would not show on the lamp. – I think it would. – Witness quoted Galloway’s experiments but said he was not sure if those had been made since those of Professor Abel. – It is also suggested that there was sufficient dust on the walls in this place to be stirred up by the shot to mix and become explosive. – I don’t think that is so. – Is your judgement if there had been any coal dust, as suggested by Mr Patterson, would the explosion along there have been more violent? – Undoubtedly. Witness said in his opinion the gas which caused the explosion emanated from a fall of stone at the goaf (sic) and was ignited by a lamp in the vicinity of the spot where the bodies of Quinn and Harlow were found. Messrs Baker Forster, Thos Daglish, Richard Forster and T Wood gave evidence in support of this theory and also in favour of the ventilation of the mine. – Mr Atkinson junior, assistant Government Inspector, read a report in which he expressed the opinion that the explosion was caused by the shot fired by the Browns but he would not have thought there would be danger in firing the shot. This concluded the evidence and the inquiry was again adjourned.

Day 6

[ Transcript prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]

Pit Terms
Picker - a copper rod used to place explosive in hole. (Later banned.)

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

Articles from The Durham Chronicle



On Monday the Coroner proceeded to sum up the main points of the present case, it was an extraordinary circumstance that shot firing had been coincident with the explosions which had caused that loss of life. The coroner’s remarks occupied two hours. The jury then retired to consider their verdict and after an absence of three hours’ duration they returned into court and announced that they had agreed to answer the questions put to them as follows:-

What were the respective causes of the deaths of Thomas Dobson and 39 other men who were employed at Usworth Colliery on 2nd March, 1885, and died then or subsequently, and of Richard Cardwell and Elijah Donnelly, who died on 3rd March within the ‘Returns’ at Usworth Colliery; and are all the deaths attributable, directly or indirectly, to the explosion which took place at the said colliery on 2nd March, 1885? – Answer: The cause of death, in each case was, as proved by Dr Wilson, resulting from an explosion of gas and coal dust.

Was the Maudlin Seam (West Pit), Usworth Colliery, in a safe and proper condition in every respect as far as could be known to the owners’ agents, and was the work to be done during the shift (when the explosion occurred) of the ordinary kind and under proper supervision, due regard being had to the safety of the men then being employed? – Answer: There has been no evidence to show that the pit was not in a safe state.

Where did the explosion take place? – Answer: The explosion took place in the place where Wm and Samuel Brown were working.

To what explosive admixture do you attribute the explosion? – Answer: From coal dust and a small percentage of gas.

Was the explosion the direct consequence of the shot being fired at Brown’s place? – Answer: Yes.

Did the firing of such shot dislodge or stir-up coal dust from the sides or elsewhere in the stone drift which, being mixed with and carried along by the air, might be fired elsewhere? – Answer: No.

Was the presence of gas or coal dust in sufficient quantity to cause an explosion known, prior to the explosion, to any of the agents of the owners of Usworth Colliery? – Answer: No.

Who (if any) is or are culpable? Answer: No one.

Was the explosion the result of pure accident? – Answer: Yes.

If the jury are unable to answer the questions and think it possible that further evidence may be obtained at a later period, when that part of the main intake which is at present sealed up shall be opened out and examined, and that they are consequently unable at present to return a conclusive verdict on the evidence now before them, do the jury think the inquest should be adjourned until such re-opening and examination can take place and additional evidence furnished? – Answer: It is not necessary to adjourn for further evidence.

In addition the jury said they would leave the question of shot-firing to be dealt with by the proper authorities.

The inquiry then terminated.

Day 7 - End of Inquiry

[ Transcript prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]

( Monday, 2nd March 1885 at 8.58 p.m. )

More Newspaper & Other Articles

THE TIMES, 26 March 1885
The Times had lengthy articles on the explosion – available on Durham Mining Museum website.

The night shift men proceeded down Usworth pit at midnight on Tuesday and managed to get as far as the stables, where they found the bodies of 47 horses in a fearful state of decomposition. At the far end of the stables the explorers came upon the body of a man who was so disfigured that it was impossible to recognize him. The explorers next proceeded further along the workings, but had not proceeded above six yards when they found the body of another man, whose body was also so much decomposed that he was unrecognizable. About 30 yards still further on the explorers discovered the bodies of six men, all lying together in the middle north landing. These bodies were also in such a state that they could not be recognized. After-damp had evidently been the cause of their death. One of them was lying on the ground with his face resting on his jacket, which was doubled up to serve as a pillow. From the position in which the men were found it is conjectured that they had met to partake of their "bait" when the explosion occurred. One or two of them had evidently been endeavouring to get out when the after-damp seized them. The morning shift, which went down at 7 o'clock yesterday morning, managed to bring the bodies found to bank, and thence removed them to the temporary mortuary, where they will remain for a short time awaiting identification. This will, however, be a difficult and painful task, as the features, as already stated, are unrecognizable, and the only means of identification will be by means of their clothing.

•   •   ◊   •   •

THE TIMES, 3rd April 1885

Nine more bodies were recovered yesterday morning at Usworth Colliery, but they were so decomposed that they have not been identified. All the bodies, with the exception of seven, have now been recovered.

•   •   ◊   •   •

SUNDERLAND DAILY ECHO, 10th June 1885 (Wednesday)

The Disaster At Usworth Colliery
Prosecution Of The Owners

A prosecution, it is stated, has been ordered by the Government against Messrs Palmer, the owners of Usworth Colliery, who are charged with having committed a breach of the Mines Regulation Act, anterior to the explosion in that colliery in March last, by allowing shot-firing within three months after gas had been seen in the mine.
The charge will be heard before the Gateshead County Justices on Friday next (19th June), when Mr. Wm. Brignal will prosecute on behalf of the Crown.

•   •   ◊   •   •

SUNDERLAND DAILY ECHO, 19 September 1885
The Usworth Colliery Explosion
Official Report

The Hon A Lyttleton, barrister-at-law, has made his report to the Home Secretary on the circumstances attending the explosion which occurred at Usworth Colliery, on 2nd March, 1885, and caused the deaths of 40 persons at the time in that pit. After reciting the evidence taken with respect to the explosion, and giving the reasons advanced in support of the theory that the shot was the primary cause of the explosion, and the evidence to the contrary, Mr Lyttleton concludes:- Whatever theory is considered, serious difficulties, which I have fully dwelt on, present themselves, but if it was necessary to decide between a theory which rejected, and a theory which accepted the shot as the cause of the explosion, I think that the decision would be in favour of the latter. For when an unusual event such as an explosion takes place, and when the firing of a shot (in that pit also very unusual) is admitted to have closely preceded it, men’s minds properly have a tendency, when other things are equal, to lean to that which is palpable and proximate in preference to that which is speculative and remote. Such a tendency doubtlessly influenced the jury, to whose verdict, regard being had to the practical experience of many of its members of coal mines, weight ought to be attached. A breach of the rules in respect to the daily adjustment and register of the indications of the barometer at bank was proved to have been committed, there being no barometer at bank in a conspicuous place, and no barometer or thermometer at all in the West Pit. But it was established that six of such instruments were kept in the immediate vicinity of that pit, and the breach does not appear to me to be more than a technical one.

The shot fired by the Browns and immediately authorised by the certificated manager was in a place the return air from which passed places in actual course of working, the men ordinarily employed in the mine then being present. In my opinion, to fire a shot at such a place was a breach of General Rule 8, sub-section 2, of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1872, and having regard to the extreme importance of a strict enforcement of this rule, I have no course but to submit for the consideration of the Secretary of State that proceedings be taken against Mr Palmer and Mr Morland for breach of that rule. By section 63 of the Coal Mines Regulation Act it is provided that any information or complaint in pursuance of the Act must be laid within three months from the time when the matter of such information or complaint respectively arose.

•   •   ◊   •   •

NORTHERN DAILY MAIL, 11th March 1886
The Explosion At Usworth Colliery
The Manager Fined.

The Gateshead county magistrates today fined Mr Morland, certificated manager £20 and costs for allowing firing in the Usworth Colliery while men were in the pit, the result being, as alleged, that 40 lives were lost. A case for appeal was granted and the case against Mr Palmer, owner, was suspended.

•   •   ◊   •   •

The Usworth Colliery Disaster
Prosecution Of The Manager
Major Palmer Fined

At Gateshead County Police Court yesterday, before Mr WW Pattinson, Mr JM Redmayne, and Ald Newall, Mr Brignall, who appeared on behalf of the Treasury, made an application to the Bench for an imposition of a penalty on Mr Alfred Septimus Palmer, agent of Usworth Colliery, for a breach of the Mines Regulation Act, by allowing shot-firing on March 2nd 1885. Mr Cooper appeared on behalf of the defendant. The information was originally laid against Mr A S Palmer and Mr James Leslie Morland, certificated manager of the colliery. When the matter came before the Court, it was stated that a similar case was pending in Wales, and this case subsequently ended in a penalty. The case against Mr Morland was proceeded with and a fine of £20 was imposed. It was then arranged that the case against Mr Palmer should abide the decision on an appeal in Mr Morland’s case. That appeal had been withdrawn and the Treasury now asked for a penalty in Mr Palmer’s case. After hearing evidence, a penalty of £20 was imposed.

[ Transcripts prepared and contributed by Peter Welsh, Coordinator of Wessington U3A War Memorials Group ]