THE first indication that something was wrong reached the shaft top at about 8 o’clock on the Wednesday night (May 11, 1910).

An exploration party was dispatched down the shaft and news quickly spread around the town. A large party of police was almost immediately on the spot but there was no issue of keeping order – the huge crowds, which soon grew to thousands, stood quietly on the clear, starlit night.

A terrible explosion involving a large loss of life was feared.

Underground, a loud noise had been heard at the head of the shaft and smoke began to emerge from the mouth of the pit. The alarm was immediately raised, and rescue parties were quickly on the way to where the 140 men in the mine were working. The main roads, however, were filled with dense smoke and fumes, and for a long time practically no progress could be made.

Near to midnight, two men, Joseph Walker and Stephen Gregory, were brought to the surface alive and well; while an hour later, two more, Joseph Kenmare and John Wear, were discovered, apparently little worse for wear.

These last two men had been working in a remote part of the pit along with 11 others, and the first intimation they had that something was amiss was when smoke and fumes began to pour into the working.

Men immediately made a dash for the shaft, but most of them were beaten back by the choking fumes. It was with great difficulty that Kenmare and Wear were able to make their way into clear air and safety.

Right through the night and all the next day, rescue parties were at work trying to reach the workings where the missing men were entombed, but it was extremely difficult, the atmosphere dense. Some of the timbering in the mine was on fire while the only means of ventilating the portion of the pit where the men were trapped was entirely cut off. Endeavours were at once made to remedy this by driving an airshaft. But this would take some time.

At the pithead there were heart-rending scenes. Women, with children, in pain and anxiety waiting for news of their loved ones. Many of them stayed at the pithead all night and the whole of the following day refusing to leave for rest or refreshment and a number collapsed, worn out by their vigil.

As the day wore on and successive rescue parties reported the stupendous difficulties underground, hopes of saving the imprisoned men diminished and the distress of the crowd grew more acute.

The demonstration of grief was extreme.

Weeping women and children would not leave as it became extremely doubtful any further lives would be saved. The mine was on fire, many fire extinguishers and other fire appliances had been sent to the scene. Among those taking part in the rescue work were Wear and Kenmare, two of the rescued men.

The four men recovered alive were working a mile and a half from the scene of the explosion, and were heavily affected by the noxious fumes and shock, a clear indication of the peril below.

Wellington extends five miles out under the sea bed and the explosion had taken place about three miles out from the shore at a location where around 130 men and boys were employed. Among the first to go down for rescue work were the manager, Robert Steele, Samuel Turner, Robert Blair (engineer), and Dr Charles Harris.

In Whitehaven itself business was at a standstill. The fishermen and dock labourers all volunteered any assistance they could render. And a large number of doctors and nurses had mustered waiting to give aid. The police were engaged keeping the crowd from surging on to the pit shaft.

FOLLOWING the explosion and initial exploratory work to ascertain the extent of the disaster underground, it was realised that there were no apparent survivors.

The Chief Inspector of Mines, Mr J.B. Atkinson, gave orders to build a 2ft thick ‘stopping’ in the main roadway, in an attempt to starve the still blazing underground fire of oxygen.

This was done despite furious objections from the crowd of waiting relatives and miners.

On the Sunday, four days after the accident, a party of seven men entered the mine via the return airway, intending to reach the source of the fire.

This party included the mine manager, Robert Steel, assistant manager Robert Blair, under-manager James Henry, and John Thorn of the Sheffield Mining Company, an experienced mine rescuer.

These four men, all wearing breathing apparatus, passed through doors separating the ‘intake’ from the ‘outtake’ but had travelled only about 200 yards when their canary fell from its perch.

Shortly afterwards their safety lamps went out and were discarded. The party continued however until the heat became so intense that they could not even see their electric lamps for the smoke.

Having travelled to within 400 yards of the fire, it became physically impossible to continue and the party came to the conclusion that no-one could possibly have survived the explosion and fire.

MANY sad days were to follow that of May 11, 1910. A snapshot of those troubled times is revealed in this contemporary extract from the local press:

“FRIDAY’S INQUESTS: The Coroner and jury sat in the police-court at 10.30 am and opened inquests on three more bodies.

“Francis McGarry identified James McGarry, and said this was the third brother he had identified. He was sure of the body. The widow had also he said identified it as that of her husband.

“Edward Toner was identified by Mary Joyce, with whom he had lodged for six months. She had known him, she said, for several years. His parents had left Whitehaven to go to Liverpool, a few years ago. His father had come over and was in the town today. The parents had not seen the lad for some years. She identified him by his clogs, which were made out of a pair of boots that were rather high in the leg, and there was a toe-cap on them.

“There were about a dozen funerals on Thursday, and these were spread over the whole day, the first being at nine o’clock. In some cases two or three of the deceased were of one family, and the attendance of mourners was exceptionally large.

“The funeral of the two Brannan brothers and their father made a pathetic procession, the bearers following close upon each other, and the long string of carriages containing the mourners bringing up the rear. The three bodies were buried in one grave. It was very affecting as the little children dropped the flowers into the graves.

“Another extremely sad and touching spectacle was the funeral of two brothers-in-law. Daniel Branch and William Henderson, of Mid-street, Kells, whose bodies were carried shoulder-high by workmates the long journey from Kells to the cemetery. There was a long procession of fellow workmen.

“Robert Little Garraway was one of the youngest victims, only 15. He was a general favourite and lived with his parents Mr and Mrs John Garraway of the Anchor Inn, Ginns. The lad formerly attended the Earl of Lonsdale’s School, and was also a member of the Christ Church Sunday School and Bible Class.... The coffin was borne to the cemetery by a number of miners, preceded by the choir in their black cassocks, the members of the Bible Class, and the scholars carrying flowers. The scene at the grave was most affecting. The children filed past the grave and dropped their flowers on the coffin. Mr. W. Wilson (headmaster) and Mr. Swaine (assistant-master) were present with the scholars from Earl of Lonsdale’s School.

“ On Thursday one of the funerals was at Hensingham, that of Mr Alfred Brocklebank, George Street, and one at Moresby, that of Mr. W. J. Kelly, Bragg’s Court, Marlborough-street.

“There were again many largely attended funerals yesterday, in several of which the members of the Catholic Young Men’s Society and the Catholic Boy’s Brigade marched in procession.

“Among the funerals on Friday last was that of the young man Edward Denvir, 20. He was a former member of the Catholic Boy’s Brigade, and was a member of the Catholic Men’s Society, and played in the band. The brass band headed a parade of the members playing the Dead March in Saul.

“On Friday last the interment took place at the Whitehaven Cemetery of Hugh McAllister and Joseph Fiddler (brothers-in-law). A large number of miners and fellow workers walked in procession to Christ Church, where the burial service was read by the Rev. H. T. Adam assisted by the Rev. J. W. Dunlop (curate). The deceased men were borne shoulder high by the members of the Kells Reading Room. Both leave large families.

“The Kells funerals during the week have been particularly well attended with practically the whole of the residents turning out in sympathy. In the Ginns not only are the blinds drawn, but the shops keep their shutters up throughout the day.

“The coroner was pleased that all 18 of the jury had remained in good health to finish what had been a long and protracted inquiry into the disaster. They had had 25 visits to the pit top for the purpose of identifying bodies, and they had another 11 days of the inquiry, making 36 attendances in all.

“ He thanked the jury (foreman Mr R Wilson) for the way in which they had discharged their duty “in this the most painful matter’’ of which none of them had had any experience.’’

IN the wake of the disaster, in March, 1911, a new Coalmines Regulation Bill got its second reading. There was unanimous agreement on the general principle that every attempt should be made to secure the safety of life and property in mines but an admission that the real fight would begin in committee, on the question of cost.

The bulk of the Bill embodied the unanimous recommendations of the Royal Commission, appointed in 1906.

Two of the most important provisions covered exits and a standard of ventilation. In new mines there had to be two intakes (one for haulage and one for travelling) and in any existing mine too if required. This extra means of exit, the Home Secretary said, would make sure that people would not be cut off by fire, as they were in the case of the Whitehaven disaster.

A standard of ventilation was required, with air measurement at every split; safety lamps were dealt with in a much stricter way than hitherto; no person was to be permitted to work where there was more than 2½ per cent, of gas; deputies and firemen were required to have at least five years’ underground experience, and knowledge of gases and air-currents; and there were provisions to prevent avoidable accumulations of coal-dust in roadways or elsewhere.

WELLINGTON Pit was worked for 92 years. It was sunk by Lord Lonsdale’s mining engineer John Peile in 1840 and was closed in 1932.

Mining historian Ray Devlin tells us it was named after the Duke of Wellington and the first coals were raised and loaded in 1843. His research shows there had been two explosions prior to 1910: one in 1854 and the other, in 1858, resulting in two deaths. In August 1863 a fire broke out in the six-quarter seam district which threatened the mine’s future but there were no fatalities.

In February 1870 Wellington Pit became the first at Whitehaven to be ventilated by mechanical means. Prior to that it was achieved by burning three underground furnaces, with the fumes being drawn to the surface via the Candlestick Chimney. A fan was installed at Duke Pit which extracted air from the pit and made the Candlestick redundant, but the landmark still remains.

On Wednesday, May 11, 1910 at 7.40pm an explosion of firedamp in the No 3 North District ignited a fire at the friction gear, at the return wheel of the main haulage system. The explosion in No 3 North would cause the death of all the miners in that area.

Suspecting an explosion, the 27 miners from inbye the friction gear (No 5 North) tried to make their way out. Attempts to walk outbye past the friction gear were hampered by smoke coming inbye from the fire. They tried to get outbye via the return airway but hastily retreated due to the heat and afterdamp. Two of the party, John Wear and George Kenmare, decided to attempt to walk through the smoke towards the friction gear to see what had gone wrong. They found it on fire and the area wrecked by the force of explosion. They continued to walk outbye stopping occasionally for short breathers until they met James Henry, the underground manager, coming inbye with a rescue party.

By the time the rescuers reached the area of the fire they were halted by the full height and breadth of the smoke from the fire at the friction gear which was a further 372 yards inbye from where they stood. Such was the ferocity the fire backed outbye against an air current of about 26,000 cubic feet per minute. It was later discovered that the coal seam at the friction gear was coked two to three feet into the solid and the metal parts of the tubs and their couplings had melted.

The rescue teams started the huge task of trying to get inbye, past the fire to the trapped miners, concerned there could be another explosion if the firedamp inbye was ignited by the fire.

Conditions underground worsened, says Mr Devlin, and mindful of the safety of the rescuers, a meeting was called of management and inspectorate, held at 7.55pm, Thursday, May 12. With no hope of rescue of the 136 trapped miners the prospect was put forward of sealing off the main intake.

After much deliberation and another attempt at rescue, the pit was completely sealed off. The first of the bodies were recovered on September 27, the last, by October 7.

The pit was to re-open in May, 1911 when new areas away from the disaster location were developed to the south.