CHRISTMAS 1844 was not a happy one for several residents of Kingswinford, Brockmoor and Pensnett, as on Monday 23rd December that year, a group of eight men and boys arrived for their shift at six in the morning at the Deep Pit, Corbyns Hall, and within a few minutes all of them had perished.
The Deep Pit at the time was being worked for ironstone, it was common practice to mine deeper when all of the coal measures had been exhausted as the best quality ironstone was found below the 10 yard “thick” coal in the Black Country.
A report to parliament by the Commissioners of Mines in 1842 into child employment describes conditions in ironstone mines: “Altogether the ironpits are much less agreeable to work in, and there is more danger, and the work people, from wet and cold, are liable to rheumatic pains, and men get worn out and unable to continue their employment at an earlier age, and in the last years of life are subject to asthma. It is said by the miners that a man is reduced in strength so as to be no longer able to follow his trade at about 42 years.” The Deep Pit was certainly well named at the time as the miners were being lowered to work at a depth of 630 feet, over 200 yards. The eight descended in a skip attached to a chain and driven by a steam engine. A metallic noise was heard on the surface by John Mountford, the pit “butty”, after a few moments and by the engine driver James Power, who quickly stopped power to the engine, but it was impossible to do anything to save the eight in the skip.
Immediately the noise was heard the chain began to “run” and in less than a minute had passed over the pulley and sent the men and boys to their death deep in the mine.
It was three to four hours, collecting rope and the means to descend before anyone could be sent down to recover what were certainly dead bodies. Miners named Gethin and Wadsill volunteered for the awful task, but when they reached the bottom of the shaft they found four miners already at the scene. They had arrived from an adjacent pit along a connecting “gate road”.
Once recovered the bodies were taken to their homes on carts. The dead were: John Cartwright, aged 64, who lived with his wife in Chapel Hill, Brierley Hill; Samuel Smith, aged 19, who lived with his parents in Brockmoor; and the remaining six were all young boys; Stephen Creswell, aged 13, who lived with his mother and siblings in Chapel Hill; Jeremiah Ellis, aged 13, from Brockmoor; George Parfitt, aged 14, he lived in Pensnett and his father was also an ironstone miner; Richard Corbett, aged 12, who came from a large family in Pensnett, his father was also a miner; Thomas Burgess, aged 15, who does not appear on the 1841 census in a local family but was born in Audley, a mining centre in the Potteries; and Job Brookes, aged just 8 years, from Gornal.
The inquest was held on seven of the men at the King’s Head, Kingswinford, (Job Brookes’ inquest was held at the Wagon and Horses, Gornal), John Mountford, the butty, giving most of the evidence.
He told the inquest that the chain which lowered the skip was new and put in place only two months prior to the accident.
He said it was his practice to look down the pit shaft every time men were lowered as far as he could see them, and then to watch the chain until it stopped at the bottom. On the 23rd as the skip went out of sight he heard something snap in the wheels of the engine which was about 15 yards from the shaft, then the chain began to “run”, he went to inspect the crown wheel on the engine and found that one tooth had snapped off and was missing.
Mountford reported that after the chain had run it had landed on the miners and this might have contributed to their deaths.
Mountford had seen the engineman Power inspect the machinery with a light before the men descended and in his opinion had conducted himself properly.
Jonas Woodcut was waiting to go down the pit with the second team and was sitting waiting on the bank, his report was the same as Mountford’s, but he had gone down the shaft later to help in the recovery of the bodies. He said that the water sump at the bottom of the shaft which was 30 feet deep was normally protected by a scaffold but that water had been drawn out on the previous Saturday and Sunday and it was not in the proper place.
All of the bodies were submerged in water in the sump with the chain on top of them. The water even after pumping was still eight or nine feet deep. Woodcut said in evidence that only one of the bodies, that of Smith, had been badly “cut about”, and he thought that the others had drowned. Verdicts of accidental death were recorded on all of the victims.
One family from Holly Hall, however, did have a happy Christmas.
Richard Leak had tried to get in the skip with the doomed miners but the butty Mountford had told him to get out and wait with the second team; a lucky escape.