Back in the 19th century the folk who lived in the towns and villages scattered across the South Staffordshire Coalfield in the perpetual shadow of the pit-head gears, the pumping houses, and mountains of spoil heaps, were well acquainted with mine accidents, and the colliery explosion at Rowley Regis was just another to add to a list that had grown over the years. But this didn't mean that because of the frequency of these tragic events individuals had become hardened. Emotions of grief followed by anger accompanied every incident, when families were torn apart by the death of loved ones; fathers, sons, young men in the prime of their lives, others so young they had barely left school. Wives became widows overnight, and children were left to mourn the loss of dads they would never see again.
Halth and safety in the mines was very basic, but improvements were being made all the time, and when an accident happened it was imperative inquests were held to establish what had gone wrong. In last week's Bugle, when news broke of an explosion at Gawn Colliery in Rowley Regis, the full facts had yet to be reported in the local press. The Brierley Hill Advertiser was only able to publish a sketchy report, but a week later (Saturday September 19th 1857) a more detailed story was available.
Because of several inquest adjournments, the following report was published by the Advertiser over a three week period, but for the sake of continuity we have featured them in one story. Nine days had passed since an explosion had caused death and destruction, casting a shadow over the communities of Darby End and Old Hill, Blackheath, and beyond. But coming to terms with such events was something the Black Country's mining community was all too familiar with.
"In last week's Advertiser we gave a brief notice of this deplorable catastrophe.
Seven persons had, up to that time, been found dead through the explosion, and one was still at the bottom of the pit, who has since been extracted; but we are sorry to say, on account of particular circumstances, whose nature is not positively known, he had also expired. It is, however, feared that the dreadful consequences of the explosion are not here ended, for a young man, named Samuel Siviter, now lies in a very dangerous condition. It appears that, whilst waiting at the bottom of the shaft ready to ascend, the explosion took place, which blew the grate off the ventilating furnace and drove it with great force against his arm and side, injuring him severely. But his sufferings were not to stop here, for immediately after being struck by the grate, the timber and the brick-work of the furnace fell around him, and, in this situation, he was kept for nearly four hours, undergoing all the agony of a slow burning, which soon reduced him to a state of unconsciousness.
“Eventually he was discovered and brought up the pit, and subsequently removed to his home; but his injuries are of such severe nature, that little hope is entertained of his recovery. On Friday his sufferings were really intense and had such an effect upon him that he could not be kept within his house. He leaped out of bed, as it were, to escape his agony, tore the bandages from his sores, and, after running downstairs, rushed into a neighbouring house. He is unmarried. Upon being questioned he stated that he observed two men named Sharratt and Timmins go into the crop side of the pit, one of them with a naked light and having the pricker along with them, with the intention of removing the shut or fall of coal, which had a tendency to prevent a free course of air. He further states that the explosion occurred after these two men had gone in.
Coroners “The bodies of the deceased lie in three different parishes and come under the jurisdiction of three different coroners, D. H. Hinchcliffe, Esq., R. Docker Esq., and W.
Robinson, Esq. The inquests upon four of the deceased were opened on Saturday last before Mr. Hinchcliffe, as follows :- On the body of Joseph Griffiths, at the Cross Guns, West Bromwich; on George French, at the Shoulder of Mutton, Blackheath; on Joseph Darby, at the Cock Inn, Cock Green; and on John Madeley, at the Fox Hunt, Garratt's Lane, Rowley.
There was also an inquest held over the body of William Timmins, at The Gate Hangs Well, Darby End. After a slight enquiry, relating to the identification of the bodies, etc., the inquests were adjourned to Monday next.
The principal inquest will be that over George French, as some most important evidence is connected with his case, and upon which decision that of the others will depend.
The inquests over the other men were also held on Saturday, before Mr. Docker and Mr. Robinson, but, after a short investigation, they were also adjourned.
“On Friday and Saturday last, the Government Inspector of Mines, L. Brough, Esq., was at the place where the accident occurred, along with one or two of his officials. Mr.
Brough made an examination of the spot, but he will not present an official report until Monday next. We understand that the explosion was of a very forcible character, and it has rendered the workings a complete wreck.
Subjoined, we give, as far as we have been able to ascertain, a list of the unfortunate persons, whose lives have been terminated by this lamentable event. George French, Blackheath, 35 years of age, leaves a widow and four children; Abraham Sharratt, Churchbridge, Oldbury, 34 years of age, leaves a widow and five children; William Timmins, Darby End, 26 years of age, unmarried; John Dainty, Old Hill, 40 years of age, leaves a widow and three children; Joseph Griffiths, West Bromwich, leaves a widow and several children; Joseph Darby, Cock Green, Rowley, 14 years of age. We have not been able to ascertain the particulars concerning the remaining two - Daniel Chinn and John Madeley. By this sad event six wives have been made widows and twenty-three children orphans."
Evidence "On Monday last, the adjourned inquest over the body of George French, the doggey, one of those killed by the explosion at Gawn Colliery, was held at the Shoulder of Mutton Inn, Rowley Regis, before Mr. Hinchcliffe, Coroner.
This inquest, as stated last time, was considered more important than any of the others, as a great amount of evidence, of the most vital nature, is attached to it. There were present at the inquest Mr. Mills and his bailiff, accompanied by Mr. Collis of Stourbridge, Solicitor, and the Government Inspector, Mr.
“The first witness examined was Anthony James, of Windmill- end near Dudley. In his evidence he stated that he knew the deceased George French, and several others who were, at the same time, killed by the explosion. He (James) worked in the same pit as they did. The shaft at the pit was about 160 yards deep and the workings had been driven out between 200 and 300 yards one way, and the same distance in another direction; but the latter, having been stopped up, only stands about 100 yards. There had been made, in one road, for the purpose of getting coal, four openings, and the same number in the other. In one of those roads, between 200 and 300 yards from the shaft, sulphur had frequently been generated in different quantities; yet on account of the ventilating apparatus connected with the pit, it seemed to be sufficiently safe, as far as regarding air.
There was a probability that the sulphur referred to was created through the bolt holes or openings into the air head having become stopped up. He had complained to three of the workmen about it on the Tuesday previous to the explosion, after which time no one was allowed to work in the place where the sulphur was complained of.
“No person had been working where the explosion occurred for three days previous.
On the morning of the explosion, he (James) tried all the work and where the explosion happened, with the safety lamp. In the latter place he discovered sulphur. He then came to the bottom of the shaft, and saw the deceased French, Williams and Griffiths, whom he told to be very careful, and informed them of the sulphur. French then left him (James) and went in the direction of the place, with a lamp. (Follow the rest of this story in Bugle 1047).