Explosion at Marley Hill Colliery
Extracted from the 1925 Mines Inspectors Annual Report
An explosion of firedamp, which started a local coal dust explosion,
occurred in the Brockwell Seam at Marley Hill Colliery, owned
by John Bowes and Partners, Ltd., situated at Marley Hill, in
the County of Durham, on 14th September, involving the loss of
two lives. The occurrence is of great interest because firedamp
had not been reported in the district (nor indeed in the seam)
during the previous ten years, and also because it was considered
that the roof, sides and floor of the roadways were so wet as
to be immune from any possibility of a coal dust explosion.
The Brockwell Seam is from 2 ft. 10 in. to 3 ft. in thickness
normally, and has a strong post" roof, with a thin bed of
ramble intervening in some districts. It is not unusual to find
the seam increase in thickness locally up to 8 ft., and an area
of this thick coal was being proved, with small faults on the
east side of the main winning in the near vicinity of the site
of the explosion.
The seam was worked by the bord and pillar system and the explosion
originated on the main winning of the Cross Cut Flat, Sandygate
District, in whole workings, about one mile from the downcast
shaft and at "A" on the accompanying plan (Plate 3.)
Safety lamps were introduced into this district ten years prior
to this accident, following a slight ignition of firedamp, and
the lamp relighting station at the time of the explosion was at
"B" on plan; the meeting station appointed under Section
63 of the Coal Mines Act, 1911, being at a junction 792 yds. further
The mine had not been at work on the day shift on 14th September,
and although it had been arranged for the night-shift men to commence
at 10 p.m., a stoneman and a shifter named Thompson and Bell,
misunderstanding the arrangements, descended the shaft at 8 p.m.,
travelling along the main winning to "A" and proceeding
to "F" on the first west rolleyway bord, where they
were to repair the road. They appear to have taken it for granted
that the district had been examined by the deputy, although they
met no official at the meeting station, nor at the lamp station.
The assistant master shifter, Batey, descended later, and began
his inspection at the third pillar east, marked "D"
on the plan, travelling up the stenton at "A" to the
main winning and places adjacent, and later reached Thompson and
Bell about 10 p.m. No unusual features were noted by Batey on
his inspection and he went outbye to admit the two victims, Watson
and Fenwick, who were to work in a drift which was being driven
through a fault to the eastward near the face of the main winning.
Both men had locked safety lamps, but they were not searched for
matches. Later, Bell, who was working at "F" saw a light
on the inbye side of the canvas sheet on the first west rolleyway
bord, and heard a noise as though a kibble had been turned oft
the track on to its side. He did not ascertain who was there,
but "felt sure it was Fenwick seeking his gear." A few
minutes later the workmen at "F" heard a terrific crash
and a cloud of hot air and dust rushed past them up to the face
of the bord. They did not observe any flame, and after the blast
they tried to travel down the bord to the main winning, but, finding
this impossible on account of the hot dust cloud, they returned
and eventually reached the main winning two pillar lengths on
the outbye side of the first west rolleyway bord. They heard a
call for help and went inbye along the main winning without delay,
finding Watson at the inbye end of a pool of water, and 45 yds.
outbye the first west rolleyway bord. Watson told them that he
was following Fenwick in the main winning when they lost their
lights just inbye side of the first west rolleyway bord and that
he, Watson, was in the act of returning to the relighting station
when the explosion occurred. Thompson and Bell then made an attempt
to reach Fenwick further inbye, but were unable to do so owing
to bad air, after which they took Watson out to the lamp station
where the air was fresh. Fenwick was found by the undermanager
and master shifter 40 minutes later, very badly mutilated with
wounds about the head, arms and hands, and with extensive burns.
He expired shortly afterwards. Watson died four days later at
the Newcastle Infirmary from burns and shock.
Fenwick's lamp was found severely damaged some 5 ft. away from
his body, with the oil vessel detached from the upper portion.
All the evidence pointed to the conclusion that the rivet had
been cut and the lamp opened, before the explosion occurred. The
lamp top screw for the oil vessel was much distorted ; this damage
could not have taken place without corresponding. damage to the
oil vessel, if the parts had been properly assembled at the time
of the explosion, but there was no such corresponding damage.
Fenwick's body was found to be extensively burned, but there was
a patch of healthy skin under his chin, extending to the top of
the breast bone, suggesting that the head was bent forward on
to the chest, and it looks as if he was in this attitude relighting
his lamp when the gas ignited. His explosive canister had been
laid by the side of the road and was found afterwards. underneath
a fall of roof. The provisions regarding the use of safety lamps
were not required to be observed by law in this district. Lamps
had been introduced as a precautionary measure by the management,
but from the condition of things disclosed after the accident,
it is very evident that the officials and workmen did not take
them seriously. Large numbers of spent matches, cigarette packets
and candle ends were found at various parts of the district, and
at the point where Fenwick was injured ample evidence of open
lights and smoking was observed. Fenwick had never worked in fiery
mines but had had considerable experience in mines giving off
stythe, and he probably thought that both lamps had been extinguished
by black damp.
Investigation showed coked dust in considerable quantities in
the area shown cross-hatched on the plan. The course of the flame
followed the air current on the west side of the main winning
and no signs of coking could be found on the east side with the
exception of one length of 30 yds. down the driving road to the
third pillar east. There was evidence of considerable violence
for a distance of 50 yds. from the face of the main winning, in
shattered coal tubs, rails and turns torn up and thrown outwards
(in one case for a distance of 7 ft.), and in displaced roof supports
which were carried outwards for considerable distances. There
was only one fall of roof of any magnitude and this was on the
main winning near the point of origin of the explosion at "A."
Brattice sheeting (see "E" on plan), with its supporting
timber between the second and third west bords, was carried outbye,
and only occasional bits of charred brattice could be found on
this length of roadway. All the evidence of violence was on the
inbye side of the seat of the explosion and all indications of
the direction of the blast were outwards.
There were no wooden doors controlling the ventilation of the
district and the brattice sheets must have allowed a considerable
volume of air to scale into the return without doing useful work.
Air measurements taken showed that a very much reduced volume
of air was coursing through the district after the explosion,
but even under these altered conditions and with the brattice
at "E" blown away, firedamp did not accumulate in the
main winning. The day following the accident an accumulation of
firedamp was found in the south heading off the third east pillar
at "D" on the plan, which was bratticed prior to the
explosion but this gas practically disappeared in the following
two days without any effort being made to clear it. This heading
was in direct communication with the site of the explosion, but
there was no evidence of flame along this road, so that it must
be assumed there was no connecting explosive atmosphere between
"D" and "A" at the time of the accident.
No satisfactory explanation can be given for the sudden appearance
of firedamp at "A," but the thickening of the seam,
with the consequent local faulting possibly had some bearing.
The most important point to emphasise is that an explosion of
firedamp originated a local coal dust explosion of some violence
although the roof, sides and floor were damp, and pools of water
were standing on the floor in places. After the explosion the
roof and sides were very dry and dusty and four or five days elapsed
before the original damp conditions prevailed again.
Stone dust had been applied to some of the main roads, including
the main winning to the first west rolley bord and on the return
to a point five pillar lengths back from the face and this, together
with the generally wet state of the district, no doubt checked
the propagation of the explosion. Stone dusting had not been carried
on up to within 10 yds. of the face as required. Prior to the
explosion no samples of road dust had been taken by the management
in the district where the explosion took place.
I think it was fortunate that the outbye part of this district,
in spite of its damp condition, had been treated with inert dust,
as this undoubtedly checked the spread of the explosion, the force
from which had been extremely violent in the untreated areas.
The lessons of this accident clearly indicate the importance
of coursing the air by means of properly arranged wooden ventilating
doors and rigidly carrying out the Coal Dust Regulations in relatively
wet mines, and I would call the attention of colliery officials
to the report* by the Chief Inspector of Mines, on the causes
and circumstances attending an explosion which occurred at the
Haig Pit, Whitehaven Collieries, Cumberland, on 5th September,
The following contraventions of the Coal Mines Act, 1911, and
General Regulations, were disclosed as a result of the accident
Section 63 was violated inasmuch as the two workmen, Thompson
and Bell, went beyond the station before the district had been
examined and reported to be safe.
Section 64 was contravened in that the whole of the district
beyond the station was not inspected by a deputy before the commencement
of work in a shift.
The General Regulations as to the precautions against coal dust
had not been fulfilled as the floor, roof and sides of roadways
had not been treated with incombustible dust or water to within
10 yds. of the face.
Attention should also be called to the requirement of the General
Regulations regarding representative samples of dust to be taken
by the management monthly.
During the year 1925, and up to the date of the explosion, only
nine samples of road dust had been taken and analysed by the management.
These had been collected, one each month, over approximately 50
yard lengths on each occasion.
The main intake haulage roads alone in this seam (disregarding
returns and other putting roads) measure several miles, and of
the whole of this distance only 50 yds. of roadway were tested
monthly. None of the samples had been taken in any particular
district and all within a radius of a mile of the shaft. Miles
of roadway had not been sampled during the year.
Surely, if the word "representative" means anything
at all, it must require samples to be taken at intervals throughout
the whole of the mine.
By your direction, proceedings were instituted against the Under-manager
(who deputised for the Manager during the latter's illness, prior
to, and at the time of, the explosion), alleging breaches of the
General Regulations regarding precautions to be taken against
coal dust, and for not taking representative samples of mine dust.
He pleaded guilty to both charges and was fined £10 in each
case and ordered to pay £5 5s. in costs. For statistical
purposes — the case having been heard during 1926 —
details of the informations laid and of the verdict will be given
in Section IV of my next report.