Oaks explosion

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Oaks explosion
Oaks Colliery disaster
Date 12 December 1866 (1866-12-12)
Time 13:15
Location Hoyle Mill, Barnsley, Yorkshire, England. grid reference SE 36340 06416
Coordinates 53°33′10.35″N 1°27′5.08″W / 53.5528750°N 1.4514111°W / 53.5528750; -1.4514111Coordinates: 53°33′10.35″N 1°27′5.08″W / 53.5528750°N 1.4514111°W / 53.5528750; -1.4514111
Type Coal mine disaster
Cause Explosions
Deaths 361 including 27 rescuers

The Oaks explosion on 12 December 1866 killed 361 miners and rescuers at the Oaks Colliery at Hoyle Mill near Stairfoot in Barnsley, West Riding of Yorkshire. The disaster happened when a series of explosions caused by firedamp ripped through the workings. It is the worst mining accident in England and the second worst mining disaster in the United Kingdom, after the Senghenydd colliery disaster in Wales.

Oaks Colliery

The first shaft at the Oaks Colliery was sunk in the early 1830s. In 1845 two separate explosions occurred at the colliery. On both occasions few men were below ground and no more than three or four workers died.[1] Two years later a more serious incident occurred after firedamp, accumulated in old workings, was ignited and exploded. Of the men underground, 73 were killed and 26 were rescued.[1] Changes were then made to the colliery's ventilation. The downcast shaft[a] was converted to upcast with a furnace at its foot.[2] Two abandoned shafts were deepened to the lower seams and brought into use as the downcast and drawing shafts. The upcast shaft was close to the Dearne and Dove Canal and the downcast shafts were adjacent to the railway.[3]

The colliery covered about 450 acres (180 ha) of which two thirds had been worked out.[4] It was worked on the longwall principle, there being about 60 miles (97 km) of wall at the time of the 1866 explosion. The Barnsley seam is about 8 feet (2.4 m) thick. It is 280 yards (260 m) below the surface at the pit bottom, but dips significantly so that it reaches 400 yards (370 m).[1] The Barnsley seam was liable to outbursts of firedamp, sometimes sufficient to put out the Geordie lamps used. On one occasion all the lamps for 1,500 yards (1,400 m) were put out. Gas built up in the uneven levels and the goaves[b] were full of firedamp.[5] The air circuit was more than 3 miles (4.8 km) long. The induced draught was obtained from a pair of furnaces 70 yards (64 m) from the upcast shaft.[6]

At the inquiry after the explosion, it transpired that the colliery had not been visited by government inspectors for some years.[7]

The Oaks Colliery workings became part of Barnsley Main Colliery which closed and re-opened several times between 1929 and 1966. Linked underground to Barrow Colliery, the No.2 shaft was used for man-riding in the 1970s. Production ceased at Barnsley Main in 1991. The colliery's winding engine house and pit head structures are Grade II listed buildings. They are a rare survival of winding shaft structures modernised in the 1950s by the National Coal Board and preserve the historical connection to disaster.[8]


The Oaks was considered to be one of the most dangerous pits in South Yorkshire and the workers were concerned for their own safety. Large emissions of firedamp were commonplace. Ten years earlier the 400-strong workforce went on strike for ten weeks because of alleged management incompetence but had to resume work when starvation loomed. During a bitter dispute in 1864, blackleg labour was used and striking miners and their families were evicted from their homes.[9] Gas made men giddy and faint.[c] Men would not take safety lamps near the goaves. According to Tomlinson the underviewers[d] had chalked "FIRE" in places.[5] Parkin Jeffcock, the mining engineer who attended after the explosion, agreed that the fireman[e] had written "FIRE" but said it was not unusual.[10]

In a meeting with the management at the beginning of December, the men complained about a weakness in the pit's ventilation.[11] To improve the ventilation and alleviate the problem of gas issuing from the seam, a drift. through the rock was blasted from near the pit bottom towards the more remote workings.[12] The drift was expected to be finished that day.[13]


On Wednesday 12 December 1866, 340 men and boys were underground, 131 hewers who cut the coal, hurriers who moved the coal to the shaft bottom, horse-drivers, maintenance staff and trappers, boys who were employed to open and close ventilation doors to allow wagons to pass.[4]

At 1.20 pm with less than an hour of the shift remaining, an explosion ripped through the workings.[14] The whole neighbourhood for three miles around shook as if an earthquake had occurred accompanied by a huge roar like thunder.[15] Two dense columns of smoke and debris erupted from the downcast shafts. At No. 1 pit the blast damaged the winding engine and broke the cage, disconnecting it from its rope. At No. 2 pit the cage was blown up into the headgear breaking a coupling. After about five minutes the ventilation resumed and fresh air was drawn back the downcast pits.[16]

Rescue attempts, day one

Another cage was attached to the rope in the No. 1 pit. Dymond, the colliery owner, Tewart, the underviewer and Siddons, a deputy, descended first.[17] They found 20 badly burned casualties who were quickly sent up but 14 subsequently died of their injuries.[18] After another rope was attached, Cooper, John Brown, Maddison, Potter, Kelly, Platts, Minto, the under-viewer from Mount Osborne Colliery, and other engineers and deputies from surrounding collieries went down. By 4pm another 61 bodies had been retrieved.[18] The few survivors had made their way to the shaft bottom where there was some air, those in more distant areas succumbed to the afterdamp, principally carbon monoxide. The dead were taken to their homes.[19]

At the time of the explosion the only rescuers were volunteers and officials who came from neighbouring collieries who worked in relays. [20] Sixteen men forced to the surface because of the foul air were accused of cowardice by bystanders. The few police present could not control the crowd, which invaded the pithead and interfered with operations. A telegram to the Chief Constable brought reinforcements and the area was cleared.[11]

A message was sent to colliery engineer Thomas Woodhouse of Duffield near Derby. It said, "The Oaks Pit is on fire. Come directly." Woodhouse was in London but his partner, Parkin Jeffcock, responded and arrived by train before 10 pm.[21]

The rescuers' progress was restricted because of roof falls and afterdamp. Where it was possible to penetrate further into the workings bodies were found damaged by the blast. During the day the rope and cage for the No. 1 shaft were repaired and brattice was sent down to repair the stoppings.[f][11]

Jeffcock descended into the pit at 10 pm and met Minto and Brown, Potter, Cooper and Platts underground. Jeffcock took charge of the operation to make the pit safe and restore ventilation. Minto was an under-viewer at the Oaks before becoming the engineer for two nearby collieries. At 1.30a.m. most of the men below ground came up and Minto with Mr Smith (the mining engineer from Lundhill Colliery) went below. Minto met up with Tewart and following his directions went to the end of the stone drift where he met up with Jeffcock.[22]

Dymond and Brown who were supervising operations realised before the end of the first day that all the remaining men must be dead and from midnight underground operations were run down.[11]

Recovery attempts, day two

Jeffcock and Minto walked up the engine level checking stoppings. Part way up they encountered a strong blower of chokedamp (mainly carbon dioxide and nitrogen) which accounted for much of the foul air.[23]

Just after 5 am Minto ascended to select and organise a party of about a hundred men to recover the bodies. Jeffcock remained below trying to re-establish effective ventilation.[24] The rescuers were led by Smith, David Tewert the underground steward, William Sugden, deputy steward, Charles Siddon, under deputy, and two firemen Thomas Madin and William Stevenson.

Hague was underground at 8.30 am the following morning working with Sugden in charge of a party of men about 650 yards (590 m) from the pit bottom. The air stream rapidly changed direction, a sure sign of an explosion and the men rushed to the pit bottom. All the men except Sugden were lifted out in six trips of the cage.[11][25] Fifteen men were in the cage which usually carried six.[25] At the inquest Hague described it: "I found the air turned upon us, and we 'revolted' again. That is, we were sucked backwards and forwards in consequence of the explosion. I knew this, for I am one of the survivors of the explosion twenty years ago."[11] Minto descended to find out what was happening. He asked Tewart where Jeffcock and Smith were and after a brief search spent five minutes talking with Tewart, Baker and Siddons. He regained the surface at ten to nine.[26]

Jeffcock had earlier sent word that he thought the mine was heating up and advised that the shaft temperature be monitored. A thermometer was lowered to check when the second explosion occurred at five to nine. The men were thrown backwards, No. 1 cage was blasted into the headgear, dense clouds of smoke were emitted and large burning timbers were hurled into the air. This was a larger explosion that the first.[11] A cage was lowered and shortly after raised but returned empty. It was apparent that everyone below ground was dead and little could be done to recover the bodies.[11]

At 7.40 pm in the evening, a third explosion sent black smoke bellowing from No. 2 pit, the downcast shaft. The pit head was considered to be unsafe and spectators were moved to a safe distance. The 28 explorers led by Jeffcock were presumed dead.[27]

Meanwhile, a telegram from Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle arrived enquiring about the explosion and loss of life. The disaster attracted massive publicity.[27]

The last survivor, day three

Between four and five o'clock in the morning on Friday 14 December, No. 1 pit signal bell rang. The mining engineers were sent for and a bottle of brandy was lowered and the bottle was removed. As the cage was not usable a makeshift pulley was set up and a small kibble (bucket) was attached. John Mammatt, the engineer in charge volunteered to descend the shaft. Another volunteer was sought and Thomas Embleton, with the permission of his father also went down.[27] The shaft was wet, they were soaked and it probably took 15 minutes to descend. They found Samuel Brown, one of the recovery party from the previous morning who had been in the pit for nearly 24 hours.[28] They ventured a little distance into the workings but found no other living person and saw the workings were on fire.[29] The three men, balanced precariously in the kibble were raised to the surface. Brown explained he was in the lamp room when the pit fired and was unconscious for some time. He made his way to the shaft bottom where he rang the bell.[30]


On Saturday 15 December three or four more explosions occurred.[29] A meeting between the colliery viewers and the government inspector concluded that nothing more could be done for those below, and with the mine alight the only option was to seal it to extinguish the fire. On the following Monday 17 December work started to seal the three shafts.[11]

From 30 January until 5 November 1867, hourly checks were made at the shafts until it was deemed safe to reopen them.[11] Tomlinson describes a visit he made to the pithead during this time:

One shaft was filled up – chokeful of earth and rubbish; the other had a wooden scaffold suspended by wire ropes, and let down about twenty yards. Upon this cage was first piled straw, &c., and then puddled clay ; so that, except a small aperture from a temporary iron pipe (which contains a valve to close or open the orifice at will), this shaft, also, was sealed up.[31]

Once the shafts were reopened and ventilation established the task of recovering the bodies began. Jeffcock's body was discovered on Saturday 2 October 1869 and buried the following Monday.[32] The colliery reopened in December 1870. The 150 bodies still underground were recovered. It was noted in contemporary reports that some of the bodies were sufficiently preserved to permit identification.[33]

Sightseers and funerals

On Sunday 16 December, special trains filled with sightseers ran to Barnsley from Leeds, Wakefield, Sheffield and Manchester. Roads to the colliery were filled with sightseers and vehicles. Special services were held in Barnsley's churches where the Bishop of Ripon was the preacher.[34]

The bodies that had been recovered were interred in Ardsley churchyard, where 35 were buried in a mass grave, at Monk Bretton and in the new municipal cemetery.[34]


Major disasters had a devastating impact on local communities and Hoyle Mill and nearby settlements lost most of their young and adult males leaving scores of widows and even more dependant children. The. Oaks disaster happened at a time of multiple catastrophes in coal mines. Around Barnsley there had been several major disasters including 73 deaths at Oaks in 1847,[35] 75 at Darley Main in Worsborough in 1849[36] and 198 at Lundhill in 1857.[37] In 1866 nearly all the males in Hoyle Mill perished, some families lost not only the breadwinner but three or four sons.[37]

The disaster left 167 widows and 366 children under twelve.[38] It was a national disaster and funds were raised immediately to support the families. Queen Victoria subscribed £200 and the Lord Mayor of London opened a fund. Money was raised in many parts of the country and small sums were donated by individuals.[39] The Oaks Colliery Relief Fund was established in Barnsley and in total £48,747 was raised of which £11,695 came from the Lord Mayor's Mansion House fund. Altogether 690 individuals were eligible for relief, but although £27,000 remained in the fund in 1908, families were inadequately supported. Some miners subscribed to accident insurance clubs which could not cope with the cost of such sudden high demands. Some local friendly societies paid their members grants towards funeral costs and colliery owners provided a small amount of temporary aid and allowed the families to stay rent free in the pit houses. The union, still in its infancy, paid £8 in funeral costs, 5 shillings per week to widows and a shilling for children under twelve.[40] Five shillings is equivalent to £50 in 2016.[g] and two shillings and sixpence for each child under the age of thirteen was paid from the public relief fund. Should a widow remarry she received a bonus of £20 (equivalent to £1,999 in 2016), but all further benefit ceased.[41]


The inquest opened on 14 December at the Old White Bear public house in Hoyle Mill. The Coroner was Mr T Taylor, 15 jurors were sworn in and 16 bodies were identified. The proceedings moved to Barnsley Court House on 20 December.[42] The inquest lasted for 13 days, but despite the evidence given by several miners and the evidence from the deputation who had complained about the presence of gas to the management two weeks before the explosions, no definite conclusion could be reached. The district mines' inspector, Charles Morton, resigned during the inquest with ill health and his place was taken by Joseph Dickinson from Lancashire.[43]

William Gibson gave evidence that the night before the meeting of the men and the management, gas had fired at his master, Andrew Barker's lamp and he was "knocked up" after three and a half hours work. Gibson left his job at the colliery the Sunday before the explosion after four or five years employment.[11] Matthew Hague, a night deputy, told the inquest of finding 16 bodies between 100 yards (91 m) and 200 yards (180 m): "They were not burnt or scorched in the least, but appeared as if asleep."[11] James Marsh, a miner from Worsbro'dale tried to push on past Hague, but had to turn back "as the air was so bad"[11]

The inquest could not conclusively ascertain what had caused the explosion or what was the source of the first ignition. Some survivors mentioned an exceptionally violent blast just before the main explosion. This may have been caused by blasting the drift near the Barnsley seam which ignited pockets of firedamp. The initial blast may have caused a chain reaction triggeringa firedamp and coal dust explosion that devastated the rest of the pit.[12] Although the cause was never properly discovered, 17 explosions were recorded at the Oaks Colliery. After the inconclusive verdict was delivered the reactions in the press included a barrage of condemnation and criticism.[44]

On behalf of the Mines Inspectorate, Joseph Dickinson submitted his report to parliament at the end of April 1867. Petitions were sent to the Home Office asking for an official inquiry into the disaster and the unsafe state of coal mines generally. Dickinson and a representative of the colliery owners were interviewed by a select committee of the House of Commons but the government responded with no urgency and twelve more explosions had occurred before the 1872 Coal Mines Act was operational.[45]


Monument at Ardsley

A monument to those killed in the disaster was erected at Christ Church, Ardsley in Barnsley in 1879. A second monument was erected in 1913 to Parkin Jeffcock and the volunteer rescuers who were killed.[46][47]

Parliament considered the subject of colliery accidents in 1868. During 1865–6 the deaths of 2,468 workers led to calls for more to be done to prevent such accidents. Inspectors visited after the accidents had taken place and nothing was done to prevent them. Complaints made by workmen to the mines inspectors usually had substance. An increase in the number of inspectors was considered but conditions could only improve when the collieries were better managed. Unskilled managers and their subordinates, underground viewers needed educating. Disasters caused the colliery owners to become more receptive to inspections as accidents and losses would be lessened if sub-inspectors could make suggestions as to the better management of the collieries making them safer for the workforce. The great loss of life in the pits led to the announcement of a Royal Commission.[7]

Death toll

It was stated under oath and in two Command Reports to Parliament that the explosions killed 361 men and boys, based on 340 working below ground in the first explosion (with six survivors) and 27 rescuers killed on 13 December. The accident was the worst in British mining history until the Senghenydd Colliery Disaster which claimed 439 lives in the South Wales coalfield in 1913. The Oaks disaster remains the worst in an English coalfield.[48]

A volunteer research project by the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership in 2016 produced a list of 383 names although not all were verified as died in the disaster.[49] The ages of those killed ranges from 10 to 67.

See also


  1. ^ Upcast and downcast refer to the direction in which air travels. Air is drawn down the downcast shaft, through the workings and exhausts through the upcast shaft. To force air through the underground workings, fans are used but at this date, ventilation was by induced draught from a furnace at the bottom of a shaft.
  2. ^ Void from where the coal had been extracted
  3. ^ Modern research suggests this would be due to oxygen deprivation rather than methane poisoning.
  4. ^ junior managers or foremen
  5. ^ In this context a fireman tests for gas before the shift and if required will fire it in a controlled manner
  6. ^ Stoppings are the permanent underground walls (wood, brick or stone) which force the air to follow the correct route throughout the mine and not just take the shortest path between pits.
  7. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 6 November 2017.


  1. ^ a b c Tomlinson 1868, p. 226.
  2. ^ Tomlinson 1868, p. 227.
  3. ^ Ordnance Survey 1855.
  4. ^ a b Jeffcock 1867, p. 111.
  5. ^ a b Tomlinson 1868, p. 228.
  6. ^ Jeffcock 1867, p. 112.
  7. ^ a b Hansard 1868, col 942.
  8. ^ Historic England1413541.
  9. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 96.
  10. ^ Jeffcock 1867, p. 113.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Taylor 2016.
  12. ^ a b Tomlinson 1868, p. 229.
  13. ^ Jeffcock 1867, p. 114.
  14. ^ Embleton 1876, p. 29.
  15. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 99.
  16. ^ Jeffcock 1867, p. 116.
  17. ^ Embleton 1876, p. 30.
  18. ^ a b Elliott 2006, p. 100.
  19. ^ Tomlinson 1868, p. 224.
  20. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 104.
  21. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 105.
  22. ^ Jeffcock 1867, pp. 118–120.
  23. ^ Jeffcock 1867, p. 120.
  24. ^ Jeffcock 1867, p. 122.
  25. ^ a b Jeffcock 1867, p. 123.
  26. ^ Jeffcock 1867, p. 124.
  27. ^ a b c Elliott 2006, p. 107.
  28. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 108.
  29. ^ a b Tomlinson 1868, p. 225.
  30. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 109.
  31. ^ Tomlinson 1868, p. 232
  32. ^ Clipping from "The Standard" of 9 October 1869 pasted onto the last page of Jeffcock 1867
  33. ^ The Graphic 1870, p. 583.
  34. ^ a b Elliott 2006, p. 110.
  35. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 33.
  36. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 39.
  37. ^ a b Elliott 2006, p. 95.
  38. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 113.
  39. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 116.
  40. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 118.
  41. ^ Tomlinson 1868, p. 234.
  42. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 119.
  43. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 120.
  44. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 121.
  45. ^ Elliott 2006, p. 122.
  46. ^ Ball 2005.
  47. ^ Woodtyke 2010.
  48. ^ BBC 2011.
  49. ^ Barnsley MBC 2016.


  • Ball, Dave (18 July 2005), Oaks Colliery Disaster Rescuers' Memorial, Sheffield Hallam University, retrieved 9 December 2016
  • Barnsley MBC (2016), Oaks Disaster Victims, Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, retrieved 9 December 2016
  • BBC (18 September 2011), "Major mining disasters in Britain", BBC News (UK), BBC, retrieved 9 December 2016
  • Duckham, Helen; Duckham, Baron (1973), Great Pit Disasters: Great Britain 1700 to the present day, Newton Abbot: David & Charles, ISBN 0715357174
  • Elliott, Brian (2006), South Yorkshire Mining Disasters Volume I The Nineteenth Century, Wharncliffe, ISBN 1903425646
  • Embleton, T W (1876), "Notes on the Oaks Colliery explosion, ot the 12th December, 1866, and on the subsequent explosions", North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers: Transactions, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, XXV: 29–40, retrieved 11 December 2016
  • The Graphic (17 December 1870), Home News, Illustrated Newspapers, retrieved 11 December 2016
  • Hansard (26 May 1868). "Motion for a commission". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. col. 939–945. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  • Historic England, "Barnsley Main Colliery engine house and pithead structures (1413541)", National Heritage List for England, retrieved 11 December 2017
  • Jeffcock, John Thomas (1867), Parkin Jeffcock, civil and mining engineer. A memoir by his brother, London: Bemrose and Lothian, retrieved 11 December 2016
  • Ordnance Survey (1855), Yorkshire 274 (includes: Barnsley; Darton; Dodworth.), Six-inch England and Wales, 1842–1952, Ordnance Survey, retrieved 12 December 2016
  • Taylor, Fionn, ed. (8 November 2016), The Oaks. Barnsley, Yorkshire 13th December 1866, retrieved 9 December 2016
  • Tomlinson, John (1868), "The Oaks Colliery two months after an explosion", Stories and sketches relating to Yorkshire, London: Simpkin, Marshall, & co, pp. 223–236, retrieved 9 December 2016
  • Woodtyke (22 November 2010), Oaks Colliery Disaster Rescuers' Memorial Barnsley Yorkshire 2, Flickr, retrieved 9 December 2016
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