St Helens Laffock, Colliery explosion 1849

Liverpool Mercury, June 26th 1849


On Saturday morning about 6am a fearful explosion of fire damp, attended, we regret to say with a serious loss of life took place at Laffock coal pit, nr St Helens. The pit is the property of Mr J. T. JOHNSON of Runcorn, the shaft which is about 160 ft deep, being driven into the Rushy-park mine. A new shaft has recently been driven in the neighbourhood, but the explosion occurred in a “slant” which forms the part of some old workings begun some 7 or 8yrs ago.

The miners it appears started work about 4am and at the time the accident occurred there were about 60 to 70 persons in the pit. The explosion was most violent, some idea of the force may be gathered from the fact that one of the heavy planks forming the head gear outside, used to tighten the conducting rods was thrown into the air. In descending, we regret to say the heavy mass of timber fell upon the “brow man” fracturing his skull, the poor fellow did not long survive the injuries he sustained.

The most intense anxiety prevailed as to the fate of those below, and no time was lost in their recovery. Four were brought up dead, and twenty two found to be seriously injured. Mr GASKELL surgeon of St Helens was promptly on the spot and rendered all necessary assistance to the sufferers. The names of the killed are John DARBYSHIRE, the brow man, Robert NORCROSS, Thomas ATHERTON, John MOLYNEUX, and John BRADBURY, the two latter are boys, the first three married with families dependant upon them for support. In addition there are three so dangerously injured they are not expected to recover.

The cause of the explosion is unknown, it is conjectured that one of the workmen must have laid aside his safety lamp and been working with a naked candle. It certainly speaks well for the ventilation of the mine generally, that all the colliers were removed from the pit within 2hrs after the accident. Every workman in Mr JOHNSON’S employ is, we learn, furnished with a lamp, and the penalty for neglecting their use [especially in the old workings] would, on detection, be instant dismissal.

From our own correspondent.

On Saturday morning an awful explosion of fire damp, took place at Laffock Colliery, Blackbrook, nr this town, belonging to Messers JOHNSON of Runcorn, there were 27 men and boys in that part of the mine where the explosion took place. The explosion was occasioned it is said by the carelessness of one of the colliers, who was seen with the top off his lamp down the pit. The names of the colliers who are dead are, Robert NORCROSS, aged 29, married, no children, Thomas ATHERTON, aged 27, left a wife and two children, William BURRIN, aged 38, left a wife and two children, John DARBYSHIRE, aged 26, left a wife and two children, John MOLYNEUX, aged 22, single, and John LANGLOW, aged 15, and John BRADLEY aged 15. The other 20 men are more or less burned, and some are not expected to recover. The accident has cast a gloom over the whole neighbourhood. Inquests were held yesterday on the bodies at Billinge.


Yesterday morning the inquiry into the circumstances of the seven persons who have died from the effects of the explosion took place before John HAYES Esq, of Prescot, coroner.

It was learned that seventy persons were in the mine at the time this shocking catastrophe took place, of those 27 felt the dire effects of the explosion 7 of whom are already dead, and the lives of a few more despaired of. It is remarkable that only two colliers received harm, the other sufferers being drawers, waggoners etc, whose employment lay in the roads and up-brows through which the fire made its exit. The mine is known in the district as one with extremely good ventilation, this was proved by the fact that within less than an hour after the occurrence , every person below at the time was brought to the surface. It would be unjust not to record, in an especial manner, the praiseworthy intrepidity of Mr MARSH the son of the underlooker, who instantly after he was aware of the explosion, stated his determination of descending the shaft, but was requested to desist for a time, as he might endanger his life by venturing while the air was still fully charged with sulphur, but he replied that lives might be saved if they had instant assistance, whereas if they remained, suffocation must ensue. He persevered in his determination and brought up the shaft 6 persons who still survive. All those unfortunate individuals who have been injured are carefully attended to by Mr GASKELL, surgeon of St Helens.

Proceedings at the inquest :-

William BURROWS being sworn said, “I work at a colliery in Parr, belonging to Messers John and Thomas JOHNSON, called Laffock Colliery. I and the several deceased persons also worked there. On Saturday last about 4.30 am I went to work. I was getting back the coals in some old workings, it was open work and the air was very good. The deceased Robert NORCROSS, was a very stupid man, and would not use his lamp, notwithstanding the strict orders received very frequently over the past 12mths, not to use candles or uncover our lamps. Each man is furnished with a lamp and the men generally use them, NORCROSS was an exception. About 6.30am I was at work on a wall below where NORCROSS, KNOWLES, and their drawers were working [three of whom were killed] when the explosion of inflammable air took place and killed the deceased persons mentioned. John DARBYSHIRE was standing at the brow at the top of the pit, he was killed by a plank falling on him, which was lying against the hand gear, which was blown away, and it struck him on the head, and caused a fracture of the skull. DARBYSHIRE was taken home and died 3hrs afterwards. NORCROSS, BRADBURY and MOLYNEUX were taken out dead and three others died before they could be got home. LANGLEY and BURRIN died on Sunday, several others are very ill and not likely to recover. There was a fall of coals where we had just been working, which brought the air from the old workings, which was ignited by either a candle or a lamp, and made right to the shaft.”

By the Jury, “If I have told NORCROSS once I have told him a thousand times about using a candle, he was very stupid and for the last 6mths he has always brought a candle, and would use it whether or not. He had his lamp top off at the time of the explosion, it was not his lamp, but, James KNOWLES, I was not but 20yds off. The fire left me and went to the pit eye 300yds off, the bad air came from the workings above which have been gotten some time ago. If a stranger goes down the pit there is a lamp provided for him. If the gaffer had known that NORCROSS was in the habit of using a candle he would have sent him off.”

A Juryman, “The gaffer, whoever he is should have discharged NORCROSS.”

BURROWS, “He would have been discharged if we had told, MARSON [the gaffer]. I always said that if working there with a candle went on there would not be a man go out of the pit alive.”

A Juryman, “Well, but did you not think it wrong not to get this man discharged for continually using a candle ?”

BURROWS, “It is hard to turn a man out of bread you know.”

A Juryman. “You ought to have immediately informed your master.”

BURROWS, “I ought to have been turned off for not telling, I have a family and I deserved turning off for their sake. I heard it go off, but I may thank God, I got out. All the men new about NORCROSS going to work without a lamp, we all knew of it, and stuck to it, that if there was an explosion, we should be blown to pieces. It was nobody’s fault but NORCROSS’S.”

A Juryman, “Are any fines imposed by your masters for taking the tops of your lamps off in the mine ?”

BURROWS, “I’ve been there 2yrs and I’ve been told that if I was caught with my lamp top off, I should have to pay 5s.”

A Juryman, “It appears that you are allowed to take candles down ?”

BURROWS, “Yes, they are not allowed candles where NORCROSS was, but in my place I work regularly with them.

A Juryman explained that NORCROSS had been working coal off old works, and BURROWS was bringing back. NORCROSS went first and BURROWS followed, and the fire lay in the old workings above. It is 5 to 6yrs since the old workings were got. I know this colliery well and there is not a pit with better air in it in Lancashire. I should suppose, Colliers in general will not tell, because he who did would get blamed through the pit as a taleteller. It’s always been so, and is so yet. I’ve seen men open their lamps to light their pipes, and the tobacco has blazed through the gauze, and this when there was great danger.

It was elicited by an inquiry from the foreman of the Jury that the reason more are destroyed now in coal pit explosions than formerly, was that the men worked together in larger numbers and also that mining operations generally were more on the deep than formerly.

Mr John MARSH, underlooker for the colliery produced a plan to show the workings. He said the colliers employed there were cautioned and forbade using candles in getting out the walls. They were so engaged on Saturday last, he had every reason to believe that NORCROSS was working with the top of his lamp off, and an explosion took place in consequence. He had cut through the old workings and the foul air rushed forward and exploded at a candle or lamp used by NORCROSS. The number of persons killed or injured was 27, NORCROSS and 3 others were taken out dead, DARBYSHIRE was hurt on the brow by the head gear. Had NORCROSS not used a candle or taken the top off his lamp, an explosion could not have taken place. That the air of the pit is good was evident from the fact that all the men, both dead or alive were taken out of the pit within an hour of the explosion having taken place. Great exertions were used at the colliery to prevent accidents but they were all of no avail unless colliers themselves would help.

Mr ECKERSLEY [Foreman] asked, if stupid men were always put in the most dangerous places, for NORCROSS had that character. Great care should be taken to put men of good character to work up to old works, who knew the danger they were approaching and would use nothing but lamps. It is remarked, in answer to this, that one man did not always work nearest to the old works, but those employed thereabouts were continually changing places, but, every collier knew that foul air was contained in old works.

Mr MARSH assented and said, the best precautions were always taken, but the obstinacy of colliers made all useless.

Mr BRUNSKILL, a juryman, “Would it not be a good thing to have first and second class colliers, receiving different rates of wages ?”

The Coroner, “It is not a bad idea, and adopt a system to of promoting the men according to merit.”

Mr BRUNSKILL, “I think it would be an inducement to colliers to be more careful, and if you have a man you can rely on who will inform you when any breach of orders have takes place, surely he is worth a shilling or two a week extra.”

Mr MARSH, [underlooker], “A mans life is worth more than one or two shillings certainly. It is impossible to prevent these accidents, however careful masters are, if men are not careful too. I think it would be a good plan to select a number of men to work up to old works who could be trusted not to work with their lamps uncovered, and let them be put to their oath. If you lock the lamps they will make keys and unfasten them in spite of you.”

The Coroner, “I have not the least doubt that before this session is over, some bill will be introduced appointing inspectors of mines, with a view to the better preservation of life.”

Mr MARSH, “They may appoint a thousand inspectors, but unless colliers will take care of themselves they will be of no use.”

The Jury unhesitatingly returned a verdict of “Accidental death” in each case.


Copyright 2002 / To date