HC Deb 26 May 1868 vol 192 cc939-45

, in rising to move "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire into Colliery Accidents," said, he might be asked why he, who had no connection with mines, should bring such a subject before the House. His answer was, that he, in common with others, deeply felt the calamity of accidents in coal mines, and considered it a subject well worthy of the Legislature. Even should the debate be unproductive of any practical good, the country would at least feel that Parliament was not neglectful of the lives of the people. He considered that the very fact of 2,468 lives having been destroyed during the year 1865–6 was a sufficient reason for endeavouring to arouse public attention upon the subject. He had carefully read the Report upon Accidents in Coal Mines, and had come to the conclusion that, although the Committee had paid the most careful attention to what they had investigated, there still remained a great deal to be done, and the progressive discoveries of science must always be suggesting improvements in the management of coal mines. He need not draw a harrowing picture of what occurred when 200 or 300 lives were lost in a colliery; but the man must be lacking in Christian feeling who could look into a blazing fire, remember that so many tons of coal cost a life, and refuse to do anything in his power to prevent accidents in future During a long connection with working men he had experienced many accidents, but he never had a second accident from the same cause, and similar vigilance would prevent many colliery accidents. There were colliery inspectors appointed by the Government, but they went to collieries after accidents, when all was made ready for inspection, and it was therefore difficult for them to ascertain what might have been the particular causes of them. In the Report of the Committee there was a petition of miners, which set forth that the fearful sacrifice of life in mines abundantly proved that the legislative measures hitherto taken were totally inadequate to secure the personal safety of miners; that the Staffordshire practice of working thick coal in more than one place was highly dangerous; and that the loss of life in ironstone and coal mines proved the necessity for more extended legislative supervision. It had been said that if sub-inspectors were appointed the owners of pits would be too much relieved of responsibility. Legislative interference, however, was no new matter. In his opinion sub-inspectors ought to be appointed, and he was told that their appointment would be acceptable to the owners of collieries if it were made by the inspectors, under whom the sub-inspectors should act, and to whom they should report. It was said that men were fatalists; but why should they be exposed to such risks that at last they became hardened and were careless whether they lived or died? There were pitmen who had left mines which they believed had become dangerous, and he desired so to improve the working of coal mines that the men generally should cease to be fatalists. In the petition of the colliery workers the appointment of sub-inspectors was asked for; and on this point he was at issue with the Committee, who said that they did not think it right to recommend such appointments. What he complained of with regard to the Report of the Committee was that nothing practical had come of it. With regard to the proposed examination of overlookers, the Committee suggested that no examination would afford so good a test as the personal knowledge of their qualifications which the owner of a mine might be expected to have; but he believed that the Chairman of the Committee thought the overlookers should pass a proper examination for the office. Then the Committee said that it would not be well to diminish the responsibility of owners and managers of mines by any action on the part of inspectors; but it could not be said that this result would follow if the visits of the inspectors were more frequent than they now were. Ac present the inspectors rarely went down a mine at all, and they visited the mines at wide intervals, often allowing two years to intervene. [Mr. JACKSON: No.] He referred to the evidence of Mr. Dickenson, and the Report of the Committee, in support of his statement with regard to inspection. He knew it was held that mine-owners ought to continue free from liability for accidents to work-people which were the result of the negligence of fellow-workmen; but, in his opinion, a heavy deodand should be levied on every pit where an accident had occurred through negligence. Under the present system, inspectors did not think it their duty to visit mines unless they were summoned to an accident, or were informed of impending danger. During 1867 there were 500 more accidents than there were in the previous year; and that being so, Parliament could not say that all had been done which ought to be done. He hoped that colliery owners would not think him antagonistic to them; he had no interest either for or against them; but it certainly was for their interest that the mines should be safely worked. The great point was to secure adequate ventilation. He believed that there had been some important inventions for the discovery of gas, and he hoped that the Government would assent to the appointment of a Royal Commission, composed of scientific men, who should carefully, and without prejudice, examine into the merits of these tell-tale inventions. The Oaks Colliery had not been inspected for some yours before the accident. He held, therefore, that the present inspection of mines was not sufficient. The number of Government Inspectors was only twelve; there were 3,000 pits; and who would allege that twelve inspectors, without; any sub-inspectors to aid them, were sufficient for the purposes of inspection? Mr. Thomas Wynne, a Government Inspector, had testified to the number of accidents which occurred owing to bad management, and added that in every case where a good manager was got he found that the accidents immediately decreased. Well, then, if the owners of coal mines failed to get good managers, he held that it was high time that means should be taken to secure them. Mr. Wynne, in his description of a good manager, said that he was a man who thoroughly understood the working of mines, and who had served a proper time under a proper mining engineer. Mr. Wynne also said that he thought it would have a very good effect if, in certain cases, the inspector should say to the owner, "I think you must take the responsibility on yourself unless you get a better manager." He hoped the circumstance of his calling attention to this subject would produce a good result on the owners of coal pits, for unless they managed their business better, and accidents became much fewer, it would be the duty of every right-thinking man to press for further legislation. Parliament had legislated with regard to sanitary and other matters, and yet they were told that they must leave things alone in a case where accidents were so numerous and terrible. But though the accidents from explosions formed far the largest proportion of those which occurred, there were many also which took place from the falling of roofs. He thought he had shown, from the evidence of Government Inspectors, that many precautions which could be taken were neglected, and that a Royal Commission ought to be allowed to decide whether anything further was to be done. In the Oaks Colliery case the jury came to the conclusion that the deceased had met their deaths by an explosion of gas; they believed that the explosion had occurred in consequence of the great accumulation of gas, which they attributed to the negligence of the manager and his subordinate officers, and they recommended that mines should be inspected once in three months by competent persons, and that they should be provided with scientific instruments for registering the quality and quantity of the air that passed through them. The jury were, no doubt, men thoroughly acquainted with the working of the pit. It was to be feared that colliers were too regardless of their lives, and often continued working in pits long after they were known to be dangerous. Some outbursts of gas might arise from unavoidable circumstances; but he believed such cases were not so frequent as those where the accumulation of gas might have been prevented by better management. As to the safety lamp, many practical men held that it had been a curse rather than a blessing, it being apt to put men off their guard, while any little accident which opened it led to an explosion. Mines, moreover, were now worked which but for the safety lamp would have been abandoned. Now, he maintained that workings should not be continued where the use of naked lights was inadmissible. Not only the prevention of accidents, but the health of the colliers ought to be considered, for who could tell how many lives were shortened by inhaling foul gas? If a naked light could not be used, a pit could not be in a proper sanitary condition, the right use of the safety lamp being to detect the presence of foul gas. Whether the single shift or the double shift system was the best he would not discuss, since the question would be better considered by a Commission, as also would the question of a third shaft. Only a few years had elapsed since two shafts were rendered compulsory, and this regulation had already effected much good. A third shaft, according to a calculation with which he had been furnished, might involve a cost of an extra halfpenny a ton on coal; but the country, having willingly paid 2d. in the pound income tax for the liberation of thirty of our fellow-subjects in Abyssinia, would not think this a consideration when the saving of 2,000 lives a year was at stake. He had himself no interest in mines; but he hoped pit- owners and other interested persons would co-operate with him in obtaining the appointment of a Commission. The Commissioners, it had been suggested to him, might, like the Boundary Commissioners, appoint barristers and civil engineers as their assistants, so that the mining districts might be visited, and all possible information elicited.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire into Colliery Accidents."—(Mr. Greene.)


said, he did not rise to oppose the Motion, for there was not a single well-considered suggestion for the safety of their mines that, the coalowners of the district with which he was connected were not most willing to comply with. He agreed that the present inspection was not sufficient. Many new collieries had been opened in his district, but no new inspectors had been appointed. The present inspectors were overworked. He did not think the remedy was in increasing the number of sub-inspectors, but in dividing the present districts, which were too large, and appointing an additional number of inspectors. He regretted that the hon. Member who had brought forward this subject was not better acquainted with it; but on behalf of the colliery owners he would say that there were no measures of safety and precaution which the Government could devise which they were not most anxious to adopt. The pecuniary loss of an explosion was so great that if the coalowners had to pay for the inspectors themselves it would be a cheaper thing than the liability to accidents without inspection. He had not been a member of the Select Committee; but he had read the Report and the evidence, and he trusted that the Government would carry their Resolutions into effect.


said, that as a Member of the Committee of Inquiry into the nature of a colliery district, he wished to offer a few observations on the Motion. At present there was a unanimous feeling throughout all acquainted with the subject that the number of inspectors must be increased. Every one who had read the evidence would admit that many accidents might have been prevented if the inspection had been adequate. It was stated before the Committee that complaints were often made by workmen to the inspectors which brought them to the mines, and one of the inspectors stated that when the mines were visited the reports of the workpeople were usually more than borne out by the facts. The Committee came to a strong and unani- mous recommendation that the number of inspectors should be increased, and he was much disappointed on taking up the Estimates for the present year to find that no provision had been made for an increase in the number of inspectors. Although, however, the condition of things might be improved by better inspection, that improvement would be limited in degree unless they secured a better class of managers. Colliery owners were agreed that one great cause of accidents was the want of skill in the managers, and it frequently happened that persons who invested their capital in collieries with no sufficient knowledge of the business occasioned disaster to themselves and others 05' an injudicious selection of unskilled and careless managers. But even this would not be sufficient without a like improvement in the whole class of subordinate officers and underground viewers. A great change of opinion had taken place lately amongst the owners of collieries on the subject of inspection, and it was felt that this was of the highest possible importance, and that the chances of accident and loss would be materially lessened if there were a number of efficient sub-inspectors under the control and direction of the inspectors who would be engaged in the function of viewing and making suggestions as to the better management and more complete provision for the safety of the workmen.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at halt after Seven o'clock till Thursday,