HC Deb 09 August 1869 vol 198 cc1517-22

LORD ELCHO, in rising to call attention to a Memorial signed on behalf of 30,000 Miners, praying for a special inquiry into the recent accidents in Coal Mines that have resulted in great loss of life, and to move for Papers on the subject, said, the public journals continually furnished their readers with the accounts of accidents in mines, which were attended with great loss of life. On one occasion 350 men were suddenly hurried into eternity, and in July and June last two explosions were attended with the death of something like sixty men on each occasion. Knowing that the men engaged in these mines attributed the constant recurrence of these accidents to the absence of proper inspection, he had some short time since asked his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he would not, even at that late period of the Session, introduce a measure which would have the effect of making the working in mines more safe than it now was, and whether he would not in any case exercise the powers vested in him to order the inspection of such mines. In supposing that the minds of these men would be greatly excited by these accidents he was not wrong, because a meet- ing was hold only the other day at Manchester, which was attended by 120 delegates, representing a body of 30,000 men in Lancashire. He had had the honour of presenting to the Secretary of State for the Home Department a Memorial signed by these 120 delegates, and they had likewise signed a Petition which he had that day presented to that House. In that Petition they urged that they were very much alarmed at the frequent occurrence of accidents, which they believed might be guarded against; they were not satisfied with having inquiries before coroners' juries, and they prayed that that House would present an Address to Her Majesty praying for the institution of a sufficient inquiry by scientific men into these explosions. He should be very glad if his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department would accede to this request. He believed that these accidents might be frequently prevented by proper precautions. At all events, they might he believed, be more guarded against; because a Committee of that House, which sat for two Sessions on the question, had reported in favour of the amendment of the existing acts on mines, and the Home Secretary had brought in a Bill to render the working of these mines more secure than. it was at present. The very fact of a Bill having been brought in by the right hon. Gentleman appeared to admit that the position taken up by these men was a sound one. He did not know to what extent inspection existed in Saxony; but he observed that a lamentable explosion had taken place there by which 420 persons had been hurried into eternity; and the correspondent of The Times stated that the grossest possible carelessness prevailed there as to uncovered lights; the men, too, being allowed to go about smoking. It was not, therefore, surprising that there should be such a holocaust of victims to such reprehensible carelessness. He regretted that pressure of business had prevented the right hon. Gentleman from persevering with his Bill, because he thought it might have been passed without difficulty. No doubt there were a great many Amendments put down in reference to that Bill; but there had been. two meetings, one at his own house and another in a committee room, which had been attended by mine owners and the representatives of miners, and also by some of the most influential men in that House, and after what had occurred at those meetings he thought that portion of the Bill which related to the measures to be taken for the security of life and prevention of accidents might have been got through without difficulty. He regretted that his right hon. Friend did not try to press the measure through the House. But that Bill having been brought in, containing such clauses, was some justification for these men feeling so strongly as they did that their interests had not been sufficiently looked after—a measure of that importance not being pressed earnestly on the consideration of Parliament. Those men believed that until a more searching inquiry was made into the accidents that occurred they would not get at the root of the evil, and he should be very glad if his right hon. Friend would do what they wanted, which was to cause special scientific inquiry to be made into this matter. They thought a mine might be made so secure that even with an uncovered light in the working part of it there would be no risk of explosion. The way in which mines were inspected was not such as to give the security required. The view taken by his right hon. Friend was that they could not have personal, actual, ocular inspection of all mines in the United Kingdom— they could only appoint a certain number of Inspectors, who, if they had reason to believe there was anything wrong, or if an accident occurred in their district, should go and inquire into it and report what had passed. The memorialists held that this was practically no inspection at all. If they looked to other countries inspection there meant actual inspection. If this question arose in America thorough and complete inspection would be given. There were no inflammatory gases in the American mines, but there was a great deal of timbering. They had actual inspection in America, and the way it was accomplished was this— once every year every mine had to be inspected to see that there was a proper supply of timbering to the shafts, &c, and the owner of the mine paid so much—10 cents, he believed—upon every yard inspected during the year. It had been said on behalf of the Government that the inspection of mines should be like that of railways, and that those inspections were only had after some accident or complaint; but there was no analogy between railways and mines. A railway was perfectly made, and there it was; but mines were being continually made. No doubt it would be necessary greatly to increase the number of Inspectors if they had actual inspection, but he understood that one of the Inspectors had admitted that there ought to be more Inspectors. [Mr. BRUCE: No!] He knew his right hon. Friend would say it would take away responsibility from the mine owner if they had more inspection; but he thought there should be sub-Inspectors reporting to the Chief inspectors, which would not interfere with the working of the mine. He hoped his right hon. Friend would take this matter into his serious consideration, with a view to legislation, and that in the meantime he would not turn a deaf ear to the Petition of these miners, praying for a scientific inquiry into these accidents, for he must say, of all working men these were the most hardworking and industrious, on whom, to a great extent, depended the material wealth and the prosperity of the country.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, a Copy of the Memorial presented to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, praying for special inquiry into the recent Accidents in Coal Mines."—{Lord Elcho.)


said, he was certainly not prepared by the Notice which the noble Lord had given for a discussion on the general subject of mine inspection; nor did he think the present a fitting opportunity for it. His noble Friend requested that he should accede to the Memorial of a large number of miners in Lancashire and send down a member of scientific men to inquire into the cause of two recent accidents. He told his noble Friend some time ago that if any application were made from the locality he would take care that the inquiry should be duly attended by scientific men on the part of the Government. The Inspector of the district attended the inquiry as a matter of course; but he applied for assistance, and, in consequence, one of the ablest of the Inspectors, Mr. Dickenson, was sent down to assist, and he believed every step had been taken that could serve to trace the cause of this most deplorable calamity. Since he had received the Memorial he had communicated with these two Inspectors, and asked them whether, in their opinion, any further scientific investigation was necessary in order to arrive at the cause of this accident? If the causes of such accidents could not be discovered by the Inspectors at the inquests which wore held, it would be quite proper that a scientific inquiry should be made. The two main causes of accidents were defective ventilation and the negligence of the agents and the workmen themselves. Defective ventilation could, no doubt, be removed by stringent legislation; but many accidents were owing to the neglect of the agents and of the men themselves, and this was, of course, beyond the control of Parliament. Had he been able to pass the Mines Regulation Bill through Parliament during the present Session, he would gladly have done so. Notice of important Amendments extending over twelve pages of the Notice Paper, had been given, and he thought his noble Friend did not properly estimate the length and gravity of the discussions which would have arisen on the measure if it had been proceeded with. It was a Consolidation Bill, and, consequently, would have opened up de novo a great many old as well as new questions. With respect to the number of Inspectors, his noble Friend had quoted the original Act of 1820 for the inspection of mines, and had argued from that Act that the Legislature intended there should be a complete and continuous inspection of mines. He thought, however, that the intention of that Act was clearly shown by the action of the Government immediately after it became law, when only six Inspectors were appointed for the whole country. If it had. been intended that there should be a personal inspection of all the mines in Great Britain it would have been absurd to appoint so small a number of Inspectors as six. In his opinion, efficient ventilation and efficient precautions against accident could only be obtained by the active cooperation of the masters, agents, and workmen. Some of the worst accidents had happened from causes which had only been in operation a few days, against which, therefore, mere occasional inspection would have given no security. That at the Oaks Colliery arose from the accumulation of gas for a week. If his noble Friend would refer to the Reports of last year, he would find in the Report of one of the Inspectors an account by Mr. Dalgleish of the system pursued in the North of England. There the workmen formed themselves into a kind of committee for the purpose of daily inspecting every part of the collieries. The masters listened to and acted upon any suggestions they might make, and the result was a system of inspection incomparably superior to any other which could be devised or effected by Government. It was natural that the workmen, whose lives were constantly threatened, should look to the Government for protection from dangers, and, within proper limits, the Government ought to grant them that protection; but at the same time the workmen ought themselves to co-operate. Their occupation was attended by peculiar dangers, from which no Government could wholly exempt them. By the co-operation of the men those dangers might be much lessened; but, in the absence of such co-operation, he altogether despaired of seeing a reduction in the number of lives lost in consequence of accidents in mines. The Government ought to have in every locality a certain number of competent men to receive complaints, to examine mines which they had reason to believe to be in a dangerous condition, to listen to and to act upon every warning and rumour of danger; but it was no part of their duty to examine personally into the state of every colliery. He should only be deceiving the House and the colliers themselves if he held out on the part of the Government any promise of a largely extended system of inspection. That in other respects, however, fresh legislation might be advantageous he did not deny; and he hoped that early next Session the House would have an opportunity of re-considering the Mines Regulation Bill, amended as it would be in consequence of the suggestions he had received from the noble Lord and from other quarters, and that everything which legislation could effect would be done to promote the security of collieries.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.