HC Deb 27 July 1874 vol 221 cc771-84

, in rising pursuant to Notice, to call attention to the accident in the Astley Deep Pit Colliery in Dukinfield in April last; and to move— That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire whether a better system of colliery inspection can be established, with a view to prevent such deplorable accidents in Collieries, said, that in making a few observations on that very serious and important matter, he hoped the House would extend to him its indulgence, for he should not have attempted to occupy its attention if he had not felt compelled to do so by a paramount and overwhelming sense of duty as being the Representative of the place where the dreadful accident occurred. He visited the scene of the catastrophe the day after its occurrence, ere the mutilated remains of the poor creatures who had met their doom had been all collected and brought to the surface; but he would not distress the House, or harrow the feelings of hon. Gentlemen by attempting to depict what he there saw. Suffice it to say that the scone was one which any person possessing the ordinary feelings of humanity must remember to the last day of his existence. Now, this colliery was one of the deepest in the Kingdom, he believed, indeed, in the world. The shaft, at the foot of which the explosion took place, was upwards of 2,000 feet deep, and the seam of coal which was being worked, called the Black Mine, about four feet in thickness, trended away at an incline about the same pitch as the roof of a house to a very great distance, and pointing deeper and deeper still. The roof of a portion of the mine called the Half Moon Tunnel had some time previously been on fire; and this fire, together with several falls or slippings in of the earth subsequently, had caused a large cavity to be formed immediately above; but the roof of the Half Moon Tunnel had been made good with timber, and the cavity above partially filled up with earth. On the day of the accident some of this timber was observed to be giving way, and the repairs which seemed necessary were being proceeded with, when suddenly a large portion of the roof fell in. An immense mass of earth and other debris followed. Simultaneously a tremendous explosion occurred, and upwards of 50 human beings were at once launched into eternity. Now, there had been some difference of opinion as to whether the timbers used were of sufficient strength. The official Inspectors gave it as their opinion that, taking into account the existence of the cavity above, they were not of sufficient strength, and that also was the conclusion arrived at by the jury and expressed in their verdict. He thought it right, however, to say that on the other hand it was also stated in evidence that no timbers of any reasonable strength could have withstood the strain to which they were subjected, or borne the weight of such an immense mass of earth and rock as fell upon them at the time of the accident; nor could the Half Moon Tunnel have been arched with bricks, from the impossibility of finding any secure foundation upon which to rest the arch. There seemed, indeed, no doubt that the real cause of the accident was this—A quantity of gas had accumulated in this cavity and in an old, abandoned working connected with it above, called the. Smithy Mine, and by a singular, and, as the event proved, but too fatal an error of judgment, an aperture or mouthing opening from the Smithy Mine into the main shaft, by which the gas had kept gradually escaping, had been walled up, so that, in effect, there was a large reservoir of highly inflammable and explosive gas penned up, and, as it were, hermetically sealed immediately above the lower mine and the heads of the men working there. And when the roof fell in, and a communication was thus established between the two mines, this gas rushing down into the lower mine, and meeting there the lights which were perfectly naked and exposed, the explosion followed as the necessary consequence; and probably the first question the House might be disposed to ask would be—How did it happen that these lights were perfectly naked and exposed? What was the use of passing Acts of Parliament for the regulation of mines, if these Acts were to be systematically treated as a dead letter, scientific appliances to be ignored, and naked lights, such prolific causes of accidents in colleries, were still to be the rule? He confessed that those were the thoughts which first presented themselves to his mind, but it appeared that that portion of the mine was considered so safe, so absolutely beyond the reach of danger, that it was the very part selected for the establishment of two permanent fixed furnaces which were situated within about 35 yards—the one for what was technically known as the "upcast" shaft, that is for creating a draught of air giving ventilation to the nine, and the other the furnace of a boilor for an engine employed in hailing waggons up the steep incline already referred to, and both these furnaces being necessarily perfectly open and exposed, there was no object whatever in the other lights around being encased in Davy lamps. It was an important question, and one upon which considerable difference of opinion existed, as to whether these open furnaces ought to be permitted at the bottom of coal mines yet to be opened. Mr. Bell, one of the official Inspectors, emphatically stated it as his opinion at the inquest, that they ought never to be allowed, but that the fans necessary for ventilation, and the engines employed for various purposes, ought to be driven by compressed air or steam conveyed from the surface in pipes. That was a matter, however, of far too technical a nature for him (Mr. Side-bottom) to express a decided opinion upon; but he submitted it might be considered with great advantage to the public interest by the Commission he was then asking for. Well, both the House and the country heard with the greatest satisfaction the promise of his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that a full and searching investigation should be made into the cause of this accident; and they must have felt also that that promise was redeemed when it became known that a man of such eminence as Mr. Horatio Lloyd, Q.C. and Recorder of Chester, had been appointed to represent the Government at the inquest. But there was also another and a further guarantee for this inquiry being a perfectly satisfactory inquiry, in the composition of the jury, and the characters of the foreman of the jury and the coroner. The jury was not composed, as was generally the case with coroners' juries, of small shopkeepers and other persons of the same class, but of the gentry of the neighbourhood; and throughout the whole of the long and protracted inquiry, they devoted to it the most patient and unwearied attention, and several times descended the mine for the purpose of satisfying themselves, by personal inspection, of its real state and condition. He had the pleasure of knowing several of them, as well as the coroner and the foreman. Mr. Johnson, the coroner, was a solicitor of eminence and of the highest respectability; and Mr. Aspland, the foreman of the jury, had for many years been an active county magistrate, who had often taken the Chair in one of the Courts for the trial of prisoners at the Salford Hundred Quarter Sessions; so that, with Mr. Lloyd representing the Government, with a jury of such high respectability and intelligence, with the coroner a solicitor accustomed to sifting evidence, and with such a man as Mr. Aspland the foreman of the jury, both the House and the country might be perfectly satisfied that the promise of the Government had been redeemed, and that the inquiry into this sad affair had been as full, as ample, as strict, and as searching as any such inquiry could possibly be. Well, the verdict of this inquest had now been recorded, and, after such a thorough and exhaustive inquiry, he apprehended it must be accepted in its entirety. It cast very grave reflections, indeed very severe censure, upon the management of the colliery, both as regarded one of the lessees and also the officials employed. It was, however, in the hands of hon. Members, and spoke for itself, and therefore it would be quite unnecessary for him to trouble the House with any remarks in reference to this part of it. No doubt, it would receive the most serious and attentive consideration of Her Majesty's Government, and it would ill become him to anticipate their judgment. It was perfectly clear that great blame was to be attached to some one, but he wished to draw the attention of the House more particularly to the general lessons which seemed to him to arise from it in reference to the future. He thought the jury had arrived at a perfectly correct conclusion in reference to the present system of inspection, and he submitted that far above and beyond the immediate interests involved in this inquiry, great and important as those interests undoubtedly were, the true and direct logical inference to be drawn from it, and from the facts generally, was that the present system of colliery inspection was utterly inefficacious for protecting the lives of the persons employed, which ought to be its primary and chief object. Here for years had been a huge reservoir of highly inflammable and noxious gas suspended like the sword of Damocles above the heads of the poor fellows working in this mine. By-and-by it burst its bounds, and like a mighty avalanche descending from the mountain top, swept with resistless force down into the lower mine, leaving death and destruction in its wake, and the result was one of the most terrible accidents of modern times. Well, what had the Inspector of this colliery been about? It was perfectly clear that the state of affairs which culminated in this accident had been in existence for a considerable time; that it might easily have been prevented—nay, that but for the gross and culpable ignorance, or rather downright insanity of the person or persons responsible for walling up this mouthing, it would never have occurred at all. Surely, a system of inspection powerless under these circumstances to prevent such an appalling loss of life, could be nothing but a delusion and a sham; and it was upon those broad grounds that he founded his Motion, in order that a competent authority might inquire whether any better system could be established. It might be that there were insurmountable difficulties in the way, and that the present state of matters must be accepted as inevitable; but even if that were so, by acceding to the terms of the Motion, the House would, at all events, have the satisfaction of reflecting that it had endeavoured to amend it. But it might be said.—How could you expect an Inspector to know anything about this cavity or this mouthing, when the pit authorities themselves knew nothing about them? Well, in the first place, it was extremely difficult to understand how the pit authorities, or some of them, could possibly be ignorant of them. There was, however, a frequent change of managers, and no proper account appeared to have been kept of important events for the information of a new manager on his commencing duty, so that it was just possible they were realty not aware of their existence; but, so far as he knew, the Inspectors had not been changed, and really that consideration afforded one of the strongest arguments that could be adduced in favour of a more efficient system of inspection, for these concealed dangers would then have been infallibly discovered, and their immediate removal insisted upon; and one of the first subjects he would suggest for the consideration of the Commission was, whether a kind of log-book should not be kept at each colliery, in which an entry should be made of every important event as it occurred, and this book be submitted for the signature of the Inspector at every visit. A book of this description had now to be kept under the provisions of the present existing law, in which, under certain circumstances, entries had to be made, and he would extend and amplify that provision; and, if he was not trespassing on the attention of the House too long, he should also like to indicate very briefly one or two other points which it appeared to him a Royal Commission might consider with advantage. First, whether it should not be made incumbent on Colliery Inspectors, at certain intervals, themselves to descend the various mines under their charge, in order personally to examine the state of the workings. He believed that, except under extraordinary circumstances, they rarely now performed this duty, and, that, as a matter of fact, between the accident in March, 1870, and April last, the Astley Deep Pit was descended by a Government Inspector on one occasion only. He understood that Mr. Wynne, the Inspector of the district, had 240 pits under his charge, and he considered—and with good reason—his present duties so onerous as to be quite unable to perform this duty also; but if that be so, surely additional Inspectors ought to be appointed, as it seemed perfectly obvious that for the pro-pier and efficient inspection of a coal mine 2,000 feet below the surface, that mine must be regularly descended, and the workings examined. It was all very well to say the managers ought to be responsible. Undoubtedly they ought, but their responsibility, so far, had availed nothing to prevent these frightful accidents. He by no means wished to relieve them from that responsibility, but on the contrary, to increase and augment it; and at the same time also, to establish a system of inspection which would insure them against a repetition of such miserable blunders and inexcusable acts of folly as had been witnessed in the present case. He frankly admitted that the subject was surrounded with grave difficulties, for it was quite possible to err in the opposite direction, and one might conceive a system of inspection so elaborate as, practically, to place all the responsibility on the Inspectors, and relieve colliery proprietors and their managers from it, at the expense of the taxpayers. That, indeed, would be a result eminently unsatisfactory. But then, what was to be done? Were they to make no effort to amend the present state of things? He thought few hon. Gentlemen would say that, and really the very existence of that and other difficulties afforded to his mind an irresistible argument in favour of a Royal Commission, in order that Gentlemen of great experience, after hearing evidence, after full inquiry, and full time for consideration, might report upon what was the best course to be adopted. It might also be considered whether, if the sons or other near relatives of Colliery Inspectors were precluded from occupying situations as colliery managers, that might not give the authority of the Inspectors more weight both with employers and employed. He did not wish either to suggest or insinuate that the fact of any of the present Colliery Inspectors having relatives in such situations had really at all influenced their conduct; but it must be remembered that they were by law entrusted with very extensive powers and very great, not to say arbitrary, authority, and that therefore they ought to be placed above the very faintest shadow of suspicion. The very important question of open furnaces at the bottom of mines might also well be considered. No one, he apprehended, would wish to entail on colliery proprietors the well-nigh ruinous cost of removing those already in existence; but it might, perhaps, be considered wise to prohibit them as far as possible in the new collieries which were being opened throughout the country in so many places. The Prime Minister stated at Manchester, in one of the most magnificent speeches that even he ever delivered, that "the health of the people was one of the most important subjects that could engage the attention of statesmen;"and they had lately been considering the details of a measure for promoting the health of women and children employed in textile factories, by limiting the duration of their hours of labour; and surely their responsibility was not less in reference to matters upon which men's lives immediately and directly depended. He himself heard Mr. Bell, one of the official Inspectors, declare on oath that a considerable portion of this mine was so unsafe—in such an extremely dangerous state—that he should not be in the least surprised if it collapsed and closed up like a fan. He understood that it had now been made secure; but if Mr. Bell's fears had been realized previously, the House might readily conceive how dreadful would have been the fate of those employed! Each would have found a living' tomb! But, when such a statement as that was made by a gentleman in an official position, and speaking under a sense of official responsibility, it deserved the most serious, the most careful, and the most attentive consideration, for was it not possible—nay, was it not probable—that a similar state of things might also prevail in other collieries, though, perhaps, it might not be brought to light till some fresh accident and the sacrifice of a fresh hecatomb of victims aroused them from their false security. He ventured to hope, therefore, that the House would not refuse to accede to the terms of his Motion, for he was sure hon. Gentlemen, whether they sat on this side or whether they sat on that, must agree that the frequent recurrence of these dreadful accidents rendered it more and more clear every day that those who worked in coal mines ought to be protected by every enactment, and surrounded by every safeguard, the Legislature could devise; for their case appeared to him to differ from that of any other class of persons who under the primeval sentence of their race, "had to eat bread by the sweat of their brow." The collier did not carry on his work in a commodious, airy, well-ventilated, comfortably-heated, modern, textile factory, where the risk of loss to life or limb was really infinitesimally small; but under circumstances of the greatest danger—and where? Why, far away beneath their feet, in the very bowels of the earth, in perfect darkness, exposed to numerous accidents from fire, water, deleterious gases, and other causes too numerous to mention. In short, he carried, as it were, his life in his hand, and not his own life only, but the lives also of hundreds of his fellow-workmen; and one instant's thoughtlessness, one instant's carelessness, rashness, recklessness—call it what they would—might be the means of consigning both himself and them to a sudden and untimely end. He begged to thank the House for the consideration it had extended to him. He had no personal object whatever in bringing the subject forward, still less did he de- sire to throw obstacles or difficulties in the way of colliery proprietors. He was an owner of colliery property himself, and also an extensive consumer of coal; but he made the Motion solely and entirely in the interest of a large portion of his constituents, and because he honestly and sincerely believed some change in the present system of inspection to be most imperatively required.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that scarcely a month passed without some colliery accident occurring, and that their very frequency familiarized people with them and prevented them from fully appreciating their enormity. They had got so accustomed to hear of them that they did not take those precautions to prevent them which lay within their reach. The accident to which his hon. Friend called the attention of the House was most lamentable, and unhappily not one of very rare occurrence, and something should be clone at once to prevent them wherever it was practicable. His (Colonel Leigh's) opinion was, that colliery proprietors ought to be made to pay all that was necessary in order to make their mines safe. Coal had been very dear, and the coal proprietors had been making enormous fortunes. The least thing in return that the coalowners could do was to spend every farthing that was required to make their collieries as safe as possible.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will he graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire whether a better system of colliery inspection can he established, with a view to prevent deplorable accidents in collieries,"—(Mr. Side-bottom,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be loft out stand part of the Question."


said, he thought anyone would excuse him when he said he had a very strong desire to see that the lives as well as the limbs of the working miners of this country should be protected, and he would most heartily support the proposition made by the hon. Member in favour of a Royal Commission, if he saw that such a proposal was going in any way to promote that object. But lie recollected that two years ago that House, after the gravest consideration, passed a Bill which contained certain stringent resolutions and provisions, and those stringent provisions, he ventured to say, if they had been carried out, would have prevented the occurrence of this disaster. He therefore thought the House should impress upon the Government the necessity of seeing that the Acts which had been passed by it were carried out, and when those Acts were seen to be defective, then would be the time to ask for the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into such disasters as these. In his opinion they did not want Royal Commissions to inquire into mine disasters. What they wanted was, that these accidents should be prevented, and Royal Commissions would not do that. If they took the Inspector's Report with regard to that particular accident, they would find that on the face, and in the body of it, gross neglect was proved to have existed, and neglect of such a character that no Royal Commission could prevent it. The Inspector said he had long been of opinion that the ventilation of the mine had been very defective, and had expressed his opinions; but although he considered the mine dangerous, he did not think that danger so imminent as to justify him in going to the extreme length of arbitration. What did the law say? Why, it said that the gas in every mine should be diluted, and so rendered harmless. Had that been done in the present instance there would have been no accident. Reference had been made to naked lights, but no naked lights would cause an explosion, if the law were properly carried out. All that being true, he repeated that there was no need of a Commission. What was needed was, that the Home Office should instruct the Inspectors that where they found defective ventilation, they should direct the attention of the owners to it, and see that it was remedied, under pain of being prosecuted. The result, he had no doubt, would be entirely satisfactory. He should most willingly support the proposition for a Royal Commission; but while he felt desirous that the miner should be protected he saw no use in going to the expense of a Commission.


said, he had received a mass of information upon the subject, and the conclusion he had arrived at was, that the question could not be satisfactorily dealt with by a Royal Commission. But from the conflict of opinion which prevailed upon the subject, he quite agreed that it demanded the assiduous attention of the Government. He was very thankful to the hon. Gentleman for having called the attention of the Government to it, which was all that could be done, as he presumed the Motion could not be carried that evening; for, if it were, Supply could not come on. The hon. Member for Stafford had referred to the diluting of the gas; but he ought to have known that it was not always practicable to do so. He hoped the Motion would not be pressed, but that the hon. Member who moved it, would be content with an assurance from the Government that the laws would be imperatively carried out, for in his (Mr. Hermon's) opinion, that was the only way of effecting any improvement.


said, that the general opinion of those who were most acquainted with the working of collieries was, that the work of inspection, as at present carried on, was a perfect farce. It was costly; it produced no beneficial results; and it ought to be conducted differently. The Motion of the hon. Member for Staleybridge had been rather misunderstood. It was not intended so much to inquire into the cause of the accident at Astley Pit, as to see whether or not the present system of inspection could not be improved; and with reference to it, he believed that, if an inquiry were made, almost all colliers could point out the mode by which these accidents might be prevented. He himself knew a Colliery Inspector who had not been down a particular pit for the last 35 years. How was it possible for Inspectors under such circumstances to be able to know what was the condition of the ventilation of a mine? He sincerely hoped that some change would be effected, and with that view, should support the hon. Gentleman's Motion.


said, he also had to thank the hon. Member for Staleybridge for having brought the matter before the House. He knew it was a matter on which the hon. Member had for a long time taken a deep interest, and the careful way in which he had studied it, was shown by the able way in which he had brought it before the House. When this unfortu- nate accident occurred, he (Mr. Cross) stated in the House that a most full and most searching inquiry should take place into the causes of it. As to the jury who had inquired into the matter, he believed that no jury could have carried on that inquiry more carefully or more ably. In their verdict, they said the primary cause of the explosion was the blocking up the mouthing leading to the Smithy mine, and that that was an act of gross ignorance or culpable negligence. The jury found that the secondary cause of the explosion was the unsafe condition of the Half Moon Tunnel owing to insufficient timbering. There was evidence, moreover, that the Astley Deep Pit had been for a certain period "in a state of complete anarchy owing to the interference of Mr. Benjamin Ashton and his' constituting conflicting authorities in the mine." The jury also found that there was distinct evidence as to the employment of incompetent persons and placing them in authority. They added—"The evidence of the authorities in the pit has been given with great hesitation, and with an evident desire to conceal important facts." If a coroner and jury found that difficulty, the House would see how much more difficult it was for the Inspectors of Mines to get the information necessary to enable them to deal with these cases and prevent accidents. The most important portion of the verdict was that in which the jury desired to express "their strong opinion that the present system of inspection is imperfect, and requires full inquiry, with a view to amendment." He agreed that the subject of inspection did require considerable investigation with a view to amendment; but at the same time, he thought there were two dangers which would require to be guarded against when taking that course. He meant that it should not be made so slight as not to form any check upon the managers, but, on the other hand, the House would not wish to put the whole responsibility for mining accidents on the Inspector. It would be most undesirable to shift the responsibility from the shoulders of the owner, who made the profit and worked the mine. Upon the whole, he did not think that a case had been made out for the appointment of a Royal Commission. Parliament had instituted already many inquiries on the subject. Select Committees sat in 1865, and again in 1866 and 1867, and had fully reported on the subject. The whole subject was afterwards fully discussed when the Mines Act of 1872 was passed, and a sufficient interval had not yet elapsed to judge of its Operation. He would, however, on his own responsibility undertake to go through the question carefully during the Recess, to see whether some fresh regulations could not be laid down, so that, wihout removing the responsibility from the owner, which he for one would never consent to do, some further guarantees might be obtained that all due precautions should be taken against accidents in mines, and that the very large sum of money expended on the inspection of mines bore the fruit it ought to bear. That pledge he would redeem as fairly as he could next Session.


said, that after the satisfactory assurance of his right hon. Friend, he would not press his Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.