Whitwick Colliery Disaster 1898
The following summary is taken from “An Account of the Whitwick Colliery Disaster, April 19, 1898.”.
In the early hours of the morning of Tuesday, April 19th 1898, Coalville and the surrounding neighbourhood was startled by new that a fire was raging in the main road of Whitwick No. 5 pit and the lives of some 35 miners in the workings beyond were imperilled. The gravity of the occurrence could not, at first, scarcely be realised, owing to the fact that any very serious trouble in this respect had not been experienced before in any of the Leicestershire collieries. As the hours sped on, however, and matters did not seem to improve, great anxiety began to manifest itself among the people, and the pt bank was speedily thronged with a host of enquirers. Many of these were colliers’ wives, who, becoming alarmed at their husbands not having returned from their nightly duties had hurried to the pit, only to learn the terrible truth. Meanwhile, a party of men and officials had gone to the rescue, and it was the hope that their efforts might be successful which stayed for a time the heartrending scenes which were ultimately witnessed around the top of the pit. Unfortunately, the worst fears which could have been entertained as to the result of the accident were fully realised, and with the exception of the five men who battled with the flames successfully before the news became generally known, the whole of the miners in the pit, 35 in number, were lost.
Briefly, it appears that the alarm was first given about 4.30 a.m., by an old miner named John Bird to the under-manager, Mr. James Clamp, who was aroused at his residence only a few yards away from the colliery. Subsequently, the manager, Mr. T.Y. Hay, arrived and everything, of course, was done to rescue the men. Dr. J.C.S. Burkitt, of Whitwick, and his assistant, Dr. Griffin, were also quickly on the scene and rendered valuable services, while amongst those who subsequently arrived and helped in the work of rescue were: Mr. A.S. Stokes, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Mines, and his assistants, Messrs. Hewitt and Hepplewhite; Mr. G. Lewis, the Company’s engineer; Mr. J. Ford, mining engineer; also the managers and other connected with neighbouring collieries, as well as a good number of the Company’s workmen.
Many theories were set on foot as to the cause of the fire, but the most general seemed to be that it originated from a fire in the “gob” which had been noticed for several months , but which did not seem to have given any more than the ordinary amount of trouble experienced from similar causes. Despite all efforts to quench the flames, they spread with great rapidity, and gained ground until it was deemed necessary to arrest their progress by erecting brick walls or “dams” across the road to prevent air getting to them. This was only adopted as a last resource, and after due consideration, for it was also recognised that it would prevent any air getting to the men, assuming they might be alive. The next course taken was to make a new heading round the seat of the fire and thus get to the stalls where the men were supposed to be. This was eventually completed, and on Friday noon, the body of Charles Clamp was found, while an hour or so later, eight others were discovered in a cluster. During these days of awful suspense the greatest distress had been manifested by the bereaved widows, children and other relatives on the it bank, and in this connection we cannot but mention the kindly attentions and efforts to soothe and comfort them by Mrs. J.J. Sharp, Mrs. E. De Lisle, Mrs. Burkitt, and other well-known ladies. Also the devotion shown by the clergy and ministers of the neighbourhood by remaining almost constantly at the pit head in order, if necessary, to render some service in their particular sphere. As the dead were brought to the surface there was a most sorrowful scene and one which visibly affected the immense crowd of people standing round. The body of Clamp was brought up shortly before three in the afternoon, and the others were brought up soon afterwards. They were removed to the band room, and though greatly disfigured, were subsequently recognised as William Limb, William Davis, Thomas Greasley, Joseph Shaw, John Elliot, Joseph King, William Belcher and John William Platts. The funerals took place on the following Sunday when Coalville was thronged with several thousands of visitors and the scene was one long remembered by all who witnessed it. Other methods were adopted in the mine in the endeavour to recover other bodies. It being February 1899 before the final bodies were removed.
A sad circumstance connected with the calamity was that 28 of the unfortunate miners left widows and families, the total number of children under the age of thirteen being 94. Though all of these were to an extent provided for by the Midland Miners’ Fatal Accident Relief Society, of which the deceased miners were members, it was at once seen that this allowance would be insufficient, and that some effort on their behalf was necessary. Several subscription lists were opened, one being started by the Colliery Company with a donation of £500. The amount collected from all sources, we believe, exceeds £5,000 and the funds have not yet closed. The sympathy of the public which was shown on all sides, was, therefore, manifested in a practical way.
The inquest was opened by Mr. H. Deane as soon as the recovery of bodies was made, but it was only for the purpose of identification. It was resumed at the Masonic Hall, Coalville on Monday, May 9th, and the evidence of Dr. Burkitt as to the cause of death was taken. This was said to be similar in all cases, viz: suffocation from carbon monoxide gas. The proceedings at this stage of the inquiry were more of a formal character, or rather and arrangement as to the lines to be taken, and what was practically the evidence in chief was heard when the inquiry was further resumed on the following Tuesday.