The Combs Colliery Disaster 4th July 1893

Blake Hall

The historic village of Thornhill, near Dewsbury, is situated on a hill on the south side of the River Calder. It’s an important historic site and an area called “The Combs” was named by the ancient Celts, who inhabited the region. Thornhill was mentioned in the Domesday Book and, in the 19th century, it was where many of the author’s ancestors still lived and worked, as miners and quarrymen.

Combs Colliery was one of several pits in the area owned by Edward Theodore Ingham, a member of the local gentry who lived at Blake Hall, Mirfield. Of his other pits, Hostingley had closed in 1880 and Ings, situated on adjacent land to Combs, had closed in 1883. ET Ingham was later to also sink Ingham No 1 and Ingham No 2 Collieries in Thornhill. The family also owned York Textile Mills and confectionery warehouses in York Road, Mirfield.

Many years before, Edward’s father, Joshua Ingham, had engaged Anne Brontë as governess to his older siblings and she had later written a scarcely disguised, and not very flattering, account of her time with the family, in her novel “Agnes Grey”. Edward was the tenth of Joshua Ingham’s thirteen children (or the 11th of 14 by some accounts), but only the second son to survive childhood and was 46 years old in 1893. His older brother had died in 1877 and he was now head of the family.

Combs had been first sunk by Joshua Ingham and was said to have been “set out on the very best principles, regardless of cost”. The pit shaft used for drawing coal was excavated down through the “New Hards Seam” to the “Wheatley Seam”, which was 380 yards below ground. Wheatley was the maiden name of Edward’s wife Francis Alice Wheatley and the seam was perhaps named after his marriage to her and his inheritance of the mine.

Another 25 yards down from the Wheatley seam was the “Blocking Bed”. A second shaft called the “Water Pit” was connected from the surface at the Ings Colliery end, through the New Hards Seam and through the Wheatley Seam into the Blocking Bed. This was used for drawing water. The ventilation flowed through tunnels that also communicated with the Ings Colliery, which was adjoining but no longer worked.

At the time of the accident, the only seam that was being worked was the Wheatley Seam and there was just one shift each day working from 6am to 2pm.

Fatalities in mines had hugely increased in the second half of the 19th century as deep shaft mining increased. However, Combs had always been considered to be a safe pit. Edward Ingham was seen as a responsible owner and was popular with the workforce.

A new Mine Manager, 35 year-old William Scott, had taken up his position on 4th May 1893, when his predecessor, Jesse Taylor retired. Scott had already been a miner for 20 years and had served as under-manager at Brancepeth pit in Durham, before coming to Thornhill. On his appointment, he had been invited by Mr Ingham to inspect the pit and advise of any alterations that might be required but that, if anything was necessary for the safety of the pit, he was to arrange to have remedial work done himself.

The pit records indicated that there had been minor escapes of methane gas (called firedamp) in the past, but that Mr Ingham had made improvements. On the 16th June 1893, an escape of gas was reported from the Blocking Bed but on inspection, no gas was found. Scott had therefore found no cause for concern in the ventilation of the pit and made no changes.

Explosion

Then, just after noon on Tuesday 4th July 1893, during the men’s lunch break, a large explosion occurred in the Wheatley Seam and was heard at the surface by people close to the mine. The sound was followed by smoke and flames escaping from the pithead and a second explosion a few minutes later.

The Shields Daily Gazette reported the day afterwards:

As reported to the extra-special edition of the Gazette last night, a terrible colliery disaster occurred near Dewsbury, yesterday afternoon causing great loss of life. The scene of the calamity is Combs Pit at Thornhill, a suburb of Dewsbury, but owing to there being no telegraph office in the village of Thornhill, where the colliery is situated, the news was some time before it became known. The colliery belongs to Mr Edward Ingham. The first indication of the accident was an explosion in the pit, and when Mr Scott, the manager of the mine, perceived dense volumes of smoke issuing from the mine shaft, little room was left to doubt the possible awful consequences…

…In the course of an interview with a press representative, a man employed at the head of the shaft said that, at twelve o’clock, the men underground, as well as those on the bank, would stop work to get dinner, the interval allowed to the colliers being half an hour. Several of those engaged at the pit head were eating their dinner in a cabin, when they were suddenly startled by a terrific report, “louder than the thunder we had during the past few days.” This was at five minutes past twelve.

Presently, a large volume of smoke belched forth from the main shaft. Then the faces of the men blanched, they looked at one another, and in one breath exclaimed. “There has been an explosion.” A quarter of an hour afterwards there was a second explosion. It was not as loud as the first, but it lifted two flags immediately abutting on to the pit-mouth, and smoke again issued in large quantities.

Shields Daily Gazette 5th July 1893 Page 4 Column 1

Immediate Action

Men and boys working in a coal mine

There were 146 workers below, including 57 boys from the age of 12. The shift comprised 73 coal getters, 40 hurriers (coal drawers), 24 rope-end lads, 4 pit-bottom men and a blacksmith. There also were four mine officials below, including the under-manager.

A signal was immediately rung to the pit bottom but no reply was received. The manager, Mr Scott was sent for – he was at home, perhaps having just walked there for his mid-day meal and came quickly. Mr Ingham, the owner of the colliery, was absent from home, having left for Ireland two days before. A telegram was sent, informing him of the accident, and the reply came that he would return immediately.

The news of the accident spread fast and people rushed to the pithead. Many of the women were in great distress, fearing the worst for their sons, husbands, fathers or siblings. Nobody was immune to the tragedy as, in a close knit mining community like this, everyone would know a miner or a mining family or be somehow related.

The pit manager, Mr Scott, and three rescuers were lowered by cage into the pit as soon as possible after the explosion, but straight away they encountered heat and fumes and had to be pulled back. Trying again, they were again repulsed by a thick cloud of smoke coming from the fires now burning below.

Eventually, the team were able to enter the pit via the water pumping shaft and it quickly became clear that a major explosion had occurred and that fires were burning close by.

Exploration, Rescue and Recovery

The rescue party hoped that the miners were able to exit at the Ings end of the pit…but they soon confirmed that firedamp and smoke was also escaping from there. By 3pm, four bodies had been found near the shaft, but the pit’s ventilation had not been restored, so the search had to be suspended pending the arrival of mining engineers from other pits, who would make plans for how to evacuate the remaining men and boys below.

Meanwhile, everyone feared that the men would suffocate in the fumes and smoke still filling the mine. When engineers arrived, they also failed to access the pit, where fires were still burning. A decision had to be made to put out the fires by pumping water into the mine. Scott connected hose-pipes to the village’s water supply, which supplied more than 300 gallons a minute to the shaft. By 11 pm, it was decided that operations had to be abandoned for the night and at that point it was not expected that they would find anyone alive.

By this time, desperate and grieving families had been standing for hours, hoping for news but gradually realising that there could be many, many deaths. The crowd had grown from hundreds to thousands during the afternoon and evening, but by dark, all but the nearest and dearest had dispersed to their own homes, leaving the desperate relatives to be comforted by friends and clergymen. Mr Ingham arrived from Ireland about 4am, having travelled all night.

Crowds at the Colliery, awaiting news

By the morning, the ventilation of the pit was restored sufficiently for a party of engineers, mine inspectors and the mine manager to attempt again to access the Wheatley seam. On descending, they found that the firedamp had cleared and they could conduct a search. They soon found 86 more bodies, many of whom had travelled some distance after the explosion but none were burned. There were also dead ponies. A few of the dead men were on their knees…perhaps they had been praying for rescue while also preparing for death. Some were found as if asleep; one had written a message to his wife on a corf (mine-cart) with a piece of chalk, saying “Goodbye, Betsey, love, do your best. From your loving Tom. God Bless us all.” Tom had laid down and died next to his corf, the chalk still in his hand.

Soon there was some better news. A miner called Joshua Ashton was the first found to be still breathing and was tended by a doctor and brought up to the surface.

Half an hour later, Henry Wraithmell, of Thornhill Edge, Joesph Mallison of Middlestown and John Garthfitt, of Thornhill Edge were brought up alive. They were followed by Friend Senior of Thornhill, Squire Shires of Middlestown. Richard Wood and Willie Lightowler of Thornhill and John Heywood, of Middlestown, were also rescued. Of those nine rescued, Joshua Ashton died two hours later and John Heywood died the following evening.

No more men or boys were brought up alive.

The Dead

The ages of the 139 miners who died ranged from 12 to 70. Fifty-seven of them, almost a half, were just children.

Three bodies were burned beyond recognition, but the majority of the dead had no physical injury at all.

The dead were brought up and laid out on the floor of the Parochial Hall, just across the road from the pit, and the bodies were numbered. The women of the village washed the corpses and laid them out ready for burial, but it would be six days before the inquiry was opened and the bodies had to remain in situ until then.

Relief Fund

Portrait of ET Ingham © C Richards

In the late 19th Century, the amount and range of compensation offered to mineworkers and their dependants was very variable. Some mineworkers’ unions established accident insurance schemes, but often they reduced the benefits that they had undertaken to provide. Charitable donations were sometimes the only assistance that victims or their families could rely on, after an accident.

Later that week, Edward Ingham, looking distressed and weary, met local businessmen and members of Dewsbury Corporation, at the Scarborough Hotel, in Dewsbury, to form a Relief Committee to help the bereaved families. Newspaper proprietors all over the country were helpful in publicising the appeal for donations.

The Miners’ Association calculated that it required £150 per head to enable five shillings a week to be paid to widows and two shillings a week for children up to thirteen years of age. This came to a total sum of £21,000.

The Dewsbury Co-operative Society’s “Munificent Members” granted a sum of £1000. Mr Ingham also donated £1000 and offered to pay for all the funerals.

Mr Ingham’s Statement

An article in the Dewsbury Reporter newspaper recorded a statement by Mr Ingham, the colliery owner, to the Relief Committee:

Mr Ingham, speaking under the influence of great emotion, described in detail the conditions under which he had received the telegram announcing the terrible disaster. This memory would remain with him for the rest of his life and neither could he ever forget the sights which awaited him at Thornhill. They had been enough to make the stoutest heart quail.

He was indebted, and would be forever, to the courageous and admirable rescuers who had risked their lives for their fellow men. They had indeed done a noble service.

Mr Ingham, recounting his state of mind on that day and on the following day when he arrived back in Dewsbury, said he had received the telegram informing him of the calamity just as he was sitting down to luncheon, which was being served later than usual. He immediately obtained a horse and vehicle but found that the train started at ten minutes past three from Limerick and he had only forty-eight minutes in which to get there. The best black mare on the road could only cover the distance in fifty minutes, therefore he had to give up the attempt to catch the train. It had been absolutely impossible to be at the station in time, for the train, being a mail train, started punctually, which meant he could not leave Limerick until eleven that evening.

He got information on Wednesday the best way he could and each telegram seemed to be worse than the one before. He arrived in Thornhill about half-past four o’clock, and his arrival under such circumstances was enough to have made the stoutest heart quail.

Mr Ingham continued that on the way back to Dewsbury he could not help feeling as if it did not matter one bit about the colliery. All the time he was in the train he could feel the words “widows and orphans” ringing in his ears. He was completely upset. He said he did not leave the pit till between two and three o’clock in the morning, and when he went home for the night he could hardly stand.

He said that he could now tell the committee that every inch of the pit had been explored, and that he knew exactly how many men had been involved. He said there would be 138 bodies, with nine men having been brought out, one of whom had expired and another being seriously ill and he believed the return was accurate, for the figure had been obtained from the number of lamps found and by other means.

Mr Ingham, visibly moved and unable to contain his emotions, said he would work on the Executive Committee as much as ever they wished him to do so, but he begged them not to ask him to go into all the individual cases. At this point he broke down sobbing and members of the committee spontaneously and sympathetically signified their desire to spare him any unnecessary pain.

Mr Ingham composed himself and proceeded to explain that the mine had been very slightly damaged, and if the men had been there to work the mine, it would have been possible to start work again on Monday morning as if nothing had happened. He added that whenever the secretary wanted the money he could draw upon him (Mr Ingham) to the extent of £1,000. He only hoped that the bereaved could be helped through. At the conclusion of his address, Mr Ingham completely broke down, and sobbed like a child, with his head in his hands.

The Scarborough Hotel is in Market Place, to the left of Lidbetter’s Grocery, next to the Railway Station

One of the members, who remembered the pit being sunk, stated that no expense had been spared to make the pit safe, regardless of cost. He had never heard any criticism of how the mine had been run. People who didn’t know about mining tended to think that something was not done that should have been done, but he felt sure that this was not the case. At this point, Mr Ingham broke down again.

Donations to the Fund

Donations came in from all over the county and all were acknowledged in the columns of newspapers. More than £30,000 was raised.

Widows would receive seven shillings and six pence (7s 6d) per week. Children who lost a father would receive 3 shillings a week. Grandmothers or grandfathers and others who had depended entirely on those killed for support, also received 7s 6d. Entirely orphaned children received 7s 6d but only up the age of 15. Parents who had lost a boy in the explosion received a lump sum of £40.

However, unless they could re-marry, the widows would suffer great hardship. As coal hewers, most of their menfolk would be earning a good wage compared to labourers above ground, possibly about 6 shillings for each shift. Given six shifts worked each week, that would be a wage of one pound sixteen shillings each week, almost 5 times the payout that the widows would receive. Very few of the dead had their lives insured.

The Coroner’s Inquest

An inquest was held in the Local Board Offices, Thornhill on the 11th and 12th July. On the first day, the Coroner, mine officials, Mr Ingham and the jury went to the Parochial Hall to view the bodies, which were still waiting to be buried.

Explosions in mines from methane gas known as “firedamp” were a constant threat in deep shaft mining. The inquiry confirmed that the miners used a type of safety lamp originally designed by Humphrey Davey to prevent explosions, but there were also porches and lamp stations at Combs pit, where naked flames burned.

It was certainly known by the workers, perhaps widely, that methane gas occasionally escaped in small quantities from a fault line at the Wheatley seam. The recently retired mine manager, Jesse Taylor, had made an attempt to use a pipe to conduct this jet of gas to light the porches. However, ventilation was generally very good and gas had not been a serious problem.

A foreman mason, George Sheard (distantly related to the author), had been called in a year before, to “make apertures through the brick lining of the downcast shaft, just under the landing in the shaft at the Wheatley seam.” He found no gas then, but on a subsequent visit, they had to cut through some brickwork and some gas had escaped, though not enough to stop them from working and they “made up the hole with bricks and cement”.

When Mr Scott, the Manager, was recalled to give further evidence on this, he stated that the fault below the Wheatley bed did not come to his knowledge until after the explosion….and if he had known that gas was present in large quantity, he “might have replaced the open lights with safety lamps at the shaft bottom”. However, he did not consider any gas escaping to be a dangerous amount.

In the opinion of Mr Frank Wardell, giving evidence as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Mines, “all the lives were lost by suffocation”.

The Jury returned after considering the evidence and the foreman read out the following verdict:

The unanimous verdict of the jury is that James Scargill and the other 138 persons were accidentally killed as a result of an explosion in the Combs pit on the 4th July.

We desire also to record our opinion that great praise is due to the gentlemen who formed the rescue parties for their action in the matter.

We are also of the opinion that this pit should not be worked in future with naked lights at the bottom of the shaft.

Dewsbury Reporter

There was no public outcry, no criticism of the pit owner and there were no demands for compensation. This would probably not happen in today’s litigation-conscious society. The families appear to have been grateful for what Mr Ingham was doing for them. He had always been well-liked by his workers, whom he generally addressed by their Christian names.

The Funerals

The whole cost of all the coffins and the funerals was borne by Mr Ingham. Most of the coffins were of red deal, polished, and had brass plates containing the name, date of death, and age of the respective occupants. Many were made at Mr Ingham’s own works.

Thousands of mourners and spectators came from all over the district. The Thornhill Brass band, chiefly composed of miners, played the Dead March during the memorial service…three of their members were among the dead. Two of the dead miners, brothers Aquilla and Charles Booth had been, respectively, Organist and Choirmaster at Thornhill Edge Church.

The first funerals were those of James Scargill and Rowland Garthfitt which took place on Thursday afternoon and these were followed by sixteen on Friday. The task of preparing the graves for so many was a serious one and we cannot speak too highly of the way this was carried out by our sexton with a large number of Mr Ingham’s workmen and others engaged for the purpose.

The Churchyard was so densely crowded on the Friday afternoon that the work of grave digging became impossible. In view of the necessity of getting on with this work and of ensuring order and reverence in the Churchyard during the great number of funerals which would take place on Saturday it was decided to allow only the funeral parties to enter the Churchyard the following day.

For more than eight hours on Saturday the sad duty of solemnly and religiously committing the dead to their graves was performed. the Bishop of the diocese was present and took part in the services for a considerable time.

The expenses were borne by Mr Ingham. By a quarter past eight the burial service had been said for the last time and the bodies of one hundred and ten of those who perished in the explosion were consigned to their quiet resting places in our Churchyard. Of the remaining twenty nine, one Mr Hawksworth, was buried at Outwood, three in the Baptist Burial ground, six at Thornhill Lees, sixteen at Whitley, one at Dewsbury and two the following day at Flockton.

Thornhill parish magazine

The Human Stories

This photograph shows young coal miners posed outside a colliery in the USA around 1900. British child miners would wear a traditional northern “flat cap”. This group is similar in age and number to the boys who died at Thornhill that day.

In total, 139 miners including all 57 boys were killed in the Combs Colliery disaster. Each lost life had a story to tell but only a few details are reported here.

65 women were widowed and 230 children were left without fathers, 182 of whom were under working age. Many of the women had lost their sole breadwinner and some had lost both husband and sons.

Harriet Wood and her four surviving children taken five years after the disaster.

One woman, Elizabeth Firth lost her husband Eli and three sons. Elizabeth had seven more children, none of whom were of working age. Joshua Ashton died with his son John. His widow had five more children, all under working age. Squire Roberts, whose wife had died a few months before, left a now orphaned family of six children, aged from one to 16 years. Joshua Ellis left a widow and four children.

Harriet Wood lost her husband William and two of her four sons, named John and Friend. She had very recently also lost a daughter aged nine months and had six more children to care for alone. Harriet suffered great hardship for many years afterwards and, seven years after the disaster, she was forced to send a third son, 12 year old Harry, down the same pit where his father had been killed.

One of the miners killed was Benjamin Milnes, who was due to be married on the Saturday after the inquest to a Miss Jessop, of Thornhill Edge. Benjamin had obtained a house for the young couple, newly painted, decorated and furnished it. Benjamin’s brother and father were also killed. Benjamin was buried on the day he would have been married and the taxi cab that had been ordered for the wedding was used instead to carry his body to his funeral.

The youngest child left without a father was two week old Georgina Fenton, Her father, George Fenton also left a widow, Sophia, and two more children, Ada and Ernest. Georgina became no stranger to loss. She grew up, married and had ten children. One of her sons, aged 28 and engaged to be married, was killed at Denby Dale Colliery, when she was 50, and her husband Len Pickles died from chronic bronchitis caused by inhaling coal dust.

It is always the case that chance plays a part in who lives and who dies. The blacksmith who died had just descended the shaft immediately before the explosion occurred in order to shoe one of the ponies.

Joseph Mallinson had only started work at the pit that week and John Heywood was also in his first week. John Croft who had been off sick for a month had just returned to work and James Smith had also just returned from a week on the sick list.

There were also four mine officials of the colliery underground at the time, including Amos Hawksworth, the under manager, who had descended in the lift immediately before the explosion occurred…he had only made it thirty yards along the workings, where his body was found.

The Survivors

The survivors

Some of the surviving miners were able to speak to the press a couple of days later.

Squire Shires reported that he didn’t hear the explosion but his light went out. Instead of going forwards to the shaft, he went back to the coal he had just dug out and lay down on it. He fell asleep there and when he woke he shook Richard Wood, who was lying close by, to keep him awake. When they heard the rescue party the next day, they struck the corves with their hammers until they were rescued some hours later, when they were both in a very weak condition.

Survivor John Garfitt recovered in hospital and on waking, sat up and felt himself all over, then said

By gow, I mun git out of this. There’s nowt’ matter wi me and I mustn leave mi work, laikin about ‘ere.

Dewsbury Reporter

This translates as “By God, I must get out of this (hospital). There’s nothing wrong with me and I mustn’t leave my work, playing about here (i.e. taking time off)”. John later returned to Combs Pit, where he worked for another 20 years without mishap.

Thornhill Colliery resulted from the merging of the Ingham and Combs Collieries in 1948, following nationalisation and it was closed in 1971. Many who worked there would have lost family members in the 1893 disaster.

Memorial

A huge mining wheel, rescued from Denaby Main Colliery, Mexborough, in south Yorkshire, was due to be installed in the centre of Dewsbury in 2020, on the Longcauseway, as a memorial to the dead of Combs Colliery. The author made enquiries about this in November 2020 and it seems that the project has been delayed until possibly 2022.

© Christine Widdall