The crumbling earth ripples gently underneath my palms as I dig my fingernails slowly into it. Desperate to feel something – anything – in a place where all your senses are limited. Whether eyes are open or closed, darkness is all there is. The only sense you can be sure of is your hearing, as the definitive tune of water trickling down a hard surface is clear, while creaks and breaks of woodwork in the distance provide very little reassurance of safety.
We’ve been here for two hours, though men before us would have been here for more than twelve each day. They laboured and struggled hunchbacked, sore, hot and damp, 140m below what we all know as ground level. And, 150 years ago, they fell victim to a series of explosions which killed 361 of them. While wives and children waited helplessly, their beloved miners were left buried in the graves they had dug themselves.
The Oaks explosion remains England’s worst ever mining disaster. On December 12, 1866, with less than an hour of the shift remaining, a huge explosion ripped through the workings of the Oaks Colliery site near Stairfoot, Barnsley, blowing the cage shaft into the headgear. There were 340 men underground – only six survived.
When the rescuers entered the pit the next morning they found several badly burned men, but it was just minutes before another huge explosion occurred. There were 28 in the rescue team – only one survived.
“An alarm would have gone out to the rescue station and in double quick time they would put the emergency scheme into operation,” said Stuart Heptinstall, a mining safety officer from 1986 to 1998.
“You can’t go underground without a mine plan, so that would have been put together and used by the officers at the rescue station under what they call operational orders.
“If there’s a fatality or a serious incident, then everybody is involved including the manager, the inspector, the courts, the police, the unions and the insurance. They need a copy of all the documents and they need photos of the incidents.
“If any rescuer was to tell you that they didn’t feel fear, they’d be telling lies.”
This pit was a valuable commodity, but it was also very volatile. It was notorious for fires and, because of this, had seen accident after accident, but none with such severe consequences as this one. The oldest victim of the Oaks was 67. The youngest just 10. His name was Ezra Illingworth.
“They were terrible conditions for the people working down there and there were terrible consequences if anything went wrong,” Stuart said.
“Unfortunately, with the Oaks, it was just a case of get in and get out who you could. The motto for any rescue team was ‘to save life without the further loss of life’.”
The public feeling about the deaths was so strong that it sparked the beginning of legislation to prevent such an accident happening again. The Coal Mines Act of 1911 made the provision of rescue stations compulsory, and by 1919 there were 43 stations in the UK. Additionally, the formation of the Mines Rescue Service meant that a certain amount of men from each mine had to be trained appropriately to deal with emergency situations.
“Disasters in the mining industry were commonplace at one time, and it wasn’t until after the Second World War that we really worked to protect our men and that we could really do something about safety,” Stuart said.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Oaks Disaster, and to remember the families affected, a memorial statue is to be erected in Barnsley later this year, designed and made by world famous sculptor Graham Ibbeson (64) who was born in Barnsley and had a relative die in the tragedy.
“I’ve had a career for 40 years in the arts, but this is the most personal thing I’ve ever done,” Graham said. “It’s an emotional subject and it’s kind of political as well really.”
Standing at four metres tall, the statue is made of bronze and shows a mother holding her child whilst walking over a miner laid underground. Coal can be seen cascading down the woman’s back, displaying what Graham described as “the backbone of England.” It will also be the first memorial to list all the victims’ names.
“It was about a community being devastated, so rather than doing it just about the miner who was killed, I wanted to do it about the symbolic mother and child walking towards the colliery,” Graham said. “Shortly after the disaster there was no safety net for those families – they had nothing.”
Whilst the memorial statue will stand right in the centre of old mining town Barnsley when it is complete, the Oaks Colliery, also known as the Barnsley Main colliery, sits just two miles away, hidden from immediate vision by the fields and greenery that surround it.
Whereas pit heads and winding gear once dominated the skylines of the north of England, today only a few remain, one of those being this site. Now a Grade II listed building, its surviving headgear and winding engine were conserved in the 1970s and remain intact.
It is ghostly and deserted, with only the masses of graffiti on the lower part of its exterior walls to remind us that 150 years have passed since this very pit turned the industry on its head.
Safety expert Stuart added that it’s important for us to remember the mining families who lost relatives in the disaster, but also the mining industry itself.
“Miners and mining communities understand how the relatives of the Oaks victims felt because they know how to endure pain.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re German, Spanish, French or Belgian – miners understand miners and understand mining. It’s something that you can’t bottle; to understand it you’ve got to be a miner.
“Mining communities never forget the people they’ve lost. You can take the man out of a mine, but you will never take the mine out of a man.”
Featured image: Sean Hoyer/ Flickr.