Heroism and a Miraculous Rescue

(JM Fletcher (from The Blackcountryman Volume 2, Issue 2)

Ninelocks Ordeal (This article contains much information, and photos. It is written more from the perspective of the trapped men. Names and details of those men are in this article)

At 9.30pm on Tuesday the 16th of March 1869, James Grainger, experienced engineer in charge of the pumping engine of the Earl of Dudley's Wallows Colliery, Brierley Hill, Number 29 pit, known as the Ninelocks Colliery, received a routine message from the bottom of the shaft from colliers at work in the pit; they wished to check the time with him.

The engineer asked the routine question "Is everything in order down there?" The pit was known to be a safe one, often used as a show piece for visitors to the area, so an answer in the affirmative was not unexpected.

Mr Grainger then continued his usual supervision of the engine throughout the night. Suddenly at 2am, he was surprised to see a great burst of steam rise from the shaft. He gave the alarm and so set under way one of the most amazing rescue operations in the history of Black Country mining.

The first men to descend the pit to find out what had happened were the banksman, Joseph Lewis, and the doggy Samuel Thompson. Before they could reach the bottom of the shaft the cage struck water and both men were plunged several feet below the surface. Fortunately, the winding engine was quickly put into reverse and the cage withdrawn, leaving both men terrified but unharmed. It was now clear what had happened; a sudden inrush of water had burst into the pit, extinguishing the furnace at the bottom of the shaft, which assisted the ventilation of the colliery. This had produced the rush of steam up the shaft, which had been the first warning of the disaster.

At the time of the flooding, 13 men were on duty in the colliery, 6 in the 'gobb' workings, and 7 more deeper into the pit. Their details are contained in another article on this website (see link at the top of this page). The loss of those men would leave many widows and orphans. As news spread through the Brierley Hill area, relatives and friends of the trapped men hurried to the pit-head to watch in silence the efforts of the rescuers.

Mining engineers believed the water must have broken into the pit from some distant old workings, for the Ninelocks colliery was about 7 yards deeper than surrounding works. Fortunately, however, the pit workings, following the 'crop' of the coal moved upwards as they left the bottom of the shaft. It was hoped that the areas where the colliers worked would remain dry if the water ceased to rise. The immediate problem was to lower the depth of water in the colliery so that volunteers could be sent down to search for the trapped men.

The colliery's own pumping engine was put to work at full strength, a small pump was also brought to the pit, and a large bucket was lowered down and up the shaft to bring water from the mine. Miners meanwhile, began working in relays in a desparate attempt to break into the pit from nearby workings. At first the pumps seemed to be losing the race against time as the water level in the shaft dropped painfully slowly. Then, the level began to drop more quickly as it became apparent that the inrush of water had ceased. Rescue workers redoubled efforts to lower the water to such a level that men could be sent down the shaft to shout into the workings.

Total Darkness

Meanwhile, for the trapped men, at first they did not realise their plight. At the end of their shift they found their way out blocked by water, they could also hear the pumping engines and knew that rescue efforts were under way. They watched the movement of water, first toward them, then its halt, then the recession. The light then failed and they spent the rest of the time in total darkness.

To help follow the progress of the water the men placed lumps of rock or coal at the edge of the water, and checked the position a few hours later. Times were worse for the men in the 'gobb' workings, as they were the first affected by choke damp. Some relief came with fresh air forced in the the dropping of the bucket at the other side of the water.

Things looked grim after 3 days trapped. William Ashmore suddenly lost his senses, took off all his clothes, blundered off into the workings, and disappeared. Stephen Page tried to cheer his comrades with prayer and hymns:


"Ah still 'ad hope as 'ow me light warn't gone out none the more in 'eaven. 'Ave fairth, for though we wuz left 'ere, God will never leave we."

While they still had light, the men had already written farewells to their families


"Dear wives, we are singin' an prayin' while we'm dying. The Lord 'as promised ter be a 'usband ter the wider, 'an a faerther ter the faertherless child." "Then (added one of the men later) ah put some kisses fer the kids an' the missis."

The rescuers had conducted pumping operations so successfully that by Saturday, almost 4 days after the flooding, a descent of the pit could be made. Mr F Smith, Principal Agent of the Earl of Dudley, Mr Greenaway, the mine agent, and Mr Plant, the butty, descended the pit and shouted into the workings. There was no response, their lamps showed the presence of choke damp and when this news was announced to the huge crowd at the pit-head, the men were given up as lost.


During a lull in the rescue work on the next day however, voices were heard from the shaft and immediately a descent was made. This was halted by the presence of choke damp, and efforts to clear the shaft of gas were redoubled. When the cry "Let we 'ave the bond" was heard from below ground, 5 men volunteered to descend the shaft. Roped to the cage so that they would not fall out if overcome by gas, Plant, Cartwright, Brown, B and S Thompson were lowered down the shaft and made contact with the men in the 'gobb' workings. A raft was called for, and Thomas Brown made the dangerous journey to reach the men, floating to them on the surface of the flood water and urged on by the cry "Oh Tum, cum on as quick as yo con!" Taylor, Hickman and Sankey were first fetched up the shaft, wrapped in blankets and given medical treatment. Sankey's first words on reaching the surface were "Ave yo' sent ter tell me mother?"

Page and Holden were found further into the workings. These two were in a worse state, being badly affected by gas; they could not speak and were carried to the cage on the backs of their rescuers. As they were brought to the pit-head an eye witness reported "the air rang with joyous enthusiasm", but the crowd was horrified at the thin-faced appearance of the two men and at their heavy and thick breathing. So badly affected were they that the two doctors in attendance refused to allow them to be moved from the pit top. These men had been trapped underground for 120 hours.

Encouraged by their success, the rescuers pressed on to lower the water level sufficiently to reach the remaining men trapped underground in the lower workings. Also to search for William Ashmore, whom they feared to be already dead. His naked body was in fact found shortly afterwards, and a post mortem concluded he had died from the effects of the gas in the pit.

All Alive

On the following day, Monday, the rescuers were able to shout into the lower workings. To their intense surprise they heard the reply come back loud and clear "All alive". Again floating through the workings on their rafts, the rescuers were able to reach 6 of the 7 trapped men and bring them out.

130 Hours

The men had been below ground for 130 hours, and had kept themselves alive by drinking the flood water, chewing coal, and eating the leather from their shoes. There was sad news of the oldest member of the group, Benjamin Higgs, he had quickly become exhausted and had been unable to keep up with the group as they crawled together through the workings. At times his senses had appeared to have deserted him, and he had become delirious. He had urged his colleagues to leave him because by doing so it would increase their chance of survival.

Again the rescuers descended the pit to search for the last man. At 5.30pm they found him, lying up to his neck in water, but alive.

This signalled the end of a rescue operation that had been more successful than any of them had expected when details of the disaster were first known.

Humanised Bulldog

The tragic events were not without their bizarre humour. The widow of William Ashmore seemed to have been more concerned with the fate of his watch and the money she knew to have been in his pocket than with his suffering. George Skidmore (the prize fighter) survived surprisingly well. While below ground he had spent most of the time asleep, telling colleagues he might as well die in comfort. When brought to the surface he insisted on walking from the pit-head, refusing medical help. He greeted friends cheerfully and seemed more concerned about getting a pipe of tobacco and discussing the running of a dog in a local race than his terrible experience. During the next few days he scandalised some of the local people and the editor of the Dudley Herald by spending a considerable time relating his experiences in local pubs with inevitable results. The editor called him a "humanised bulldog" and expressed the wish that it would have been better if one of the lost horses in the pit had been saved.

For us in the Black Country, well over 100 years after these remarkable events, more permanent impressions remain. The behaviour of both the trapped miners and those involved in the rescue operation was quietly impressive. Timothy Taylor's sacrifice of his food, his courage in swimming to the bottom of the shaft and his readiness to help the young boy trapped with him is very moving. Stephen Page's natural use of words show an ability to manipulate the dialect of the Black Country and the language of the bible to produce many memorable and touching phrases. Those of the rescuers who descended the pit and floated through the workings knew they were exposing themselves to the risk of death from the unknown amounts of choke damp in the pit. Their courage should not be forgotten.

The author of this article spoke with a 90 year old miner from Brierley Hill in the 1960s, this disaster was mentioned. The miner said he had personally known one of the men trapped in the pit. In later life this collier would often tell of the moment he was rescued:

"Ah saw the light a cummin over the waerter an ah thought: its the Angels o' the Lord a cummin ter tek we ter 'eaven."

When asked later about his experience Stephen Page would often remark "We wus moithered occasionally" but to his close friends he would quietly remark "No tongue can tell what we 'ave suffered."

The Editor of the local advertiser, after describing the events, added "It will be told to our children and our childrens children."

[The author - JM Fletcher - acknowledges Harry Hickman of Lower Gornal who supplied information about the disaster. Also to Linda Hughes of Dudley Library who assisted in finding documentary evidence of the rescue operation]

Email the web master Mick Pearson: .