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put into reverse and the cage withdrawn, leaving both men terrified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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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]
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