Mexborough & Swinton Times – Friday 16 January 1931
Houghton Main Disaster.
Inquest Closed: Jury’s Findings.
A Useful Suggestion.
Compressed Air for Testing Shot-Holes.
The inquest on the victims of the Houghton Main Disaster was concluded at Barnsley a Friday.
The explosion occurred on December 12. The injured number 17, of whom seven died.
When the inquest was adjourned the previous day, the deputy, Joseph Netherwood (46), Stoneyford Road, Wombwell, who fired the shot which caused the explosion, was under examination.
The inquest was conducted by the District Coroner, Mr C.J.Hawarth, with whom sat Mr EA Frazer (H.M. Divisional Inspector of Mines) and Mr. G Cooke (H.M. Inspector). Mr A Neil represented the Colliery Company and the deputy Netherwood.
Mr. A Neal represented the Colliery Company and the deputy Netherwood. The Y.M.A. representatives were Messrs. J. Jones (General Secretary), A. Smith, H. Clarney and A.A. Poiner. The general manager of the colliery (Major J. Brass) and other officials were present.
Testing For Gas.
When Netherwood was recalled, his evidence of the previous day was read over to him. He repeated that before firing the fourth shot he made a complete examination of the place and found no gas. In reply to Mr. Jones, witness said he had been a deputy at Houghton Main eleven years and had had the usual re-examination.
Mr. Jones put certain questions to Netherwood regarding tests for gas, upon which the Coroner observed, “Strictly speaking it is not evidence. I will let you put it in for what it is worth.”
Mr. Jones (to Netherwood): Do you now agree that it is your duty as a responsible official to inspect not only on two occasions, but from time to time to test for gas at the ripping edge and in other places described in the regulations?
Witness: That is what I do.
Further replying to Mr. Jones, witness said that if he was not satisfied with the hot holes he would decline to tire the shots. In this instance he approved of the placing of the shot holes. Witness said he had read the pamphlet issued by the Mines Department on the question of shot firing and he knew the department were greatly concerned about the number of accidents arising from shot firing.
Mr. Jones: Do you think four shots were absolutely necessary in a ripping of this thickness and width?—Yes, four holes are usual in this particular gate.
The Office Interview.
Mr. Jones: Now let us see if about this interview about which so much was made yesterday.
What time did you get to the colliery in the afternoon of the explosion—About eleven.
Mr. Jones: About 10 hours after the accident—Yes, sir.
Mr. Jones: That deposes of Mr. Neal’s complaint very effectively. Did you tell Duffield (a previous witness) on this night that you intended to fire four shots?-I cannot I say. It is a long time since.
Witness said it was the custom for the men to remain in concealment until he told them all was clear. He could not recollect what he told Duffield on this occasion.
Mr. Jones: May we take it there is still some doubt about that fourth shot—No. I have no doubt about it.
What is the most shots you have fired in any one shift?—l could not say.
Have you fired twenty? —Yes. Have you fired thirty?—l could not say.
Mr. Jones was proceeding to question Netherwood regarding a statement he was said to have given in the colliery office on the day of the explosion when Mr. Neal objected that the statement was “absolutely valueless” for the reason he gave the previous day.
Netherwood: I remember being asked questions but I don’t remember what I said. Everybody was asking me questions. It was mentioned that at the interview in the colliery office Mr. Jones, the manager, the Mines Inspector and others were present. Witness said it was usual for an inspector to come along and inspect after an accident.
Mr. Jones: What are the regulations concerning a place in which a serious accident has taken place?
Witness: You cannot think of the regulations without reading them. You are reading them, I am not. I may know but perhaps cannot exactly tell you from memory. Netherwood stated that he fenced the place off after the accident and left the pit about 9 o’clock. He did not complain to Mr. Jones or Mr. Frazer that he needed rest.
Mr. Jones proceeded to question Netherwood about the shot holes. Witness said he always marked in chalk the direction he wished the shot holes to be put in
Mr. Jones: Do you remember my asking about a scraper at the colliery office?-I don’t know.
Was it mentioned?—l don’t know.
Did you go down to the colliery office that morning at all?—You know that without asking me.
Do you remember any question being put to you by anyone present?-I cannot say I did.
Mr. Jones put in a dummy charge and Netherwood explained how he used it. He agreed that if he had put the charge into a fracture the shot would virtually have fired in the open.
“Upset and Agitated.”
Witness said he put no stemming into the shot-hole before the charge. He agreed with Mr. Jones that if stemming had been put in before the shot the charge would have been encased and there would have been no explosion. Netherwood said the first official he saw was Naylor to whom he remarked that it had “either struck the switch box or it was the shot.” He added “I was upset and agitated.
Mr. Jones: You were nervous about that fourth shot?
Netherwood: Under the same circumstances I should charge and fire the shot-hole again.
Mr. Jones: The shot had exploded into space?—What work it did was backward.
Did you form the impression that it had exploded in the solid?-I did not form any impression. I had no chance.
Mr. Neal: Did you make any examination of the shot-hole until the examination by the Inspector on the 12th?—I only looked round. I did not touch the hole.
Are you quite sure the hole as you found it before putting in the shot was 2ft. 6 deep? —Yes.
No Suggestion of Neglect.
Are you quite sure you put the shot right up to the end of the hole?—As far as I could get it.
And the stemming in front of the hole in the usual way?—Yes.
Was any unusual quantity of stemming required for the front of the hole?—No. Not unusual.
It has been given in evidence that the hole could be traced to 3ft. 10 at least: so there must have been something preventing you getting beyond 2ft 6?—Yes, sir.
Had the shot spent itself backwards? — Yes, sir.
Had it brought down the rock you expected?—It brought nothing down.
Has any suggestion ever been made against you, that you are neglectful of your duty as a deputy?—No, air, neither by the men or the management.
In reply to Mr. Neal, Netherwood recounted his movements on the day following the explosion. He said he went on duty at 9.30 p.m., came out of the pit at 9 a.m. after going through the turmoil of the accident, went home to Low Valley, a distance of two miles and returned soon after eleven for the examination. He said “I think most of them were asking questions and taking notes.”
Mr. Neal: Did anyone read to you what they had taken down?—No.
Did you sign anything?—No.
Mr Jones: He said he did not remember anything
Mr. Neal: He said he did not remember what was said. I have not asked him what was said.
Netherwood said he was taken down the pit again and finally got home at seven in the evening
Mr. Neal: Who came for you – I cannot say.
Mr. Frazer: Who sent for him? You seem to infer that the Inspector or Mr. Jones sent for him. I think you have insinuated that I asked for him.
Mr. Neal. I am informed you did ask for him and he was sent for at your request.
The foreman: One man has said that he put clay pills in the hole. Did you see anyone put clay in before the shot?—No.
Netherwood added that the detonator wires stretched 25 yards. If someone else had put clay in before the shot be could have distinguished between clay and rock.
Mr Neal intimated that he would call a witness who would prove there was a fall in the gob before the explosion that would cause an emission of gas.
John Carroll, 2, Coronation Street, Darfield said that at the time of the explosion he was drawing timber on 12 pan face when a heavy fall took place in the gob. This occurred about 11.30 p.m. The fall occurred following the drawing of timber. The fall occurred in the nearest gob to where the explosion took place and about three quarters of an hour before the explosion.
Mr. Jones referred to “this afterthought” and added ‘Don’t smile. Mr. Neal—yet.”
In reply to Mr. Jones, Carroll said he was present at the inquest on the 18th of December and was asked by the Colliery Company to be present again. He had had a casual word with Mr. Brass that afternoon.
Following another interchange of words between Mr. Jones and Mr. Neal, the Coroner remarked, “For these remarks to go across this court is neither helping in the administration of justice nor getting to the bottom of this matter. I do ask you to restrain your feelings. I want to give you every opportunity of asking any material question.”
Mr. Jones: I want you to know that this witness was expected to be called and was not a sudden impression of Mr. Neal’s.
Mr. Neal: Why these suggestions should be made I do not know. I have had no interview with the witness and I did not know he was here until this afternoon.
In further cross examination, Mr. Jones obtained from Carroll an admission that the air was travelling in the opposite direction.
Leonard Finder, cable hand, 4, Edward Street, Great Houghton, explained his duties as assistant to Netherwood during shot-firing operations. On the night of the explosion he took up the cable, the battery and the scraper in the usual way.
The Cause of the Explosion.
George Cook, Inspector of Mines, said that on the morning of the 12th he made an inspection of the site of the explosion. Examining the ripping edge in 12 Level he saw what he was told was No.4 shot-hole. Part of the side had been blown away but the markings of the drill could be trace to 3ft. 10 from the mouth. The hole appeared to have gone through to a break which formed a connection with the gob. On the 15th a piece of brattice had been put along the ripping showing gas in the cavity above the shot-hole. This must have come from the left-hand side gob. Two per cent of gas was indicated. On the Friday there was an explosive mixture of gas in the cavity made by the second and third shots. There was also gas up to the three per cent in the gob on the left-hand side. The whole of the waste was broken down on both sides. The safety lamps left on the face were found to be in order; and also the electrical apparatus.
The Coroner: Having examined the place, are you prepared to give a definite opinion as to the cause of the explosion? —The cause of the explosion was clearly the result of firing the fourth shot. This had ignited gas which came through a break in the goaf.
Mr. Cook added that a considerable volume of gas must have been ignited. There was evidence of flame for 79 yards down one aide of the level.
In reply to further questions by the Coroner Mr. Cook said it was very difficult make an inspection after a shot had been fired. The fumes from the shot would affect the vision and also might affect the lamp. Also if the roof was badly broken they could not with safety go underneath it. Any break caused in the roof would be difficult to detect and some minutes might elapse before gas filtered through from the break. The interval before the firing of another shot might allow gas to accumulate.
The Coroner: This is not the first accident of this kind we have come across. Are you prepared to put forward any constructive suggestion?
Witness: If a greater interval was allowed between the shots they would have time to “pluck” down the roof and thus expose any breaks.
The Coroner: In your opinion a longer interval between the shots would tend to safety?—Yes, it would. The shots should not be fired so close together, even after a’ moat rigid and careful inspection.
In reply to Mr. Frazer, Mr. Cook said that breaks were usually first made in advance of the face and opened out as the face advanced. This break would originally occur over or against the face.
Mr. Frazer: So this break must have been there before the shot-hole was bored —Yes.
Mr. Cook added that the second and third shots had exposed the break and would make it obvious.
Was the Hole Clay-Plugged?
Mr. Fraser: Have you any observations to make about a shot-hole being formed with clay in it?
Mr. Neal: I suggest this is quite irrelevant.
Mr. Fraser: Were you in the pit when the deputy admitted to you and me that he had plugged that hole because it ran into a break?
Mr. Neal: This is most unfair. No such questions have been put to the deputy. The deputy has said that he did not know what he did say.
Mr. Fraser: I am not saying he did. I am only saying he said it to me.
Mr. Neal: I cannot have this suggestion against the deputy.
Mr. Cook: He was very clear about it on Friday morning.
The Coroner (to Netherwood): Mr. Cook says that in the pit on the Friday you said you had plugged clay at the back of the hole to cover up a break.
Netherwood: No. sir. That was the front of the hole and the shot had blown down behind that.
Mr. Cook: That is impossible.
Netherwood said he never remembered telling Mr. Cook or anyone else that he had used clay in covering up a break.
Shot Should Not Have Been Fired
In reply to Mr. Jones, Mr. Cook said that from the appearance of the place afterwards the fourth shot should not have been fired.
Mr. Jones: Would you care to express an opinion about gas alarms in mines?
Witness said he would not.
In reply to Mr. Neal. Mr. Cook said there was quite good ventilation on the level and the appliances and everything were in order after the explosion.
Mr. Neal: If these shots had been fired simultaneously do you think there would have hem an explosion?
Witness: I don’t think so. He added that there were many things for and against firing shots simultaneously.
Mr. Neal had offered the suggestion that the concussion of the first three shots had obstructed the fourth shot-hole so that at two feet six it offered complete resistance and gave the shot firer the impression that he was at the back of the hole.
Mr. Cook: We have only got his word for it.
Mr Neal: and why should not have his word as well as anyone else’s? I’m going to submit that this is an effective answer.
Mr Neal added that if the break was 5 feet deep it was impossible to find it at 3 feet 10.
John Taylor, Park View, Little Houghton, said he had been manager at Houghton Main Colliery for two months at the time of the accident. He descended the pit at 1-30 a.m. and everything on the faces was quite normal. He said the break which caused the explosion was between four and five feet in the shot-hole and very difficult to detect. The disturbance in the roof might cause the shot firer to think he was at the back of the hole at two feet six.
Mr. Frazer said could not understand how a whole could contract to an extent of 2 inches in the solid rock.
Mr Taylor: I don’t know what you mean by solid rock.
Mr Fraser: Shall we say undisturbed natural strata?
Witness said they were not working in rock but in a kind of sandstone more friable than rock.
The Coroner, proceeding to sum up, said that as to the cause of death the jury would no doubt find that the men died as a result of burns caused by the explosion. The really important feature of the enquiry was not so much that a considerable number of persons had lost their lives or had been injured, but that the evidence disclosed dangers of explosions in connection with shot firing operations, mishaps in which, so far as the number of persons involved was concerned, was hugely a matter of chance. He wanted the jury to the best of their ability to frame some constructive verdict or rider which would tend to avoid disasters of that type. That disaster was by no means the first of the kind.
The Coroner observed that there was a good deal of conflict of evident, as to the steps taken by the deputy Netherwood who was the person responsible for making the inspection and for firing this shots. Neglect of statutory precautions might under certain circumstances make man liable to be indicted for a very serious crime. They might consider there had been neglect on the part of someone, but on the evidence as it was, he would have to tell them that there was nothing to justify any charge against any person in that case which was a matter for that court to deal with. The jury might be of the opinion that there had been a breach of rule and any remark, they might make on that point would be taken into consideration in another court.
Making further reference to the contradictory nature of the evidence, the Coroner pointed out that whereas one witness had stated that clay was used in a particular way, Netherwood said it was not used in that way at all.
The jury retired for some twenty minutes. When they returned to court the foreman said they wished to frame their remarks under four heads:
1) We have come to the conclusion that death was through burns caused by an explosion through number four shot.
(2) There is no neglect according to the evidence before us.
(3) We believe it would be better for a longer interval to be taken between the shots.
(4) We think something should be provided at the collieries to prevent these explosions because we understand that if there is a good hold without leakages or anything else there is always a sweetie shop. If something of the nature of suction or compression be put into operation, it should be possible to tell by a gauge of the hall was a good one.
Mr Fraser remarked: “It would be very useful and could be easily adopted by using compressed air.” He pointed out, however, that the device would not be successful where there was a break or pocket an inch behind a track of the shot hole and the shot would blow out that partition.
A verdict of “Death by Misadventure” was then returned.