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Colliery Disaster

Find out just how dangerous coal mining was right here...

Mining was at the centre of The Black Country’s communities and industry, but mines were dangerous places.  In this episode we find out more, and also learn about a terrible fire at the Rounds Green Colliery in 1846.

Coal – the heart of The Black Country

Coal was a vital part of what we call the ‘Industrial Revolution’ a period of time when people started using machines and engines to make goods and power using raw materials and fossil fuels. Coal was really the driving force behind this whole thing and without it we would not be where we are today in terms of technology and industry.

A dangerous business

The problem with coal though, even though it was all around us and especially in this area, was that it was very dangerous to collect. The whole country relied on coal as a source of energy, all of the industry we had relied on coal, from the blacksmith working the forge, to the factory owner needing to power his machines.

The people who mined the coal were the ones who suffered the most, not only was it a difficult and tiring job, but the working conditions were awful. It was dark, dirty and life threatening.

Why might mining be dangerous?

Cave-ins (physical injury) – where the ceilings and walls of the mine collapse in on the workers.

Gunpowder – it was used to blast the rock face, but explosions could cause injury and death.

They might hit their head – in the dark narrow corridors, this was a real concern.

It’s dark! – that meant it could be easy to get lost or trip over.

And GAS!  Gas was responsible for the Colliery Disaster in the Black Country at Rounds Green.

The Danger of Gas

Air, it’s all around us but it isn’t just one thing. It is made up of lots of different gasses, do you know what it is mostly made of? Nitrogen is the answer, lots of people think its oxygen. We are very lucky that there is a mixture of gases in the air. Everyone knows that oxygen is what our body needs, but it would be poisonous to us if it was the only thing we breathed! It is having the right mix in the air around us that keeps us alive. Below ground though, in caves and mines, there can be a build-up of the other types of gas that can really cause harm to anyone that goes down there.

One type of harmful gas in mines was Methane, a very flammable gas known as ‘Fire Damp’

Another, Carbon Dioxide was known as “Choke Damp” . It’s all around us still, but in smaller amounts. It is also the gas that we breathe out as well. But if we breathed in too much of it then our bodies would suffocate because they wouldn’t have access to oxygen to keep them alive.

So how can we detect bad air?

You might think you could just use your nose, but Carbon Dioxide is a gas that doesn’t have a smell. Do you think we can see it? Of course not, it’s all around us right now and we can’t see that, so we’re not going to see it in the dark underground.

The Candle Test

So, there was a test that they did. Fire needs oxygen to burn. By lowering a candle into  mine they could detect if carbon monoxide had pushed the oxygen out. If this was the case, when they lower the candle into it the flame would no longer burn.

Building Towers

A way to remove gases was by building a tall tower on top of the contaminated mine and making a fire. The air inside that tower got very hot, hot air rises and the colder air from the mine would be sucked up and out. They could pump the air directly from the mine but that would have taken a lot longer.

The Davy Lamp

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What they really needed though was a safe way of checking that the mine was safe. And progress was made with invention that really changed everything in terms of working in a safer environment. Sir Humphry Davy created something called The Davy Lamp. It was a way of testing the air but did not ignite if there were any explosive gasses around.

The original Davy lamp had holes on the outside let through the explosive air and the lamp would burn brighter, but the holes would stop the flames from coming out and igniting the mine, making it much, much safer for those going down.

In time more solutions would make mines safer – but the changes did not necessarily come from wanting to help the miners. It came from the need to increase profits and the best way of doing that, was by stopping the mines from being dangerous for the miners. The Davy Lamp was a massive step forward in improving the working conditions and safety of the miners. Even though it was still a very dangerous job the lamp was a tiny step to helping those people who worked the mines.

The Fire in the Colliery.

The Rounds Green New Colliery was located on the slopes of the Rowley Hills, in Newbury Lane. It was accessed via a “skip” that was raised and lowered in a shaft by a winding engine, and used the traditional pillar and stall method of mining.

On the morning of Tuesday 17th November 1846 there was an explosion at the colliery killing 19 men and boys and seriously injuring another 5.

The colliery was mainly lit using candles. However it was the job of the “doggy” (one of the supervisors), to test the workings for gas in the morning before the men had started their shift. He would do this using a safety lamp.   If gases were detected, it was his responsibility to organise their removal before work could commence. This was achieved by either “brushing” – literally sweeping the gas out of the mine by flapping jackets high up to waft the gas into the air current – or by “firing the gas”. All men should be evacuated from the mine while gas was present.

What went wrong?

It was fire damp – or methane – that had been detected in the mine. It also seemed likely that recommended procedures were not followed: the “doggy” was testing for gas when the men were already in the mine ready for work, and once detected the men were not immediately evacuated until the gas was removed.

A special Government Inquiry was set up to look at the mine’s ventilation arrangements, which were not good enough. The accident was reported nationally, and was partly instrumental in instigating the first “Act for the Inspection of Coal Mines in Great Britain” in 1850 and the subsequent introduction of new mine safety regulations.

Activity: Write a story

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The Black Country had a lot of kids working in the mines as employers didn’t have to pay them much!

It was a really difficult and dangerous job for the adults, but it was even harder for the kids.

Try writing a short story about a child miner and see if you can imagine what it would be like to have that job.

MOBILE: History for Kids

Discover what life for children was like throughout the ages

Adventures Through Time is made with support from The Black Country Living Museum

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Adventures Through Time

Learn all about The Black Country and its amazing history with this series!

More From Adventures Through Time