Townhead 1913

Townhead Mine Disaster 13 March 1913

Probably the most famous occurrence in the history of the Egremont Mines, Cumberland, was the Townhead Pit Disaster, which although it did not claim as many lives as many local accidents, did have a unique claim to fame.

 The uniqueness was

  • the length of time men spent trapped underground, and

  • the means of keeping them alive by use of a borehole from the surface.

Townhead Pit was situated in the fields to the south of the Egremont to Cleator road, and the shaft concerned, No.7, was sandwiched between the road and the railway, having only recently been completed at the time of the accident.

The story began on the morning of Thursday, March the 13th 1913, when the morning shift of iron-ore miners at Townhead Pit rode the cage down to their workplace at six o'clock.  Of the eighty-odd men employed on the shift, only the first three cage-fulls, twelve men, had descended the shaft to go to their workings, when the alarm was raised. The first cage contained Edward Green, Sylvester Burns, James Ward, and Joseph Rooney.

An experienced miner, Joseph Rooney from Cleator, was the first to sense the danger as he and Green reached the bottom of the first brake. He felt a quickening of the air current, and knowing that water from the old Bains No.10 Pit had recently been trickling through from No.14 working, he shouted "The water is coming in." to the others. As he made for the shaft the rushing water could be heard roaring into the workings.

He met Burns and Cairns at the end of a drift, in darkness, as Burns's light had been blown out, and warned them, and also James McShane, who was still walking in to his workplace at No.10 working, when he met him.

At the shaft, they met Bob Skelton, James Duffy, and Joseph Cowan, but Cairns, who had seen Jimmy Ward taking a bogie in to his working, had run up the drift to warn him.

There was a great deal of confusion at the shaft as the first four, Rooney, Skelton, Duffy and Cowan ascended in the cage. The others, Green and Burns, followed by Graham, McNulty and Bewley who had just arrived, made for the shaft ladder. It was as they lifted the canvas door into the pump-shaft that the lights were blown out.

Green ascended the wrong ladder, and found himself at the top of a shorter ladder installed to maintain a haulage pulley-wheel in the shaft. There he would have been stranded, but Burns, who had ascended the shaft-ladder, struck a match, and Green traversed the three feet separating the ladders on one of the stays.

It appears that Bewley must also have done this, and having only recently started at the mine, he was unaware that the other ladder could be reached, and there he remained, to be cut off and later drowned by the rising waters.

McShane had waited in darkness for the second cage, which arrived as the water reached his middle. He shouted over the noise for any others to join him, but his words went unanswered, and he knocked for the cage to ascend. A cage was sent back down, but was to jam itself in the shaft, probably being unseated from its guides when it hit the rising water.

On the surface, the alarm and the returning men caused great commotion and once the head-count was taken, and three men found to be missing, John Marsh, the overman, descended the pit by the ladder at 6.20 to find the water was 25ft deep in the shaft and still rising.

The three missing men were, John Cairns, a widower with a large family, James Bewley, also a widower with four children, and James Ward, a single man.

The mine, like many in the area, used the water-box principle of draining water from the mine, which was a large cistern usually attached to the underneath of the man-riding cage, holding 250 gallons, which had clack-valves fitted that allowed water to enter when the box entered the water in the sump, and on reaching the surface, a striker plate automatically emptied the water into surface drains.

So, such a water-box was fitted to the cage then at the surface, but when an attempt was made to lower it, and consequently lift the cage at the bottom, it moved only a few inches and jammed. Once this was discovered, arrangements were made to use the one box alone until the other cage could be freed.

At this point two of the management arrived, Mr W W Casson (managing director) and Mr J B Kitchin (director and consulting engineer) accompanied by the H M Inspector of Metalliferous Mines, Mr W Leck. They quickly sent word to both Liverpool and Barrow for divers to be sent to attempt to free the second cage.

During the morning large crowds began to form on the roadside alongside the mine, anxiously awaiting information on those trapped.

Three hundred feet below them, Cairns, who had assisted in the sinking of the mine and knew every inch of the ground, used his wide knowledge of the mine, to guide Ward through the deepening water along a long stone drift running beneath the road towards Clints Brow, grabbing a handful of candles on the way, and ascended a rise at the end, to reach workings into which he knew a surface borehole had penetrated seven weeks previously, and which he hoped would be above the rising water. Once there, the pair sat and watched the water inching up the slope towards them.

This surface borehole was to be the saviour of the two miners, but from research by the writer, was not as much a fortunate coincidence as contemporary newspapers made out. The papers spoke of the borehole being recently completed, and the tubing having not yet been removed, (as was the usual practice), when the accident happened. Even the learned "Colliery Guardian", in its article on the use of boreholes for life-saving (March 28th 1913) neglected to inform its readers that the company had deliberately left the tubes in. But such was the case.

Not only this borehole, No.9 Surface Borehole, but also the following No.10 Joint Borehole, had been left with tubes intact; indeed No.9 Borehole journal was noted in the log as "All tubes left in for ventilation purposes if required when the new Pit sunk". As the No.7 Pit was still sinking then, this showed remarkable forethought by the engineers, and was no doubt in order to save the cost of using air shafts, three of which existed in the older parts of the mine around Nos. 1 and 3 Pits.

No.10 Joint Borehole had been sunk, financed by both the Townhead and the Moss Bay Mining Companies, as it was placed on the boundary between the two mine royalties, on Clints Brow, West of the Quarry near the Dynamite Magazine. Commenced in March 1909, it was to reach a depth of 486 feet, with 51ft of 6" tube, and 32ft of 5" tube left in it, but appears from current mine-plans not to have been reached by the workings, despite having bored through two narrow flats of ore.

So it was little wonder that Mr Casson Jnr was to suggest to the officials guiding rescue attempts, that they should check to see if the borehole had been remembered by Cairns, who was known to have worked in the area in which the borehole had penetrated.

Nevertheless it was a great relief that the first shout down the hole at 11am, was answered by the two men. They assured the officials that they were both well, but cold, having been partially immersed by the rising waters, and asked for the time. They had not however seen the third man, Bewley. A watch was quickly lowered to them, and preparations were made to provide other essentials for their comfort until a rescue could be made.

A hand-driven fan was set up to provide fresh air, and more candles were lowered, while thoughts were put to methods of sustaining the men during their enforced captivity.

At 3.25pm the first two divers arrived, having journeyed on an engine and van from Barrow, where they were normally employed by the Furness Railway Company. After the task was briefed to them, and signals arranged, their gear was lowered to the top eye of the shaft, 124ft below surface, where staging had been prepared for them. A descent was made to the jammed cage, but an hour and a half's efforts failed to free it, and so the wire rope was cut for another cage and water-box to be fitted.

To accomplish this, pumping operations were suspended until work was completed at two o'clock on Friday morning, when the water had reached seventy-eight feet deep in the shaft.

During this work a large crowd had gathered, but by six o'clock, when the Liverpool divers arrived, many had left due to heavy rain. Although the Liverpool men remained on stand-by, their services were not required, and the mine management found lodgings for them and the Barrow men in Egremont.

The two men, Cairns and Ward, were passed food, and they tried to keep half-a-dozen candles lit, but the "black damp", as they referred to the poor air quality, worsened as the water rose during Thursday evening, and they feared being left in darkness.

The water was only fifteen feet down the slope at its nearest, but receded on Friday morning after the fitting of the second water- box.

The men slept on a board across two rocks, taking turns to watch for bad air overcoming them. They had been sent a singlet each, and some sheets of brown paper in which they wrapped themselves. Cairns, being renowned for his ability to make light of any situation, joked "Sure, we've seen 'The Chocolate Soldiers' and 'The Tin Soldiers' and now here's the dashed 'Paper Miners'!"

Cairns was to make more use of his wit as time dragged on, keeping his and his companion's spirits up until they were rescued.

They had been lowered soup and "Oxo" in flasks and used their own bottles to collect water from the rock, warming it over a candle to make coffee and cocoa which had also been lowered.

Such was the extent to which the borehole was used to sustain the trapped miners that on the Monday, which was St Patrick's Day, Father Clayton, their priest, lowered sprigs of shamrock to them on one of his many visits of comfort.

On surface, extra water-boxes were obtained, and also fitted to the cages to speed up the water removal, increasing it to 600 gallons/minute. These were to be further supplemented by an Evans steam-driven, shaft-sinking pump obtained from a new shaft at Galemire, part of the Mill Hill Colliery, by Mr W J Leck the colliery manager. This pump, installed and finally set running in the laddered pump-shaft at 5am on Sunday, helped to reduce the water level to 18ft by nine that night, it having been 55ft at noon on the Saturday. The pump intake was lowered by winch as the water lowered, so that it was kept free of debris, which would have stopped it.

By noon on Tuesday, there only remained three feet of water on the flat sheets at the bottom eye, and two divers were sent down to investigate the possibility of rescue.

After an hour, they returned to report finding the body of Bewley floating face-down in the water at the foot of the short ladder. His body was removed to the top eye, for later removal to surface. One of Bewley's sons, who had been waiting at the pit-top, had the news broken to him by Father Clayton, and was led away by him.

Again the crowd grew, but they were forced to wait for news, as rescuers were assembled.

The rescue party included Mr Leck and Mr Cook, HM Inspectors, Mr Casson and his son, Mr Pattinson, Dr Mitchell, John Marsh (overman), James Harvey (Cairns's brother-in-law) and Sylvester McAvoy and Tommy Burns (overmen at Jacktrees Mine).

The rescue party went down at 1.15pm, but were stopped by roof- falls and debris brought in by the water, and at 2pm sent for tools, achieving the release of the men by four o'clock, news which was greeted with great cheers by the assembled crowds, then numbering five or six hundred.

The two men had been instructed at eight-fifteen to remain at their position until the rescue party arrived, as the air would remain bad until the falls were cleared. They had previously attempted to follow the receding water a number of times, but had reached no further than the "hurry-top", about 90ft away, because of the air.

In all the five days of incarceration, the only real injury was a caustic soda burn to Cairns' hand, sustained when it was lowered to them to help purify the air.

The first contact by the rescuers was made by John Marsh, the overman, who greeted them with "How are you doing, Darkey. I'm very pleased to see you."

Cairns replied, "You're not a bit more pleased to see me than I am to see you," and immediately made light of the occasion by saying "What did you send that chopped egg stuff for?"

He was answered," Well, wasn't it good for you?"

To which Cairns replied, "Sure it was. Sure now, in my opinion nothing smaller than an elephant ought to lay eggs, and then you would have something to go at."

The party then made for surface, Cairns walking unaided, but his comrade, Ward, needing to be assisted due to his weakened condition.

On surface, during a joking conversation with the officials, more of Cairns's humour came forward. When asked by Mr Leck how he liked the caustic soda, he replied that he would be coming on Mr Leck for a new cap as it had destroyed it. Mr Leck assured him that he would willingly provide him with a silk hat.

Such was Cairns's condition, that after a quick check by Dr Calderwood, he shrugged off the attentions of the admiring crowd, and began to walk to his home at Birks Road, Cleator Moor, two miles away!

He was given a hearty reception as he entered the town, calling at the house of his daughter, Mrs Quinn, in Jacktrees Road on the way, before going on to his home, where he was given a great welcome by the crowds. He was in great spirits, assuring all that he was "in the pink", the only evidence of his ordeal being a few days growth of beard. He was advised by Dr Clarke to retire to bed for 24 hours, and on the doctors orders the reporters left their interviews until he rose.

After Ward had been examined he was transported to his home at Carleton, Egremont, but the body of Bewley was not brought to surface until five o'clock on Tuesday evening.

The remarkable performance by Cairns was not explained until Wednesday, when reporters were allowed to question him. His joking manner with all he spoke to, gave him great amusement in his replies to some of the more naive of the questions.

When asked about the paper they used for warmth, he replied that it kept them fine and warm, and that "he was sure he would not be paying £3 for any more suits, when one could be had for twopence! It would be a waste of money, what do you think?"

When asked did they have any other clothing than their working clothes, the twinkling eyes highlighted the reply, "Now what do you think, we don't go down with paper collars on."

His whole life had been spent on "the Moor", and he had the fine dark-haired fresh appearance of the good-humoured and big-hearted Irishman, who simply talked constantly in jokes. He was a big man, tipping the scales at seventeen stones, and was an accomplished heavy-weight wrestler, with several successes in local contests. Indeed he recounted a contest against the champion Steadman, at Grasmere Sports, where after breaking holds, Steadman had offered him ten shillings to lay down, "And I was glad to accept it. I wouldn't have wrestled him again for twenty ten-bobs. My back, for a fortnight after, was as if a hundred men had belaboured me with a stick!"

Finally, he revealed that some eighteen years ago, he had been fast with others in the Birks Mine for several hours, and had been part of a rescue party in another incident, so was no stranger to such occurrences.

(The Birks accident was caused by almost the same circumstances, a level being driven in under old flooded workings, a dam that gave way, and men running for high ground away from the water. Not only that, but J.B.Kitchen was manager at Birks, and director and consulting engineer at Townhead, over eighteen years later! Although the Birks miners were not trapped for long, a miner and two boys were drowned on that occasion.)

The inquest on the dead man, James Bewley, was held on Tuesday evening at the Mine Offices by Mr G A L Skerry, Coroner to the Lordship of Egremont, and a jury.

The body was identified by the mans brother in law, Thomas Burns, with whom he had lodged at 70, Duke Street, Cleator Moor for 13 years.

James Bewley had been a widower in his 50's, with four children between 14 and 20, and had only worked at the pit for six days, having moved from a miners job with Stirlings. He had been a miner for forty years, and had helped in the sinking of the Ladysmith Colliery at Whitehaven.

The inquest was then adjourned for the attendance of HM Inspector of Metalliferous Mines.

The funeral took place on Thursday at the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Cleator, to a very large crowd, including most of the men employed at the pit, and their officials. The heavily mounted pitch coffin was borne into Church by his comrades, M Cairns, Jas. Harvey, J Duffy, and S McAvoy, and from the Church to the grave by H Kelly, P Merrigan, J McGrath, and J Smith, with S McAvoy and H McNulty bearing the wreaths. The whole funeral was filmed by a cinema cameraman.

The inquest was resumed on Tuesday, 8th April at Egremont Police Station, the jury visiting the mine beforehand to view a model of the dam erected in the mine, which had given way.

Dr Eastham, representing the relatives, asked for all witnesses to be out of Court barring the managing director who would wish to instruct his solicitor, Mr Helder. Dr Eastham was a barrister from Manchester, and was instructed by Mr E Atter, and accompanied by Professor Galloway, a mining expert from Cardiff.

John Marsh, overman, of 6, Briscoe Rd, Egremont, gave an account of the events and subsequent finding of Bewley's body, and answered questions on its location and possible reasons for it being there.

Henry Casson, mine surveyor, of Seascale, produced plans and sections of Townhead pit. He explained that the old workings were those of Bains No.10 Pit, the plans of which they had obtained from the Home Office, but they showed no mine levels. They knew they were below the old workings, and had driven a rise towards them, boring ahead of them, but as the holes were all dry, they assumed that the old workings were at least thirty feet above. The dam had been erected in the approach level purely as a precaution, and had two pipes through it to allow a controlled flow if water came through. Mr Casson said that wherever possible he marked the position of the old workings on his plans, but accuracy was impossible due to their being no surface features or mine levels on the Bains plans.

When questioned, Mr Casson revealed that 16 feet of water had been drained from old workings previously, but the dam was 39 feet 5 inches below this point.

When Mr Casson was questioned on the dam, the Company solicitor, Mr Helder, objected, as the surveyor had not been responsible for its construction.

John Maddern, deputy overman, of 66, Leconfield St, Cleator Moor, was then questioned, and outlined his duties of inspecting the pit prior to the men starting work. He had descended at 4.40am, and found all in safe working order. He had been to the rise, which contained three ladders, and had examined underneath the dam and saw no water coming through it, the water coming from the 2" vent- pipe being no more than usual. He also examined the stays, hitched into the limestone, and sounded the walls, and discovered nothing wrong. This was at ten to five. The night shift were working in No.11 dip, so he had a "crack" and a smoke with them, before returning to surface

He said that water had always come down the slate cheek, and indeed miners always said that where there was water there would be ore, and thought little of it. (Iron-ore being originally deposited in faults by the flow of mineralised water) On a request from Dr Eastham, the witness produced his notebook for March 13th, and answered that some water had broken in from No.2 high some weeks before the accident, according to the book, on February 6th. The dam had been completed on 27th February.

Thomas Gavan-Duffy, the Miners Union representative, suggested that if his inspection lasted only thirty-five minutes, it was perfunctory, but the witness said it did not take long to get through the workings.

Joseph Rooney, a miner from Cleator, then gave his evidence of what occurred from when he was heading for his workplace at the top brake. Most of the evidence was already known, except that he knew water was there, having overheard Marsh talking of it previously, and that the management had fitted water-boxes then.

James McShane, a miner from Hagget End, Egremont, said he had only worked at the pit for three weeks at the time of the accident, and had been on his way to No.10 working when Rooney had warned him, and he had run back to the shaft. The water had reached the shaft when the first cage went up, and some men went for the ladders. He had been told that Cairns and Ward were still inbye, but when the second cage arrived nobody answered his shouts, and he knocked the cage away, as the water was then up to his waist, as it roared into the sump.

Robert Skelton, a miner from Bowthorn Cottage, Cleator Moor, said that he had gone down in the third cage with Bewley, and they had just lit their candles when the men came running back. He did not believe them at first, but when the water came, he got on the first cage with them. When only four men came up the ladder, men went back to find Bewley, but there was no sign.

Edward Green, a miner from 76, Duke St, Cleator Moor, explained how he had led the rush for the ladder, and in the excitement had ascended the wrong one, being assisted across to the surface ladder by a match struck by Burns, but for which he would have reached no further.

John Cairns, a miner from Birks Rd, Cleator Moor, detailed how he went back to warn Ward, but had not expected the water to rise as quickly as it did. When asked where the water previously drained from the workings had come from, he responded "it might have come from Ennerdale Lake for aught he knew."

Mr Helder congratulated him on his actions in going back to warn his workmate at the risk of his own life, to which those present applauded.

William Walter Casson, general manager and engineer, of St Bees, said his company had occupied the royalty for 13 or 14 years, but leased the present area only within the last few years.

They found out there were old workings in the new area, only after taking it, and after talking to the Mine Inspector, wrote to the Home Office for plans. On plotting the workings onto their own plans, they found out they were only five feet away at one point. These plans showed no levels, however, so they had to assume by the lie of the ground, that the workings were above them. The Bains workings had been abandoned since April 1890.

They had driven No.5 Rise to reach the workings, and had bored four 9ft holes from the roof of the drift as they went along. At first it had been dry, but after 24 hours a dampness was shown, and the drift was stopped for Mr Leck to inspect. The dam was later erected as a precaution, designed by the witness and his joiner.

After the accident, the drift had been inspected, and the water found to have burst through the roof after cracking it with the pressure, before washing away the wall to one side of the dam. The ground on this side appeared to have been weakened by a shale bed undetected previously, which had given way.

The original breach beyond the dam, he put down to a wedge-shaped section of rock, on the slape face of the fault against the slate, breaking off.

Further questioned, the witness admitted he was not trained as a mining engineer, but had held that position for 13 or 14 years, and previously been a surveyor for the Pallaflat Iron Ore Company for 14 years. He estimated that one and a quarter million gallons had burst through.

After persistent questioning about the ladders, Mr Casson admitted that they could be joined, but that the short one was not in the shaft, but was reached from a drift.

In summing up, the Coroner suggested that he saw no cause for a charge of criminal negligence as the Metalliferous Mines Act did not compel the Company to do any more than they had, but that if the jury wished to make any recommendations, he was sure the Company would take notice.

The jury, after five minutes, returned a verdict of accidental drowning, and made no recommendation.

Mr Helder expressed on the Company's behalf, regrets that the accident had caused a death and tendered sincere sympathy with the relatives.

The Coroner thought that the action taken by Cairns was deserving of the Edward Medal, (an award recently announced by King George, in honour of his father) as one of the finest pieces of heroism he had heard, and with the endorsement of the jury, he agreed to forward the recommendation to the proper authorities.

Confirmation of the award was sent by letter from the Home Office to Mr J A Grant, MP for the Egremont Division in early July, and the medal, known as the Miners' V.C., was pinned to Cairns's coat by King George V at Buckingham Palace, the announcement being made later in the month.

The same month saw the Townhead Mining Company distributing its own medals to all who helped liberate the two miners. The medals were of gold, and inscribed with the words "Townhead Mining Company, Limited" and the dates March 13th - March 18th, a total of eighty being issued.

On the 26th August, the Carnegie Hero Fund Trust awarded its certificate for "heroic endeavour to save human life", and a grant of money to Cairns.

The friends and neighbours of Jimmy Ward set up a fund later in the year, used to purchase "a suitably inscribed medallion" and purse of gold, which was presented at a function in the Town Hall, Egremont on October 3rd, in recognition of his ordeal.

This story courtesy of Dave Banks, Researcher, West Cumbria Mines Research Group