The Early years
As long as there have been mines there have, sadly, been mining disasters. Many sources state that to be classified as a disaster there must have been at least 5 deaths. I think it is fair to say that 1 death would certainly have been a disaster to the families left behind, particularly if that death was of the main (and often only) breadwinner for the family.
Despite the many thousands of deaths attributed to mining accidents throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it was only as recent as 1911 that, in the UK, an Act of Parliament was passed which required colliery owners to establish permanent mines rescue teams, trained and equipped to deal with accidents. Prior to this date collieries, that had the will and facilities, only maintained volunteer brigades made up of working miners.
From 1913 all collieries regularly employing 100 or more men were required to make minimum provision for rescue where the mine atmosphere became irrespirable.
The country's first mines rescue station was opened at Tankersley, near Barnsley in Yorkshire in 1902. With little equipment and often relying on local taxi companies for transport, mines rescue squads began to establish and train for the inevitable.
The North Staffordshire Colliery Owners Association set up their first mines rescue station, in a converted house at Stoke in 1911. Walter Clifford, previously of the Tankersley team, was appointed as the first Chief Superintendent and was given equipment consisting of:-
6 No. PROTO Breathing apparatus; 6 No. Electric Hand Lamps;
1 No. Hand Lever Pump (for charging cylinders);
Several oxygen cylinders and;
a few spares for the apparatus.
Initial training of rescue men took 13 weeks on the basis of one days training per week. Gradually more money was put up and the rescue squads became more professional in their approach. Equipment, such as the PROTO breathing apparatus, improved and specialist vehicles were provided to be ever ready.
The following text is from the book "COAL MINING", by Robert Peel and Daniel Burns 1921,(an Elementary Text Book of Coal Mining for students preparing for the Colliery Managers Examinations)
"The provision of rescue stations, equipped with suitable apparatus and trained men, has been adopted in the mining districts of this country, and in America, France and other parts of the Continent of Europe.
The object is to train rescue parties to penetrate some distance into the workings of a mine, after an explosion, to examine the state of ventilation, and, where deranged, to restore it by building stoppings, clearing falls etc,; also to enable men to investigate gob-fires, and to operate in the work of extinguishing, digging out, or damming off underground fires, and generally to assist in the work of reclaiming and saving life and property"
It is sad to read this paragraph as it clearly states that a Mines Rescue Team's first duty is to do just that - rescue the mine! All too often the casualties of any disaster were doomed within the first few hours of any explosion or entrapment. An extreme example of this scenario has to be the recovery of the Minne (Podmore Hall) pit which, following a disaster in January 1918, took a total of 19 months. For many miners the pit became their permanent tomb.
Suffice to say that all rescue teams were dedicated and determined to save life if at all possible. The list of awards for heroic bravery bears witness to that dedication and there are many accounts of untrained men fighting with managers for the chance to assist in the rescue of trapped miners. There was never a shortage of volunteers for a rescue attempt!
Training of the teams became better organised after the first world war and it would appear that rescue methods employed by the Royal Engineers, required as a result of the offensive mining at the Western Front, were largely adopted and a 'regimented' approach to training was implemented. Such organisation and practice resulted in the UK mines rescue teams becoming amongst the best trained in the world.
Clearly the death rate in mining operations was reduced more by the application of safer methods of work than by the ability to rescue following accidents and disasters. The annual death rate per 1000 miners employed was recorded at 3.9 between 1853 and 1862 but reduced to 0.31 by 1968.
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