Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Blown to pieces

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Not, as mutineers, from the mouth of avenging guns—a fit reward for treason, murder, and worse—but in the midst of their daily work, without an instant of preparation, without a chance of escape, and without a thought of danger, in the midst of their country and ours—two hundred yards below the surface of the earth—in a coal-mine!

It is a fine afternoon in February, our men are all at their work, and everything is as dry, dusty, and parched as in a colliery district everything always is. I have taken my afternoon round through the acres of six-inch dust and cast-iron pipes, the clouds of smoke, and the clattering hammers and machinery which constitute the “works” at which I am employed; and I am looking forward to the six o’clock bell—yet three hours’ distant—which, unless a boiler bursts, or a smash takes place somewhere, will free me for the day; when a rumour, dark, horrible, and indistinct, spreads among the men that an explosion has just taken place at one of the great collieries of the neighbourhood, which we may call the Bungle Colliery, without being very wide of the mark in any sense. Where this rumour originates no one knows; how it spreads, or how much truth it may contain, is alike uncertain; only one thing seems pretty clear, which is, that something has happened even worse than the daily accidents of colliery life; and that “something” is said to be the sudden annihilation of two hundred human beings, whom the pitiless and unconquerable firedamp has blown to pieces.

The hammering and the din of work ceases in our yard, as little knots of workmen collect to compare information; and when the rumour has gathered substance, and passed from mouth to mouth amongst them, jackets are donned, hundreds of people are soon on their way across the fields to the Bungle Colliery, near Burnslay. And I find I may anticipate six o’clock, and go home, for there is not one man left in the place to work or to be looked after. So I go.

Not much miscellaneous conversation that evening! No asking, as is usually the case, what is the news from London, or what the world generally is about. Our world for that night is the black, stifling underground hole, where some two hundred men have just been slaughtered, not five miles from where we sit—for the rumour has become an awful certainty.

The next day I am one of some thousands who flock to this great black burial-ground. As I drive up a slope leading to it, I find the road almost impassable from the crowd who throng round me; and I notice how difficult it seems to be to realise the presence of wholesale death: for the crowd, as they press on—parties of colliers from neighbouring mines (and the Burnslay colliers are not a refined set)—laughing, swearing, and jesting, as they shamble along with the bow-legged stride which thin coal-seam men so often have, and which results from their being compelled from their childhood to work in and walk about passages only four or five feet high; young men and their sweethearts, the former with the slangy bright neckerchief common to the Burnslay district; taciturn old agricultural labourers; and shrill women, each with one baby at least;—all are evidently intent upon enjoying their “out,” and chaff one another as they go, and chatter, and buy gingerbread and oranges from the hucksters who—knowing rascals!—have set up their stalls and are reaping rich harvests from this unannounced fair. But scarcely one of all this crowd seems to have a thought left for the awful cause of the assembly, or for those that lie in such numbers beneath his very feet!

Yes; there are some who feel. As I pass to the summit of the hill, where, in the midst of a large circle kept clear by a body of police, are a few buildings, a large smoking hole in the ground, and some rough wooden frameworks, some wheels, and other machinery, I pass a long row of low plain cottages. In most of these the blinds are drawn down, and the doors shut; for in almost all of them is a widowed wife, a childless mother, or a fatherless child; and fortunate is that family which has not lost more than one of its most valuable members: for these are the dwellings of the miners; and those drawn blinds conceal the anguish of wives, mothers, and children, whose dearest relations have within the last twenty-four hours been blown ruthlessly to destruction.

As the noisy, merry, thoughtless crowd rolls me along with it, I catch here and there a glimpse of a face through the crevice of a door or window. God grant I may never see such faces again! Their expression is not that of bitter or noisy grief, or of helpless resignation, but generally of vacant white bewilderment. The shock has been too great for ordinary grief, and they are only now preparing to settle down into an intelligible sorrow which may weep and be consolable: at present they scarcely understand why they mourn, or why this great fair is being held round them. Poor things! they will know when they wake from their dream, and find their bread-earners dead.

By favour I make my way into the empty circle, and find how matters now stand. The pit is on fire! It is uncertain whether the men who were in the distant parts of the workings were killed in the great blast of the gas; but it is certain that that blast has destroyed the ventilation, blown down the brattices, or partitions, and set the coal on fire, and that all must die soon, for no mortal hand can save them now. Human effort has done what was possible; and all honour be to those brave men who, shortly after the catastrophe, descended the fiery pit by the half-destroyed machinery, and saved the few scared stragglers, collected the wounded or unhurt at the bottom, and who, penetrating further into the mine, would have done more, had not the flames driven them, scorched and breathless, with their own lives in imminent danger, to the pit top again.

No escape now! All that can be done is to try and save the colliery from total destruction, and pray that the workers may have been blown to pieces at once, rather than reserved for the lingering fate in store for them, if alive.

To understand how matters now stand, I inquire into the nature of the underground workings of the colliery, and this is what I learn:—

I learn that the pit, at the mouth of which I stand, and by which the great engine raises and lowers the men and the coals, communicates at its bottom with the passages and levels (technically, boardgates) through the coal, and by which it is got. These passages extend, in different ramifications, for many hundreds of yards, some of them sloping downwards from the pit bottom into the lower side of the seam of coal, or “on the dip;” but the majority rising into its higher side, or “on the rise.” Some forty yards from this pit, on the lower side, is another one, where a powerful pumping engine keeps the colliery free from the water, which would otherwise rapidly accumulate.

A very few yards from the pit where I stand, and on the higher side, is a third, from which a stifling, sulphurous smoke is rising through the interstices of the iron rails with which, placed across and covered with clay, it is temporarily stopped. This is the ventilating shaft, at the bottom of which, when the colliery is in work, a furnace has been kept constantly burning, the heat of which causes a very powerful ascending draft in it, so that the whole of the air for the miners is drawn down the adjoining shaft and up this one by the force of the current.

But though these two shafts, or pits, are so near one another, the volume of air which is drawn from one to the other has to pass through the whole of the workings and passages of the colliery in its course. This is effected by building up a stoppage in the immediate and direct passage between the two pits, and directing the current of air through its proper course by means of partitions, or brattices, which are temporarily erected for the purpose where necessary.

Having learnt thus much, I begin to see how poor the chance of rescue became for the unhappy prisoners when the flames made way. For the force of the explosion has knocked down the main partition between the two shafts, and has set fire to the stables which are close to the furnaces.

The consequence is, that the flame fed by the straw and woodwork, and by an unlimited supply of air down the main shaft (now in free communication with the other), roars up as though in a blast furnace, and setting fire to the neighbouring coal, sends up a column of fire sixty yards high, in itself a glorious sight, and which, the night before, had illuminated the country for miles round.

This conflagration had only been stopped by dosing, as nearly hermetically as possible, both the shaft mouths; and the question now is, what further can be done. Alas! for the men below,—nothing.

The first great object is to extinguish the flame, and to do this we must of necessity extinguish life, too. No one dare say that all must have perished, and so no one dare take upon himself the responsibility of measures for extinguishing the smouldering flames.

And so we stand over one hundred and eighty-six human beings dead, or now perishing beneath us, and discuss the best means of killing those amongst them—if any—who are not dead outright,—for we must extinguish the flame; whilst round us some thousands of holiday-makers walk, and talk, and drink, and fight, each enjoying himself in his favourite way, and making the most of his excursion, while across the corn-field, black with the smoke ashes of the past night’s conflagration, hundreds more sight-seers press on, “to see.” Such is Burnslay life!

We determine at length—we who specially guard the entrance to Death—to try and stifle the flame below by steam (I need not say what beside we may do); but here hesitation and dread of responsibility creep in: and a compromise between a really useful course of proceeding and total inaction is made. Our engineers accordingly turn a jet of steam down the main shaft from the engine boiler, in the manner proposed by Mr. Gurney for the purpose of ventilation; but that ingenious gentleman would have been astonished to see the scale upon which we carry out his ideas; for instead of using as powerful a jet as the boilers can supply, we take one which has an aperture of about one quarter of an inch, and which discharged into the downcast shaft, must become utterly useless at a distance of a few feet from the surface of the ground. And so the flame of the furnace—and perhaps of life—smoulders on.

I return to my dust and work, weary and dispirited. For days the great Bungle explosion is talked of to the exclusion of every other subject, and at length we learn that the fire having steadily refused to go out of itself, it had been determined to extinguish it by stopping the pumping engine, and allowing the water to accumulate, and also by turning a small neighbouring stream into the mine, which is accordingly done, and the extinction of the fire at last is effectually accomplished.

The work of re-draining the colliery is one of time. Some weeks elapse before it is sufficiently free from water to enable the workmen—picked men selected from the neighbouring collieries—to descend in search of the bodies of the lost, and for the purpose of clearing out the mine for reworking. What they see and do when they at length begin their work, it is not pleasant to describe.

One of the best and sharpest men from our works is amongst those selected, and I often examine him on his return from work in the evening, as to the progress made. His story is generally horrible enough: the headless and unrecognisable trunks which he has come across, the limbs shattered and decayed, and the trunkless heads kicked against like blocks of coal, and taken up to be buried, all confused together, in the neighbouring village churchyard, and all his other such anecdotes of what he and his fellows have to do, make no pleasant recital; suffice it to say, that at length the mine is cleared out, the machinery repaired, the engines set to work, and the mine, with a new set of workmen, set again going.

And now, I ask, can such accidents be avoided? I do not ask this for the sake of the men themselves, for they are so accustomed to them—at least in this district—that they care little for them; but for the sake of society at large, and of the State, which is supposed to take some care of even the most insignificant of its subjects.

I say that here the colliers (like the historical eels) are too much accustomed to such accidents to care much about them when they happen. Let me mention two facts illustrative of my assertion. First, in a colliery within a very few miles of the scene of the above explosion—not more than three or four—and after its occurrence, a strike either took place, or was upon the point of taking place, among the colliers, because the proprietors insisted upon certain parts of their mine being worked with safety-lamps, which these men always object to using, preferring more light even with more danger; and, secondly, in one of the collieries on which I was myself engaged, into which I took a visitor with me on one occasion, when he happened to inquire of the overlooker who accompanied us, as we watched a miner hewing away in his hole upon the solid mass of coal before him, whether there was any fire-damp there?

“Has’t any gas in t’hoil, lad?” said the overlooker.

“Ay, there’s a bit,” said Blacky.

And our guide, unscrewing his safety-lamp, and making us stand back behind the brattice where the ventilating current of pure air was passing, applied the naked flame to the roof, and—bang! went the gas there with a loud explosion, whilst several jets from the surface of the coal caught fire, and were extinguished by the miner with his jacket, as our conductor screwed on his safety-gauze again. I never asked any questions about gas again, nor looked for any such experiments when under ground; but these incidents—especially the former—serve to show the recklessness of the colliers of the district.

In the immediate neighbourhood of the Bungle Colliery there have been, as everybody knows, two nearly as fatal explosions—those at the “Beeches” and the “Early Main” collieries; but what then? Why there is more work for those who are left, and higher wages. The widows of the slain are subscribed for by a sympathising public, and consequently very soon (with their dowries) find new husbands, and all goes on well again until some new catastrophe horrifies people’s minds for a few days, or till something else more exciting takes its place there.

A more rigid system of inspection appears to be wanting. Inspectors ought to visit collieries a little before the danger becomes so great, and not, as usually happens, just after some awful explosion. No blame to them though, if, as is said, their work is so heavy that they cannot possibly visit each colliery, in their respective districts, more than once in several months, or even years.

There is a very obvious remedy, if the collieries are more numerous than the existing number of inspectors—able men as they are—can possibly visit; and that remedy ought to be applied. It was whispered at the time of the accident that the Bungle Colliery was being worked by the proprietors in a dangerous way, and solely with a view to the extraction of as large a quantity of coal as possible in a short time, and this never could have been the case had proper inspection taken place in time.

I saw enough of coal-mining, and of the almost daily accidents which take place, and are never heard of by the general public, but which collectively amount to a large number, to rejoice that no lives were under my charge in a system so carelessly worked; and I at length left the dust and smoke, and din of a Yorkshire colliery district, glad to be away from a neighbourhood where every minute might bring the intelligence that almost under my very feet two or three hundred fellow-creatures had been shattered, scorched, and “blown to pieces.”

E. E.