New Hem Heath 1915

Researched By John Lumsdon

A disaster occurred on Thursday afternoon 25th February at the New Hem Heath colliery, Chesterton, North Staffordshire, owned by Messrs Hodgkinson Bros. It is feared the eleven lives have been lost. Nine of the workers are known to be dead and two are missing.

The pit is a small one, employing about 120 workmen and at the time of the accident about 21 men were in the colliery. They were engaged in the Red Mine seam loading ironstone, which had been got during the day, when, at about half past three in the afternoon a fire occurred. The fire was believed to have originated in the engine room, a wooden structure, situated near the bottom of the pit and 400 to 500 hundred yards from where the men in the Red Mine seam were working. In this engine house were three compressed air engines. Workmen gallantly endeavoured to subdue the flames, but they spread rapidly burning the supporting timber resulting in falls of roof that hindered operations. The pit, being an ironstone mine and free from gas, was worked with naked lights and was regarded as absolutely safe.

When the occurrence became known, rescue brigades were summoned from the North Staffordshire Central Rescue Station at Berryhill, Birchenwood, Apedale, Silverdale, Talk o'th Hill, Florence and Parkhouse collieries and these together with colliery officials entered upon rescue work as speedily as possible. Among those known to be dead is Mr. Claude Hodgkinson one of the proprietors of this colliery

Deep sympathy was felt for the widows, the orphans and relatives of those who lost their lives in such a terrible manner. As is often the case, however, the disaster furnished splendid examples of individual heroism and self-sacrifice. Ernest Brown, the engineman, appears to have lost his life in attempting to warn his mates of their danger. Horace Platt, age 15 who was in the engine room together with Arnold Clarke, told the story that also describes the beginning of the fire, Horace Platt, said, we were in the engine house; there is a compressed air engine, and paraffin stoves are kept burning somewhere underneath to keep it from freezing. Ernest Brown was filling one of these stoves when he accidentally knocked it over. There was some oil about and it immediately took fire, as well as some wood and cotton waste. It was soon a furious blaze. We tried to put it out with buckets of water, but it was no use. The place was filled with thick smoke and burning oil ran along the floor. The engine room was soon a blazing furnace, and Ernest Brown said: "lets fetch them from the Red Slag place", (these were the men beyond the engine house) He made two or three attempts to break through the smoke and flames, but each time he was beaten back and we (Horace Platt and Arnold Clarke) told him it was no good trying get through that. He then said: "We shall have to do summat," and with that he ran into the smoke, and we never saw him again.

Rescuer's Gallantry

Harry Bickerton displayed wonderful heroism; he was the day Forman in the Red Mine seam, who was at home when he received intimation of the accident. This would be about four o clock. He immediately proceeded to the colliery and on arriving descended the pit and went to the seat of the fire.

He found the engineer and carpenter with a number of men endeavouring to put out the fire. At the outset he suggested to the men that they should place a rope round his body and he then attempted to open the door of the return air-way to short-circuit the air current so as to give the men who were in the danger zone every possible chance. But he found that the fire had got too strong a hold, and although he repeated his efforts two or three times, he could not make any headway. The collapse of the timber caused falls of roof and the road way completely blocked. Finding that he could not do any good in that direction, he proposed to attempt the rescue of the men by going though the Red Shag seam and he was accompanied on this hazardous journey by Thomas Gleaves, the fireman in the district. After going some considerable distance, the two men were confronted with a bank of smoke and furnace. Bickerton said that his companion thought it would not be safe to go further, so he went on alone. He had preceded another 100 yards or so of his perilous journey when he discovered five of the workers, three men and two boys struggling together in an endeavour to escape. Bickerton directed this party along the road where he had just left the fireman Gleaves, and he took charge of them and piloted them to safety. Continuing his courageous search, Bickerton went some 200 yards further down the engine dip, and then came across another group, they were lying on the ground. The first he noticed was his brother in law, William Hyde and was greatly shocked to find he was dead. The second he observed was John Kennedy who was unconscious, the third and last was James Cork. Bickerton tried to rouse them but by that time he himself was feeling the effects of the smoke and fumes, and was in danger of being overcome. He therefore, turned to make his way back, and as he passed Kennedy he saw that he was dead. After that he hardly new what he did. He lay down several times and buried his mouth in the ground to escape the fumes. He was in a state of collapse when members of the rescue brigade ultimately roused him. When he got to the surface he received medical attention before he was taken home.

Ernest Brown, the engineman, who was previously reported missing, was found in the return airway some distance from the engine house. This would seem to indicate that he had gone to give the alarm, or was in search of assistance when he was overcome.

Thomas Brayford, a collier who worked on the day shift and was familiar with the workings of the pit, went down with Birchenwood Rescue Brigade on Friday morning to explore the workings. He acted as a guide, but wore no apparatus. Going along the Red Shag level and through the air roads he found the body of the lad Joseph Cornwall. He was lying on his back and had apparently just come over from the Red Mine road into the air crossing when he succumbed. Then the rescue brigade went to the end of the place where it began to get very hot. Previously to this the air had been clear. They next went to the turn of No. 45 where there were six bodies together. There was no smoke, but the air was bad. The rescue party then went further into the dip and it was arranged that Brayford should wait until they called for him. The party then discovered Robert McCready: who was lying in the middle of the dip, he was alive but unconscious. They carried him to the turn of No. 45, which led to the Red Shag district. Their progress was then rendered very difficult owing to their having to drag the poor man along narrow air-roads. They had to crawl along on their stomachs, dragging the unconscious man along by means of a rope attached round his body. He was successfully brought to the surface, where Dr. Thomas attended to him prior to his removal to North Staffordshire Infirmary. Unfortunately Robert McCready died at 11.45 on Saturday night 27th February; bring the death roll up to 12.

Rescue Brigades, ten in number, from the neighbouring pits were engaged in exploring the pit and recovering the bodies until a late hour on Friday night when the last body was brought to the pit bottom. The work had been slow and laborious owing to the falls that had taken place. As the bodies were brought up they were conveyed to their homes.

The names of the dead are:

Claude Hodgkinson age 40 George Skidmore age 43 John Kennedy age 45
William Hyde age 35 Joseph Cornwall age 14 Jacob Copnall age 42
Walter Griffiths age 25 Levi McCready age 27 Ernest Brown age 42
James Brown age 42 Albert Poole age 34 Robert McCready age 39

The Coroner's Summing Up

The Coroner, in reviewing the evidence, Said, the facts were particularly simple. The pit was one where naked lights, were allowed to be used, and so far as he could see, there was no breach of the Mines Regulations Act. He thought however, that the jury would agree that the method adopted for heating, was a somewhat crude, and one that certainly could have been improved upon. Brown ought to have known at the same time, that it was a very foolish thing to fill those stoves in the engine-house, while they were still lighted. Another matter he wished to refer to, was that it would have been better to have had the hose down the pit instead of it on the top. Had it been available, Brown might have dealt with the fire promptly and effectively. With the means they had, he thought all the men worked as hard as they could to save life. Bickerton certainly deserved to be highly commended for what he did. It was wonderful that he is alive to give evidence.

The only clause in the Act, which might have a bearing on the case, was section 70, which provided that where timber or other inflammable material was stored, adequate mean of extinguishing fire must be provided. He assumed the method in this case was adopted a considerable time ago, and was within the knowledge of the Inspector of Mines who passed it.

He did not think the jury would find any difficulty in arriving at the cause of death. They had also to find whether anyone was responsible and he would certainly say, after the evidence, that nobody was responsible, that it was a pure accident. Thirdly, they could express their view as to how to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

The jury quickly came to a decision and the foreman said: that the deceased had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, set up by an accidental fire at the colliery. The jury agreed with the Coroners remarks in regard to the facilities provided, and the hope that the bravery of Bickerton would be recognised in some way. On behalf of the residents of Chesterton, he would also like to thank the Mines Rescue Brigades for their excellent work.

The Carnegie Medal
This medal was presented to Harry Bickerton and Thomas Gleaves who, at considerable risk to their own lives, rescued six men who were overcome with carbon dioxide at New Hem Heath colliery on February 25th 1915, they tried in vain to rescue the other remaining 12 men, who were unfortunately suffocated, before being overcome themselves and being brought to the surface by the rescue team.

T Heath Colliery, Chesterton on 25 February 1915. They tried in vain to rescue the remaining 12 men, who were unfortunately suffocated, before being overcome themselves and being brought to the surface by the rescue team