A Brief History of Mines Rescue Work

Researched by John Lumsdon
"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"

The history of Mines Rescue work goes back to the earliest days of mining, for explosions, fires and inundations were always an integral part of coal mining.
There is evidence of such occurrences when coal was mined from shallow "bell" pits and small surface adits, but as the numbers of men involved were usually small, no great publicity resulted.
As mines became deeper, with more extensive workings and larger numbers of men employed, there was an increasing number of underground disasters, some of which caused the deaths of very large numbers of men, and highlighted the necessity for men to be trained in mines rescue work.
In those early days, there was never a lack of volunteers to help in an attempt to save life, or to recover bodies, or to save a pit by taking part in fire fighting operations, or to seal off, following a fire or explosion.
There are numerous references in accident reports to the bravery of such volunteers and many of those who took part lost their lives.
These men had no special training and had no apparatus, which would enable them to pass through poisonous or irrespirable atmospheres in comparative safety.
They only had an inherent resolve to go to the help of their fellow men irrespective of the dangers involved.

It was in the 19th century, particularly in the second half of that period, and in the early years of the 20th century, that the largest number of very serious disasters occurred and, indeed, rarely a year went by without such an occurrence.
During that period, designers were attempting to produce an apparatus that could be used to save the lives of men involved in an underground disaster and thus originated the term rescue apparatus.
Unfortunately, the early hopes of saving lives on any scale were not realised because the majority of the victims of such disasters were killed outright, or died from burns, or from carbon monoxide poisoning, shortly after the explosions or fires.
There are many instances on record in later years where lives were saved by the use of rescue apparatus, but the numbers were relatively small when compared with the thousands of lives lost due to explosions and fires.
One wonders, in retrospect, how many lives might have been saved had the early development work been in connection with an efficient self rescuer, which almost certainly would have allowed some, at least, of the victims to reach safety before being overcome by carbon monoxide.

After a number of prototype designs both in this country and abroad, the honour of designing the first self contained breathing apparatus, which was of any practical use, went to Henry A. Fleuss who produced a compressed oxygen apparatus which was the forerunner of the present day "Proto" apparatus.
This apparatus was used successfully in the aftermath of the Seaham Colliery explosion and fire in 1880 when 164 men lost their lives.
However, little further progress was made for some considerable time, because it was realised that a breathing apparatus was of relatively little benefit in an emergency without trained men to use it and that men could not be effectively trained unless there were suitable places to carry out the training and maintain and service the apparatus.
Trained instructors were also required to give the necessary instruction.


In 1886 a Royal Commission recommended the establishment of Rescue Stations, but they did not become general until the Coal Mines Act of 1911 made their provision compulsory.
The reluctance to make progress was in some degree due to lack of development of suitable breathing apparatus.

There was an explosion at Whitehaven on the night of May 11th 1910 followed by a fire, shortly after 141 miners had descended the mine.
Rescue parties were formed, their work valiant and self-sacrificing, but the inferno was too much to throw away more lives.
The authorities ordered the workings to be sealed off, leaving 122 men and boys where they had perished.

Then at a meeting at the Home Office on June 8th 1910 there was a discussion on the use of rescue operations in mines, rescue stations, and trained rescue men.
A Royal Commission was to be set up and legislation would be required through Acts of Parliament.
Mr Ratcliffe Ellis, of the Coal Owners’ Association, referred to a statement made by Mr. Keir Hardy in reference to the Whitehaven disaster that; “In his opinion as a miner he believed that the workings had been sealed off to put the fire out at the colliery while the victims were still alive”.
Mr Churchhill said it was a cruel and very disgraceful statement to make.

But on June 16th 1910 in the House of Commons Keir Hardy raised the matter again, he said, is it not a fact that the miners were dissatisfied with the decision that they threatened to storm the colliery and remove the stoppings, and that extra police had to be called in to prevent disorder? Mr Churchill said; Yes it is perfectly true that undeterred by the practical certainty of death overtaking any rescue party which attempted to penetrate the workings, a number of miners, with the heroism that commands the greatest of respect, were anxious in their despair to make another effort, but I think it is unquestionable that it was right to prevent that effort.

During this discussion on the Whitehaven colliery disaster, Enoch Edwards MP. also secretary of the North Staffs Miners Federation put a resolution to the House of Commons on safety in mines which included:
“And this House is also of the opinion that rescue and experimental stations with suitable rescue appliances should be set up in all mining areas.
Then on June 27th 1910 a Bill was introduced to make provision with respect to organisation for the purpose of rescue and aid in the case of accidents in mines.”
After much discussion the Bill was read for the first time amid cheers.

The North Staffs Colliery Owners Association set up their first mines rescue station, in a converted house at Stoke in 1911.br Walter Clifford was appointed as the first Chief Superintendent and was given equipment consisting of;
6 PROTO Breathing Apparatus
6 Electric hand lamps
1 Hand lever pump (for charging oxygen cylinders)
And several oxygen cylinders plus a few spares for the apparatus.

Walter was the proud owner of the North Staffordshire Colliery Association’s medal, depicting the Staffordshire Knot, and he received 9 bars to this medal between 1911 and 1918.
The bars were for involvement in mines rescue at:
Birchenwood 1911, Jammage 1911, Henesford 1911, Norton 1912, Silverdale 1913, Crackley 1914, Minnie 1915, New Hem Heath 1915, Minnie 1818.
Walter died on 12th December 1923 in Stoke-on-Trent.

Arthur Bernard Clifford,

Son of Walter Clifford was educated at Barnsley Grammar School and later studied at the Technical College in north Staffordshire.
By 1912 he was assistant Instructor to his father in North Staffs and had become an expert in the use of Proto breathing apparatus.
Arthur, like his father, possessed the Staffordshire Knot medal including 5 bars for rescue at:
Jammage 1911, Norton 1912, Silverdale 1913, Crackley 1914, Minnie 1918.

As part of his annual report, under Rescue Stations, H.M. Inspector of Mines said: The temporary premises mentioned in a previous report as having being secured by the North Staffs Coal Owners association for a rescue station at Stoke-on-Trent, having proved to be inadequate for the purpose, the Station has been transferred to Berryhill Colliery.
The premises consist of a smoke chamber 15feet x 11 feet 6 inches, with an extension gallery 37 feet x 9, and a store 30 feet x 15 feet in which the apparatus is kept.
The extension gallery is fitted with an elevated platform with steeply inclined approaches and in this men undergoing training, build brick stoppings, set timber and canvas, and go through stretcher drill.
Both the smoke chamber and the extension gallery can be filled with sulphur fumes during the practises.
The station is in charge of an instructor and assistant and two brigades of six men each undergo training per day.

In May 1912 the Home Office issued a new order for rescue and aid in mines.
The order is to apply to all mines in which coal is worked

There shall be organised and maintained at every mine as soon as reasonably practicable competent rescue brigades on the following scale:
Where the number of underground employees is 250 or less 1 Brigade.
Where the number of underground employees is more than 250 but not more than 700 2 Brigades.
Where the number of underground employees is more than 700 but not more than 1,000 3 brigades.
Where the number of underground employees is more than 1,000 4 Brigades.

But the owner, agent or manager of the mine at which the total number of underground employees is less than 100 shall be deemed to have complied with this provision if he has acquired the privilege of calling for a brigade from a central rescue station.

There shall also be provided and maintained at every mine which maintains a rescue brigade or brigades:
(1) Two or more small birds or mice for testing for carbon monoxide.
(2) Two electric hand lamps for each brigade ready for immediate use, and capable of giving light for at least four hours.
(3) One oxygen reviving apparatus.
(4) A safety lamp for each member of the rescue brigade for testing for fire damp.
(5) An ambulance box provided by the St. John Ambulance Association, or similar box together with antiseptic solution and fresh drinking water.
There shall be kept and maintained in every central rescue station not less than fifteen complete suits of breathing apparatus, with mean of supplying sufficient oxygen or liquid air to enable such apparatus to be constantly used for two days and of charging such apparatus.
Twenty electric hand-lamps,
four oxygen reviving apparatus,
an ambulance box or boxes provided by the St. John Ambulance Association or similar boxes together with antiseptic solution and fresh drinking water.
Cages of small birds:
a motorcar shall be kept in constant readiness:
and every central rescue shall be placed under the immediate control of a competent person conversant with the use of the appliances.
In a memorandum the Home Secretary states that the order comes into force at once, and it will be necessary, therefore, for each owner to take steps without delay to comply with the requirements or the order.
Reasonable time will be allowed in which to complete the formation of the rescue brigades and to obtain the requisite supply of breathing apparatus.

In the early days of the NCB
it became apparent that a uniform approach was required for dealing with emergencies; this need being highlighted by the several serious colliery disasters which occurred within a year or two of nationalisation.
Many colliery companies already possessed well developed emergency schemes, whilst others went no further that the implementation of the Fire and Rescue Sections of the Coal Mines Act 1911.
All schemes were flavoured by local practices and traditions, so that there were wide variations in the methods and organisation prescribed.
The task of analysing schemes and preparing a unified organisational plan was given to the Rescue Advisory Committee, which was set up under the chairmanship of the Deputy Chief Inspector of Mines primarily to advise on the development of breathing apparatus and rescue techniques.
Their report was issued in 1953 and was acted upon by the Board without delay.
In the light of further experience, the report was revised in 1965 in which form it was widely distributed within the industry and a further revision of the organisation was carried out at all levels.
All Areas and collieries now have comprehensive schemes in operation, which have been built up after considerable experience of working the schemes in emergency conditions.
Arrangements are made for the Safety Branch to up-date the colliery schemes at regular intervals and, together with district rescue stations managers, to check that the plan for emergency is sound and comprehensive and based on the principles outlined in "Colliery Emergency Organisation 1965".
The scheme lays down the actions required of personnel underground when an emergency occurs and stresses the importance of the Incident Management Organisation at the surface of the mine.
The control room is the focus of all incident activities and the official in charge, or the controller, has the advice of an Incident Committee to guide him.
This committee includes representatives of the Board, the Inspectorate and the unions, supplemented by appropriate specialists, e.g. mines rescue, scientific, ventilation.
Full details of the scheme and all plans and instructions required are kept in an emergency cabinet at the colliery office so that the scheme can be fully implemented without delay.
The Mines Rescue Service is strongly linked with the colliery and area schemes, which include the emergency arrangements for calling 'the services of the local rescue station and rescue officials.

The Mines Rescue Service has been built up from its small beginnings in the early years of the century to a fully integrated national service.
For the first 20 years or so, after the mines were nationalised, local committees consisting of mining engineers from local areas and pits administered the rescue stations on behalf of the Board.
The stations were under the direct control of rescue superintendents.
In some coalfields or "divisions", there was also a manager or chief officer in charge of several rescue stations, but in other divisions there was no such control and in an emergency the station, which served the particular colliery concerned, carried out the rescue responsibilities without assistance from other stations, In lengthy incidents, this often resulted in the near exhaustion of the personnel of the rescue station concerned.

Following the re-organisation of the NCB's structure in 1967, the Rescue Service became a Headquarters controlled service and is now one of the branches of the Mining Department under its director-general.
The service operates under a general manager and the coalfields are divided into six districts each with a district rescue stations manager responsible for a number of rescue stations.
There are now 25 rescue stations to cover all the 246 collieries in the various coalfields, 13 of them being stations with permanent corps brigadesmen on constant duty, supplemented by part-time trained men from the collieries, and the remaining 12 stations being manned by officers with a small nucleus of men relying on part-time trained men from the collieries.
In an emergency, at least two rescue stations are involved, the first call station and the second call station.
Officers and men from other stations and parttime men from mines in other Coal Board areas are brought in, if necessary, irrespective of geographical boundaries.
The full complement of the Rescue Service is 2,500 part-time trained rescue men, 170 full-time permanent brigadesmen, 80 superintendents and other officers, together with the six district managers and a general manager. (1975 period)
In the last few years, the fleet of 80 rescue vehicles has been modernised and the vehicles have been designed to suit the varying conditions and circumstances under which they have to operate.
Most of the vehicles are in radio communication with the rescue stations, which is not only useful when the vehicles are on the road, but also provides an important additional link with the rescue stations during an emergency when the telephone system is overloaded.
The radio system has been renewed recently and is now of the most modern type.

The most successful Mines rescue operation in Great Britain was following the Knockshinnock Castle Colliery accident in 1950 when a large volume of liquid peat and moss broke through from the surface into a heading in the main coal seam, cutting off a large part of the workings, including the two means of escape to the surface.
Thirteen men were killed by the inrush and 116 men were entombed.
Such was the magnitude of the inrush that there was no hope of clearing a way through the mass of sludge.
All the men were eventually rescued by making a connection from old workings in a neighbouring mine.
To do this the men had to be brought through a roadway about 800 metres in length in an irrespirable atmosphere, whilst at the same time the methane percentage was building up where the men were congregated.
A human chain of rescue men wearing breathing apparatus was stationed along the roadway and the trapped men were brought out wearing "Salvus" compressed oxygen apparatus, after being given brief instructions how to wear the apparatus.
This unique rescue operation took only eight hours from the time the first man commenced his hazardous journey to safety after having been trapped for more than two days.

In 1962, trials were resumed using various types of rescuers but the main trial was with a Siebe-Gorman type of which 10,000 were distributed to selected collieries.
After about four years of service, the rescuers were withdrawn due to degradation of the chemical filters which reduced the effectiveness of the masks below the accepted minimum.
In 1967 a new model, the M.S.A. 230, which was designed to give protection for a minimum period of one hour against lethal percentages of carbon monoxide, was introduced and eventually extended to all collieries.
Every man entering a mine was required to carry a self-rescuer and keep it on his person during the whole of his time underground.
In 1968, the design of the M.S.A. 230 was modified by the addition of a heat exchanger for cooling the inspired air.
This model, the 265, afforded protection for not less than one hour in lethal percentages of carbon monoxide.
A further improved model, the 275, designed to give protection for at least 11 hours in lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide, is now being introduced.
All men who go underground are given training in the use of self-rescuers and refresher training is carried out every two years.

For more on A.B. Clifford and his work in World War One Click Here