On Friday evening, representatives from school were very honoured to be part of a wonderful memorial service to mark 125 years since the Peckfield Colliery Disaster in 1896. Led by Mrs Loring the choir sang beautifully despite the heavy rain during the service which was led by the Rt Reverend Stephen Cottrell and attended by the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Coun Eileen Taylor and Leeds City Council leader Coun James Lewis along with representatives from Micklefield Parish Council, the NUM and the wider mining community. Chair of Governors Mrs Erica Swales laid a posy on behalf of the school.
History of Peckfield Colliery
Work on sinking the mine shafts at Peckfield Colliery was begun in October 1874 and it was finally opened in 1877. In spite of there being 7 fatalities in 19 years the pit was regarded as being a relatively safe mine. It was well ventilated by a Waddle fan that had removed 11 small escapes of gas since 1891. However, there was a concern because although the Under Manager and Deputies carried safety lamps, the miners had only tallow candles with which to work at the coal face.
Normally a shift of 260 miners would start work at 6am taking over from the 40 men who had worked overnight on repairs. However, on April 30th 1896 the mine was on a 3day week and that day no coal was to be removed and no miners would be paid. The 105 men who were on the shift were datallers and were going to work in the mine to ensure that when the mine was working, it would achieve maximum productivity and higher rates of pay per miner.
Prior to the day shift entering the Deputies had inspected the pit and declared it safe (the chalk marks recording their inspection could be clearly seen in certain places after the Disaster). The area the miners were going to work in had no history of gas escape, but shortly after they arrived at Goodall’s Gate on the west side of the mine (just under 1 mile from the surface) there was a slight roof fall and a small amount of fire damp escaped that was ignited by a miner’s candle. The time was 7.20am.
2 miners and their ponies were killed instantly and 4 more were killed as they fled the scene. As the explosion travelled it dislodged coal dust that had accumulated over time and this intensified the flame and when it reached the air in the West Level main intake it continued to expand throughout the whole mine. Miners were killed, others were trapped beneath rock falls. It tore through the stables killing and burning the horse keeper and 12 out of 14 pit ponies. It ripped through the Office killing the Underground Manager William Radford (who had held this position since the pit opened) and a deputy + other miners and the brakesman. Finally the explosion reached the surface by travelling up the main shaft and its force blew the cage into the headgear. The sound of the explosion was described as being like a cannon and could be heard over a radius of 6 miles.
Altogether 24 miners were killed directly by the explosion, but of the 81 who survived only 42 managed to reach the surface alive as they were either trapped by roof falls or killed by afterdamp (mainly methane gas). Rescuers described how the tracks of those trying desperately to escape could be seen in the coal dust. Many were knocked over by the explosions, struck by trap doors or just fell unconscious because of the gas. One group of 11 miners in the Black Bed seam were unconscious for an hour then, in the pitch dark with the cages out of action they had to scramble up a stone drift to reach the Beeston Bed where once again they were overcome by afterdamp 600 yards from the shaft. They were barely able to walk and had to leave behind Fred Atkinson who was injured. When they reached the shaft they were all violently sick and ill.
Number 2 shaft was blocked by the explosion and took the efforts of Colliery Managers Charles Houfton (Peckfield), Robert Routledge (Garforth) and engineer Samuel Clough nearly 2 hours to get the cage past the obstruction and to reach the survivors. The sick (including Fred Atkinson) were the first to be rescued. Many of the rescuers had to be revived from the effects of afterdamp. William Whittaker was not found until 2.30pm on Saturday May 2nd. He was treated at the pit head and taken to Leeds General Infirmary where he died at 10pm. A pit pony whose 2 hurriers had left it whilst trying to escape, was found alive 2 weeks later. Altogether out of 23 ponies in the pit just 4 survived including the one found after 14 days.
HM Inspector of Mines, Frank Wardell said he did not know of a single instance in which so much damage had been done to a pit by an explosion. At the inquest on May 20th the jury returned the verdict: We are unanimous that the explosion was caused by gas, and was purely accidental, and that no blame is to be attached to any person. The cause was stated to be fire-damp coming into contact with a naked light and exploding, so igniting coal dust that carried the explosion forward. The Colliery Owners followed the recommendations of the inquest and issued all miners with safety lamps.
On Sunday 3 May 1896, a huge crowd attended the burials in Micklefield of the first miners recovered from the pit. 43 miners were interred at Micklefield, 8 at Garforth, 6 at Kippax, 5 at Aberford, whilst William Radford was interred at Tibshelf, Derbyshire.
Of the 63 victims, 3 were widowers, 22 were single, and 38 were married and of these only 4 had no children. There were 107 dependent children upon 34 widows + 14 elderly dependent people and 3 survivors unable to work due to injuries sustained.
A collection in aid of the widows and dependents was started and this collection was augmented by an appeal in the local newspapers with Queen Victoria contributing £50. Eventually £20,625 was raised, including £1,000 donated by the Colliery Owners. This fund continued to support dependents until 1970.