Brothers in Harm’s Way


On 15 May 1868 a shocking incident shook the mining communities of Watling Street, and Chasetown. Six died and two were seriously injured when a rope snapped, sending eight men and boys plummeting to the bottom of the shaft. This occurred at Cannock Chase No. 4 Colliery, known locally as “Fours Mount”, which lay to the west of modern-day Union Street, Chasetown. When I visited the site it was waste land, with no visible remains of the colliery.

Chasetown, Staffordshire: Ordnance Survey 1882, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

First on the scene was George Dennis, who found a heap of bodies at the bottom of the shaft. George was just sixteen. He had never seen the like before and was all the more shocked by the thought that two of his brothers might be among the victims. First he found his friend Edward Green, also sixteen, alive. But his hopes were soon dashed when he found John Fox, Thomas Picken, John Bridlow all dead. And then his younger brother James. He was dead, too. Finally, he found James Pearce and his older brother William, both alive, but badly hurt.

The Inspector’s Report and the Inquest, held at the Uxbridge Arms, revealed that the man operating the winding engine, Hargreaves Walters, had wrapped some hemp rope around the steel rope to act as a signal, or token, to stop the engine at the right time. Over time the hemp had become damp and concealed the corrosion of the steel rope so that on that fateful trip only about 26 or 28 of the 192 strands were intact and these finally gave way.

The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death. Censured were Francis Blewitt, Hargreaves Walters (engine tenter) and Thomas McGhie (mine manager). The case was referred to the Home Office and subsequently McGhie was fined 10 shillings and costs.

The victims

(In the order given in the news report of the inquest.)

Edward Green, 16, was well enough to attend the reconvened inquest. He recovered and in 1871 was living on Watling Street, near the Lamb Inn. Recovered.

John Fox, 20. In 1861 John lived at Fox’s Row, on Watling Street, where his father Joseph was shopkeeper & publican. It seems likely this was the Anglesey Arms. Killed.

Thomas Picken, 21. Presumably, arrived in the area after 1861. Killed.

John Bridlow, 60. CMHRC has John Budlow, but I can find no record of either. Killed.

Thomas Richards, 40. Thomas was married and a father of five children. In 1861 he lived at Webb’s Row (on what is now Castle Street), demolished in about 1967. In 1871 his widow and four children lived at Lichfield Road (now Queen Street), Chasetown. Killed.

James Dennis, 13. See below, under Dennis. Killed.

James Pearce, 15. Presumably, arrived after 1861. He was found alive, but died later.

William Dennis, 18. See below, under Dennis. Recovered.


William, George and James Dennis were born in Bagworth, Leicestershire and arrived in Brownhills with their family between 1855 and 1858. Their father William followed younger brothers Joseph and Henry (my great great grandfather), who arrived in the winter of 1851-52, probably to find work at the new Cannock Chase Colliery No. 2 pit, “The Fly”. Joseph was killed there in a gas explosion in 1861.

In 1858 the three brothers lived at Webb’s Row, in today’s Castle Street, but in 1861 and 1871 the family lived at Watling Street, somewhere between today’s Castle Street and Howdles Lane.

The entry of death for James gives “Killed by falling down the shaft of a Coal Pit, in consequence of the Chains breaking”.

William suffered a broken thigh and ankle, but recovered and returned to work. He and George and their sister Eliza, by then Evans, moved to Pilsley, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, probably in late 1879 or early 1880.

Birmingham Journal Saturday May 23 1868 and July 4 1868.
Coal Mining History Resource Centre (CMHRC).  Note: this website has closed.
General Register Office.
Ordnance Survey, 1884.
England Censuses.

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