COLLIERY EXPLOSION ON CANNOCK CHASE

Clockwise from top:  Ordnance Survey 1883, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland; what it looked like in Autumn 2006; from entry of death.

Staffordshire Advertiser 5 Oct 1861

An inquest was held at the Queen’s Hotel, Cannock, on Monday, before Mr Collis, on the body of Joseph Dennis, one of the men formerly employed at the Fly Pit Colliery, Cannock Chase. He was there on the 16th ult., when an explosion of sulphur took place, and he was fatally injured. He lingered, however, until Saturday last. The inquest was adjourned to Tuesday next, in order that notice might be given to the Inspector of Mines. The deceased was about 49 years of age.

What a dreadful end!  It is sobering to think that this type of incident was all too frequent across the coal mining areas of Britain.

The Queen’s Hotel stood on Lichfield Road (now Queen Street), Chasetown, only a few doors from where Joseph lived. The name Chasetown had not been invented by that time; the 1861 census simply refers to Cannock Chase.

Note: one of the men formerly employed at the Fly Pit Colliery; does this imply that more men were involved and their employment terminated?  Sadly, it appears there is no follow-up report on the adjourned inquest.

Coal Mining History Resource Centre

Name: DENNIS J.
Age: 49
Date: 28/10/1861
Year: 1861
Occupation: Stallman
Colliery: Cannock Chase
Owner: Cannock Chase Colliery Co.
Town: Walsall
County: Stafford
Notes: Explosion of firedamp on 16th. Died this day [but see below and news report above].

Entry of Death

Date of death: 28 September 1861
Name: Joseph Dennis
Sex: Male
Age: 49
Occupation: Butty Colliery
Cause of death: Killed by an explosion of Firedamp in a Coal Pit of the Uxbridge Colliery Company Limited
Informant: Information received from John Collis Coroner – Inquest held 30 September 1861
Registered: 11 January 1862
Registrar: Charles Gillard Registrar

Although the newspaper reported an explosion of sulphur, firedamp was generally methane.  This highly flammable gas would build up in pockets in the rock strata.  When  penetrated the methane mixed with air and any contact with a naked flame or spark could cause a violent explosion.

Joseph Dennis (1812-1861)

The dates fit with Joseph Dennis born 1812, brother of 2nd great grandfather Henry, and the 1871 Census recording his widow, Mary.

The 1861 Census says he was a stallman, but the death certificate says Butty, indicating that he was responsible for safety and may have been checking the workings and set off an explosion; this would explain why he was the only fatality, though there could have been others injured.

In 1852 the Marquis of Anglesey, Lord Uxbridge, opened Uxbridge Pit at Chasetown. It cost £20,000 to open and became known as Cannock Chase No. 2 Pit. Locally, it was dubbed The Fly, in recognition of the speed of the winding wheel. In 1858 The Cannock Chase Railway was opened from Anglesey Wharf to ‘The Uxbridge Pit’ and the Norton Branch of the South Staffordshire Railway was built. In 1859 The Cannock Chase Colliery Company was formed by McLean and Chawner, who leased the pit from the second Marquis. A rail link to the South Staffordshire Railway, connected to the Anglesey Branch canal, was completed in 1850. From the top of the shaft coal was hauled by rail to the canal at Anglesey Wharf. The pit closed in 1940.

The Butty System

The butty system was in operation in 1750 or earlier and was more common in Staffordshire than elsewhere. Men worked in teams at the coalface. Each team was lead by a butty, who managed hewers, loaders, horse drivers and boys. Often these were family members, with younger boys operating ventilation curtains, then horses, then loading and cutting coal. The butty contracted with the mine owner to supply coal at a fixed price and kept about 25% of the team’s earnings. He provided tools, tubs and other equipment, horses and wages. Men were paid fortnightly and their employment could be terminated on pay day without notice or severance pay. Men were often not allowed to take watches down the mine, so the butty was the only timekeeper. Many were unscrupulous and became notorious for their unfairness.

Burial

Joseph was buried on 1 October 1861 at Ogley Hay (St James).  He left a widow, two sons and two daughters.

Sources

Findmypast – newspaper records and Staffordshire burials.
Coal Mining History Resource Centre
Burntwood Chase Heritage Group, Burntwood Heritage Trail, undated
General Registry Office: Entry of Death
Chasewater.org.uk – History of Chasewater
England census.
Andrew’s Kindred.

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