The Dangers of the Pit

Almost every man we’ve spoken to was either injured or knew someone who was hurt or killed at the pits. Several men had witnessed deaths underground, which were tragically frequent occurrences. Safety improved from the days when thousands of miners were killed each year, but the industry remained dangerous: there were deaths in the 1980s and severe accidents in the pit through until closure.

For men underground, it was unusual never to have been partially buried in a roof-fall, suffered an injury that meant taking time off work or to have finished working underground without one of the illnesses which characterise the lives of former mineworkers.

Just a few weeks into the project, we were visited by Anne Crookes, whose ancestor Michael Siddall was killed in a roof-fall at Kiveton in the 1870s. The inquest into his death took place at the Station Hotel. As the years progressed, more and more men were killed in roof falls, when poorly supported roofs fell or strata weighing millions of tonnes shifted, the weight coming on, crushing everything beneath.

Fire was a constant fear for miners. Gases in the pit might be exploded by a single spark or unprotected flame; deputies had special lamps and men were trained to watch out for the tell tale signs of a gas build-up. In later years, electronic sensors were introduced too. Coal dust was highly flammable and it could be disastrous if it caught alike.

In the event of a fire there was little men could do; each pit had a fire rescue team, which would expect to be called out to any pit in the region. One of Kiveton’s team tells in an interview how he was thankfully never called out to Kiveton. All men were issued with self-rescuers, a mask that could be warn to gain vital minutes to escape. This was worn on the belt, as shown here.

As can be seen from the photos here and in our photo archive, Kiveton Pit had its own fire brigade, to tackle fires around the pit or in the village.

The worst accident in the history of Kiveton Pit was in 1941, when an explosion killed five men working under Todwick: Fred Hoften, Bob Walker, William Eames, Jonas Eames and Charlie Bradford. Men working at the pit and local people remember the day well. Word spread to the school that there’d been an accident down at the pit and the children were told to go home. One of the remarkable things about the 1941 accident was that a pony close-by survived, albeit badly scorched.

It was unusual that Kiveton only experienced one accident on this scale, especially considering the depth of the pit, the gaseous conditions and the scale and long history of its working.

Stringent procedures were in place to stop sources of ignition entering the pit. It’s astonishing that men were prepared to flout these regulations and take contraband into the pit. One fitter recalls moving some old conveyors and finding a pile of recently smoked tab ends. A roll of polo mints, discarded during a contraband check, was found to have cigarette hidden down its middle. This seems remarkable, but at least one man in those last few years was deranged enough to deliberately sabotage the pit, as you can read about in this article in the Kiveton Combine.

Haulage was dangerous. Coal tubs weighed a tonne each: imagine several being pulled by a pony led by a young lad. One of the most feared happenings was for a tub to break free and career away: a heavy tub loaded with a tonne of coal, running at full pelt, was a dangerous thing indeed.

There were still dangers after paddies and minecars were brought in. Ken Beaman talks about many of these dangers in his interview, extracts of which can be heard in the oral history section. Sam Hodgkins is particularly noticeable in this regard: the emergency braking device he designed for mine cars won him £100 from the area inventions panel.

For decades, ever since they had been introduced to move coal, men and officials alike had ridden the conveyors to get in and out of the pit. Faced with a choice between walking for a few miles or lying on a conveyor belt, almost everyone used the belts, even though this was against the rules and punishable by harsh disciplinary action. The last man killed at Kiveton Pit was ‘man-riding’ one of the conveyors but, tragically, new machinery had been installed which he didn’t know about.

There were many dangers on the surface of the pit, for men working on the spoil tips, around the shafts, just in the pit yard or with the heavy machinery found at any colliery. One Kiveton miner was killed when he fell down West Kiveton shaft. A similar fate felt befell a young man from a prominent local family, who fell down a shaft at the main pit just after the First World War. A man was tragically killed on the surface conveyors in the early 1980s.

Most fatalities at Kiveton Pit occurred underground, where it was difficult for medical support to reach injured men. Special teams were trained to rescue casualties but it took time to get a man out of the pit, using special equipment and splints in order to get him out through hostile tough conditions. Photos here show rescue teams from the 1950s and the 1980s.

The Kiveton rescue team took part in competitions and were very successful. In years gone by, casualties had to be taken all the way to Sheffield Infirmary, either by train or ambulance – the picture here is of the pit’s first-ever ambulance. Local doctors and nurses would have been called immediately to the pit, often going underground with rescue teams. In later years, a medical centre was built at Kiveton, something you can hear about in Roger Bass’s interview.

The village has remembered these men in different ways. Respect was always paid by the pit standing to. Memories of victims been passed down through generations. Many households in the village have photographs on display to remember loved family members or friends who died at the pit. The Flowers family is a large Kiveton family and several homes have pictures of George, who was killed in an accident underground in the early 1950s. One family experienced the same tragedy 64 years apart: in 1888 J. Thompson was killed at the age of 54. In 1944, his descendent Ged Thompson was also killed. Memorials are now being installed on the pit site and this website includes a record in memory of all the men who were killed at Kiveton and West Kiveton. It is hoped that this can be extended to Waleswood in the future.

Men who were injured have in many cases been left with lasting physical or psychological scars. Eddie Ashton’s missing finger really let the children of Wales Juniors and Infants know just how dangerous the pits could be. Two men we’ve spoken to, both from long-established and respected mining families, at Waleswood and Kiveton respectively, suffered terrible injuries just a few months apart. Both were kept off work for the best part of a year or more. Many more men live with long-term illnesses associated with pit work. Despite attempts to cut dust in the later years of the pit’s life, lung disease and damage is all too common amongst Kiveton veterans.

Geoff Bennett is perhaps is the best position to realise how dangerous pit work was and why this was the case. He was Safety Officer at Kiveton, responsible for the welfare of men in the pit, that they followed guidelines, were properly trained in safety procedures, that equipment was in place and much more. In an extract of an extended interview with him, you can hear of just a few of his responsibilities as Safety Officer. In later years there were campaigns to improve safety and training was extended considerably – but coal was an industry where risks couldn’t be cut out completely.