The Moorfield Pit Disaster Included a Number of Grimshaw Victims

An important event associated with coal mining at Clayton-le-Moors was the Moorfield Pit Disaster on November 7, 1883 in which 68 men and boys were killed (one victim was age 10, three were 11, and three were 12) by a coal mine explosion.

A description of the Moorfield Pit Mine by Tootle(1998) is excerpted at the bottom of this webpage. The victims included two Grimshaws:

Grimshaw, John aged 20, of 81 Henry St., Church. He was one of the last four to be recovered on the Sunday. He may have been living with his grandparents. On the death of his grandfather, William, In October, 1895, his grandmother was classed as a widow and began to receive support from the fund. John was buried at the Wesleyan Church, Mount Pleasant, Oswaldtwistle.

Grimshaw, Thomas aged 26, of Church Lane, Clayton-le-Moors. He left a wife, Agnes, and a daughter, Nancy Alice b. 9-6-1882, who was listed in the Relief Fund Register as Agnes. The child died 2nd December 1885 aged three. The family later moved to 37 Union Rd., Oswaldtwistle. Mrs. Grimshaw married John Hughes of Church Lane, on 15th December 1884. Tomas was buried at the Wesleyan Church, Mount Pleasant, Oswaldtwistle.

In addition, another Grimshaw was injured:

Grimshaw, William of Church. Died 8 August 1894. Someone made a claim for relief and was awarded 5/- (25p) per week. This was stopped in October 1889, reinstated at 2/6 (12 ½ p) and increased in 1895.

A plaque on the A678 bridge over the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near the Moorfield Colliery site reads as follows; a photo of the plaque is shown below.

This plaque is to commemorate the tragic death of 69 men and boys at the Moorfield Colliery disaster on 7th November 1883

The number of deaths is probably 68, as reported in Tootle, rather than the 69 reported on the plaque.

Photo of bridge across Leeds and Liverpool Canal for Highway A678, near site of Moorfield Pit Disaster (Note plaque, described above)

Excerpt from Tootle’s Moorfield Pit Disaster (in two parts, from the text and an epilogue):

Between 1880 and 1890, there were no less than 22 major pit disasters in Britain, resulting in the deaths of 1,741 men and boys, many of them as young as ten years old. Many of the boys who died in the Moorfield Pit explosion were under the present school leaving age and today some of them would still be attending their junior school. In the case of John Thomas Hall, aged 15, he was his mothers sole means of support.

The 19th century attitude to life and death in the mining fraternity is hard for the modem mind to grasp. It would be wrong to suggest that life was cheap; the men went into the mines knowing the dangers to which they were exposing themselves. The owners chased their profits, resisting change and modernisation and the men had their wages to earn, working in conditions that put their life on the line every time they entered the pit. Both men and masters cut corners when it came to safety.


The Colliery and its Ventilation.

The colliery at Altham was originally named Altham Colliery and it is not known when it was renamed Moorfield. It was situated to the right-hand side of the A678 Blackburn to Burnley road, going towards Padiham, half a mile from the present traffic lights at the Hare and Hounds Hotel, Clayton-le-Moors. The entrance to the pit-yard was by the side of Pilkington’s Bridge, which carried the main road over the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Pilkington’s Bridge was known locally as ‘Dickie Brig’. Moorfield Colliery has always been referred to as ‘Dickie Brig Pit’. Very little remains of the original pithead buildings, most of the buildings still standing date from the years after the disaster in 1883.

The sinking of the Moorfield Pit began July 1879 and was completed in July 1881. The shaft was within 20 yds (18.3m) of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Water from the canal began to pour into the shaft during the sinking and to hold it back the shaft was lined with a cast iron ‘tubbing’. It was then continued down 678 feet, (207m) to the 36- inch thick (1m) Upper Mountain seam.

Originally the mine would be worked as a single shaft pit, the shaft being divided down the centre by a ‘brattice’ (a wooden partition with the seams between the planks sealed with pitch). Air would travel down one side of the brattice, circulate round the workings, and return up the other side. There were several ways of creating a circulation of air. By using a furnace at the base of the upcast side of the shaft to create a draught of air, by using natural ventilation, or by windmill. It is not clear which one was in use at Moorfield at this time.

In 1862, at the Hartley Colliery, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the cast iron beam of the pumping engine broke away and fell into the shaft, taking the brattice and cage with it. The shaft was completely sealed, thereby entombing 204 men and boys. In 1864, a law was passed outlawing single shaft mines. As with many Acts of Parliament, the owners found ways to avoid complying with them. Numerous single shaft mines were still working years after the Act was passed. Many of the owners claimed they could not justify the cost of sinking a second shaft, and that they would have to work the mine until it could be linked-up with the workings of another colliery. This could have been the situation at Moorfield.

The colliery was owned by W. E. Taylor of the newly formed Altham Colliery Co. In 1868, the company was taken over by a partnership between James Barlow, the second Mayor of Accrington and J. J. Rippon, who also had an interest in the Great Harwood Colliery Co. The company also owned the Martholme and Whinney Hill collieries. James Barlow bought out Rippon’s interest in the company in 1868. He extended his mining interests further when he bought out the Rippon family’s interests in the Great Harwood Colliery Co. in 1892.

It was around 1868 that the shaft at Moorfield was taken down a further 173 feet (53m) to the 28inch (711mm) thick Lower Mountain seam. Two stone drifts, 8ft. (2.45m) wide and 7ft (2.13m) high, were driven 1,200 yards (1,100m) from the base of the shaft to the shaft at Whinney Hill. One of the drifts, known as ‘Billy Brow’, became the engine plane, or main haulage road, along which ran an endless chain haulage system. It was powered by a twin-cylinder steam engine situated at the base of the Whinney Hill shaft. The steam for the engine was provided by the boilers on the surface and piped down the shaft.

The other drift, the return airway for both collieries, was the travelling road for the men. The roadway had 264 steps cut into the floor to help the men to climb the 1 in 6 incline. Originally there was a metal handrail down the centre of the road, to separate the men coming on shift from those going off. This enabled the men to pass each other without getting in each other’s way.

One of the shafts at Whinney Hill then became the upcast shaft for both collieries. A furnace at the base of the shaft provided the draw for the ventilation, which worked on the ‘split ventilation system’. The second shaft at Whinney Hill acted as a downcast for one section of the mine workings, the Moorfield shaft being the downcast for the other.

The shaft at Moorfield had the brattice removed and was fitted out with two double-decked cages. Each deck could carry four, 21 inch (914mm) high tubs, each with a capacity of 4-1/2 cwt. (228.6kg), or when ‘man-riding’ (i.e. carrying sixteen men, eight to a deck.)

Each ventilation system was separated by a series of doors, operated by the ‘door tenters’, to prevent the air being diverted from its course or the foul air mixing with the clean. The door tenters were the youngest of the boys employed in the pit. They would sit by the air door, and when they heard a ‘drawer’ coming along with a tub, they would open the door to let him through and close it again behind him. Should a drawer get himself without light’, by accidentally extinguishing his lamp, he would take the lamp from the door tenter and leave the younger boy to sit hour upon hour in total darkness. For a ten-year-old this must have been a terrifying experience.

James Barlow sent for his son-in-law, George Watson Macalpine, at the time working as a marine engineer in Paisley, Scotland. He asked Macalpine to run the colliery company for him. Macalpine consented on the condition that he could buy the company out of his salary to which James Barlow agreed. Sir George made his final payment on the 5th July 1897 when James Barlow was on his deathbed. The Macalpine family were to retain their interest in the mines until nationalisation in 1947.

The Cause. Methane at Moorfield.

On the morning of the 7th November 1883, when the first of the men descended the shaft at Moorfield Colliery, they were entering an atmosphere which was primed like a bomb waiting to explode. All the elements were there, ready and waiting. In one of the headings off the No. 2 level, gas was issuing from a ‘rig’, or fault, which cut across the coalface. Four hours later this gas would be ignited to create a flash, which would set off the main explosive element, the coal dust. The coal dust had accumulated over the years, coating the walls, roof and timbers from the working places to the shaft. The men carried the Davy Safety Lamp into the pit with them. This was the fuse which was to set in motion the terrible force of the explosion; it would claim the lives of 68 men and boys.

Contrary to general belief, Sir Humphrey Davy was not the first man to invent the flame safety lamp. There had been several attempts to create a lamp which had the two essential ingredients; sufficient light when traveling and working and a barrier between the flame and the atmosphere. Many lamps had been invented, both in Britain and abroad, with a certain amount of success. Dr. William Reid Clanny invented the first practical lamp in 1813, for which he was awarded the Silver Medal by the Royal Society of Arts in 1816. His second improved lamp of 1817 gained him the Gold Medal from the Society. Both the lamps were large and needed an additional man to work them while the collier hewed the coal.

George Stevenson, a self-educated colliery engineer, tested his first lamp, the Tube and Slide lamp, at Killingworth Colliery, County Durham in 1815. For his work on the lamp, Stevenson was awarded L1000, raised by public donation, and the colliers gave him a silver watch.

Also in 1815, Sir Humphrey Davy scientifically investigated the properties of ‘methane’, a gas which results from the decay of organic matter. It is an odourless, colourless, hydrocarbon gas, which forms an explosive mixture when combined with air.

Although non-poisonous in itself, if a man was caught out by a sudden inrush of gas and was unable to get out of the workings fast enough, he would soon be overcome and suffocate. In earlier times a miner’s first warning of the presence of gas was when he lost his light, as the gas snuffed out his candle. The gas was known to the miners as ‘firedamp’. With a mixture of between 5% and 15% methane in the atmosphere, the flame in the safety lamp would begin to rise and flare. This in turn would heat up the wire gauze and make it glow. If any attempt was made to move the lamp it would ignite the surrounding gas. When the conditions in a mine were wet, the resulting explosion would remain localised, badly burning and killing anyone in the vicinity. Should the mine be a dry mine (i.e. a mine free of water seepage), the sudden explosion and flash of methane would set off a chain reaction. The ‘waft’ of the explosion would lift the coal dust along the roadway and the flash would ignite it. The resulting explosion would roar along the mining galleries as if through an enormous gun barrel, burning and breaking men and materials alike, until it exhausted itself up the shaft with a report like a gigantic cannon. This is what happened at Moorfield Colliery on that November morning in 1883.

Davy discovered the principle of surrounding the flame with a cylinder of wire gauze, so fine that it would not allow the flame to pass through it to ignite the gas outside the, lamp. This allowed lamps to be relatively light and easy to carry. With the introduction of safety lamps and improved ventilation, the miner was able to carry on working in a much gassier atmosphere. He would suffer from severe headaches and sickness of the stomach, but he would be able to carry on working and finish his shift without losing his light.

The three men refused to patent their individual inventions. When asked if he was going to cover his invention with a patent, Sir Humphrey replied: ‘No, my good friend, I never thought of such a thing, my sole object was to serve the cause of humanity, and, if I have succeeded, I am amply rewarded in the gratifying reflection of having done so.’

Over the years many attempts were made to improve the safety lamp, all using Davy’s fine gauze principle. They all had one thing in common, “they were lethal.’ If the Davy Lamp was held in a current of air containing methane which was travelling at six feet (2m) per second or passed through a pocket of the same mixture, the flame would rise in the lamp. The gauze would become hot and glow like an old-fashioned gas mantle. In extreme cases the lamp itself would explode.

As the 19th Century progressed, better ventilation systems were introduced, allowing shafts to be sunk to a greater depth and mine workings to extend over a larger area. Within these deeper seams, methane, the curse of the miner, was to be found in greater quantities.

Coal Dust. The Essential Ingredient.

It has often been asked why there was no mention of the coal dust at the inquest, but the answer is no mystery. The advance of mechanical haulage, and the movement of tubs along the roadways, resulted in the production of vast amounts of fine coal-dust. However, for many years, the danger of this coal-dust went unrecognised by the coal mining industry. When the danger was first brought up in the middle of the 19th century, it was disputed whether it did, or did not, contribute to mine explosions, and the argument went on for many years.

In 1844, the investigations of Michael Faraday revealed the part played by coal-dust in producing explosions. Dr. (later Professor) William Galloway, of Cardiff, continued experimenting in a search for the causes of colliery explosions. He stated that: “It is coal-dust which carries the flame with disastrous effects along the roads of a colliery.” This conclusion was far from being in agreement with established theories and was so unpopular that he was forced to resign as a junior Inspector of Mines. The Royal Commission of 1881, after forty years of evidence of the involvement of coal-dust in mine explosions, failed to reach a definite conclusion. Therefore insufficient attention was paid to the part played by the coal dust in the Moorfield explosion.

With the explosion at the Altoft Colliery in Yorkshire, and the loss of 22 lives in 1886 (three years after the Moorfield disaster), attention was once again focused on the danger of coal-dust.

William (later Sir William) Garforth, inspected the workings where the explosion had occurred and, from the evidence that he found, concluded that coal-dust had been the main cause of the explosion. To prove his theory, he built a section of enclosed mining galleries on the surface at Altoft Colliery, in which he carried out a series of experiments into the explosive properties of gas, coal dust, and air mixtures. These experiments proved conclusively the explosive character of coal-dust/air mixtures, even in the absence of methane. Had this evidence been available at the Moorfield inquest, I believe there would have been a different culprit named for the deaths of the 68 men and boys, although the verdict would probably still have been the same.


For many years in the main room of the Greyhound Hotel at Altham West, there was a framed list of those who lost their lives in the disaster. In 1994 this list was removed to Altham parish church. Mr. Terry Woods, a calligrapher from Oswaldtwistle created an illuminated scroll of the dead, which is now in the library at Clayton-le-Moors.

A plaque was affixed to stone-work of Pilkingtons Bridge (Dickie Brig) to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the disaster in October 1993 by a former Hyndburn Mayor Councillor Mrs. Cathleen Thom.

Coal mining ceased at Whinney Hill in 1932. The shafts were left open to ventilate the workings at Moorfield. They were later filled in and capped off. A large housing estate has been built on the land once occupied by Whinney Hill colliery, and the NORI brick works. The site of the shafts can be found on the right of the road going up to Whinney Hill from the traffic lights at the Greyhound Hotel. Directly above the entrance to the estate a small area has been fenced off and trees have been planted directly over the shafts.

In 1948, the year after the nationalisation of the coal industry, work in the Lower Mountain seam ceased. The following year the workings in the Upper Mountain seam were abandoned, bring coal production at Moorfield to an end. The shaft has been capped off but not filled in.

The coking plant stayed in production until 1962 when it was forced to close due to heavy trade losses, 253 men losing their jobs. Apart from a few buildings, the site was cleared by the late 1960s. It is now an industrial trading estate.


1Tootle, Henry, 1998, The Moorfield Pit Disaster: Blackpool, Landy Publishing, 64 p.

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Webpage posted August 2000.