Throughout the history of coal mining, various methods of lighting had been tried out, some of them safe, others highly dangerous, none of them really effective. During the 18th century, for instance, parts of Merton Colliery were ‘illuminated’ by the faint but secure light of fish skins, while in Hebburn Colliery, before the invention of the Safety Lamp, a hundred Spedding Steel Mills were in daily use.
These produced a stream of sparks when a steel wheel was turned against a flint, and although at the time were generally thought to be safe enough to use in places where it was too dangerous to use candles, were frequently the cause of explosions.
Naked candles were used in those parts of the mine which were regarded as ‘safe’.
In view of some of the common methods of lighting mines, it seems hardly surprising that explosions had long been occurring in them. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, mines were becoming deeper and explosions more and more frequent.
At Wallsend Colliery alone, for instance, there were explosions in 1782, 1784, 1785, 1786, 1790 and 1803, in which 34 men lost their lives.
This spate of accidents culminated in the terrible disaster at Felling Colliery in 1812, in which 92 men and boys lost their lives. The magnitude of this explosion helped arouse public opinion, and in October of the following year, the Sunderland Society was formed.
The Sunderland Society
This society advertised its existence in the Newcastle Courant (9 October 1813) and also in an Appeal to the Public, dated 22 October, 1813. In this latter document the aim of the society was stated to be:
“to invite the attention of the scientific world to the evils which the present system of ventilation is inadequate to remedy – to induce the chemist, through motives of humanity, and by offers of honourable reward, to investigate the origin and to obviate the destructive consequences of the firedamp.“
This was the first society of its kind in the country, and it took much hard work and tact to convince the owners of their honesty of intent. For instance, after the first meeting:
“at the request of one proprietor the number of lives lost was erased from the resolution [of foundation] for fear of giving offence.”
Sir Humphrey Davy
The members sought the help of Sir Humphrey Davy who promised all the help he could give. Unfortunately. after visiting some of the principal collieries in the neighbourhood of Newcastle, Including Wallsend and Hebburn, Sir Humphrey:
“soon convinced himself that no improvement could be made, in the mode of ventilation, but that the desired preventative must be sought in a new method of lighting the mines free from danger.”
With this in mind he made numerous experiments on the combustibility and explosive nature of the gases found in coal mines. Using gas collected from a blower in B pit, Hebburn, he discovered that only a very strong heat will ignite it; that mixtures of the gas would not explode if they were in metal canals or troughs of a diameter less than one 7th of an inch, and of a depth considerably longer in proportion to the diameter; and also that it was not possible to make explosives pass through such canals, or through very fine wire sieves or wire gauze.
The ’Davy’ Lamp
His investigations and experiments led in 1815 to the invention of his safety lamp, the ‘Davy’. The basic principle of this lamp was that the flame was surrounded by a cylinder of fine copper gauze, which conducted away the heat, keeping the temperature around the flame below flash point.
The Davy Lamp was not the only safety lamp invented around this time, or indeed the first one. Dr Clanny, a well known Sunderland surgeon, and a founder member of the Sunderland Society, had himself produced a lamp in which the flame was shielded, and only came into contact with air which was pumped through water by bellows. However, it was very cumbersome and never really successful enough to be actually used in a coal mine.
The ‘Geordie’ Lamp
About the same time as Davey invented his lamp, George Stephenson invented the ‘Geordie’ or Stephenson Lamp. There was in fact quite a lively controversy at the time as to which lamp was actually invented first. The important factor here, however, is that a safety lamp was in fact invented by someone.
The ‘Geordie’ and the ‘Davy’ were very similar in principle except that the ‘Geordie’ featured a glass cylinder around the actual flame, which meant that it gave a better light. Both lamps were a considerable advance on Spedding’s Steel Mill, and on the naked flame of a candle, and so both were adopted in the mines. The Davy Lamp, however, from the first became the more popular even in the North East where Stephenson worked as an engineer in Killingworth Colliery. The probable reason for this was that although the Geordie gave off a steadier light, it was both more expensive and more cumbersome than the Davy.
Sir Humphrey regarded his invention of the safety lamp as of more value than anything else he ever did, and indeed it could have made him a fortune, but he refused to take out a patent on it, saying that, being able to help the miners was reward enough. He was subsequently presented with a piece of plate valued at £2000, and Stephenson was given a cash testimonial of £1000.
The Sunderland Society dissolved after the invention of the safety lamp, their object, so they believed accomplished. They had certainly played an important part in helping arouse public interest in the mines, and they were now full of high hopes that the Davy lamp would bring about the cessation of explosions. They were wrong in this, however, for the safety lamp did not fulfil the high hopes it had raised, and indeed. Fynes, writing in 1873 had reason to describe it as
“the most deadly instrument ever devised and… the cause of more sacrifice of human life than had ever occurred before.”
No drop in deaths from explosions
The facts certainly bear out that there was no drop in deaths from explosions after 1815. There were several reasons for this, probably the most outstanding one, being that confidence in the lamp led almost at once to the working of much more dangerous seams. Mines were now driven deeper and old mines, which had become so dangerous as to be abandoned were now reopened and worked ‘safely’ with the help of the new lamps. John Buddle, the celebrated viewer at Wallsend Colliery admitted to this when giving evidence in 1829. On being asked if he thought accidents by explosion had lessened with the introduction of the Davy Lamp, he replied:
“The loss of life has been nearly about the same, but I attribute that to this cause, that we’re working mines from having the advantage of the safety lamp, which you could not possibly have worked without it, and of course they are in a more dangerous situation and the risk is increased in a very great degree. If we had not had the Davy Lamp, these mines could not now have been in existence at all, for the only substitute we had, and that was not a safe one, was… a steel mill, which was the only means of introducing light except by the naked flame…”
Over-confidence in the safety lamp
Confidence (or more accurately, over-confidence) in the safety lamp meant that the men themselves were not always wise in their use of it. Atkinson writes of cases where:
“An explosion might result from drawing the flame of the lamp through the gauze by means of a tobacco pipe, yet workmen are not infrequently detected in this very daring and dangerous practice in mines.”
Fynes too, in writing about the explosion at Low Pit, Harraton, on 30 June 1817 in which 38 lives were lost puts the cause down to:
“a viewer wilfully unscrewing his Davy Lamp and lighting a candle from it, in defiance of the rules of the colliery.”
In support of the view that these were not isolated cases of carelessness, Buddle testified to the fact that:
“scarcely a month occurs without the punishment of some of them [the miners] for the mismanagement of the Davy Lamps. They have been fined, and the magistrates have sent them to the house of correction for a month, yet they will screw off the top of the Davy and expose the naked flame… because they get more light.”
In some collieries, notices “respecting the proper use of the safety lamp” were posted, providing further evidence that they tended to be misused, unfortunately, however, so few of the miners were able to read that these were of less value than they might at first seem.
Neglect of ventilation
Another reason for the continuance of explosions, particularly those with the high death toll, was the neglect of ventilation, which was encouraged by overconfidence in the safety lamp. Previously it had been necessary to keep working places free from inflammable gas. Now, however, it was possible to work even when the air was filled with inflammable gas. Thus:
“if an explosion did occur, (which might be the case by accident to the safety lamp, by falls of stones or otherwise, or by the carelessness or wilfulness on part of the workmen in damaging the lamp), it would be extremely disastrous.”
Quite apart from any ‘carelessness’ or ‘wilfulness’, however, there was in the Davy Lamp itself, a dangerous imperfection, which although Buddle claimed to have been told of by Davy when the lamp was first used, and for which he also claimed there was a remedy, was not known to the general public until 20 years later. This was that, “although perhaps accidentally, or from some flickering or increased glare reflected on his work, he sees his lamp on fire, perhaps in the upper part of the cylinder red hot… he immediately seizes it, and instinctively hurries from the spot, giving rise to the motion and coincidences that are known, certainly to produce explosion.”
That this dangerous imperfection could be the cause of many explosions was the belief of several eminent men of the time. Dr Birbeck, for instance, gave his view that the Davy lamp was effective:
“when the explosive gas is quiescent but is totally defective, when that gas is in motion and can reach the wire gauze in that state of condensation which a moving column of gas always acquires; it then becomes no longer a safety lamp.”
George Stephenson, in evidence, gave his view that some of the explosions for which no cause had been found, could well have been caused by a fall of coal in the workings since:
“when the coal comes down, there is an immense gush of wind…sufficient to drive the flames through the goals and fire the internal atmosphere.”
Although there is abundant evidence of explosions, definitely traced to the Davy Lamp in other parts of the country, including two in Cumberland, one at Salton-Low-Bottom, which killed two men and another at the William Pitt, which killed three men, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that the Davy Lamp was the cause of any accidents in the North East coal mines. The South Shields Committee report (1843), however, suggests very convincingly that this is most likely due to the:
“extensive and destructive nature of these tremendous explosions in the North”,
which would, of course, destroy all such evidence. It goes on to suggest most strongly that the catastrophic explosion at Wallsend Colliery, 1835, in which 102 men and boys died, was caused in this way.
What was the answer to safety in the mines?
The Davy Lamp was then not to be the answer to the safe working of coal mines, having been found:
“by experiment and in practice to explode the external gas, by the passage of the flame through the gauze; and that a dangerous contingency is produced when the lamp is hot, to which it is particularly liable…[and]…it has too long possessed the unlimited confidence of miners in its protective powers.”
What was to be the answer to safety then? The remedy which Buddle spoke of in connection with the defect in the Davy Lamp was a tin shield which should surround the gauze cylinder when the lamp was being moved. However, when representatives of the South Shields Committee inspected the colliery where Buddle himself was viewer, these shields were not in use. Then there was the problem of the men tampering with the lamps “because they got more light”. Would the answer be to use lamps such as the Geordie which gave up a better light than the Davy?.
However, according to Atkinson, this lamp was really no safer since the glass in it was liable to crack due to unequal expansion or to break if the lamp was dropped or fell over.
In point of fact the problem of explosion was not be solved by lighting at all, and the report of the South Shields Committee rightly condemns the fact that:
“this mode of securing safety in mines has been beyond all reasonable bounds relied on, while the far more important and safe system of ventilation have been comparatively neglected.”