Monday, November 6, 2023

The Oaks Mine Christmas Disaster

by David A. Jacinto

December 12th, 1866,  began not unlike most winter days in the village of Hoyle Mill. Two weeks before Christmas, a foggy mist drifted through the valley and gripped the bitterly cold and wet morning. Enthusiasm for Christmas  was running high.  Most men and boys in the village had been putting in overtime at the Oaks Coal Mine south of Barnsley to make a little extra Christmas money. 

That morning, well before dawn,  the coal miners shared a final word over tea and crumpets, bangers and mash, or blood sausage, kissed their wives and mothers goodbye, gave each of the little ones a warm hug, and began the short walk from Hoyle Mill to the Oaks Colliery.

 On the darkened path, they were joined by the other collies, chatting, laughing, and sharing jokes in casual conversation. Passing through the gates and into the Oaks yard, they headed toward the cage to go down the shaft into the mine, just as they did every morning.

One by one, each cage lowered down the telescoping shaft, stopping periodically to deposit miners at various levels. Each disembarking level led into a vast web of interconnecting tunnels, smaller shafts and mining chambers. The last of the miners reached the bottom at a thousand feet below ground, where the cage door was pulled open for the final time. They stepped onto the rough-hewn floor of the landing in the faint light. This brotherhood of miners shared their final morning pleasantries, smiling, laughing, and even singing Christmas songs as they each lit their oil lamps and headed off into the various corners of the mine to dig their own graves where they would spend eternity.        


The first trembling upheaval arrived late that clear blue morning. The cruel whip of nature bringing a sudden crack of doom to the quiet tenor of innocence as the blast  fought its way to the surface. 

In his office, Thomas Diamond, the mine superintendent, jerked to attention with the thunderous roar of the explosion. He ran to the window to see a monstrous skyrocket of flames and smoke shoot up in every direction from the main entrance to the mine. Bricks disintegrated into powder. Great ascending clouds of chalk, coal, rock, earth, and debris spouted up into the sky and began to fall back in a “black bloody snow”. The hundred-year-old cage support beams went up like matchsticks in the blaze. It seemed the entire surface of the earth had been torn off, burying four hundred miners in the pit.

The massive tree in the yard had been uprooted, fat tendrils of roots rose up from the ground looking like an upside down tree. The fires pooled and strutted, flowing from structure to tree as smoke chased ash into the sky. The appetite for oxygen was such that leaves and branches were sucked into the flames and flashed their disappearance in an instant.

Mr. Diamond rushed out of his office into the wings of the hot breeze cutting through the cold morning. There was the sound of pandemonium. The smell of smoke and burning flesh. The taste of coal dust. Men yelling. The crackle of burning timbers. Moans of pain and screams of agony. Adrenaline pumping, Diamond leaped into the chaos, ignoring the smoke and flames, seemingly contemptuous of the danger. The main entrance to the mine that was supposed to lay before him was no more. The entire yard was unrecognizable. He had been through mining explosions before, but nothing like this. It looked like a war zone after a daylong cannon raid. 

Driven to a rush of heightened awareness, Diamond seemed to have a clear vision of just what needed to be done. He knew it was important not to lose his head—to take immediate but thoughtful, deliberate action, carefully planning the dangerous rescue of the men still down in the pit. 

With his right hand cupped over his eyes to see through the heavy smoke and debris drifting back to earth, he held a kerchief to his nose. He searched through the smoky haze to commandeer rescuers from the miners who were scurrying in all directions in terror. He called out and the men jumped at his orders, seemingly thankful to have someone take charge and tell them where to go and what to do.

Miners boiled up from the bowels of the mine and toward him, away from the blazing fires of burning colliery timbers. They reeled in shock and confusion, some calling out in agony, some held up by other men, some saying nothing at all. Wherever Diamond looked, torn and broken bodies and injured animals were shaking in the grip of death, while the uninjured tried in vain to comfort the dying. One miner walked toward Diamond, staring dull-eyed at him without a word. It took a moment to register, the man was near naked, his skin burnt grey.

     Over two days the rescue would continue in an attempt to save as many as possible from the firedamp explosions, and following afterdamp asphyxiation. Almost every man and boy from the surrounding villages over the age of ten had been down in that mine. There was not a single family in Hoyle Mill who had not lost someone. Three-hundred and eighty-four men and boys would die, including twenty-six rescuers in a blast on the second day of the rescue attempt. That blast would close down the mine forever, leaving most of the dead buried for eternity. For these miners' families, there would be no more caresses from a husband, kisses from a father, no more “I love you, Mam” from a son, no more childhood memories of a brother.  

The Oak's irresponsible operators and massively wealthy landowners who had not provided proper ventilation or other safety measures recommended by inspectors would not be held liable in any way. They would not even provide enough money to bury the dead, let alone provide for food, rent, or even survival of these destitute families. Thousands of  family members would  be left with no way to even keep warm during their cold winter nights of despair after the disaster.

The 1866 Oaks Mine Christmas disaster that killed 384 men and boys was not the first on this seam of coal. In the previous twenty years there had been over five-hundred other minors who had lost their lives. In 1845, six men and boys lost their lives from a firedamp explosion and afterdamp asphyxiation at the Oaks; in 1847, seventy-three men and boys were killed, again firedamp and afterdamp at the Oaks; in 1849 seventy-five at Darley Main on the same seam; in 1851, twelve more were killed at the Oaks, again for the same reason; in 1851, fifty-two were killed at Warnervale. In 1852, twelve more were killed at the Elsecar colliery, firedamp and afterdamp. In 1857, firedamp and afterdamp killed 189 men and boys on the adjacent Lundhill Colliery, and fifty-nine at Edmonds in 1862. 

These avoidable disasters all along this same seam of coal occurred mostly because of poor ventilation and deplorable safety deficiencies. And yet the operators and fabulously wealthy Landlord were not held liable in any way for these deaths, inciting the miners' families to demand an inquest into the Oaks Christmas disaster. That inquest was held in 1867 and would stir interest all across the United Kingdom, rousing Queen Victoria to push for change in  laws governing coal mining and other industrial revolution operations. The Oaks Christmas Disaster and the fascinating historical events that followed are all covered in a well documented, historical fiction recently released by Simon & Schuster. “Out of the Darkness”, is based on the true story of a nineteenth century child coal miner rising out of the ashes of poverty and tragedy to change the world. It’s a story of poverty, sacrifice, greed, love, faith and the courage to push aside fear and jump into the refiner’s fire where the finest qualities of character are forged. It’s a story of the great sweep of human desire for freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of justice.


David A. Jacinto

Author of: Out of The Darkness

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