The largest single loss of life at Water Haigh happened even before the colliery had started production. The sinking of two shafts had started in 1908 and work had been progressing well until the accident in May 1910 when six men died after the walls of one of the shafts collapsed.
The pit sinkers used a tried and and tested method to carry out their work. As rock and earth were excavated wooden planks were put in place to hold back the bare sides. These were strengthened by cast iron rings to hold them in place. Then a circular brick wall, 19 feet in diameter, was built upwards to line the shaft and the iron rings were “struck” and taken away as each was reached. No 1 shaft had already been lined by bricks to a depth of about 70 yards with the rest of the distance to the bottom supported by planks and iron rings.
It was around 8 o’clock on the morning of Saturday May 7th 1910 when the collapse took place. No 1 shaft had reached a depth of 110 and seven men were bricklaying on a wooden scaffolding a few yards from the bottom of the excavation. One of them, William Macnamara, was being raised to the surface in a large bucket called a hoppit when an iron ring collapsed and tons of earth and planks fell onto the men below. Suspended above the scene Macnamara raised the alarm when he was hauled to the surface.
Five of the men were buried under the rubble and must have died quickly, but the sixth, Patrick McCarthy, was trapped by his leg between the scaffolding and the side of the shaft. A desperate attempt was made to save him which lasted well into the afternoon with volunteers risking their own lives as they descended the shaft in the hoppit as debris rained down on them. After about 8 hours he too died of shock with his head being held above water just before two local doctors reached him. They’d taken their surgical instruments down with them with a plan to amputate his leg.
The collapse of the shaft at Water Haigh came on the same day as news reached the area of the death of Queen Victoria’s son King Edward VII, who’d only enjoyed a short reign of 9 years. Reports of both events in the Rothwell Times were lined with heavy black ink.
It took more than a week for all the bodies to be dug out of the rubble at Water Haigh. At the inquest, held at the Oulton Institute, the coroner said his greatest sympathy went to the relatives of the men and he would report the bravery of the rescuers to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.
The dead were named as William George Lancaster, 26, a married man from Hunslet; Willie Helliwell, 24, who had lodged at the Nookin in Oulton; Fred Cooper, 23, from Friar Wood in Pontefract; Patrick McCarthy, about 27, lodging in Hunslet; John McCafferty lodging in Church Street, Woodlesford; and Patrick Gill of Cross Lisbon Street in Leeds.
In evidence His Majesty’s Inspector of Mines for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, William Henry Pickering, who was one of the rescuers, said it was a mistake that as much as 41 yards of shaft at the bottom had been left unsupported by brick work, especially as the iron rings couldn’t hold back the pressure of water seeping into the shaft. The jury returned a verdict that “six men were accidentally killed by the collapse of the sides of a shaft in which they were engaged in sinking operations at Water Haigh Pit.”
A few months later in August 1910 the rescuers travelled to London to be presented with the Edward Medal by the new King, George V. Pickering and enginewright George Handley Silkstone were awarded first class medals, and four others gained second class medals. (Two years later Pickering was one of the many rescuers killed in an explosion at Cadeby Main pit near Rotherham as they searched for survivors of a previous explosion.)
Also in August Water Haigh’s owners, Henry Briggs, Son and Company Ltd, held their annual meeting in Leeds. It appears to have been a slightly grumpy gathering as the recently introduced Eight Hours Act had led to a decrease in productivity. The chairman W. G. Jackson referred to the Woodlesford disaster in passing and seemed unconcerned with making any reference to help for the dead men’s families. The Rothwell Times reported his remarks: “The sinking at Woodlesford was going very well, and the surface works were making good progress. As they knew, a sad accident had marred their work. The only bright point was the cheerful alacrity with which the men did their work in putting things right again.”
But within months there were to be two more accidents and three more fatalities. The first was on Thursday 17 November 1910 and yet again it was caused by the collapse of the shaft sides as tons of coal and shale fell in on ten men working at the bottom of the pit. It had reached a depth of 255 yards with the brickwork reaching to 240 yards.
As before there was a scaffolding and iron rings supporting the brickwork when a mass of shale fell from the sides and the timbering and rings collapsed.
The chargeman, James Cannon, noticed the shale falling and managed to shout a warning for the men to go to the centre of the shaft. He also signalled for the hoppit to be lowered. Along with five others he jumped to safety but four of the men were caught by the falling earth, iron rings, and timber.
An Irish pit sinker from Roscommon, Patrick Joseph Berine, 24, was killed instantly and the three others were trapped and seriously injured. Cannon went to the surface with the uninjured men, and quickly went back with Joseph Artis and others including George Silkstone, Percy Asquith and foreman joiner Herbert Pickersgill to try and get them out.
The thick oak woodwork of the scaffolding had to be sawn through and it took many hours to finally free all of the injured men. Loose shale and other rock was constantly falling down the shaft putting the rescuers in danger.
Cannon managed to stay down for six hours but Silkstone had to return to the surface after about half an hour. After two hours Artis was injured by a piece of shale and had to go back up. Asquith was also hit by debris. He and Pickersgill were in the pit for a long time risking their lives.
It took two days to recover Berine’s body as the sides of the shaft had to be made safe. Of the four that were rescued two were sent to Leeds Infirmary but James Phelan, 39, died there several days later. It appeared to the coroner that this second accident had been caused in exactly the same way as the first, and he asked if too much of the shaft wall had been left unsupported by brickwork. Contractors and colliery officials maintained they’d done all they could to prevent a further collapse and the jury believed them. Nothing had been done to prove neglect, they said, and “the affair was a pure accident.”
But that wasn’t to be the end of the story because within a few months on Tuesday 1 February 1911 there was yet another accident and Water Haigh had not yet produced any coal. This time there was only one fatality. One of the rescuers in the November accident, Herbert Pickersgill, who was 46 and lived at Cross Leonard Street in Woodlesford, fell 300 feet to his death when a scaffolding in No 1 shaft gave way. He left a widow, Maria, and a 14 year old daughter, Edith. Three other men escaped. They were rescued by the under manager, Frank Williams.
In April 1911 Herbert Pickersgill was posthumously awarded a second class Edward Medal for his role in the second shaft collapse. It was collected by his widow. Percy Asquith and Joseph Artis also got second class awards. James Cannon received a first class medal and George Silkstone an additional bar to his existing medal.
Eventually the first coal to be cut from the Silkstone seam reached the surface up No 1 shaft on April 20th 1911.