1933 Explosion

Harold Illingworth, one of the three miners who died in the 1933 explosion at Water Haigh.

Three miners lost their lives, and three others were seriously injured, after an explosion at Water Haigh in July 1933. The death toll was the second highest loss of life in a single incident during the sixty years the pit existed.  

The cause of the accident was known almost immediately and confirmed later by His Majesty’s Inspector of Mines for the Yorkshire Division. Explosive, which was being detonated to bring down rock, accidentally ignited a build up of methane gas or firedamp. The process was known as shotfiring and strict safety rules were laid down by law. No individual was blamed but the Inspector criticised the type of material which had been used to fill up the drilled hole behind the explosive.  

It was about 9.20pm on Thursday 27 July and the men on the afternoon shift in the Top Silkstone seam must have been looking forward to making their way out of the pit and clocking off about 10pm. Some of them had already put on their coats ready to make a quick get away. 

The coal face they were working on was about 44 yards long. A coal cutting machine driven by compressed air was used to cut a slice of the coal out of the bottom of the seam. Holes were then drilled at intervals and explosives fired to bring down the coal into the gap. Colliers with picks and shovels loaded it onto a conveyor which fed it into tubs which were hauled away on narrow gauge railway lines by a continuous steel rope all the way to the pit bottom. The tubs were then lifted up the shafts in cages to the surface where they were weighed and emptied. 

The diagrams below taken from the subsequent report show the layout of the face. On the left was the timber gate, a tunnel which led back to one of the main roadways in the pit. Through this wooden pit props were carried to hold up the roof at the face. On the right is the main loader gate, another tunnel through which the mined coal was carried. A conveyor and tubs are clearly marked. 

Plan of coal face from H.M. Inspector of Mines official report.

Crucially the gates, or tunnels, were also the way in which air was circulated through the pit. Controlled by large doors on hinges it travelled, at the rate of 4000 cubic feet per minute, along the timber gate, through the coal face and back out through the loader gate. 

As the coal was cut and the face advanced each day the supports were taken away and the roof, or bind, allowed to fall into the empty space between the gates known as the “gob”. This was what caused subsidence on the surface. At the same time a team of men known as “rippers” were responsible for advancing the gates, which were higher than the seam, to allow the men to walk along. 

To do this shots had to be fired in the roof to bring down rock which the rippers then used to build up, or “pack” the sides of the gates. On the evening of 27 July the shot firer and his assistant had already fired four shots in the timber gate without incident. They then moved to the loader gate where they planned a further four shots in the roof to bring down rock from an area 10 feet wide by 4 feet high. 

Plan and longitudinal section of accident site.

The deputy in charge, Alf Goldthorpe, made sure that all of the 30 men in the vicinity were a safe distance away before he fired the first shot in the loader gate, which went off successfully. It was the second shot which went wrong and caused the catastrophe. Firedamp in the rock, which had gone undetected, exploded and set fire to coal dust. Flames spread instantaneously down the loader gate, back along the face and into the timber gate.

Six men, including Goldthorpe himself, were badly burned on their bodies and faces. They included his assistant who was sheltering with him inside a steel tub 19 yards down the loader gate, and a machine man who was even further away “outbye” from the face. Another machine man and a conveyor shifter on the face near the timber gate were hit by the flames as was a hole borer round the corner in the timber gate who was preparing to go home.

Despite their burns all six managed to stumble their way to a first-aid station in the main haulage road. One report said that two of them ran, without treatment, to the pit bottom to summon help. The remaining four waited for first aiders to arrive and were assisted to the shaft and the surface. The pit’s own “motor” ambulance was used to rush all six to the Leeds General Infirmary six miles away.

Water Haigh’s ambulance in about 1923. Surface engineer Simeon Barrett was responsible for maintaining the ambulance and would start the engine every day to make sure it was roadworthy in case of an emergency. He’s seen here with his son Sydney who went on to work as a clerk at Bentley’s brewery. Simeon’s father, William Barrett, was the assistant enginewright at Water Haigh from the pit’s opening in 1911 until his death in 1924.

The sound of the explosion was heard throughout the pit and the draught of hot air was felt 500 yards away. News spread rapidly in the local community as men coming off shift returned home. Concerned wives and family members gathered at the pit top and there was some relief when they learned the accident had been confined to a relatively small area.

A local “stringer” for the Yorkshire Post was quickly on the scene and first details of the accident were printed the following morning.

Yorkshire Post.

The names of the injured were given as: Joseph Harold Beards, Greenfield Terrace, Methley; George Shepherd, Powell Street, Woodlesford; Alfred Goldthorpe, Bridge House, Carlton near Rothwell; Joseph Harold Illingworth, East View, Oulton; Samuel Homer, Leadwell Lane, Robin Hood; William Maundrill, Highfield Yard, Woodlesford. Their condition was said to be “rather poorly.” 

The reporter managed to speak to Water Haigh’s manager, Dennis Walter Hargreaves, who had inspected the scene of the accident after rushing from his home at Eshald House. He was also a director of Henry Briggs, Son and Company Ltd, as well as being the son of the Chairman and Managing Director, Walter Hargreaves.

“Everything seems quite safe and in order now,” he said. “We cannot say more about the cause of the accident at the moment except that we believe it was due to shot firing. The men were taken quickly to the Infirmary.”

Further details of the explosion were revealed in Friday afternoon’s Yorkshire Evening News which bore the sad tidings of Harold Illingworth’s death on Thursday night. He’d been in been in charge of the coal cutting machine.

Members of his family, including his wife Millie, had been “summoned” to his bedside. He was 28 and they had an 11 month old baby boy. One report quoted neighbours saying they were: “a remarkably devoted couple – happy and contented.”  He was born on Butcher Lane in Rothwell and at the time of the accident his parents and brothers lived at Temple Avenue on the Rothwell Haigh estate. 

Beards, Goldthorpe, and Maundrill were said to be “very poorly.” Sam  Homer was “very poorly but a little better,” and Shepherd “poorly.”

The Evening News went on: “When willing rescuers went forward, as soon as the dust had cleared, they found them terribly burned, lying on the ground.  Most of their clothing had been burned off, and in the case of Beards only the band of the shirt he was wearing remained.  First aid was rendered to them immediately and in the meantime all the remaining workers were ordered to get to the shaft bottom as quickly as possible.”

One of the rescuers quoted was Albert Roberts. His son, also called Albert Roberts, was a Water Haigh miner who became a Mines Safety Officer and later the local Member of Parliament.

He was working a short distance away from the site of the explosion. “There was a terrific shock just like an earthquake. Then a gust of wind and clouds of dust came towards us. The concussion was terrible and one of my mates was hurled clean off his feet.” 

“Going forwards we found the men sprawling about blackened and singed, but they bore up remarkably well, while we bandaged their wounds as best we could. Illingworth’s back was very badly burned, and the skin was hanging from his arms,” he said.  To his knowledge it was the first serious accident there had been at the pit in the 21 years he’d been there.

Another miner, Clifford Boyes, a machine man who lived at Gibson Yard in Methley, said he was working on a machine when he heard a noise like thunder. There were several blasts of air and clouds of dust. Immediately afterwards he said a deputy raced up and told them to get to the bottom of the shaft at once.

One of the pit’s two undermanagers, Frank Williams, who lived nearby on Aberford Road, was also quickly on the scene. Along with other officials he was soon underground to investigate what had gone wrong.

The Evening News reported that whilst the pit had “a remarkably good record concerning accidents” there had been a shot firing “mishap” 8 months earlier in which Beards’ cousin sustained extensive burns. Alf Goldthorpe too had had “a remarkable escape” from serious injury only a week before the explosion when a stone fell on him.

Harold Illingworth with his baby son, Reginald.

The second man to die, in the early hours of Saturday morning, was 22 year old George Shepherd. He was single but the only wage earner at home. He’d been drilling the holes for the shots and had worked at the pit since he left Oulton Council School at the age of 13 when he started as a pony driver.

The Yorkshire Evening Post said he was one of the most popular youths in the village. A friend described him as: “A real good ‘un. A fine lad and one who never forgot he had a home.” The paper said was engaged to Hilda Hopkinson, 24, of White Street who was a “broken-hearted young woman.”

William Maundrill, who had been operating the conveyor, was 32 years old. He managed to cling on through the weekend, but died on the Monday. He left a widow and two children.

A report in the Yorkshire Post on Saturday morning gave more details of the badly burned survivors. Alf Goldthorpe was 53, married with four children, and had been at Water Haigh practically since it opened. He was badly burned about his face. Sam Homer and Joe Beards were both 29 years old and married.

Joseph Harold Illingworth, George Shepherd and William Maundrill are buried side by side in Oulton churchyard.

Harold Illingworth and George Shepherd were laid to rest, side by side in Oulton churchyard, the following Tuesday “amidst remarkable manifestations of public sympathy,” according to a report in the Wakefield Express later that week. Two separate funeral processions met at the churchyard gates. Amongst the mourners were Walter Hargreaves and his son, and William Lunn, the Rothwell M.P. The service was conducted by the Vicar of Oulton, Lewis Percival Milnes.

William Maundrill joined his workmates two days later. The paper said the deaths had “cast a gloom over the district.”  The three survivors were still in hospital a week after the accident. “Though there is a slight improvement in their condition, they are still very poorly,” reported the Express.


Coincidentally the Oulton-with-Woodlesford annual “demonstration” to raise funds for local hospitals, including Leeds Infirmary, took place on the Sunday after the accident. It started with a parade of Sunday School children and members of the British Legion and Lodges around the two villages, led by the Oulton Prize Band. A house to house collection in which 33 volunteer “lady collectors” visited over a  thousand homes raised £12 and 2 shillings. In total the hospital committee raised £116 in the previous year with the Three Horse Shoes collecting the highest amount out of the local pubs. 

William Maundrill’s gravestone.

Speaking at an event on the Miners’ Welfare Field on the Sunday evening, William Lunn, who’d himself been a miner and checkweighman at Middleton Colliery, said there hadn’t been a similar “calamity” since his election to Parliament in 1918. They were gathered “in circumstances, the like of which had not been seen before.”  

On behalf of the public he wished to express sympathy and condolences for the two men who had already died. “All had faith in the skill of the doctors and nurses at Leeds Infirmary, and if it were humanely possible those men who were still lying in that institution would be restored to their families,” he said.

He went on to say that mining was still a dangerous occupation, and it was proof of the maxim that “in the midst of life we are in death.”  

“When a thing like this happens it raises universal sympathy throughout the land, and so it should do. Miners are always fighting with nature. They are the heroes of industry. Out of 100 men and boys who are killed in the seven principle industries, 48 are miners. Every year no fewer than 140,000 men and boys meet with accidents that bring them within the scope of the Workmen’s Compensation Act.”

William Lunn M.P.

He said there were as many explosions taking place in 1933 as there were before the First World War, and during the previous three years the average had been higher than for many years – 43 explosions involving the loss of 246 lives.  

Prompted by William Lunn, who suggested that something should be done “immediately” to help the families of the victims the vicar said he would get in touch the next day with D.W. Hargreaves who was the chairman of the Hunslet Rural District Council as well as being Water Haigh’s manager. 

The council’s main responsibility was the township of Oulton-with-Woodlesford, and in the same edition of the Express a letter was printed launching a relief fund for the survivors and the families of the three dead men. 

“The object of the fund is to supplement compensation in order to adequately safeguard the financial circumstances of those unhappily concerned. The public will no doubt be only too pleased to show their sympathy in material form to relieve the distress of the dependants of the victims,” wrote Mr. Hargreaves. 

The Lord Mayor of Leeds, Alderman R.H. Blackburn, was one of the first to send a donation of £2  2 shillings, and the Yorkshire County Cricket Committee gave permission for collections to be made at the Lancashire match at Headingley during the upcoming Bank Holiday. It turned out to be one of the hottest since 1911, which can’t have been very comfortable for the three survivors languishing at the Infirmary. In the Yorkshire team were the famous opening batsman Herbert Sutcliffe and bowler Bill Bowes. The match was drawn but over three days a total of £28 9s 10d was collected for the fund. 

It was equalled the following week when Mrs. D.W. Hargreaves organised a “flag-day.”  Other contributions, large and small, came in throughout the summer including £6 2s 9d from the Rothwell Labour Party, £4 6s 8d collected at Elland Road during Leeds United’s Division One game with  Middlesborough, and £2 2s at the Ritz Cinema in Woodlesford. “Officals and workmen” at Water Haigh contributed £5 2s 9d with similar amounts coming from other local collieries including Fanny Pit, Newmarket Silkstone and Victoria Pit at Bowers Row. Customers of Sam Garland, the local barber, raised 5 shillings.

The amounts might seem small now but 1933 was in the midst of the Depression. Approximately 1000 men were on the books at Water Haigh but about 800 had been laid off and those that remained were only employed about three days a week. £1 then would be worth over £50 today. 

An interim amount of £10 was given to the families and the final total stood at £220 5s 5d when the fund was wound up at the beginning of October. It was divided evenly between them all with each widow or dependent relative receiving £40 11s 7d, apart from Alf Goldthorpe’s family who only got £20, probably reflecting the fact that, as a deputy, he was on higher wages. 

George Shepherd’s grave. His brother Walter was 10 years old at the time of the accident.

News of the events of 27 July 1933 were reported nationally in The Times newspaper and Major Donald Henry Currer Briggs, who was Joint Assistant Managing Director of the Henry Briggs company, received a number of letters from the general public expressing their commiserations. In one reply, to a Charles Reid of Crossgates in Fife, he wrote: “There is always some doubt as to how these things occur, and naturally they are very troublesome. I only hope that the remaining men will survive, and am very grateful for your sympathy.”


Luckily all three of the survivors pulled through and they were able to attend the inquest. Their injuries were so bad however that the Leeds coroner, J. H. Milner, had to hold it at the Infirmary where Alf Goldthorpe and Joe Beards were carried in on stretchers to give their evidence. It was held on 24 August, a day after huge crowds had gathered close by to see King George V and Queen Mary open the newly built Civic Hall.

After a Dr. Allison stated that the three deaths were from shock following burns, Alf Goldthorpe was subjected to some tough questioning from E.H. Frazer, the Divisional Inspector of Mines, and Alfred Smith, the Yorkshire Miners’ Association agent. Born in Altofts he was a paid full-time official of the union and had been a miner at Wheldale colliery before being elected as agent by ballot in 1919.

As reported by the Yorkshire Post, Goldthorpe said he’d worked for three months in the district where the explosion happened and had 20 years experience as a deputy. He’d complied with the regulations and examined for gas before firing the shot which was believed to have caused the explosion. There was no indication of any gas being present when he fired the first two shots and he was the nearest of any of the men, when the explosion occurred.

“I think there must have been something unforeseen, a slip or a pocket in which there was gas. The shot must’ve lit the gas,” he said.

Only a short time had elapsed between his making an examination for gas and the firing of the shot. He attributed the explosion to something quite unforeseen. There was a rush of air after the explosion. He was able to jump out of the tub where he had been crouching and crawl along out of the gate.  He emphasised that after firing the shot he made tests for gas, and found none.

Alfred Smith then brought up an incident at another local pit: “After a recent explosion in the Castleford area were the deputies at your colliery called together and given instructions?” Goldthorpe was understood to reply: “Yes.”

Smith said that deputies had been advised to allow 30 minutes to elapse between firing shots. “Don’t you think that even if that advice is not compulsory it is wise, as it gives you more time to make an examination?” Goldthorpe, apparently, did not reply.

In his evidence Joe Beards said that between the firing of the first and second shots there was an “appreciable interval.” The coroner asked: “Between those shots had Goldthorpe gone back and tested for gas.”  Beards: “Yes.”

George Shepherd’s father, James, said that his son had complained of gas a day or two before the accident occurred, but it had been cleared.

Joseph Fox, a deputy who lived at Rothwell, said he had not found any gas at the coal face near the explosion during two tests earlier in the day, but three days after the explosion he found gas at a “break” at the coal face .

Asked by Alfred Smith whether, if certain regulations had been strictly adhered to, the accident might have been avoided, Fox replied: “I don’t think so. There was plenty of time to examine between the firing of the first and second shots.”

Another deputy, John William Bolton, from Methley, who was in charge of the shift in that district of the pit, said he made his customary examination for gas about an hour before the explosion, but found none. 

Summing up the coroner said the case was really simple so far as the jury were concerned. “There might be some doubt as to how the explosion was brought about, but to his mind nobody could be held to have been criminally responsible.  There might have been an error of judgment.  The evidence seemed to be perfectly clear. It seemed probable that after a shot had been fired some gas was released and hence the explosion.” 

The jury returned a verdict of  “Accidental Death.”


The explosion, deaths and injuries, at Water Haigh were not the most serious to occur in the mining industry in 1933. At West Cannock colliery in South Staffordshire, 6 men were killed, and at Grassmoor colliery, Derbyshire, 14 died. In those incidents the report of His Majesty’s Inspector of Mines blamed deputies for not properley directing and coursing the air to prevent a build up of firedamp.

There were two other accidents in Yorkshire involving shotfiring – at Cadeby Main and Monckton Main, but the one at Water Haigh was the only incident throughout the whole industry in which men were killed.

Appearing to contradict Willie Lunn, the Inspector’s report said the number of fatal accidents in Yorkshire was down compared to previous years. That was mainly due to the Depression, as most pits were on short time working. Discounting 1926, when miners were on strike for six months, output in 1933 was the lowest since 1923 – 37 million tons in Yorkshire compared to 47 million tons ten years earlier. The number of deaths in the county in 1933 was 128 compared to 205 ten years earlier.

Nationally 172,034 were employed on the surface in the industry which included  limestone, ironstone, shale and fireclay mines, as well as coal. 625,260 worked underground. The national death toll was 820 and 122,419 were injured, including all cases where there was disablement for more than three days. Falls of rock from the roof and sides of workings was by far the biggest killer, followed by explosions of firedamp, then accidents involving underground haulage.
At Water Haigh, after an inspection of the scene and interviews with the survivors, the report said: “All the precautions laid down by the Explosives in Coal Mines Order were observed. The charge consisted of six ounces of Polar Saxonite. Examinations were made, but no firedamp was found. Men were placed to guard the approaches.”
It went on to say that coal dust had played a big part in spreading the explosion which had probably been initiated by firedamp. The next day the ripping was full of a firedamp mixture which contained 67% of methane.

No electricity was being used on the face and the compressed air drive coal cutter was turned off. The signal wires for the haulage terminated yards away from the explosion. Spontaneous combustion was unknown in the mine and no individual was within 19 yards of the origin, so smoking and matches could also be discounted. The safety lamps were also checked and found  to be incapable of igniting an inflammable mixture. 

This led to the inescapable conclusion that the fatal gas had probably come from the rock close to the shot hole. “By the process of elimination, although it was almost unnecessary in this case, the only possible course of the explosion was shotfiring,” said the report.

Further investigation revealed that the magneto exploder was safe in any possible firedamp mixture, the detonators were efficient, and the explosive itself was properly constituted. The shot hole had been corectly drilled and charged.

The only criticism was of the mixture of sand, clay and water, “the stemming”,  which was used to plug up the hole behind the charge before it was detonated.

It was prepared on the surface and the Inspector said it was too soft. “The method of mixing sand and clay in a mortar mill is open to objection because it allows the human element to creep in.  If the mill is allowed to revolve too long the sand grains may be crushed and lose much of their sharpness.  When, in addition, too much water is added the resultant mixture becomes less efficaceous as stemming than ordinary freshly dug clay.”

He went to say that inspection of the gate sides showed that the stemming had been blown out of a great many shot holes, including the one fired just previous to the shot which caused the explosion. “It was a pity that the direction of the shot hole last fired prevented it being determined with certainty whether or not the stemming was ejected, but it is a fair inference that such was the case.”

No fault could be found with Alf Goldthorpe’s methods, said the report.

It concuded: “It has been said that providing even a small quantity of any kind of stemming is used in a shot hole charged with permitted explosive that shot can be fired into an explosive mixture without evil consequences, but this accident is a direct reputation of the assertion.  There is little doubt that had the stemming material in this shot hole been efficient there would have been no explosion. The way to make an effective stemming is to make sharp sand with a minimum quantity of clay and water in a concrete mixer.”

Joe Illingworth’s headstone. It was made by E. Rayner and Sons, Monumental Sculptors and Letter Cutters of Woodlesford. It cost £30.


In the weeks after the accident claims were made to the Yorkshire Coal Owners Mutual Indemnity Company for compensation for the various families, with Dick Hall, Water Haigh’s union branch secretary, acting as a go-between and assisting with the correspondence.  

One letter reveals that George Shepherd had been supporting a younger brother, Walter, aged 10, and a sister, May, aged 6. Another sister, Sarah Ann, 19, was unemployed and claiming 10/9d in benefit. His widowed father, James, who was 64, had been invalided out of Water Haigh four years earlier. He was living on 13 shillings a week made up of  9 shillings from National Health Sick Benefit and 4 shillings from the colliery pension fund.

Harold and Millie Illingworth’s wedding day.

It took several months for compensation claims to be dealt with at a court in Wakefield with each family having to provide details of its income and savings. Millie Illingworth was, in the end, given over £300, but not as a lump sum. It seems the judge didn’t trust her with such a payout. She was given enough to buy a sewing machine but had to take a day off work as a seamstress every month to travel to Wakefield to collect the rest in instalments.

Joe Beards and Sam Homer returned to the pit as surface workers. For many years Sam, who walked with a “stiff” leg, was a lamp room attendant. He lived on Royds Lane in Rothwell and had a sideline mending broken watches. Joe worked in the ambulance room. It’s not known if Alf Goldthorpe went back to Water Haigh. He died in 1944.

Tragedy though was to strike William Maundrill’s wife Mary again, when less than ten years later, her son Leonard, who was in the Royal Navy, was lost at sea during the Second World War. It’s believed that her surviving son, Leslie, was a miner at Fanny Pit in Rothwell. 

Reg Illingworth, aged 2.

The day after the accident Harold Illingworth’s baby son, Reginald, was carried on foot by his Uncle Ernest all the way to Ida Terrace in Stourton to be looked after by his grandmother, Sarah Sidebottom. He stayed until he was 13 years old. His mother moved to live in lodgings nearby on Plevna Street and the arrangement enabled her to go out to work. He grew up knowing few details of his father’s life and almost nothing about how he died. “I was brought up within a family that was wonderful to me. Uncles that were like brothers and a grandmother and grandfather beyond compare and I was spoilt rotten. But I always felt that something was missing in my life.”

“For some reason that I can’t understand no-one seemed to want to talk about it. Neither my father’s family nor my mother’s. For 70 years or more I’ve asked about my father and only in drib and drabs have I learned that he was a non-smoker, a non-drinker and was very handy with his hands. My mother’s brother, Harry, told me he’d been very kind to him and his brother Walter.”

As a toddler he remembers cherishing a toy rabbit his father had given him and he wouldn’t let anybody part him from one of his father’s old shoes. Before his mother remarried she used to take flowers to his grave every weekend, a job Reg took on as he grew older.

Reg went to Whitwood Technical College to study engineering and after a couple of years in the Royal Navy he worked for 27 years as a miner in conditions not much different from that of his father. He did his face training at Newmarket Silkstone and transfered to Prince of Wales at Pontefract when he married a local girl. He ended his career at Kellingley Colliery. “As most miners of my age I’ve ripped loader and tail gates, drawn off and face packed, used machines, back ripped, and more or less done everything,” he said. 

Click on the link below to listen to Reg Illingworth’s memories of being brought up by his grandparents.

Reg Illingworth passed away in June 2014. His ashes were placed on his father’s grave.

(The first newspaper report of the 1933 explosion declared that Water Haigh had a good accident record and that in the Top Silkstone seam there had only been one accident in which a boy was killed by a truck, “some time ago.” Colliery records indicate this was 18 year old Fred Wright from Williams Street in Castleford. On 27 January 1933 he had been found with his body crushed under some tubs but died as he was being taken to Leeds Infirmary. His family were given £93 compensation.)

Sources: 26th Annual Report of the His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Mines – National Mining Museum, Caphouse Colliery.
Wakefield Express. Yorkshire Post. Yorkshire Evening Post. Yorkshire Evening News.
The Colliery Year Book and Coal Trades Directory 1930.
WYL 186, and Register of Electors 1933 – West Yorkshire Archives Service.