Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dreadful Calamity at Church Gresley

77th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Disasters

The theme of the 77th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, hosted by Miriam Robbins Midkiff at AnceStories is disasters which our ancestors lived through. True to form, I'm being somewhat contrary. Apart from stepping sideways to my sadly neglected South Derbyshire Graveyard Rabbit from the slightly less neglected Photo-Sleuth home, my entry for the carnival concerns a disaster which affected a member of my extended family, but he wasn't an ancestor and, sadly, didn't live through it.

The 1820s and 1830s marked a significant decline in the fortunes of my Payne family from South Derbyshire. They had farmed in Church Gresley parish since the turn of the century, on some 78 acres of land purchased by my ancestor Peter Payne (1732/33-1813). By the time his son, another Peter, and his wife died in 1839, the land was all gone, sold to pay debts incurred from mortgages raised some years earlier.

Image © National Coal Mining Museum for England and courtesy of My Learning
Children being hand-winched down a vertical shaft.
Illustration from Report of the 1842 Royal Commission into Children's Employment (Mines)
Image © National Coal Mining Museum for England and courtesy of My Learning

In the mean time, however, a mathematics teacher from Repton by the name of George Gregory had in 1823 started a coal mine on land leased from Peter Payne. As shown in the parish overseer's accounts, Peter Payne had himself beeing supplying coal to local residents as early as 1821, but this was probably taken from surface workings. Gregory's sinking of a shaft to a depth of 90 feet was the first systematic development of the underground coal resources in Church Gresley proper.

Image © National Coal Mining Museum for England and courtesy of My Learning
Children working in a narrow underground roadway.
Illustration from Report of the 1842 Royal Commission into Children's Employment (Mines)
Image © National Coal Mining Museum for England and courtesy of My Learning

After leasing more of Peter Payne's land in 1825 Gregory sank a second, much more ambitious shaft and extended the lease in 1826 to the entire 78 acres. According to Colin Owen (1984), "his attempt to establish a large colliery proved to be a personal disaster, but ultimately led to the foundation of one of the area's leading collieries." He discovered a new seam in 1829 located 270 yards below surface, and in 1832 the colliery was "in good order, with an efficient steam engine for drainage and whimseys able to raise 300 tons of coal per week." Another shaft sunk in 1831 proved to be his undoing, as he was financially overstretched, and he was declared bankrupt in June 1834. An 1833 report described working conditions as "unpleasant and dangerous, the mine being very hot and full of vapour and water. In the event of a major accident,such as a boiler explosion or engine failure, escape through the single shaft would have been almost impossible."

Image © and courtesy of East Riding of Yorkshire Media Library
Child miner
Image © and courtesy of East Riding of Yorkshire Media Library

In 1833 the colliery was purchased from the assignees J.T. Woodhouse and Willis Bailey and developed with a new shaft by Peter Fearnhead, who sold it to the Moira Colliery Company in 1835. The company also purchased the remainder of the Payne landholdings in Church Gresley, heralding a period of enormous growth of the colliery and its eventual position as one of the largest producers in South Derbyshire. On 14 February 1838, however, a serious accident occurred at the colliery when a steam engine boiler exploded, killing four boys on the surface, as related in the coroner's inquest reported in The Derby Mercury of 21 February 1838. The four boys John Boffey (18), James Bacon (8), John Smith (15) and Thomas Badkin (15) had been warming themselves by the boiler on the frosty morning prior to the explosion.

By 1841 the area being mined had been increased to 475 acres, and a report prepared by Dr Mitchell on behalf of the Employment Commissioner stated that "there were 65 men and 27 boys in employment whose ages ranged from 10 to 70 years. Wages varied from 8d to 3s 4d per day, plus allowances of coal and ale. Boys were employed mainly in opening and shutting doors, sweeping the railways, attending horses and assisting the men in various ways."

Image © and courtesy of Coal Mining History Resource Centre
Coal pit head, 1843
Image © and courtesy of Coal Mining History Resource Centre

The ground bailiff of the mine Joseph Dooley described the system of working:
There are men who go down at night to repair the roads, shift the wood that supports the roof, and also hole the coal; about 12 or 14 go down at night, the other half of the holers work in the daytime.

There would not be room if they all worked together. About two boys go down to assist the men at night to remove the rubbish out of the gate roads ... The holers come up, if they think fit, when they have done their day's work. The fillers and boys remain until they have filled and sent off what the holers have dug. They go down about six in the morning, about six men at a time ... They are paid by the ton, and the more work the moremoney, from 3s. to 4s. a day. They come up sometimes at seven and sometimes it may be eight. The butties reckon with the men once a fortnight and pay the money on the Saturday.
By the early-1840s, most of the Paynes had either died or departed from Church Gresley. My 3g-grandfather, another Peter Payne (1801-1845), was a carpenter and was working in nearby Burton-on-Trent. His younger brother Henry Payne (1808-1834) had been a veterinary surgeon, presumably looking after pit ponies in the coal mines, but had died in 1834. Another brother Frederick died in 1846, while the youngest brother William Payne, also a veterinary surgeon, emigrated to Pennsylvania to work on the coal mines there. Two sisters married and moved away around 1840ish.

The eldest daughter Harriott Payne (1803-1850) had married a brewer's labourer Thomas Bagnall (1805-1836) and had five children, but in 1836 Thomas was accidentally run over by a wagon and killed. The accounts of the Church Gresley Overseer of the Poor contain numerous entries relating to Harriott between May and November 1836. By June 1841, two of the older boys Henry (12) and Frederick (10) were working at the Church Gresley pit. It was probably two or three years later that her youngest son William also started working at the pit.

Some time during the morning of Tuesday 30 March 1847 Harriott received the shocking news of a terrible accident at the pit. The manner in which she was told, and her reaction can only be imagined. The events as described at the Coroner's inquest were reported in a much more matter of fact way in most of the newspapers throughout the British Isles, including The Morning Chronicle, The Preston Guardian, The Leeds Mercury, The Ipswich Journal, Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper, The Belfast News-Letter, Jackson's Oxford Journal, and of course The Derby Mercury (7 April 1847).

On Tuesday, the 30th ult., about half-past five o'clock in the morning, fourteen colliers, men and boys, got into the cage at the Church Pit, Church Gresley, to be let down to their usual employment. Daniel Batch, the engine man, let them down, but when they had descended about forty yards, he heard one of the wheels crack, and immediately stopped the engine. He ran to the pit mouth, and found the drum running fast, the spur wheel having broken, and fallen under the drum. The cage was precipitated to the bottom of the pit, which is 270 yards deep; the rope broke off the drum, and went down the shaft, although longer than the depth of the pit. It was between nine and ten o'clock before a rope could be attached to the pumping engine, and another cage let down, when the bodies of the dead and dying were drawn up. A fearful scene presented itself. It appeared, from the evidence of Francis Wood, a collier, who had previously descended, that the rope had fallen upon the men in the cage, and that when it was got off them, he and others took out Joseph Walters, dead; John Large, nearly dead, and since deceased; William Bagnall, dead; William Chamberlayne, seriously hurt, since dead; George Bakewell, who died that morning; Edward Baker, dead, and another, whose name did not transpire, the inquest over whose remains will be held in Leicestershire. The remaining men and boys, six in number, were so dreadfully injured, that it is doubtful they will recover. Five or six medical men attended, and every attention paid to the poor sufferers.

An inquest was held before Mr. Sale, coroner, on Wednesday last. Joseph Dooley, the ground bailiff, and John Wilcockson, engineer at an adjoining colliery, were examined.

Image © 2007 Brett Payne
The gravestone of William Bagnall at the parish church of St Mary & St George, Church Gresley, Derbyshire
Image © 2007 Brett Payne

Sacred to the Memory of William Bagnall
who died March 30, 1847, aged 11 years.
By sudden death the thread of life was broke
Dreadful the hour and awful was the stroke
Sleep on dear child and slumber in the sod
Thy mar'd frame in dust and thy soul with God.
The Church Gresley parish register shows that seven boys and men were buried on Friday 2 April, with the notation, "These were all killed by an accident at the Gresley Colliery adjoining the Church Green."
The seven funerals took place at Gresley church, on Saturday afternoon. The solemn service was performed in an impressive manner by the Rev. George Lloyd, M.A., curate,amidst a large concourse of spectators, who attended on the solemn occasion, there being not less than 1,000 present. The gloom and sorrow of so large a number of persons in this quiet and retired village Church-yard, can more easily be imagined than described. One of the other sufferers died on Saturday morning, making eight already dead.
The eighth fatality Thomas Chapman (14) was buried on Sunday 4 April, while William Shepherd (21) lasted a few days longer. His burial was recorded on Tuesday 13 April.

Harriott herself only survived a little longer, dying at Church Gresley in December 1850.

This disaster has a special resonance for me. In December 1987, nine months after the 140th anniversary of the Church Gresley colliery accident, I was visiting an underground gold mine in Western Australia as part of my job and was involved in a near fatal accident myself. Although not related to any equipment failure, I fell 65 feet (20 metres) vertically down to the bottom of a shaft. I was very lucky to survive without any permanent serious physical injuries, albeit after flight to Perth courtesy of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and a three week stay in hospital, and I will admit to not ever having worked undergound since.


UK Census 1841-1901 Indexed images from

International Genealogical Index (IGI) from the LDS Church & FamilySearch

General Register Office (GRO) Index to Births, Marriages & Deaths from FreeBMD

19th Century British Library Newspapers collection, from Gale Cengage Learning

Church Gresley Burial Registers 1813-1920 on microfilm from the LDS Church (FHL Film No. 1785837) of original records held at the Derbyshire Record Office, Matlock, Derbyshire.

The Leicestershire and South Derbyshire Coalfield, 1200-1900, by Colin Owen, publ. 1984 by Moorland Publishing Co. Ltd., Ashbourne, Derbyshire & Leicestershire Museums (Publication No. 55), ISBN 086190124 X