Wellington Colliery

Towering above the harbour, Wellington pit was by far the most spectacular of Whitehaven’s pits. It was built in the form of a castle, with a great keep, turrets and enormous crenellated walls. The architect of the surface buildings was Sydney Smirke.

The collieries in the Whitehaven area were notorious for the amount of Firedamp (methane) they produced, and the number of fatal explosions which occured. The mines were so dangerous that the area was chosen in 1816, to test Sir Humphry Davy's new safety lamp "in the severest possible conditions".

Wellington Pit was sunk in 1838 and finally closed in 1932. This was a very 'fiery' pit, and the scene of numerous accidents including a major disaster which claimed 136 lives in May 1910. The youngest to die were just 15 years old.

The most striking feature of this mine is its "Candlestick" chimney which is a landmark for the area, standing on a hilltop overlooking the harbour. The chimney was the original chimney for the boiler house which stood next to the winder on the middle level of the site. It was superseded by new boilers on the lower level in 1866 (when a pump was installed to dewater the mine after a fire in 1863 and to replace Saltom Pit).

No.3 shaft was sunk 1903-5 on the old boiler site to replace Duke Pit as the upcast for the pit. When Nos.1 and 2 shafts were filled and capped in 1969, No.3 was only capped. A pipe was laid from beneath the cap through the old boiler flue drift to the "Candlestick" to vent gas at a safe, high, level.

The only other feature of the mine to survive is a white crenellated building nearby, which was the entrance lodge for the pit.

On the 11 May 1910, 136 men and boys died following an explosion and fire at the Wellington Pit in Whitehaven. Fathers, brothers and sons - some from the same family - died leaving already very poor families facing destitution.

The first sign that something was wrong came when some of the men reported air rushing out of the pit at about 7.30pm on 11 May 1910, an indication that there had been an explosion. The explosion was caused by a buildup of methane or fire damp being ignited by a spark or naked flame.

The main route out of the mine for the men working underground was blocked by the subsequent fire. Rescuers battled through the night and well into the following day to try to get through to the trapped miners but eventually the regional mines inspector ordered them to pull out. He felt it was unlikely that anyone would have survived the explosion and fire and, despite strong opposition from some of the miners involved in the rescue operation, he ordered that the area should be sealed off to starve the fire of oxygen.

Several months later the mine was re-opened to allow for the gruesome task of recovering and identifying the badly decomposed bodies. On the 11 September the mine was examined for the first time since the accident and some of the bodies were recovered after noting their position in the mine.

Dr. Harris, the colliery doctor, gave his opinion of the causes of death to men and boys who perished.

  • 12 were killed outright by the violence of the explosion.
  • 35 were "undoubtedly poisoned by carbon monoxide."
  • 30 were killed by burning and shock.
  • 38 "by suffocation by smoke fumes or other fumes and possibly CO poisoning."
  • 4 burns, shock, and suffocation in CO2.
  • 1 calcined remains. Burns, or shock, or suffocation.
  • 1 shock or suffocation.
  • 12 suffocation in smoke fumes and probably CO poisoning.
  • Three bodies were not identified positively at the scene.

Lasting eleven days, the inquiry into the incident took place at the Town Hall in Whitehaven.  It was decided that the Inquiry would run concurrently with the Coroners Inquest. Forty four witnesses were summoned including Robert Steele the Colliery Manager, Richard Walker Moore, Mineral Agent for Lord Lonsdale and J. B. Atkinson, Inspector of Mines.

The official report in to the accident at Wellington Pit was conducted by R.A.S. Redmayne,  H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines. Conclusion:

  • The official report indicates that the ignition of firedamp was the cause of the explosion. However, what ignited the gases is not clear.

The Edward Medal is awarded to people who have shown exceptional bravery in industrial rescues. 66 were awarded after the Wellington Pit disaster which is the most ever awarded in a single incident. The Edward Medal is known as the miners’ VC and recognised the efforts of those in the rescue parties. The medal which features the the monarch’s effigy and a miner rescuing a comrade was designed by W. Reynolds-Stephens in 1907.

A plaque on the wall below the Candlestick chimney commemorates all the “Men, Women and Children” of the Whitehaven District Collieries who lost their lives in the local pits.

Wellington Colliery, Whitehaven
Wellington Colliery


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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