William Colliery

Work to sink William Colliery, on Whitehaven's North Shore, began in May 1804 with the first coal extracted in 1805. The mine produced coal for some 150 years, closing in 1954. During this time at least fourteen explosions occurred, killing over 200 adults and children. Other accidents at the pit accounted for over 100 fatalities. Two accidents, in 1907 and 1941, were grim warnings of the disaster to befall William Pit on 15 August 1947.

William is one of a group of pits sunk near the coast-line adjacent to the port and town of Whitehaven in the County of Cumberland. The pits in this group were sunk to work the rich seams of under-sea coal at the southern end of the Cumberland Coalfield.

The "William" is situated on a ledge between the cliffs and the sea, 49 feet above sea level and 400 yards north of Whitehaven L.M.S. Railway Station. There are two circular shafts. The downcast shaft is 12 feet in diameter and is used for the winding of men, mineral and other materials. The upcast shaft, is 14 feet in diameter, and is used as a second means of egress, it is not used for winding mineral. Both shafts were sunk about the year 1806 to the Six Quarters Seam at a depth of 891 feet.
  • On 26 November 1907 the routine firing of an explosive charge in William Pit ignited inflammable ‘firedamp’ (methane) and clouds of coal dust. The blast which followed killed 5 men and injured 6 others.
  • On 3 June 1941, spontaneous heating and fires affected the coal seams in William Pit. Water was being pumped into a ‘hot’ area in an attempt to extinguish such a fire. The heat caused the water to vaporize into an inflammable hydrogen mixture, leading to an explosion which claimed the lives of 12 men and caused injuries to 10 others.
William Pit had a considerable history of trouble from heatings and fires due to spontaneous combustion. The explosion in 1941 occurred in connexion with a large sealed off area of workings in the Main Band Seam, which had been abandoned in 1928 and in which at some time previously there was known to exist an active fire due to spontaneous combustion. There is an extensive area of abandoned bord and pillar workings in this 10 feet thick Main Band Seam, in which, although there had been much splitting and robbing of the pillars, there had been little "broken" working. 

Families Wait For News Following The 1947 William Pit Disaster In Whitehaven
William Pit Disaster 1947
In the afternoon of Friday 15 August 1947, deep underground at William Pit, a ‘deputy’ (mine official) was undertaking routine firing of explosive charges in the roof of a tunnel to provide rock for supports. At around 5.40pm one of these shots ignited firedamp and coal dust, triggering a large explosion. 118 men had been working underground during the shift. Eleven of these exited the mine soon after the blast. Another three miners, lost underground, had a miraculous escape and were found 20 hours later in the afternoon of 16 August.

Of the remaining 104 men who all perished, only 14 had been killed outright through blast and burn injuries. Many of the miners had survived the initial explosion only to be overcome later by the poisonous ‘afterdamp’ (carbon monoxide) created by the blast. The scale of the disaster required volunteers to assist in the task of digging graves at Whitehaven Cemetery.

There was nothing in the events prior to the explosion which had given the management cause for worry or alarm. For some considerable time, work had been proceeding quite normally. Nothing untoward had happened, had been observed or had been reported that indicated danger, let alone an impending disaster of great magnitude.

Whitehaven Miners
Miners Waiting To Go Beneath The Surface
The work of the day-shift on the 15th. August had been completed without incident; the back-shift workers had gone down to work at their allotted tasks; the 14 persons on the "staggered" shift had completed their day's work and had ascended the mine about 5.30 p.m. with no hint of anything out of the ordinary; and, lastly, a sick back-shift worker ascended about 5.35 p.m.

About 5 minutes later came the first warning of the explosion. The onsetter felt a "rush of wind" coming from inbye which raised the dust, and, although the blast was quite strong, it did not knock him over. He knew at once that something serious had happened, and immediately telephoned to bank. He then went 100 yards along the siding to the pit circuit telephone where he found a haulage hand trying to telephone inbye without result.

The Manager, Mr. W. H. McAllister, had left the colliery a few minutes before the warning was received at the surface, and on reaching home received an urgent message to return to the pit at once. He did so and arrived back about 6 pm.

All the information he could then get was that "something had happened underground." On his way to the shaft he met the surface compressor attendant, who told him the compressor was running at full speed and he thought there must be "an open end somewhere."

After instructing the attendant to keep the compressor running until he received further instructions, Mr. McAllister descended the shaft. He was not long in coming to the conclusion that there had been an explosion, and he immediately telephoned to the surface for urgent messages to be sent to all his superior officers, H.M. Inspector of Mines, representatives of the National Union of Mineworkers, the Rescue Station, the Chief Engineer and Electrician and two local Doctors. All responded to the call without delay.

The Manager then went inbye along the main intake road to explore, taking a few workmen with him. He had not gone very far when he noticed a peculiar smell which, from previous experience, he associated immediately with an explosion.

On reaching the air crossing from the Six-Quarters Seam to the main return in the Main Band Seam he sent two workmen in to examine the doors and the state of the air in the return, with a view to reaching two repairers, Fox and Marshall, who were working in the main return.

They reported the doors intact, the air deadly, and any attempt at rescue impossible. Two workmen were at once sent to the shaft to bring in canaries and a portable reviving apparatus.

The remainder of the party proceeded inbye. The separation doors in the first connexion between intake and return in the Six Quarters Seam were found intact, but from this point inbye signs of explosive violence became more evident, and the smell in the atmosphere more noticeable.

The party pressed on. When the junction of Old No. 2 North was reached, they found tubs derailed, roof girders displaced and the roof weighting badly. After setting some workmen on to strengthen the roof supports the party pressed on again but found the roadway dangerous because of numerous falls.

The party then returned to the junction of Old No. 2 North District and found intake air entering it.

This roadway had been previously sealed off by a brick stopping with two half-doors in it. On the inbye side of the brick stopping there was a wooden "clincher" stopping with a sheet in it. At the air-crossing itself, there were two doors leading into the main return. One was blown off and the other blown open and damaged. The return airway was heavily fouled with deadly afterdamp. Returning to the junction the party tried to get further inbye along the main intake, but after travelling a few yards beyond the point reached on their first exploration they were forced to abandon the attempt because of heavy falls and roof weighting.

About this time the Agent, Mr. D. McPherson, and the Chief Planning Engineer, Mr. A. B. Dawson, arrived with canaries, followed soon after by the first Mines Rescue Team.

The canaries were tried in the return airway and immediately collapsed. Because of falls and dangerous roof conditions, no further exploration was possible by the main intake and haulage road until repairs had been effected and the ventilation restored. And since the only possible approach to the inbye workings was by way of the return airway, which was fouled by the poisonous afterdamp of the explosion, thereafter, until the ventilation was restored, all exploration and recovery work was done by fully equipped rescue teams.

The Chief Inspector of Mines, Mr A M Bryan, conducted the official inquiry into the explosion. The inquiry took place at the Whitehaven Methodist Schoolrooms, 7-10 October 1947, and called a total of 46 witnesses to give evidence. Bryan’s report, published in June 1948, found that the deputy who fired the fatal charge had not followed proper safety procedures nor had the management supervised his activities properly. Ventilation and suppression of coal dust in William Pit were also found to be inadequate.

Whitehaven Borough Council established a relief fund to administer some £100,000 donated to the miners’ dependants after the disaster. 19 dependants agreed to take Workmen’s Compensation soon after the disaster which amounted to £10,215 (an average payment of £538 each). The other 86 dependants brought a court case against the National Coal Board (NCB) for negligence in January 1949. The NCB agreed to settle out of court without admitting liability. The 86 dependents received a total of £155,600 (an average of £1809).

Funeral Procession Through Whitehaven
Funeral Procession Through Whitehaven


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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