NEIMME: papers

Improper lamps and other lights in coal mines

WHEN labouring under pain, we feel gratified by an alleviation.  To alleviate pain in others is pleasing to those who do so, particularly when successful.  That prevention is better than cure is one of the wisest maxims that can be attended to.  If this maxim was strictly observed in the coal mitres, those catastrophes so appalling to humanity would be of rare occurrence.

It is needless to dwell upon the numerous distressing scenes that have taken place from the use of improper lights.  The steel mill succeeded the open candle; but time and dear-bought experience soon proved its fallacy.

From 1312 to 1814, the loss of lives in the coal mines in these districts was great.  A few of the friends of humanity (1) interfere but, like a vision, it soon passed away.

The talents of Sir Humpbry Davy were requested and cheerfully given.  His long and laborious exertions will ever be remember with gratitude by every friend of humanity, and by the coal miner.  Upon the united principles of chemistry and philosophy, he brought in practice his wire-gauze lamp, under the high-flowing name of Safety Lame), which was hailed with universal rapture and applause.  How 1 it has agreed with the high-flowing name given to it, will be best ascertained by an enquiry into the practice of nearly thirteen years.

There are but two great actors in the tragedy of the Safety Lamp, Sir Humphry Davy in the character of theorist, and the great Talr in the tragedy of the coal mines in the character of practice.

Sir Humphry, after unwearied diligence and exertion (2), says, "I found that iron wire gauze, composed of wires from one-fortieth to one-sixtieth of an inch in diameter, and containing twenty-eight wires, or 784, apertures to the inch, was safe under all circumstances atmospheres of this kind, and I consequently adopted this material in guarding lamps for the coal mines, where, in January, 1816, they were immediately adopted, and have long been in general use."  How far practice has agreed with the theory laid down by Sir Humphry Davy will be best shewn by an impartial enquiry into the past.

Sir Humphry, in extracts from papers written by John Buddle, Esq., on the use of the wire-gauze Safety Lamp, says (3), "In t most extensive coal mines in the north of England, where the fire (lamp prevails to such an extent as to require the general use of the Safe Lamp, it has been found most advantageous to employ a steady person to take charge of the lamps, and who is made responsible for keeping them in good order.  A chamber is allotted to him, in which lie keeps a number of spare lamps, together with oil and cotton for replenishing the lamps which are in use.

“The brass collars of the wire-gauze cylinders are secured to the bottoms of the lamps by locks, which can only he opened by the lamp Keeper, so that the workmen cannot either by accident or carelessness expose themselves to danger by separating the wire-gauze cylinders from the bottoms of the lamps.

`° After finishing their (lay's work, the colliers bring their Davys to the lamp keeper's cabin, who, unlocking them, takes the bottom into his own possession, and allows the colliers to take the wire-gauze cylinders home, for the purpose of cleaning them thoroughly." (1) We must now follow the results arising from practice, and relate with truth the effects of dear-bought experience.

Were the explosions less frequent after the introduction of the wire-gauze lamp?  I answer, NO!  Explosion followed explosion whilst those who felt an interest in the safety of the workmen began to have their doubts of this new theory.  But this inimitable actor in the tragedy of the coal mines soon found a palliative; to wit, the workmen unscrew their lamps to gain a better light to work by, and to lit their pipes (5).  These scenes passed on from year to year, and the loss of lives and the frequency of explosions were not diminished.

But Providence was pleased to spare some to give testimony to the fallacy of this lamp.  I will state two (6) of these cases, and reserve others for the day of enquiry before a competent tribunal.

However transcendant the talents of Sir Humphry Davy-however successful in his undertakings-like other men he has sometimes failed (7). Apparent successful experiments in the private laboratory do not always agree with practice in the great laboratory of Nature. I: that theory of the safety lamp, which Sir Humphry gave to the world from experiments in the private laboratory, answered ill practice in t great laboratory of Nature? Dear, dear bought experience says-No!

Was the atmosphere which surrounds us so far deteriorated that it would ignite at the first open light that came in contact with it, a the light of heaven shut against us (as it is to the miner in a coal mine), would we not use every precaution that reason and the nature of this suggested to us?  If we were directors for ourselves, and sufficiently informed so as to know right from wrong, we would do it; it then becomes the duty of those who are placed in confidental situations, and in trust of the lives of many, to leave nothing undone for the protection of others that we would leave undone were we in their situation.

(1) Several of the gentlemen in these districts formed themselves into a committee of enquiry, but their labour was light.

(2) Davy on Flame, page 16.

(3) Davy oil Flame, page 126.

(4) Second extract, dated May, 1818, page 126.

(5) If the lamps were locked, the workmen could not unscrew them--if they were not locked, the conductors of the mines are highly culpable in electing to lock them.  Dear bought experience soon proved the fallacy of that theory, which  the lamps were safe under all circumstances in atmospheres of this kind."  By a quick thought that would do credit to any actor, the name of safety lamp was changed to that of Davy Lamp, in honour of inventor, by which name they are still known.

(6) August 5, 1818, a blast took place at Wallsend colliery, when four persons were killed.  The lamps, after the explosion, were all found perfect, none were unscrewed: they have been seen by many, and that many have been surprised how explosion could be communicated from the Safety Lamp, which the collier had been taught to consider safe in all atmospheres.  The following are the facts:- The workmen were working with red hot lamps in a high charged atmosphere, cooling boys were kept to carry the heated lamps to the air course to cool, and replace them alternately with cool ones.  The boy, Thomas Elliott, (one of the sufferers,) at whose lamp the atmosphere ignited, was employed as cooling boy.  Whether the current of air in the air course, or the velocity with which the boy proceeded with the heated lamp in his hand, caused the flame to pass the apertures of the heated wire gauze, is unknown.  All that is known is, that the explosion took place, and that all the lamps were found perfect afterwards.  When the day of enquiry arrives, examination (upon of only) will bring forth the truth.

November 3rd, 1623, the Plain Pit at Rainion blasted and killed fifty seven men and boys.  By the evidence of Michael Turnbull, (see coroner's quest,) no other lights than that afforded by the Safety Lamp were used in that pit.

It follows that if all the lamps were not locked, the conductors of the mine were highly culpable; if they were all locked, it frees them from all bra or neglect of duty. But it then leaves another proof of the fallacy of this instrument which has passed so many hundreds into a premature eternity-  Here by hangs a tale."

(7) When Sir Humphry Davy first introduced his system of galvinising the copper oil ships, or in other words, placing his anticorrosive bars the bottoms of ships, the first experiment was tried (in a vessel upon a small scale in a tub of sea water with every apparent success. When this experiment was tried upon his Majesty's ship Samarang, after a short trip on the Atlantic, it entirely failed; numerous experiments were tried afterwards, which produced the same results.  Thus galvinising copper on ships ends in the tale of a tub.  But the results of his Safety lamp has ended in the church-yard; of which there is ample proof in these districts.

Sir Humphry Davy has given to the coal miner an instrument, which, if properly used, is all that is required for his safety.  As a test lamp (not safety lamp) it is of the highest importance.  When the atmosphere of the mine ignites at the cotton and oil light, it burns with a blue and purple flame: we then behold one of the simplest and most beautiful phenomena in nature, viz.: the atmosphere of the mine ignited within the cage of the lamp, and the wire gauze (whilst under a red heat) forming a sufficient barrier to prevent communication with the whole.

To the sensitive miner this is an awful moment; the flame within, is death cloathed in Tyrean purple.  There are two modes by which death secures his prey:- First, by remaining in the mine the cage of the lamp becomes rapidly heated to a red heat-then by slight agitation of the atmosphere, the flame passes the meshes of the heated wire gauze (8).  Secondly, when the conductors of coal mines (from neglect or darker designs) do not lock the lamp (9) and the miner unscrew it to gain a better light (l0), then death secures his prey; the ignition of the atmosphere within the lamp is a signal to sound the tocsin of alarm; this is the time to blow the trumpet for retreat-this is the grand acme of the wire-gauze lamp.

Beyond this, it is an eternity trap for the miner.

Beyond this, it is used by the viewers as a substitute for fresh air.

Beyond this (when lives are lost by explosion), it is a direct trespass upon the sixth commandment.

Beyond this, it is converting a useful instrument into an infernal engine of destruction

Beyond this, pitmen are viewers' game,

When, unsportsman like,

They fire upon the covey

Few escape.


“Princes are privileged to kill, and numbers sanctify the crime."


Those princes of the coal caverns enjoyed the privilege of the most despotic princes up to 1814 : no law reached the coal viewer (mark how artfully the laws have been evaded since) whatsoever numbers perished under him (11); the ready coffin and the church yard closed the stone.

The many hundreds that have passed " that bourne from whence no traveller returns" under one of these viewers calls for enquiry.  I  "tell it not in Gath,"  I publish it in Britain, that in the years 1812 and 1813 no less than one hundred and fourteen of those unfortunate beings passed into another and a better world under another of these viewers (both living) by fire alone, without inquest or enquiry from the authorities.  Shall enquiry be made; "or shall they still go on inhumanely ingenious, finding out new pains for life, new terrors for the grave?"

If they forget that they are men, shall men forget that they are brethren ? (12)

Shall we passively look on and see that to the foregoing causes may be attributed tile blasting of the coal mines, and the destruction of many hundreds, nay thousands, of our fellow-creatures, and sit silent?

" Blast their design, great God of Hosts!

Nor let thy creatures fall

Victims at the shrine of Av'rice."

(8) Explosion will be communicated by any aperture, however small, provided it be sufficiently heated.- Davy on Flame, page 20.

(9) There are few collieries that have the lamps wholly locked.  One or two solitary instances may be found; these are held forth to the public as general.  This is an old game of the viewers.  In the late examinations before the Coal Committee in the House of Lords, it is roundly asserted that pitmen receive fourteen shillings per week, work or no work.  Let those who wish to be satisfied enquire amongst the collieries; they will find that, like locking the lamps, there are but a few solitary instances.  In the most dangerous mines on the Tyne they are only partially locked.  In many dangerous collieries 1,cking of lamps is unknown.  This is a game that, were the pitmen wise, viewers would not play at: they play this game of life and death as gamblers play with loaded dice, turn tip what suits them, and pitmen are the dupes.  Were the lamps wholly locked, and explosion take pace, there would be an end to the Safety Lamp.  Whim they are partially locked, the ready excuse is, the workmen took the tops of their lamps to gain a better light.

(10) Evidence of John Buddle, Esq., before the Committee of the House of Lords on the coal trade, May 6, 1829:

"Scarcely a month occurs without the punishment of some of the workmen for the mismanagement of the Davy Lamps.  They have been fined, and the magistrates have sent them to the house of correction for a month; yet they will unscrew off the tops of the Davy, and expose the naked flame."

The magistrate that commits a pitman for unscrewing his Davy that was not locked, commits himself.  To do equal justice to the viewer and the pitman, if the lamp was not locked, is to commit the viewer for one month to the house of correction; if the pitman forced the luck, and unscrewed his Davy, commit him.  The climes are equal in the viewer and the pitman-make the punishments equal.  I beg to recommend three months instead of one.

(11) To trace back the loss of lives in the coal mines in these districts to what is termed the Lambton Great Blast, August 22nd, 1766, when one hundred and six persons were killed, would amount to some thousands.  As no inquests were helot, we have no other accounts than what has been kept by private individuals.  However unaccountable it may appear, since 1811, that inquests were held in several of the wards in these districts, these inquests are not filed in the courts, so that from the commencement of coal mining up to the present clay we have no official accounts in these wards of the loss of lives in the coal mines.  Here the door to future enquiry is shut, which can only be opened by the authorities.

(12) The attention of the humane is now turned towards India to stay human sacrifice; but the Brahman tell us we are interfering unjustly with their rites and ceremonies, that we wish to propagate our religion and destroy theirs.  He says, 'tis true you Christians now let the hapless African sleep undisturbed upon his native shore-by what right (divine or human) did you ever disturb them?  First prove to us that the precepts laid down in your sacred records are fully practised by the professors of your religion.  You have sent missionaries amongst us-you have translated your Scriptures into our native language for our instruction-we have carefully perused and admire them-you say the God that Christians worship delighteth not in human sacrifice-if the willing victim is not acceptable, the unwilling victim, trapped into his awful presence under false pretences cannot be acceptable-the tears of the widow and the fatherless are not ornamental pearls in his sight-their cries are not music in his ears.  Lay aside the Herschelian telescope, through which you view the crimes of Asia, Africa, and America, and turn to your own sacred page, which says: “first take the beam out of your own eye and you will then see clearly to take the mote out of your neighbour's eye"  Remember your own commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," and obey the order of heaven.  Examine into your coal mines, and see the numerous victims there sacrificed to avarice.  Cease to place in the hands o£ the unfortunate miner as safe, (knowing it to be false) the well known instrument of death; no longer make children guardians of their parents, but make parents guardians of their children.  You revile our religion, whilst the blood-stained coal from your coal mines is blazing upon your hearth, and you enjoying that warmth so necessary in your chilling clime.  First cleanse yourselves, then come to us with clean hands, and we will hearken unto you.  Remember there is one character your God loveth not, that is the hypocrite.



Improper persons employed in coal mines next.

No. 4.

From: The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers Tracts, Vol. 214, p. 3-4