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The ‘Flue Pit’ Mine Disaster

Leeswood – 15th December, 1864.
Many people in the locality will be aware of this occurrence if only by having noticed the inscription on a stone in Pontblyddyn Churchyard (at the rear of the Church building) which marks the grave of Owen Jones, a ten year old boy and one of eight colliers who lost their lives in the accident.

The Flue Pit was located on what is now farm land near the football pitch at the back of the Leeswood Community Centre.  If you follow the access road, (Yr Hen Ffordd), which is between the playing fields and the rear of the dwellings on Bryn Clyd, you will reach a cattle grid.  Looking to the left (if you are standing facing down the lane with the bungalows to your right hand side) a gully can be seen leading down to the valley.  This was the track bed of a tramway which latterly served the Phoenix Collieries which stood on what is now the football pitches.

The Flue Pit also stood on this side and near the roadway, being part of the Leeswood Main Colliery Co. which was owned by William Craig, Henry Taylor and William Wright Craig.  Quite possibly the land with the right to work minerals had been leased from Edward Oakley Esq, one time owner of the Coed Talon mines and Iron Works.  It is believed that the shaft to the Flue Pit was used as an airshaft to the Pontblyddyn Level in later years.

Prior to the accident it had been working for some three and a half years.  Ishmael Jones was the Manager in charge of the workings at the time and it was run on the Chartermaster system (a Chartermaster was some sort of gang master – he arranged the excavation of the coal at a certain rate per tonne with the pit owner and he was then responsible for the payment of the miners which was more likely to be in the form of ‘goods’ than actual cash).  This system was later abolished in 1872.  Leeswood Main’s Chartermasters were; Edward Jones, William Williams, William Jones and John Pierce, (John Pierce was later killed during the rescue operations).

That part of the coalfield being worked possessed the characteristic of laying between two large distinct faults which ran north to south.  It was the west side which separated the workings from those of the Julia Pit which was owned by the Leeswood Cannel and Gas Coal Co., (up until August, 1862, the Julia Pit had been worked by the Leeswood Green Colliery Co.).  The coal seam itself undulated without any regular or well defined dip except for a section to the south where the accident occurred.
From September 1863 to January 1864 Edward Jones (not Edward Jones, the Chartermaster) had been manager of the Flue Pit.

Upon being told by one of the partners that “he was of no use there unless he raised two hundred tons of coal a day”, he gave a month’s notice as he did not believe the works to be in a fit state to achieve that figure.  However, he was actually to leave after two weeks due to ill health.  During the period that he was the manager he had raised coal from the workings in the south, (the mineral rights belonged to Mr Wynne-Eyton), removing coal from the area in which water had collected and was finally to break through to the later workings.

This water had been accumulating in the pit prior to Edward Jones assuming his role as manager in 1863, but from then onwards it was to increase more rapidly as the mine was worked until it reached the point where it built up quicker than the coal could be extracted.  Water had then to be taken from the mine to the surface in tubs.  By now the miners were working in the ‘broken’ which meant that the pillars of coal previously left to support the roof had now been removed.  In the deepest part of the mine, a pool of water had formed, due to natural drainage.  Mr Jones had found from his own personal experience that faults were their own barrier and they tended to hold back water from the adjoining strata but it did percolate through the coal seam on the north side and in some other places.

No formal plan of the available workings at the colliery existed in 1863, but Edward Jones had managed to produce one with the aid of information given to him by two of the Chartermasters in respect of the already flooded section.  From this he was able to draw up proposals to work the deep or main coal which lay beneath the pool in the old workings.  The devised schedule of work was to drive two underground roadways to the boundary of the property to reach the deep coal.  Once the main coal was subsequently worked out, the area was to be left and the water from the old workings was to be tapped and drained down into the newly abandoned deep section of the pit.

The Accident

On the morning of 15th December, 1864, the accident took place when water broke through into the south side workings of the mine.  Edwin Harrison and Thomas Roberts were working in the area where the water flooded in.  Fortunately for them it came in about two yards behind them and to their right and it washed the men about fifty yards along the incline where they managed to save themselves.  Thomas Roberts stated that the water actually came through the bottom which was composed of dirt not coal.  The Chartermaster, Edward Jones, was in the pit at the time with Abraham Evans, the former was supposedly “looking after the lads” although he was out of reach of the water. Eight other men were known to have saved themselves by “going through a hole”.
Newspaper reports of the time mention eight men, a boy and three horses having been lost whilst fourteen colliers were fortunate to make their escape.  However, the figure of eight actually included the boy aged ten years and one month, named Owen Jones.  Also, the number of men able to make their way to safety was actually confirmed a twelve.

As could be expected in such circumstances, there was a great deal of activity on the pit bank, anxious relatives, sightseers and men with equipment trying to clear the water from the workings so that a rescue could be attempted.  Due to the combined efforts of many parties, the water was eventually cleared by the Saturday.  Those involved in this included the following: – members of the Coed Talon Colliery Co. that were known to be present, John Goulding the manager, Mr Gregson the Chartermaster, Joseph Dugan later to be manager there in 1868; the Leeswood Cannel and Gas Oil Co. represented by Henry Johnson McCulloch the agent; the City of Chester Fire Brigade with Superintendent Noblett who took charge of the fire engines and hoses that had been lent by Messrs Ward C. Brown and Co., Messrs Walker, Parker  & Co. and the Corporation of the City of Chester.

They all worked night and day to remove the water and finally on the Saturday the members of the Coed Talon Colliery Co. together with others were able to recover the bodies.  It was at this point John Pierce lost his life.

Victims of the Accident

Of the eight unfortunate victims of the disaster, six were buried in the graveyard at Pontblyddyn Parish Church.  The Parish registers note the following “Drowned at Flue Pit Colliery Leeswood Green 15th Day of December 1864”.  John Roberts and William Jones were the two men not buried at Pontblyddyn; possibly they were buried in neighbouring parishes.

Young Owen Jones was buried on Christmas Eve 1864; the register was signed by the Perpetual Curate of Pontblyddyn, the Revd. D. Evans.  Owen was the son of Robert and Elizabeth Jones who lived in Leeswood, the middle child, he had an older sister Hannah aged 15 and a younger sister Louisa aged 7.  At the inquest it was proved that the boy was one month passed his tenth birthday at the time of the accident.  This was of great importance as the ‘Mines Act of 1842’ prevented any child under ten years of age being employed underground.  The census of 1861 recorded Owen’s father Robert as an engine minder presumably at one of the local collieries.  He was to die on 25th December, 1865, one year and one day after the burial of his son.

Little was known about the other victims who were all buried on Boxing Day, 1864.  These men were; Lewis Lloyd of Pontblyddyn aged forty-eight with the register being signed by the Revd. D. Evans; John Smith of Leeswood aged twenty-three again the register being signed by the Revd. D. Evans; Thomas Ellis of Leeswood aged sixteen the register signed by the Revd. Jenkin Davies the Vicar of Mold; John Jones aged nineteen again with the register signed by the Revd. Jenkin Davies; John Jones of Leeswood aged nineteen with the register signed by William Briscoe Fellow and Tutor Jesus College Oxford.  William Briscoe had once been a very highly thought of Curate at Mold.  He has resigned sometime earlier and had taken up his position at Jesus College, Oxford.  It was assumed that he had been in the area visiting over the Christmas period

Provision for the Dependants

On Monday 9th January, 1865, a meeting was held in the Leeswood School to organise a Public Subscription Fund “for the relief of widows and sufferers of the accident”.  John Wynne-Eyton of Leeswood Hall took the Chair and the other officials elected were the Revd. D. Evans as Treasurer and Robert Platt Esq, Surgeon of Tryddyn Lodge as Secretary.  It was requested that subscriptions should be made payable to the Revd. Evans at the Banks of Messrs Dixon and Co. Chester or the Mold branches of either the North and South Wales or National and Provincial Banks.  Details of the appeal appeared in the Chester Chronicle of 14th January, 1865, together with a letter of appreciation for all the assistance that had been given at the time of the accident.  This letter was signed by Craig, Taylor, Craig, of the Leeswood Main Colliery and dated 11th January, 1865.

The following subscriptions were made at the meeting:

Craig, Taylor, Craig (owners of the Flue Pit)£80
J. W. Eyton Esq of Leeswood Hall£10
Henry C. Raikes Esq of Llwynegrin £5
Leeswood Cannel and Gas Coal Co£10
Coed Talon Colliery Co.£20
Coppa Colliery Co.£10
Charles B. Trevor Roper of Plas Teg Hall£3

The Inquest

Inquests were usually held at the Pontblyddyn Public House (thought now to be The Bridge Inn), but perhaps because of the gravity of the matter or the considerable interest in the accident, on this occasion it was held at the Leeswood Schoolroom.  A large number of the public was in attendance and the inquest was adjourned twice before the final verdict was given on Tuesday 17th January, 1865.

Those present at the inquest were:

Peter Parry, EsqThe County Coroner, presiding over
Mr T. KellyOf Messrs Roberts, Kelly and Keene, Solicitors of Mold, appearing for the owners Craig, Taylor, Craig
Mr G. Trevor Roper“watched the proceedings on behalf of the relatives and friends of the men who had been drowned”
Mr LewisFrom Ruthin, appearing for the manager of the pit, Ishmael Jones

On the last occasion a Mr Buckton attended on behalf of some of the families of the deceased.  This would probably be James R. Buckton, Attorney, of Church Street, Mold.
There were many witnesses who received lengthy cross-examination by these representatives on the following points: (a) were bore holes kept ahead of the work?

Boring rods were available and normally kept in the Blacksmith’s shop had been used on one occasion not necessarily in the direction of the old workings.

(b) Were accurate plans available and if so were they referred to?

The plan prepared by Edward Jones the previous manager (not to be confused with Edward Jones, the Chartermaster) had been sent to the offices of Craig, Taylor, Craig.  However, it had been lost some nine months prior to the accident.  This statement was doubted by the coroner and he suggested that the firm had better consider the matter, also, to bring the plan when they next met.  Mr Kelly replied that all members of the firm were prepared to enter the witness box and swear that the plan was lost.  A plan, the only one in their possession, was produced and this was examined by Edward Jones.  He examined it and believed that one of the branch levels of the old (wet) workings was not shown.

After some calculation, Mr Jones was of the opinion that the working of the main coal would interfere with the level but without his own plan he was unable to tell how near he had worked to it.  He also went on to note that the Pontblyddyn level now passed over the old workings of the Flue Pit in which the water lay, which had not been the case when he had left.  Following some amendments made to the plan by Edward Jones, he together with Mr George Bellis Surveyor and Civil Engineer of Mold and Mr Winstanley another Surveyor, confirmed that the plan which lay before the jury was an accurate representation of the underground workings.

(c) Were the Management and Owners aware of water in the Pit?

Robert Williams of the New Inn, Pontblyddyn, claimed that Mr Craig junior knew of water in the Pit prior to the accident.Edward Harrison was not aware of water in that part of the Pit.  Thomas Roberts saw water in one of the side roads several weeks earlier but never reported it as others also knew.  He had, in fact, been working in water the previous day but made no complaint regarding water rising through the floor and had not reported it to the manager. Edward Jones (Chartermaster not ex-manager) had worked in the Pit for two and a half years, knew there was water but was not afraid of it.

(d) Was Ishmael Jones, the Manager, in complete charge?

Ishmael Jones had complete control underground.  The mine was visited by Craig, Taylor, Craig about once in a month and by William Wright Craig two or three times in a week.  On all important matters, the Owners were consulted.  Mr Craig (junior) had hired and turned away men.  Also, there was one occasion when he had ordered a drift to be made against the opinion of the manager.  Edward Jones (ex-manager not Chartermaster) stated that he had absolute control at the time he was employed in justice to the Company.  They had not interfered with his underground plans but kept pressing him to raise more coal.(e) Did a fault on the east side separate the old from the new workings?  Robert Williams of the New Inn, Pontblyddyn, had worked in the pit for some three years prior to his departure five months before the accident.  He said that he had been down the pit after seven of the bodies had been recovered and had found that the fault between the old and the new workings had been cut through.  A cross level had also been driven towards the twelve yard cross that he had left.  Both crosses met at the point where the water was trapped.    Abraham Evans proved the driving of the downbrows from the old workings to the fault which was supposed to exist between the old and new workings.

Mr Gregson (Chartermaster of the Coed Talon Colliery Co.) expressed his opinion that the fault did not exist at the point where the broke in (presumably he had been called as an expert or technical witness).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Ishmael

Jones, the Manager, also gave evidence and in fairness to the Coroner, Peter Parry, he offered advice stating that any evidence Jones would give to his favour would be disbelieved and any evidence that he may give against himself would of course be detrimental.

The Coroner spoke to the Jury before they considered their verdict, but in such a low voice so as not to be heard by the reporter and as a consequence was not able to be recorded.  After some deliberation the Jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against the whole of the proprietors but offered no remarks as to the conduct of the manager.  Craig, Taylor, Craig were bailed to appear at Flintshire Assizes in April to answer the charge of manslaughter.  This verdict surprised all those present and was a cause of concern to the other mine owners in the area.

The Consequences

The following letter appeared in the Chester Chronicle on the 21st January, 1865.

To the manager of the Chester Chronicle

Sir,

It is stated in the public prints as the fact really is that a verdict of manslaughter has been returned by the coroner’s jury against the whole of our firm and it is equally true that the same jury have by their verdict absolved our manager Ishmael Jones from blame not even censuring him although it was distinctly proven in evidence that we had engaged him expressly to take charge of the underground operations and it was his duty as manager to have bored in advance had such a step been necessary.  We feel in the excessively unpleasant position in which we are placed we cannot now say more but we trust the Public will suspend forming any judgement upon our conduct until the entire facts of the unfortunate case have been thoroughly investigated by a competent and impartial tribunal.

We are Sir

Yours Obediently

Craig, Taylor, Craig   Leeswood Coll.

Jan 19 1865

If the charge of manslaughter was proven Craig Taylor Craig would possibly face imprisonment or a large fine.  Further, if they were found criminally negligent then any claims made against them would be reinforced.  A writer under the pseudonym ‘Carbon’ stated in the Chronicle dated 28th January that he could not see the reasoning behind the verdict of the inquest unless Ishmael Jones had convinced the jury that he was not really the manager and he queried what level of salary the man received.  ‘Carbon’ refers to the case of George Lawton, who was said to have been the manager of the Edmunds Main Colliery after an accident took place.  This gentleman presumably took the blame but the public did not believe it and because of this refused to subscribe to support the bereaved.  In this cited case, the owners had compromised action against them by paying damages to the amount of £1,500.  Back to the Flue Pit case, ‘Carbon’ questioned Mr Higson’s performance and when he had last been down there.

The next move was made by the colliery owners in the area.  Pit owners in Leeswood, Treuddyn and Nercwys signed a letter which was presented to the Home Secretary by Lord Grosvenor MP.  In this letter it was claimed that the coroner’s inquest was “a serious departure from justice”.  Peter Parry, the coroner, was strongly censured with his fitness for office questioned.  An allegation was made that the verdict was against the facts of the case with the letter concluding with a request that an earnest “entreat that such steps maybe taken by the Home Department as may lead to an immediately searching enquiry into and rehearing of the case”.  It appeared that Sir George Grey did request depositions of the witnesses to be forwarded to the Home Office.  However, Peter Parry, remained as coroner, he was listed in Slater’s directory of 1868 as the county coroner.  Mr Parry died aged 82, in April, 1874, having been the coroner of the County for 57 years and is buried at the family vault in Nercwys.

The Trial

In April, 1865, the case of manslaughter against Messrs Craig Taylor Craig came to the Flintshire Assizes before Mr Justice Byles, Judge for the North Wales Circuit.  Also in attendance was the High Sheriff of the County, Brian George Davies Cooke Esq of Colomendy and the Under Sheriff Thomas Thelwell Kelly.  The procedure was that the charge came to the Assizes in the form of a Bill.  Evidence would be examined by a Grand Jury and if they felt that a conviction could be secured the case would go forward for trial before a petty jury.  On the other hand if it was felt that the evidence was insufficient to secure a conviction then the Bill would be found “not found” and there would be no trial.  Consisting of twenty three gentlemen of the county, the Grand Jury included Charles Blaney Trevor Roper of Plas Teg; Charles James Trevor Roper of Nant Y Garth; John Carstairs Jones of Rhydyn and Thomas Hanmer Wynne of Nercwys.

Mr Justice Byles addressed the Grand Jury and it is interesting to note that in his opening remarks he mentioned that it was his first visit to the county and that he was surprised at the large number of cases on the calendar for such a small county.  He felt though that the only case he needed to give guidance on was this of Messrs Craig Taylor Craig, opening with the following statement, “Gentlemen this is a very serious matter for on the one hand the consequence of the defendants who I suppose are in a superior station in life may be serious and on the other hand the lives of the humble order of the community require your protection.  I am fully persuaded that you will do as the law always does in these cases be no respecter of persons finding or ignoring the Bill just as you would if all parties had been in humble station in life”.

The Judge outlined the facts of the accident then made observations on the law as it applied to the case which involved degree of negligence on the Owners part and the matter of nonfeasance and malfeasance.  Nonfeasance is when there is neglect or lack of care proven but should have been provided due to a pre-existing relationship.  Malfeasance is the deliberate intention to wilfully do harm.  Mr Justice Byles gave examples of nonfeasance and malfeasance to those attending.  In the light of the Judge’s observations on the law, the Grand Jury examined the evidence and soon after 3.00pm found a verdict of “No Bill”.

This was apparently received with great satisfaction.  Hon. Roger Mostyn of Mostyn handed a document to the Judge detailing that they considered it of great importance that all occupiers of collieries and mines should keep correct maps and plans of the workings and when the existence of water is suspected  positive instructions should be given to their managers to use the utmost care.  The following day the defendants were called to answer the charge.  Mr McIntyre for the defence asked that in view of the circumstances was it necessary for them to go into the dock.  His Lordship stated that he made no distinction between the rich and the poor and the prisoners must go in the dock.  Following the reading of the charge, the prisoners pleaded not guilty and the petty jury was then sworn in.

At this point the Judge explained that the Grand Jury had found “No Bill” which meant that there was insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution.  Because of this finding there would be no evidence presented before the petty jury and therefore they must return a verdict of “not guilty”.  Mr John Scott Bankes who was the foreman of the petty jury immediately returned the verdict and the prisoners left the dock.

Ishmael Jones

Later in April of 1865, Ishmael Jones, now the ex-manager of the Craig Taylor Craig pit was summoned to appear before Mold Magistrates.  The owners’ trial was not the end of the Flue Pit Disaster.  Jones was to answer the charge of being in breach of the rules of the Mining Inspection Act brought by Mr Higson, the Government Inspector of Mines.  On this occasion, the magistrates were J. Scott Bankes; F. Phillips; the Revd. Jenkins Davies and Captain Fletcher Wynne, who incidentally was taking his seat for the first time since qualifying.  Appearing for the Prosecution was Mr Maskell Peace.  Mr Lewis of Ruthin represented Ishmael Jones who had been charged with being in breach of rule fifteen.  This rule required holes to be bored ahead and to the sides when water was suspected in the area.  Failure to do this rendered the ex-manager open to a £20 fine.

Mr Henry Taylor gave evidence for the prosecution stating that plans of the workings were accessible to the defendant.  The manager of the Coed Talon Colliery, John Goulding, testified that in his opinion boring had not been carried out.  It was confirmed by Mr Higson that he had brought the charge on the recommendation of the Secretary of State.  He had inspected the mine and could find no evidence of boring having taken place.  A collier at the pit, Edward Harrison, said that no boreholes had been made where the accident occurred.  No evidence was offered by the defence, however, Mr Lewis put forward that the owners were equally at fault unless it could be proven that they were ignorant of the working of the mine.  After some deliberation by the Bench, the defendant was fined £5.  On the application of Mr Maskell Peace they recommended that the sum be divided according to a clause in the Act, amongst the widows and families of the deceased colliers.

C. Astbury
16 Eaton Avenue
Handbridge, Chester