Researchers discover death toll higher than thought in England’s biggest mining disaster

25 April 2016

Researchers have found that more people were killed in England’s biggest ever mining disaster 150 years ago than was previously thought.

A team of volunteers has been delving deeper than ever before into the history of the 1866 Oaks Colliery Disaster at Hoyle Mill, Barnsley.

The catastrophe - which marks its 150th anniversary this year – remains the worst mining disaster in English history and its officially reported death toll has always been 361. But volunteers have now discovered the names of 384 victims.

This research project has been organised through the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership (DVLP) which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund – thanks to National Lottery players. 

The DVLP has now published its findings online and would like anyone with further information about the lives of the listed men and boys to come forward.

Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership community officer Stephen Miller said:  “We are really pleased with the outcome of this research project. The volunteers have done sterling work in identifying those killed.

“Sadly, we knew that poor record keeping and the chaos in the aftermath of the disaster meant that the exact number of people killed at Oaks Colliery has never been properly revealed and it has long been known that the figure of 361 was only based on an estimate by the mine owners.

“Our aim from the outset was to try and find a more accurate figure and find out more about the individual stories of those that died.”

DVLP put out a call for volunteers ten months ago and provided them with specialist training in studying historic records. They have now collectively spent more than 3,000 hours going through records online, at Barnsley Archives and other sources such as the Mining Institute in Newcastle. 

Their rigorous research has produced a new list of 384 names, including 91 children, who died in the disaster – that’s 23 more victims. Their research has also put names to unknown fatalities within the original estimated count. 

Stephen said: “It seemed wrong that after 150 years the best list we had was produced by the Barnsley Chronicle in 1867, and that only named 337 of the 361 death toll.

“Our first aim was to identify and find out about the un-named victims. The overall number was never the most important thing for us, but it was very interesting to see our list of names go beyond the 361 figure that has been accepted for so long.”

The new list produced by the volunteers has now been published at www.discoverdearne.org.uk. It includes fascinating new details about the men and boys’ lives, including how far they travelled from to work in the pit, coming from as far afield as Wales, London, Ireland and Northumberland.

Records of the day suggest 400 miners in total were working below ground on the day of the first explosion on December 12. A second explosion the day after killed 27 volunteer rescuers.

Research into burial records has also suggested that 169 bodies were never recovered and remain in the old colliery workings beneath Hoyle Mill, Ardsley, Kendray, Monk Bretton and Stairfoot in Barnsley to this day.

Volunteer Noel Shaw said: “This research presented an unmissable opportunity to delve into the lives of those who perished and their families, whilst also working to produce a more accurate list of fatalities.

“I was surprised to see how many people travelled the length and breadth of the country to Barnsley for employment in the dangerous coal mines.

“I think I can speak for all the volunteers in saying that it has been a privilege and pleasure to contribute to this project.”

Commemorations of the Oaks Colliery Disaster will culminate in an exhibition at the Experience Barnsley museum in December this year.

The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership is keen to hear feedback on the new list published at www.discoverdearne.org.uk and would welcome any further contributions of stories and images. Please contact them on 01226 772139 or DVLP@barnsley.gov.uk.

Below, Stephen Miller of the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership talks to Paulette Edwards on BBC Radio Sheffield:

Notes to editor

Images include: Oaks Disaster logo, volunteer researchers including Noel Shaw at the Mining Institute in Newcastle, Illustrated London News Front Page coverage of the disaster in 1866 and DVLP’s community officer Stephen Miller.

Stephen Miller is available for interview.

For more information about the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, contact Sally Gawthorpe on 01226 772131or SallyGawthorpe@barnsley.gov.uk.

 The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership (DVLP) is a five-year scheme, running until June 2019 focusing on the historic buildings and landscapes of the Dearne Valley, working with the local communities to protect, preserve and enhance the area. The DVLP is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund with a grant of almost £1.8m. For more information visit www.discoverdearne.org.uk 

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. www.hlf.org.uk @heritagelottery @HLFYandH 

The lead partner of the DVLP is Barnsley Council with a partnership that includes Rotherham and Doncaster Councils, the RSPB, Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Garganey Trust and Groundwork South Yorkshire. The DVLP is based at Elsecar Heritage Centre.

Additional media contact: Steph Pollard on 01226 766900 or 0776 196 4492 or at steph@capitalbmedia.co.uk

 

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