Youngest Oaks Disaster volunteer rescuer revealed

15 August 2016

Research into England’s biggest ever mining disaster has uncovered the story of a teenage volunteer who was the youngest to help with the rescue effort.

John Riley was just 17 in 1866, when explosions at the Oaks Colliery in Barnsley killed almost 400 people.

His story has come to light as part of ongoing research by the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership (DVLP) into the catastrophe, which marks its 150th anniversary this year. 

John Riley’s great-great-granddaughter Julia Woodhall revealed how he moved to Barnsley from Wales in 1865, and was walking home from a shift at the nearby Mount Osbourne Colliery when the disaster struck. He rushed to the site at Hoyle Mill to help his friends who worked there, becoming the youngest volunteer at the scene.

A newspaper clipping from 1930, passed down through the family, features an interview with John as an old man, recalling how he descended the pit at the Oaks Colliery with the aim of rescuing survivors and retrieving the bodies of those killed. He returned the next day, when a second explosion killed 27 volunteer rescuers.

Talking to the reporter John, who is identified in contemporary records to be the youngest volunteer, said: “When I arrived at the pit…the second explosion occurred. This blew the cage into the headgear, bricks and other things flew in all directions, and with so many people about, it was a wonder many of us were not killed. Those pals of ours, who had left us to go to the pit, went down with the last draw, and all perished. We should have met the same fate had we been a minute or two sooner.”

Julia, who lives in Barnsley, said: “I didn’t know much about the Oaks Disaster until I saw the research by the DVLP. John walked from Wales to Barnsley looking for work in the mines; he was a Welsh speaker so I don’t know how he managed in Barnsley. He was such a brave man to do what he did aged just 17 and I’m so proud of him.”

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

Earlier this year, the research revealed a higher death toll than previously thought, with 383 victims named. The official reported death toll had always been 361.

DVLP community officer Stephen Miller said: “Since we published our research into those killed in the Oaks Disaster in April and called for people’s stories, we’ve had a brilliant response. Descendants from all over the world have been getting in touch with information and photographs. The old newspaper article featuring John Riley’s interview also shows his photograph, and it’s remarkable to look into the eyes of someone who actually witnessed the disaster first-hand.”

The full list of those who died can be found at

Commemorations of the Oaks Colliery Disaster will culminate in an exhibition at the Experience Barnsley museum in December. More information can be found at

The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership would welcome further contributions of stories and images related to the disaster. They can be contacted on 01226 772139 or


Notes to editor

Images show portrait of John Riley in later life in a newspaper clipping from 1930, Stephen Miller, and the Oaks Disaster logo.

Community officer Stephen Miller is available for interview. Unfortunately Julia Woodhall is not available for interview.

For more information about the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, contact Sally Gawthorpe on 01226 772139 or

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

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. @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: Mary Ferguson on 01226 766900 or at

This press release was prepared by Capital B Media, a public relations and media training agency based in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Fore more information, please visit

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