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INVENTS THE “ GEORDY" SAFETY LAMP.
EXPLOSIONS of fire-damp were unusually frequent in the coal mines of Northumberland and Durham about the time when George Stephenson was engaged in the construction of his first locomotives. These explosions were frequently attended with fearful loss of life and dreadful suffering to the colliery workers. Killingworth Colliery was not free from such deplorable calamities; and during the time that Stephenson was employed as a brakesman at the West Moor, several “ blasts” took place in the pit, by which many workmen were scorched and killed, and the owners of the colliery sustained heavy losses. One of the most serious of these accidents occurred in 1806, not long after he had been appointed brakesman, by which ten persons were killed. Stephenson was working at the mouth of the pit at the time, and the circumstances connected with the accident seem to have made a deep impression on his mind, as will appear from the following graphic account which he gave to a committee of the House of Commons, some thirty years after the event* :
“ The pit had just ceased drawing coals, and nearly all the men had got out. It was some time in the afternoon, a little after midday. There were five men that went down the pit; four of them for the purpose of preparing a place
* Evidence given before the Select Committee on Accidents in Mines, 26th
for the furnace. The fifth was a person who went down to set them to work. I sent this man down myself, and he had just got to the bottom of the shaft about two or three minutes, when the explosion took place. I had left the mouth of the pit, and had gone about fifty or sixty yards away, when I heard a tremendous noise, looked round, and saw the discharge come out of the pit like the discharge of a cannon. It continued to blow, I think, for a quarter of an hour, discharging everything that had come into the current. There was wood came up, stones came up, and trusses of hay that went up into the air like balloons. Those trusses had been sent down during the day, and I think they had in some measure injured the ventilation of the mine. The ground all round the top of the pit was in a trembling state. I went as near as I durst go; everything appeared cracking and rending about me. Part of the brattice, which was very strong, was blown away at the bottom of the pits. Very large pumps were lifted from their places, so that the engine could not work. The pit was divided into four by partitions ; it was a large pit, fourteen feet in diameter, and partitions were put down at right angles, which made four compartments. The explosion took place in one of those four quarters, but it broke through into all the others at the bottom, and the brattice or partitions were set on fire at the first explosion. After it had continued to blow for a quarter of an hour the discharge ceased, and the atmosphere all round poured into the pit to fill up the vacant place that must have been formerly occupied by the flame. In one of the other pits, that was connected by some doors in a drift with that in which the explosion took place, were several men, some of whom succeeded in getting up safe. The ropes in the first pit were shattered to pieces by the force of the blasts, but the ropes in the other pits were still left comparatively uninjured. Nobody durst go near the shafts for some time, for chap. x.] “BLAST” IN THE KILLINGWORTH PIT. 99 fear of another explosion taking place. At last we considered it necessary to run the rope backwards and forwards. and give the miners, if there were any at the bottom of the shaft, an opportunity of catching the rope as it came to the bottom. Whenever the rope went to the bottom it was allowed to remain a short time till we considered the men had time to cling to it. Several were safely got up in this way; and another man had got hold of the rope, and was being drawn up, when a further explosion took place at the time he was in the shaft, but it was merely like the discharge of a gun, and it did not continue like the former blast. This man, it appeared, had been helped up so far by the increased current which came about him, that the rope running up at a great velocity, he was projected up the shaft, yet he was landed without injury : it was a singular case. Four out of the five men who had been sent down just before the explosion took place, were not seen again for three or fourand-twenty weeks, when they were found buried amongst the corves or baskets and little carriages at the bottom of the shafts. The overlooker, who had gone to set these men to work, knew the situation they were likely to be placed in; and, hearing the noise of the explosion before it reached the shaft, he threw himself behind some pillars near the pits, so that the current went past him, but the flame came about him, and nearly all his clothes were burnt off his back, though he laid himself down flat upon his face for safety. · After the blast ceased, this person got up and found his way
round to the other pit, when he got up by the rope in the manner stated. The pit continued to blast every two or three hours for about two days. It appears that the coal had taken fire, and as soon as the carburetted hydrogen gas collected in sufficient quantity to reach the part where it was burning, it ignited again; but none of the explosions were equal to the first, on account of many parts of the mine
having become filled with azotic gas, or the after-damp of the mine. All the ditches in the country-side were stopped to get water to pour into the pit. We had extinguishing or fire-engines brought from Newcastle, and the water was poured in till it came above the fire, and then it was extinguished. The loss to the owners of the colliery by this accident must have been about 20,0001.”
Another explosion of a similar kind occurred in the same pit in 1809, by which twelve persons lost their lives. George Stephenson was working at the pit when the accident occurred, but the blast did not reach the shaft as in the former case; the unfortunate persons in the pit having been suffocated by the after-damp. But more calamitious explosions than these occurred in the neighbouring collieries ; one of the worst being that which took place in May, 1812, in the Felling Pit, near Gateshead, a mine belonging to Mr. Brandling, by which no fewer than ninety men and boys were suffocated or burnt to death. And a similar accident occurred in the same pit in the year following, by which twenty-two men and boys perished.
It was natural that George Stephenson, when appointed to the responsible office of colliery engine-wright, should devote his attention to the causes of these deplorable accidents, and to the means by which they might if possible be prevented. His daily occupation led him to think much and deeply on the subject. As the engineer of a colliery so extensive as that of Killingworth, where there were nearly 160 miles of gallery excavation, and in which he personally superintended the formation of inclined planes for the conveyance of the coal to the pit entrance, he was necessarily very often underground, and brought face to face with the dangers of fire-damp. From fissures in the roofs of the galleries, carburetted hydrogen gas was constantly flowing; in some of the more dangerous places it might be heard
escaping from the crevices of the coal with a hissing noise. Ventilation, firing, and all conceivable modes of drawing out the foul air had been adopted, and the more dangerous parts of the galleries were built up. Still the danger could not be wholly prevented. The miners must necessarily guide their steps through the extensive underground pathways with lighted lamps or candles, the naked flame of which, coming in contact with the inflammable air, daily exposed them, and their fellow-workers in the pit, to the risk of death in one of its most dreadful forms.
One day, in the year 1814, a workman hurried into Mr. Stephenson's cottage with the startling information that the deepest main of the colliery was on fire! He immediately hastened to the pit-mouth, about a hundred yards off, whither the women and children of the colliery were fast running, with wildness and terror depicted in every face. In an energetic voice Stephenson ordered the engineman to lower him down the shaft in the corve. There was danger, it might be death, before him,—but he must go. As those about the pit-mouth saw him descend rapidly out of sight, and heard from the gloomy depths of the shaft the mingled cries of despair and agony rising from the workpeople below, they gazed on the heroic man with breathless amazement.
He was soon at the bottom, and in the midst of his workmen, who were paralysed at the danger which threatened the lives of all in the pit. Leaping from the corve on its touching the ground, he called out “Stand back! Are there six men among you who have courage enough to follow me? If so, come, and we will put the fire out.”
The Killingworth men always had the most perfect confidence in George Stephenson, and instantly they volunteered to follow him. Silence succeeded to the frantic tumult of the previous minute, and the men set to work. In every mine, bricks, mortar, and tools enough are at hand, and by