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The William Pit explosion at Whitehaven, 3 June 1941

by ritsonvaljos

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Archive List > United Kingdom > Cumbria

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Raymond Devlin ‘Ray’, Harry Fancy, Tom Stephenson, George Farquahar, Mr A.B. Dawson, Mr G. Savage, Police Superintendent W.S. Brown, Police Inspector Lilley, James Wells, Mabel Wells, Canon R. Mayall, John Peter Burney, John Burney MM, Alice Burney (née Killen), Father Anselm Lightbound OSB, Sydney Barbour, Catherine Barbour, William Perry, Elizabeth Perry, Reverend E.D. Tyndall, James Mather, William E. Harker, Reverend F. Taylor, Jonathan Curwen, Margaret Curwen, Father Philip Jackson OSB, Cornelius Moore, James George (Junior) ‘Jimmy’, James George (Senior), Mary George ’Molly’, Robert McGrievy, Mr McGrievy (Senior), Mrs McGrievy, Charles Martin MM, Mrs C. Martin, Adjutant J. Coultas, Robert Baxter, Mary Baxter, Father Augustine Kervin OSB, James O’Pray, Ellen O’Pray, William O’Pray, Mr W. Stainton, John Robert Baxter, William Benson, Joseph Fitzsimons, Richard D. Glaister, Mr W.J. Kerr, George Porterhouse, Henry Ruddick, Joseph Rogan ’Joe’, Isaac C. Graham, Moses Stephens, Stephen Bell Tyson Ferguson ‘Steve’, Mr F.H. Wynne.
Location of story: 
Whitehaven (Cumberland / Cumbria)
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 January 2006

William Pit mug produced in 2004, commemorating the 200th anniversary of sinking the pit shaft. It shows the pit buildings. On 3 June 1941 there was an explosion at William Pit, Whitehaven. There were 12 employees who lost their lives plus several others who were injured. [Photograph by Joseph Ritson]


While researching articles for “The People’s War” project several people have mentioned an explosion on 3 June 1941 at William Pit, Whitehaven, Cumberland (now Cumbria) [See Article Reference Ids: A3633725, A3633761, A3697743 and A6223402]. In this explosion, 12 men and boys lost their lives. Additionally, there were another 10 miners hospitalised with severe injuries, plus others who were less severely injured. It is also important to remember that the extended families of these miners also suffered as a result of the accident.

Since posting the accounts referred to above, I have checked contemporary reports and records of this mine explosion from documents held at the Cumbria Archives Office in Whitehaven and at the Haig Mining Museum, Kells, Whitehaven. Additionally, I have also spoken to an acquaintance of mine by the name of Ray Devlin who has written and lectured about many aspects of West Cumbrian mining.

Ray is the co-author of a book based on some original detailed research about the history of William Pit. It includes further information of the 1941 explosion not included in this article. Anyone wishing to learn more about the 1941 William Pit explosion in particular and the history of mining generally should consult this book (reference given at the end of this article). The author has read and understood the terms of the BBC “People’s War” website.

Some background information

The 14 feet diameter shaft for William Pit was first sunk in 1804, reaching a depth of 552 feet below ground. Following development work, the first shipment of William Pit coal was made in 1806, and continued until 1955. Whitehaven, on the Cumbrian coast, is at the southern end of the Solway Firth, an inlet of the Irish Sea. Many of the best and most productive coal seams of the Cumbrian coalfield dip towards the sea, extending far out under the sea bed. The William Pit workings eventually extended about 4 miles out to sea.

There were at least 11 major explosions during the history of William Pit, with 207 men, boys and, in the early explosions, even girls losing their lives. On Tuesday 3 June 1941 the explosion at William Pit was located in the mine workings near a place known as Lowca junction, about 2¾ miles 'inbye' (i.e. from the pit shaft towards the coal face) and 2½ miles under the sea.

According to the local press prior to the 1941 explosion, there were problems throughout Britain keeping coal production sufficiently high to meet the extra demands of wartime. The press reported that production in the Cumberland coalfield was declining. The miners were being asked to reverse the trend. According to the Cumberland Miners' leader of the time, Tom Stephenson, the main causal factor for dropping production was the fact that when war broke out many of the younger miners had been in the Territorial Army and were called up. He estimated that at least 500 young miners had been called up from the Whitehaven area to one of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy or RAF).

At this stage in the war, early June 1941, the USSR and the USA were not formally allied to Britain in the war against Germany. The USSR was only drawn into the war later in June 1941 when the Germans launched 'Operation Barbarossa'. The USA did not join in the war until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Some attempts were being made about this time elsewhere in the Cumbrian coalfield to overcome manpower shortages by increased mechanisation. Later in the war conscripts were directed to minework instead of the Armed Forces (i.e. 'Bevin Boys'). However, in June 1941 it was deemed essential that the workforce be extolled to increase production with reduced manpower.

The problem of spontaneous combustion

Hewing and trailing the coal down the mine were physically demanding tasks best done by fit young men. Hence with many of the young men who would normally do this kind of work being unavailable due to having been called up to the Forces, during this part of the war these tasks were being fulfilled by some of the older miners, or some of the youngest miners who had not been called up. Another of the causal factors that was given in the local Cumbrian press in 1941 for a drop in coal production was absenteeism, because many miners had ill health and could not stick at the hard physical demands they were being asked to do.

Sometimes coal in a seam can oxidise and ultimately leads to spontaneous combustion. Coal left in supporting pillars that is liable to spontaneous combustion undergoes a chemical reaction and a temperature increase. If the temperature reaches about 70 degrees centigrade then there will be spontaneous combustion. In a coalmine this has serious consequences. By 1941, coal had been mined from William Pit for 135 years. There were a large number of coal pillars left in the old workings.

According to some detailed research undertaken by Ray Devlin, a former Chief Mining Instructor at the Whitehaven colliery of Haig Pit, there had been a number of heatings or fires at William Pit before June 1941. Signs of active combustion and smoke had been found there in 1940. The way these were tackled was by means of 'stoppings' (abandon the area and then seal it off). Because of the risk of spontaneous combustion at William Pit, from December 1938 onwards there was a team of employees specifically dedicated to deal with the problem.

The explosion of 3 June 1941

On Tuesday 3 June 1941 a team of workmen worked on a new 'stopping' in the ‘Main Band’ coal seam. Water was applied to cool rubble on the outside of a previous 'stopping'. The explosion happened at about 2.15 pm. It blew a hole into the adjacent ‘Countess Bannock Band’ seam workings. The explosion led to 12 deaths, 11 seriously injured plus a large number of others less so. Nevertheless, about 100 employees working ‘outbye’ of the accident were able to escape, mostly relatively unscathed. At the time of the accident Mr George Farquahar, the mine manager, Mr A.B. Dawson Under Manager in charge of controlling spontaneous combustion and Mr G. Savage, Pit Deputy were still down the mine on the 'outbye' side of the explosion (i.e. closer to the pit shaft). They had previously inspected the new 'stopping'.

As soon as it was known there had been an accident, the mine gave the warning signal to the town via the steam horn at the pit. This involved one long signal followed by six short blasts and repeated time and time again. I have heard it said it was a fearful sound, especially for the women of the town with menfolk working down the mine at the time. This signal summoned rescue workers and families to the pithead.

Bad news, whether in wartime or peacetime travels fast. According to 'The Whitehaven News' article of Thursday 5 June 1941, within less than an hour there were large crowds of relatives and friends had gathered at the pit gates. These gates were locked to relatives. Entry and exit to the colliery were under strict police control and supervised by Superintendent W.S. Brown and Inspector Lilley. The only persons allowed to pass through the gates were those persons deemed necessary to the major rescue attempt that swung into operation.

The newspaper article from June 1941 reported how quickly the townsfolk responded to management requests to assist with what was a major rescue. Those who assisted were the trained Mines Rescue Teams, local doctors, clergy and servicemen on leave. Taxi drivers and those with private cars placed their vehicles at the disposal of the colliery and conveyed the less seriously wounded either to hospital or to their homes.

A grim aspect reported by the local press was how some of those who died had to be identified by relatives. Perhaps only those bereaved in similar circumstances can fully appreciate the full extent of how distressing this was. According to the article in 'The Whitehaven News':

"In one or two cases identification was established with difficulty by such things as the shape of a split on a victim's clog or the way in which a mother had darned her son's socks".

Those killed or severely wounded

Below are the names of the 12 men and boys killed in the 1941 William Pit explosion, and a few details about them. The first 8 of these were found to be dead at the scene of the accident, the next two named died within hours of being admitted to hospital, and the last 2 died a few days after being admission to hospital.

1. James Wells.
James was 28 years old, married to Mabel and they had 3 children. The family lived in the town at 9 Charles Street. He was employed as a haulage hand and a member of William Pit Home Guard ('E Company'). James's funeral service was held at Christ Church (Anglican), Preston Street on Friday 6 June 1941, conducted by Canon R. Mayall. James was then interred in the town cemetery.

2. John Peter Burney
John was 20 years old, single and was employed as a haulage hand. John was one of the sons of John Burney MM and Alice Burney. The family home was at Bentinck Row, Ginns. John was a keen sportsman, particularly boxing. He had been a member of St Begh's Boys Club and was a member of 'E Company' of William Pit Home Guard. A Requiem Mass was held for John and other victims of the pit accident at St Begh's RC Church, Coach Road on Saturday 7 June 1941. The main concelebrant was Father Anselm Lightbound OSB. John was then interred in the town cemetery. Further information about John Burney and the Burney family during WW2 can be found in two previous articles I have written (Reference IDs: A6223402 and A7507433)

3. Sydney Barbour
Sydney was 21 years old, married to Catherine with one baby son aged 12 months in 1941. Sydney was again employed as a haulage hand. The family lived at 3 The Court, 25 Queen Street in the town centre. Sydney's funeral was held on the afternoon of Sunday 8 June 1941, with 8 of his workmates acting as bearers.

4. William Perry
William was 50 years old, married to Elizabeth and they had 6 children, who in June 1941 were aged between 13 and 24. William's funeral took place on the morning of Saturday 7 June 1941 at St James's Church (Anglican), High Street and it was conducted by Reverend E.D. Tyndall. William was one of those who had to be identified by means of his clothing. This was done by his half brother James Mather. Tuesday 3 June 1941 was William's 50th birthday.

5. William E. Harker
William was 20 years old, single, and the main income earner for his family as his father had died in 1936. The family home was at Countess Terrace in the Bransty district of town. William was employed as an engine hand. His funeral took place on Sunday 8 June at the Wesleyan Church by Reverend F. Taylor. William was another member of the William Pit Home Guard platoon and fellow members of the Home Guard acted as bearers. Wreaths were sent to the funeral by the Home Guard and from workers at L. Silbertson and Sons of Cleator, where a sister of William Harker was employed.

6. Jonathan Curwen
Jonathan was 57 years old and married to Margaret. They had one son and one daughter. the family home was at 51 North Road, in the Kells district of town. In the Great War, Jonathan had served with the Royal Navy and had volunteered for service again in 1939, being turned down because of his age. In World War Two, Jonathan was in the A.R.P. and in the First Aid section. Jonathan's funeral was at St Begh's RC Church, on Sunday 8 June. It was conducted by Father Anselm Lightbound OSB and Father Philip Jackson OSB.

7. Cornelius Moore
Cornelius was 40 years old and married with 7 children aged between 2 and 19 years. The family home was at 54 Scotch Street in the town centre. He was employed as a hewer, and was a member of the William Pit A.F.S. and had an allotment owner at Crow Park. His funeral was held at St James's Church (Anglican), High Street on Friday 6 June. It was conducted by Reverend E.D. Tyndall. The bearers were fellow miners from both William Pit and Haig Pit.

8. James George
James (known as Jimmy) was 18 years old, single and employed as a haulage hand. His parents were James and Molly George. Jimmy’s family lived at 49 Fell View Avenue, Woodhouse. He was a keen sportsman, very outgoing, and well known by virtually everyone on the Woodhouse estate. Jimmy’s best ‘marra’ (close friend), with whom he worked, was Moses Stephens, who lived next door at 50 Fell View Avenue (see below).

9. Robert McGrievy
Robert was 19 years old, single and employed as a haulage hand. he lived with his parents, Mr and Mrs McGrievy at Valley View Road on the Greenbank housing estate. Outside of work Robert was a member of the Coal Company A.R.P. and attached to 'D First Aid Post'. Robert's funeral was held at St Begh's RC Church, Coach Road on Sunday 8 June, again with Father Anselm Lightbound OSB and Father Philip Jackson OSB officiating.

10. Charles Martin MM
Charles was 45 years old and was married with 2 sons aged 12 and 18 at the time of the accident. Charles was employed as a Pit Deputy. The family home was at South View Road on the Bransty estate. In the Great War Charles had served with the Seaforth Highlanders as a bandsman. He had gained the Military Medal for gallantry in 1916 for carrying an important dispatch made under heavy enemy fire. In World War Two, Charles was a Sergeant in the colliery platoon of the Home Guard. Having served as a Bandsman in the Salvation Army for many years, Charles's funeral was held at Whitehaven Salvation Army Hall on Saturday 7 June. The service was conducted by Adjutant J. Coultas and the bearers were other sergeants in the Home Guard. Both Whitehaven and Maryport Salvation Army bands took part in the funeral service.

11. Robert Baxter
Robert was 55 years old, married to Mary and lived at 5 Coniston Road on the Woodhouse estate. One of Robert's sons, 29 year old John Robert Baxter, was one of those seriously injured in the same accident (see below). Robert died on Saturday 7 June 1941 and his funeral took place on Tuesday 10 June. This was held at St Begh's RC Church, Coach Road followed by interment in the town cemetery. Robert's funeral service was conducted by Father Augustine Kervin OSB.

12. James O'Pray
James was 37 years old, married to Ellen and had 7 children. The family home was at 80 Bransty Road. James's father William O'Pray had had been killed in an explosion in 1910 when 139 employees lost their lives working at Wellington Pit, Whitehaven. Evidence of identification was given by James’s father-in-law, Mr W. Stainton, a surface worker at William Pit. James had been in the Territorial Army before the war, and was a member of Bransty Royal British Legion. James's funeral took place at St Begh's RC Church, Coach Road at 3 pm on Friday 13 June, followed by interment in the cemetery.

Below is the list of names of the most severely injured (detained in hospital) as a result of the explosion:

1. John Robert Baxter
John, the son of the Robert Baxter mentioned above, was 29 years old and lived at 17 Tangier Street.

2. William Benson
William was 29 years old and lived at Reid’s Court, Scotch Street.

3. Joseph Fitzsimons
Joseph was 21 years old and lived at 17 Back Ginns.

4. Richard D. Glaister
Richard was 45 years old and lived at 13 Lakeland Avenue, Seacliffe.

5. W.J. Kerr
Mr Kerr was 44 years old and lived at 1 Mill Street. Unfortunately the records I consulted do not give his forenames.

6. George Porterhouse
George was 50 years old and lived at 16 North Road, Kells.

7. Henry Ruddick
Henry was aged 60 and employed as a Pit Deputy. He lived at 6 Countess Terrace, Bransty.

8. Joseph Rogan
Joseph (known as Joe) was 18 years old and lived at 99 Queen Street.

9. Isaac C. Graham
Isaac was aged 51, employed as an Overman and lived at The Green, Bransty.

10. Moses Stephens
Moses was aged 17 and lived at 50 Fell View Avenue, Woodhouse. His best ‘marra’ was Jimmy George.


At the Public Inquiry into the accident in July 1941 under Mr. F.H. Wynne, Chief Inspector of Mines, it was stated that curing ‘spontaneous combustion’ by applying water was unreliable unless complete immersion could be effected. Consequently, the two most productive coal seams at William Pit, ‘Main Band’ and ‘Countess Bannock Band’, were sealed off. That left the less profitable ‘Six Quarters Band’ in production.

On 15 August 1947, there was yet another explosion at William Pit, with even worse casualties: 104 men out of 118 on the back shift lost their lives. I have previously submitted an article by Steve Ferguson, a miner who was underground when both the 1941 and 1947 explosions occurred (A3633761). William Pit was closed in 1955. The lives lost there will never be forgotten.

Further reading:

Ray Devlin and Harry Fancy (2003):
“The Most Dangerous Pit in the Kingdom” (2nd Edition), ISBN 0-9544872-06

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