Researchers uncover secrets of England’s worst-ever mining disaster

By Jon Bauckham, 23 May 2016 - 4:21pm

Volunteers in Barnsley have compiled a database of people killed in the 1866 Oaks Colliery Disaster – now proven to have claimed more lives than originally thought

Oaks Colliery Disaster

A total of 384 people were killed at Oaks Colliery in December 1866 (Photo: Getty Images)

The true cost of England’s worst-ever mining accident has been uncovered by a team of history sleuths in South Yorkshire.

Local volunteers working with the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership (DVLP) have found that 384 people perished in the notorious Oaks Colliery disaster in 1866 – 23 more than the ‘official’ death toll published at the time.

The researchers have also concluded that 169 bodies were never recovered and remain inside the old colliery workings below Barnsley to this day.

The startling discoveries follow nearly a year of painstaking research, which has involved rifling through old records, both online and in the archives.

Crucially for family historians, the findings have been made available in the form of a fully searchable online database, enabling users to locate details of specific victims.

While most of the fatalities resulted from a series of explosions at the pit on 12 December 1866, a further blast the next day killed 27 volunteer rescuers.

DVLP community officer Stephen Miller said that the scale and complexity of the disaster meant there had been “all sorts of brick walls” to overcome.

“The spellings of names has been a really big problem, which is down to a largely illiterate community giving different names to enumerators in each census – the volunteers had some fun with that!” Miller told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

“Another problem is that quite a few victims were never issued death certificates. After the Oaks Colliery disaster, there was legislation that meant it was the family’s responsibility to get a death registered, but at the time it was down to the individual registrars.

“With the registrar for Barnsley having to deal with so many deaths, it’s not surprising some were missed.”

Dearne Valley Landscape Project volunteers

A team of 20 volunteers was recruited for the research in June 2015 (Photo: Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership)

Researchers are confident they now have each victim recorded, but it is hoped that descendants will get in touch to provide additional biographical information that can be added to the database.

With the discovery that some of the mine workers came from as far afield as London and Ireland, volunteers believe that the project will have resonance with researchers far beyond South Yorkshire.

Project volunteer Noel Shaw, who said it had been a “privilege and pleasure” to contribute to the project, added that he was “surprised to see how many people travelled the length of the country to Barnsley for employment in the coal mines”.

The creation of the database forms a key part of the commemorative programme being put together by the DVLP to mark the 150th anniversary of the disaster in December 2016.

The Heritage Lottery Fund-supported organisation, which undertakes work to conserve the local landscape, will also be curating an exhibition showcasing the research at the Experience Barnsley Museum & Discovery Centre later this year.

Local historian and author Brian Elliott, who acted as an advisor for the project, said he was glad the Oaks Colliery Disaster was being remembered.

“England's worst coal mining disaster deserves to be commemorated on its 150th anniversary, most especially for the descendants of those who lost their lives and as a lasting reminder of the true cost of coal in Victorian times,” he said.

“Under the guidance of the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, the researchers have put together a fantastic resource, building on my own work carried out more than 45 years earlier.”

Mr Elliott told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine that there were also plans to erect a statue to the fallen miners, which will be created by local sculptor Graham Ibbeson.

To learn more about the project, click here.

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