Vapour trials

The really fascinating thing about curating this blog is the way it inspires people to look into not just history, but the retelling of it; I have been banging on for years that we need to be careful not just of our own accounts and beliefs, but also of those accounts we hold as truths from authoritative sources.

Sometimes things are not as they at first appear, and the multiple parallaxes of bias, rumour and oral distortion can result in an utter misrepresentation of events becoming the accepted truth.

I’m very proud here to host work by the wonderfully focused, rational and inquisitive Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler, who has previously investigated accounts of local mining and industrial history, particularly with regard to accidents and sharp practice. Here I present yet another of his investigations, this time into a somewhat unusual accident in the Walsall Wood Colliery in 1890, that resulted in one man’s death and severe injuries to two others.

It seems that in this case as in others, things are not always as they appear. I thank Peter for yet another excellent contribution, and I invite reader comment, as ever. Either here on the article, or to BrownhillsBob at googlemail dot com. Thanks.

Peter wrote:

Walsall Wood pit trialled and innovated in several techniques - some were more successful than others. Is it me, or dowes the fireman appear to be wearing his cap backwards? Whoever he was, he doesn't look like he'd stand for a lot of shit. Taken from 'The South Staffordshire Coalfield' by Nigel A. Chapman.

Walsall Wood pit trialled and innovated in several techniques – some were more successful than others. Is it me, or dowes the fireman appear to be wearing his cap backwards? Whoever he was, he doesn’t look like he’d stand for a lot of shit. Taken from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

The recent interest in the magnificent Barn situated at Dairy Farm in Walsall Wood led me to the Cannock Chase Mining Historical Society publication by Brian Rollins, ‘Coal Mining in the north-east section of the Walsall Metropolitan Borough’ (2006).

I could not help but notice a short description of ‘A most unusual Accident’ which occurred at Walsall Wood Colliery in March of 1890. Past experience has shown that it is worth looking deeper into the reports to check if more can be added to the story, and as we have seen before, there is often more behind the ‘accidental death’ verdicts than meets the eye, and this is no exception.

Let me first admit that I have crossed swords with the CCMHS previously, and been given short shrift. I must say that their contribution to the local mining history is immense and technically first class. It has set out a series of publications that provide an excellent basis for anyone to further study the subject, however I have found some of the interpretations of social history are at odds with my own. I thank our Bob for providing a platform so that others can comment and see an alternative view.

The same credits as above must also go to Brian Rollins, and any discussion here cannot take away the gratitude that the community owe him for his contribution to local history. However I think record has to be set straight for the unfortunate youth, Bradbury, who suffered terrible injuries in the disaster.

The CCMHS Publication says…

On the 29th March 1890 a unique accident occurred at the Walsall Wood Colliery. It happened in an underground engine recess by the side of one of the main haulage roads. In the recess had been placed a Priestman’s petroleum engine. It was described at the time as ‘the motive power of this kind of engine is exploding petroleum vapour and their compactness, readiness of application in difficult positions and the absence of a boiler, make a tempting mechanical appliance for mining engineers.’

The engine had been sited by the side of the main road some 500 yards from the shafts. The engine was being tested by workmen who considered it necessary to empty the petrol from the tank; to completely drain the tank they decided to use compressed air. A youth was sent under the engine to catch the petrol as it flowed off the discharge plughole. Another youth was told to loosen the plug, ‘but not to bring the lighted lamps near to the tank as the petrol rushed out.’ Finding that the plug did not come out easily he reached for his light to see better, and just as the plug flew out followed by the petrol, blown by the compressed air, in the form of a spray. This instantly caught fire at the lamp, three men were burnt, one fatally. The woodwork caught fire and with the petrol burnt giving off dense smoke the mine had to be evacuated.


A Priestman engine, very similar to the one in the above image. Picture from

The Inquest (info from the Birmingham Daily Post) was in two sessions as Bradbury was being treated for his injuries.

At the first meeting:

There were three people involved. Firstly there was Thomas Clarke (38). He was from Hull and was employed by the engine manufacturers Priestman Bros. and was specially superintending the work. He was so badly burned that he succumbed to his injuries. The second was James Rigby from London, an inspector also employed by Priestman, who had come to inspect the engine that had been at work for 8 or 9 weeks. And the third was a youth named Bradbury from Walsall Wood who was being instructed to work the engine.

The engine was one of only three in the Kingdom to be used underground, and this was the first accident.

Rigby was the first witness and told of the position of the lamps. He added that Clarke had said that the plug had come out hard, and at the same time he found himself enveloped in flames. He managed to rush out without serious injury, but Bradbury was not so lucky.

After the accident the deceased’s lamp was found inside the engine, instead of where the witness had last seen it, and he could only suppose that the deceased had lifted it inside the engine for the purpose of seeing what had impeded the plug, and that the pressure inside the tank driving out the oil in a spray, the lamp ignited it.

He had been in charge of upwards of 40 of these engines, but this was the first he had had to do with down a pit… the use of a closed lamp would prevent any danger.

The inquest was adjourned until the youth Bradbury could appear.

At the second meeting:

Bradbury (18 from Walsall Wood) had been sent into the pit beneath the engine with a bucket in order to catch the oil as it came out of the tank when the plug was removed. Two men, Clarke and Rigby were assisting this delicate operation with ordered lamps, one of which was placed on a platform 4ft from the plug hole. As the oil poured out the inflammable vapour or spray which gave forth by some unlucky chance caught fire and the engine and platform were instantly enveloped in a sheet of flame.

The boy in the pit sprung out in time to save his life, but was badly burned about the face, hands and arms; and the woodwork about the engine catching fire produced with the burning of oil such a dense volume of smoke that it threatened suffocation to the colliers who were in the adjoining working.

Happily the fire was extinguished before it reached the workings, and the only one life lost was that of the unfortunate man superintending the work…

Bradbury could not see the lamp from under the engine, but before he went down it was 4ft away… Did not hear any instructions from Rigby as to where the lamps were to be placed or how to be used… Clarke, who was teaching how to use the engine, did not mention any orders as to where the lamps were to be placed or used… The witness (Bradbury) was in the habit of pouring the oil and scarcely spilled a drop… The engine had been used as much as five hours a day, not hauling all of the day but sometimes simply going round. Clarke never told him that the air must be blown out first when emptying the tank; nor did he ever tell him to use a safety lamp when pouring the oil… He did not know what happened to cause the fire

The Government Inspector, Mr Scott, strongly condemned the position in which the engine was placed by the side of one of the main roads through which the inlet air passed, so that the smoke from a fire such as that which had occurred was of necessity carried into the workings. Then, again, he pointed out that the flames of the fire in communicating with the timber of the main road, as they did, might easily have fired coal dust in the road, thus causing an explosion of disastrous proportions.

Apart from his objections to the positioning of the engine, however, he had yet, he said, to be convinced of the prudence of using a petroleum engine in a coal pit. It was an innovation, in his opinion, attended with great danger, unless under conditions and regulations yet to be devised. The engine at Walsall Wood, it seemed, was only the third which had been adopted for underground work, and before such engines in collieries becomes more general it certainly seems desirable to settle authoritatively the primary question whether they can be safely used at all, and if so, under what restrictions.

The Coroner summed up, pointing out that there seemed every reason to believe that the deceased incautiously reached his lamp to the tank to see why the plug did not come out readily, and that the plug being loosened at the same moment, the oil came out in the form of a spray and took fire. The Jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’. Coupling with it only an expression of opinion that in future better precautions should be taken to guard the oil from the flame…


There’s a persistent narrative in local history that the miners were salt-of-the-earth and gaffers were evil. The truth is never so monochrome, and occasionally the miners could be their own worst enemies, as this caption by Nigel A. Chapman illustrates. However, both myself and Peter do find some of the interpretations of mining historical societies a little too sanitised. Image Taken from ‘The South Staffordshire Coalfield’ by Nigel A. Chapman.

The Birmingham Daily further says:

The petroleum engine therefore will, we presume, continue to be used for working of the Walsall Wood Colliery, and it is hoped therefore, that Mr Scott will see his way to frame such regulations for its management and isolation from the workings as may prevent a recurrence of the recent disaster, and yet graver consequences which must result from the firing of the mine.

…The one (engine) at Walsall Wood Colliery was only the third in the Kingdom used underground in mines, and was consequently new, and not surrounded with safety regulations and conditions…. Proper regulations and safeguards may result from this enquiry…

The information, which may not have been readily available to the CCMHS, puts a new complexion on the incident. The work on the engine was not being carried out by one man and two youths, but by two men who were fully conversant with the engine and a youth who was just doing his job. The use of the engine underground was a new innovation and the safety measures had not been given due consideration; the siting of the engine by the Company could have had disastrous consequences.The Petroleum engine had only been introduced in 1886, and Preistman’s detailed advert of 1888 gives no mention of its use in coal mines.

The idea that, ‘Another youth was told to loosen the plug, but not to bring the lighted lamps near to the tank as the petrol rushed out.’ …seems so at odds with the Inquest evidence. Was it another case of hearsay?

The Times, April 1886

A new motor, which promises to prove a powerful rival to the gas engine, has recently been introduced into this country from Germany, where it is already in considerable use. This is Spiel’s petroleum engine. Spiel’s engine would seem to be capable of competing satisfactorily with gas engines, even where gas is available, but beyond this there is a wide and promising field for it where gas is not obtainable, and where the steam engine is inadmissible.


This is a diagram of a Priestman oil engine from Wikimedia Commons – I think the petroleum engines were very, very similar. Cetainly, very close relatively to the one in the Chapman Walsall Wood picture. Click for a larger version.

The Times September 1888

For some time past Messrs Priestman’s Brothers of Hull, have been endeavouring to overcome the difficulties which have hitherto stood in the way of using the ordinary petroleum of commerce as a motive power for engines. In this they have now fully succeeded, as was demonstrated by petroleum engine which we recently inspected at the London offices, 73a, Queen Victoria Street In the engine the oil is placed in a closed tank inside the foundation of the engine, and air is pumped into tank until a pressure of about 5lb. to the square inch obtained. The oil in then mixed with air until formed into a vapour, after which it passes into a closed iron vessel or vaporiser, where it is heated, and from which it is admitted into the engine cylinder and ignited by means of an electric spark. The spark is obtained from a small primary battery capable of doing thirty hours work without attention, and which can be renewed at a very small cost.

In starting the engine the vaporiser in heated for a few minutes, after which the
necessary heat is obtained from the exhaust products of combustion while on their way to the chimney. The cylinder is water-jacketed, the water being kept in circulation by a small pump. After it has once been started, the engine works automatically, preparing its own source of power, heating its charge, cooling its cylinder, and supplying its own spark for ignition. The great point here is that only ordinary petroleum is used which, moreover, is entirely consumed, leaving no residue whatever, combustion being complete. The cost working this engine, taking the oil at the present price, stated to be a little more than a halfpenny per horse power hour. The engine is simple in construction, and well adapted for use where steam is inadmissible and coal gas not obtainable. It has been thoroughly tried and proved in practical work before being brought out.

Western Daily Press June 1888

(Lengthy advert showing patent applications, list of acknowledgements by eminent scientists and engineers, applications ect.)

…Other engines had been tried using Benzoline, Naphtha, Gasoline etc. Compared with an engine worked with common petroleum, engines using these inflammable products are, on account of the great danger attending the employment of the same, of little or no commercial value. No danger exists with regard to common petroleum, nor is any extra premium charged by insurance companies in respect of premises upon which it is stored…

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16 Responses to Vapour trials

  1. Clive says:

    Nice one Peter, it makes me shudder, the idea of a combustion engine down the pit.

  2. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a big thankyou to Peter and to your goodself. Firstly to Peter for his thorough research and secondly to you for this excellent presentation and for making the time to put this and all of your blog items into what is an exceptional “blog” and valuable ongoing resource. Apart from the actual topic, important though this is, we see another example of the importance and immense value of your blog, Bob. Any local book once published,….(and Brian Rollins faced an uphill struggle to obtain financial support for this book at first),, will be used as an authoritative source and as we see here how historical knowledge is rarely finite.
    So a huge thanks to Brian for his initial and much valued research and effort in publishing his two books, to Peter , for his thorough research which adds to the information, and to your goodself.

    I believe that the youth mentioned was a George Bradbury who lived with his parents in a house in Lichfield Road, near Streets Corner ,in Walsall the time of the tragedy.

    kind regards

    • Hi David

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I worry about inaccuracies in such authoritative works. Brian is a very knowledgable man whom I respect immensely, and I in no way detract from his great work.

      I’d be more comfortable, however, if CCMHS had been more willing to accept Peter’s point of view when he raised an issue of historical veracity with them.

      I’m not quite sure what funding has to do with that, to be honest.


  3. Andy Dennis says:

    I wonder whether the differences are to do with the investigations themselves. As I understand it CCMHS go on the Inspector or Mines reports, which were not collated in the challenging environment of an Inquest or court case. When fewer than five were killed CCMHS only gives a brief statement, which is not always unequivocal. For example, re Thomas Dennis killed at the Wyrley Grove Pit in 1889, CCMHS says “fall of rock roof in a gate road. Cause, want of timber”. But this does not tell us why: e.g. was the want of timber caused by a shortage of materials, was it someone making the most of the materials available, was it just poor workmanship, was it poor quality wood? The Inquest, as reported in the Lichfield Mercury 10 May 1889, found “The evidence adduced by the stallman, fireman and others showed that there was a lack of judgement in regard to the spragging where the fall occurred, but no want of care or forethought on the part of the manager or under-managers. The Jury brought in a verdict of “Accidental Death.” ” (A sprag was a short timber for propping up loose walls.) That implies the necessary timber was available, but was simply not installed correctly. One wonders why the stallman, fireman and others didn’t insist on it being corrected; their lives were also at risk.

    Thomas was just 20 years old. There is a granite memorial in St. James churchyard on the north side, east of the path to Great Charles Street, to both Thomas and his mother Ellen. The Inquest was held at the Railway Tavern, where Thomas’s father, also Thomas, was landlord.

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  12. Pedro says:

    A supplier of the book, Cannock Chase Coalfields issued by the CCMHS, has told me that it is almost out of print, but a reissue is planned.

    I have asked that the CCMHS alter the description of the accident to remove any implication that the youth Bradbury was in any way to blame.

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  15. Pedro says:

    The picture of the engine from N Chapman’s book is one from the John Goodchild Collection. It is one of 26 pairs of stereoscopic card, that John purchased from a second-hand bookshop in Barnsley.

    The photos were take at Walsall Wood Colliery and may have been taken for The Colliery Manager’s Handbook of 1896.

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