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Accidents in the Brendon Hill iron ore mines

Mining was a dangerous living.  There were frequent accidents caused by incautious handling of black powder, the explosive used to break ore free from the lode.  Falls down the underground shafts were usually fatal.  Even someone as experienced a mine manager as David Richards died instantly together with a young miner, John Davey, on 9th May 1858.  They had walked into a pocket of carbon dioxide whilst exploring a disused level at Raleigh’s Cross mine. 


Below a selection of accident in the Brendon Hill mines as reported in the local press between 1856 and 1882.  From 1873 onwards more comprehensive and accurate data can be found in the annual accident reports published by the mines inspectors.  He was appointed following the Metalliferous Mines Regulation Act of 1872 and excerpts from these reports are included below.


In the years 1873 - 1882 on average 245 people where employed at the mines.  Of these about 30% were surface workers and 70% worked underground.  During this time 6 fatal accidents were reported.  Non-fatal accidents resulting in injuries and time off work were only recorded from 1878 - 82 and amounted to 15.



11 Dec 1856  - George White - Blasting accident 

In December 1856, George White, a labourer employed at the Brendon Hills iron mines had charged a hole with gunpowder and in ramming it down had incautiously cut off the safety fuse (sic).  To remedy this he struck a piece of iron called a ‘needle’ with a hammer, which produced a spark of fire, which ignited the gunpowder and exploded.  His brains were knocked out and several of his bones broken.  The body awaits a coroner’s inquest.  Another man who was working with him at the time was also seriously injured and narrowly escaped a similar fate.’ (Bridgwater Times, 11 Dec 1856)

17 Dec 1856  - George Poole and William Mills - Blasting accident

In December 1856 George Poole and William Mills, until then agricultural labourers, had drilled holes in the face of one of the adits at Raleighs Cross mine and had charged them with black powder.  Next they tamped the charges, but instead of using wooden rods for the purpose, rods for which they were charged by the Company, they used an iron rod. In the resulting inevitable explosion Mills was killed and Poole badly injured.  The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ and the Coroner, W W Munckton observed that ‘the mode of blasting for mining purposes is very unsafe and highly dangerous.’ (Taunton Courier, 17 Dec 1856)

1 Jul 1857 - George Aplin - Fall

George Aplin of Upton was working in June 1857 when he was warned that blasting was about to take place, and he began to make his way out of the mine.  While climbing one of the shafts he struck his foot against a knob of rock and fell from the ladder on to a projecting ledge, striking his forehead.  As he continued to fall he struck another ledge with the back of his head and plunged to the shaft bottom.  It was fortunate that the floor had been cleared of ore, for otherwise he would have been killed.  He was taken home where he lay in a coma for several days, after which he began slowly to recover.  (Taunton Courier, 1 Jul 1857)

26 May 1858 - Joseph Gard and Thomas Sully  - Blasting Accident

In May 1858, Joseph Gard and Thomas Sully set off their charges in the drilled holes when the powder filled quill hung fire.  As they went to look, the charge exploded, and they were so cut and disfigured that they could not be identified when they were brought out.  They were moved to the mine office, and Dr Nicholls was sent for from Wiveliscombe (nearly eight miles away).  ‘The men are just still alive, but they will probably not be for long.’(Taunton Courier 26 May 1858) 

22 Feb 1862 - Thorne and Cowling  - Blasting Accident

At Eisen Hill mine, two miners had to clear a hole which had been bored and filled with powder, but which had failed to explode.  In order to save the charge, they bored it again without using water and a spark from the drill set it off.  Thorne had his thigh much shattered and died after amputation.  Cowling was burned in the face. (West Somerset Free Press, 22 Feb 1862)

6 Aug 1864 - George Strong - Fall

‘Fatal accident: miner George Strong with a comrade, had fired (lit) a hole in the iron mines, Brendon Hill, and was proceeding to a place of safety, to do which they had to cross a deep chasm.  On arriving there, the candle was suddenly extinguished and Strong fell thirty to forty feet to the bottom.  Dr Nicholls of Wiveliscombe was sent for, but the case was hopeless and the man died’.  (West Somerset Free Press, 6 Aug 1864)

13 Apr 1865 - Francis Redwood - Blasting Accident

Francis Redwood, aged 24 and unmarried, ‘was working in the shaft [sic] blasting a rock.  He did not retire to safety and was struck by a rock.  He worked through the night until 12 am. on Good Friday.  He came home on Good Friday morning and danced at Avis’s public house (at Langley near Wiveliscombe) in the afternoon.  He was taken ill there and went home.  On Sunday, Dr. Edwards was called in, but he died next Friday night.  Verdict: ‘death from an overflow of blood as a result of a blow from a stone’. (West Somerset Free Press, 13 Apr 1865)

6 Jan 1866 - Matthew Burnell  - Gas poisoning

A poor standard of ventilation may have brought about yet another death in Eisen Hill mines in December 1865, when ‘Matthew Burnell entered the mine before the smoke from blasting had cleared away, and he was suffocated’.  (West Somerset Free Press, 6 Jan 1866)

10 Dec 1870  - James Taylor - Gas poisoning

Exton:  inquest at the office of the Brendon Hill Iron Ore Co at Exton into the death of James Taylor, aged 60, a miner.  He was in charge of the steam driven underground hoist and pump at the bottom of a shaft within Eisen Hill mine, when foul air was observed.  His colleagues left but Taylor stoked up the boiler before he left, but by then it was too late to leave.  The verdict was death by suffocation through bad ventilation.  The jury said it was like lighting a fire and then climbing up the chimney.   (West Somerset Free Press, 10 Dec 1870)

7 Feb 1874  - William Parsons  - Fall

At the inquest into William Parsons death, at the age of 22, John Pearse said:  ‘I am a miner and work at Carnarvon Pit.  Parsons and I were working together between twelve and one o’clock and were tramming, and Charles Langdon and William Cook were also tramming on the opposite side (of the shaft) at the same time.  Charles Langdon’s tram was suddenly derailed between the tracks and Parsons and I came out from our end to help put the tram back on the rails.  In order to heave the tram, Parsons put a piece of board across the wings of the shaft where the tram goes off the stage to come up the pit.  I gave him a bar, but as he had it under the tram, it slipped and he fell backwards down the shaft.  I tried to catch him, but could not.  He must have fallen fourteen or fifteen fathoms’. (25 or 27 metres).   (West Somerset Free Press, 7 Feb 1874)

18 July 1874 - Benjamin Willis - Adit collapse

In July 1874, Benjamin Willis, a miner aged 20, born at Luxborough, was killed in Langham Hill mine.   At the inquest, Richard Taylor said:  ‘I was putting up timber helped by Worthy Bryant.  Charles Davis was in the level handing things to us.  Willis was ten feet away by another hole standing near a set of timbers doing nothing.  He was in our employ and we sent him back to the shaft to send up a tram of ore.  He then returned to tell us that the Captain and the gaffer were coming down.  Suddenly about 17 or 18 cwt of ore from the roof fell on him.  He was dead when we got him out.  The two holes were ten feet apart.  I never heard Captain Skewis or the gaffer complain of our using too much timber, we have as much as we like.  There were props of timber between the two holes supporting the hanging wall.  I thought it was quite safe.  As we are cleaning out, we often have falls of ore.’  Dr C La Neve Foster said that he had examined the spot and was quite satisfied that no one was to blame.    (West Somerset Free Press, 18 July 1874)

19 Sep 1874 - Bray - Fall

In the report of the inquest held in September 1874 Thomas Perkins is reported to have said:  ‘I am a miner and work at Kennesome Hill mine.  Last Tuesday we were sinking a shaft and at noon stopped to have lunch.  There were Bray, George Winter and Silas Eustace there.  Just as we finished lunch, while we were sitting on a board inside the wall of the shaft, Bray got up by the ladder at the side of the shaft, and I saw him fall down the shaft from some planks inside the top part of the ladder.  We found him at the very bottom, 100 feet (30 metres) down.  His head was smashed in and his brains scattered about’. C le Neve Foster, the Mines Inspector, said everything was in order, and a verdict of accidental death was recorded.  (West Somerset Free Press, 19 Sep 1874)

7 Jun 1878 -  W J Richards - Tram accident

 ‘W J Richards, who was killed at an iron mine on the Brendon Hills, met with his death by wilfully infringing the rules of the mine.  Although he would have had to climb only (sic) 82 fathoms (492 feet or 150 metres) he jumped into the ‘tram’ underground in spite of warnings of several of the men and was killed by its tipping over, as he was endeavouring to get out before it had stopped.  The rule forbidding men to ride was posted up in the changing house and on examining the fine book, I saw that several men had been made to pay a penalty for breaking it.  Indeed two men had been fined only a fortnight before the accident.’  (In: “Reports of the Inspectors of Mines to Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the year 1878” Carnarvon mine, 7 June 1878.

12 Aug 1882 - Bowden - Adit collapse

‘I work in Carnarvon mine with Bowden.  Last Monday, at 7.30 am we were boring shot holes.  After blasting at 11.30 am we went back and had dinner.  On our return we saw a piece of timber which the shot had blown out.  Then we began throwing ‘stuff’ down to the next level.  When we had thrown nearly all of it down, part of the roof collapsed on to Bowden.  After one and a half hours we got him out, but he was dead.  The rock fell from the spot where the timber had been:  if the timber had been there, the roof would not have fallen, but we had examined it with a (candle) light and thought it was safe’.  Verdict:  Accidental death.  (West Somerset Free Press, 12 Aug 1882)