Clay Cross Inundation of 1861: A Terrible Tragedy

On 11 June 1861 no one was thinking about a possible accident or a Clay Cross inundation. In fact, coal mining activities at the colliery were proceeding as normal. About three in the afternoon a miner named Natty Dawes noticed water oozing from a seam in his stall. Rather than informing Alfred Smith, the deputy of the district, Dawes went against company policy and informed Alfred’s son, Timothy Smith. At the time, Timothy was engaged at the incline brake and could not leave his post and therefore did not tell his father until five o’clock that evening.

Clay Cross Inundation: Britishcoalmines-Wiki

British Coalfields in the 19th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just as Timothy finished informing his father about the oozing, a noise was heard. Alfred initially thought it was regular trams approaching, but then both father and son realized it was the roar of water coming from the direction of Dawe’s stall. Alfred immediately ordered his son to tell everyone to get out of the pit. He also told his son to warn all the deputies that they needed to inform their men and that everyone needed to get out immediately.

Timothy rushed off and told the first deputy he saw. He then hastened to tell other miners. In the meantime, Alfred got his own men out just as a torrent of black shale water inundated the pit. A large number of men in the mine also made it to safety and as the water continued to rise, the last man saved swam to the chain, pulled people to safety, and then was pulled to safety by those he had saved.

Still, not everyone was lucky. An oversight on the part of one deputy caused him to forget to warn a boy and three men. In addition, some deputies on the south side of the mine did not act promptly to inform their men of the trouble about to occur. There were also some miners who did not want to wade through the murky water. Others could not get a door open and they refused to escape another way, thereby being caught when the Clay Cross inundation happened.

Despite valiant efforts to save everyone, it was unclear how many men, boys, and horses remained in the mine when the Clay Cross inundation struck.  The manager, Mr. Binns, appeared to have used every precaution to ensure a sufficient barrier of coal existed between the new and old shafts, as water was known to collect in the old workings. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Binns, the plans he was working from were inaccurate. They did not include important changes. For instance, what Binns thought was a solid pillar of coal 40 yards thick was actually the spot where the water burst through.

The deepest part of the Black Shale pit was 160 yards deep, and, of course, that was the first part blocked by the rising water. Unfortunately, the pumping power needed to remove the water was insufficient. Despite approximately 500,000 gallons of water being drawn out of the pit daily, the amount of water reduced in the shaft amounted to no more than a few inches. Of the water problem it was reported:

“Various experiments have been resorted to in order to increase the pumping, but owing to the immense bulk of water to contend with but little progress had been made. In the old shaft of No. 1 pit a stage was erected to stop the flow of water and to pump out of that shaft, but from the stage being a considerable distance from the bottom of the pumps, the weight of water broke the stage, and it was abandoned. An attempt has also been made to lift water from the upcast as well as the downcast shaft, but this step has been found impracticable, owing to the breaking of the conductors. A very large tub is being worked in the downcast, and it is estimated there is at least 5,000 gallons of water being lifted per hour. A drift is also being driven from the No. 4 or New Foundation Mine, to the pit where the bodies are, but as about 150 yards had to be driven, it will require some days to finish it. There are from 8 to 9 yards of water in the shaft, with all the pumping efforts it can only be reduced a few inches per day.”[1]

People held out hope that those in mine and involved in the Clay Cross inundation would not perish. So, for the first week various rumors circulated that some of the miners were alive. There as also speculation how the miners were surviving. For instance, the Derby Mercury reported:

“The most vague notions have been entertained with regard to the recovery of the men alive, many persons acquainted with the pit contending that, although it was inundated, there was a sufficient current of air to sustain life, and the upper levels would be entirely free form water, and that the poor fellow would betake themselves to the caracases of the drowned animals for food.”[2]

Several attempts were undertaken to reach the trapped miners, but these proved unsuccessful. One “extraordinary plan” involved creating a tunnel from the Foundation pit, which was about a quarter of a mile from the Black Shale pit. Many people believed that the miners had taken refuge on a ledge and so the idea was to tunnel to or near the ledge but still remain above the water. However, it was slowly going as they were proceeding “at the rate of nine yards in twenty-four hours, and originally had 150 yards to get through.”[3]

Miner of the 1800s. Author’s collection.

Eleven days after the Clay Cross inundation, the idea that anyone was alive faded. In the end, it took twenty-two days to retrieve the bodies of twenty men, three boys, and sixty-five horses. As to where the bodies were found a commissioner’s report stated:

“Four bodies were found at the foot of No. 1 incline, north side; 13 at the foot of Dun’s incline, south side; 5 near the foot of the horse road, south side; and 1 in the back level, far end, south side.”[4]

The Clay Cross Inundation was a hard lesson for everyone involved. After the bodies were found an inquest was held to identify them and then allow them to be interred by their families. However, before that was done the bodies were viewed by the jury with the Derby Mercury reporting:

“The coffins were arranged in rows ready for the inspection of the jury, and the building was surrounded by a number of persons who were anxious to gratify their curiosity by witnessing the remains of … persons whose lives had been thus awfully sacrificed. The company, however, refused to permit any person except the near relatives of the deceased to view the bodies. This was a sight never to be forgotten; but the grief of the widows and orphans has been assuaged, as far as is possible through human agency, by the constant attention and lavish kindness of the company and their officers.”[5]

The Liverpool Mercury also reported:

“The inquest was crowded with relatives and friends of the men, who had to perform the melancholy duty of identifying their relatives, which in many cases could only be done by the clothing which was found upon their bodies.”[6]

A jury was then convened to determine fault and ultimately they concluded the Clay Cross inundation was accidental. However, they stated in their verdict:

“We find that that the death of Francis Bradley another took place from the water accumulated in No. 1 workings having broken into No. 117 stall, worked by Nathaniel Dawes, at No. 2 pit, and that there was not sufficient barrier to keep back such water in consequence of the coal in the deep of the level in No. 1 pit having been worked for a distance of 42 yards beyond the southeastern boundary, shown in the working plan, but there is no evidence to prove by whom, or under what circumstances, such coals was worked beyond such boundary. … The jury are of opinion that several of the workmen, viz., Nathaniel Dawes, Thomas Britton, George Silkstone, Benjamin wright, and James Booth, were blamable for neglecting their duty under the colliery rules, and they recommended that in the absence of any ordinary deputy, a well-qualified person shall be appointed to fulfill the duties of each deputy.”[7]

The Clay Cross inundation was a great tragedy, just like the Stonington and Narragansett tragedy of June 1880, the 1897 Charity Bazaar fire of Paris, the Versailles railway accident of 1842, the Armagh rail disaster of 1889, or the Colosseum Music Hall disaster that happened in Liverpool in 1878. Fortunately, the Clay Cross Company, found in 1837 by the railway pioneer, George Stephenson, learned two important lessons: First, it was imperative to have extremely accurate up-to-date plans that involved every detail of the workings of a mine, and, secondly, there needed to be two shafts with an escape available on the rising side of the shafts some distance above the bottom. 

Clay Cross inundation

George Stephenson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the verdict, Mr. Jackson, one of the Clay Cross Company M.P.’s, expressed deep remorse for those lost in the “great calamity.” The company also decided to help the bereaved, and, in addition, Binns raised money to help support those left behind because of the Clay Cross inundation. The result of this joint effort was “a fund of 2,000l. was raised, headed with 500l. from the firm.”[8] This amount then given to the bereaved was said to be “more than sufficient for the purpose … [as] a widow without children is allowed from 8s to 9s per week, and coals; a widow with children from 12s to 14s per week, and coals.”[9]


  • [1] “The Accident at Clay Cross,” in Derby Mercury, pg. 6, 26 June 1861, p. 6.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “The Clay Cross Colliery Accident,” in Newcastle Journal, pg. 2, 21 June 1861, p. 2.
  • [4] Reports from Commissioners, 1862, p. 17.
  • [5] “The Colliery Inundation at Clay Cross,” in Derby Mercury, 17 July 1861, p. 8.
  • [6] “The Collier Accident at Clay Cross,” in Liverpool Mercury, 16 July 1861, p. 6.
  • [7] “The Clay Cross Inundation,” in Derby Mercury, 7 August 1861, p. 2.
  • [8] Reports from Commissioners, p. 58.
  • [9] Ibid.

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