Recovery of Bodies




After all the rescuers had been brought back to the surface it was decided that it was too dangerous to make any further attempts to rescue the trapped men. In any case it was not possible that they could still be alive. It was decided by the mining engineers to leave the decision about sealing the pit until the next day. On 3rd May Mr Thomas Evans, Chief Inspector of Mines for the Midlands area and Mr Gillett the consulting engineer from Derby had both arrived. After consulting with his deputy, Mr Stokes, the manager John Parker, and the underviewer Joseph Clay, who were both very badly injured, Mr Evans decided that the pit should be sealed, leaving the bodies of the eight men and a boy down there. Sealing the pit was the best way of subduing the fire now raging underground. The cages were drawn up and both shafts were sealed with scaffolding and clay. A covering of mortar 18 inches thick was placed above the planks. Mr Phillips of Ansley Colliery, (great grandfather of Mark Phillips, first husband of Princess Ann), Mr Hardwick of Pooley Hall Colliery, Thomas Walker and Thomas Fretwell carried out the work of sealing the pit. It was a difficult job and they were almost overcome by carbonic acid gas. But when the job was finished, Mr Evans and Mr Stokes were satisfied that the pit was now airtight.

From time to time the temperature in the shafts and the gases escaping through the pipes left for trial purposes in the stoppings, were carefully monitored and noted but it was the end of November before the temperature had reduced sufficiently to allow the pit to be re-opened. Reuben Smallman who had now been appointed consulting engineer to Baddesley pit, and George Morgan, the new manager took charge. On Wednesday 22 November the order was given to remove the covering. Large amounts of carbonic acid gas or choke damp escaped but this diminished by evening and at 7.00pm they started the ventilating fan thus allowing some air into the mine. This was continued until eventually on Thursday it was possible for an examination to be made. 

 The South workings were in fairly good order and work was begun immediately on repairs so that the pit could start producing coal again as soon as possible. The first task to be carried out was the removal of the carcases of the 11 dead horses. A party of three volunteers undertook the gruesome task of dismembering the bodies and with the help of three others they were loaded into tubs and taken up to the surface where they we then buried.  Another party of men cleaned and disinfected the stables.

However it was not possible to attempt to recover any of the bodies of the nine trapped miners from the Deep Workings until April 1883. The first bodies to be found were those of William Blower and John Ross. They were lying side by side on their faces in a man hole. The bodies were fairly decomposed although there was no sign of burning. Philip Horton, who was assisting, then came across another body buried under a fall of coal and immediately recognised it as his brother Joseph. He was also face down. It seemed that these men had been trying to escape by crawling back up the incline when they were overcome by smoke and fumes. Dr Hallsworth accompanied the rescuers and later gave evidence at the inquest. He said that in his opinion the cause of death of all three was due to inhaling noxious gases in the mine and the time of death was probably around midnight on the 1st May.

The next body to be recovered was that of William Smith. This took place on the 30th November 1883. On this occasion it was not possible to locate any more bodies.

It was July 8 1884 before any more bodies were recovered. A man named William Suffolk, who was a deputy, discovered the body of William Day floating in some water. His body was fairly decomposed and his clothes were decayed. At the inquest his wife Ann identified his body. He was aged 71 at the time of his death. He was described as about 5foot 3 or 4 inches tall with black hair with some grey in it. Dr Hallsworth was called in to examine the body and he again gave evidence at the inquest. The verdict was that he died from suffocation brought on by the inhalation of noxious gases.

 Two more bodies were recovered on August 11 1884. One of the bodies was identified as George Bates but the second body was thought to be John Ross but one of the first bodies recovered in April 1883 had already been identified as John Ross. 
Bates death cert

It was now thought that the first body was probably William Knight. Of course it must have been very difficult in those days to make a positive identification, as they did not have the technology we have today. The first bodies had been underground nearly a year and the last three over two years and so they were badly decomposed and it was not therefore possible to identify them from their features as they would not have been recognisable. Identification was made mainly by the clothing they wore and the items found on the bodies. At the inquest one of the witnesses was Charles Cooke who was a shoemaker. He said that he had seen the body and was not able to recognise it but he had also examined the boots worn by the deceased. These he recognised as belonging to John Ross. He had repaired John Ross’s boots on the Saturday before the explosion and recognised his work.

An application was made to exhume the first body buried as John Ross but this was turned down by the Home Secretary on the grounds that no useful purpose would be served. The body would by now be so badly decomposed that it would be impossible to identify and the cause of the death in both cases was the same. He said that the records would need to be changed. I checked the index of deaths registered at Atherstone Register office and found that there was a record of the death of John Ross only. There is no entry for William Knight, which would suggest that his death was never registered. But the records could only be changed if there was a positive identification and this was not made in the case of William Knight. There are however two entries in the Polesworth Parish Registers. The first entry in the Burial Register for John Ross shows that he was buried at Dordon on 17 April 1883. The notes in the margin say that he was killed in the Baxterley Pit explosion 2nd May 1882, body recovered 11 April 1883. Then there are other notes above the name obviously added at a later date which say “Afterwards identified as William Knight” and underneath “Identity uncertain supposed William Knight of Baxterley” This is cross referenced with the second entry for John Ross. This shows that he was buried at Dordon on 27 August 1884. Again underneath the name is the notation “Identity uncertain” and cross-referenced with the first entry.

All this must have been very distressing for both widows concerned. Elizabeth, the widow of William Knight, would have liked to have the body exhumed so that it could have been reburied in their home village of Baxterley but this was not possible. Emma, widow of John Ross now had to arrange a second funeral. As she was a widow and her only income was money from the Relief Fund, she applied to the Relief fund for a grant to cover funeral expenses but this was also turned down.

At this time seven of the nine bodies had been recovered. I have found no evidence that the remaining two bodies were ever recovered. They were Henry Radford Snr and the 13 year old boy, Joseph Scattergood. The entrance to the Deep Workings was bricked up and never worked again.

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