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1898 Dudley Colliery

Case Study

On Monday 21 March 1898 at 9.20 am an explosion occurred at Dudley Colliery, in the Redhead area of Newcastle NSW, killing 15 mineworkers.

The mine

The mine employed 292 workers and in 1897 had produced approximately 77,000 tonnes of coal. The mine was considered dry and dusty and had a history of giving off firedamp[1]. It was ventilated by a fan which functioned when the mine was at work, stopping on weekends.

Many of the miners admitted that from time to time they experienced a presence of gas and during the eleven months prior to the explosion, gas had been reported on sixteen occasions in various parts of the mine. In the months before the explosion, numerous instances had been recorded of firedamp igniting at the naked lights of the workers. Safety lamps had previously been introduced by management when the two shafts were being connected. However, in recent years, naked lights continued to be used throughout the mine, except during deputy inspections.

The explosion

As was the usual practice, the fan remained idle over the weekend, but on the morning of the explosion, it commenced functioning later than the usual time of 6 am. It had been idle for almost 47 hours, but by 6.30 am it was functioning at the required speed and the volume of air was sufficient to clear the mine of all noxious gases.

The examining deputy Thomas Young entered the pit for inspection at 7 am and the other workers, including the other deputy and the underground manager, descended at approximately 7.30 am. The two deputies carried safety lamps, but all the other workers had naked lights. There were 15 men in the pit at 9 am.

At approximately 9.20am there was an explosion in the mine that was heard six miles away in Belmont. Timber from the pit roof had been partially blown off into the winding wheels, the shaft cage had been propelled from the bottom of the shaft 23 feet into the air, brickwork surrounding the fan was damaged and thick clouds of coal dust enveloped the surface of the mine. There was evidence that the explosion was of great force and intensity and due to the resulting fire, the recovery operation was delayed and the pit was sealed from the 24 March until 17 June 1898. All 15 lives were lost.

The Coroner’s inquest

The Coroner’s inquest focussed on two of the recovered bodies, Thomas Dorrity and John Benson. The verdict was that the men had died from carbon monoxide poisoning but there was not enough evidence to determine the cause of the explosion. It was noted that although the natural ventilation of Dudley mine was insufficient and unreliable, the artificial ventilation was quite sufficient to ventilate the mine, but a more thorough inspection of the whole mine at all times should be considered. The evidence revealed that all safety precautions were adhered to with the exception of constant ventilation and that the use of naked lights was a matter between management and inspectors.


In the Royal Commission Report (1894), the Commissioner concluded that:

  1. The explosion was caused by the ignition of firedamp at a naked light.
  2. The explosion was intensified by the agency of coal dust.
  3. The evidence did not show what was the approximate quantity of firedamp, or what the circumstances were under which it assumed an explosive character.
  4. Ventilation was not ‘constantly’ produced in accordance with the terms Section 47, Rule 1, of the Act.
  5. Inspections were not conducted in accordance with General Rule 4.
  6. There was in the mine a quantity of firedamp, which rendered the use of naked lights dangerous.
  7. Locked safety lamps should have been used at the time of the explosion.

This incident claimed the lives of 15 people: John Benson (41), George Cook (56), Thomas Dorrity (21), Arthur Durham (age unknown), Thomas Green (27), Thomas Haddon (43), Thomas Hetherington (64), George Hindmarsh (48), William Humphreys (70), Thomas Jones (20), James McDougall (16), Archibald Mowbray (20), Cyrus Price (30), William Rudge (19), Thomas Young (58).

Fire or explosion is a principal hazard and methane levels must be controlled and monitored

Mine and petroleum site operators must prepare a principal hazard management plan which provides for the management of all aspects of risk control in relation to the principal hazards of fire or explosion (refer clause 24, Work Health and Safety (Mines and Petroleum Sites) Regulation 2014-the Regulation). Clause 72 of the Regulation sets out requirements for controlling and monitoring methane levels at underground coal mines.

[1] Firedamp is a gas that occurs naturally in coal seams. The gas is nearly always methane (CH4) and is highly inflammable and explosive when present in the air in a proportion of 5 to 14 percent