1.45pm. 12th December 1939


At 1.45pm on the 12th of December, 1939, fate struck a cruel blow, and the season of goodwill became the season of horror and tragedy for the people of Stainforth and the surrounding villages.

It was "bull week", which means that it was the last week's work that miners would draw pay for before the Christmas holiday. A full week, with as much overtime as possible, would mean a full wage packet on the Friday before Christmas. As on any other bull week, the miners at Hatfield Main were trying extra hard to get in as many hours as they could to ease the expense of the coming festive season.

On that fateful day an overwind in No. 2 Shaft. caused almost 70 men and boys to be admitted to hospital with serious injuries. Daniel Horrigan of Arundel Street, Stainforth, became the only fatality when he died at Doncaster Royal Infirmary two days later. The fact that Daniel was the only fatality was nothing short of miraculous, but many men and boys suffered such horrific injuries that they had to have their limbs amputated to save their lives.

Hatfield Colliery C.1939
For those who are not au fait with the workings of the shafts at a coal mine, or the way in which the shafts provide ventilation to the underground workings, I’ll give a brief explanation. Hatfield’s shafts are about a half mile in depth. They are designated No1, the shaft which draws air into the mine and uses an open girder structure; and No.2, which is a closed-in structure of steel and concrete, and which is connected to the fan house, by which means the stale air and gasses are extracted from the mine. See shafts_ventilation.gif

Underground, the flow of air is controlled by sets of doors in smaller tunnels which form links to the main tunnels. These doors prevent the air flow from short-circuiting. The two shafts are only yards apart and are connected underground via such smaller tunnels at various levels of the mine's workings. These connecting tunnels also provide a means of egress should either shaft become inoperable.

For men and materials to gain access to the workings below ground they must be wound up and down the concrete lined shaft in two double decked platforms, or "cages". The cages are suspended from a 5cm thick steel wound rope. The rope is looped around a huge drum in the "Winding House", before passing over the wheels, which stand atop the headgear. When one of the cages is at the top of the shaft, the other is at the bottom. As the rope is wound around the drum, the cage at the bottom of the shafts ascends, while the cage at the top of the shafts descends. This of course calls for a series of safety devices to be implemented, and for a strict code of signals between the pit bottom "onsetter", the "banksman" at the top of the shaft, and the winding house "engine driver". The engine which drives the drum these days is electrically driven, but in 1939 the drum was powered by a pair of large steam engines.

No.2 Headgear today
At 1.45pm on 12th December 1939, the cage at the bottom of the shaft was carrying twelve men ready to ascend the shaft after finishing their day shift. A half mile above, fifty nine men climbed aboard the cage at the top of the shaft, ready to descend into the mine for the afternoon shift. At first everything appeared normal, but after the cages passed each other at the halfway point in the shaft, the speed at which they were traveling was not reduced, as would normally be the case. The downward traveling cage crashed into the pit bottom, while the upward traveling cage careered into the headgear, where it became a mess of tangled steel and bodies. The cage at the bottom of the shaft was only slightly distorted, despite the force of the impact; but the cage which had crashed into the headgear at the top of the shaft was badly twisted and torn, and was left hanging by just two of the original six chains which secured it to the steel rope. Fortunately the safety mechanism had activated, which prevented the cage from breaking loose and falling uncontrollably back down the shaft.
Immediately after the tragic accident, men at both ends of the shaft began organising the rescue of their injured comrades. Above ground, the mournful howl of the steam whistle announced that all was not well at Hatfield. Within minutes, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children of those involved began to gather in the pit yard, desperate for news of their loved ones.

Dr. Robert Anderson, Dr. Lawson and Dr. Waters made their way to the colliery as soon as they heard the news and helped in the rescue operation. Dr’s Lawson and Waters went underground via the still operational No.1 shaft, while Dr. Anderson set up a triage station in the pit top ambulance room. Assisting him were his first aid team, which included Harry Roebuck, Noah Sykes, Walter Stockton and Jim Firth. These men worked tirelessly and managed to cover their obvious shock at seeing their mates, and in some cases relatives, being brought in with such awful injuries.

The injured were taken to Doncaster Royal Infirmary, where ten men had limbs amputated, and a great many more were treated for fractures and dislocations. At the tender age of 15, Billy Pilkington was the youngest of those to lose a limb, suffering the loss of his right leg due to multiple fractures and lacerations.

The jury at the inquest into Daniel Horrigan's death, held in March 1940, returned a verdict of "Accidental death", but added that they were of the opinion that the safety devices did not cover a sufficient margin of error.


Many of the facts and figures for this page were taken from Robert Renton’s book "Dads Do Cry"

"Dads Do Cry"
ISBN 0 9527420 0 4
Published by: Roebuck, Thorne


Stainforth 2001 Homepage