In 1911 a Coal Mines Act was passed that made it compulsory for mine owners to provide teams of trained rescue men, equipped with rescue apparatus.
Although a Royal Commission of 1886 had recommended the creation of rescue stations, they did not become compulsory until 1911. Before this there were no formal rescue teams at the pits.
Once a successful type of breathing equipment had been developed, following the Act, the number of rescue stations and teams increased rapidly. If a mine employed more than 100 men it could not be more than ten miles from a rescue station. This distance was increased as vehicles and communications improved.
When mines were taken into public ownership, at Nationalisation in 1947, there were great variations in rescue provision. Emergency procedures were standardised and the Mines Rescue Service grew into an effective branch of the mining industry.
In 1957 there were two rescue systems working in parallel. One system involved a rescue station with permanent trained rescue workers on site, and the other depended solely on trained voluntary rescue workers at the collieries.
In today’s Mines Rescue Service, all rescue men undertake a fourteen day induction course which includes studying mining gases and different types of apparatus. Rescue men also have to know how to maintain and fix their equipment. The rescue stations are now using Draeger BG4 breathing apparatus sets which are self contained, ready for immediate use and last for a minimum of two hours. These sets are easy to service and have accurate digital gauges.
The first rescue station in the country opened in 1902 at Tankersley in South Yorkshire.
Canaries were used to detect carbon monoxide underground until the 1990s.
CUMBERLAND COAL OWNERS ASSOCIATION RESCUE CAR, BASED AT COALMINES RESCUE STATION AT BRIGHAM, COCKERMOUTH.
THE RESCUE STATION WAS BUILT IN 1914.
THE MINES RESCUE SERVICE
Prior to 1914 there was little organisation in the way of a coalfield-wide rescue service. Individual pits would rely on their own experienced men and management to deal with rescue and recovery work. These men would volunteer, often at considerable risk to themselves, to enter workings affected by fires, flooding or extensive roof falls in order to save their fellow miners or the pit on which their livelihood depended.
Although a practical and useful breathing apparatus had been produced by Henry A. Fleuss in 1878 and used successfully at Seaham Colliery fire in 1880-1 and at Killingworth Colliery disaster in 1882 little further interest was shown in the equipment over the next 20 years.
The Royal Commission on Mines in 1907, probably influenced by the Courrières disaster of the preceding year in which 1100 lives were lost, advised on the setting up of central rescue stations to provide training and practice in the use of breathing apparatus.
During rescue attempts at the Whitehaven Wellington disaster in 1910, where an explosion was followed by a raging fire, men skilled in the use of breathing apparatus were brought in from Newcastle and Yorkshire.
Sections 85 and 86 of the 1911 Coal Mines Act allowed for General Regulations to be made for the “supply and maintenance of appliances for use in rescue work” and for “the formation and training of rescue brigades”. Regulations dated 10th July 1913 required the owners of collieries employing more than 100 men underground to make such provisions for rescue work in irrespirable atmospheres.
In 1914 the Cumberland Coal Owners Association established a Central Rescue Station at Brigham, near Cockermouth. At that time collieries were working throughout the coalfield from Whitehaven and Cleator Moor in the south to Brayton and Allhallows in the north. Brigham was therefore well placed to reach any part of the coalfield in a reasonably short time. In 1951, with the Mines Rescue Service now being run by the National Coal Board, the Brigham Station was closed and replaced by a new establishment at Winscales near Workington, now more central due to the closure of the mines in the Aspatria area in the previous decade. (The Brigham station became the headquarters of Twinames, the builders, and later was the local Police Headquarters).
When the Winscales Station was established there were 13 coal mines at work (including Micklam fireclay drift). After the closure of Solway Colliery, Workington, in 1973 there was only one pit -Haig- left in the coal field. Haig closed in 1986 and with it the Winscales Rescue Station (which is now the Hunday Manor Hotel).
It has been estimated that over 2000 men received training in rescue work at the two stations during their combined 74 years of operation. In that time at least 54 mines were known to have been associated with the Mines Rescue Service.