A few months back, I looked at the early history of the colliery at Brynmally, formerly one of Brymbo’s main sources of employment, from its probable founding in the 18th century by Thomas Brock and Charles Roe to its development under the Kyrke family, who lived at Brynmally Hall. The financial troubles of George Kyrke led to the sale of the property in 1849 to Thomas Clayton, a young entrepreneur from Lancashire with existing experience and marital connections in the coal industry.

Clayton is still remembered in the name of Clayton Road in the Pentre (an honour denied to his business rival Henry Robertson) and was also, I assume, the inspiration behind the name of the Clayton Arms pub – an indication of his prominence thereabouts. Like most major employers in those days, Clayton was dominant in the area’s society as a patron and source of political ‘guidance’, and as the leader of the district’s Tories naturally stood in opposition to the Liberal and nonconformist tendencies emanating from Henry Robertson and the Darby brothers at the Brymbo Company. Within the next few years after 1849 Clayton expanded his holdings, purchasing additional pits at Ffos-y-go nearby, taking a lease at Gwersyllt, and on land on which the New Broughton colliery was sunk, effectively taking the place in the area’s coal business once occupied by the sons of Richard Kirk. It was a position he would consolidate over the next forty years, but his time at Brynmally was particularly marked by two serious accidents, one of which took place only a few years into his ownership.

The original Brynmally Colliery was worked out in 1862 (at least according to Henry Robertson, who mentioned it in evidence he gave before the Select Committee on the Birkenhead Chester, & North Wales Railway Bill). If this assertion is true, this presumably refers only to specific pits: Clayton, before the same committee, said that the same colliery had been “under water” since the previous year and he was therefore uncertain what contribution it had made to his output, but did not state that it was worked out. This comment by Clayton introduces another characteristic of the colliery at Brynmally: like most of those in the immediate area, these were not dry pits. By way of comparison you will recall the comment of one of the last workers at the Brymbo Company’s Blast Pit, who said that being at pit bottom was like “working in a continuous rainstorm or worse” thanks to water in the Drowsell seam. Although at this at least kept down the dust it was a serious hazard in itself, as events in 1856 were to prove.

By Clayton’s time, the area around Brynmally was already honeycombed with underground workings; the divisions between them being largely predicated not just on geology but on land ownership, and the ability of the coal proprietors to secure a mineral lease from the freeholder. In the case of Brynmally, the workings were bounded by the take of the Westminster Colliery to the south-east, which largely worked the same seams, and on the north-west by older workings associated with the works at Ffrwd, while to the south-west was the Broughton Hall estate, also heavily worked for coal from the 17th century onwards. Most of these workings were very poorly recorded, if they were recorded at all. And so it happened that during 1856 Clayton’s colliers working from the Pendwll pits found themselves drawing close to a fault, known as “D” fault, towards the north-western area of Brynmally’s take.

The fault was known about by the mine’s management, although more by repute than by actual experience. It was marked on plans drawn up in the 1830s by a mine agent called John Peters, and it was known that beyond it to the north lay workings, abandoned in the 1790s or earlier, under the estate in Brymbo known as the Yord; land once owned by the Jones family of Hafod in Hope. What was not realised was that the miners of sixty years before had passed through the fault and begun to win coal south of it, with the result that by September 1856 Clayton’s men in the No. 3 pit had begun to drive beneath a section of old workings, now filled with the water that abounded in the Two Yard seam.

On 27 September, a collier called Ishmael Griffiths called over the charter master Seth Roberts and mentioned that while at work squaring the top of the “waggon road” he had seen a “strange quantity” of water come out of the bind. The workings were always wet, the water falling like rain from above the coal, but this seemed unusual. Roberts went to have a look and later approached his superior, the bailiff Mr. Holcroft, with whom he subsequently claimed to have had an argument about whether to stop the work altogether (Griffiths having the initiative and stopped himself) and prepare to carry out boring as a precaution. Holcroft asked what could possibly be there, as they were still some distance from the D fault, and the matter seemed to have been dropped when Griffiths returned to work on Monday, at a point a few yards from where the water had emerged.

At around 1.30 pm on the 30th, Roberts was talking to another charter master, Thomas Fisher, when there came shouts that Ishmael Griffiths had “broken into water“. Within seconds, Roberts found himself running for his life: Griffiths had indeed unleashed a huge inundation of water that rapidly overcame the workings. Most of the miners were, nevertheless, somehow able to escape. The Wrexham Advertiser, reporting a few days later on what appeared to be an outstanding bit of bravery amidst what it called the continuing “excitement” generated by the accident, initially claimed that a boy called Edwards had a hand in saving many of his colleagues, before printing the statement that Edwards’ story was more likely a wild exaggeration. It quickly became apparent that some 13 men were still missing, as the water began to fill the shaft; it also started to become apparent from where the water had come, as a stream near Ffrwd ran dry. A recovery operation was put in place as up to 3000 people gathered at the mine – miners, relatives, and onlookers – and although hopes remained for several weeks that at least some of the men had survived, by the 1st November the Advertiser was able to report, in the usual rather sensationalist manner of the time, that all had been found dead: the first to be recovered was the unfortunate Griffiths, who was buried at Buckley.

The inquest was held at The Grapes in Moss, though after complaints from several people that the room was either too cold or too hot, matters were adjourned to the Turf. Clayton represented himself, getting thoroughly involved in proceedings to the degree that he was reproached by the Coroner at one point for asking ‘leading’ questions of a witness. A juror commented that there had been grumblings in the area about the proprietor’s influence on the inquiry and one gets the sense from the Advertiser, which complained about receiving letters it was unable to print, that there was a lot of gossip that went unrecorded.

The reporting of the inquest makes interesting reading, as much for the small details revealed – the degree of reference to the Welsh language, for instance, or the use of distinctive regional mining terms – as for its narrative. In typical fashion of the time the Advertiser (through the person of the collier John Dodd of Gwersyllt, called as a witness) even managed to work some light relief into a situation that would nowadays be handled rather differently:

Coroner: What made you leave off working in the main coal?
Dodd: Because I got a better job.
Coroner: It was not then because you were afraid of working there?
Dodd: No, I was not afraid – not a bit, but it was a better job.
Coroner Were you better paid?
Dodd: No – none.
Coroner: Perhaps you did not like hard work?
Dodd I don’t know any one who does. (Shouts of laughter.)
Coroner: Did you leave off working in the main coal because you thought there was danger there?
Dodd: I had no fear of danger. I never knew of I it until after the accident, and then I did, and so did everybody else, then. (Laughter.)
Coroner: Have you not stated that you left the main coal because you considered it unsafe, by reason of the water?
Dodd: No I did not, I never heard of it [the danger].
Coroner: What made you leave, then?
Dodd: I suppose I must have been afraid of hard work, as you say? (Great laughter.)
Coroner: What are you brought here to prove?
Dodd: I am sure I don’t know.
Coroner Are you here on behalf of the crown or for Mr. Clayton? who brought you here?
Dodd: The policeman. (Continued laughter.)

Dodd ended up receiving a stern telling-off from the coroner, but despite such distractions the discussion at the inquest quickly came to focus on the management’s knowledge of the fault and of the workings beyond it. It was clear that these workings were known to be full of water, as several witnesses at the November 1856 inquest commented, including the experienced mine agent Samuel Jones of the Brymbo Company, the man who sank the Blast Pit. He knew of a “large quantity” of water in the workings under the Yord; and as the Wrexham Advertiser reported, also claimed to know “of the D fault by hearsay, but not of my own knowledge. Amongst others Joseph Fisher, who is now dead, told me of it some 8 years ago. He stated to me that it was running through a wood (on the surface) and that it had a throw of 14 yards down from the north”. The downthrow, he thought, should have proved a sufficient barrier to keep back any water if the proper precautions were taken, and there was much comment on the necessity for boring to be carried out in advance of the headings in order to gauge the risk of an inundation. Boring was supposed to be carried out under Rule 38 of the mining regulations if there was any suspicion of water in the vicinity, but neither Seth Roberts, nor Holcroft, nor Clayton had seemed to think it necessary. While Roberts said that he had argued for boring at the time, he also seemed vague on the subject of Rule 38, and even made the comment that the rules were of little use because they were not printed in his usual language, Welsh.

Clayton himself said that he was aware that the Yord workings were full of water, but at the time he took Brynmally on had been satisfied by certain “presentations” given by the previous manager Richard V. Kyrke that suggested the fault had not been breached. He had been far more concerned about the possibility of water coming from the South, from old workings of the Westminster colliery, and indeed had spoken to Samuel Jones (via W. H. Darby) about this only a few weeks before the inundation. R. V. Kyrke, for his part, spoke as a witness and said that he knew about the fault both from his time managing Brynmally before Clayton and from mining north of the fault at the Ffrwd, and had been “satisfied with the plans made by John Peters, who had marked it down as being entire“.

It seems that in general, blame was – perhaps conveniently – steered towards inaccurate drawings produced by a man who had died some years before and who in any case, as was pointed out, could probably never have seen the fault himself. Peters’ son did not know how his father had got his information and suspected that he had talked to old men who had worked in the Yord: in any case it seemed that there was very little to go on. “In those days“, as the Advertiser rather acidly observed, “underground plans were not much in vogue“. Nevertheless there was some argument that greater care should have been taken by Clayton and his management, and when the inquest shortly returned its verdict of accidental death, with the managers exonerated of all blame, the Advertiser was moved to print a comment that now appears quite surprising, given the general attitudes of the time:

“That Mr. Clayton is morally blameless, no one who reads the whole of the evidence can for a moment disbelieve, but that he is strictly, legally so, will be with many as is with ourselves a matter of doubt. Mr. Clayton professes himself to be the principal and consequently the responsible manager of the Brynmally Colliery […] It is true that plans were produced, on which was marked a D. fault said to be 14 yards throw, and intimating that it was whole, the plans being the production of an old man named John Peters, a mining agent connected with the district. But, the question is, was Peters ever in a position to know the exact width and course of a fault which he never could have seen, as the workings had ceased before he was a youth? If Mr. Clayton had made enquiries on the subject he must have discovered that as it regards the supposed fault, Peters must have trusted a good deal, or entirely, to analogical deductions and hearsay. Was this a plan of a character to justify Mr. Clayton in not carrying out the government regulations for the proper working of the mine, and also to make him disregard the general symptoms of water which were shown in all parts of the north workings? It will be said, and was said in evidence at the inquest, that the government regulations were carried out, by Mr. Clayton and others. We will put the public in a position to judge this matter for themselves. The waggon road was driven so close to the fault, that it was a question whether if borings had been made some 6 or 8 yards in advance it would or would not have tapped the lodgement of water in the old workings. […] We believe, with Mr. Clayton, that borings would not have been effectual in this case, or that the men’s lives would thereby have been saved, as the water, it seems, was above and not horizontally in advance of the level; still, this by chance good-forture cannot exonerate Mr. Clayton, from all blame, much less does it prove that the rules were strictly enforced. It would appear from Mr. Clayton’s evidence, that the Brynmally pits are surrounded on all sides by old workings of other companies, and that, in some instances, he does not know the exact position of them and yet no borings at all have yet been resorted to. If this course be persisted in, other accidents are not at all impossible, despite any imaginary fault which may be supposed to exist as sufficient barriers. We have stated above that we acquit Mr. Clayton of all moral blame, but we have shewn, we think, that to a certain extent he was legally guilty of not taking precautions to bore when prudence, to say nothing of rules, should have induced him to do so.”