The Nanaimo Museum’s coal mine exhibit is an award winning trip back in time to the days of dangerous underground toil. (Nanaimo Museum photo)

T.W. Paterson column: Even a ‘safe’ mine could kill

Alarmed by the burns that covered one-third of Griffiths’ body, Dr. Walkem ordered him to hospital

Alarmed by the burns that covered one-third of Griffiths’ body, Dr. Walkem ordered him to hospital where he was “administered stimulants”.

We tend to think of them individually, rather than as each being one of three sharing the same name: (north) Wellington, East Wellington and South Wellington. There never was a west Wellington.

All have a common denominator: coal. Wellington’s No. 5 was the big one, the mine that made Wellington bituminous coal an international favourite and Robert Dunsmuir and family filthy rich. The South Wellington collieries came later as the coal companies, Dunsmuir’s included, worked their way down the so-called Black Track.

In between, geographically and chronologically, is East Wellington, although it always has been lesser-known. Among its coal mines was the East Wellington Colliery, with its Nos. 1 and 2 pits. It was the latter that made headlines on July 25, 1891 — “Explosion at East Wellington! Three men severely burned. Narrow escapes of the 40 men in the mine.”

It could have been much worse. Thankfully, it was nowhere near as bad as the first rumours to hit town. These were to the effect that, rather than three men being burned, only three men of more than 40 below ground had made it to safety when a “prospect” in No. 1 Level of No. 2 Shaft, West Level, was shattered by an explosion of gas early that morning.

Panicked families and friends had rushed from town, many of them before they could be headed off by telephoned reports from the mine that set things right: that bratticeman William Griffiths and miner James Bradley had been seriously burned, miner Archibald McBroome “not so bad”.

Immediately upon the rush of bad air that had followed the blast, every man had retreated to the bottom of the hoist and was soon safely on the surface. As near as could be determined, the blast had occurred in an old airway that hadn’t been used as such for some time and was barred off from the main level. Griffiths, it was learned, had entered this airway “for the purposes of nature” while wearing his open-flame lamp, igniting a fireball that, as crudely put by a Free Press reporter, “fairly roasted [him] from the middle up”.

Bradley, who’d been working nearby, sustained severe burns to his upper chest and face, McBroome being the lucky one with just superficial burns to his hands and neck.

This wasn’t the first time this abandoned and blocked airway had posed a threat to the miners; two of them, Stevens and McNiffe, had previously been burned there in a small ignition. It had been tested for gas the week before but none was found. It was thought that a pocket of gas had collected in the roof and had been ignited by William Griffiths’ naked light.

By press time, Mines Inspector Archibald Dick was still on the scene with Mines Supt. W.S. Chandler and the three victims were in hospital and said to be “much easier” although Griffiths and Bradley were now listed in critical condition. To no one’s great surprise, Griffiths succumbed at 2 o’clock the next morning. Fifty years old and a native of Staffordshire, England, he left an ailing wife at Northfield. Ironically, he was the survivor of a previous mine blast which had cost him an eye and left him partially disfigured.

That same Sunday (they worked fast in those days) the funeral was held in the Knights of Pythias Hall and a coroner’s jury was sworn in for an inquest. When it was decided that it might be wise to await testimony from Bradley and McBroome, they contented themselves with a drive out to the No. 2 Mine.

As it happened, James Bradley never got to testify as he, too, died in hospital two days later. The inquest was expanded to investigate both deaths and, because of public interest, was moved from the court house to the East Wellington school. Colliery surgeon W.W. Walkem testified that he’d met Griffiths at the pithead where underground manager Dun was helping him keep on his feet; his upper body and head were badly scorched and it also appeared that some falling object had struck him with great force on his back. Griffiths was taken to his house, apparently nearby, where Dr. Walkem seems to have examined him again and, this time, alarmed by the burns that covered one-third of his body, ordered him to the hospital where he was “administered stimulants”.

Griffiths began to vomit continuously and, although in great pain, remained conscious, indicating that he was given no anaesthetic.

Walkem’s examination(s) must have been cursory as L.T. Davis, hospital surgeon, then testified that he’d called on Griffiths at his East Wellington residence and discovered that he’d been burned over two-thirds of his body — “the head, neck, face, scalp, chest and whole of his back”.

Incredibly — so it seems today — he left Griffiths there after giving instructions to those attending to him and writing out a prescription! It was Wallkem who ordered that he be taken to hospital where Davis attended to him three times before he died “from shock. He received every attention. In fact, the nurses were most assiduous in their attentions.”

It’s interesting to note that the provincial department of mines’ annual report, written by the same Inspector Dick who’d been on the scene in July, states that there was very little gas in the mine, “there not being much chance for it to collect, the old works being well filled in, nearly every particular and every precaution [being] taken to prevent accidents of any kind”.

The old works may have been “well filled in” and all precautions taken, but it was the gas in one of those discontinued airways that poor Griffiths had ignited with his open-flame head lamp while attempting to relieve himself.

William Griffiths and James Bradley are just two of the 1,000-odd coal miners who are known to have died on the job or from work related injuries and illnesses during the black diamond’s 90-year-long heyday on Vancouver Island.

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