THE BIRCHS - A MINING FAMILY
Isaac Birch was born in 1786 in Cubley Derbyshire a village on the Roman road into Rocester from Derby. He moved to Griffydam as a young man and married Hannah Burgess of Worthington on the 3rd February 1806.
Their youngest son John worked at Peggs Green Colliery as a shot-firer. This required him to go to the pit at 2am with his mate Richard Wardle. They then commenced drilling the holes for the charges.
The Miners came on shift at 6am to hew and fill the tubs with coal until they had their break (Snap). It was a tradition with collier’s to eat the best first in case they were injured or even died before they completed their snap. They were black with coal dust and sweat and would eat in minimal lighting as they had to pay for that, and they would remain underground until about 6 pm, six days a week. The shot-firers would finish at about 2pm after they had fired the charges. Unfortunately John Birch was going to be carried to the surface. Following is a transcript of the inquest report:
Saturday, 22 September 1838
Death from gunpowder; fatal rashness
An inquest was held on Tuesday at Thringstone, on the body of John Birch, a young man aged 19, who was severely burnt from the explosion of a bag containing two or three pounds of gunpowder, in the Pegg’s Green Colliery, on Saturday fortnight. Four blasts had been made by drilling holes in the coal, at about two yards asunder(apart); three of them had been fired, and the last, which had been loaded first, was fired last. A bag of gunpowder belonging to the deceased had been laid by one Richard Wardle about six yards from the blast. After the blast had gone off, some paper which had been used in preparing the blast, fell in a lighted state upon the bag containing the deceased’s powder. As soon as the other young men who were round, saw it, they ran away; but the deceased very thoughtlessly and incautiously went to knock the fire off the bag, for the purpose of saving the powder, when just as he was touching the bag with his hand the powder exploded, and blew the deceased backwards to the ground. He was picked up, and found much burnt on the stomach and front of his body; he lingered until the next Saturday.
Verdict, “Accidental Death”
The Verdict of this and all the other deaths either blame the miner or is recorded as Accidental Death. The mine owner was not considered to have any responsibility. The mine workers were considered as self-employed and under contract and had to provide their own lighting. While the Mine owners took scant regard for the miners’ safety they were quick to take action on breach of contract - see example of Mine working conditions here>
Thomas Birch was John Birch’s eldest brother; he was a coal miner all his life and lived in Rotten Row Thringstone, now Lower Moor Coleorton. He married Rebecca Burton of Worthington; she bore eight children and died in the Alms Houses in Ravenstone.
Their son William, a miner, died at 18. We do not know the reason for his death, but is possible that it was a result of a mine injury. We only know of men who died of mortal injuries and needed an Inquest. Many would be seriously injured and died of their injuries later. It is significant that his grave is fitted between the Massey’s and his uncle.
Their (Thomas and Rebecca’s) daughter Jane had an affair with Henry Lakin a miner from Gelsmoor when she was 17 believing he would marry, but he refused and she gave to birth to William Birch. The family legend considered she died of a broken heart when William was four. He was brought up by his grand parents in a household that knew tragedy, and it must have had an impact on his life.
William Birch married Mary Ann Springthorpe of Worthington at Breedon church in September 1877 when they were 21 and 20 years old respectively. They lived most of the later majority of their lives in Gelsmoor, raising 13 children in 27 years.
The first record of him being involved in a rescue was at Staunton Colliery at the Heath End side of Staunton Harold. In the same mine in 1886 John Lakin and his sons William and George Lakin died attempting to reopen the mine but were suffocated by Choke damp (air depleted of oxygen) - click here for further details.
Following is a transcript of the inquest report where William Birch bravely attempted a rescue:
June 6th 1891
Inquest death Staunton Harold Colliery
On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Henry Deane, Coroner for north Leicestershire, held an enquiry at the Railway Tavern, Worthington, into the death of William Stinson, who met with his death at the Staunton Harold Colliery on the 28th ult. – Mr. H. Hipplewhite, assistant inspector of mines attended.
Mary Stinson, wife of the deceased, said her husband was a collier and sixty years old. William Joseph Stinson (aged 36) his son, was also killed by a roof fall in the same pit in February 1890.
William Smith, Stallman at the colliery said at 4 pm Thursday morning that he was in the pit working at No.1. stall. William Birch would examine the stall before they went to work. He was putting a hole in when the accident happened at about 10 o’clock.
The deceased had been sawing a prop to make some sprags, and had just sawn it through when the roof of the stall and the roadway began to press down and fall. There were other men working with the deceased, but they got out before the roof bore down like a clap of thunder, all at once, and he did not have time to get away himself. Witness packed up coals between himself and the deceased to try and keep the roof up. Deceased cried out when the first fall came and “crawled” under the coal to get out of the way, but this was all borne down on him. Witness was got out first, being drawn out by his legs. He left the mine before rescuers got to the deceased.
The inspector said there was not sufficient quantity of sprags, so deceased cut a prop, and left the prop in so that the top should not be disturbed. There was a sudden thickening of coal just there, and extra precautions had been taken. Stanley had done what little holing had been done that morning, and had set the sprags that were up. He had done that the day before – all but one – and the old man was going to set one for himself. Witness thought Stanley was a competent man to set sprags. The foreman found no problem with the setting when he came through.
William Birch, deputy at the colliery, and residing at Gelsmoor, said he examined stall No.1. at 5.30. on the morning of the accident.
John Saunders, under-manager at the colliery, said he saw stall No.1. at 8.30 a.m. when the day shift were then at work. The stall appeared safe. There was some holing done on the left side of the gate, but he saw nothing to find fault with.
The inspector said the packing should have been done at night, but the stallman on the night shift was ill. The floor coal was rather soft, and it had gradually worked down, and the sprags had been pushed into the floor.
Verdict of “Accidental Death”.
Charles Marshall‘s occupation was a “Shifter”, and he was aged 23 when he was killed. The following notes were included in the report:-
Official Accident Report on the death of Charles Marshall :-
Charles Marshall and William Birch were engaged in repairing a gate-road. They had taken out a low bar and set another after ripping about half-a-yard of roof, and had ripped far enough to make room for a second bar, a yard further along, when a fall occurred from above the timber, and reeled the new bar and an old one set three weeks previously.
A roof fall occurred; Birch freed himself and was attempting to free Marshall when a second fall buried the two men almost up to their armpits. Birch freed himself once more but Marshall was still trapped and Birch tried again to release him.
Marshall was nearly free when a third fall completely buried Marshall and partially trapped Birch by his legs. A miner called Witham was on his way from the coal-face and Birch shouted to him. Both were trying to release Marshall when a fourth fall occurred. Witham rushed to get more help, while Birch carried on with his efforts to free Marshall. Within five minutes Witham returned with extra help; after approximately half an hour Marshall was released but he was dead.
In the 1911 Census, William Birch (55) and his wife Mary Ann (56) were living in Gelsmoor with ten other family members, with ages ranging from 6 to 30. His occupation was given as “Below Ground Coal Miner Chargeman”.
ENTHUSIASTIC RECEPTION AT COALVILLE
Birch was commended at the inquest by Mr. Hepplewhite - H.M.Inspector, by the Coroner – Mr. H. J. Deane, and by the manager of the Coleorton Colliery, Mr. F. Tatham, who had taken a great interest in the case, and accompanied Birch to London on Tuesday.
An enthusiastic welcome awaited the hero when he arrived at Coalville by the 8 o’clock train on Tuesday night. A number of miners had arranged to have a band to play him to the Market Place, and thought it had not been made public. The news of this arrangement got out, and when the train steamed into the station, there was a crowd of three or four thousand people waiting in the street. In the crush, Birch got separated from Mr. Tatham and others who met him on the platform, and he appeared in the street alone. But he was wearing the medal, which had been affixed to his coat by the King, and he was soon identified and escorted to the market place by the crowd.
In the Market Place, a platform had been erected and with the Coalville Town Band playing “see the conquering hero comes”. Then Mr Lovett said that the circumstances of Marshall’s death, he said, were very sad, but it had its bright side, inasmuch as it showed what a man would do to save his fellow man. It was not the first time it had been done in mining, but he was glad that a Leicestershire man had received this recognition from the King for the first time (applause). There was a bravery born of ignorance, but Birch knew of the great danger to which he was exposing himself, when he was doing his best to extricate his comrade. There were among miners many brave men. They knew that when explosions occurred or when there were rushes of water in the mine, there were always rescue parties willing to do what they could.
A series of speeches were made and finally the Band played the National Anthem and the gathering then dispersed.
William died in 1929 aged 73 his wife Mary died in 1940 aged 83.
The Graves of John Massey the Miner Pugilist Athlete who became an Evangelist, William Birch Miner died at 18 and John Birch at the rear
Thomas and Rebecca Birch. William Birch was their eldest son, John Birch was Thomas’s brother
THE EDWARD MEDAL (THE MINERS' VICTORIA CROSS)
The Edward Medal 2nd Class, was awarded to William Birch, by King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace for an act of bravery in trying to save a fellow miner Charles Marshall during a roof fall at Coleorton Colliery, on Dec 16th 1910.
The Edward Medal recognised acts of bravery of miners and quarrymen in endangering their lives to rescue their fellow workers. The original Royal Warrant was amended by a further Royal Warrant on 1 December 1909 to encompass acts of bravery by all industrial workers in factory accidents and disasters, creating two versions of the Edward Medal: Mines and Industry.
Coleorton No.3 Colliery (Bug & Wink) rescue team in 1913, with William Birch a member