Wednesday, 4 December 2013

"Like rats in a trap."

William Gray and Thomas 'Harry' Boxall, 1906, Waihi.

Waihi mine - No 2 shaft in the foreground. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, AWNS - 19001214-4-3)

Aside from candles, the light at the bottom of the No 2 shaft in the Waihi mine was almost non existent.  William Gray, 34, and Thomas 'Harry' Boxall, 28, were working in a confined space of no more than 12 feet by 6 feet, engaged in excavating a shaft.  It was 13 November, 1906 and just before crib (lunch time).

William and Harry had drilled and loaded the usual number of holes with fuses.  Before they lit the fuses William sang out the 'fire' warning.  The winding bucket that carried the men between shafts rode up three feet and William then lit the fuse.

The men climbed onto the winding bucket and called out the signal to 'Haul up' to J McMinn, the winchman at No 8 level, but the bucket did not move.  Eight to ten feet of slack wire rope suddenly came down which put their candles out and caused the bucket to drop back to the bottom of the shaft.  William and Harry realised there was something wrong with the winding gear.  William struck a match but it went out.

Above them on No 8 level McMinn, on answering the signal to haul up, had immediately put his hand on the throttle of the valve and found that the winding gear was useless - to his horror he discovered there was no compressed air in the pipes.

With the fuses burning down McMinn realised the awful peril the men were in.  He got hold of the rope and shook the bucket to let the men know something was wrong.  He immediately let down the slack chain to warn them that no air was available and they were not to fire.

The men signalled that they wanted to come up and McMinn knew then that he was too late - they had already fired the charge. He tried again to let them know he could do nothing by letting the rope go for about 40 feet and then he rushed to the speaking tube which communicated with the level below.  But the tube was blocked and he could not be heard. 

Four signals were given again from the men to haul them up.

McMinn knocked at the tube with a crowbar and called out that the air had been cut off and he could not lift the bucket.

The men at No 8 level heard him and James Ogilvie, the level's braceman, called to William and Harry below that "it's no use lads, he won't take you."  The men kept singing out to be hauled up.

The men started calling for a light and James attempted to show them a light from his candle.  William called "It's not use showing us the light."  James Ogilvie, in the face of great danger, then started down the ladder to help the men below.  William kept calling for a light and James replied he was coming as fast as he could.

William and Harry, fully aware of the terrible danger of the inevitable explosion, scrambled out of the bucket and tried to find the chain escape ladder which hung down the side of the shaft from the level above, but the dark combined with smoke from the burning fuses left them almost blind and practically prisoners at the bottom of the shaft.

The charge exploded.

It put James Ogilvie's light out but he kept climbing down.  McMinn, nearly frantic with helplessness, was also climbing down the permanent ladderway and his candle, too, blew out.

At the bottom of the shaft  Harry was bewildered and didn't know exactly where he was, but thought he was alongside the bucket.  He called out to William who replied "I'm done."

Both men, badly injured, were quickly brought to the surface.

Dr Craig, who had been summoned, was at the mouth of the shaft when the men were brought up.  After a hasty examination they were made as comfortable as possible on stretchers and their fellow miners carried them to the ambulance.

William was unconcious with terrible injuries.  His condition was said to be hopeless.  Thomas was in a serious state with a lacerated head and in shock.

Their escape from instant death was considered a most miraculous one.  The accident was described by some of the old mining hands as the worst that had ever happened in the district. It was thought the air pressure which worked the winch and bucket had been cut off for repairs.

Four hours after being admitted to the hospital William succumbed to his terrible injuries.  He had drifted in and out of consciouness within up to five minutes of his death and at one stage asked after his mate Harry, anxiously inquiring how he was getting on.

William Gray had been a miner for the previous 10 or 11 years, mostly engaged in shaft work.  He left a widow, Gertrude, and two young children.  He was of a kindly and genial dispostion and was highly respected by all who knew him.  His funeral took place at Waihi where a large number of mourners joined the procession as it passed through the town.

Harry Boxall would probably recover from his injuries, reported the Auckland Star.  His mother, from Thames, was with him and he was confidentally excpected to recover.  He came from a large family of eleven children.

At the inquest Robert Henderson, engineer, said that under instructions from John Henderson, Assistant Engineer, he was to repair the Babcock boiler starting at crib time, when the men would be off work.

The Babcock bolier  was situated near the No 5 shaft.  The repairs took about 20 minutes.  Robert Henderson had to cut off the steam that drove the air compressor.

The Assistant Engineer told him to allow a few minutes after the crib whistle blew to give the men time to get out of the shaft.  He waited five minutes before he cut off the steam and it would have been  no more than ten minutes after the whistle blew that the air was cut off.  He had no idea the men were down the shaft when he cut the air off.  Five minutes would have given the men ample time to come up the shaft if they had been ready.

He had worked for the company since 1902 and he knew it was usual practice to fire before crib time.  He said something about warning the men in the shaft to which the Assistant Engineer replied he did not think it necessary as it was such a short job.

The Assistant Engineer, John Henderson, stated that he had been told by the mine manager that at all times when cutting off air compressor steam he was to first warn the men working in the mine.  He said he did not know that fuses were used for exploding the charges at the bottom of the shaft - had he known he would never have shut off the steam.

He had considerable experience in connection with shaft sinking.  He had never used anything else other than the electric battery to explode the charges.  He never used fuse as it was always dangerous.  An electric battery was supplied to the men engaged in shaft sinking at the Waihi mine and he thought the men in this case were using it.  He would never have cut off the steam if he thought the men were using fuses.

Thomas Gilmour, mine manager, said he was particular in impressing on those in charge of the engines that the men had first to be warned before the air was cut off.

William Gauvain, Chief Engineer, had no idea the air was to be cut off that day.  He had to inform the shift bosses in the different shafts when the air was going to be cut off.  He ought to have been informed by the Assistant Engineer that repairs were to be undertaken.

James McMinn, the winchman, stationed at No 7 level "told an impressive tale as to how the unfortunate men were caught like rats in a trap."

Harry Boxall, giving evidence from his hospital bed, stated that he had worked about three years at the Waihi mine and had worked in No 2 shaft for about two months.

They sometimes used the battery but used fuse for certain holes as they got a better effect.  All three shots were on the ladder side of the shaft and one was immediately under it.  They would have had ample time to escape if they had been able to locate the ladder.
Due to his weak condition it was obvious Harry found it diffilcult to give evidence.

"Mining", observed the Coroner, "was only in its infancy in this district, and already a great number of accidents had occurred...with water power, steam, compressed air and electricity now in use in various parts of the mine, the liability to accident was greater...and would probably increase as mining operations became deeper and more complicated."

"In this particular incident a very old-fashioned precaution seems to have been overlooked, namely, that of having a candle alight besides the ones in their own hands, which would have shown them the way of escape by the ladder."

The Coroner found that a redeeming feature of the tragic affair was that John Henderson, Assistant Engineer, had taken the whole blame for failing to warn the men he was about to cut off the air. In his favour John Henderson had a long and highly satisfactory career at the Waihi mine.

The Coroner then quoted from the Criminal Code to show the various definitions of homicide, something the jury had to consider.

The jury reached a unanimous verdict "that W Gray came to his death in the No 2 shaft...whilst at work through shock caused by injuries recieved by firing three blasting holes, the means of escape provided for him by the bucket having failed him at the last moment through the cutting off of the supply of compressed air."

The Assistant Engineer, John Henderson, they found "guilty of homicide by indirectly causing the death of Gray by giving instructions  for the cutting off of the supply and failing to warn the men in the mine that such air would be cut off, but we consider that the offence is not culpable, and the engineer had no reason to believe that the men were working in the shaft at that time of day."

The jury added "we wish to place on record our appreciation of the conduct of J Ogilvie for the gallant manner in which he went to the assistance of his comrades when they were in such great danger."

They recommended the use of a pressure gauge as an additional safeguard for men working under like conditions.  The coroner said he did not interpret the verdict as one of manslaughter and the evidence would be sent on to the Attorney General.

On 26 November charges were laid against the Waihi Goldmining Company and John Henderson, Assistant Engineer, for breaches of the mining act.

Three days later the Waihi Daily Telegraph reported that Harry Boxhall was making steady progress.  Although suffering from severe shock, head wounds, a wounded forearm and bruising, within a week of the accident he had been pronounced out of danger.  Three weeks later he took a sudden turn for the worse.  He had been chloroformed and his wounds dressed but he began displaying meningitis symptoms.  He had become unconscious and there was hardly any hope of recovery.  The cause of death was attributed to meningitis caused by direct infection from the head wound.

His mother happened to be in Waihi at the time of the accident and she remained there afterwards.  When she was satisfied her son was out of danger she had returned home.  The untimely end of her son came as a great blow to her and their large family.

Harry was buried at Shortland cemetery, Thames.  The funeral was attended by an immense number of mourners.  The procession was joined at different points by miners and residents until it swelled into a great stream, extending for hundreds of yards.  It was one of the largest funerals seen at Thames with all the goldfields districts for miles around represented.

The inquest into the death of Harry Boxall heard much of the same evidence as that given at William Gray's inquest.

The jury found that "the deceased Thomas Henry Boxall met with his death through an accident which happened in the No 2 shaft of the Waihi mine."  They added a rider stating that his death was indirectly due to the Assistant Engineer cutting off the compressed air supply.  "Had the Assistant Engineer been notified that ordinary fuse instead of electric power was being used to fire the holes in the shaft, this accident would not have occured, and so must find both the management and assistant engineer guilty of negligence."

In December 1906, at the Miners Union Hall in front of a large audience of the general public, braceman James Ogilvie received a gold medal engraved with the words "Presented to Mr James Ogilvie by the Waihi Miners and Workers Union for conspicuous bravery in going to the rescue, at the immediate peril of his own life, of his mates on the 13th November 1906."

Mr Ogilvie, it was said, had kept up the grand tradtition of the British miner in that he would never leave his mate when in danger.

Mr Ogilvie replied he had only done what he thought was his duty.  Bill Gray was the leader of his shift and also the leader of his party.  A more careful man never breathed.

The cries of the men at the bottom of the shaft he would never forget as long as he lived. 

Harry's name was Thomas Henry Boxall.  He is buried with his parents and the grave inscription notes he "died of injuries received in the Waihi mine."

In February 1907 the Waihi Gold Mining Company and John Henderson, Assistant Engineer, were convicted of negligence which led to the two men losing their lives.  The company was fined 5 pounds with costs of 6 pounds.  John Henderson was fined 15 pounds and ordered to pay the cost of prosecution against him.

"Loved and respected by all who knew him - William Gray's grave at Waihi cemetery.  The carved angel was commissioned by his widow Gertrude with some of a 3000 pound pay out she eventually received.  Also buried here is William and Gertrude's daughter - 'Dear little Hilda' - who died two months before him, aged five months."  (Photo - Mike Hawkes)

Thomas Gilmour, Waihi mine manager - "particular in impressing on those in charge that there must be warning if the air was to be cut off."  (Sir George Grey Special collections, AWNS - 18990609-1-8)

(Source:  Papers Past)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2013

1 comment:

Meghan Hawkes said...

‎Mary Paton John Cuff‎ to Meghan Hawkes, Writer.
Hello Meghan, I have just been reading "Dead Cert, Like Rats in a Trap". It is the fullest account I have ever found of the accident and its aftermath,and I found parts of your account very poignant. William Gray was my Great Uncle, brother of my Grandmother Mary Gray. Thank you for sharing your work.
In your research of Thames have you ever come across any information on Detective Constable James Murphy, appointed gaoler at Thames in 1873. He became Sergeant and remained in that position until his death in 1889. His wife Mary Elizabeth ran a boarding house called Piako House in Cochrane St. From what i have found they were both very well liked and respected in the community. Thanks again for your sharing.

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