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Mining cap lamps and battery charging station. Picture Source: Paul Fillingham.

Stage 7

Lamp Room

This section looks at how miners got illumination working in the dark confines of the coal mine and how dangerous mine gases were dealt with.

Firedamp explosion in a 19th century coalmine.

Early types of lighting in coal mines

A safe means of lighting in coal mines was sought since miners were first aware of the explosive nature of firedamp; a methane based inflammable gas, which occurred when coal was mined. Firedamp was lighter than air, being found in the roof of underground coal workings. It has the chemical symbol Ch4.

Using candles for illumination descending the shaft in a 19th century coalmine.

Initially, miners used naked lights such a candles for illumination but if any firedamp was encountered, an explosion would occur, killing the miners. Early experiments with lighting underground included phosphorescent material like putrefying fish skins and the Spedding Steel Mill.

Speeding steel mill.

The Spedding Steel Mill was a cogged set of small steel wheels in a frame, rotated by a wheel, with a flint held against the steel wheel, which gave off a shower of sparks. Illumination was not good and it was falsely believed that the sparks would not ignite firedamp.

Flame Safety Lamp.

The Flame Safety Lamp

A firedamp explosion at Felling Colliery, Co. Durham, on 25th May 1812, which claimed the lives of 92 miners and boys, was the catalyst for the invention of the miners flame safety lamp, more commonly known as the Davy lamp. This was after the 19th century scientist, Sir Humphrey Davy, who along with famous railway engineer, George Stephenson, and Dr Clanny, were all instrumental in developing the flame safety lamp.

Early 19th century Davy lamps on show at Pleasley Pit lamp collectors event, 2019.

The flame safety lamp had two functions. One was to provide a safe light in the dangerous, gassy atmosphere of a coal-mine. The other was to indicate the presence of firedamp by the careful examination of the flame. It showed itself by showing a blue triangle on the flame, the bigger the triangle, the more firedamp being present. Both of these features were essential up to the 1930’s. From that time, electric lamps started coming into use for illumination.

The Electric Safety Lamp

In the lamp room area, you will see a rack of electric safety lamps or cap lamps, as they were more commonly known by miners.

The modern electric safety lamp. Known as a ‘Cap lamp’.

The adoption of early electric lamps dates mainly from the 1930’s, the Ceag lamp being a popular type. These were hand held lamps and by 1934 they totaled around two-thirds of electric lamps used underground by miners at British collieries. Many of the early types relied on primary batteries such as leclanche cells, but these were later replaced by lead acid or alkaline types.

Hand held electric safety lamp dating from the 1940’s.

The most significant development in electric lamps was the introduction of the battery cap lamp in the 1930’s. This consisted of a large battery, which fitted onto the back of a miners belt, with a cable around a yard long and a headpiece, which clipped onto the front of a miners helmet. This left the miner with both hand free to work and was a major improvement over hand held electric lamps.

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This was the main means of personal illumination for a miner right to the end of coalmining in Britain in 2015, although the weight of the battery was gradually reduced over the years. The headpiece was fitted with two bulbs, a main bulb and a pilot bulb. If the main bulb blew when a miner was working, the pilot bulb would give him some limited illumination, which was better than nothing. Flame safety lamps were still used for gas testing. At the end of the shift, a miner had to put his cap-lamp on charge in the lamp cabin in order for it to be fully charged, for his next shift.

The Self-Rescuer

In the lamp room area, you will see a set of small metal contains about six inches high and three inches square. These are miner’s self-rescuers, a type of miners gas mask. It gave a miner protection against carbon monoxide, a toxic, colourless and tasteless gas, which occurred with an underground fire or explosion. It did this by converting the poisonous carbon monoxide produced by the fire or explosion into carbon dioxide, which is breathable.

The Miners’ Self Rescuer.

Self-Rescuers were introduced in British collieries in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s. One of the key driving factors behind the introduction of this technology was the 1950 Creswell Colliery disaster in which 80 miners lost their lives, the majority from breathing in carbon monoxide.

Coal-mining heritage performer and former mineworker, David Coleman, using a Self-Rescuer.

In the event of an underground fire or explosion, a miner would put have to put his self- rescuer on, which would give him one hour’s protection to get to a fresh air base. The self-rescuer was located on his belt, and a clip was activated to access the it. The self-rescuer itself consisted of head-strap, a mouth-piece and a nose clip. Once it was put on, it had to be kept on until a member of the Mines Rescue Team informed miners it was safe to take it off.

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Canary Cage.

Pit Canaries

If you look around in the lamp room area, you will find a wooden bird cage with a replica of a small yellow bird inside. This is a pit canary, and for years they were used for detecting dangerous gases in coal mines.

Miner with canary underground in a colliery. Picture Source: The Coal Authority.

Following an underground fire or explosion, a dangerous gas called afterdamp occurs. Another mine gas isblackdamp, which is oxygen deficient and lies near the coal mine floor in dips and swilley’s. If a miner came into contact with blackdamp, he could be overcome in a very short time and die.

Canaries were used in coal mines for years because they had an acute sense of gases being present before a human could detect them. If the bird began to show unusual behaviour or signs of distress the miner would be alerted to the presence of gas and be able to retreat safely from the area.

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In later years, canaries were replaced by digital coal mine gas monitoring system. However, the birds were retained as a kind of back-up in case of system failure, continuing the tradition of keeping canaries at the colliery. The birds would typically be kept in the lamp cabin, or in warmer months, near the downcast shaft on the pit top.

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