- “The Entombment of Thomas Shaw”:Mining Accidents and the Politics of Workers’ Bodies
On 25 January 1877, “a fall of coal” at the Homer Hill Colliery in the West Midlands town of Cradley trapped the miner Thomas Shaw underground. According to James Baker, the government mines inspector for the region, local men worked “vigorously … for several days and nights” but failed to reach Shaw’s body because a “smouldering fire” and “deadly gases” blocked the way. To contain the danger, Baker decided to seal the area, with Shaw’s body inside, a decision supported by several “mining engineers of good position.” Baker hoped “at some future day to safely resume the search for the body,” but Shaw’s body remained inaccessible (1878, 111). The coroner undertook no inquest, the community provided no proper burial, and Shaw’s family experienced no closure. Miners went back to extracting coal knowing that the body lay disturbingly close to their labours. According to the Dudley Herald, the continuing presence underground of Shaw’s body “very naturally caused much anxiety to his friends” (“Recent”).
Victorians paid a good deal of attention to mining accidents, but most of the press focused on explosions, which were highly visible and often resulted in many deaths. Historian Jamie Bronstein points out, however, that the “greatest danger” to an underground collier was from “falling rather than exploding” coal (11). Shaw, then, was killed by a fairly typical mining accident that reflected the regular dangers colliers faced. Yet his story spread beyond his local context, even reaching the House of Commons. The official report on the accident came from Baker, the government’s mining inspector, who called Shaw’s case “one of the most distressing” in the region that year (1878, 112). Baker describes a collaborative, but frustrating, effort to recover the body. Local miners, however, constructed an alternative narrative, “the strange affair of the entombment of Thomas Shaw” (“Important”), which used Shaw’s death to accuse employers and the government of endangering workers’ lives and ignoring their concerns.
The Homer Hill Colliery was located in the area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country, named for its thick coal seams and blast furnaces. [End Page 22] By the time of Shaw’s accident, the region’s staple coal and iron industries were in decline, and local miners experienced regular under- and unemployment, with wages often at a “starvation level” (Barnsby 24). They also experienced significant risks. Miners were early among Victorian workers to demand state intervention in their industry. While other labouring men contested regulation in order to promote manly independence, coal miners fought for inspection and owner responsibility. Colliery owners fought back, arguing that if workmen took more care, they would suffer fewer accidents (Bronstein 116–22, 145–52; Mills 71–78). High-profile explosions, however, spurred Parliament to establish a rudimentary system of inspections in 1850, which it expanded in 1872 (Bronstein 135–39; Galloway 242–46). The numbers of miners killed and injured declined considerably following the legislation, but continuing accidents highlighted the limitations of safety inspections and the fraught relationships in the mining industry (Benson 182). Shaw’s case raised obvious issues surrounding the safety of the mine, issues that were part of wider discussions about workers’ compensation and employer negligence (Bronstein, 158–65). In his report, however, Baker emphasized the consensus that emerged among the mine owner, workers, and Shaw’s relatives concerning the accident (1878, 111–12). He noted that Shaw’s father, brother, and uncle accompanied mining engineers on repeated visits to the accident site to determine the feasibility of a search. When, in June, the group finally decided the site was safe enough to approach, Baker recorded that the mine owner, Joseph King (new since the accident), affirmed his desire to accommodate the search, even offering the assistance of his workmen. Yet when the men attempted the excavation, they discovered the location was still hazardous. Baker concluded his report in 1877 with the Shaw case in limbo, noting that “It is now most doubtful when, if ever, the place where the remains of the buried man lie may be reached” (112). His annual report for...