The search is on for information or descendants of Irishmen killed 150 years ago in the worst mining disaster in English history.

As the anniversary approaches of the explosions that killed nearly 400 boys and men at the Oaks Colliery near Barnsley in December 1866, volunteer researchers have put together some details of two men born in Cork known to have died.

Several other victims are known to have been second-generation Irish who worked at the coal mine, a kilometre outside the south Yorkshire town.

William Barry was 27 when he died in the main explosion just after 1pm on December 12, 1866. Dozens of rescuers were killed in a further explosion during efforts to search for survivors and bodies the next day, one of several that occurred over the following week.

It is known that William was born in Cork, and census records show he was already working as a coal- miner in 1861. He was then living on Barnsley’s Baker St with his parents James and Mary.

His younger sister Ellen was also born in Cork, and was working as a winder in a sinew factory. The family had two lodgers, including Irish-born Catherine Conley and young local woman Catherine Hanagan, who worked as a weaver on a linen power loom.

The burial order book entry in Barnsley Cemetery of Cork-born Thomas Hiland or Thomas Ireland, killed in the 1866 Oaks Colliery disaster. Picture: Barnsley Archives and Local Studies.
The burial order book entry in Barnsley Cemetery of Cork-born Thomas Hiland or Thomas Ireland, killed in the 1866 Oaks Colliery disaster. Picture: Barnsley Archives and Local Studies.

William was employed at the time of the tragedy as a hurrier, bringing the mined coal to the surface. However, he was one of an estimated 169 victims whose bodies were never brought out of the pit after the disaster.

Among more than 20 of the dead who had Irish parents was John Coughlan, whose great-great-granddaughter Lynda Pickersgill is one of the volunteer team that put over 3,000 hours of research into the project.

“John was just 22 when he was killed at the Oaks Colliery. His father Jeremiah Coughlan had left Cork in the early 1800s and had a sister called Catherine,” she said.

John had been living for at least a few years in Barnsley, as Lynda has established that he lodged with a family called Rowlinson in the town before marrying Mary Firth on July 27, 1863.

Lynda said: “I would love to find out more about John and Jeremiah’s background from Cork, and would welcome any light that could be shed on the Coughlan family.”

Many names are not entirely certain, such as a 30-year-old Cork-born miner who was probably Thomas Hiland or Hyland, but was registered in the records of a local cemetery as Thomas Ireland.

Stephen Miller, community officer with Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership which organised the project, said researchers discovered his burial, shared with another victim, was paid for by another Irish coalminer, Andrew Moffatt.

“He was visiting Thomas Hiland’s home on Albert Street on the night of the 1861 census so they were probably friends. The fact there are nine people born in Ireland on that one census page with 23 names gives an idea of the population in the area at the time,” he said.

The Hiland family in 1861 included Thomas’s parents, farm labourer James and charwoman Jane, who appear to have emigrated during the famine. An 18-year-old daughter Ann was born in Ireland, but the youngest child in the family Margaret was born in Barnsley in 1847 or 1848.

With plans for an exhibition in December to offer further stories of some of the victims, Mr Miller said any information or family photos from Ireland would be hugely appreciated.

Some of the details found, to date, about the 384 victims, 23 more than previously thought, — can be seen at www.discoverdearne.org.uk. Anyone with feedback or information can contact the project at DVLP@barnsley.gov.uk


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