Nowadays Kingsteignton is seen as a commuter town, but once it was very much a mining village. Whilst the dangers faced by coal miners and tin miners are well documented, the dangers that were faced by the clay miners of Kingsteignton are practically unknown to those without direct connections to the industry. This is perhaps not surprising as the ball clay industry is probably better known in the pottery centres such as Stoke on Trent, than it is here in Devon where, even today guide books and commentators still confuse it with china clay.
Ball clay is a soft material and the clay seams of the Bovey Basin which dip towards its centre from around its edges are interspersed with sand, gravels and lignite. None of these materials have any intrinsic strength of their own, unlike the rocks in which lodes of tin and copper are found, or even that of coal. Tunnelling through ball clay has been likened to tunnelling through plasticine or blancmange.
The old methods of winning clay involved the sinking of square pits (usually about 20 feet square) and vertical shafts. The latter were narrower and would be sunk down to the seam that was to be extracted. As the material being dug was relatively soft heavy timbering of the sides of the shafts was required, but even this could not always cope with the geological pressures created when mining the clay.
Accidents in the clay industry were not uncommon and the nature of the accidents often resulted in fatalities. With large families being the norm and no support system apart from parish relief, the loss of the breadwinner could condemn a family to a life of poverty.
Perhaps the worst accident to ever occur in the clay industry was in February 1865 when thirteen men were buried alive in a mine belonging to Watts, Blake Bearne & Co at Preston. Whilst all the men were extricated, four were seriously injured with a further six suffering minor injuries. Of the four seriously injured, two, George Joslin and Thomas Warren died from their injuries.
Some three years later George Mead was killed in a mine belonging to Whiteway & Co whilst removing stays in a pit. The support he was standing on gave way and he fell to the foot of the shaft. Two other men working with him were injured.
A miner named Robert Statt was killed when a bucket fell down a shaft crushing him in a mine near Teign Bridge belonging to Whiteway & Co in 1873. The inquest found that the ropes being used to haul the buckets were rotten.
Another fatal accident occurred in July 1883 when William Bovey fell into a pit at Abbrook and broke his neck leaving a widow and large family to mourn their loss.
George Joslin’s son Henry became a lighterman and married Jane Scott who belonged to another Kingsteignton family which suffered its share of tragedies linked to the clay industry.
In 1885, Jane Joslin’s nephew, 14-year-old Richard Scott, was killed when he slipped whilst mounting a clay cart, his head catching the moving wheel of the cart. What made the accident more tragic was that the cart belonged to his uncle William Cook of Gestridge Farm, who had married Jane’s eldest sister Mary.
Roof falls were not the only cause of serious accidents. As previously mentioned the clay seams of the Bovey Basin are interspersed with lignite and some of the clays themselves contain lignitic material which gives them an almost black colour. Lignite is a form of coal, and methane, a gas found in coal mines, was often found within the clay seams. In November 1889 two miners named Carpenter and Hunt were badly burnt around the face, arms and neck when an explosion of methane occurred in the mine in which they were working. They were both taken out of the mine and ferried home to await the arrival of a doctor. The vicar’s wife, Mrs Mary Jackson, applied first aid. Some eleven years previously the companies of Whiteway Mortimer & Co, Watts, Blake Bearne & Co together with Brown, Goddard, Hatherly and Co, were all prosecuted for having mines imperfectly ventilated.
Another case of a broken rope hauling a bucket of clay up a shaft giving way involved Whiteway & Co and was reported in August 1887. The bucket fell to the base of the shaft striking miners Henry Nicholls and Edward Whitear. Both sustained severe injuries including broken legs. The newspaper account added that it was feared that Nicholls might lose a leg.
Three months later two employees of Hatherley & Co named Hobbs and Patridge were severely crushed in Half Brake mine when a great quantity of clay fell on them whilst working underground. The newspaper report revealed that John Hobbs died on 18th November and that his workmate Partridge was scarcely expected to make a full recovery. Not long after the death of Hobbs, Whiteway & Co introduced a new method of sinking shafts whereby the bucket descended in one shaft and the men in another. However, these measures did not stop the accidents.
In November 1893, at the inquest concerning John Walters, the jury heard how a piece of timber being lowered down a mine at Netherexe slipped free and struck him on the head as he was standing at the base of the shaft. He was carried home to Sandygate but died shortly afterwards. The mines' inspector stated that it was safer to lower one timber at a time, rather than two which was common practice. The foreman of the jury suggested that timber should be tied securely to a chain at the top of the shaft. Major Bearne, representing the employer, dismissed this as impossible. A few years later Major Bearne attended the funeral of Walter Vallance who had been killed whilst working in another of the company’s mines.
Sidney Scott, another nephew of Jane Joslin, was involved in an accident in 1897 when he was buried in a clay fall whilst working for Hexter, Humpherson & Co. His cousin Alf Scott, was buried in a clay fall in 1899 whilst working for the same firm and suffered serious injuries.
Ernest Hewings, who, like all his brothers, worked in the pits and mines at Kingsteignton became another casualty.. In 1904 Ernest was seriously injured in a clay fall whilst working for Whiteway & Co in a mine at Preston. Fortunately he survived to tell the tale but such were the extent of his injuries he was unable to resume working in the industry.
Harry Purchase suffered a fractured spine following a roof fall in Binney Mine in 1908, whilst in June 1912 Samuel Carnell was killed when a bucket fell down the shaft of Chiphouse mine, owned by Goddard and Co, crushing him where he stood at the base of the shaft. A few days later James Harris was knocked down over the side of a quarry by a bucking horse attached to a clay cart at the works of Hexter, Humpherson & Co. He suffered a fractured skull and was in a coma for six weeks.
The same year saw another clay worker, John Chammings, who was employed by the Devon and Courtenay Clay Company, suffer severe burns following an explosion caused by methane. Two other workers escaped with light injuries in the same incident. This was a time when candles were used to provide lighting in the mines, which further added to the element of danger. Burning candles also used up the same oxygen which the men needed to breathe and emphasised the reason the clay companies were obliged to provide the men with adequate ventilation whilst they were working.
"Kingsteignton Workers' Miraculous Escape From Death" was a headline in the Western Daily Mercury dated 13th August 1912, following the collapse of a shaft in a mine near Newcross. Fortunately the men had just come up to the surface for their breakfast meal when they heard a rumbling and crashing sound from the workings. The pressure built up in the sandy nature of the seams through which the mine had been sunk to reach the clays below had forced the timbers to give way as the mine collapesed in on itself.
Perhaps it is no wonder that William Joslin (George Joslin’s grandson) and his cousin Alf Scott played such a prominent role in striking for better pay in 1913 for working in mines that their union termed as death traps. One miner, Mark Sanders from Kingsteignton, who assisted in the 1913 struggle for better conditions, was killed by a roof fall at a mine at Decoy in 1919 whilst removing timbers from a disused tunnel so that the timbers could be used again.
At the inquest into the death of William Henry Vallance aged 45, Gestridge Road. Kingsteignton, who was injured on January 21st 1938, at Southacre Mine, Kingsteignton, owned by Messrs Watts Blake Bearne and Co. Ltd, the foreman of the jury said: "We would like to say something about the first aid facilities. It strikes us as rather barbarous that a man with the symptoms of a broken back should have been dragged up in a clay bucket and then put on a stretcher. It also strikes us as a pity that there are not more ambulance men and that the first aid facilities are no more get-at-able. It might easily result in extra damage being done to an injured person by that rough and ready method."
These incidents may go a long way towards explaining why a government enquiry in 1946 identified the state of the UK ball clay industry as a major impediment to the UK pottery industry after World War Two. The enquiry stated that: "It would be difficult to find any industry in this country where there has been so marked unawareness and lack of initiative on the part of many of the producers to modern industrial trends."
The above text makes reference to accidents and injuries, but with clay extraction, as with many extractive industries, there is a hidden danger - dust. Whilst the dangers of inhaling dust in coal mining, slate quarrying and even china clay extraction have been well documented, the dangers from inhaling clay dust have largely been ignored, probably due to the relatively small numbers working in the industry. Nevertheless, there have been a number cases of workers developing pneumoconiosis and chronic bronchitis / emphysema. Whilst chronic bronchitis and emphysema are recognised as prescribed industrial diseases in the coal industry, unfortunately for Kingsteignton clayworkers the ball clay industry is not recognised as a prescribed employment. Many former clayworkers have spent their last years blighted by emphysema without any recourse to compensation.
During the "Two Rivers Affair" of the late 1990s when WBB wished to move the river Teign to access deposits of clay critics of the industry focussed on the environmental cost of winning clay but over the years for many Kingsteignton families there has been a considerable human cost.
Many scoff at health and safety issues stating we have become over cautious. It is only when you look back on how things were 100 years ago you that you realise why legislation was introduced to make workplaces safer.