Flame Safety Lamp
In the early days, miners used candles, flaming torches and oil lanterns to light their way. As mines got deeper, this type of lighting presented enormous dangers due to the presence of methane gas which is potentially explosive in high concentrations when exposed to a naked flame. Underground explosions were common but the impetus to find a solution to the problem came from the Felling Pit Disaster of 1812, in which ninety-two men and boys were killed.
Fig 1: Pre Flame Safety Lamp days a ‘Penitent’, dressed in damp clothes, exploded the firedamp with a candle on the end of a long stick.
The principle of the flame safety lamp was presented by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1815. Although ‘Davy Lamp’ is the common term used by most people to describe the device, the design was based on the pioneering work of George Stephenson and Dr William Reid Clanny. However, Davy, an established figure within the Royal Society was awarded a £2,000 prize for the invention. It was only later in 1816 that Stephenson’s contribution was officially acknowledged by the Royal Society. In 1816, Clanny published a paper ‘Practical Observations on Safety Lamps’. He also made improvements to the design including the addition of the distinctive bonnet. The Davy lamp was adopted nationwide with the exception of the North East where George Stephenson’s design was more commonly used, the so called ‘Geordie Lamp’.
Davy appreciated the value of his lamp but refused to patent his design, turning down a fortune and stating – ‘My sole object was to serve the cause of humanity’. Early safety lamps were quite fragile: The gauze in the Davy lamp rusted, while the glass in Stephenson’s design was easily broken. Later, Robert Gray (who first wrote to Davy concerning the problem of methane gas), Dr Mathieu-Louis Mueseler (Belgium) and Jean Baptiste Marsaut (France) independently resolved these problems by using multiple gauze cylinders.
Fig 2: Anthony Kirby, an Eastwood Coal mining Historian, (middle) shows an original Davy Lamp to Mark Dennison (BBC Radio Nottingham) at the Bestwood Winding Engine House – March 2014. Photo Credit: MuBu Miner.
The modern Garforth lamp was developed by the Mines Research Establishment from a design described by Sir William Garforth in 1883 to provide safe lighting in coal-mines as well as providing an effective tool for the detection, observation and measurement of methane gas or ‘firedamp’. The device allows air samples to be taken from areas of the mine and blown into the lamp by means of an aspirator bulb. Changes in the colour of the flame reveal the composition of the gas. For example; a large area of blue flame observed above the test flame indicates the presence of methane gas.
During the London 2012 Games, the Olympic Torch was transported across the country by means of what was essentially a miner’s flame safety lamp. In November 2013, an unlit flame safety lamp accompanied Russian Cosmonauts on a spacewalk, ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
Fig 3: Deputy, Stuart Wadsworth, testing for mine-gas at Annesley-Bentinck Colliery (Midlands Mining Ltd) in 1995. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection.
Fig 4: GR6 Flame Safety Lamp of the late Eric Amos, Senior Overman at Bentinck and Annesley Collieries. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection.
Fig 5: 1982 NCB Flames Shapes document. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection.
Fig 6: Flame shapes for testing with a Flame Safety Lamp to show percentages of Firedamp . Photo Credit – MuBu Miner collection.
The miner’s lamp
It sat there on the table in my uncle’s cottage,
a vision in black and burnished brass,
its lines so simple, its demeanour proud
As I gazed at this treasure he held so dear
it reminded me of a lighthouse, a beacon
of hope shining out through the darkness,
Bringing rescue to shipwrecked sailors,
just as this lamp brought peace of mind
to fearful colliers down dangerous mines
Gone is the soot, the black grime of yesteryear,
cleaned up and polished to absolute perfection,
a proud reminder of sweat, toil and anguish…
I wonder what tales it could tell, what pictures
of drudgery it could paint? Too graphic for youngsters
to dwell on today. Realities too stark to recount!
It sits alone, his personal friend, guarding an untold past,
its gleaming rivets staring me out defiantly.
‘Do not ask! my uncle says…his wounds will never heal
From ‘Coal in the Blood: An East Midlands Coal Mining Anthology’, co-edited by Natalie Barber and David Amos, published by Trent Editions, 2021.