Figure 1: Coal Miner underground with a pit canary.
Canaries in Coal Mines
End of an Era
Twenty-five years ago, in February 1996, the use of canaries in British collieries came to an end following the 1995 Escape and Rescue from Coal Mines Regulations. The phasing out period had been ongoing over the previous decade. They were replaced by a hand held carbon-monoxide detector, known in the coal industry as the ‘Electronic Canary’ (below).
Figure 2: The Electronic Canary. Photo Credit – Bob Bradley.
Previously, canaries had to be kept at a coal mine by law under the 1911 Coal Mines Act to test for dangerous mine gases following an underground fire or explosion. A minimum of two canaries had to be kept but it was usual practice to keep more than this. They were used by the colliery Rescue Teams to test for carbon monoxide (CO), known as ‘whitedamp’ in coal mining circles, a colourless and odourless gas which occurred as a result of an underground fire. A canary’s heartbeat is one-hundred times faster than a human’s and any sign of CO could be detected before a human. Normally they would stop singing or start acting in a peculiar fashion. When this happened the rescue team would make a hasty retreat to a fresh air base.
Canaries were mentioned in the one of the statements given following the explosion at South Normanton Colliery, Derbyshire, on 15th February 1937, in which eight miners lost their lives.
“After they (the Mines Rescue Team) had travelled a considerable distance, they heard workmen with a pony and a tram coming behind them. The rescue team left all their equipment, except breathing apparatus, canary and flame safety lamp, behind for these men to bring to the coal face.”
A short clip of canaries being used following an underground fire at Desford Colliery, Leicestershire in 1971 can be seen on the Media Archive for Central England website:
Fig. 3 – Creswell Colliery on the day of the disaster on 26th September 1950 which killed 80 miners. Most died by CO poisoning.
CO – The Silent Killer!
Miners killed by CO poisoning were said to be found by the rescue teams in a state of apparent calm, with a rosy pink complexion in their cheeks. Eighty miners were killed at Creswell Colliery (above) following an underground fire there on 26th September 1950, many as a result of CO poisoning.
By the early 1970’s, ever miner carried a self-rescuer, a type of respirator, on their belts as a protection against CO in the event of an underground fire. See Self Rescuer
Canaries were also effective at detecting Blackdamp, an oxygen deficient mine gas, heavier than air, and found near the floor. In coal mining it was often found in swilley’s (dips in the roadway) and in the sump of shafts. Miners affected by this would be quickly overcome, feeling faint, and would do very quickly.
Figure 4: Canaries at Annesley Colliery (1865-2000) in the 1990’s. Photo – MuBu Miner collection
Canaries – a special coal mining tradition.
Canaries hold a special place in coal mining heritage in Britain. At the pit, miners would feed them bits of fruit before going on shift or even in some instances a honey ring! At Annesley Colliery, Nottinghamshire, they were usually kept at the No. 1 shaft-side (downcast shaft) during the warmer months and in the lamp cabin in the colder months.
When the colliery closed at the end of January 2000, the BBC East Midlands TV report on the closure ended with Deputy, Stuart Wadsworth, taking the canaries away from the shaft-side for the final time!
Canaries are mentioned in Barry Hine’s novel, ‘The Price of Coal’ (Penguin Book, 1979) about a South Yorkshire colliery which has a Royal Visit and is then hit by a mining disaster. During the rescue operation, the Mines Rescue Team are halted by an inrush of water through a fissure caused by the explosion and have to try and pass through the pond where it has accumulated in the gate;
‘When there was a line of them (Rescue Workers) in the water, they relayed the stretchers and canaries to the other side. The jerky passage agitated the birds, and as the swaying cage was handed on, they jumped from perch to perch until they reached the captain and were placed on the ground’
Figure 5: Mock pit canary in a canary resuscitator at the former Snibston Discovery Centre, Coalville, Leicestershire. Photo – MuBu Miner
Canaries and Pit Humour
They could also be the part of the ‘pit crack’, the quick witted, dry humour which most miners had. In the early 1990’s during the Coal Crisis, one not so clever miner, whose passion was keeping cage birds, was fooled into thinking he could buy the pit canaries if the pit closed. He was set up to contact the Safety Engineer, who latched on what was going off and told him he could have the first refusal if the worst came to the worst. On asking how much they might be, the Safety Engineer replied quick as a flash “I think they’re going cheep!”
Figure 4: Coal mining mural at Low Street, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire c1999. Photo – MuBu Miner
Canaries and Coal Mining Heritage
Along with pit ponies, canaries are one of the most fondly remembered items in coal mining heritage. They formed part of a coal mining mural (above) which used to adorn a wall at Low Street, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, in the late 1990’s.
Historical Coal Mining Entertainer, David Coleman, the ‘Eastwood Pitman’, mentions the tradition of keeping canaries at the pit in his book, ‘A Nottinghamshire Pitman’s Story’:
“As a tribute to the canary, every pit top, near the Colliery Manager’s office usually, had an aviary full of canaries. Although they didn’t use them much, they still kept them as a tradition. There was always somebody nominated to look after them. They saved many, many lives.”
Figure 6: The canary at Bestwood Winding Engine House. Photo Credit – MuBu Miner
Bestwood Winding Engine House
The Bestwood canary (above) forms part of the coal mining heritage educational tour, ‘Peter the Pit Pony’, at the preserved Bestwood Winding Engine House in Nottinghamshire.
Figure 7: Stuffed former Markham Colliery canary as part of the coal mining heritage display at Chesterfield Museum, Derbyshire. Photo – MuBu Miner
At stuffed canary occasionally forms part of the static display of coal mining heritage of the former North Derbyshire coalfield at the Chesterfield Museum, Derbyshire (above). The canary was one of the last ones to be kept at nearby Markham Colliery which closed in 1993.
Figure 8: Coal mining history surface tour at the Snibston Discovery Centre, Coalville, Leicestershire, in 2011. Photo – MuBu Miner
Snibston Discovery Centre – closed 2016
They also formed part of the coal mining educational surface tour at the former Snibston Discovery Centre, Coalville, Leicestershire. They formed part of the Gas in Coal Mines part of the tour in the lamp cabin at Snibston Colliery which closed in 1983. The Snibston Discovery Centre was closed in 2016 due to austerity measures.
Bradshaw, J.T. The South Normanton Colliery Disaster, (1979).
Coleman, D. A Nottinghamshire Pitman’s Story, (2017).
Hines, B. The Price of Coal, (Penguin Books – 1979).
Chesterfield Borough Council website www.chesterfield.co.uk
Friends of Bestwood Country park website http://www.fbcp.org.uk
Healey Hero website www.healeyhero.co.uk
Media Archive for Central England (MACE) website www.macearchive.org
Mining Heritage website http://miningheritage.co.uk
Heritage Resources Officer
Posted: 7th February 2021.