An engraving of the Oaks Colliery disaster in 1866.Public Domain

One hundred and fifty years ago, several Irishmen were killed in the worst mining disaster in England's history, and now descendants are searching for answers.

On December 12, 1866, an explosion killed nearly 400 boys and men at the Oaks Colliery near Barnsley. Dozens of rescuers were killed in another explosion the next day, during efforts to search for survivors.

Researchers have found information on two men born in Cork who are known to have died. Many of the other victims were known to have been second-generation Irish.

William Barry, 27, from Cork, died in the main explosion at 1pm on December 12.  Census records show that he was already working as a coal miner in 1861 and living on Barnsley’s Baker St with his parents James and Mary. His sister Ellen worked as a winder in a sinew factory.

William was employed at the colliery as a hurrier, responsible for bringing the mined coal to the surface. He was one of an estimated 169 victims whose bodies were never brought out of the pit after the accident.

The Irish Examiner reports that among more than 20 of the dead who had Irish parents was John Coughlan, whose great-great-granddaughter Lynda Pickersgill. She a member of the team of volunteers that has devoted more than 3,000 hours researching the disaster.

“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.

Lynda found 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.”

Some of the names of those killed are not entirely certain, such as a 30-year-old Cork-born miner whose name was most likely Thomas Hiland or Hyland but is registered in the records of a local cemetery as Thomas Ireland.

Stephen Miller, community officer with Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership which organized the project, said researchers discovered Thomas’s burial, which was shared with another victim, was paid for by another Irish coal miner, 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.

In 1861, the Hiland family included Thomas’s parents, James and Jane, who appear to have emigrated during the famine. They had a daughter Ann, 18 at the time, who was born in Ireland, but their youngest child , Margaret, was born in Barnsley in 1847 or 1848.

Miller said they have plans for an exhibition in December and that any information about the victims or family photos from Ireland would be greatly appreciated.

Details on the 384 victims can be seen at

Anyone with feedback or information can contact the project at