A Volunteer Rescuer’s Experience

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Blantyre, Lanarkshire, ScotlandBlantyre History of Mining

Blantyre Colliery Explosion 22 October 1877

A Volunteer Rescuer’s Experience…

Hugh Brown. (1853-1930)

A Volunteer Rescuer's ExperienceFor many years I have had a strong desire to put on record my experiences as an explorer of that great colliery disaster, but hitherto I have not had time at my disposal. Now, having a little leisure, I shall try to give some of my experiences in as clear and truthful manner as I can.

In the first place, I may state that I had been employed in Blantyre colliery for about two years before the disaster. I had worked for a short time in No. 3 pit and in several places in No. 2 pit, and was double shifting with Andrew Clark and his neighbour (a boy). We were driving the main dook leading to No. 4 pit as a communication. There was a companion dook in which John Nelson and Andrew Forrest wrought on one shift and Gilbert Harper and his neighbour on the other, whilst George Watt and his neighbour were employed driving places through at certain intervals to connect the two dooks. This was for the purpose of carrying the ventilation. This place that George Watt and his neighbour worked in was only single shifted. Samuel Nelson and I worked as neighbours, and it was our day shift that week. John nelson, Samuel’s brother, and Andrew Forrest worked together on the same shift in the back door.

At the time of the explosion I was engaged in stemming a hole for the purpose of blasting down the coal, when suddenly my hands were stayed by a strange sensation, which I could not describe very well. The whole place shook as if an earthquake had taken place. All sound had gone. I felt as you would feel if you were to put your fingers into your ears. This was due to the fact that’s the air was cut off. This continued for only a short time, and then to our great relief the air came back. When things had returned to their normal, I said to my neighbour: “some poor soul has caught it this morning,” meaning by this that someone or our fellow workers had been burned, because we knew that an explosion had taken place somewhere.

Samuel answered by saying: “I doot it”, meaning that he was afraid that someone had been burned by an explosion of gas. We had no idea that the explosion was so great, and that so many lives had been lost. While Samuel and I were discussing with each other as to the locality of the explosion, his brother John called to us to hurry up and get on our clothing, because we were only partially dressed. I answered, saying that we would fire our shot first, but he said: “Never mind the shot, come away quickly.” So we went away and left the shot unfired.

We joined George Watt, Andrew Forrest, and John Nelson in a consultation as to where the explosion was likely to have been. George Watt, a man of great experience, said it was likely to be in the long wall section about a hundred yards further up the dook.

When we got to the entrance into that section he suggested we should wait there until he returned to us. After he had gone away I suggested to the others that we might have our breakfast. They agreed to my proposal, so we sat down and had our breakfast.

A short time after George Watt returned, and along with him were all the men who wrought in the section. No Explosion had taken place there, so we wondered where it could have been. All at once we were startled by the cry of a pony driver, Willie Welsh, who told us that all the men in the pit had been killed, and that his father had been killed too. We began to realize the gravity of the situation. We all joined the pony driver and made our way to the pit bottom. On our way to the pit bottom, we were horrified at the spectacle, which met our gaze. Men dead, and dying all around us; the groans of those alive were pitiful to hear, and we discovered that the shaft was wrecked, and we had no idea as to when it would be repaired.

We were face to face with that great monster, called death because the black damp was coming over from the south side of the pit, making it difficult for us to breathe; and no prospects of us getting up the shaft, we resigned ourselves to our fate. Even then we did not realize the narrow escape we had by extent of the explosion. It was only when we got up the pit and learned that No. 3 pit had blasted as well as No. 2 pit; both pits were involved in the explosion. I should explain here how this came about. Well the explanation is this: they were both downcast shafts with the return at no. 6 shaft, where there was a cube or furnace kept burning for the purpose of increasing the ventilation. The air coming down No. 2 pit split at the bottom, one-half going to the north side, and the other to south, both returning to the upcast shaft at No. 5, but No. 3 was also a downcast shaft.

The Air, after coming down No. 3 shaft, travelled through the places in No.3 pit and then joined the air coming from the south side of No. 2 pit. Both travelled together and aired the places to the rise in No. 2 south side, and thence to the upcast shaft at No. 5. It must have been at this locality that the gas was kindled, because, as every miner knows, the flame always goes against the air until the two airs joined each other, the gas would divide itself into two halves, the one travelling towards No. 3 pit bottom, so there must have been two explosions at the same time. The air was cut off from us in the north side of No. 2 pit, because it was a flame of fire that was going up the shaft.

Had No. 2 shaft been worked in the same way as No. 3, there would have been no one alive to tell the tale, for No.3 shafts was completely closed. It took the workmen fully two hours to repair the shaft at No. 2. It was a great relief to those who were waiting at the pit bottom when the workmen came down and said the shaft was now in a safe condition for them to ascend. There was a great scramble as to who should get on the first cage. It was the case of “the weakest to the wall.”

During the time we were waiting at the pit bottom, John Nelson and I went over to the south side and lifted up a man who was still alive, but was terribly burned and groaning with pain. We could not recognize him because his face was as black as a piece of coal. We carried him across the pit bottom to the north side where the air was purer. We decided to take him up the shaft with us as he was able to stand on his feet, and this made the task comparatively easy. When we got to the pit bank, his relatives were ready to receive him.

We were told that the man’s name was Thomas Black, and that the two men who had taken him away were his two brothers. While we were in conversation with the people who were assembled on the pit bank, another page came up the pit, and we were horrified to see his Brother Samuel lying on the bottom of the cage quite unconscious. He had been overcome by the damp. After having him removed from the cage and in a place of safety, his brother John said to me that I might go for Robert Muir to come and attend to him. This Robert Muir was a great friend of ours, and he acted as our medical advisor. He lived in the village of High Blantyre, so I set off to run, but only got a few yards when I stumbled and fell. I got up again and began to run, with the same result. I believe I fell twenty times before I reached High Blantyre. My legs were so feeble they could not bear the weight of my body. This was the effect of the black damp, which I had swallowed. When I arrived at Mr. Muir’s place, and had told him how I felt and what happened to Samuel, he said I was to stay there while he attended to Samuel. On his return he gave me some medicine, which made me all right again.

I then proceeded to go home to Barnhill where I had a wife and a baby boy – the author’s father. The same evening I went back to the colliery to find that the rescuing party had got up all the dead bodies, which were scattered all over the pit bottom in No.2 and had them laid out in order for the purpose of identification, and the general public were invited to come in and inspect them. The arrangement was under the charge of Mr. Neil Douglas, the cashier. Mr. Douglas observed that on the body of one of the dead was a silver watch, and sometime afterward he saw a suspicious looking person extracting the watch from the pocket of the dead man, so he laid hold of him and handed him over to the police. The crowd wanted to interfere with their prisoner. It certainly was a mean and contemptible form of theft, but some men are mean enough for anything.

Later in the evening there was an urgent appeal made by those in the authority for volunteers to go down No.2 pit, so I expressed my willingness to go down there and then. After a band of volunteers had been selected we went down to the bottom of the pit, but were not allowed to leave the bottom without permission from those in authority. I might state here that Mr. Dickinson, the chief inspector of Mines, was in charge of arrangements. Of course he has three or four assistants with him, including Mr. Ralph Moore. He had also with neighbouring collieries. The manager of the Blantyre was not present, because he was severely burnt on the pit head at No.3 pit by the flames coming up the shaft. He was confined to bed for months. The arrangements made by this board of management included, among other things, a line of communication between the two pits. This was formed by placing men at a distance of about twenty yards apart, Nos. 1, 2, and 3 right along the line. Each man was supplied with a Scotch gauze lamp. No.1 had to cry at the pitch of his voice: “All’s well,” and No.2 had to cry the same, and so on along the line until No.3 pit bottom was reached, and then the cry: “All’s well came again to No.2 pit bottom.

This was to be kept up all night. I formed part of the line for a time. I was No.15, but was relieved later on by someone taking my place so that I was allowed to go into the interior of the workings. On reaching No.3 pit bottom we discovered that the shaft was on fire, and the burning wood was falling down the shaft, so we decided to suspend further operations until the fire was extinguished because there was the danger of a second explosion, so we began to retrace our steps back towards No.2 pit bottom, but on our way back we met Dr. William Grant with a band of fresh men. He insisted upon going into some of the working places in a certain section of the mine called Martin’s Level, so we accompanied him into that section and found two men and one boy alive, but terribly burned all over the face and body. I don’t remember their names although I remember the incident quite distinctly. Under the directions of Dr. Grant, they were carried on stretchers to the pit bottom and thence to the pit bank. They were taken into the engine house where they were washed and dressed by Dr. Grant, but they died shortly afterwards. Dr. Grant did all he could to save their lives but they were too far gone to bring them around, for in addition to their burns they had swallowed a considerable amount of black damp.

This I will say of Dr. William Grant, he provided himself to be a hero of the very first magnitude. After this the officials concluded that it would be useless looking for any more men alive in either of the two pits, and in view of the dangerous condition of the mine, it was agreed to suspend operations in No.2 pit, and to apply our energies to the extinguishing the fire in No.3 shaft, and so the line of communication was no longer required. The first step at No3 pit was to pump water down the shaft.

After the officials had decided that the fire was out the appointed a band of men to go down the shaft to clear away the debris and to make a passage for the air to go down into the working below. This was extremely dangerous work, and it was very dirty too. So the men were supplied with suitable clothes, and were also supplied with food and refreshments. It was arranged that the men should only work four hours at a time. This work of clearing the shaft was under the charge of Mr. William Gilchrist.

There was a scarcity of men for that kind of work, and in view of the fact that there were no restrictions in the supply of refreshments, many of the men indulged too freely with the result that they were not able to turn out to their work, so that others had to do a double shift very often. There were two men working there who lived beside me at Barnhill, viz. Thomas Cook and John Bowie, and they asked me to go with them to work in the shaft, but I said that I was never used to that kind of work. They replied, “Never mind, we will show you what to do.” I went with them and did not return for a week. I had a little sleep in the engine house. It was arranged that three men would be sufficient to do down the shaft at one time, so Thomas Cook, John Bowie and myself got into the kettle and were lowered down the shaft very slowly. We had not gone far down when we met the obstruction. We began by filling the kettle with stone and broken sticks, and sending it up again to the pit bank. It took a considerable time before a hole was made through the debris to allow the kettle to go down through it. When this was accomplished we decided to go right down to the bottom, which we did, with the result that we plunged into the water at the bottom to the depth of four feet and this water extended for a long distance both east and west of the bottom. After we had recovered from our immersion we were horrified to see about thirty dead bodies floating on the surface of the water, the clothes had been burned off them by the fire.

We had to come up to the pit bank again and bring down timber to erect a platform in the pit bottom. We made the platform large enough to hold six bodies, and went into the water up to the waist and brought out one of those dead bodies and wrapped it up in a white cotton sheet and laid it upon this platform. We went back for another, and did the same with it, and so on until we had six collected together, and then we began to make arrangements to have them taken up the pit. It was agreed that the best way to do this was to put one of the dead bodies into the kettle, standing straight up, and that my two comrades should stand, one on the one side and the other on the opposite side. These two men had to guide the kettle up the shaft, and it required very careful handling to guide the kettle through that narrow hole which was in the middle of the shaft; but these two men, Bowie and Cook, were experts at that kind of work. They got onto the side of the kettle, and gave the signal for the engine man to raise them up, but I was left alone with the other five dead bodies to await their return. I did not believe in ghosts, but I must say I felt very unhappy during their absence. This continued until all the dead bodies were taken up to the pit bank, and then we started again to wade through the water and fetch out more dead bodies and arrange them on the platform as before. This work was carried on for a considerable time, until we got all the dead bodies out the water. That finished work in the shaft at No.3 pit, but I was sent back to work in No.2 pit under Mr. John Pickering.

This was a very great work, because the ventilation was completely destroyed by the explosion. We had stopping’s to put in where they had been blown out, and we had falls of the roof to clear and timber to put up, and we had canvas to lead from room to room. Perhaps I should explain here that the two pits were worked on the stoop and room systems. There was gas in nearly all of these rooms, and this had to be cleared away before we could get to the dead bodies. When we got the dead bodies we rolled them up in white sheets and putting them on stretchers, carried them to the pit bottom, thence to the pit bank.

This ended our part of the work, but there were others on the pit bank who conveyed them to a large wooden shed, which had been erected for a dressing station. The shed would be about one hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. In this shed were piled up a large number of coffins in readiness for the dead bodies. A large staff of undertaker were in attendance night and day. This was the place where people had to come to identify their relatives. This identification was chiefly done by parts of their clothing, but those who were brought out of No.3 pit bottom had no clothing, but those who were brought out of No.3 pit bottom had no clothes on, so it must have been very difficult to identify them. They were greatly disfigured by the burning and damp. I had three very intimate friends working in the south side of No.2 pit at the time of the explosion who were killed. I thought I would not have much difficulty in identifying them, but I was mistaken in this for had it not been for their clothes and there initials stamped on their tools, I should not have been able to identify them. I helped to carried them out. One of them was my best man when I was married; his name was John Dobbie. These three friends of mine did not seem to be burned at all, but they were swollen and disfigured and damp. The worst case I had to handle was that of the family the name of Brown, who belonged to the Law, near Carluke. There was the father and three sons. They had been for three weeks, and the smell was dreadful. The men who were with me shrank back in horror, and refused to handle them, but our leader, John Pickering, made me and appealed for some one of us to help him to roll the bodies onto the sheets, and then laid them upon the stretcher. The other men helped us to carry them to the pit bottom. That finished my work as an explorer in that great colliery disaster of 1877. I never received anything in the shape of a reward for my service, except a copy of the Bible from the National Bible Society of Scotland, with a very appropriate inscription on it.

It quotes a passage of scripture from Mathew’s Gospel, chapter XXV, verse XL:
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me.”

Hugh Brown. (1853-1930)

Anna Steven Austen: Thank you Blantyre’s Ain for this story, I come from Blantyre and my dad worked at Dickson’s pit many years ago. I never knew the details of this disaster or of many things that you print so thank you again.

~~~

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