Blantyre and the blackness of darkness

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Blantyre, Lanarkshire, ScotlandBlantyre History of Mining

Blantyre and the blackness of darkness

Blantyre MinerTHE LYRICS of the lament are agonisingly accurate. When the horror and the enormity of Scotland’s worst mining disaster began to sink in to the relatives of those left behind in the dingy little town known as “Dirty Auld Blantyre”, their cries of sorrow could be heard for many a mile. The hills around Blantyre truly echoed with their mourning.

It was October 1877 and the coal extracted from Scotland’s pits went a long way to powering the country. The Industrial Revolution had given rebirth to dozens of little villages in Scotland’s Central Belt. Along with shipbuilding, engineering and other forms of heavy industry, mining helped keep the economy of Scotland buoyant.

In High Blantyre, Lanarkshire, a few hundred yards from where African explorer David Livingstone was born, stood five pits run by William Dixon Ltd. Together they produced hundreds of thousands of tons of coal and made wealthy men of the mine owners. The miners and their families, by contrast, carried out back-breaking work for little more than a pittance and were housed in cramped tied cottages. The High Blantyre pits were known locally as “The Fiery Mine” because of the heavy presence of a gas called firedamp, which consisted chiefly of methane.

On 22 October the early shifts of more than 230 men had gone down the mine as usual at 5.30am. It was a gloomy start to the Monday and the villagers were beginning to go about their business when, at 8.45am, a huge underground explosion heard for miles around rocked Blantyre and sent flames from two of the five pits. Frantic efforts were made to rescue those in the mine but the blast claimed 207 lives, the youngest a boy of 11.A local newspaper reported at the time: “How indelibly it is engraven on our memory. A sudden flash arose …then forthwith a dense volume of smoke, ‘the blackness of darkness’, which spread itself, a terrible funeral pall, over the surrounding plain. We were soon at the scene of the disaster, whither hundreds of eager and terrified creatures were hurrying, and there for hours we remained, a stricken shepherd amongst a stricken flock.”It took a week of painstaking searching with the stench of firedamp continually hanging in the air before the bodies were all recovered. The accident left 92 widows and 250 fatherless children. An inquiry into the disaster failed to find the precise cause of the explosion but it is generally held to be a sudden release of gas that was then ignited by a naked flame.

Complaints about the working conditions at High Blantyre had been made over and over again. They were, as in most pits, ignored. Only days before the explosion a foreman named Joseph Gilmour had told a group of unhappy miners that, “There’ll not be a man fall in this pit, I’ll guarantee that”.

A year before, the Blantyre miners had been so fearful for their safety in the mines that, when Dixons refused them a wage rise to compensate, they went on strike and were immediately sacked. They and their families were evicted from their homes, with police officers using clubs on hand if necessary. The mine owners turned to Irish Catholics to take the place of the men.

Two years on and disaster struck High Blantyre for a second time when an explosion killed 28 workers. Soon after the second blast Dixons erected a large granite monument to commemorate those who had lost their lives. The site of the mine now lies buried under the East Kilbride Expressway.

The heavy-handed behaviour of mine owners like those at Blantyre undoubtedly had a great influence on the rise of left-wing politics in industrial Scotland and stimulated men like the Red Clydesiders to act on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.

And there is one quite disgraceful postscript to the disaster at High Blantyre. Six months afterwards, Dixons raised summonses against 34 widows whose husbands had been killed and who had not left their tied cottages despite having received eviction notices. The women told a sheriff at Hamilton Sheriff Court they could not afford to pay a rent elsewhere. He said they should be grateful the firm had allowed them to stay in the houses so long and ordered them to be evicted in two weeks time.

After losing their menfolk in Scotland’s worst mining tragedy it is most likely that the widows of Blantyre and their children were sent to the Poor House – to be hidden from view as a social stigma.

The Scotsman
Published Date:
02 May 2006

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