The Blantyre Disaster-Part One

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Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

Blantyre history

 The Blantyre Disaster (Part One)

For some pitworkers in the coalmining community of Blantyre, the morning of Monday the 22nd of October 1877 began hours before dawn struggled to reveal a cold, wet wintery day to the nine and a half thousand residents of the town. Through breaks in the clouds, the full moon provided little light to see the smoke begin to curl from chimneys as coals were poked into life to brew tea or heat porridge for breakfast, and chase away the bitter cold and dampness that had crept into the homes like the nocturnal murderer it was.

Miners House 1877A spectral figure made its way along the row of darkened houses, then stopped at one showing a dim glow in the fogged up window. “House” was a rather generous term for the miners’ rows: large families of up to a dozen souls crammed into “single-end” or two-room buildings, neither bathroom nor inside toilet, but still luxurious compared to the nearby tenements.

Big Joe Gilmour twisted the doorknob and stuck his head inside the doorway and called, “Are ye right Rab?”

From the back of the room that constituted exactly half his home, Robert Eadie swore softly as he stubbed his toe and replied, “Aye, Joe, jist pitting ma buits on!”

Joe pulled the door shut, to keep what little warmth there was within, but flattened himself into the doorway to keep out of the worst of the murderous wind and icy rain. Joe was in a dark mood, he had things on his mind, and the bleak, damp weather did nothing to help change it.

At 35, Joe was a big man for a miner, wide across the shoulders and solid muscle. His build sat well on him and had no small part in helping him attain the position he held in the pit as overman.

Across the road he dimly made out another shadowy figure clumping down the street towards Dixon’s pit. Pulling his watch out and peering at it he saw it was just after 3.30am: “Probably Wullie Black” he murmured to himself.

“C’mon Rab!” he called, just as the sound of heavy footsteps thumped behind the door and Rab Eadie emerged, pulling his bunnet hard down on his head. Immediately he hit the cold air he started coughing. He stood by the doorway for a couple of minutes, racked by coughing then hawking and spitting into the roadway, before finally regaining his breath, “C’mon then, we best be on oor wey!”

“Still no well then Rab?” Joe enquired, head down, hands in pockets, as they turned the corner and headed towards the lights in the distance. “Och, I’m fine, just this bloody cough ye ken!” (50 year old Rab had only returned to work a few weeks previously after some weeks in bed dangerously ill, and only the fact that the rent had to be paid, and that the parish hardly gave him enough to survive, motivated him.)

“How was your day aff then, Joe?” Rab tentatively asked. “Ach, dinnae ask, she’s been at me again, I’m fair scunnered wae it a’, she’s driving me up the bloody wa’, she is!” “Oh, so she’s still at ye tae move back up tae Motherwell or Wishaw is she? Joe answered grimly “Aye Ah’m gaun tae have tae sort somethin oot. She’s makin ma life hell wi’ it aw”.

For some time now, Joe’s wife Martha had been nagging him to quit working in Blantyre and find work closer to home.

Home for Joe and his family was in Wishaw, which was almost seven miles away, which meant that Joe and his oldest son Joseph (13), who also worked in Dixon’s pit, could only go home one day a week, the rest of the time living in “digs’ in Blantyre. Joe missed the comforts of home and his other bairns, but his job as undermanager in the Blantyre colliery brought an element of prestige as well as higher wages and less strenuous work.

He had mixed feelings therefore, about moving closer to home, as it might well mean going back on to the pick and shovel as there weren’t many jobs going for overmen like himself.

But perhaps his cousin Robert who was also an overman, and worked in the Hamilton pits, might be able to put a word in for him. Robert had informed him that he’d heard a whisper that there were new pits about to be sunk up that way in the Spring.

The two men continued on their way in silence, for the few hundred yards towards the pit, which was already sounding busy as a locomotive started shunting wagons around with loud squeals and crashes. From various directions men converged on the pit to begin their working week at the colliery.

Joe and Rab crossed the railway tracks crunching their way across the cinders, hurrying now as the rain intensified, eager to get inside the colliery office. As they neared the low brick building that was the pithead office, they saw John Pickering, Joe’s counterpart from the number three pit, strike a match by the doorway and lit his pipe before entering the building.

Inside the dimly lit room they found the rest of the early gang, the firemen, overmen and pitheadman, drinking hot black tea and smoking almost to a man, standing around the blazing fire, a fire which was fuelled by the very coal they hewed out from the earth 800 feet or more below them.

The reason these men began work so early was that they were employed as “firemen” or ‘fire inspectors”, it was their job to descend into the pits before the main workforce and ensure that the mine workings were free of dangerous gases and safe to be worked.

For some of these men however, this would be the last time they would go down into Dixon’s pits to carry out their often dangerous work. Dangers were always present in the mines, but one of the worst was “firedamp”, this highly explosive gas was present in all the mines in the Lanarkshire coalfields, and particularly so in Blantyre.

Just two months earlier in Dixon’s number 2 pit, young Joe McInulty had died of severe burns after an explosion of “firedamp” which had also injured his two younger brothers Robert and Andrew, leaving them also badly burnt. Despite this tragic occurrence and the concerns of the miners themselves, Dixon’s pits were not considered by the management to be particularly dangerous, all the pits in this area were subject to “firedamp” and it was accepted as being part of everyday mining life.

In fact naked lights were used throughout the pits and the only place in Dixon’s number 2 pit considered dangerous was the “stoopings” where gauze lamps were used to replace the otherwise universal “tally” lamps the miners wore on their “bunnets”

In the pithead building Rabbie Kirkland, dour as ever, knocked the ash out of his pipe, drained his tea and flicked the leaves out of his can to hiss in the back of the fire. He then took an oil lamp from a number sat on a trestle bench, lit it and went out through the doorway to take up station at his workplace as the pitheadman.

The remaining men stood around in silence, the early hour of the morning and the weather leaving the men isolated in their own company. Outside, the locomotive chuffed by in great blasts of steam blowing its whistle with total disregard to the sleeping populace of Blantyre, it pushed a row of empty wagons towards the pithead ready for the day’s spoils to appear from below.

As if motivated by the clamour, the men began to move out of the office, heading towards another building by the pithead. The rain had ceased when the wind dropped, but the icy cold remained, turning the men’s breath into instant fog. At number two pit, Joe Gilmour and his crew entered the cage having assembled their equipment together, pulled the gate shut and began their fateful descent. And so began the day of October 22nd 1877 in Dixon’s number 2 pit in Blantyre.

1877 Disaster Memorial Plaque

© Jim Rouse 1998 – Scottish Mines

We look forward to Part 2 when Jim Rouse, an ex-pat now living in Australia gets around to writing it. Jim had distant relatives who were lost in the explosion.


Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

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