In 1927, Blantyre man Hugh McPherson was in a reflective mood. Speaking of his involvement in the rescue party of the 1877 Blantyre Colliery disaster, he wrote at the time, “For many years I have had a strong desire to put on record my experiences as an explorer in that great colliery disaster, but hitherto I have not had sufficient time at my disposal. Now, having a little leisure, I shall try to give some of my experiences in as clear and truthful a manner as I can . “
What follows is a wonderful detailed account of the efforts of three men of that rescue party. The words are especially important for me, as one of the men he is describing is my great, great grandfather Mr John Bowie and his bravery is self evident.
“. . The first step at No. 3 pit was to pump water down the shaft. After the officials had decided that the fire was out they 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 workings below. This was extremely dangerous work and it was very dirty too, so the men were supplied with suitable clothes and they were also supplied with food and refreshments. It was arranged that the men should work only 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 the others had to do a double shift very often.
There were two men working there who lived beside me at Barnhill, Thomas Cook and John Bowie and they asked me to go with them to work on the shaft, but I said that I never was used to that kind of work. They replied, “Never mind, we will show you what to do.” I went along with them and did not return home for a whole week. I had a little sleep in the engine-house at the pit. It was arranged that three men would be sufficient to go down the shaft at one time, so Thomas Cook, John Bowie and myself got on to the kettle and were lowered down the shaft very slowly.
We had not gone far down when we met with the obstruction. We began 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 recovered from our immersion we were horrified to see about twenty or thirty dead bodies floating on the surface of the water. The clothes had been burnt 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 a platform large enough to hold six bodies and went into the water up to our waist and brought out one of these dead bodies and wrapped it in a white cotton sheet and laid it upon this platform. We then went back for another and did the same with it and so on until we had the 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 and one 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 on to the side of the kettle and gave the signal for the engineman to raise them up, but I was left alone in the company of 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. When they did come back we got another dead body into the inside of the kettle and they mounted on the sides of the kettle and gave the engineman the signal to hoist up and so I was left alone again. This was continued until all the dead bodies were taken up to the pit bank and then we started 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 of the water. That finished my work in the shaft at No. 3 pit. Bowie and Cook continued at work repairing the shaft at No. 3 pit but I was sent back to work in No. 2. Pit under Mr John Pickering.”
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