The Story of the Blantyre Pit Explosion 1877
by Rev Stewart Wright 1885 published in the “Annals of Blantyre”
The annals of our parish would certainly not be complete without some allusion to that catastrophe which so recently brought fish out if its obscurity into a sad prominence before the whole world, we mean the Pit Explosion which took place on the morning of 22nd October 1877. Up till then Scotland had been peculiarly fortunate in being exempted from those terrible Colliery accidents which were too often experienced by the mining communities of England and Wales. But now its turn had come; and the records was to be made in a page of its history, of one of the most devastating explosions as had happened in any land. By it, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” 218, if not more, men and boys were killed, leaving behind them, to the mercy of God and man, 106 widows, 300 fatherless children, and about 50 other relatives, such as aged parents, who were more or less dependent upon the dead.
What a gloomy morning that October Monday was. How indelibly it is engraven on our memory. We were dressing at the time,. The window of our room looked over against the pits. A sudden flash darted up from the most distant shaft, accompanied by debris, and a report not very loud; then forthwith there arose from the shaft nearest to us 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. The one shaft was blocked up with ruins, but the other was partially clear; again and again did gallant men descend to rescue, if possible, their buried comrades, but all in vain; the merely succeeded in bringing up a few dead bodies, when they themselves were overpowered by the choke damp and had to be brought up to the surface. Some of them were more dead than alive, and it was with difficulty we succeeded in restoring them. Still, no matter the danger, there were no lack of volunteers, many of them wildly demanding to be lower down, until at last, when the short winters day was drawing to a close, imperative orders were issued that no more lives were to be risked. Then hope fled; and the agonised crowd were left in the darkness and pitiless rain to face the terribleness of its magnitude that not one of the 200 miners and more, that were entombed beneath us, would ever see the light. Nor did they. Day after day for three weeks following, and after laborious exertions, were the bodies found and brought up for internment. With the exception of the Roman Catholics, and there were not many of them, and a few others, all the dead were laid side by side in two long trenches that had been dug in the newly made cemetery. The report of the funerals in one evening, as given in the Herald, was characteristic of them all: – “the scene in the parish burying ground, where the bodies where interred, was very impressive, and by the time that Mr Wright got as far in the service at ‘Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust,’ many of the onlookers were in tears. Few of them will soon forget the sight – the cold grey twilight, the dark overcast sky, the long deep trench, the silent uncovered multitude, and the solemn tones of the preacher’s voice”
Gradually the dead were buried; but the living remained, bereft of their breadwinners. No time was to be lost; starvation must be averted; so on the morning after the disaster, surrounded by widows and orphans, we issued, through the kind reporters, the following appeal: – “We, the undersigned, appeal to the sympathies of the nation on behalf of the mothers, wives, and orphans, who have, in very many cases, been rendered perfectly destitute by the terrible Colliery explosion which has occurred in this district. 218 men and boys have been killed, all the male members of several families had been swept away, and widespread desolation prevails. There is lamentation and bitter weeping. Contributions are earnestly solicited to meet the destitution of the afflicted families”
And what a response came to that appeal! The rich man’s thousand and the widow’s mite; the noble lady’s gift of a hundred mourning dresses, and the orphan girls gift of a few pair of warm, knitted stockings. Here is still before us the pile of letters which we keep with a kind of reverential feeling, for they tell of the noble sympathy and brotherly kindness of whole nation, from our beloved Queen to some of the poorest in her realm.
The citizens of Glasgow were not slow to take up the cause of the bereaved. A meeting was called together by the Lord Provost, when an influential committee was appointed to collect subscriptions, and frame rules for the distribution of relief. Through their exertions, the contributions speedily reached magnificent total of £48,246; and under their unwearied superintendence the remaining widows and orphans still receive their allowances. They have never known a moments want, and never will, as long as they continue on this fund. What a blessing it has been; and how earnestly we wish that such a fund was in existence and the wide basis, to meet the destitution arising from accident, serious and fatal, that are continually happening in our mining districts.
Before closing this short record of the explosion, we must not fail to pay a just tribute of praise to the gallant conduct of the miners, as we ourselves witnessed on that calamitous day, and for many days afterwards. Better than any words of ours could do, were they thus spoken of by the reporter of the Daily Telegraph: – “the British miner can fight with as much strength and majesty as the British soldier. If one fall in the imminent deadly breach, another coolly takes his place, and carries on the assault with a sublime unconsciousness of any odds that can be against him. So it was at High Blantyre. When a disabled hero was brought to bank in carefully covered with earth to free him from the influence of the poisonous gas, 10 more were eager to descend into the depths and risk a similar fate, or worse. We are glad to think that there are thousands upon thousands of men these islands who know that they themselves would have done same had they been present. Yet few are able to realise the circumstances amid which the noble Scotchmen proved their bravery and devotion. A battlefield is ghastly enough, and its horrors might well appal those who look upon them. The soldier, however, had all the excitement of personal conflict, and sometimes a burning thirst for revenge, to sustain him; whereas, in the High Blantyre mine, the rescuers struggled against an invisible foe, whose distinctiveness was evidenced on every side in the most horrible forms. The other day we paid a tribute of admiration to Welshman; now it is Scotchmen who claim a like reward. In due time, when the 200 bodies shall have been brought up, and consigned by loving hands to their last resting place, the cause of the disaster will receive attention, a jury will return a verdict, and a government inspector will make his report. But all this has been done often before, and we seem as far off as ever from the ability to protect our miners against the dangers that surround their calling.”