Great Fire at High Blantyre 1880


coalmine“High Blantyre Collieries, belonging to William Dixon (Limited) were on Sunday night the scene of a disastrous fire, in which the life of one man was lost, and a great extent of property destroyed. The origin of the fire is not known, although it has been the subject of a searching investigation by the Procurator-Fiscal for the district, Mr J.A. Dykes.

No one was down the pit on Sunday except Andrew McLean, who went to feed the horses employed underground. This young man, with three companions, made the descent about four o’clock, and while it was at first supposed, before the party had returned they had unwittingly set fire to the lamp cabin, where they would leave the light they carried to the stable, from the inflammable character of the cabin and its contents, and the state of the fire when first discovered, doubts have been thrown on this conjecture. The cabin was used as a store for the naphtha, paraffin, and other oils employed in the lighting of the pit, and from the constant use of, and giving out the oil from it was thoroughly saturated with that material. It is, however, possible that the place had burned quietly until the fire reached the large stores of oil, when the flames would burst forth with great violence.

Be this as it may, on Alexander Lang, the night engineman, proceeding about six o’clock to the lamp-room, for a lamp with which to examine some leaking pipes, he observed a blazing stream flowing across “the level road” or main gallery of the splint or lower-most seam of coal. As the fire was opposite the lamp-cabin, he concluded that it consisted of burning oil, and seeing that any effort of his own would be of little avail in checking the burning he returned to the hill and gave the alarm. This was about a quarter to six o’clock, and taking with him a bucket and a night furnaceman, named James Stewart, he again descended to the scene of the fire. Finding the water from the single bucket to have no effect on the flames, he dispatched Stewart for further assistance.

One of the volunteers was the lad Andrew McLean, who knowing that a bucket was to be had at the stables situated some little distance along the level road, crept under the burning roof with the object of proceeding there, He had only gone a few yards when the smoke and flames driven by the current of air sent down the shaft for the purpose of ventilation, enveloped him and, crying in an agonised tone “Oh” he fell forward and was never seen again.

Adam Speirs One of the oversmen, and others joined those below, and a great effort was made to subdue the flames, and remove to the top a race of loaded hutches which, standing opposite the cabin had also caught fire. Andrew White, oversman of No. 1 Pit, arrived with a fire-extinguisher, which, however, on being tried, was found not to work. Those below-ground continued their exertions until about eight o’clock, when Speirs had to be carried to the hill in an exhausted state. It was deemed prudent at the same time to withdraw all the other workers. There were not wanting volunteers to make a further descent, and twice the attempt was made to go down, but the wind drove the smoke coming from the up-cast down the downcast, and in each instance the men had to return. About nine o’clock, the gas evolved from the blazing coal exploded in the shaft with a terrific crash. The violence of the concussion sent portions of the heavy timber gearing at the pithead flying in every direction, kindled the wooden erections on the bank, and redoubled the fury of the flames in the shaft. A column of fire, some sixty feet in height, leapt into the air, casting to the sky a lurid reflection which was visible along the whole countryside. The Hamilton Fire Brigade, under Mr Watson, arrived with an engine at half past ten o’clock, and, assisted by the people resident in the neighbourhood, they fought gallantly with the fire. Another explosion occurred a little before eleven o’clock, and, although the shock was not less severe, as it caused the earth to tremble within a considerable radius of the pit mouth, it did less damage, but this was simply because everything that could be effected by it had been preciously wrecked. The great crown were startled shortly after midnight by a third detonation, which was not, however, equal in violence to either of those that preceded it.

The flames above ground were eventually subdued; but as the only means left to master the fore in the workings, it was resolved to seal up the shaft, and this laborious and hazardous operation was begun between two and three, and concluded about seven in the morning. All that remains of the fittings above ground are the upright shafts supporting the whorls and part of the gangway connected with th4e loading place. The lad McLean was about 20 years of age, and lodged with Hepburn at Barnhill. He is not known to have any connections.

The news that the pit was on fire was conveyed to all the officials. Mr Thomas, general manager, and Mr Morrison, manager, arrived about eight o’clock. Mr Charles Thomson was communicated with at Calder, and lost no time in making for Blantyre. Mr Ralph Moore, inspector of mines, Mr. J.A. Dykes, P.F. and other officials were also in attendance, while a large force of police, under Chief-Inspector Carmichael, kept back the crowd. Mr D. Anderson, general manager, Auchinraith, and others, rendered valuable assistance during the night.

The full extent of the damage will not be known until the pit is opened up again, but it is needless to say the loss to the Company will be very great. There are at present about 900 men employed at the Collieries, who were all thrown temporarily idle. On Tuesday, the work of closing up the communication between No. 4 and the other pits by means of a strong building was successfully carried out, so that at night the brushers went down the other pits, in which labour was generally resumed on Wednesday. No. 4 will remain closed for a time to allow the fire in the workings to exhaust itself.

The fact may be mentioned that the duty of feeding the ponies on Sunday as on other days should not have been undertaken by McLean and the others but John Hepburn, the Hostler. The engineman is strictly charged not to allow strangers down the pit, or at least unless Hepburn is with them. Hepburn went down in the morning and fed the ponies as usual. In the afternoon he came back again with a boy named Morgan, who stayed with him, and who was in the habit of going down and assisting him to feed the ponies. Hepburn went up to the engine-house to tell the engineman to put him down the pit, but on his way to the cage he met a workman, and while speaking to him he heard a voice cry out “Away” (the signal to descend). Looking round he saw the boy Morgan on the cage along with the deceased lad McLean, and John Graham Miller, 19 years, and Walter Wallace, 17 years of age—the latter two being employed in Messrs Dunlop’s Ironstone Mines, and having no connection with Messrs Dixon’s Works. The cage disappeared, and Hepburn called out to Morgan not to stay long. They had two Clanny lamps with them, and also a naked light. It appears, however, that naked lights were allowed in the put at the stable, and that naphtha lamps were kept burning there all the week, with the exception of Sunday. Hepburn did not acquaint the engineman with the fact that he did not go down the pit, but went home. The lad McLean brought back the Clanny lamps still lighted, and told Hepburn that he had fed and watered the horses, and had left everything correct. The engineman, Robert Muir, states that he was not aware that Hepburn did not go down the pit. After telling him that he wanted to go down Hepburn had plenty of time to descend. He could not, from his position at the engine, see who was in the cage, and he was not aware that it was the boy Morgan who cried out. “

This next follow up extract was taken from Hamilton Advertiser Archives 15/1/1881. Page 2.

“In the disastrous fire in No. 4 Pit, Blantyre Collieries, on 14th March, 1880, it will be remembered that a pony driver names Andrew McLean, 21 years of age, while with others attempting to put out the flames at the early stages of the burning, ran to the stables on the other side of the fire for a bucket and was never more heard of. On Thursday afternoon, while workmen were engaged in redding a fall from the roof near the coal face in the south side of the pit, and about 300 yards from where the fire raged, they came on McLean’s dead body underneath the debris, his head being under a large stone. The position in which the body was found led to the belief that he was making for some of the other outlets from the workings when he succumbed to the afterdamp, or was overtaken by the fall. There was no mark of burning about his body or clothes, and a silver verge watch found in his pocket was standing about 5.51, being about the time he was last seen. Deceased’s funeral took place on Thursday. The extent of the damage to the pit may be gathered from the fact that although conducted vigorously from a short time after the fire, the operations for opening up the workings are not yet concluded.”

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