1879 Colliery Accident

Words from forthcoming book, “Blantyre Explained” by Paul D Veverka (c) 2016

Barely 18 months after the large pit explosion of 1877, on 2nd July 1879 Dixons number one pit, Blantyre suffered a loss of 28 lives. The 1879 disaster occurred in the Ell coal, the shallowest of the three seams. The coal was worked from number 1 pit, which was the downcast. After the day shift had left the pit by 4pm, the firemen inspected the work places and found no sign of gas. Al the victims later that day were “brushers”, who checked in then descended the pit at approximately 6pm to inspect the workings during the night shift and clear and repair any faults in readiness for the Thursday shift workers. As it would happen, events turned out that the pit was definitely not clear of gas.

The Explosion

There was a “blind pit” down to the main coal, which was no longer being worked, and a communication mine down to the splint coal at the foot of pit number 3. The explosion occurred in the evening in the Ell coal workings as the men were using dynamite to remove the expanse of stonework. Air came down number 1 pit and the current was split to ventilate the north and south workings respectively. The south current passed along the south level for 770 yards (700 m) to the southern extremity. It passed through the longwall workings there and returned via the older stoop and room workings before joining the north current return and passing up the upcast, number 5 pit.

The inspectors report had previously concluded “1 That the arrangements for the ventillation of this pit were sufficient, and that the quantity of air sent in was ample under ordinary conditions”. Although the owners banned the men from opening lamps or from taking smoking materials below ground, several prosecutions had occurred for breaches of the rules. The last such was the day before the explosion when a miner, John McLean who was fined £2 (equivalent to £182 in 2016) for opening his lamp just the day before the explosion.

The Rescue

The explosion was first noticed on the surface at the pithead as a “sharp report” at 21:10 on Wednesday 2 July 1879, which some men had thought it was an explosion in the shaft, owing to a little dust travelling up the shaft and slight movement of the cage.

Mr. James Bennet, the engine-man and Alexander McMillan were startled by a loud rumbling noise, which according to the engine-man, was like the sharp detonation of a charge of dynamite.

Once John White, the oversman (living nearby at Preistfield Row), had been summoned an attempt was made to lower an empty cage, around 9.30pm, but it stuck fast on the Ell coal. Mr. White then descended in number 3 pit and found the majority of the 161 miners working underground were unaware that the explosion had occurred and 129 of them immediately got out and reached safety when they heard of the danger. He, a group of men who stayed down, and shortly afterwards Mr Watson (the colliery manager) proceded up the communication mine into number 1 pit’s workings to rescue the 31 men known to be in the south side workings. Meantime, other parties descended into the blind pit into the main coal and other parties searched the north workings and both reported all was well.

The first man found was the lamp-trimmer, who waa still alive in the wrecked lamp station. He was able to explain that the blast came inwards upon him, but was so severely injured that he died before he could be taken up to the surface. An attempt was then made to push further into the level area and a point a good distance of 350m was reached before anybody else was discovered. All the brick stoppings on the side of the level road were blown out. The roof was considerably damaged and had fallen at various points. Unable to proceed further, the volunteers were forced back at these south workings, stopped by falls and afterdamp.

At 3am when the afterdamp had dispersed sufficiently they progressed the search. It had now been 6 hours since the explosion and this was on the mind of the rescuers. Then, slowly but surely they started discovering bodies on the level road. When they reached the head of the road, they found 5 men who were still alive. One died as he was being taken out, but the other 4 reached the surface by 4am, although one of them later died from his injuries. Various aborted attempts were made to recover the bodies during the Thursday, but it was 4am on Friday before the whole workings could be safely reached and recovery of all the other victims completed. Twelve of the victims were found to be burned, some only slightly, all other died from choking on the firedamp.


Thoughts turned as to how it could have happened. Mr Owen, one of the survicors, stated that they were knocked over by the blast, and all of them thought it proceeded from a shot, although his impression was that it had been an explosion. It put all their lights out, but being within shouting distance of each other, they met at the top of the dook, where the rescurers had found them. They had discussed the situation and sat there for about 20 minutes until deciding they should attempt to reach the shaft, but after just 20m they were met with hot after-damp and forced to return to the dook. A second attempt was also unsuccessful, so they returned to the dook, where one by one, the miners were becoming unconscious until they were recovered by the rescuers.

The 3 survivors said no man complained and they never heard any sounds from the others. Not all the safety lamps were found, however one was found that was unlocked. Smoking materials including matches were found in the clothes of the deceased men, one man was found with a half full pipe in his hand. Several men had unofficial (and therefore illegal) lamp-keys on them. The men had paid little attention to the warnings of 18 months earlier and their addictions to tobacco, took forefront over safety. In the immediate vicinity of the seat of the explosion little burning was seen, the supposition was that a firedamp explosion had raised dust in the passageways and the coal dust had exploded. The official investigation tentatively suggested that shot firing had displaced the gas towards the area where men were smoking and that a naked flame there triggered off the explosion.

List of the dead

The names of the miners who died are as follows:
Peter Berry (58) married with 6 children at Dixons Rows,
James Bryson (58) married with family at Dixons Rows,
Tague Boyle (22) single at Dixons Rows,
Bernard Carins (22) single at Dixons Rows who was rescued but died in the engine house,
Henry Duffy (65) single residing with James Bryson at Dixons Rows,
Thomas Duffy or McDuff (24) single at Dixons Rows,
John Harvie (44) married at Dixons Rows who was originally from Partick,
Michael Howitt (27) single at Dixons Rows,
Thomas Irvine (60) bottomer with grown up family at Dixons Rows,
Edward Jardine (28) widower at Dixons Rows,
James Lafferty (46) fireman married with family at Dixons Rows,
Patrick Lynch (30) single residing at Dixons Rows,
John Malone (38) married with 5 children at Dixons Rows,
Alexander McArthur (40) married residing at Dixons Rows at Calder Street,
Patrick McGarvie (55) married at Dixons Rows,
Edward McGarvin (23) single at Dixons Rows,
John McGuigan (38) married with 2 children at Dixons Rows,
Robert Mullen (28) single residing at Bowie’s Land at Stonefield,
John Murphy (24) single residing at Miller Street at Dixons Rows,
John Newton (60) single at Dixons Rows who was rescued but died being carried out,
Richard O Brien (28) married with one child at Dixons Rows,
John O Neil (32) married with 3 children at Dixons Rows,
Richard Runn (30) married with 6 children at Barnhill,
Alexander Symington (24) single at Larkfield,
Edward Thomson (31) married with 6 children at Larkfield,
Patrick Vallelly (21) single lodging with James Lafferty at Dixons Rows and
John Wilson (?) single residing at Stonefield.

The 3 survivors when found were unconscious and were brought to the surface by the no 2 pit shaft. Their names were Charles Lafferty (18) single son of James, Bernard O Neill (27) single brother of John and James Owen (52) who was unmarried.

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On social media:

Joy McLennan Sadly, no benefits for the widows left behind. Poverty-stricken with kids. Horrible living conditions.
Janette Innes McElwee Sad they would have lost there home to.xx

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