Dixon’s Overwinding Accident 1878


1947 Dixons Priestfield Colliery from bing beside filtering pondsPlease take some moments to read this story, which happened directly under the current site of the current Redburn Farm Restaurant in High Blantyre. The following story has been pieced together from several newspaper reports and tells of how 6 miners were killed at Dixons pit 3 colliery on 5th March 1878, less than 5 months after the terrible events of the Blantyre Explosion. Pictured is a still from a short film created in 1947 by the NCB, that featured Dixon’s colliery.

Another Colliery Disaster At Blantyre — Six Men Killed— It was the reporters sorrowful duty to record another disaster had happened at No 3 Pit, High Blantyre Collieries, belonging to William Dixon (Limited), on Tuesday afternoon 5th March 1878, which resulted in the loss of six lives.

Occurring within so brief an interval of the great explosion by which so many men lost their lives at the same colliery in October 1877, the occurrence cast a feeling of gloom and sadness over the mining population of the entire district, and re-awakened public sympathy to the risks of the mine. By comparison with the awful calamity of October, this new catastrophe was trifling, though it nevertheless involved the loss of six valuable lives, and turned at least three homes into houses of mourning. In strong contrast too with the explosion, the cause of the occurrence was not difficult to seek. A cage containing seven occupants was being raised to the surface when, by what is known as over-winding, it was drawn over the “whorles” and wrecked, six of those within being precipitated down the 1,000 foot shaft and killed and only one man escaping, singularly enough without a scratch. Everything pointing to the culpability of the engine-keeper, Arthur Clelland, he was immediately afterwards taken into custody, and remained for a time in prison pending the searching inquiries that were to be made into the occurrence.

No 3 shaft was 155 fathoms down to the lowest seam, there being beneath that a “sumpt,” or well, 18 feet deep, filled to within a foot of the top with water. The shaft consisted of two divisions, one double cage being fitted into each, and the winding apparatus was that usually in use at mines in the district, comprising coupled engines with horizontal shafts, carrying a cylinder on which the ropes were wound. The ropes passed through the wall of the engine-room, and over the “whorles” hung in a framework at some distance above and perpendicular to the shaft.

The engine-keeper, who had no other duty but to attend to his engine, had two methods of knowing when the cage was near the surface of the ground or the pit’s bottom. An indicator, turned by means of a worm-screw, showed at any moment something in the manner that a clock face would do the position of the cage in the shaft, and when it has reached the stopping point, and besides this the engine-keeper had a clear view of the pithead, and the usual practice was to watch for the appearance of the cage. The applications for stopping the engines were very perfect and could be operated on almost as rapidly as the mind of its attendant. Cages containing coal were wound to the surface in from 33 to 36 seconds, but when men composed the freight about double that time was occupied. Arthur Clelland was the day shift engine-keeper. He had been in the employment of the firm since November 1877, and had filled the position of engine-keeper at No 3 since about the New Year 1878/79, earning a high reputation for caution and steadiness.

The time when the men finish work lies entirely with themselves. They usually accomplish what they consider their task, and then ascend to the surface. As a rule, the first of them left the pit about 2 in the afternoon, and they were mostly out before 4. Of the 100 at work on that day shift, six “tows” or 38 men had been drawn to the pithead by 3.25pm, when the accident occurred. The cage was again lowered to the bottom of the shaft, and six men and a boy, the whole number waiting, took their places in it. So far as could be ascertained, the necessary signals were exchanged between Clelland, the engine-keeper and the man in charge at the bottom of the shaft, and once more the cage commenced its ascent. Instead of stopping, however, at the “plates,” the point at which the men ought to have got off, the cage, from some unexplained cause, was overwound to the extent of some 20 feet, and carried onto the cross-beams, where it was completely wrecked, while six of the seven persons which it contained were precipitated to the bottom of the shaft.

Witness & Rescue

A young man named John Tracey was an eye witness of the accident. He came up in the previous cage, and having gone to the smithy with his picks, he was just outside the door when the first thing that caught his eye was the cage as it rose towards the cross-beams, and fell down the shaft. According to his account there were only three men on the cage, which was partially upset, at the time he observed it. One was thrown off by the violence of the collision with the cross-beams, and fell down the shaft. The second seemed to leap off, but his feet coming in contact with the framework he was precipitated down the opposite shaft. The third who was named Robert Garrity, crouching down, and secured himself by clinging to the sides of the cage. Some newspaper reports have Robert as being Robert Allan, nicknamed “Carroty”, which may have given rise to the report of Garrity? Tracey gave the alarm, shouting that the cage was over the “whorles,” and Mr James Paterson, engineer at the works, who was inside the smithy, ran to the engine-house, and after noticing the state of the indicator, rushed to the relief of Garrity, and succeeded in rescuing him from his position, which was still one of considerable peril. On his being brought to the ground some warm tea was obtained for him, and it was found that saving the shock to his nervous system, he was little the worse, and he was in a short time able to walk to his home in Stonefield.

Without a moment’s delay information of the accident was sent to the colliery offices at Dixon’s Rows. The manager of the works, Mr Watson, who had just come up No 3 pit, and who was still suffering from the severe burns he sustained in the 1877 explosion, was in the office at the time along with Mr Robert Robson, his assistant in the management, and Mr J. T. Robson, assistant Government Inspector for the district, and these gentlemen lost no time in rushing to the scene. On arriving there they first directed their attention to the shattered cage, with the view of detaching it from the pulley frames, amongst which it had got firmly wedged. This having been accomplished, the next thing to be done was to endeavour to recover the bodies of the six men who had all too surely lost their lives. Hope was futile for any rescue, given the great distance the men fell, perhaps for much of the fall, still conscious.

With that object, Mr Robson, the assistant manager, leaving Mr Watson at No 3 Pithead, proceeded in the direction of No 2 Pit, in order to make a descent of the mine. In company with a number of men whom he collected on the surface on his way along, Mr Robson went down the shaft about a half-an-hour after the accident was first reported, and proceeded along the “communication” between the two pits till the sumpt at the foot of No 3 shaft was reached. Nothing, however was to be seen there save a few fragments of the cage, and the unfortunate colliers it was at once conjectured, had been precipitated right to the bottom of the 16 feet of water which the sumpt contained. Grappling irons were at hand, and with these Mr Robson and those along with him fished the corpses to the surface, a task in which they speedily succeeded.

The Dead

In the meantime, Mr Watson was not idle at the head of No 3 pit. Having had the wrecked cage removed from amongst the gear overhead, he caused a “kettle” to be attached to the tow rope, and in this three men were slowly lowered to ascertain if the shaft had been injured in any way through the accident. On its being discovered that it was in no way damaged, but remained in the excellent state of repair into which it was put in the thorough overhaul it received before work was resumed, it was resolved at once to bring the bodies to the surface. This was done in the space of a few minutes, three of the corpses being sent up in the uninjured cage and three in the kettle. It was then ascertained that the following were the names of the killed :—

Patrick Houghnie, 36 years of age, residing at 16 Ann Street, Burnbank;
Martin Houghnie, aged 16, son of the above;
Patrick Hopkins, a young man about 20, who was a lodger with Houghnie;
Thomas Murdoch, aged 48, residing at 1 Dixon Street, Stonefield. Leaves a wife and family. Robert Murdoch, aged 20, eldest son of the above
Michael Currie, 40 years of age, residing at Gardiner Place, Auchinraith. Leaves a wife and family.

The whole of the bodies were placed in coffins supplied by Mr Wallace, Hamilton, and after identification they were removed to their respective homes by friends, many of whom had by this time flocked to the pit mouth.

In regard to the killed, there attaches the usual sorrowful tale that they left behind them dependants and loved ones. In Murdoch’s case, however, the circumstances were invested with peculiar sadness, from the fact that he lost a son in the October explosion, and now another boy of his was killed with him. A widow and four or five of a family remained behind to mourn their great loss. The Houghnies — father and son — and the lad Hopkins, who lodged with them, had been employed as miners in the county of Durham, and neither of the three had been at work in the Blantyre Collieries for more than eight days. Hopkins was about to be married to a daughter of the family. Currie, who had only recently come to Blantyre, left a wife and three children. The wife was blind, and the family became in great destitution.


Mr Paterson, the engineer, immediately on being apprised of the accident, made an examination of the indicator in the engine house, and found that it registered the position of the cage at 40 fathoms from the pithead. When he went back it indicated 7 fathoms, the position of the cage in the interval not having been altered. Whether anything happened to disarrange the indicator when the accident occurred was to be strictly inquired into. Reporters believed from statements that it worked correctly both before and after the fatal occurrence. Paterson wanted the engine keeper to wait, but Clelland would not, and he is believed to have made for home, running off by a shortcut through the fields at High Blantyre beside Bellsfield.

His future intentions may be gathered from the circumstance that subsequently he was seen making his way Glasgow-wards, having first shifted and cleaned himself, by a lad named Richard Lyon, who was sent by Mr Watson to acquaint the police of the accident. Lyon informed the police of what he had seen, and Constable Jeffrey having gone in pursuit, overtook Clelland and took him into custody pending further inquiries. Much sympathy was felt for him, considering his previous good character. On the Wednesday he was judicially examined before Sheriff Birnie, and committed to prison, pending further investigations, on a charge of culpable homicide or culpable neglect of duty. Clelland, who was about 40 years of age, was previously employed as an engineman in the Larkhall district.

Mr John Miller, Depute Procurator-Fiscal, accompanied by Mr Paterson, Sheriff-Clerk Depute, visited the colliery immediately after the accident, and made the necessary official investigations. Chief-Constable McHardy, with a sufficient body of men, kept excellent order. On the Wednesday Mr Ralph Moore, Government Inspector, visited the colliery, and inquired into the circumstances of the occurrence.

At the New Court in April 1878, Arthur McLelland (or Clelland) was accused of having culpably caused the death of six miners at one of the High Blantyre pits by failing to stop the “cage” in which they were being raised to the surface, and allowing it to be dashed against the cross-beams above. The charge was found not proven.

Accidents through over-winding, it may be added, thanks to the skill, intelligence, and attention of the engine-keepers of the district, were almost unknown in these parts. In England, on the other hand, over-winding has been a fruitful source of accident, leading to much discussion, and in many instances the adoption of mechanical means whereby a repetition was prevented.

Sources: Hamilton Advertiser 9th March 1878. The Scotsman Wednesday 6th march 1878 page 7. The Scotsman Thursday 25th April 1878 page 4. Thank you also to Gordon Cook and Alex Rochead for providing additional information.

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