This is the story about two young, teenage brothers who lost their lives in the Blantyre Pit Disaster of 1877.
James Bolton was born in 1860 in Hamilton, the son of Ann Maria Shields and John Bolton (b1820-1870). His father John had been married before but his first wife Janet Aitken died in 1859. As such James had several older half brothers and sisters.
John and Ann Maria had James in 1860, Thomas in 1862 and Robert in 1864. All the children born in Hamilton. When Thomas was born his dad was 42 , his mother only 25. However, tragedy was to strike this family on a few occasions.
In 1870, John Bolton died, aged only 50 and at the aged of 10, young James Bolton left school to become a coal miner, his mother and two young brothers depending on his wage. His parents had been married only 10 years.
The situation was however intolerable, with such a small wage to supply a whole household and in 1874, his mother remarried into the Swanson family. At this time, James was only 14 working as a coalminer in Hamilton and his younger brother Thomas, then only 12 had followed pursuit!
In 1876, at the age of 16, James moved to Blantyre, entitled to a house at Dixon’s Rows, owned by his new employers. He took his younger brother Thomas, aged 14 and together the two young brothers lived together at 48 Hall Street in Dixons Rows.
The brothers would have been quite accustomed to getting up at 4.30am each morning and walking in the winter up to Dixon’s Pits in High Blantyre in darkness. This was a hard life for the young men and wages would have been even smaller than were they adults.
James was employed as a Pit Bottomer and Thomas as a Drawer. A bottomer was a person who loads and unloads the cages at the bottom or intermediate landings in a shaft. The two boys worked in the same pit, though it unknown if immediately beside each other.
On 22nd October 1877 the Pits exploded violently killing over 200 men (and boys). It is thought both James and Thomas died almost instantly.
On Wednesday 24th October 1877 during an interval when the rain stopped, eight bodies were brought up from Pit 2. Amongst them was James Bolton (17) and word got out that it was thought there could be four or five of the Bolton family working in the pit. (Certainly James and his brother and two of his cousins William and another Thomas were).
The exploring party who brought up James was 30 volunteer men strong under the management of Mr Anderson, manager of another colliery belonging to Merry & Cunningham. Those bodies were found at the south side of the pit, near the pit shaft, the men evidently had been making their way out when overcome.
As the bodies were brought up, on that day, it was noticed that some people had been picking the pockets of the dead at the surface and a stronger police presence was called for.
One can only imagine his mother Ann Maria coming from Hamilton to find out what had happened to 2 of her 3 young sons. She would have quickly realised that with the death of James, hope would quickly be lost regarding missing Thomas.
Thomas was eventually found by rescuers also deceased and brought to the surface on 8th November, another 2 weeks later. It is telling also that James stepfather identified the bodies and signed the death certificates.
The boys were buried at Larkhall Cemetery. Dixon’s Rows are pictured a few decades later.
From the book, “Blantyre Explained” by Paul Veverka (c) 2020