I’ve taken some time to research further victims of the Blantyre Pit Disaster. Robert White was merely still a boy when he died in Pit Number 2 in the fire damp explosion on 22nd October 1877. A victim of the Blantyre Pit Disaster, he’s often is listed as being 17 years old, but he was actually only 16, something confirmed by his retrieved death certificate.
Robert was born in 1861, the son of Francis White, a clerk and Ann Stockda. Its known the family didn’t come to Blantyre until after 1875, missing from both the 1871 census and Blantyre valuation roll of 1875. There is no trace of this family in the 1871 census, and I’m suggesting here a possible immigration from Ireland happened in the early 1870s.
Its thought that being still relatively young, Robert lived with his parents at Cemetery Walk, Auchinraith, High Blantyre and acquiring work in the Blantyre pits may have been part of the reason the family moved there. A young boy in a brand new pit would be suited to a variety of special jobs.
It would have been a short distance to walk from Auchinraith to Dixon’s Pit number 2 and he is listed amongst the men and boys who went down that particular pit that terrible day.
Young Robert was a pony driver, one of several who worked for Dixons. Pony driving was often one of the first jobs for young lads, usually aged around 14, who were starting work in the shale mines. Boys would normally work as a pony driver for 1 or 2 years before being moved on to heavier work.
Pony drivers were in charge of a horse or pony hauling empty hutches to the different working areas in the mines and bringing hutches filled with shale to the pit bottom. Especially in pits without an ostler, pony drivers were also responsible for maintaining the underground stables, feeding and grooming the ponies and looking after their general welfare.
Pit ponies were well looked after in proper stables with lighting and beds of moss litter. The roads for the pit ponies were usually well made, often laid with bricks, to ensure a good, safe surface for the horses. Despite the introduction of underground diesel locomotives around 1940, ponies remained in use at many mines until the industry closed in 1962.
By the first week in November 1877, even 2 weeks after the explosion, a considerable effort was still underway especially in Pit 2 to bring up more bodies. To the absolute despair of Robert’s family, his body had not yet been recovered 2 weeks later. It was dangerous work to the rescuers who by now knew there was no chance of anybody being alive. Up to 80 yards of bratticing had to be erected before the work party could get to three particular bodies. All the bodies this party were confronted had heads facing towards the pit shaft as though they had all been making their way there. In some places corpses lay on top of each other, a half dozen or so. Newspaper reports described the scene in this location as most frightful with bodies badly damaged and difficult to recognise.
Robert’s body was found. Lying beside their fallen drivers were the pit ponies. In a strange situation and on more than one animal, the ponies on their backs with the hooves straight up. The bodies were brought up. Robert’s father and a neighbour, Mr. Henry Clark a collier of Kirkland place identified the body at the makeshift morgue.
Robert was buried in Blantyre Cemetery on 6th November 1877, his parents living just across the road, a stonethrow from the burial site and both alive to be see this happen. He was one of 14 interments that day. His father when signing the death certificate marked the place of residence with an incorrect spelling of “Euchenraith, Blantyre” perhaps again indicating how little time the family had spent in the area.
Robert White is remembered here.
Photo for illustration only.