Tale of Blantyre Explosion – Part 2

Continuing a fictional account written by Labour Leader and MP, Keir Hardie. Published in the Labour Leader Magazine on Hogmanay 1909, it puts characters into the Blantyre Pit Disaster of 1877. It’s published here in a few parts, transcribed by myself for your interest. Continued from Part 1, Keir writes:

Jock had found his way to an old End in the level in search of his tree (for bracing) when the explosion went off. The rushing sound and volume of flame stunned him for a moment, but, being in off the main current of air, he missed the force of the blast, and, fortunately for him, he thus escaped all but uninjured, and, for a wonder, his lamp kept burning.

On recovering his senses he understood in a moment what had happened, and his first thought was to make for the bottom ere the deadly black damp should overtake him. With this end in view he hurried out of the road, feeling the air getting thicker and thicker the further he went. The roof overhead, too, cracked ominously, and he had to scramble over two or three small falls. He had no time to think of the extent of the disaster ; but on reaching the head of the dook in which he worked he found his further progress completely barred by an immense fall. He tried to look up over it, but found no hope that way. Next he thought of trying to get round by the tail-end, which lay down the dock, and was making his way cautiously on his hands and knees when his hand touched something soft and warm.

Holding up his lamp, he was horrified to see a lifeless human head protruding from under a stone, the eyes staring and the mouth wide open. With a yell he turned and fled inwards—the way he had just come out. Running blindly forward he was conscious of something coming from an opposite direction, and his heart beat, high with hope that he was at length about to find living company in that dread chamber of horrors.

He slacked his pace and shouted Halloa!” The only response was a half neigh, half groan, and Jock’s spirits again sank when he recognised one of the pit ponies. The poor animal crawled up to him on three legs, bruised and bleeding all over, and with every hair burned off, and fell down in the agonies of death just in front of where he stood, his eyes appealing for that help which no human power could give.

For the first time Jock began to think seriously of his position. Escape by the level was evidently out of the question, while to remain where he was, was certain death, as already his lamp was beginning to burn low and breathing was becoming more difficult owing to the accumulation of the after damp. He knew that this damp, being heavier than the air, would fill the lower workings first, and this decided him to make for the rise. He made his way in till he came to the first plain, and up this he sped, feeling the air improving as he ascended, and was soon out of immediate danger fiom suffocation. He therefore proceeded more cautiously across the old workings, the stoppings having been blown out with the force of the blast.

Occasionally the shrieks of the wounded or the groans of the dying fell upon his ear, while the charred, mangled remains of those who had, a few minutes before, been full of life and vigour, lay full across his path. He would fain have turned aside to succour those in distress, but what could he do among so many? So far he had not seen nor heard of anyone able either to help himself or others, and he concluded that the best service he could render was to make his way out to the bottom as speedily as possible, and then act as guide to the rescue party which he knew would soon be searching for the dead and dying. Full of these thoughts, he was making his way steadily out wards towards the downcast shaft, and had already traversed more than three parts of the distance, when he remembered that Tam Johnston Maggie’s brother—must be lying in some of the places he had passed, and how could he go to the surface empty-handed and tell Maggie that he had been so selfish as to forget all but himself. No, he could not do that, and he made up his mind to save Tam or die in the effort. Maggie might never know, but better that than that, she should know him to be a coward.

Once again he turned his face inwards and was soon in the thick of the result of the disaster. His task was now a gruesome one, as he had to examine each of the bodies, dead or alive, he came across to find out whether it was Tam. Several times he was on the point of giving up the task. The sights were sickening, the air was getting bad again, and at least he felt that he had done his duty and could now face Maggie with a clear conscience. He was just on the point of giving way to this idea when a groan attracted his attention. He would see who that was, and, whether Tam or someone else, would try to rescue him. He went in the direction from which the sound proceeded, and, on reaching the body, could scarce repress a cry of joy, for there lay Tam, evidently badly injured but still living. Searching about Jock found Tam’s jacket, and, taking the flask from the pocket, poured a small quantity of the cold tea between Tam’s teeth, which had the effect of restoring consciousness. ” Whaur am I?” he gasped. ” Wheisht, Tam, it’s me that has ye. The pit’s blasted, and there’s only you an’ me left leevin’, but we’ll need tae hurry oot or there’s nae sayin’ hoo lang we may leeve.”

Without another word ‘Tam made an effort to rise but found himself powerless to do so, and so Jock, speaking consoling words the while, wrapped his jacket round the now senseless boy, and, lifting him in his arms, for the third time set his face bottomwards. But, while he had been busy the black damp had not been idle. It had slowly but steadily been spreading itself everywhere, and Jock felt his eyelids growing heavy and his breathing difficult. A kind of numbness seemed to be creeping over him, and he staggered like a drunken man. More by instinct than knowledge, he kept facing the bottom, and had just consciousness enough to know that his journey must be nearing its end. Would he ever reach the bottom? If not Maggie would be told that he had been found with Tam in his arms. She would know he had not forgotten her even in the hour of death. Then with this in mind reverted to the previous evening with its hallowed associations. Every incident of the walk and the seat by the old priory were enacted over again. Tam was still stepping forward but no longer as a conscious being. Suddenly he stumbled forward, his head came in contact with a sharp corner, and he lay, with his charge in his arms, unconscious and unable to move further.

Continued on Final Part 3 tomorrow.

Pictured is the statue at Westerpark Avenue, Westcraigs, High Blantyre. It’s located opposite Helmsdale Close, at the Hamilton Technology Park, High Blantyre.

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