Losing 6 Grandsons, 1877

Lisa Stebbing has provided this sad story of a woman who lost 6 grandsons in the Blantyre Pit Disaster of 1877. Lisa kindly put together a story which certainly supplements the mining stories on the Blantyre Project website. If your surname is Gemmel, Muir or Reid, this may be particularly interesting.

Elizabeth Reid lost six of her grandsons in the Blantyre explosion in 1877.

1877 Dixons Colliery 3 (PV)

Four of them – Matthew Gemmell, William Gemmell, John Gemmell and William Muir – were born and spent their childhoods in Dalry, in Ayrshire, where Elizabeth was living until her death in 1878. Her two other grandsons, brothers William Reid and James Reid, were in Bothwell in 1871 before they joined their cousins at Blantyre.

The family origins for these victims can be first documented in Irvine in the early 1800s and then at other locations throughout the Scottish coalfields that family members travelled to for work in the pits. 

Elizabeth Reid was born Elizabeth Walker to parents James Walker and Mary Pinkerton in Irvine in 1801. Her father was a coal hewer and she married another miner named William Reid in the town in 1820. Most of their children were born in Irvine except for their youngest son in 1837 in Riccarton, where the Reid family, Elizabeth’s parents and several of her siblings had moved to during this decade. Further documents show Elizabeth was widowed sometime after that birth and before the 1841 census. By then she was head of a household in Galston in Ayrshire but still with her extended family living close by and the men working in the local coalfields.

By 1851 many of them had moved again, on to Dalry, where several of her children would marry and start their own families. 

Her youngest daughter Mary married iron miner Archibald Muir in 1851. Their son William Muir was born in 1856, the third of seven children. The 1871 census shows he was a fifteen-year-old miner in Dalry and still living with his parents before his move to Blantyre.

Elizabeth’s other daughter, also named Elizabeth, married John Gemmell in 1846. Over several decades they resided nearby to her in the town. Their first child Matthew Gemmell lived permanently with his maternal grandmother before his fated relocation to Burnbank and the Blantyre mines. He was with Elizabeth Reid on the 1851 and 1861 census records which suggests Matthew probably started his working life in the Dalry mines with his two unmarried uncles. They shared a number of homes in the town with him and his grandmother over the period of Matthew’s youth, until their early deaths in 1865 and 1873. 

After the deaths of a baby in 1861 and her husband John Gemmell in 1864, Elizabeth Gemmell moved from Dalry to Paisley with her youngest surviving children, William and John Gemmell. They were working in a flax mill in 1871 and may have continued until they were tempted or encouraged to join their brother Matthew and sister Agnes at Burnbank near Blantyre.

Agnes Gemmell had married her cousin William Reid in Tradeston in Glasgow in 1871 but the couple were on the census in Bothwell that year, with William listed as a coal miner. Both William and his youngest brother James Reid were the sons of Elizabeth Reid’s eldest son, John Reid.

The Reid brothers were two of six children born to John Reid and his second wife Hannah Geddes. They moved regularly around the coalfields after marrying in Old Cumnock in 1849 and William was their first child born in Dalmellington the same year. In 1861 the family were in Abbey Landward in Renfrewshire. They then moved east and James was born in West Lothian in 1864. John died there in Polkemmet the following year of miner’s lung and Hannah in 1870. After losing their parents the younger children in the family, including James, congregated in the household of their married sister Agnes and her husband Malcolm McGregor. In 1871 this was in Bothwell near their married brother William and cousin Agnes.

The death certificates for the cousins who died in the blast show that despite being employed in the Dixon mines in 1877 they were not living at the colliery rows. They had all moved to the local community in Burnbank and the Reid men still had brothers in the region.

Hugh Reid of Holytown was the informant on the death certificates for his two brothers and cousins William Gemmell, John Gemmell and William Muir. A neighbour at Burnbank, David Stevenson, was the informant for Matthew Gemmell’s document. Except for William Gemmell their deaths were stated as occurring at the time of the blast, at 8.45 am on the morning of the 22 of October, in pit 3. James Reid was only thirteen years old. Nineteen-year-old William Gemmell was one of three men who survived the explosion and were taken from the pit to the Glasgow infirmary. He died at 11 am the following morning.

Agnes Reid was pregnant at the time of the blast. She gave birth to a boy sometime in the following months and named him after her brother-in-law Hugh Reid, but the baby died in Blantyre in 1878.

She then moved to her mother in Paisley and stayed there after Elizabeth Gemmell’s death in 1893, working as a cotton winder in a mill. Documents for her and William Reid’s sons suggest they avoided the mines. One became an iron turner in a bootlace factory.

Hugh Reid migrated to Australia and married in Queensland in 1886. After trying a number of professions not associated with mining- hairdressing and photography- he headed to the Kalgoorlie goldfields in Western Australia. There, as a prospector, he had success at Mt Magnet as well as continuing work as a photographer. He named one of his daughters Agnes Gemmel Reid and his most profitable lease the ‘Lady Agnes’. He died at Mt Magnet in 1925.

Also attached is a pdf collection of resources for the extended family. It can be downloaded here.

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