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“Blantyre like other towns has had its fair share of fires. With many of the homes in the former village thatched and framed inside with wood, problems with early gas supplies, electricity and of course rogue candles, there have unfortunately and sadly been many terrible fires over the Centuries. People, often without insurance have been left destitute, fires changing fortunes overnight, often losing everything they own. Others have been hurt and in some very tragic circumstances, thankfully quite rare, people lost their lives. I am honouring all those Blantyre people who lost their lives with this compiled fire research, a first for any historian in Blantyre.”, Paul Veverka 2017
Articles can be clicked on for expanded detail (click the flickering flame on each for the full story). Our research is featured in the forthcoming illustrated history book, “Blantyre – Through the Flames” by Paul Veverka (c) 2020. With granted permission from their family, the Blantyre Project book is dedicated to Shirley Schiavo (40) and Taylor Richard (8) who sadly died in 2009 at Fernslea Avenue, with all proceeds going to supporting the emergency services at their request.
“22nd July 1873 – The Woodburn Fire” by Paul Veverka
Mr William Stiell or Steel was quite hard of hearing. On the night of Tuesday 22nd July 1873, a thunderstorm began. The thunderstorm was particularly severe and would claim many lives across Scotland that night. There are a couple of versions of this story. It goes that Mrs Stiell who lived at Woodburn House, was quite frightened, so much so she felt something bad was going to befall them, so she woke up the servant girl, then they woke up her son, and these three were making their way to the upstairs. Mr Steil was sleeping in one of the attic rooms oblivious to the great crashes of thunder and bright flashes of of forked lightning. Just as Mrs Stiell opened the room door, a bolt of lightning shot down the chimney across the floor of the room and out of an open window, the metal grate had been blown out of the fireplace and also the lightning had left a trail of fire in its wake. The furniture also caught fire. The flames began to spread rapidly, and the four occupants hurriedly made their escape in their nightclothes. The men had left their pocket watches under their pillows, in fact all the family valuables, jewellry, and money were left in the rush to get out of the house. Some of the less expensive furniture could be reached. According to reports, the family were hardly out the house before it was ablaze. The neighbours rallied round but the fire had taken too good a hold on the property for them to do anything. The house was burned to a stone shell; just the bare stonewalls, totally gutted. Mr Pettigrew who lived just the other side of the railway took in the Stiells. The house was partially insured and was rebuilt with additions. In another version of the story, it was Mr William Stiell (the son) who had the premonition of danger after being awakened by a fearful crash of thunder.
“March 1880 – Dixon’s Colliery Fire” by Paul Veverka
High Blantyre Collieries, belonging to William Dixon (Limited) were one Sunday night in March 1880, the scene of a disastrous fire, in which the life of one man was lost, and a great extent of property destroyed. The origin of the fire was not known, although it had been the subject of a searching investigation by the Procurator Fiscal for the district, Mr J.A. Dykes. No one was down the pit that Sunday except Andrew McLean, who went to feed the horses employed underground. This young man, with three companions, made the descent about four o’clock, and while it was at first supposed, before the party had returned they had unwittingly set fire to the lamp cabin, where they would leave the light they carried to the stable, from the inflammable character of the cabin and its contents, and the state of the fire when first discovered, doubts have been thrown on this conjecture. The cabin was used as a store for the naphtha, paraffin, and other oils employed in the lighting of the pit, and from the constant use of, and giving out the oil from it was thoroughly saturated with that material. It is, however, possible that the place had burned quietly until the fire reached the large stores of oil, when the flames would burst forth with great violence. Be this as it may, on Alexander Lang, the night engineman, proceeding about six o’clock to the lamp-room, for a lamp with which to examine some leaking pipes, he observed a blazing stream flowing across “the level road” or main gallery of the splint or lower-most seam of coal. As the fire was opposite the lamp-cabin, he concluded that it consisted of burning oil, and seeing that any effort of his own would be of little avail in checking the burning he returned to the hill and gave the alarm. This was about a quarter to six o’clock, and taking with him a bucket and a night furnaceman, named James Stewart, he again descended to the scene of the fire. Finding the water from the single bucket to have no effect on the flames, he dispatched Stewart for further assistance.
One of the volunteers was the lad Andrew McLean, who knowing that a bucket was to be had at the stables situated some little distance along the level road, crept under the burning roof with the object of proceeding there, He had only gone a few yards when the smoke and flames driven by the current of air sent down the shaft for the purpose of ventilation, enveloped him and, crying in an agonised tone “Oh” he fell forward and was never seen again. Adam Speirs One of the oversmen, and others joined those below, and a great effort was made to subdue the flames, and remove to the top a race of loaded hutches, which standing opposite the cabin had also caught fire. Andrew White, oversman of No. 1 Pit, arrived with a fire extinguisher, which, however, on being tried, was found not to work. Those below ground continued their exertions until about eight o’clock, when Speirs had to be carried to the hill in an exhausted state. It was deemed prudent at the same time to withdraw all the other workers. There were not wanting volunteers to make a further descent, and twice the attempt was made to go down, but the wind drove the smoke coming from the up-cast down the downcast, and in each instance the men had to return.
About nine o’clock, the gas evolved from the blazing coal exploded in the shaft with a terrific crash. The violence of the concussion sent portions of the heavy timber gearing at the pithead flying in every direction, kindled the wooden erections on the bank, and redoubled the fury of the flames in the shaft. A column of fire, some sixty feet in height, leapt into the air, casting to the sky a lurid reflection, which was visible along the whole countryside. The Hamilton Fire Brigade, under Mr Watson, arrived with an engine at half past ten o’clock, and, assisted by the people resident in the neighbourhood, they fought gallantly with the fire. Another explosion occurred a little before eleven o’clock, and, although the shock was not less severe, as it caused the earth to tremble within a considerable radius of the pit mouth, it did less damage, but this was simply because everything that could be effected by it had been preciously wrecked. The great crown was startled shortly after midnight by a third detonation, which was not, however, equal in violence to either of those that preceded it.
The flames above ground were eventually subdued; but as the only means left to master the fore in the workings, it was resolved to seal up the shaft, and this laborious and hazardous operation was begun between two and three, and concluded about seven in the morning. All that remains of the fittings above ground are the upright shafts supporting the whorls and part of the gangway connected with th4e loading place. The lad McLean was about 20 years of age, and lodged with Hepburn at Barnhill. He is not known to have any connections. The news that the pit was on fire was conveyed to all the officials. Mr Thomas, general manager, and Mr Morrison, manager, arrived about eight o’clock. Mr Charles Thomson was communicated with at Calder, and lost no time in making for Blantyre. Mr Ralph Moore, inspector of mines, Mr. J.A. Dykes, P.F. and other officials were also in attendance, while a large force of police, under Chief-Inspector Carmichael, kept back the crowd. Mr D. Anderson, general manager, Auchinraith, and others, rendered valuable assistance during the night. The full extent of the damage will not be known until the pit is opened up again, but it is needless to say the loss to the Company will be very great. There are at present about 900 men employed at the Collieries, who were all thrown temporarily idle. On Tuesday, the work of closing up the communication between No. 4 and the other pits by means of a strong building was successfully carried out, so that at night the brushers went down the other pits, in which labour was generally resumed on Wednesday. No. 4 will remain closed for a time to allow the fire in the workings to exhaust it.
The fact may be mentioned that the duty of feeding the ponies on Sunday as on other days should not have been undertaken by McLean and the others but John Hepburn, the Hostler. The engineman is strictly charged not to allow strangers down the pit, or at least unless Hepburn is with them. Hepburn went down in the morning and fed the ponies as usual. In the afternoon he came back again with a boy named Morgan, who stayed with him, and who was in the habit of going down and assisting him to feed the ponies. Hepburn went up to the engine-house to tell the engineman to put him down the pit, but on his way to the cage he met a workman, and while speaking to him he heard a voice cry out “Away” (the signal to descend). Looking round he saw the boy Morgan on the cage along with the deceased lad McLean, and John Graham Miller, 19 years, and Walter Wallace, 17 years of age—the latter two being employed in Messrs Dunlop’s Ironstone Mines, and having no connection with Messrs Dixon’s Works. The cage disappeared, and Hepburn called out to Morgan not to stay long. They had two Clanny lamps with them, and also a naked light. It appears, however, that naked lights were allowed in the put at the stable, and that naphtha lamps were kept burning there all the week, with the exception of Sunday. Hepburn did not acquaint the engineman with the fact that he did not go down the pit, but went home. The lad McLean brought back the Clanny lamps still lighted, and told Hepburn that he had fed and watered the horses, and had left everything correct. The engineman, Robert Muir, states that he was not aware that Hepburn did not go down the pit. After telling him that he wanted to go down Hepburn had plenty of time to descend. He could not, from his position at the engine, see who was in the cage, and he was not aware that it was the boy Morgan who cried out.
“24th April 1884 – Masonic Hall Fire” by Paul Veverka
Apparently, every night at midnight, Mr. J. B. Struthers took a stroll round his outbuildings in the 1880’s at his High Blantyre premises before retiring to bed. On the evening of Thursday 24th April 1884 he did just that, but found nothing amiss at his buildings near Kirkton on Main Street. However, a beam that was touching the wash-house chimney was slowly smouldering away and in the middle of the night it burst into flame. The local Parish hose was burst, so they had to send to Hamilton for help, but in the end the hall, wash-house and stable were totally destroyed and the cobbler’s house at the end was badly damaged. Also lost was all the regalia and orders of the Masonic Lodge, the Good Templars, and of the property belonging to the Mechanic’s Institute. The total damage was estimated at about £2,000 though it was all insured. The Hall with its ante-rooms was in the middle section of the upstairs part of the building and the flames were already bursting through the roof when the fire was discovered.
We must then assume that the present Masonic Hall was quickly rebuilt with the insurance money, as the date on the wall today indicates it was opened the same year, 1884. There is a story of a deal being done with the Masonic Lodge and Mr Struthers, to the effect that they got the hall, but Mr Struthers retained access to the cellar. J. B. Struthers put all his premises at High Blantyre on the market in 1893, stated that he had been running the business for twenty years past. Thinking that this may have been upon his retirement, there is evidence he worked on. J. B. Struthers continued to be listed as as a spirit dealer in High Blantyre in the Peat & Forrest directory of 1894. He didn’t pass away until 1913 and is not to be confused with his son, James. B. H Struthers who owned the Auchentibber Inn.
“March 1900 – Braefoot Cottage Fire” by Paul Veverka
During the first Wednesday of March 1900, an alarming fire took place at Braefoot Cottage in High Blantyre, caused by the bursting of a lamp. Braefoot Cottage should not be confused with Braesyde Cottage, which still sits at the bottom of Sydes Brae. Mr. Andrew Grieg, with his invalid mother lived in the cottage at that time. That evening Andrew had been chatting with friend Mr Thorburn and had gone to check on his mother who was in bed. He took the lamp with him, which was lit. He had just placed the lamp on a piece of furniture at the foot of her bed and turned to speak to his mother, when suddenly the lamp exploded, pouring its fiery contents over the bed setting fire to the bedclothes. With utmost promptness, Andrew lifted his mother out the bed burning himself in the process. He succeeded in carrying her to safety in the other room as the flames took hold. Mr Thorburn, his friend appeared and together they managed to subdue the flames, but not before considerable damage had been done to the furniture and the room. The story is a reminder of how common such fires were and how their cause was often from an unattended lamp or candle.
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