The Blantyre Explosion (Scotland)
by Jimmy Connell
22nd October 1877
At this time High Blantyre was ‘a maze of dirty and intricate ways and byways’ with a mine slightly to the south of the village. It had five pits and was producing an extraordinary 900,000 tons of coal.
The mine was known to be very gassy but complaints by miners a few days before the disaster were fobbed off by the foreman, Joseph Gilmour. He told the miners, “There'll not be a man fall in this pit, I'll guarantee that”.
On the fateful day the shifts went down the mine as normal at 5.30am. There was nothing unusual as the men carried out their backbreaking work in the low tunnels or ’stoopings’. At 8:45am the history of Blantyre changed as there was a loud explosion and flames shot from No. 3 and No. 5 pit shafts.
Women and off-duty miners hurried to the scene and soon 7 bodies were hoisted from No. 2 pit but it was No. 3 pit that concerned them. At midday the mines inspector went into the pit and found roof falls and a clear smell of firedamp.
The main shaft had to be cleared and men worked in teams until they broke through at 10pm. Four miners were found but they were so seriously injured that they died later.
“... bodies and body parts were intermingled with all sorts of debris and strewn all around. Pit props had been blown away and stoppings blasted out, everywhere were bricks, smashed timbers and sleepers, twisted rails and hutches smashed and piled together making progress through the mine extremely difficult. At the end of No. 3 some survivors were emerging, some terribly injured, most badly burned and all deep in shock. ” Eye-witness
Work continued throughout the night and into the next day and despite very poor weather, sightseers arrived from Glasgow and Hamilton. The crowd around the pithead was so large that a hundred police were on duty to control it.
It was to take a week before the bodies were removed entirely from the mine which caused great distress for the families and incensed the villagers. Eventually it was revealed that there was a death toll of 207 resulting in High Blantyre having 92 widows and 250 fatherless children.
Blantyre entered the history books as having the worst ever Scottish mining disaster. The inquiry into the disaster failed to identify the precise cause but it was likely due to a sudden release of methane gas from a small roof fall being ignited by a naked flame.
Widows, and their treatment
Six months after the explosion, thirty four widows, whose husbands had been killed in the disaster, appeared at Hamilton Sheriff Court.
They had previously received letters from the colliery, owners informing them that they must leave their tied cottages. Having failed to do so, William Dixon Limited had raised summonses against them.
When asked by the Sheriff why they had not vacated their homes, the Sheriff asked, “Are you not getting enough money from the relief fund?” Each widow replied “I have not the means to pay a rent with. ”
The Sheriff stated that it was out of kindness that the company had allowed them to remain in their houses for so long.
One widow claimed that they had a cruel way of showing their kindness and that the firm should have carried out the evictions on the day of the explosion as the public would have taken her by the hand.
Eviction of Widows
The Sheriff stated that he could scarcely agree with her and suggested that both the firm and the public had been extremely kind and generous. He then decreed that the thirty-four widows and their children should be removed from their homes in two weeks later, on 28th May 1878.
The evictions were carried out and replacement miners were allocated their homes. No-one knows what became of these unfortunate widows and their children.
In all probability they had to seek accommodation in the Poor House. The ejection of the Blantyre widows was a sad and disgraceful end to the tragic story of the Blantyre explosion.