Lochhead 29 December 1907

Inspector of Mines Report

The Dysart Main Coal Seam [see plan], which is worked to a considerable extent in East Fife, is very liable to fires by spontaneous combustion, and in the Wemyss coalfield there has been much difficulty in preventing the spreading of fires already in existence, and in building off affected areas. Especially has this been the case at Lochhead Colliery, which adjoins the old workings of the Duncan's pit, which had to be abandoned some years ago owing to the prevalence of fires in the seam.

The Lochhead Colliery, where accident took place, has, in common with the other collieries, been troubled by underground fires, and up to the time of the accident the management had been successful in building the parts affected off, but were constantly on the watch to observe the least sign of fire, and for this purpose, examinations of the workings were made constantly, including Sundays.

The Colliery consists of two shafts, Lochhead and Victoria, about 2,700 yards apart; the latter is situated close on the Firth of Forth, at West Wemyss, where there is a dock for loading coal, and by means of stone mines, joining the Lochhead workings, there is a haulage road between the shafts, so that coal can be taken to either shaft as required for loading, either into boats or waggons, to suit the trade.

The workings are ventilated by Fan - forcing in duplicate - Walker producing 100,000 cubic feet per minute, and Sirocco producing 150,000 cubic feet per minute, placed at Lochhead shaft. At the time of the accident the latter fan was in use, and air currents passed in and around workings to Victoria shaft, as shown by arrows on plan. On the morning of the accident, John Kilpatrick, fireman, descended Victoria shaft at 6.30 a.m. for the purpose of making his usual examination of the workings and stoppings, and as he did not return to the shaft bottom about eight o'clock, the engineman on duty - David Black - became anxious for his safety, and sent for two men - Andrew Morris, fireman, and William Scott, pitwright - in order that they might go in search of Kilpatrick. By this time a strong smell of " coal stink " - a sure sign of an underground fire - was felt coming up the shaft, and without any hesitation these men descended. On reaching the bottom they had evidently begun to feel the effects of the "coal stink," and signalled to be raised, and the engineman gave the return signal that he was ready, but they seemingly had become helpless, and were unable to give the signal and reach the cage. The alarm was raised and a number of miners flocked to the shaft to render assistance. Before anyone went down the shaft in search of Morris and Scott, three large lamps were lighted and lowered on the cage and were extinguished. Again they were lighted and lowered, when two were extinguished. Immediately after, two men - James Dryburgh and George Dryburgh - descended with the same lamps which continued to burn, and on reaching the bottom saw both men near the cage seat. They managed to pick up Morris and place him in the cage, and then came to the surface. A second party, consisting of Black, the engineman, and Alexander Walker, next descended the shaft, and succeeded in bringing Scott to the surface, and a third party - Alexander Kilpatrick and James Anderson - went down immediately the second party came up, to search for the fireman, but were forced to come back after travelling some distance in the roadway. All, except James Dryburgh, were very much affected by the foul gas. Shortly after this the oversman of the pit arrived and on seeing the condition of matters he prohibited any others going down. An idea of the deadly nature of the gas was shown by the fact that a canary, placed over the shaft mouth, succumbed in five seconds.

A search party afterwards went by Lochhead, and found Kilpatrick, quite dead, near the end of the stone mines, sitting as if he had been resting, with his lamp still burning.

About the time when the alarm was raised at Victoria shaft that something was wrong, a fireman in Lochhead discovered that fire had broken out near Lochhead shaft, and in a short time a large area was ablaze in the old Duncan's workings, as was evidenced by the huge volumes of smoke at one of the air shafts, and flames coming to the surface at an air shaft near the old Duncan's pit.

It is not known how the fire burst out near the shaft, but in my opinion it was caused by the presence of the combustion gases coming off an existing fire in the old Duncan's workings, forcing out the stoppings - marked on plan - similar to what took place at No. 1 Lumphinnans last year.

The burst seems to have taken place when Kilpatrick was in the workings, and the extinguishing of the lights when put down Victoria shaft was due to an excess of Carbonic Acid gas, and when this excess had passed off, Carbon Monoxide came off in large volume, hence the reason the lights burned when the first rescuers descended, and it was due to the same cause that Kilpatrick's light continued to burn long after he was dead.

The rescuers deserve great credit in the bravery displayed in descending the shaft in face of a known danger.

Had pneumatophors been available, two of the lives would, in all likelihood, have been saved, and the risk of searching for Kilpatrick from the Lochhead side would have been obviated.

Newspaper Articles

Fife Mining Disaster – Three Lives Lost – Heroic Attempts At Rescue - An accident, involving the loss of three lives, occurred in the Victoria Pit, West Wemyss, Fifeshire , belonging to the Wemyss Colliery Company, early yesterday morning. It seems that about 6.30 A.M., John Kilpatrick, pit inspector, forty two years of age, residing at West Wemyss, descended the pit to make the usual inspection. As he was a much longer time than usual in returning to the surface, the engineman, David Black, became alarmed for Kilpatrick's safety, and he sent for Andrew Morris, pit inspector, and William Scott, pit wright, both residing at West Wemyss. About 8.45 these two men descended the shaft for the purpose of ascertaining what was wrong. Immediately the cage in which they descended touched the bottom of the shaft, the men gave the signal of three bells, which was the first signal to the engineman that the men desired to ascend. The engineman, as usual rang back for the final signal before commencing to wind the cage. He got no reply to his signal, however, and fearing that something was seriously wrong, he sent for farther assistance. A large number of miners residing in the vicinity were soon on the scene, and, on volunteers being called for to descend the pit, George Dryburgh and James Dryburgh offered their services, and were lowered down the shaft. On reaching the bottom they found Morris and Scott lying at the cage entrance. The gas was so strong that they were only able to place Morris on the cage, and then signal for the cage to be raised. By the time they reached the surface, one of the Dryburghs was almost overcome. All efforts were made to restore Morris, but without avail, life being extinct. The shaft was then tested with naked lights, and on being raised, two of the three lamps, which had been lowered were found to have been extinguished by the foul air. Other volunteers were called for, when Alexander Walker, and David Black (the engineman) offered to descend. When they reached the. bottom Walker rushed about fifty yards into the pit in search of Kilpatrick, but as he was almost overcome by the gas he returned, and assisted Black to put the body of Scott on the cage, and they returned to the surface. Scott was then found to be dead. David Rodger, the underground, manager, now arrived at the pit, and tested the shaft with a live bird, and so bad was the volume of foul air ascending that the bird .only lived five seconds at the mouth of the shaft. Finding that it was certain death for any person to descend, he refused to allow any others to go down, especially since it had been definitely ascertained that Kilpatrick could not be found near the shaft bottom. Rodger then went to Lochhead Pit and proceeded along the communication road leading to the Victoria pit. He saw Kilpatrick about midway between the two pits, with his lamp burning, but as Rodger was by this time partially overcome he had to rush back for fresh air and to get assistance. John Brown, colliery manager, and a young man named Watson, returned with Rodger to the workings , and they found Kilpatrick in a sitting position, as if resting, but quite dead, and his lamp still burning. They had the body removed to the pithead; the accident having thus resulted in three deaths. Dr Watson and his assistant, from East Wemyss were early on the scene, and gave all possible assistance. It is supposed that an old fire in the mine had burst out; setting free a large quantity of poisonous gases. Shortly after the accident, smoke in great volumes began to ascend an air shaft in connection with the Victoria and Lochhead pits. Up till last night a large staff of men were engaged in the pit fighting the fire. The three men who lost their lives were married, and leave widows and families.

Another Account - Another correspondent gives the following account of the accident;- About six o'clock yesterday morning an inspector named John Kilpatrick went down to examine the faces in the Victoria pit, and also to feed the ponies there. Alarmed at his prolonged absence, the engineman sent for another inspector, William Scott, who, accompanied by Andrew Morris, went down to ascertain the cause of his delay. They were not long down when the engineman received a tap. He answered it and waited for a signal back to hoist the cage. No further answer came, and being satisfied that something was wrong, he took steps to spread the alarm. James Anderson, a fireman, went down the shaft and discovered the two men lying at the bottom of the shaft. Anderson managed to get hold of Andrew Morris and, pulled him on to the cage. He arrived at the top quite exhausted and found that Morris was dead. The engineman, who by this time was joined by a companion, then proceeded down the pit and managed to recover the body of William Scott. The pit oversman , David Rodgers, was by this time communicated with. He realised, that it was useless to attempt any rescue from the Victoria Pit, and along with some companions went to the Lochhead Pit, about a mile distant, which is in direct communication with the Victoria. Pit. The rescue party, headed by Rogers, proceeded about 600 yards along the underground workings, and there discovered the body of Kilpatrick.

The accident was caused by white damp following an explosion in Lochhead Coronation Seam. Had the explosion taken place on any other day than Sunday the consequences would have been terrible, as over 100 men are employed in each of the pits and no suspicion was entertained of the presence of the dreaded white damp. Each of the three men were married. They resided in West Wemyss, and leave large families. The pit ponies are also believed to have succumbed. One of them was discovered roasted to death. [Scotsman 30 December 1907]

The Recipients Of Edward & Albert Medals - As will be seen from the Court Circular, the King yesterday at Buckingham Palace decorated nine miners and a seaman with medals for bravery. The miners who received the Edward Medal for Bravery in Mines were John Henry Thorne, Joseph Outram, Waiter Clifford, James Cranswick, James Hopwood, James Whittingham, George Dryburgh, James Dryburgh, and Morgan Howells.

In respect of the two Dryburghs who although bearing the same name are not related, they are the first recipients from Scotland of Edward medals. They were engaged at the Wemyss Collieries, East Fife, on December 29 last, when a fire broke out. The two men descended the shaft to rescue their comrades, several of whom perished in the disaster. George Dryburgh was overcome by the fumes and James Dryburgh dragged him along the passage and held him in the cage until the surface was reached. Subsequently other men went down the shaft, and the jury at the inquest recommended eight miners' names for the medal. The Home Secretary, in conference with the Inspector of Mines in the district, finally selected the two Dryburghs for the honour. [The Times 22 July 1908]

See entry on Heroism Awards page