Harthill 19 March 1879

- Alex Findlay, an engineman was killed when boiler exploded at Harthill Colliery.

Mine Inspectors Report

Boiler Explosion at Harthill
Rutherglen, 20th March 1879.

You may have heard that a boiler explosion took place last night here, injuring three persons one of them very severely. I went up this morning on seeing the account in the papers, and found the destruction greater than I could have fancied. The pit is an ironstone pit, belonging to the Coltness Iron Company, and is more than 100 fathoms deep. There is a large pumping engine, 300 horses-power, a pair of winding engines 60 horses-power, an underground engine, about 40 horses-power and:other two small engines. There are 10 steam boilers for supplying these engines with steam. Each of these is 35 feet long, by 5 feet 6 inches diameter, egg-ended, made of 3/8ths inch plates, and fired from the outside They are ordinary boilers and work at a pressure of 50 lbs. on the square inch. They stand all in a line with a stalk at one end. Two of them are connected and supply steam to the underground engine only. The other eight are connected and supply steam to the pumping engine, the winding- engine, and the two small engines. About 5 o'clock last night the days work was completed and all the men but four had left the place. These were the night shift, and were Andrew Ballantyne, pumping engineman; Alexander Findlay, winding engineman; John Mathieson, stoker; and Peter Mathieson, stoker. The pumping engine was working, and it was going at the ordinary rate, about two 13-feet strokes per minute. The underground engine was also working. The others were standing. One of the group of eight boilers, which supply the pumping engine, had been cleaned during the day, and steam was being raised in it. It was connected with the other seven about 5 o'clock, and all seemed to be going on well. The engineman, about half-past 5 o'clock, was in the engine-house. The two firemen and Findlay were in a small shed at the end of the range of boilers nearest to the pumping engine, when the explosion took place. Six of the boilers of the group of eight burst and scattered in three directions, north, east, and south, in a circle of about 300 yards radius ; the other four being shifted from their seats. The six boilers which exploded are all blown to pieces The steam pipes and connections are all destroyed. The brickwork round the boilers is all blown away, and the ground is as bare as if there had never been any building there. One of the boilers in going south carried away the winding engine-house; another appears to have gone clean through the stalk which has sunk down in a mass; a third has landed in the smith's shop, and the whole debris is scattered about in all directions in the moss. None of them appears to have gone in the direction of the pumping engine or the pithead frame. The pumping engineman, Ballantyne, was in his engine-house and escaped unhurt. The other three men, as already stated, were in a shed at the end of the boiler range next the engine-house. The two boilers which supplied steam to the underground engine did not burst, but have been displaced by the shock of the others. The shed was at the side of one of these boilers, and the building was blown over upon the men, and they were buried in the bricks. The noise of the explosion was heard more than a mile away, and it brought some people from the village of Harthill, and the three men were soon released. . They were a good deal injured, Findlay especially, who was badly scalded, and he had fallen on his face, and the burning bricks were lying on him.

It is impossible at present to say what caused the explosion. Four of the boilers are 13 years old and the rest of them have been added since then, the last about two years ago. The owners are making me a sketch showing the position of the boilers, and I think it would be as well to have the assistance of a practical engineer, say Mr. Lawrence Hill, to assist me in the matter. I shall go up again tomorrow or Saturday when they have got the place cleared.

Rutherglen, 10th June 1879.
In continuation of my letter of 20th March I have to state that since then I have made various examinations for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of the accident, but I have not be able to come to any definite conclusion as to what caused the explosion.

As stated in my former letter, there were 10 steam boilers at work, and these were placed in a range side by side. For the sake of classification I shall call No. 1 the boiler nearest the pit and No. 10 that farthest from it. The boilers were of ordinary construction, in good order, and the fittings, with one exception, in compliance with the Mines Regulation Act. It seems to me that No. 10 boiler was the first to explode.

As before stated, this boiler was one of eight which supplied steam for the engines on the surface. [click here to view diagram of boiler] There was a main range of steam pipes going across these eight boilers, No. 3 to No. 10, and leading to the various engines. Upon each boiler was a steam chest, S., and it was connected with the main pipe, M., by a short branch, 13. This steam chest had a valve, V., in it, so that when it was desired to shut off the connection from the main pipe this valve was screwed down. The safety valve, L., was also placed upon a branch from the steam chest, between the crown valve, V., and the boiler. On the Tuesday morning before the accident the No. 10 boiler was to be cleaned. The fire was taken away, the crown valve in the steam chest was screwed down to prevent the steam from the main pipe getting into it, and then the small iron plug, K., was knocked out of the bottom so that the water and steam might run out. When the boiler was empty the man-hole door, by which the men enter to clean the boiler, was taken off so that the boiler might cool. When Henry Boyd and James Cameron, firemen, came on to the shift at 11 p.m. they found this done, and they worked all their shift till 7 o'clock on Wednesday, when they were relieved by Cullen and Grieve, and then they went to clean the boiler. They took two hours to do it. At 10 o'clock Andrew Ballantyne, the engine-man, went into the boiler to see that it had been properly cleaned by them, as was his custom, and he drove in the iron plug, K., in the bottom of the boiler, saw that everything was right, and turned on the feed water to fill it up. Cullen and Grieve filled the boiler with water, put on the man-hole door, and put fire under the boiler about half-past two, and at 10 minutes to five Ballantyne was again at the boiler expecting that the steam would be up as high in it as in the other boilers, so that it might be connected with them. The steam was not blowing off at the safety-valve but he lifted the lever with his hand and judged from the ease with which he lifted it that the pressure was nearly up, so at 4.55 he opened the valve very slightly and heard steam rushing through, but whether from the main steam pipe into the boiler or from the boiler into the steam pipe he could not tell. To make certain he did not fully open the valve till 5.10, and then fancying the connection was complete he paid no more, attention to it until the explosion happened at 5.45. Ballantyne appeared to reason thus: that the boiler had been fired long enough for the steam to be up, and apparently was disappointed; he thought it was not nearly up, that he waited till he opened the valve, V., and having done so thought that all was right. I think Ballantyne may have been deceived in his tests, and the following may have been the cause of the explosion. The crown valve, V., may not have been steam tight, and steam and hot water may have passed upon the men, Boyd and Cameron, while they were cleaning it, and to prevent this they may have driven in a wooden plug at P. They forgot this plug when they came out, and Cullen and Grieve, or Ballantyne, knowing nothing of it, the boiler was filled with water, the man-hole door put on, the fire kindled under it, and steam raised in the usual way. When Ballantyne tried it at 5 o'clock the steam which he felt rising from the safety valve, L., was what leaked through the crown valve, V., or through some leak in the wooden plug at P., and did not show the pressure on No. 10 boiler at all, as he expected, and so when he raised the crown valve he did not admit steam for the plug prevented it and so they fired away until the boiler burst from sheer overpressure.

I can see no other reason for the explosion than this, and if it is correct the plug must have been put in by Boyd and Cameron. They, however, distinctly say that they put in no plug, and Ballantyne, the engineman, said he saw no plug, and did not look for one because it was not the custom to use one.

The only point on which there is any doubtful compliance with the Act is as to the 25th General Rule, which states that every boiler shall be provided with a proper steam gauge. There was one steam gauge on the main steam pipe, into which all the boilers discharged their steam, and, of course, this indicated the pressure of steam on each of the boilers while they were connected with the main steam pipe. This was held by the owners to comply with the rule, but it will at once be seen that, as the crown valve in No. 10 boiler, which disconnected it from the steam pipe was down, there was no steam gauge on it while steam was being raised, and if, as I have supposed, there was a plug in the steam chest, the safety valve had no connection with it either, so that there was nothing to indicate the pressure of steam inside the boiler.

I have always held that a steam gauge on the main pipe is insufficient for a range of boilers connected with it. I think it requires one on each boiler, so that at all times there may be something to indicate the pressure, and I am of opinion that there has been a breach of the 25th General Rule in not having a steam gauge on No. 10 boiler. The arrangement of the safety valve on the steam chest is also defective, and 1 am glad to see that the new boilers erected since the accident to replace those destroyed have each a second and independent safety valve and a steam gauge fixed upon it. If the explosion has occurred in the way I have suggested it is scarcely possible that a similar accident should now take place.

There is no difficulty in explaining how the other five boilers exploded. No. 10 broke in on No. 9. No. 9 on No. 8, and so on until the steam in these boilers was spent. I may point out that if proceedings for breach of rule 25 are determined upon, they will require to be commenced before the 18th instant.
[Extracted from report by Ralph Moore, Inspector of Mines & Collieries in the Eastern District of Scotland for the year ended 31st December 1879]

Newspaper Reports

Between 6 and 7 o'clock last night, six boiler bust at Harthill Pit, near Fauldhouse, Linlithgowshire, belonging to the Coltness Iron Company, causing a great deal of damage. A severe shock was felt for a considerable distance. The chimney stack, about 100 ft in height, was thrown to the ground, and the engine-house, smithy, and bothy house were blown to pieces. Three of the workmen, named Alexander Findlay, the winding engineman, Peter Mathieson and John Mathieson, firemen, were buried in the debris. When the explosion was heard a number of men came from the other works to render assistance in rescuing the unfortunate men. Peter and John Mathieson were soon got out, but a considerable delay elapsed before Findlay could be released. He was severely burnt and otherwise injured. He was ultimately taken home and put under medical care. Peter Mathieson, who had his right leg fractured, and John Mathieson, who was severely burnt, were conveyed to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. The cause of the explosion is not known. It is stated that the boilers were examined shortly before the accident occurred, when they appeared to be all right. [The Times, 20 March 1879]