Niddrie No 7 Pit, 24 May 1884

Seven men died in an underground fire at No 7 Pit, Niddrie:

  • William Hamilton, 51, married
  • George Hill, 15 years & 8 months
  • David Kerr, 17, single
  • John Middleton, 16
  • Neil Paton, 22, single
  • Michael Scanlan, 14
  • David Smith, 25, single

Newspaper Reports

On Saturday morning, a serious fire, resulting in the loss of seven lives, broke out in one of the pits belonging to the Niddrie and Benhar Coal Company, about 4 miles from Edinburgh.

Shortly after 6 o'clock, while some men were descending No 7 pit, it was observed that the shaft, at a depth of about 170 fathoms, was on fire. They returned to the top of the pit, and steps were immediately taken to extinguish the flames and to rescue the men, of whom there were at that time between 30 and 40 below. The fire spread rapidly, and a thick volume of smoke issued from the pit, preventing any communication in that direction. Two other pits, Nos. 8 and 12, are, however, connected with No. 7, and by No. 12 all the men, with the exception of 16, escaped. The depth of No 7 Pit is about 250 fathoms. When news of the fire spread, great excitement prevailed and the mouth of the pit was soon surrounded by a large crowd, including friends of the miners still in the pit. Relief parties were formed without delay, and various unsuccessful attempts were made to reach the imprisoned men. At the same time efforts were made to put out the fire by turning on streams of water into the pit. The Edinburgh fire brigade were soon on the spot assisting the work. Mr Ralph Moore, Inspector of Mines, who was telegraphed for, reached the pit shortly after midday, and along with the manager and others superintended the operations of the relief parties.

In the course of the afternoon one of the parties discovered the missing men in a working above what is called the "cross cut".  Seven of the miners were found dead. One of the bodies was that of a man named Hamilton, still clasping in his arms his son, who was alive. Information was immediately sent to the surface, and Dr Andrew Balfour and Dr John Balfour of Portobello, descended and gave medical assistance to the rescued miners, who were much exhausted. On being brought to the top they were at once conveyed to their homes. The seven dead bodies were then brought up and there were many heart-rending scenes.

The names of the rescued are as follows:-

James Kerr, Patrick Shavelin, John Fleming, Archibald McCartney (formely of the Black Watch and present at Tel-el-Kebir), Patrick Corrigan, Alexander Ferguson, Robert Kerr (a boy), John Ferguson (a boy), and William Hamilton ( a boy)

The names of those who lost their lives are as follows:-

John Middleton, Neil Paton, David Kerr, David Smith (late of the 79th Highlanders and present at Tel-el-Kebir), William Hamilton, George Hill (a boy), and Michael Scanlan ( a boy).

An engineman named John Coulter, who saw the flames from a cross connexion in the pit, is of the opinion that the fire was caused by the friction of the pump rods. All the pits have been closed in order to prevent currents of air, and in the meantime about 500 men are out of employment. [The Times 26 May 1884]

Colliery Disaster In Mid-Lothian - A Pit On Fire - Seven Men Suffocated - On Saturday, one of the coalpits belonging to the Niddrie Coal Company was the scene of a disaster, involving a loss of life such as has not occurred in connection with the coal-mining industry in the East of Scotland for a long period. The pit is one of a number sunk on the estate of Niddrie, and is situated about a mile and a half to the south-east of Portobello. Shortly before six o'clock on Saturday morning it was discovered that some woodwork connected with the pump-rods was on fire. The flames spread rapidly, and though an alarm was at once given, seventeen out of about forty workmen in the pit at the time were unable to escape. The search parties which were immediately organised did not reach the men till between five and six o'clock in the afternoon, and it was then found that seven of them were dead.

At the scene of the outbreak three are three main inclines, Nos. 7, 8, and 12 respectively, which run at an angle of about 60 degrees, and it was in the first of these, No. 7, that the fire occurred. Its total depth is 250 fathoms. In addition to the inclines there is an upcast shaft, where there is a fan, this shaft being used exclusively for ventilation. The inclines were all connected by cross-cuts, by which access could readily be obtained from one to the other. The working of the mines was divided into three shifts, the first starting at six in the morning, the second at two in the afternoon, and the third at ten at night. The fire was first observed about six o'clock by a party of miners who were descending to commence their shift. One of the men, named Wilson, states that at that time there was only a small part of the woodwork beside the pump rods on fire. After the men had got out of the cage a little further down the shaft, Wilson returned with it in order to give the alarm at the surface. The flames had, however, spread so rapidly that it was with difficulty that he retained consciousness in passing through the smoke. About the same time the fire was observed by a fireman named Coulter, who, after giving information of the outbreak, returned to a water lodgment and turned on the water, but it had little effect on the flames. As soon as the man in charge at the pithead was aware of the state of matters he made up a party of six men and sent them down No. 7 incline with a view to extinguishing the flames, but they had not got further down than 130 fathoms when they found the smoke too dense for endurance, and signalled to be drawn up again. When the gravity of the situation was realised the men in the other pits and works belonging to the company were summoned to give what assistance they could in extinguishing the fire. An intimation of the outbreak was also sent to the Edinburgh Fire Brigade, and a detachment of men with a manual engine was on the spot about eight o'clock. By that hour, however, the whole woodwork in the shaft was blazing, and the headgear had also taken fire, while the flames threatened to extend to the engine-house. The efforts of the firemen were directed to preventing the flames from spreading above ground, and in order to lessen any danger here the head gear was sawn through and drawn away. With a view to subduing the flames in the pit the water of a stream which runs close by was diverted into the pit. The conflagration, however, continued to increase, and by ten o'clock it was evident from the dense smoke which was issuing from the pit mouth that the coal was on fire. The currents of air had been so arranged that the whole of the smoke was driven up No. 7, and No. 12 was kept quite free of it. No. 8 at the outset had got filled with smoke. When the fire broke out there were, as already stated, about 40 men in the pit, but the majority of these made their escape by means of the crosscut into No. 12 and came up that incline. Seventeen of them were, however, unable to force their way through the smoke, and when this fact became known the gravest fears were entertained for their safety. Rescue parties were formed and endeavoured to force their way into the level whither it was expected the men would have made their way. One lad named George Waterston, residing at Millerhill, who had been rendered unconscious by the smoke while making his way to the cross-cut, was discovered about nine o'clock and taken to a cottage in the vicinity, where he gradually recovered, and was subsequently taken home. Numerous efforts were made in the course of the day to reach the other sixteen, but it was not till about three o'clock in the afternoon that the smoke was diminished sufficiently to enable the rescue party, headed by Mr Ralph Moore, Her Majesty's Inspector of Mines, to force their way to where the entombed persons were. As surmised, they were found all together in one of the top workings, from which they had apparently hoped to get to the cross-cut leading to No. 12 incline. Finding that they were unable to get through the smoke, they had retired as far as possible from the burning shaft. Seven of them were found to be dead, while the others were, with one exception, quite unconscious. A scene of a touching character was witnessed by the relief party - the dead man Hamilton having his son, one of the survivors, clasped firmly to his breast. Those who still survived were brought to the surface soon thereafter and removed to their homes, where they were attended to by Drs Andrew, A. H., and J. H. Balfour, Portobello, who had been in waiting at the mines all day in anticipation of their services being required.
On making inquiry yesterday it was found that the survivors had all recovered consciousness, but in some cases they were in a very weak condition. All the shafts connected with No. 7 pit were closed yesterday, and the pit itself filled up in order to smother the flames. Work at the pits will be suspended for some time, and about 500 men will be thrown idle.
The following are the names of those who were suffocated:-
William Hamilton (50), resided at New Craig-hall, leaves a family of 10. He had been employed about the pits nearly all his life.
David Kerr (17), resided at New Craighall with his widowed mother, and was no relation to the other two men of the same came who were rescued.
Neil Paton (22), belonged to Dunfermline, but had been employed in the district for some years. He resided at New Craighall.
John Middleton (16), lived at New Craighall with his foster mother.
David Smith (24), unmarried. He had recently been in the 78th Highlanders, and took part in several engagements in the Egyptian campaign. He resided at New Craighall.
George Hill (15), resided with his stepmother at Old Craighall.
Michael Scanlan (14), resided at New Craighall.

The rescued men were :-
James B. Kerr (39).
Robert Kerr (13), his son.
Alexander Ferguson (38).
John Ferguson (13), his son.
Patrick Corrigan (33).
John Fleming (16).
Patrick Shevlin (42).
Archibald M'Cartney (26).
William Hamilton (16), son of Wm. Hamilton, who was suffocated.
George Waterson (16), Millerhill.

Statements By Survivors - James B. Kerr states that the first indication which he got of anything being wrong was a slight smell of smoke, which seemed to proceed down into his road from the one above. He immediately sent his son, who "draws" for him, further up to see if he could learn if anything had gone wrong. He returned with the news that after having gone to the end of the working he had found that the pit was on fire. All the men then assembled at the bottom of the road on which he was working, and which was one "place" above the cress-cut level. There would be about 15 men and boys then together. The first move towards making their escape was taken by John Ramage, and the others followed him down to the bottom of the working towards the cross-cut. They succeeded in getting down to the cross-cut level, and proceeded along it in the direction of No. 12 Pit, but the flames and smoke beat them back, and they had to retire to the "place" where they were found by the search party. He did not attempt to get farther, as a good deal of confusion prevailed - the boys and men squalling and crying most piteously for air. He heard some of those who were imprisoned with him praying, but shortly after this he fell into a stupor, as though he ware about to take a sound sleep. The density of the stifling smoke choked them, but he was among the last to lose consciousness. He remembered during a sort of relapse, which lasted two or three minutes, seeing his little boy (Robert), and of rubbing him on the head to try to bring him round. He remembered nothing after this. He is still very weak, and his son is getting round.

Patrick Shevlin, another of the rescued, stated that he was working in the second lowest "place" in the pit. He made his way to the cross-cut when he heard the alarm of fire. He believes he could have made his way through the smoke at that time, but as he knew the pits well, having wrought in them for about six years, he turned back to help to rescue the men whom he had left behind. Before he could again reach the cross-cut he found that the smoke was so extremely dense , that he could not make his way through it.

Mr Robert Bell, Broxburn, and Councillor Steel, Edinburgh, two of the directors of the company, together with the general manager (Mr Turnbull), were present on Saturday and yesterday at the scene of the catastrophe. Large numbers of people from Edinburgh and the surrounding district visited the colliery yesterday. [Glasgow Herald 26 May 1884]

The Disaster At Niddrie Colliery- Nothing further has been made public with reference to the disaster which occurred at Niddrie Colliery on Saturday. The scene of the disaster, which on Sunday was, it is computed, visited by not fewer than 20,000 persons, was deserted yesterday save by a few of the workmen, who stood listlessly by. The mouth of the shaft in which the fire occurred has now been covered up with sand, through which however, as well as through other openings in various parts of the extensive workings, the smoke finds an outlet. The whole of the pits are now idle, and it is feared they will be so for a considerable time. With the exception of the lad Fleming, who was in a weak state, the survivors were all doing well yesterday, A meeting of the director of the company was held in Edinburgh yesterday to consider the position of affairs, and arrangements are being made by Mr Ralph Moore Inspector of Mines, to hold an inquiry into the causes of the fire. [Glasgow Herald 27 May 1884]