Caprington 10th December 1909

The disaster occurred at 11.45 p.m. on the 10th December at No. 41 pit Caprington Colliery, situated near Kilmarnock, in the County of Ayr, worked by the Caprington and Auchlochan Colleries. It was caused by the roof of an abandoned stoop and room working, near the surface, giving way, with the result that a large body of water, which had during the night overflowed from the River Irvine, or a burn running into it, poured into the old workings, and finding its way to No 41 pit ran down the shaft forcing accumulated black-damp in front of it, and drowned the 10 persons whose names and occupations are given below :

  • David McCabe, 33, miner
  • John Balfour, 25, miner
  • Henry Graham, 22, miner
  • Peter Dorans, 36, waterman
  • Hugh Ramsay, junr., 19, waterman
  • John Stewart, 17, drawer
  • Charles McSherry, 15, drawer
  • James Menzies, 15, drawer
  • Alexander Clark, junr., 16, drawer
  • James Lennon, 17, driver

Click here to view plan of workings (large file)

When the back shift started work at 3.45 p.m. in the afternoon preceding the accident 38 persons descended the pit and three others descended at 10 p.m. By 11.45 25 of the men had left work and gone home, and 16 were below ground at the time of the inrush. Five escaped by way of the up-cast pit known as the new air pit, and another one, James McSherry, was miraculously saved by climbing from the Blind Coal to the Ell Coal bottom, whence he was carried by the flood into the winding shaft, and came out on the top of the cage. The remaining 10 workers were drowned.

The water rose rapidly in the workings to a point in No. 41 shaft 22 feet above the level of the Ell Coal bottom, and within 56 feet of the surface. When it was found there was no hope of escape for those left in the pit, operations were commenced and vigorously continued for the purpose of pumping out the water and recovering the bodies.

On the 21st and 22nd December the bodies of John Stewart, James Lennon, Peter Dorans and John Balfour were found in the Ell Coal within a short distance of No. 41 pit, and the other six bodies were subsequently recovered in the Blind Coal workings, where all the men had been employed.

A public inquiry was held on the 21st February in the Sheriff Court, Kilmarnock, into the circumstances attending the disaster.

After a hearing which lasted all day the verdict of the jury was :-
"That on the 9th or 10th December, 1909, the deceased Peter Dorans, James Lennon, Hugh Ramsay, jr., John Stewart, Alexander Clark, jr., Charles McSherry, David McCabe, James Menzies, Henry Graham, and John Balfour while engaged at their employment in the underground workings of No. 41 pit, Caprington Colliery, Parish of Riccarton, Ayrshire, the property of the Caprington and Auchlochan Coal Company were drowned by an inrush of surface water which flooded said pit."

Description of the colliery
No. 41 pit is one of several pits belonging to the same company which have worked the seams known as the Ell coal, and Blind coal, and is 28 fathoms deep to the lower seam, the Ell coal being 15 fathoms above. It is the winding pit of the colliery, and by it the miners were lowered and raised daily. Twenty yards distant there is an upcast pit known as the " air pit," sunk to the Ell coal, and connected to the Blind coal by a cross-cut mine, and this cross-cut and air shaft formed a second outlet for and ventilated the west section of the workings.

Another shaft known as the " new air pit," 12 yards deep, is connected with the Blind coal workings 330 yards eastward of No. 41. This pit is also an upcast but acts for the east section alone, and five men who escaped by means of this outlet did so by withdrawing the fire or furnace situate about 60 yards from the " new air pit" bottom. The air pits being shallow were not fitted with apparatus for raising or lowering persons, but such apparatus though not in actual use at the time of the accident, was on the works belonging to the mine and available in accordance with section 16 of Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1887.

The certified manager of the pit was Mr. John Gibson, and Mr. Hugh Shaw Dunn was the managing partner of the firm. The Ell coal, 3 feet 6 inches thick, was opened up from No. 41 pit about 15 years ago. The working of it continued until 1906, when it was abandoned ; the stoops formed by the first working being considered too small to remove without causing subsidence of the surface. The seam was worked by the stoop and room method, and as the workings progressed eastwards, an encroachment from an old colliery was discovered north of the River Irvine ; and so from that point onwards the workings really formed an extension of those in existence from adjoining pits 60 years ago. The size of the stoops left varied from 5 to 10 yards square, and the rooms were about 8 feet 6 inches wide. The seam dips slightly northwards, and where the subsidence took place on the night of the disaster the thickness of the cover was about 18 feet.

Present workings
These are in the Blind coal. 3 feet thick, and as previously stated 15 fathoms below the Ell seam. No. 41 pit is a little deeper than the position of the seam, a cross-cut mine rising 1 in 50 intersecting the coal north of the pit. The main levels, east and west, and a dook running northwards, were driven from this point. Stoops were formed from 40 to 80 feet square and afterwards split or reduced as shown on plan. Like the Ell it was also worked on the north side of the River Irvine many years ago, and as these workings were thought to contain accumulated water, a barrier of coal was left between the old and new workings, and boring operations carried on in the latter for fear of encroachment such as had been found to exist in the seam above. No such encroachment however was discovered.

Narrative of the accident
It seems that Thomas Aird, the fireman and charge man of the shift, on the night of the accident was at 11.45 p.m. in the main intake on his way to the pit bottom when he encountered black damp which put out his light. He tried to re-light his lamp, but his matches would not strike. On arriving at the pit bottom, he found the bottomer, David Livingstone, also in the dark. Aird concluded the black damp must be coming from the Ell coal above, and it occurred to him that by opening an air door and thus short-circuiting the air in that seam the black damp could be diverted to the up-cast pit. Before this could be done he and Livingstone were obliged to go to the surface to get their lamps re-lighted.

On returning down the shaft as far as the Ell coal bottom, Aird succeeded in opening the air door, but through suffering from the effects of black damp returned to the surface. After this Livingstone went back down the pit alone, and after shouting two or three times at the Blind coal bottom, and getting no response, he again ascended the pit. Five minutes afterwards water was heard rushing down the shaft from the Ell coal in such volume as to prevent further access in that direction.

Meantime a miner named James McSherry, 23 years of age, who had at one time acted as a roadsman, succeeded in travelling up the back air-course known as the "chute" to the Ell coal. He met water running down this air-course, but on reaching the junction of two roads he encountered a larger volume, and was carried by it into the winding shaft. After being unable to get further access to the Blind coal by means of No. 41 shaft, a party, headed by the manager, Mr. Gibson, proceeded to the new air pit, and rescued five persons, namely, John Laird, John Laird, jr., Thomas Campbell, John Wilson, and Hugh Gibson.

According to John Laird, Aird the fireman visited their working places in the Blind coal at 9 p.m., and all went right until about midnight. At that hour he and others were on their way out along the east level horse-road when the in-coming air put out their lights. They retired, and meeting Campbell went through an air-door, where they remained a few minutes. On going back into the level their lights went out again, but later they were able to proceed outwards along the east level to a point near the stables (see plan) ; they there saw John Wilson, and, being unable to encounter the rush of water coining from No. 41 pit, had to turn back, and thereupon he cried to a number of the men to "make for the east." Only four of them, however, did this, and on arriving at the bottom of the new air pit they thought of raking out the fire of the ventilating cube or furnace to enable them to pass on to the bottom of the pit, but decided first to go back to the water, where they found the boy Hugh Gibson alone, crying, and stating that David McCabe and two boys were drowned. Laird and his son then took Gibson with them back to the "cube." After this they "drew" the fire, which took about 15 minutes, and after waiting for the "sulphur to clear" they were met by the manager and drawn out of the new air pit by a rope. This left 10 men still in the mine, and thereafter the water rose so quickly that it was impossible to rescue them.

I received a telegram on the morning following the disaster, and by 10.40 Mr. Pearson and I got to the colliery. We found from an examination of the working plans and from the level of the water, how hopeless it was to effect the rescue of the entombed men. In fact they must have been beyond help some hours before we reached the pit. We descended the new air shaft by a rope, and found the water had risen up the steep mine or outlet to within 15 feet of the pit bottom ; at the same time the level of the water stood 56 feet from the surface at No. 41 pit and the adjoining air pit, or 22 feet above the Ell coal and higher than any workings to the rise to which the entombed men could get access.

The position of the subsidence of the surface which let the water into the mine is shown on plan. It took place in a field about 500 feet north of Caprington Castle and approximately 135 feet south of the River Irvine, and the opening into the Ell coal seam at a depth of 17 to 18 feet, was 14 feet by 12 feet, and occurred at a point where two rooms or roadways 8 feet 6 inches wide intersected ; but at the surface the gap was considerably larger, caused by the water in its descent washing a large quantity of sand and gravel into the old workings. The force of the deluge into the opening must have been great, for the cavity was littered with trees which had been uprooted in the vicinity of the subsidence, thus rendering the work of inspection difficult.

On the 23rd of December when the water had been pumped low enough and after the bodies of Stewart, Lennon, Balfour and Dorans had been recovered in the Ell coal, Mr. Pearson and I again visited the colliery, and were able to travel between No. 41 pit and the bottom of the air pit in the Ell coal, but could not descend the cross-cut in the direction of the Blind coal for the reason that the water had not been lowered sufficiently.

Returning to the colliery on the 26th of January we descended the new air pit again, and obtained access to four working places in the Blind coal. As the ventilation had not been fully restored we did not proceed further into the workings. We saw, however, the road by which the five workers were rescued by the manager and others. This road is a cross-cut mine about 60 yards in length rising at an angle of 45° from the Blind coal to the bottom of the new air shaft. We found it a suitable road for means of escape from the workings when there was no cube or furnace burning. At the foot of the cross-cut we saw the furnace, which occupied a part of the road where it was 10 feet wide by four feet high - the full width of the furnace, including walls, was five feet, leaving a walking space of five feet between the outer wall and the side of the road. At the time of the inrush, and previously, this space was closed by sheet-iron nailed to a crown at the roof. This sheet was erected to cause a draught over the furnace fire. Before the cross-cut mine could be used as a means of escape, the furnace fire would require to be raked out, the sheet-iron pulled down, and a rest taken to enable the mine itself to cool down. This was done by the men who escaped in that direction. According to John Wilson the furnace fire took ten minutes to rake out, and after waiting ten minutes longer they were able to pass up the drift to the new air pit B and so escaped.

With regard to the air pit near to the winding shaft and which the officials looked upon as the second outlet for the blind coal, it was suggested that as steam from a pump was exhausted into it, it was unsuitable as a second outlet. Evidence was however given at the Inquiry to show, that while steam was exhausted into the pit a man could and had worked in it for half an hour at a time without ill effects.

There appeared to me to be no real suggestion at the Inquiry that No. 41 pit was not provided with a second outlet such as is required by the Coal Mines Regulation Act, and even supposing the exhaust steam to have rendered the air-pit unavailable, the new air-pit B by which the five persons escaped would alone have fulfilled the terms of the Statute. It was a most unfortunate circumstance in connection with the disaster, that the 10 men who lost their lives attempted to escape in a different direction apparently under a misapprehension that the one escape shaft was more easily available than the other, and it is not unlikely that the knowledge of the existence of a ventilating furnace at the "new air pit" led them to make the mistake.

The primary cause of the disaster was the working of the Ell coal from No. 41 pit where the surface cover was only 18 feet thick. In the course of time the Ell coal roof which formed part of the cover deteriorated and collapsed with the gravel and sand above when the surface was flooded during the night.

The question naturally arises why the management allowed this colliery to work when the surface cover in the Ell coal was only 18 feet thick and underneath land known to be subject to occasional flooding.

As previously stated, the same seam was worked in an adjoining colliery by the stoop and room method 60 years ago. The stoops or pillars left then to support the surface were three yards, or thereabouts, square, not only under the low-lying land, but under the river itself where the cover was less than 18 feet.

The condition of these old workings was ascertained through an encroachment having been made into the Caprington Estate, and they were found open and dry. The owners thereupon continued to work the Ell coal, but in doing so left stoops five yards instead of three yards square until five years ago when, owing to the roof becoming softer, they stopped the working altogether, and confined their attention to the Blind coal seam, 15 fathoms below. As no inrush of water occurred, and the roof of the old Ell coal workings had remained intact for so long a period, the management appear to have considered there was no real danger of surface water getting into the pit, and consequently continued to work the Blind coal seam until the time of the disaster. The Blind coal workings were underneath the Ell coal, and another question arose as to whether the working of the lower seam contributed to the cause of the accident.

I made a careful inspection of the Blind Coal workings afterwards with this thought in view and found no perceptible indication whatever of crush or creep to show that the lower working had "pulled" the workings above. On the other hand it was ascertained at the inquiry that falls of roof had occurred in the Ell coal when that seam was worked from No. 41 pit, and also that there had been previous "sits" in the surface in the vicinity of the subsidence which later on caused the disaster, and yet the ground had previously proved impervious to an inrush of water. Mr. Hugh S. Dunn, the managing partner of the firm, and a mining engineer of long experience, stated at the inquiry that this was due to the strata clotting and filling up the surface breaks, and that it was owing to this fact, and to experience derived from the solidity of the old workings under the river, he had formed the opinion that it was quite safe to work out the Ell coal, and thereafter to take out the blind coal at a lower level.

Mr. Gibson, the manager of the pit, however, seems to have had some misgiving as to the safety of the workers on one occasion in 1904 when the surface was flooded, for he withdrew the men from the mine more as he described it "as a precaution as regards the river itself" than from fear of the flooded surface, and evidence was also led at the inquiry to show that the men themselves had had fears as to their own safety, for a worker named Harry Stewart spoke of one occasion that occurred a year ago when most of the men left the pit. Later on,however, as nothing happened apparently they regained confidence, and the working of the pit thereafter continued until the night of the accident.

It seems very doubtful whether the owners were justified by the experiences above quoted in continuing to work the pit. Under normal conditions, that is to say, when there was no flooding of the surface, it was evidently comparatively safe to work the mine, but had the management appreciated or recognised the effect that percolation of water and consequent saturation of the Ell coal roof might have on some part of the roof softer than the rest, I think they would have elected to keep the men out of the mine when flooding of the surface existed or was anticipated. The Mines Act contains no provision as to precautions to be taken when working coal near to the surface.

[Report by Thomas H Mottram. Inspector of Mines]