Nitshill 15th March 1851


Right: Nitshill Memorial - inscription reads "In memory of the Nitshill Mining Disaster and the 61 miners from the Victoria Pit who lost their lives.  Donations from the local community, traders, trade unions and Glasgow City Council"


Newspaper Reports

Colliery explosion - great loss of life
On Saturday morning, the most fearful explosion occurred in the Victoria coal pit, belonging to the Messrs Coats of Paisley, situated at Nitshill, a few miles from Glasgow.

The place where the blast has evidently been most destructive it is in the direction of what is called the Free Trade pit, which is about half-a-mile from the mouth of the Victoria. The Free-trade pit, we may explain, is used merely as an air shaft for the Victoria, and from it dense volumes of smoke are still issuing, having the smell which usually arises from burning materials. The report of the explosion was heard at a distance of several miles.

The connecting particulars which we have learned regarding this unhappy affair , may be summed up as follows: - the colliers, to the number of upwards of 60, went down in successive gangs about 3 am on Saturday. They were accompanied by Peter Hammond, the assistant underground oversman, who had also the charge of the ventilation of the pit, and whose invariable practice it was to go through the workings every morning, before the colliers commenced. Hammond is spoken of to us as an exceedingly steady and shrewd man, who had been accustomed to mines all his life, and one in whom the workmen had the most perfect confidence. By the return of one of the cages which had brought down at day men, a small number of men who had been working in the pit during the night were conveyed to the surface. Hammond, we are informed, either used or was possessed of a Davy lamp, which he used in his daily examinations, but the colliers carried only the common lamp, and it was often a matter of complaint with them that the current of air in the pit was so strong that it blew out the lights. In this state of matters - 60 men being below and understood to be at work, while a large number of drawers and trappers were standing at the pit head waiting their turn to be taken down, the appalling explosion took place, about 20 minutes before 5 a m.. Many of the people threw themselves on their faces, and the debris showered on their bodies, although nothing came up large enough to hurt them. It is estimated that the explosion continued two minutes, and gave several successive shocks or heaves - the first by far the loudest - until the pent up vapour had expended itself, and all was still.

The extensive character of this deplorable calamity has excited a feeling of the most painful kind throughout the whole neighbourhood, and on Sunday it was computed that at one time fully 20,000 people were present. A number of experienced miners from Mr Dixon's of Govanhill, under the charge of Messrs Allan, his managers, reached the spot early on Saturday, and, assisted by some of the neighbouring colliers, proceeded down shaft - one relay relieving the other at stated intervals - with the view, if possible, of reaching the workings, and rendering assistance should any of the unfortunate men still be alive. The shaft presented a scene of wreck and havoc such as perhaps was never seen on any similar occasion of a coal pit explosion. The woodwork had been blown from the bottom of the shaft, which is 175 fathoms from surface, and scattered for 100 yards all around the pit head in a perfect shower. The woodwork however, has been shattered into many thousand fragments of chips, few of them being above half an inch in length, and large soft masses of it were seen in which the timber had been riven into threads scarcely so thick as whip cord. The same appearances were presented around the ventilating pit mouth, called the Free Trader, and situated at a distance of half-a-mile from the main down shaft. To give an idea of the force of the explosion, we may state that the mouth of this ventilating pit had been covered over flush with the ground, with heavy flooring timbers, and the air and smoke which ascended from it had been led by a tunnel along the surface to the bottom of a tall chimney which had been erected at a distance of a dozen yards, for the purpose of increasing the draft. The force of explosion tore away the timbers already alluded to, as if they had been laths, scattering fragments in all directions and entirely cutting of the connection between the ventilation pit and the auxilliary chimney. During the whole of Sunday there rolled up from this newly-opened mouth, smoke and vapour which had pretty much the kind of smell emitted by gas tar.

On Sunday, it was definitively ascertained that the number of people in the pit when the explosion took place, amounted to 63 - 55 men and eight lads or boys, two of whom might undertake betwixt them one man's work. The total number employed in the pit is usually 140 but as it is the custom for colliers or those who get the coal, to go down about an hour-and-a-half before the drawers or trappers who perform the subsequent operations, none of the latter had descended, although they were all standing at the pit head ready to be taken below when the explosion occurred. Had the event occurred some half-hour later, therefore, the consequences must have been much more calamitous. We have stated that there were 63 men and boys in the pit at the moment of catastrophe. Of these the majority were married, and they have left amongst them 65 infant children - that is, children at such an age as to be unable to provide for themselves. The following are the names of the poor men so far as we have been able to learn them: -

  • Bernard Martin, married
  • Patrick O'Neill, married
  • Thomas Connolly, Felix Connolly, father and son
  • Thomas Scott, William Scott, father and son
  • Michael Smith, unmarried
  • Andrew Carson, married
  • Felix O'Neill, unmarried
  • Michael Irving, unmarried
  • Neil Buchanan, Neil Buchanan, Jas Buchanan, father and two sons
  • Thomas Samson, unmarried
  • Matthew Speirs, married
  • James McLachlan, married
  • Thomas Hughes, Francis Hughes, brothers, unmarried
  • Henry Gibbs, married
  • John Mulholland, married
  • Robert Black, married
  • Patrick Keenan, unmarried
  • Neil Carlan, unmarried
  • James Baxter, married, Joseph Baxter, unmarried, brothers
  • John Smith, married, Richard Smith, unmarried, brothers
  • John McMachlan, married
  • John Williamson, unmarried
  • James Poole, widower
  • Connel Kerr, James Kerr, brothers - both married
  • Thomas Allison, grandson to James Kerr, unmarried
  • Charles Shields, James Shields, a father and son - son unmarried
  • John Shields, brother of Charles Shields, unmarried
  • Patrick Crossan, Dennis Crossan, father and son - son unmarried
  • Robert Whiteside, George Whiteside, father and son - son unmarried
  • William McMillan, John McMillan, up father and son - son and married
  • Peter Hammond, John Hammond, James Hammond, father and two sons
  • Peter White, Thomas White, father and son at - son unmarried
  • Andrew Gebbie, David Gebbie, Andrew Gebbie, father and two sons - sons unmarried
  • David Colville, married
  • James Dodds, married
  • John Connolly, married
  • John Bell, married
  • Joseph McIllwam, married
  • Samuel McIllwam, Joseph McIllwam, nephews of the above
  • John Cochrane, married
  • Joseph Brighton, married
  • John Smith, married
  • John Maxwell, unmarried
  • Samuel McDowell, unmarried
  • John Campbell, unmarried

[NB Some of the dead are listed in the OPR for Abbey Parish, Paisley - click here to view names]

It will be seen from the above how large a number of the sufferers are connected in the capacity of fathers and sons and brothers. There are no less than two family groups of 3 each - viz, two fathers, each with two sons. The aspect of the poor women, he stood in the relation of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters to the poor men was truly agonising. They stood in little groups, with faces swollen with weeping, and mostly silent from the very exhaustion of grief and despair.

The operations were of course continued uninterruptedly during Saturday night, and by 1 o'clock on Sunday the miners from Mr Dixon's works had got down fully 130 fathoms - clearing away the rubbish as they went - that is within about 40 fathoms of the bottom. Here however they met with a formidable obstruction - the cage which had been dashed out of its position by the explosion and was forced vertically across the pit. This is an apparatus about 13 ft in length by 4 ft square and which, moving in the shaft, conveys three hutches of coal to the surface at a time. With axes, chisels, files, and saws, the men worked at the stoppage in the throat of the shaft most earnestly, but from the limited space, only 2 or 3 could be employed at once, and moreover, their exertions were soon paralysed by the cold, for the wind was sucked down so strongly as to blow out their lights, and the water from the sides of the pit fell copiously on their bodies.

There was all along a hope entertained that if the workings could only be reached, some of the poor fellows would be found alive; for it was evident that after the first convulsive throes of the explosion the ventilation of the pit had readjusted itself, and the fresh air went into the down cast shaft, and after permeating the mine escaped by the up cast shaft, half a mile distance. We were informed that about 10 o'clock on Sunday night, the bell at the top of the mine, which is worked by a cord from the bottom, gave two distinct strokes at intervals of about 20 minutes. Towards the afternoon of Sunday the men who came up from time to time said they were convinced they heard the sound of voices from the bottom, although so inarticulately that they could not make out what was said. About 3 o'clock two of the miners came up bringing a portion of the cage with them and stating that the main portion of the cage was still jammed. They also gave the important information that they distinctly heard the sound of one or two voices, who asked how long it would be before those above would get at them, and also if they could not send them down a light. This was confirmed by another arrival from the shaft a little before 5 o'clock. The men who came up said that sounds reach them as - "Send down a Davy and some meat". And being asked how many there were, the voice seemed to answer "two" or "2 and 20" the miners could not say which, but, acting upon the first requisition, a little bag was sent down containing some toast and brandy, which, was intended to be dropped, if possible, by a string, through the rubbish. It will not be surprising that the sounds were heard so indistinctly from below when we state that the relieving party was still 40 fathoms, or 240 ft from the bottom of the mine and that the strong downward current of the air would carry the sound from above towards the mine, but would greatly impeded its transmission upwards.
The operations noticed above still continued and about 6pm on Sunday the miners were able to bring up a large portion of the iron cage which had so much obstructed their efforts during the greater part of the day. They were only able to remove it by cutting through the iron at the corners. Several additional descents were made and about 9pm it was definitely announced that the operators were now in communication with the two men whom they had every prospect of saving. About 10 o'clock a supply of blankets was sent down as it was announced that the poor fellows were almost in a state of nudity. After a lengthy period of anxiety and suspense one of the poor sufferers named John Cochran was finally brought to the surface. He was supported by 2 men into an adjoining shed and immediately attended to by a medical gentleman. Cochran was in such a weak state that he could not give any detailed account of the actual occurrence of the calamity, further than that two men who were walking with him at the time were instantaneously struck down by the fire. During his long imprisonment of nearly 45 hours, he repeatedly groped about for some of his neighbours, and often called on them, but, with one exception, no one answered.

After Cochran was brought up to the surface the bucket again descended and brought up David Colville in a most exhausted state. He was burned severely about the face, neck and hands. He was removed to the adjoining shed and after application of restoratives, was placed on a stretcher and conveyed home. Cochran though in an equally exhausted state was not so much burned. They stated when brought up, that at the time of the explosion, they were working on the west level and immediately after the noise of the blast had subsided, they ran for the bottom of the shaft, which they reached with great difficulty, the choke damp being so dense. There being a pretty strong current of pure air down the shaft, the pit around its vicinity was kept clear of the after damp. John Maxwell and John Mulholland worked along with them, but were unable to reach fresh air after the blast; Cochran and Colville went back and found them both dead, some hours after the explosion. Cochran and Colville lay on top of each other in turn, to keep them in heat during the time they were entombed.

Between 4 and 5 o'clock on Sunday, a consultation between the miners who had been down the pit took place, the result was a resolution to again enter the pit and explore it so far as practicable with a view of ascertaining if there were any still living and to recover the bodies of those who were killed. Accordingly, a party of 11 picked miners were formed and after having been duly cautioned not to venture where there was likely to be danger, the work of transmission down shaft commenced, and was completed a little before 5 o'clock. Nothing further occurred till about half past nine, when two of the party returned, and reported they had discovered two bodies, and had also seen the remains of two horses, which were employed in the pit. The stated that they had explored the extreme end of the east and west level, and partly into some of the inclines. They could not, however, get near the facings, where, it is believed mostly all of the men were employed, in consequence of the foulness of the air. They were not aware whether the pit were still burning; but there must have been a conflagration as red hot cinders were seen lying on the roads. A little after 10 o'clock measures were adopted to have the bodies of the two men who were found in the pit removed to the surface. Blankets were sent down and stretchers prepared. The first body brought up was that of John Machan. It was conveyed to his own home, under an escort of the 21st Infantry, followed by a large crowd of men and women crying most bitterly. The second body, John Maxwell, was brought up soon afterwards, when a similar scene to that described occurred. The remainder of the exploring party then returned to the pit head and another party of men took their place.

A consultation of the mining engineers and mineral managers from Govan, Johnstone, Hurlet and Nitshill, took place early on Monday morning and the plan of operation was decided on for recovering bodies and putting the pit and workings in order, which is to be prosecuted with as much vigour as the few hands left at this Colliery, and with a few volunteers from some of the neighbouring ones, will admit of.

We Again visited the scene of the disaster on Monday night and regret to state that there is too much reason to fear and believe that 59 human beings in addition to the two whose bodies have been recovered, have met an untimely fate. This accident as regards the loss of human life, is unparalleled in the history of mining casualties in Scotland. There still continue to linger about the pit head the sorrowing relatives of the unfortunate miners, but it is evident that they despair of ever meeting them again, and their demeanour has now assumed a settled melancholy. In addition it to the difficulty in the way as regards the shaft, the air courses have been discovered to be completely destroyed, and these, for the protection of the miners engaged in the work of exploration, must be put in order which will require some considerable time. It seems to be the almost universal belief that all, save the two rescued in the morning, have perished. From the Glasgow Herald [Scotsman19th March 1851]

On Monday night a large party of miners, headed by Mr Tinn, of Glasgow, Mr Niven and Mr Sampson, belonging to Mr Coatts establishment and Mr Barr, resolved to explore the pit. their first act was to put it in a stopping. They led the air along with them in the most cautious manner, as they went along, and found coal on fire in some parts, but this they extinguished immediately. In the course of their search they came to the first group of nine dead bodies, which were removed to the bottom of the shaft. They were fearfully burned, many of the bodies presenting the appearance of scorched and blackened masses.

After some little rest the same shift of men again went down and on Wednesday came upon the second group of 12 bodies, lying in the face of the workings along the west level. The poor fellows had literally been killed while at work with their picks in their hands. Coffins were sent down the pit and all the bodies were distributed through the desolate cottages which the poor fellows occupied while in life.

A working shift of 12 or 14 men descended about 9 o'clock on Thursday morning for the purpose of penetrating the east level, where it is known that two groups of bodies, comprising the entire number in the pit, and now lying. They expected first to come upon a group of 12 lime blasters afterwards upon the last and most numerous group of miners but it is impossible to tell when this result will be effected.

David Colville, one of the two men whose lives have been saved, states that at the moment of explosion, he was working with three others in a stone cutting at the extremity of the west level. The explosion was indicated by a tremendous rush of air, which was driven in advance of the fire blast; and looking forward they heard and saw an immense mass of flame roaring and advancing towards them. Fortunately it took the first open shaft which was a distance of 50 or 60 yards from the men. The flame and vapour rushed up the shaft with incredible fury. But it still partially rushed on and met the men who were also striving for the shaft fairly in the face. Maxwell and Machan, after going half the distance were overpowered and fell down dead. Colville and Cochrane, while in a staggering state, got a puff of fresh air, as they termed it, which revived them and they were able to reach the bottom of the shaft. At this spot after the fiery blast had ascended upwards, a current of air rushed constantly downwards. However, they suffered from the excessive cold and the agonising suspense for 45 hours while imprisoned in the bowels of the earth.

On Thursday afternoon the bodies of six lime blasters were discovered and brought in coffins to the surface. [Scotsman 22 March 1851]

The Coal-Pit Accident- Further Particulars - On Friday morning, Mr. Bennie, of Mr. Dixon's works at Govanhill; who has frequently rendered efficient service since the accident, arrived with a party of his men at the Victoria pit. They immediately proceeded underground for the purpose of making an extraordinary effort along with those who have been engaged in the work of search during the past few days, for the recovery of the remaining bodies. After great exertion, and overcoming many difficulties, about three o'clock in the afternoon they discovered a group of bodies all of which were shockingly disfigured by the explosion. We understand that Mr. Dunn, the Government Inspector having dressed himself in his pit-dress on Friday, descended into the pit, along with Mr. Brown and Mr. Alexander, engineers, for the purpose of examining the working, and, if possible, discovering the cause of this fearful calamity. On Saturday the miners under Mr. M'Raith's charge were again at their labours, and before nightfall 22 bodies were in-coffined and brought to the surface, as the result of the two days' research and discovery. These were mostly found on the east side of the pit; but those got on Saturday were not so fearfully mangled as some of the bodies which had been brought up in the earlier part of the week, from which, it is probable, they were further removed from the immediate scene of the explosion. Fifty-one bodies have now been recovered, leaving ten still in the pit; but it is to be hoped these will be got in the course of to-day.

Recovery of the Remainder of the Bodies, Nitshill, Sunday Evening. - During the whole of this day a large number of miners prosecuted the search for the bodies of the unfortunate men, which were still known to be in the pit, and by nine o'clock in the evening they had all been recovered and brought to the pit head, making 61 in all. The Messrs. Coats and Mr. M'Raith remained at the pit head the whole day, and the under ground search was conducted under the superintendence of Mr. Niven. The bodies were incoffined in the pit, and, after being brought to the surface, were carried to the homes of the relatives. They were very much disfigured. All the miners who were engaged exploring the pit were brought to the surface in safety, but some of them were considerably exhausted.

It will be observed from an advertisement in this day's paper that Messrs. Coats have generously headed a subscription for the widows and children of the sufferers with the sum of £500 ; and they have also taken the initiative to the extent of £100 in another subscription to reward the men who have been engaged in rescuing the survivors, and recovering the bodies. To these laudable objects the Earl of Glasgow has contributed respectively £300 and £50. We also observe with much satisfaction from an advertisement in this day's paper that a benefit is to be given to-night in the Princes' Theatre, for the families of the sufferers. [Glasgow Herald 24 March 1851]

Colliery Explosion At Nitshill - The widows and families of the unfortunate sufferers by the late calamitous Accident at the Victoria Coal Pit, Nitshill, having been left in a state of great destitution, it has been resolved to raise Subscriptions for their relief and also for rewarding the exertions of those intrepid individuals who have,with so much risk and danger to themselves aided in rescuing the survivors, and in recovering the bodies of those who have been killed.
Subscription Lists will be found at the Coffee Room, Paisley the Royal Exchange, Glasgow, and at the Offices of the several Banks in Glasgow and Paisley, and the amount of Subscriptions will be received by John Scott, Esq., Union Bank of Scotland Paisley, who has kindly consented to act as Treasurer.
A meeting of the Subscribers will in due time be called, to determine as to the application of the Funds.

The following sums have already been subscribed:-
For Relief of the Families of the Sufferers:-
Messrs. Coats..................................... £500
The Earl of Glasgow.......................... £300
For rewarding the Persons engaged in rescuing the Survivors:-
Messrs. Coats..................................... £100
The Earl of Glasgow.......................... £50
Paisley 21st March 1851 [Glasgow Herald 24 March 1851]

The sum of £1326 has been subscribed for the families of those killed and £187 for the workmen employed in rescuing the survivors and recovering the bodies. [Scotsman 16 April 1851]

Coal-pit Explosion At Paisley - Sixty-one Lives Lost.  Shortly before 5 o'clock a.m., a fearful explosion took place at a coal-pit near Nitshill, between two and three miles from Paisley, by which 61 human beings lost their lives. The Victoria pit, in which the explosion took place, is the deepest in Scotland, being 1050 feet in depth at the downcast shaft, and the workings extend over an area of 70 acres, of which, however, a large part were at this time discontinued, and the access cut off by brick walls; so that the air from the downcast shaft was carried past them to the present workings, a distance of nearly one-third of a mile.

Being "pay Saturday," a larger number of the men had commenced work at an earlier hour than is usual on other days. The explosion took place about 20 minutes to 5 o'clock with a report so loud that it was heard distinctly at Paisley. The whole neighbourhood was alarmed; and on the people rushing to the pit-mouth, it was found that one of the cages, which had descended a few fathoms, had been blown up the shaft to the height of the pit framing, about 30 feet. It was now ascertained that 63 men and boys were in the pit, and little hope could be entertained that any of them would escape. Many of the workmen were Irish strangers; but many had wives and children in the villages in the neighbourhood. The distress of these poor people may be imagined.

The works of the interior of the mine had been so much injured by the explosion, and the distance to be traversed from the downcast shaft was so great, that it was not until Sunday evening that two men were able to reach the workings, where they, contrary to expectation, found two living men, almost exhausted by want of food, terror, and bad air, but uninjured in person; all the others, 61 in number, had perished by the terrific blast! Most of the bodies, when found, were blackened and swollen by the fire, and altogether so much mangled that it was necessary to send down coffins for the reception of the remains previous to their being brought to the surface. Most of the poor fellows had been evidently surprised at their work, or when just about to commence it. A group of eight dead men were found sitting with their tobacco-pipes in their mouths, as if they were taking their morning's smoke, and some of them had just thrown off their jackets, previous to taking the pick in their hands.

The Victoria pit is what is called a fiery one. The coal is used principally for furnace purposes, and emits a large quantity of inflammable gas in the workings. Ordinary oil lamps or candles are, notwithstanding, employed by the miners ; and so large an escape of inflammable gas goes on in the face of the workings, that a candle, held close to the wall when the air-current is sluggish, will cause a sheet of flame to flash along the whole face where the coal is being dug out. No artificial mode of producing ventilation by a current of air is adopted in the pit. The air finds its way down the downcast or working shaft, and after traversing round and through the workings for perhaps miles, finds its way to the upcast shaft, which it ascends, owing to the heat it may have acquired whilst wriggling along amongst the workmen.

A very large subscription has been obtained for the relief of the widows and orphans. [From The Annual Register, 1851]

Inspector of Mines Report

Nitshill explosion in Scotland - 61 killed
This colliery had an abundant downcast and upcast shaft, with a tube fitted for a furnace; but so well satisfied was the manager with the ventilation that the furnace had been discontinued for some months. Many of the principal stoppings were of brick, and many of slit deal, to carry the air round the extremities of the workings; but there were no sheath stoppings in the waste. The accident was attributed to the damage of one of these stoppings, whilst the want of internal stoppings allowed the air to pass straight to the upcast shaft; and as the men were permitted to begin work without the examination of an overman, the gas discharged from the waste fired upon their naked lights.