Kirkwood 16 November 1893

  • Serious undergound fire which resulted in more than forty men being entombed for 6 hours. No  fatalities.


“Great excitement was created throughout Coatbridge neighbourhood on Thursday night by an alarming colliery fire, which at one time it was feared would be attended with great loss of life. Fortunately these fears turned out to be unfounded, though forty-two miners were entombed for six hours. The scene of the occurrence was the Kirkwood Pit of the Summerlee and Mossend Iron & Steel Company. The pit is on the lands of colonel Buchanan of Drumpellier, and is one of the most extensive in the district. In all, about 200 men are generally employed below ground. Thursday was observed as the weekly idle day, and consequently few persons were in the workings. In fact, they consisted entirely of those whose business it is to see that the pit is kept in proper working order. The miners comprising the night shift, 42 in number, descended to the bottom safely between four and five o’clock, and the employees on the bank and pithead began to make arrangements to deal with the coal to be wound to the surface. The day had been dull, and the early evening was dark and murky. The men set about lighting up the places with lamps. At many collieries the electric light is now in use, but here matters were not quite so far advanced, oil still being used for illuminating purposes both above and below ground.

“WHAT EXACTLY OCCURRED - has not been made quite clear, This is certain, however, that two or three men were looking after the lamps and getting them in order for the night’s work. Some of the wells required filling, and the men were doing this from a large tin vessel. Accounts differ as to what then took place. It is stated that the men were charging the reservoir of a lighted lamp with paraffin, and that it exploded. Whether this is so or not the men who were manipulating the lamp were not injured, as one would expected them to be had they been in the immediate vicinity of the explosion. Another account has it that the oil was accidentally spilled on the wooden platform, and that it caught fire and spread with startling rapidity. The fact is that the men were utterly powerless to check the fire within a few moments of its start. They had hardly time to escape before

“THE PLACE WAS A MASS OF FLAMES - which ran up the woodwork of the winding frames, and in a quarter of an hour rose many feet above the pulleys. In the darkness the light shone out brilliantly and illumined a wide area. The wind was blowing from the south-east, and the flames were thus sent in the direction of the engine-house, which was involved in the burning. The heat was intense, and in a comparatively short space the winding engines were rendered useless.

News of the occurrence spread over the whole district as far as Airdrie, in about half an hour, and, as the consequence, large crowds of spectators were attracted to the spot. They included many persons who had come in the hope that their services might be of some avail. The miners employed in the pit resided for the most part at Woodside, a small roadside gathering of one-storey houses, and also at Coatbridge. Among the crowds were the wives and relatives of the men who were in the pit. Every effort was made to prevent the means of communicating with the men being cut off, but without effect. Towards six o’clock the fire was at its height. The flames were crackling and roaring with alarming fury, and the intelligence then got abroad that the men were beyond immediate help. The women whose husbands, sons and brothers were below, learned the sad news with every evidence of distress, but they bore up as cheerfully as the circumstances would allow.

As soon as the fire broke out it had been seen that the appliances at the pit were insufficient to cope with what was feared might prove to be a very serious fire. Information of the outbreak was sent to Coatbridge and Airdrie and the presence of the fire brigades requested. The Airdrie men at once responded to the call, and made their way with all speed to the scene of the fire, where they arrived about an hour after its outbreak. When the information reached Coatbridge the brigade were engaged at a fire near Calder, but as it proved a small affair they were soon able to join their Airdrie comrades at Kirkwood. There was little or no water in the immediate neighbourhood of the pit, and the brigades were under the necessity of drawing supply from the nearest plug at Woodside, just on the verge of Coatbridge. The laying out of the piping necessarily took up some time, though the men worked with the greatest eagerness. Even with this delay the united brigades were able to turn on the water in time to prevent the flames descending the shaft, though powerless to hinder the fire from completely destroying the pithead gearing, the winding engine-house , and the fan which was used to throw a strong current of air into the mine. Mr. Bryson, the engineer of the company was summoned from Coatbridge, and Mr. George Russell , the general manager, and Mr. David Mowatt, the mining manager, were on the ground when the fire broke out, and under their directions every effort was made to prevent the extension of the flames. In view of the fact that the men were believed to be in danger, doctors were summoned from the places around. Dr. Marshall was the first to arrive, and he was soon followed by Dr. Rennie and his assistant, and Dr. James Muir from Coatbridge. Then the joiner’s shop was fitted up as a hospital, so that if the men when reached should be found to require medical assistance and care, these could be at once given. Father Hopewell, a much respected clergyman in the district, also hurried to the spot so as to be in readiness to administer the comforts of religion to any of his parishioners who were in the pit, and who might be relieved.

After the fire at the pit-head was extinguished the firemen poured water down the shaft. The pit, although not a fiery one, is considered wet, and fears were entertained that access to the workings might be closed by a gathering of water at the pit bottom, which is some feet below the general level of the workings which slope towards it. Owing to the direction from which the wind was blowing the pumping-engine house remained uninjured, and the machinery continued to work for fully an hour after the outbreak. Suddenly, however, the pumps stopped, as the fans had done some time previously. The cause was explained to be that the plates covering the pit-mouth had fallen down the shaft and fouled the pump rods. While the men were checking the flames others had been engaged in rigging up a scaffold with which to descend the shaft. This occupied some time. Ultimately, however, the work was completed. A windlass was fitted in position, and a winding pump attached to the donkey engine. Volunteers were called for, and at once six men stepped forward for the somewhat dangerous duty of exploration. Their names were :- David Mowatt, John Pollock, the oversman, and his assistant, Hugh McGeogh; John Riggs, Alex Dick and John Neilson. The services of all the men were not required, and Mowatt, McGeogh and Dick got on to the ‘scaffold’ at a quarter to ten o’clock. They took with them a rope attached to the sounding apparatus at the pit-head. The engine was set in motion and the men descended on their journey of 175 fathoms to the bottom. They had gone only a few fathoms when the signal to stop was given.

After a few seconds the engine was once more started, and in stages, each one marked by a signal from the descending scaffold, the explorers at length reached the end of the descent. A few moments word was sent to the bank that the men about whose safety so much anxiety was manifested were alright. The announcement was received with loud cheers by the watchers, who in spite of a drenching rain which had been falling for some time, remained around the pit bank. The news was carried all over the neighbourhood, and in a comparatively short time all except those who had relatives below ground left for their homes.

The following is a list of the men who were entombed :-

John Quillan, bottom-man
Francis Collins, fireman
Thomas Healey, brusher
Henry Hughes, do
John Hughes, assistant brusher
James Davidson, drawer
James M’Kenna, driver
Thomas Maley, do
John Devine, miner
Robert Lindsay, do
Bernard Tonner, do
James Hughes, do
Michael M’Lean, do
James Harvey, do [NB Scotsman lists as James Lavery]
Neil M’Leish, do
Henry Halliday, bencher
Andrew M’Allan, driver [NB Scotsman lists as Andrew M'Aloon]
Edward Boyle, bencher
James King, driver
John M’Donald, roadsman
Michael M’Queen, miner
James M’Queen, do
John Hunter, do
William M’Laughlan, do
John O’Neil, do
James O’Neil, do
John Reilly, do
John Morgan, do
Daniel Lavery, do
Peter Reid, do
James Kerr, do
John M’Aulay, pumper
Luke M’Donald, do
Robert Hall, brusher
David Wotherspoon, do
Patrick Duffy, miner
Charles Scott, do
William Cummings, do
William Climson, do
John Finlay, do
Daniel Maley, do
James Martin, do
Hugh M’Sherry, do

It was a little past midnight before the first of the rescued reached the surface. They were received by their relatives and fellow-workmen with every demonstration of joy, and plied of course with questions about their imprisonment, and how they felt. They seemed in good spirits, and none the worse for their unpleasant experience. But they were the first to be delivered. As will be seen later, those who had to remain below longest suffered more or less from the effects of the close and smoky atmosphere. However, in narrating his experiences, one of the miners who appeared first on the surface, on being interviewed by an Advertiser representative, said :-
‘There is not much to tell. I think it would be about half-past five o’clock when we first discovered there was something wrong. We saw the ‘reek’ and we knew there couldn’t be ‘reek’ without some fire. It was coming down the shaft fast, and we knew there was a fire above. Then when bits of burning wood came rattling to the bottom we knew it was something bad.’
- And was there not a panic among the miners?
- ‘No, sir, none whatever. Speaking for myself, I never thought of the danger but as none of my mates showed any excitement, but silently and quickly put out the burning sticks as they fell down the shaft, we calmly bided our time.’
- And were you not afraid of suffocation ?
- ‘Well, at one time there was a fear of that. It got very thick and hot but it cleared again. The smoke came down our shaft, along the passage and up the other shaft. But we are alright now. My mates down below, who are now waiting their turn to come up, have got refreshments sent down to them, and they are all as happy as if they were at their own firesides.. you see, sir, I don’t have a scratch, or the least bit of a burn. Neither has any of my mates.’
Another of the miners who came up with the first batch on being approached said :-
- ‘I was working with about ten or twelve other miners in a very distant part of the pit. It would be about four or five hundred fathoms from the pit bottom, when we were startled by the alarm of fire. I did not know what it was, but I must say I felt a little alarmed when I saw the smoke beginning to gather. We all went as fast as we could to the bottom of the shaft, and by that time the smoke was coming down the shaft in great volume, while every now and again lumps of burning timber came flying down to the bottom. We knew then a big fire must have been raging up above, and knew that while it lasted there was no chance of us getting out of our uncomfortable quarters.’
- You realised your danger then ?
- ‘Only once did we get anything like a fright. You see we were afraid to open the trap door as the smoke was filling the workings. We felt the draught of the air stop, and guessed the fans had been burned or damaged in some way. We then thought it was all up with us, but nobody showed any excitement. We simply did what the oversman told us and kept quiet, trusting in providence and to our mates above, who, we knew would do their utmost to relieve us. But our fear did not last long, and the air grew purer again. This had a wonderful effect on us all. Our spirits revived again, and we felt hopeful of rescue. We waited patiently, and I can tell you it was a relief to us when we heard the rope working once more in the shaft.’

Patrick Duffy, a married man, residing at Brown Square, Langloan, on being interviewed yesterday forenoon said :-
- ‘I descended the shaft to begin work about half-past four in the afternoon, and, along with three of my mates, had got about 300 yards from the pit bottom, when the bell rang. This caused us at once to stop, for we all knew that something was wrong. We turned and came back, and soon smelt smoke, which got so dense latterly that we had to turn back, and go round the other road, which fortunately remained clear for some time longer. We then succeeded in reaching the pit bottom, but only the more fully to realise our danger, for masses of flaming wood were by that time coming down one of the shafts. Then we all commenced to clear the burning wood away, and so kept the fire from catching hold. The men got all collected together, and were placed in places of comparative safety by the fireman, Frank Collins. It would be nonsense to say we were not alarmed for there was certainly danger to be apprehended. But the whole of the men were thoroughly obedient to the instructions of the fireman, although we were all suffering severely from the effects of smoke. The ventilation, however, kept very good. We listened with intense interest the preparations we heard being made for our rescue, and knew that our mates would do all that men could do to rescue us. It was about eleven o’clock when we got hold of the hands of the rescue party, and we set to at once to get the cage put to rights, which was fortunately not so much damaged as we first supposed, and neither were the slides, so that shortly after midnight the first squad of the entombed men reached the open air.’

He got up somewhere about two o’clock, and suffered a good deal from the smoke. The men who were the last to be relived from the fire must have felt very uncomfortable.

It may be mentioned that Treasurer Spencer and Baillie Smellie were early on the ground, the former remaining until an early hour in the morning. The Coatbridge Fire Brigade having been out at the Calder fire from early in the afternoon and having got no refreshments, the worthy treasurer, whose residence is in the immediate neighbourhood, sent liberal supplies of tea and coffee for them, and also provided for the wants of the workers, until a special supply was sent from a distant store at Summerlee.

Captains Simpson and Anderson, of the county and burgh police, were in attendance from the start with a large force of constables, and preserved good order.

It is between 27 and 28 years since the pit was opened, and as the rules which are now applied to the position of the up cast and down cast shafts were not then in force, the company followed what was considered the best plan, and placed both shafts within fourteen or fifteen feet of each other. Although the mine is not a fiery one, every precaution was taken to ensure the safety of the miners; and the fact that accidents have here-sofore have been of rare occurrence, and very slight in character, testifies to the excellence of theses arrangements. About fourteen years ago the whole of the gearing at the pithead was renewed and erected in a style that was believed to be unsurpassed in the district. The frames for the winding wheels were of malleable iron, but the mountings as usual were of wood, the platforms for the reception and dispatch of the hutches being very extensive and thoroughly suited to the purpose for which they were designed. The house in which the winding engine was placed was to the north-west, and the building containing the pumping engine was on the south-east. The pit was 175 fathoms deep. Two seams were worked, the pyot and the main seams, the plan of working adopted being that known as the stoop and room. As is customary in all pits, the roadways to the workings have a slight ascent to the headings, and it was this fact that made those in charge afraid of the lives of the men entombed.

A visit to the pithead yesterday revealed a scene of desolation. The work of rescue was over, and the spot which presented so animated, so exciting a spectacle throughout the night till near daybreak, was almost deserted. The ruins of the engine-house, the wrecked machinery, the charred spars of the extensive pithead frame all stood out gently and gloomily in the dull, drizzly weather. But the Messrs. Neilson of Summerlee, with their usual promptitude , were soon at work preparing for the restoration of the ruined structure, for early in the day workmen appeared and began clearing away the wreckage, and unloading wood for the work of reconstruction.

We understand that although some 200 men are thrown out of employment by the fire, mining operations will probably be resumed in a fortnight. Although it took eight weeks to erect the iron frame and woodwork, the frame is intact so that only the woodwork requires to be put up, and this is already in progress.
As showing the interest the Prudential Assurance Company take in accidents of this kind, Mr. W. Goodman, their district superintendent, received the following telegram yesterday morning:- “Telegraph latest re colliery disaster. Are all rescued?”

[Article from The Airdrie & Linlithgow Advertiser 19 November 1893 - Many thanks to Robert Murray for transcribing and supplying this article]

Story of William Climson, as reported in the Scotsman:
I was about 400 or 500 fathoms from the bottom of the pit when the fire broke out. There were about a dozen of us together at that part. We made our way to the bottom of the shaft, and at once knew that there was a great fire raging at the pit-head. Smoke was descending in great volume and quantities of burning timber were always coming down the shaft. The colliers who were at the bottom of the shaft had the presence of mind to throw water upon the burning wood. Had it not been for this, the result might have been disastrous. There was no excitement among the men, who quietly submitted themselves to the control of the overman. At one time the air stopped, and we ten thought that all was up; but the ventilation was immediately restored. This gave us great encouragement, and as the smoke became less we felt certain that we should be got out. We were afraid to open the trap door as the smoke at once pretty well filled the workings, but we were able to keep our lamps burning. None of the men has received any injuries. They are all at the pit bottom waiting to be drawn to the surface. [Scotsman 17 November 1893]