Hill of Beath 15th February 1901

On 15th February 1901 an underground fire at Hill of Beath Colliery, owned by Fife Coal Co, caused the death by suffocation of seven men

List of Dead

  • Robert Birrell, 33, oversman
  • Andrew Nasmyth, 34, fireman (NB given as Alexander in report below)
  • Alexander Carr 43, oncostman
  • Patrick McRoberts, 30 oncostman
  • James McFarlane, 44, oncostman
  • Martin McTearn, 36, oncostman NB given as Rennie in report below)
  • James Reid, 35, miner

Report by J B Atkinson, Inspector of Mines for East Scotland District

Underground fire - Hill of Beath Colliery

The Lochgelly Splint and Parrot seam in Fife is subject to spontaneous combustion, and gases from a fire of this nature in the east section of workings of the Hill of Beath Colliery led to the loss of seven lives on 15th February 1901.

The following is a section of the seam: -
Coal and blaes 6ft 0inches - not worked
Coal top 5ft 0 inches - Lochgelly splint
Blaes 2ft 6 inches
Coal bottom 3 ft 6 inches Lochgelly Parrot

The seam is worked long wall in two carries; the bottom coal is worked first and the top coal is then taken out from same roads. The inclination of the seam is about 1 in 7. East section is separated from other sections of the Colliery by a fault across which there are only two roads, one the intake and haulage road, and the other the return airway. The ventilating current passing along the intake when last measured before the accident amounted to 9652 cubic feet per minute and passed in one current round the faces. It was stated that there was little loss of air, most of the current reached the working face. The seam is free from firedamp and coal dust, and naked lights were used throughout.

In July 1900 a fire broke out in the section and the miners were shortly afterwards removed nearer the shaft, and in September stoppings were built in both the in take and return airways to isolate it. These stoppings consisted of two rough walls of stone 2 ft thick and 2 ft apart, the space been packed with redd and the outer wall clayed over. The stoppings appear to have damped the fire to some extent.

In December 1900 a second fire, or possibly an extension of the first fire, broke out, and mining operations had to be again moved nearer the shaft. The second outbreak was isolated by a line of five stoppings built as follows: next the fire was nine feet of stone and redd, then one foot of clay, and lastly 9 inches of brickwork. These stoppings were watched, and any cracks clayed up, and it was hoped that no air was reaching the fire, a hope which the sequel showed was not well-founded.

On 14th February 1901, a smell as from a fire was felt in the section, and on the 15th the oversman, Robert Birrell, reported this to the manager, Mr Richardson, who gave orders for Birrell and Alexander Nasmyth, the fireman of the section, to make a particular examination of the stoppings, and try and locate the issue of gases that day.

After work stopped about 2pm Birrell and Nasmyth made their examination, and then appear to have travelled to the shaft by the return airway. As they did not return to the surface the alarm was raised, and a search party consisting of W E Richardson, manager, James Grandison, miner, James Reid, miner, Alexander Carr, miner, Patrick Manson McRoberts, miner, and James McFarlane, rope splicer, descended the shaft about 4pm and proceeded into the section by the intake airway. They passed the stoppings, and waited a few minutes in the air current. Mr Richardson stated at the inquiry that there was no consultation as to danger from gases, but he suggested they should halt, and see if their breathing was affected. After a few minutes halt, and feeling no difficulty as to breathing, they commenced to travel out by the return airway, and when Mr Richardson, who led, had gone about 135 yards he found his breathing affected, and at once turned and told all the others to turn. Mr Richardson struggled back and managed to get into fresh air beyond the issue of the gas when he became unconscious. Carr, McRoberts, Rennie, and McFarlane did not get clear of the issue and were all lost.

Grandison managed to retrace his steps to a point of safety.

The search party not returning other parties descended the shaft, a member of one of these, Martin Rennie, miner, proceeded too far and was overcome by the gas and perished.

Mr Rowen, the general manager of the West section of the Fife Coal Companies Collieries, having arrived at the scene descended the shaft, provided with two canaries in cages to be used as a test, and in consultation with Mr Riddell, manager under the Fife Coal Company at Cowdenbeath Colliery, prudently decided to run no more risk but reverse the air current, and so get to the bodies. This was accomplished, and the bodies of Birrell and Nasmyth were recovered first, separated from each other by about 20 yards, and about two-thirds of the distance to the shaft by the return airway. The bodies of the rescuers were found near the face - the last being recovered about 2:30am on the 16th, when it was decided to isolate the district by building stoppings in the intake and return airways near the drawing shaft.

The stoppings were built the same night, and when I arrived at the colliery the next day no entry could be made to the section which is still isolated.

It is evident that air was reaching the fire, and that the products of combustion were entering the air current, and no doubt carbonic oxide was present. Dr Nasmyth who examined the bodies, and saw the affected survivors, was of the opinion that the cause of death and prostration was carbonic oxide.

The stoppings were not sufficiently tight to isolate the fire, or air was passing to it through cracks in the strata.

The oversman and firemen were not instructed to examine the return airway, and may have decided to travel to the shaft in it as the shortest route, and because there was less difficulty in carrying a light in it going with the air than in the intake going against the air; they probably had no thought of danger although a little knowledge as to the probability of carbonic oxide being present might have deterred them.

When Mr Richardson decided to go into the return airway he appears to have had some idea that the air might be vitiated but had no certain evidence, and the test made by waiting a few minutes did not indicate danger. He and his party were engaged in rescue work when some risk must be encountered, and not withstanding the sad result I do not think any blame can be attached to him; he led the party, and subjected himself to the same risk as the others.

The accident however, clearly indicate that great care is necessary in entering airways into which gases from an underground fire are finding an entrance. If the only reliable precaution at present known is to use mice or birds as indicators of the purity of the air. The blood of the small animal being more quickly saturated by the carbonic oxide it collapses before a man is affected, and so allows some time to retreat.

Mr Rowan, when he first went in by the intake and got past the stoppings, found the canaries affected when he himself felt no ill-effect, and while the air was being reversed the canaries were made use of by the leading man, and they dropped motionless in their cages on several occasions when carried well forward.

Before this fire, at other fires in an adjoining pit, Mr Rowan made use of palladium chloride as a test for carbonic oxide, and found on several occasions that the gases from a fire blackened the blotting paper on which the solution of palladium chloride was poured immediately before the test was made, but he had not previously used the bird test.

Since the accident mice have been used regularly for testing purposes in other sections of the collieries troubled with fires, and with satisfactory results. As regards the palladium chloride test I am informed by Dr Haldane, of Oxford University, that although it is a very delicate test for carbonic oxide, other gases have also the effect of blackening it.

Mr Rowan informs me, in his experience, all the fires in the Lochgelly Splint and Parrot seam occur during the working of the upper portion of the seam; and he supposed them to be due to the heating of the overlying coal and blaes after it has fallen. The extraction of the bottom part of the seam naturally cracks and rends the overlying strata and it is found almost impossible in ordinary long wall workings to exclude air from fires by stoppings, and this points to the advisability of leaving barriers of solid coal between sections of workings, so that in case of fire stoppings can be built in places with solid coal on each side, and this system is being adopted by him as far as possible.