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Explosion of Fire-damp at Blantyre Colliery.
Report by Messrs. Ralph Moore, T. E. Wales, and James Willis, Inspectors of Mines.
Rutherglen, November 22nd, 1877.
Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty.

About 9 o'clock on the morning of the 22nd October, an explosion occurred in the splint-coal workings of this colliery, which has resulted in the death of 207 persons.

This is the greatest number of lives that ever was lost in Scotland in a colliery accident; the greatest number before that time being where 61 lives were lost at Nitshill, in 1851, by an explosion of fire-damp.
We have made several inspections of the workings with a view to ascertain the cause of the explosion. We have also heard the evidence given at the public inquiry, and having considered all the circumstances, we now submit the following report.

During the last 6 years a large area of the deepest coal in the Lanarkshire coal-field has been sunk to. Within a radius of two miles from the Hamilton West Station there are 14 new collieries, with 32 pits, varying from 120 to 180 fathoms in depth. Although some of these pits are still being sunk, there are already about 4,000 persons employed in this area. These collieries have all been supplied with modern machinery and fittings, and for the most part they are worked upon the Newcastle system of "pillar and stall " or "stoop and room," and are in most respects similar to English collieries in their arrangements and magnitude. All of them give off fire-damp.

Blantyre Colliery is one of these, and is situated two miles west of Hamilton. It belongs to the firm of Messrs. William Dixon (Limited), and is under the care and direction of Mr. Charles Thom-son, managing partner, and Mr. James Watson, certificated manager. Operations were commenced about six years ago, and during that period 880,000 tons of coal have been raised. At the present time the colliery consists of the following pits :-
No. 1. 24ft x 8ft, reached the coal in the spring of 1872; it works the Ell Coal, 7 feet thick at a depth of 117 fathoms, and the main coal, 4 1/2 feet thick, at 129 1/2 fathoms.
No. 2. 16ft x 8ft, reached the coal in the summer of 1872, it works the splint coal, 5 1/2 feet thick, at a depth of 130 fathoms.
No. 3. 24ft x 8ft, reached the coal in January 1877; it works the splint coal at 155 fathoms.
No. 4. 24ft x 8ft, reached the coal in March 1877; it works the splint coal at 133 fathoms.
No. 5. 10 feet diameter, was completed in August 1876, and is used solely as an upcast shaft for Nos. 1, 2 and 3 pits ; it is 127 fathoms to the splint coal.
No. 2 pit is to the direct rise of No. 3, and is 680 yards to the west of it. No. 1 is midway between them. No. 4 is 3/4 mile north of No. 2. No. 5 is within 30 yards of No. 2. pit. There is a very little water in the colliery; what little there is runs down the sides of the shaft, and is drawn in " chests" or tanks at No. 1 and 3 pits by the winding engines. Practically there is no water in the splint coal. There is no pumping engine.

The workings of No. 1 pit are connected by means of "blind pits" with those of No. 2 pit. The workings of Nos. 2 and 3 pits are connected directly in the splint coal. Those of No. 4 pit are not yet connected with the workings of any other pit. About 500 persons were employed in the whole of pits. The Ell coal has been worked both by the "stoop and room" and "long wall" methods. The main coal workings are entirely by the "long wall" method. The splint coal, except where an experimental long wall working has been commenced, which, however, does not affect the question, has altogether been worked by the "stoop and room" or Newcastle method. In the latter the pillars of coal are generally 20 yards square, and the openings 12 feet wide, by which about 30 per cent, of the whole is extracted, leaving 70 per cent, in pillars to be afterwards worked away. The Ell coal workings cover an area of 50 acres; the main coal 60 acres, and the splint coal 140 acres. The workings in the Ell coal are entirely within the compass of the main coal workings; and the latter partly overlie the splint-coal workings. The explosion occurred in the splint-coal workings of either No. 2 or No. 3 pit.

The ventilation of Nos. 1, 2 and 3 pits was produced by a large furnace placed at the bottom of No. 5 shaft. This furnace has three fire-grates, each 7 feet by 4 feet, but only two were at work regularly; the total quantity of air passing through the workings being about 100,000 cubic feet per minute, with a consumption of five tons of coal per day. It was kept burning night and day. The air was distributed in the following manner:-About 50,000 cubic feet per minute descended No. 1 pit and ventilated the Ell and Main coal workings, passing down a "blind" pit to the splint coal and on to the upcast shaft. About 50,000 cubic feet per minute was sent into the splint-coal workings as follows:-About 25,000 to 30,000 cubic feet per minute descended No. 3 pit to the splint coal and was divided at the bottom ; one portion from 15,000 to 20,000 cubic feet went northwards and ventilated the workings on that side, and returned by the rise workings to the upcast; the other portion, about 10,000 cubic feet per minute, was taken southwards along the main level road to a point near the extremity of the workings, and then to the rise through the faces and back to the upcast. About 26.000 cubic feet per minute descended No. 3 pit, and was equally divided at the bottom. One portion went to the north and ventilated the whole of the workings on that side of the pit; the other part went to the south and through all the places there. The two currents met on the rise side of No. 3 pit, and passed in one current into the workings of No. 2 pit, where it was again divided. About 10,000 cubic feet per minute went to the north-east, and after ventilating the workings there, ascended the upcast. The remainder, about 16,000 cubic feet per minute, ventilated the south-west workings as far as the face of the south level, near to which it joined the current coming south from No. 2 pit, and the two currents travelled together along the rise workings to the upcast.

The lengths of the air currents in the splint-coal workings of Nos. 2 and 3 pits, following the windings of the brattice, were:-

No. 3 Pit.
South current, 13,000 cubic feet per minute, for 50 men 2,266 yards.
North current, 13,000 cubic feet per minute, for 50 men 2,535 yards
Average length of No. 3 pit, currents 2,400 yards.

No. 2 Pit.

Current of 16,000 cubic feet, for 50 men passing into Martin's level and stoops, including average length of No 3 pit, currents  8,096 yards.
Current passing up More's dook, 10,000 cubic feet, 20 men  3,500 yards
Current of 10,000 cubic feet passing down No. 2 shaft and along south level, 25 men  2,901 yards
Current of 20,000 cubic feet passing down No. 2 and into the north workings, 25 men  3,674yards

The principal lines of stoppings were built of brick and lime, the temporary stoppings of deal, and the whole of the working places were bratticed so as to lead the currents of air as near the faces as was necessary. The waste or back pillars were only ventilated by the air which leaked at the stoppings and doors.

The following appear to have been the quantities of bratticing in the splint coal:-
No. 3 Pit.
South side 511 yards.
North side 748 yards.

No. 2. Pit.
From junction of No. 3 to south level 726 yards.
From south level to furnace           286 yards.

The working is about 6 feet thick, and there would be an average area behind the bratticing of 25 square feet.

Naked lights and blasting were allowed in the whole of the workings with the exception of a few places at the extreme end of the splint-coal workings of No. 2 pit where "Stooping" operations had been commenced; in these places, and for a short distance around, the miners, 12 in number, used gauze lamps and where prohibited from blasting. These gauze or safety lamps were not Davy lamps, but of a kind in common use throughout Scotland. They are much larger than the Davy lamp and give a better light. Mr. Moore has frequently tested them in gas, and on no occasion has the gas been exploded outside.

According to the report books none of the officials seem to have thought that the workings were otherwise than in their ordinary condition up to the time of the explosion. The four firemen descended No. 2 pit at 4.40 a.m. and the workmen began to descend at 5.30. The custom was to meet the firemen at the bottom of the shaft, and this appears to have been performed in the usual manner. One of the roadsmen, John Sharp, who got out alive, states that he heard of nothing being out of place on that morning. The two firemen of No. 3 pit descended at the usual time and examined the workings. They found all right and the men descended and continued at their work until the explosion occurred. These firemen and the oversman still survive. They were fortunate enough to ascend, as was their usual custom, for the purpose of signing the report books and taking their breakfast, a few minutes before the explosion. The last reports in the firemen's books are dated Saturday the 20th, and contain no notice of fire-damp having been seen. So far, therefore, as the books or any available information can show, the workings were supposed to be in their normal condition on the morning of the accident.

The appearances of the explosion, on the surface, were a blast, accompanied by flame and steam up No. 3 pit, which lasted from one to four minutes; a rush of smoke out of the upcast shaft, and a slight rush of air out of No. 2 pit. Nothing appears to have been observed at the top of No. 1 pit, but it was felt slightly in the workings of that pit and the miners at once ascended. At the moment of the explosion the manager, Mr. Watson, and some mechanics were adjusting a cage on the pit-head of No. 3 pit, and the flame burned Mr. Watson, while some of the others were knocked down and more or less injured by the force of the explosion. The explosion was felt at a considerable distance, and the smoke which hung around the pits for some minutes was seen by miners and managers in the neighbourhood who at once hastened to the place.

Mr. Moore received a telegram shortly after 10 o'clock, and he and Mr. Robson, the assistant inspector, arrived at the colliery at 12, noon. By that time it was feared that the loss of life was great, for out of a total of 233 who were stated to be down Nos. 2 and 3 pits in the morning only 27 from the north level had come up alive, and already 7 bodies found dead close to the bottom of No. 2 pit had been brought up. No. 2 shaft was not much disturbed and the cages worked from top to bottom. At No. 3 shaft the cages and ropes had been damaged and some of the woodwork in the shaft blown out by the force of the explosion. A descent was made in a "kettle" and a point 127 fathoms from the surface was reached, below which a large accumulation of "debris," the result of the explosion, was found. Although this shaft was so much damaged, and no one could reach the bottom, air continued to pass down freely, and voices were heard from the bottom of the shaft. Mr. Moore and Mr. Robson, accompanied by some engineers from the neighbouring collieries, descended No. 2 pit shortly after 12 o'clock; they only reached a short distance along the south level until they were stopped by "falls" and after-damp, but the incline towards No. 3 pit, called " More's dook," although full of choke-damp, was open as far as could be seen. Several dead bodies were found in the south level within 20 yards of the shaft. It was found that the ventilation of the mine had been disarranged and attempts were made to restore it, so as to be able to penetrate into the workings. Subsequent examinations of No. 3 shaft showed that the obstruction consisted of tubs and wood which had been blown up from the bottom, and of "debris" and wood lining which had fallen part way down, that it was 30 feet thick, that the operation of clearing it out was likely to be a tedious one, and that the survivors could not soon be reached from it. It was determined, therefore, to attempt their rescue by securing a passage from No. 2 pit to No. 3 pit. The current of air going southwards from No. 2 pit was cut off by means of a brattice stopping, so that the whole air coming up More's dook from No. 3 pit might pass up into No. 2 pit workings and into the upcast shaft without the risk of being counteracted by No. 2 south current. Although the fires had been withdrawn from the furnace about mid-day, after this was done a steady current of air passed from No. 3 and up More's dook to the upcast. By this means the choke-damp was so far cleared out that a passage was made against the air down More's dook and along the communication road to No. 3 pit, which was done, at considerable risk from the foul air, by 10 o'clock at night. Four persons were found alive but badly injured. One of them, a boy, died shortly afterwards, and the other three were brought to the surface by 12 o'clock. They were sent to the Glasgow infirmary and have since died. No. 3 workings were then explored as far as possible, and the greatest exertions made to ascertain whether any more persons were alive, until the explorers were stopped by choke-damp and fire-damp in all directions. Seventeen bodies were found and many of them carried to the bottom of No. 3 shaft. The engineers were then of opinion that no more persons could be alive in the mine. While this was being done parties were still clearing out the "debris" from No. 3 shaft, but towards Tuesday morning the position of matters looked unfavourable. It was feared that the sides of this shaft might collapse, and so thoroughly close up the pit that no air could pass from it to No. 2 pit, which would leave the explorers without any ventilation whatever. Seeing there was no hope of saving life, and as the explorers were working at considerable risk, it was determined that the safest course to pursue was to reach the bodies from No. 3 shaft. The work of reopening it was carried on with all possible speed. On Tuesday the slide valve of the underground steam engine was removed, and the steam from four boilers was sent down the steam pipes and into the upcast shaft to aid the ventilation, and by this means, without any ventilating furnace, the current of air was so much increased that the quantity of air ascending the upcast was raised to 70,000 cubic feet per minute, seven-tenths of the usual quantity. The north and north-west workings of No. 2 pit were open and were explored as far as could be. No bodies were found in these workings; the men had travelled outwards until they were overcome with choke-damp, and the bodies were found on the first "cousey" off the south level within 200 yards of the shaft. After this nothing more was done in these workings until Saturday morning when the opening was made at the bottom of No. 3 shaft, which thoroughly secured the ventilation between Nos. 2 and 3 pits. Parties were then sent down by No. 2 pit to assist in clearing away the "debris" in the bottom of No. 3 shaft, consisting of tubs and wood lying about which had been blown into the sump, and filled the shaft for four or five feet above the splint-coal entrance, and also to proceed to put in temporary stoppings of brattice cloth, so as to send in air to ventilate No. 3 workings. On Sunday morning the 28th, the first of the bodies was drawn up No. 3 shaft, and by Thursday the ventilation of these workings was restored, and afterwards all the bodies from that pit recovered. As soon as No. 3 workings were thoroughly ventilated, it was deemed safe to conduct the remaining operations from No. 2 as well as from No. 3 shaft, and the work of clearing the mine and recovering the bodies was steadily carried on from both points.

The ventilation had been pretty well restored, and we were able to follow the direction which the blast had taken. In our inspections we found great damage had been done in the workings of both Nos. 2 and 3 pits. There were some heavy falls of roof which must have happened within a very short time of the explosion and which had greatly retarded the explorations., The south level of No. 2 pit was blocked up with heavy falls within 100 yards of the shaft, and the only place open towards No. 3 was More's dook. There was another heavy fall between Martin's level and Spier's dook which had to be cleared away before the workings on the south-west side of that point could be ventilated and reached, and all the bodies in the south-workings were brought out by this road, in preference to clearing out the south level and the ordinary roads.

The force of the explosion seems to have been much greater up No. 3 than No. 2 shaft, and as far as we could judge the effects of greatest force were observable at points A and B, and in opposite directions. There must have been a large quantity of gas. The majority of the bodies were burned and the traces were strongly visible in the south and east workings of No. 2 pit and throughout the whole of No. 3 pit workings. This, in our opinion, rather points to the explosion having originated somewhere between where the No. 3 air enters No. 2 pit workings and where it joins the air from No. 2 pit, where naked lights were used, but we cannot undertake to speak positively as to this. If the explosion originated at the " stoops," a shot may have ignited the gas in the goaf behind, but we cannot satisfy ourselves that the gas had been ignited at the "stoops," nor between there and the "cousey," because at the latter point, being a distance of only 120 yards, the cousey wheel is uninjured, and an empty hutch standing there has evidently not been disturbed, while at No. 3 shaft, which is a distance of 900 yards from the stoops, the force, as already referred to, was very great. Had it occurred at the "stoops" or at any place between there and the "cousey," we should have expected greater destruction at the latter point. Under the present system of ventilation, although air may have passed through the stoppings and so have kept the waste clear, it is quite possible that it did not reach all the waste, and that gas may have gradually accumulated there without its being observed, and that it ultimately came upon a naked light. On the other hand, it is possible that the main coal faces, which are now overhead between Martin's level and the South level, and which are known to affect the splint coal, may have rent the strata between them and caused gas to descend from the Humph coal (which lies about 25 feet above the splint), and to have come upon the men's naked lights. Or the fall of roof, already alluded to, between Martin's level and Spier's dook may have taken place that morning before the explosion and stopped the ventilation, whereby the air in a large portion of the workings, where naked lights were used, gradually became explosive. We cannot give a definite opinion, either as to where the large quantity of gas came from, or the exact spot where it was ignited, but we lean to the opinion that the gas was lodged in the old pillars, and at some point between C and D it came in contact with an open light. From whatever cause, such a condition of things must, as far as possible, be either prevented or guarded against, otherwise a similar accident might happen.

As before stated, the men who were working at or near the "stoops " were supplied with safety gauze lamps. Shot firing was stated to be prohibited, but there seems to be no doubt that gunpowder was used at the stoops, and it seems also to have been freely used in other parts of the pits where naked lights were used. The shots were fired by the miners, instead of by a competent person appointed for the purpose, and the powder was taken into the mine in cannisters instead of in cartridges, as directed by the Act. Both from our inspections, and from the evidence given at the public inquiry, we are of opinion that gas was always present at the "stoops" and we consider that shot firing there, under such circumstances, was most dangerous, and ought not for one moment to have been allowed. Upon the whole, the discipline of the mine was loose, and the orders which the manager says he gave, as to shot firing in particular, seem to have been neglected altogether.

We observe that the pit has been very speedily opened up, and this has necessitated great lengths of bratticing. This is common to all new pits, but it should be as little practised as possible. It will be observed that one of the currents of air, amounting to 16,000 cubic feet per minute, was about five miles in length. This is a long current, and might be shortened, but we believe that the air would be sufficient in quantity and purity for the work that it had to do.

Keeping in mind those matters, and especially the present great calamity, we recommend that the present mode of working with naked lights, and leaving the pillars comparatively unventilated, be discontinued; that it will be better to use locked Davy lamps which are better than the present safety lamps, as an additional precaution; to prohibit shot firing, and to have the pillars properly ventilated, and especially to maintain the strictest discipline.

We would also recommend a more judicious splitting and arrangement of the air currents, so that the returns may not come in contact with each other until they have passed all the working faces. Also, that the air after passing " stooping" operations may not pass any other working place, as was the case where the air from No. 3, after joining No. 2, passed on to other working places.

We would also suggest that the workings of both Nos. 2 and 3 pits should be more concentrated, and that "throughers" in the winning places more particularly, should be made more frequently so as to reduce the distances by which the air is to be conveyed to the "faces" by bratticing.


Last Updated 22nd August 2010