Tuesday, February 4, 2014

1877 Blantyre Explosion

On the morning of 22 October 1877 the worst mining disaster in Scotland occurred. The blast was heard for miles around and dense smoke filled the sky. William Dixon's pits, numbers one and two, in Blantyre, Scotland, exploded. There were thought to be 233 miners underground, the youngest, an 11-year-old boy.  The accident left 92 widows and 250 fatherless children.

It was known firedamp was in the pit. Miners had made repeated complaints about the dangers but they were ignored. The year before the miners had gone out on strike over safety issues and higher pay to compensate for the continued dangers. They were immediately fired. Six months after the accident, 34 widows had not yet moved out of their company-owned cottages. The company evicted them on 28 May 1878.

Sketch of Dixon's Pits in High Blantyre, Scotland; image courtesy of Auld Blantyre Mining History

Two years later another explosion killed 28 miners. Not long after the second explosion the William Dixon Ltd. company erect a large granite monument to mark both disasters. The monument reads:

"William Dixon Ltd. in memory of 240 of their workmen who were killed by explosions in Blantyre Colliery on 22 October 1877 and 2 July 1879 and many of whom are buried here."

The Blantyre Miners Memorial Monument
Image courtesy of Scottish Mining Website

In 1885 Reverend Stewart Wright wrote the Annals of Blantyre. In the book he describes the disaster:

"What a glooming morning that October Monday was. How indelibly it is engraved on our memory. We were dressing at the time. The window of our room looked over against the pits. A sudden flash darted up from the most distant shaft, accompanied by debris, and a report not very loud; then forwith [sic] there arose from the shaft nearest to us a dense volume of smoke, 'the blackness of darkness,' which spread itself, a terrible funeral pall, over the surrounding plain. We were soon at the scene of the disaster, whither hundreds of eager and terrified creatures were hurrying, and there for hours we remained, a stricken shepherd amongst a stricken flock. The one shaft was blocked up with ruins, but the other was partially clear; again and again did gallant men descend to rescue, if possible, their buried comrades, but all in vain; they mere succeeded in bringing up a few dead bodies, when they themselves were overpowered by the choke damp and had to be brought up to the surface. Some of them were more dead than alive, and it was with difficulty we succeeded in restoring them. Still, no matter the danger, there were no lack of volunteers, many of them wildly demanding to be lowered down, until at last, when the short winters day was drawing to a close, imperative orders were issued that no more lives were to be risked. Then hope fled; and the agonized crowed were left in the darkness and pitiless rain to face the terribleness of its magnitude that not one of the 200 miners and more, that were entombed beneath us, would ever see the light. Nor did they. Day after day for three weeks following, and after laborious exertions, were the bodies found and brought up for internment. With the exception of the Roman Catholics, and there were not many of them, and a few others, all the dead were laid side by side in two long trenches that had been dug in the newly made cemetery. The report of the funerals in one evening, as given in the Herald, was characteristic of them all: 'the scene in the parish burying ground, where the bodies were interred, was very impressive, and by the time that Mr. Wright got as far in the service Earth to Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, many of the onlookers were in tears. Few of them will soon forget the sight -- the cold gray twilight, the dark overcast sky, the long deep trench, the silent uncovered multitude, and the solemn tones of the preachers voice.'"

Old Victorian era print of the 1877 Blantyre mining disaster
Image courtesy Amazon

You may read a first-hand account of the explosion on the The Blantyre Project website. There is one part of the account by Alex McCall, the fire master at No. 3 pit, who was located at the pithead when the disaster occurred, that particularly awful:

"Suddenly we were startled by a report like the firing of many cannon, but louder than the loudest thunder I ever heard. This was followed by dense volumes of smoke ascending the shaft, and then a vast sheet of flame rolled up with a hissing noise from the pit, succeeded by showers of wood and dirt and stones, like what I have read comes from a volcano. Among the debris to our horror was the mangled limb of some unfortunate boy. This eruption was simply appalling, and lasted from four to five minutes. Then all was quite."

My first cousin, three times removed, Henrietta Cassels, married William Brodie in 1874. By the time the census was taken in Scotland in 1881, they had three children and lived in Dixon's Rows at Blantyre, company-owned housing owned by William Dixon Ltd. William Brodie was a coal miner.

Illustration of Dixon's Rows, coal miners' cottages owned by William Dixon Ltd;
image courtesy of Auld Blantyre Mining History

They moved there sometime between 1879 and 1881 so were not there at the time of the explosion. I often wonder what the morning of the explosion was like and how the wives and children living at Dixon's Rows reacted. 

[1] Henrietta Cassels was born about 1855 at East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland, to Matthew and Elizabeth (Muir) Cassels. She married William Brodie on 9 October 1874. They had five children but she died on 4 Dec 1893. Her youngest child was just over a year old when Henrietta died. Her mother is my great great aunt.


  1. Thank you for this interesting post. I have many Scottish miners, both coal and ironstone, in my tree. I am always interested to read more of this topic.

    1. My tree has lots of miners and so does my husband's. I've learned a lot about coal mining as a result. It was an awful way to make a living. Hard work, dangerous, and in the U.S. anyway sometimes violent when labor and owners clashed.