Coal Mining & the Victoria Pit Disaster Rescue and Recovery

The History

Coal Mining & the Victoria Pit Disaster

Rescue and Recovery

“The miners’ families stood in little groups, with faces swollen with weeping, and mostly silent from the very exhaustion of grief and despair.”

‘Mr George Coatts, the managing partner, was present shortly after the accident, and did all that man could do to urge on the measures for clearing the shaft and relieving those who might survive. Mr Rodger, the county fiscal, and Mr Hector, the local fiscal, were also in attendance, and rendered essential service in maintaining something like order amongst the immense mass of onlookers who seemed all determined to press forward to the mouth of the pit. Captain Smart was present to-day (Sunday), and left a detachment of the Glasgow police to relieve the men of the Paisley force, who had been on duty since the preceding night. It had been arranged that a stronger party should proceed from Glasgow, but when they were about to set out, an express came in from Nitshill, announcing that a body of infantry had arrived, which of course, rendered the services of a reinforcement of Glasgow police unnecessary. The precaution was quite necessary.

The operations noticed above still continued and about 6 o'clock on Sunday night, 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 9 o'clock it was definitely announced that the operators were now in communication with the two men, whom they had every prospect of saving. Previous to this, the refreshments noticed above, had been sent down and acknowledged. About 6 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 lengthened period of anxiety and suspense, one of the poor sufferers was finally brought to the surface. He was supported by two men in an adjoining shed, and immediately attended by a medical gentleman. John Cochran was in such a weak state that he could not give any detailed account of the actual occurrence of the calamity, further that 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 says that he repeatedly groped about for some of his neighbours and often called on them, but with one exception, no one answered. The miners were about to go down for the other man when our informant left.’

Article from The Weekly Dispatch, 23rd March 1851.

Loss of Sixty-One Lives.


 ‘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 auxiliary 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.’

[Scotsman 19th March 1851]

‘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 was 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.’

[Scotsman 19th March 1851]

"The intelligence up to 8 o'clock on Monday night does not add anything of material consequence to what had been already stated. Owing to the insecure condition of the shaft, there is an unwillingness on the part of the men employed to proceed much further till the necessary repairs have been made. We have heard it stated by some experienced miners that the pit being on fire, any attempt to alter the present course of the air draught which is now traversing the most direct course between the Victoria shaft and the Free-trade or ventilating shaft, would have the effect of driving the large quantity of fire-damp collected in the various ramifications of the workings upon that of the pit which is at present burning, and produce another and more tremendous explosion. It is quite certain that it will be a work both of time and danger to recover the bodies, and no reasonable hope can now be entertained of finding the unhappy men alive. The attention of the proprietors and managers of the pit has been unremitting. In fact, we believe Mr Niven the manager has not left the scene of this unfortunate calamity since it occurred. The bodies of the two fellow-workers of the men who were taken out alive were recovered with considerable difficulty and the fire-damp, in consequence of the want of ventilation, arising from the explosion, has gained so much that at present it would be quite impossible to approach the spot whence those bodies were taken. The effects of the explosion are very visible round the mouth of the Free Trader pit, the hedges in the vicinity being covered with soot etc. In fact, the whole face presented a ruinous appearance".

The Glasgow Daily Mail, Monday 17th March

‘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. McRaith'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. McRaith remained at the pit head the whole day, and the underground 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]