Auchinraith Pit Disaster 1930

Taken from the forthcoming detailed book, “Blantyre Explained” by Paul D Veverka (c) 2016, here’s an extended article about Blantyre’s Auchinraith Pit Explosion in 1930. Pictured is a newspaper article from the Motherwell Times from that fateful day.

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On Saturday 30th August 1930, a huge explosion occurred at Number 1 pit, Auchinraith colliery belonging to Messrs’ Merry and Cunningham. Fourteen men were entombed in frightening circumstances and after great difficulty, only 10 of them could be rescued. It was officially first stated that five men were dead with one taken to Hospital in a critical condition. The dead men were William Sprott (Fireman) of 2 Auchinraith Terrace, Joseph Regan of 7 Watson Street, Richard King of 182 Main Street, George Shorthouse of Burnbank, and Andrew Kalinsky of 20 Merry’s Rows, Blantyre. Richard Dunsmuir of 9 Small Crescent, one of the injured men, was in a critical condition and was taken to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary hospital with extensive burns. Sadly, he died of his injuries the next day, whilst still in hospital, the death toll rising to 6, which caused some confusion in newspapers. Note, many newspapers incorrectly reported Richard King as being Robert King, but I have since confirmed with his family and retrieved the death certificate to make absolutely sure. His name was indeed Richard, not Robert.

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When a rescue party of 12 young, but able men arrived promptly at the miners, they found to their horrors, amongst the group of huddled men, five of them were laying face down, with blankets over their bodies. Three of the men were practically unrecognisable from the fire injuries. Weeping woman gathered at the pithead, some having to identify the bodies of their men, with some elderly residents remembering a similar fear in the pit explosion of 1877. Other men were injured. John Smith of Merry’s Rows, William Stoddart of Auchinraith Road, John Wildman of Hamilton, James Russell of Burnbank, Robert Buchanan of 58 Craig Street, Alex Paterson 21 Merry’s Rows and John Copeland of Redmore Place. A rescue party member later told local press that one of the explosive firing devices was still in the hands of George Shorthouse’s dead body. Three of the dead men were severely burned, one being almost unrecognisable. The party had to use respirators and the situation was so volatile that doctors were unable to descend.

According to reports, although not heard in Blantyre, the explosion at the Black Band Seam was a serious one and the men engaged in the incident had little chance of escape. Mr. James Hogg, the General manager in an official statement said, “I regret to have to report a serious accident in our Auchinraith collieries this morning. It occurred at 8.15am and in my opinion started as a result of ignition of the firedamp in a section of number 1 pit. Fifteen men were at work in the section when the explosion happened. The men in the other areas were totally unaware that the explosion had bottom, were able to walk home. Doctors were unable to descend into the pit owing to the firedamp. If they had gone down, their own lives would have been in danger. The Lanark rescue brigade arrived at the pit in very short time, and equipped with respirators went underground to release the entombed men. At ten o’clock they had brought ten men to the surface. The rescue brigade found five of the men lying face downwards and huddled together with some of the injured.” They must have been instantaneously killed.

Although the explosion must have been one of tremendous force, an amazing fact is that it was not heard on the surface, so that the first news of the tragedy took some time to reach the stricken homes in the’ surrounding villages. When the news did reach the village, a number of colliers who were off duty rushed to the pit and volunteered to go to the assistance of their comrades, but they were told that none but the specially equipped rescue party would be able to reach the spot. With his arms swathed bandages John Smith, who had been badly hurt, told a reporter that went duty shortly after six o’clock.

It is reported one of the men (Mr Kalinsky) had returned to work only that day after a long spell of unemployment, and his wife had risen from her sick bed when she heard of the news. Another newspaper reported that Mr. Copeland, one of the survivors said he was walking up the road to the hutch and was about to put on his chains when he was thrown through space and knocked unconscious. On recovering his senses, he found he was laying on the track. He crawled away as best as he could knowing that if he followed the railway, it would lead him out.

A member of the rescue party said that the pit in which the explosion happened suffered very little damage and fire and the force of the explosion killed the dead men. It is likely the dead men died quite instantaneously. When news of the pit disaster happened, off duty colliers from other pits, rushed to the scene to volunteer their rescue services, but were advised to return home as only trained specialist equipment and rescuers would be permitted to enter the area. Blantyre was in deep mourning all through September 1930 with work suspended from the Monday after the accident for short time. The colliery owners were quick to announce that work would be suspended only briefly, for the threat had passed. The churches were very sympathetic in their sermons for many Sundays thereafter.

Funerals: The funerals took place on Tuesday 2nd September 1930. Over 40,000 people lined the streets Blantyre on that day to pay homage to the six victims the Auchinraith Colliery disaster, and among them was Mrs. Ferrie (74), the only surviving widow of the terrible mining disaster which occurred in the same village 53 years previous, which resulted the death of 207 miners. Touching scenes were witnessed as the procession of mourners, headed by local bands, started from the home Andrew Kalinsky, who at the lest moment joined the fatal section owing to a comrade becoming ill. The body of Fireman Sprott was carried past the pithead where the disaster occurred. Among the mourners were Mr. Bobert Smillie (former M.P.), Mr. Alex Hunter and Mr. Paul McKenna (president and vice-president of the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union), and representatives of the pit owners.

Inquiry: An inquiry did take place commencing on Tuesday 11th November 1930 at 11.15am in the Justiciary Rooms, Saltmarket, Glasgow, which continued on and off throughout 1931. The inquiry was conducted by Sir Henry Walker, H.M. Chief Inspector of Mines, and among those present were Mr A. J. Cook, secretary of the Miners’ Federation, and Mr Robert Smillie. At the outset Mr Hugh Alexander, on behalf of Messrs Merry & Cunninghame expressed the firm’s sympathy with the relatives of the deceased men. 41 witnesses were called to give evidence. Considerable gas problems had been encountered earlier in the May of that year and even firemen reported gas being present in the Dunsmuirs Section, just 10 days earlier, although no further gas reports were logged in the book after 20th August. Fireman Thomas Heggison stated that he found firedamp (gas) in No 1 and No2 branch road off “Jack’s Slope” on the day of the explosion, but did not report it. It was also claimed by some miners that a Mr William Sproat did not test for firedamp before he fired the shot that triggered the explosion.

Some serious allegations were made on the management including the colliery manager, Mr. David Gemmell and in particular the firemen for not containing enough knowledge to deal with the situation. Many of the miners gave evidence and the court heard how many of them were expecting something to happen prior to the explosion due to the smell in the pit. The inquiry was long and drawn out. The inquiry found that all 5 firemen and all miners had neglected their duties that morning. In particular, three firemen had negelected to test for firedamp over a radius of 20 yards from the work place. Regulations stated that incombustible stone dust should have been spread within the area where coal was being extracted but miner Robert Clelland claimed in evidence that no dust was available before firing the shot that morning. The Inquiry also determined that the colliery manager neglected his duty by failing to ensure that the Provisions of the Explosives in Coal Mines Order were enforced in Auchinraith Colliery.

Closure of the Pit: On 16th August 1931, over 300 jobs went overnight when the pit closed very abruptly. Relatives of the men who died were paid £3,000 in compensation after the Lanarkshire Miner’s Union had been in constant negotiation with Messers Merry & Cunningham to reach a settlement. By May 1931, nine other injured miners were still receiving compensation.

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