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Nitshill Colliery Explosion
Nitshill, Renfrewshire, 15th March 1851.

The Free Traders Pit

The following excellent, descriptive text was obtained from www.barrhead-scotland.com. Please visit this site for the original version of this text and more information on the Barrhead area.

On Saturday the 15th March 1851 a tremendous explosion rocked the small Renfrewshire mining village of Nitshill. The sound was heard more than a mile away. 63 men and boys had been working the "night shift" in the Victoria Pit, the deepest pit in Scotland, being 175 fathoms deep (a Fathom = 6 feet) and were preparing to hand over to the "day shift" who were at the pit head waiting to take over when this terrible incident happened. The explosion caused the destruction of the Free Trader which was in fact a ventilation shaft. This area was consumed by flames and had the effect of drawing fresh air into the Victoria pit. However it was of no help to those trapped, as there were only two survivors, namely John Cochran and David Colville who, although badly burned, did survive.

During Saturday and Sunday as many as 20,000 mainly women and children gathered at the site, all of whom had lost husbands, sons, fathers and brothers. One old lady a Mrs Buchanan was heard to say repeatedly, "Auld Neil?s gone; young Neil?s gone; and Jamie?s gone. I tied up their pieces for them in a napkin, but the?re a? gone". Detachments of Police from Paisley and Glasgow were called to control the grieving relatives. Later, a troop of the 21st Infantry arrived by express and were to take over from the Police.

Experienced miners from Dixon?s Colliery from Govanhill were called in to assist the exhausted local miners who had been working continuously since Saturday morning. The problem facing the rescuers was made very difficult as one of the cages weighing 14cwts which lowered the workers to the underground workings was trapped at an awkward angle 40 fathoms from the bottom of the shaft and it was a considerable time before it could be freed to be used to lower the rescuers, allowing them to attempt to find those trapped.

This accident, terrible though it was, could have been much worse if it had happened half an hour later when the shifts changed over. The death toll could have been more than 140 men and boys. All the same, it was the greatest loss of life in any pit accident at the time. That which came nearest to it was an explosion in the adjoining "Campbell Pitt", in 1805, when 21 men lost their lives.

A public subscription was suggested and was headed with a generous donation by Mr George Coats, the Managing Partner, who expressed the wish that others would join him in subscribing to the fund to help widows and children without fathers as a result of this terrible calamity.

The following year, The House of Commons set up a select committee on coal mining and produced many recommendations which hopefully made the Industry a much safer place to work. However it was reported that as there was no coroner?s inquest in Scotland and that there seemed to be no one alive who was to blame, no public trial was likely to take place.

Pitmen's Dwellings


Thomas Allison, unmarried, grandson to James Kerr

James Baxter, married, brother of Joseph Baxter, born Pollockshaws, age 23

Joseph Baxter. unmarried, brother of James Baxter, born Pollockshaws, age 17 years 6 months

John Bell, married, born Ireland, age 35

Robert Black, married

Joseph Brighton, married, born England, age 22 years 6 months

James Buchanan, son of Neil Buchanan Snr,

Neil Buchanan Jnr.

Neil Buchanan Snr.

John Campbell, unmarried

Neil Carlan, unmarried

Andrew Carson, married

John Cochrane, married

David Colville, married

Felix Connolly, son of Thomas Connolly

John Connolly, married

Thomas Connolly

Dennis Crossan, unmarried, son of Patrick Crossan

Patrick Crossan, father of Dennis Crossan

James Dodds, married, born Hurlet, age 31

Andrew Gebbie Jnr., unmarried, brother of David Gebbie, born Hurlet, age 9

Andrew Gebbie Snr. father of Andrew and David Gebbie, born Hurlet, age 40

David Gebbie, unmarried, son of Andrew Gebbie Snr, brother of Andrew Gebbie Jnr., born Hurlet, age 11

Henry Gibbs, married

James Hammond, brother of John Hammond, son of Peter Hammond

John Hammond, son of Peter Hammond, brother of James Hammond

Peter Hammond, father of James and John Hammond

Francis Hughes, unmarried, brother of Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes, unmarried, brother of Francis Hughes

Michael Irving, unmarried

Patrick Keenan, unmarried

Connel Kerr, married, brother of James Kerr

James Kerr, married, brother of Connel Kerr, grandfather of Thomas Allison

Bernard Martin, married

John Maxwell, unmarried, born Paisley, age 40

Samuel McDowell, unmarried

Joseph McIllwam, married, born Ireland, age 45

Joseph McIllwam, nephew of Joseph McIllwam, born Ireland, age 11

Samuel McIllwam, nephew of Joseph McIllwam, born reland, age 14

James McLachlan, married

John McMachlan, married

John McMillan, married and son of William McMillan, born Paisley, age 13

William McMillan, father of John McMillan, born Invernessshire, age 40

John Mulholland, married

Felix O?Neill, unmarried

Patrick O?Neill, married

James Poole, widower (listed as Powal or Poole in Abbey Parish OPR, Paisley), born Ireland, age 34

Thomas Samson, unmarried

Thomas Scott

William Scott, son of Thomas Scott

Charles Shields, father of James Shields, brother of John Sheilds

James Shields, unmarried, son of Charles Sheilds

John Shields, unmarried, brother of Charles Sheilds

John Smith, married

John Smith, married, brother of Richard Smith

Michael Smith, unmarried

Richard Smith, unmarried, brother of John Smith

Matthew Speirs, unmarried, born Hurlet, age 46

Peter White, father of Thomas White (listed as Peter Whyte in Abbey Parish OPR, Paisley), born Hurley, age 39

Thomas White, unmarried and son of Peter White (listed as Thomas Whyte in Abbey Parish OPR, Paisley), born Crossmill, age 16

George Whiteside, unmarried, son of Robert Whiteside

Robert Whiteside, father of George Whiteside

John Williamson, unmarried

The Explosion

Weekly Dispatch, 23rd March 1851.
Loss of Sixty-One Lives.

On Saturday morning, a fearful explosion occured in the Victoria coalpit, belonging to the Messrs. Coatts of Paisley, situated at Nitshill, a few miles from Glasgow. The explosion took place about 20 minutes to 5 o'clock and the report was so loud that it was distinctly heard at Paisley. The whole neighbourhood, of course, was alarmed, and on the people rushing to the piy-mouth, it was found that one of the cages, which had descended a few fathoms, had been blown up the shaft to probably the height of the pit framing, some 30 feet above ground, and after jerking the rope off the pulley at the top of the framing, fell with a double fold of rope under it. The banksman had not arrived when the accident occurred, and it is uncertain whether any one was in the cage at the time or not. Some said there were two men, but, if so, they must have been precipitated down the pit, as their bodies have not been recovered.

The Victoria pit, in which the explosion took place, is the deepest in Scotland, being 1,050 in depth at the down-cast shaft, which is situated about the centre of the southern edge of the workings, from whence the inclination of the strata tends upwards to the north, an an angle of about one foot in five, so that at the upcast shaft or pit, which is about a quarter of a mile distant from the working pit, the workings are only 780 feet below the surfare.
(From the Glasgow Herald of Monday)

This day being Sunday, and the wather fine, immense numbers of people proceeded to the spot from a distance of many miles to view the scene of the disaster, and learn the latest tidings respecting it. It was computed that at one time fully 20,000 people were present, congregated in the vicinity, and especially on a neighbouring hill, from which a partial view of the pit-head could be obtained. A number of experienced miners from Mr. Dixon of Govan Hill, under the charge of Messrs. Allan, his managers, reached the spot early on Saturday, and, assisted by some of the neighbouring colliers, they proceeded down the 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 be still in life. 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 wood-work had been blown from the bottom of the shaft, and scattered for 100 yards all around the pit-head in a perfect shower. The wood-work, however, had been shattered into many thousand fragments of chips, few of them above half an inch in length, and large, soft masses of it were seen to which the timber had been riven into threads scarcely so thick as whipcord. The same appearances were presented around the ventilating pit-mouth, called the "Free Trader", and situated at the 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 draught. The force of the explosion, however, tore away timbers already alluded to, as of they had been laths, scattering fragments in all directions, and entirely cutting off the connexion between the ventilating pit and the auxiliary chimney. During the whole of to-day (Sunday), there rolled up from this newly-opened mouth, smoke and vapour, which had pretty much the kind of smell emitted by gas tar.

To-day (Sunday) it was definitively ascertained that the number of people in the pit, when the explosion took place, amounted to 63, viz., 55 men and 8 lads of boys. The total number employed on this pit is usually about 140, but as it is the custom of the colliers, or those who "get" the coal, to go down about an hour and a half, or thereby, before the "drawers" and "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. The majority of the men in the pit 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. There are no less then two family groups of three each, viz., two fathers, with each two sons. The aspect of the poor women, who stood in the relation of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters to the poor men, was truly agonizing. They stood in little groups, with faces swollen with weeping, and mostly silent from the very exhaustion of grief and despair.

The miners sent from Mr. Dixon's works on Saturday, as well as several heroic volunteers from the neighbourhood, worked "with a will" from the moment the efforts to clear the Victoria shaft were begun. The operations were, of course, continued uninteruptedly during the night, and by 1 o'clock to-day (Sunday), they 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 very formidable obstruction - the cage, which had been dashed out of its position by the explosion, was forced vertically across the pit. This is an apparatus avout 13 feet in length by four square, and which, moving in a shaft, conveys three batches of coal to the surface at the time. With axes, chisels, files and saws, the men worked at this stoppage in the throat of the shaft most earnestly, but from the limited space, only two or three 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 put fell copiously on their bodies. Still, progress was made in clearing away the wreck, and from each successive report brought by the ascending relays, strong hopes were held out that this cage would be knocked away and the bottom of the pit gained. 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 explosion the ventilation of the pit had re-adjusted, and the fresh air went into the down-cast shaft, and , after permeating the mine, escaped by the up-cast shaft, half a mile distant. We are informed, and have no reason to doubt the statement, that, aboyt 10 o'clock on Saturday night, the boll 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 from each other. This was held as a signal from below that there were living beings at the bottom of the pit, but as the indication was not repeated, there is now little doubt that the strokes on the bell were caused by the shifting of the rubbish touching the rope which communicated with it. Towards afternoon to-day (Sunday) the men who came up from time to time stated, that they were convinced they had heard the sound of voices from the bottom, although so inarticulately thay 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 in the beams of wood, although they hoped it might soon be relieved by the action of the hatchet. 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 the sounds reached them as "send down a Davy (meaning a Davy lamp) and some meat". On being asked how many there were, the voice seemed to answer "two" or "two and twenty" - the miners could not say which, but acting upon the first requistion, a little bag was sent down containing some toast and brandy, which was indended to be dropped, if possible, by a string through the interstices in 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 feet, 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 impede it's transmission upwards.

The connecting particulars which we have learnt regarding this unhappy affair may be summed up as follows:- The colliers to the number already stated, went down in successive gangs about three o'clock a.m. They were accompanied by Peter Hammond, the assistant under-hround overman, who had also the charge of the ventilation of the pit, and whose invariable practice it was to go through the workings every morning before the colliers commenced. Hammond is said to be an exceedingly steady and shrewd man, who had been accustomed to mines all his life, and one in whom the workmen had the most perfect confidence. By the return of one of the cages which had brought down the daymen, a small number of men who had been working in the pit during the night were conveyed to the surface. Hammond, we are informed, either ised or was possessed of a Davy lamp, which he used in his daily examination, but the colliers carried only the common lamp, and it was often a matter of complaint with them that the current of air in the pit was so strong that it blew out their lights. In this state of matters - 60 men being below and understood to be at work, while a large number of "drawers" and "trappers" were standing on the pit-head waiting their turn to be taken down, the appalling explosion took place, about twenty minutes vefore 5 a.m. Many of the people threw themselves on their faces, and debris showered on their bodies, although nothing came up large enough to hurt them. It is estimated that the explosion continued two minutes, and gave several successive shocks of heaves - the first by far the loudest - until the pent-up vapour had expended itself, and all was still. It was distinctly heard at the distance of a mile and a half.

From all we have been able to see or ascertain, this pit was ventilated on most admirable principles, and the Messrs. Coatts spared neither labour nor expense to render it in the highest degree safe and wholesome. So convinced were they, and all who have been down, of its superiority in this respect, that a beautiful and valuable model of the pit and its ventilation on the scale of a quarter inch to six feet, had been made for the Great Exhibition, and would actually have been sent off by this time, but for the occurence of this lamentable accident. The pit was worked on what was termed the "stoop" or pillar and "throughther" plan, by which the current of fresh air went regularly up the one side and down the other. The seam of coal was about six feet in thickness, and this constituted the height of the roof, which consisted of excellent limestone, mixed occasionally with small veins of alum sohistus. The pit was in full operation and turned out 240 tons of coal per diem. The only mode of accounting for the accident, therefore, is by assuming that there must have been a sudden sinking or collapse of the roof, by which the ventilating process would be deranged and onstructed; the foul gas would collect in consequence of the obstruction in some spot, which would serve the purpose of a gasometer, and this would explode the moment the lamp was brought in contact with ir, overwhelming all who were within the range of its furious sweep. Such was the theory of all the practical men with whom we conversed on the spot.

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 unnesessary. 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 occurence 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 moners were about to go down for the other man when our informant left.

Another man [David Colville] has been discovered alive and two dead bodies brought up. The living men have not hey been able to give any connected account of the accident. Now more men can now be got out alive. There are still 59 dead bodies in the pit, making the total loss of life 61.

The Glasgow Daily Mail says:- "The intelligence up to 8 o'clock on Monday night does not add any thing 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".

For more information see www.scottishmining.co.uk.

Funeral at a the Catholic Church at Barrhead


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