Monday, October 22, 2007

October 22

One of Great Britain’s worst mining catastrophes occurred on this date in 1877, when Pit #2 at the High Blantyre Colliery blew up and took the lives of more than 207 Scottish coal miners. Located in Scotland's Central Belt, the Blantyre complex, from which 900,000 tons of coal were extracted annually, enriched the owners of William Dixon Ltd., which reclaimed most of its employees’ income through exorbitant rents and high prices at the company-owned stores where workers had no choice but to shop.

The “Fiery Mine” -- renowned for the dangerous aura of methane that filled its pits -- was a disaster in waiting. A year before the explosion, miners at Blantyre struck for higher wages, which they believed their risk had earned them. The company fired the striking workers and evicted them from company housing, then hired Irish Catholics -- who comprised a cheaper pool of labor -- to replace them. Dixon’s mine inspectors insisted the facility was completely safe.

In his 1885 history of Blantyre, the Reverend Stewart Wright described the morning of October 22, 1877.
A sudden flash darted up from the most distant shaft, accompanied by debris, and a report not very loud; then forthwith 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; the merely 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 lower 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 agonised crowd 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.
The bodies of many victims, in fact, could not be recovered and were left underground. The widows and orphans created by the explosion were blessed with financial contributions and support from throughout Great Britain; the generosity of their fellow citizens, however, was not enough for more than 30 widows who were evicted from company housing a little more than six months after their husbands were obliterated.

In 1879, another explosion at High Blantyre killed another 28 workers.