Coal mining has always been a dangerous enterprise and from the mid-1800s as technology allowed miners to dig deeper the dangers increased.
Terrible tragedies such as a collapsed pumping engine at New Hartley Colliery, Northumberland in 1862 in which 204 men and boys died trapped underground and the explosion at Blantyre in 1877 which claimed 207 lives highlighted not only the terrible loss of life but the inadequate provisions for rescuing survivors.
The Coal Mines Act 1911 was a major step forward in mines safety, consolidating previous legislation to create a clearer framework of regulation. The Act made mines rescue stations compulsory and dictated that no colliery could be more than 15 miles away from one.
The importance of having a rescue team nearby had been brought home by an explosion in Somerset in 1908 which killed 10 men and boys. Because there was no mines rescue team workers at the pit spent 10 days searching for survivors.
At the time of the Coal Mines Act the Lanarkshire Coal Field was the most important in Scotland, accounting for more than half the country’s production. The industry reached its peak level of production in 1913. At that time 146,000 people (2,000 of them women) in Scotland worked in the coal mining. This was how extensive and vital to the economy mining was when the Lanarkshire Coalmasters’ Association opened Coatbridge Mines Rescue Station in 1915.
Post-Nationalisation the station would end up covering a huge area stretching from Machrihanish on the Kintyre Peninsula to Brora in Sutherland.
In the National Coal Board (NCB) era Coatbridge was the main station for the Scottish Area which also included stations at Cowdenbeath, Kilmarnock and Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh. These were manned by part-time staff.
The Coatbridge brigade consisted of three teams of seven men and an Instructor, plus a full-time Superintendent. Aside from their own equipment the brigade also serviced extinguishers and safety equipment from area mines.
The full-time rescue men lived in the station and their families received free passes to the Regal cinema just along the street. Training was hard, with the men wearing full breathing apparatus in a replica mine working which was housed inside the building. The brigade also trained Scotland’s fire brigades in the use of breathing apparatus.
At the back of the building there were garages for the brigade’s rescue vehicles and an aviary which housed canaries for testing the air in the mines.
The Mines Rescue Station was called to deal with many terrible incidents during its lifetime and those mentioned below are just a few of them.
The first call-out after Coatbridge Mines Rescue Station opened in 1915 was at Bedlay Colliery, north of Glenboig. A roof fall had blocked a vital ventilation tunnel with the result that four men were overcome by carbon monoxide and became unconscious. The rescuers drove from Coatbridge with breathing apparatus and were able to rescue three of the men alive.
On 9 July 1918 19 miners were killed at Stanrigg Colliery near Airdrie when after two weeks of heavy rain there was an in-rush of peat into the mine workings. Two of the dead were just 14 years old.
This was the first major disaster that the Coatbridge Mines Rescue Brigade had to tackle, the men arriving just 15 minutes after they received the phone call from Stanrigg. Despite weeks of efforts to recover the victims’ bodies, only 8 were retrieved.
Not all of the mining in central Scotland was for coal. Centred around the Broxburn area, shale mining was a huge industry in itself. The shale was dug and processed for the oil it contained. However, unlike in the coal mines the use of naked flames was still allowed after the 1911 Act.
On 18 April 1919 three rescuers, two from Coatbridge Mines Rescue and one from Bathgate lost their lives while attempting to put out an underground fire at Newliston Shale Mine. It was unclear whether their breathing equipment had failed or whether it had become dislodged as they fell on slippery wet rock. Sadly such losses of life were not uncommon.
On 7 September 1950 miners at Knockshinnock Castle Colliery in Ayrshire broke through to the surface with the result that water, peat and sludge poured into the mine workings. 13 miners died and 115 were trapped.
At 10pm the Coatbridge Mines Rescue Station received a stand-by call from Ayrshire and an hour later an official call for help. Two teams of five were sent immediately, arriving at 2am. Four of the rescuers went into the mine to make contact with the survivors. Having squeezed through a 3 foot x 2 foot hole, the four sat with the entombed men for ten hours until all the 115 trapped men were supplied with breathing apparatus.
William Dyer, the Coatbridge Mines Rescue Station Superintendent said of the four men, “There is no praise too high for these lads. They did a wonderful job, but if honours are being handed out they should be handed to the miners themselves.” Dyer was in charge of not only his own 3 teams for the rescue operation but 20 in total and they were joined by another 15 teams from the Kilmarnock Rescue Station.
The name Auchengeich will forever be associated with one of the UK’s worst mining disasters since 1900 In September 1959 an electrical fault caused an underground ventilation fan belt to catch fire. As the fire took hold among flammable materials lining the tunnel, 48 men rode a personnel train down into the mine to start their shift. They didn’t know what was happening and only one of the men would survive, the others asphyxiated while still on the train.
The Mines Rescue Brigade had to tackle the underground fire in terrible conditions and later, when it was safe to re-enter the mine they had the grim job of retrieving the victims’ bodies.
Despite all the safety measures the dangers never went away and as late as January 1982 an underground explosion injured 41 miners at Cardowan Colliery. This was a notoriously dangerous pit with high methane levels that had led to two fatal explosions in the years before the Second World War.
Fortunately, this time stone dust had been used underground which did its job and prevented the coal dust in the air from igniting, otherwise the consequences could have been much worse.
Just as they had done in accidents in 1927, 1932 and 1960 before, the Coatbridge Mines Rescue came to the aid of the miners of Cardowan.
Soon however the last deep mines would be closed, the pumps turned off and the brigade that had rescued hundreds of miner workers finally stood down.
If you have any artefacts, photos or memories of the Coatbridge Mines Rescue Brigade we would love to hear from you. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01236 856376.