A Hidden World of Danger
Today it is difficult to understand the dominance of the coal mining industry in Scotland and yet even at its peak the scale of the industry was hidden. The surface buildings and bings, those huge hills of mining waste were tiny compared to the miles of tunnels on multiple levels that attempted to follow the coal seams no matter the risk.
Miners faced many dangers, from flooding to poisonous or explosive gas to roof falls.
One of the biggest problems miners were presented with was flooding. The deeper the mine the bigger the danger and there was always the risk of a sudden inundation, particularly after heavy rain or if a tunnel broke through into other, flooded mine workings.
Before steam power came into use, miners used a variety of clever methods to drain mine workings including using sloping adits that emptied onto a valley side, underground and surface water wheels driving pumps.
Water could be a friend too and some of the early winding engines for pit shafts were so-called ‘balance engines’ using twin platforms linked by a rope over a pulley. Each platform had a water container that when filled would cause the plaform to go down, pulling up the platform on the other side.
The big breakthrough for keeping mines dry came with the invention of the first workable steam engine. Thomas Newcomen’s first successful atmospheric engine was installed in a mine in the Midlands in 1712. Seven years later saw Scotland’s first so-called Newcomen engine, in a mine in Ayrshire.
On 9 July 1918 19 miners were killed at Stanrigg Colliery near Airdrie when after two weeks of heavy rain onto Stanrigg Moss there was an in-rush of water and peat into the mine workings. Two of the dead were just 14 years old.
Light to See, Air to Breathe
The earliest mines were ‘bell pits’, simply holes in the ground that were expanded at the bottom of the shaft. These pits received enough natural light from the shaft that miners usually didn’t need any other light and if they did they could safely light candles.
As mines grew more complex with longer tunnels between shafts artificial light started to become necessary. Tallow candles were cheap to make or buy but gave only a dim light.
Candles brought their own problems, though. Flammable methane gas could build up in coal workings and in concentrations between 5 and 15% it was explosive. A naked flame in such an environment could – and did – have devastating consequences.
A number of people worked to find a way to use a flame safely underground and the solution came when the chemist Humphrey Davey unveiled his safety lamp which became known as the ‘Davey Lamp’. This used a fine gauze surrounding a flaming wick fuelled by an oil reservoir. The flame could only ignite gas inside the gauze so if it was introduced to a mine working with a lot of methane the flame would flare inside the lamp but not cause a fire or explosion outside the lamp.
The Lanarkshire coalfield had high levels of methane. Cardowan Colliery for example was notoriously dangerous with explosions in 1927, 1932, 1960 and 1982.
Another explosive ingredient in mine air was coal dust, although it was only in the 1890s that an official report confirmed that coal dust could cause explosions. In the National Coal Board era after the Second World War it became common practice to add stone dust to mine air as this stopped coal dust from combusting.
The electification of coal mines from around 1900 brought its own hazards. An electrical spark could cause a fire or explosion so all electrical equipment and cabling had to be ‘fire-proof’. Companies building electrical equipment for use underground such as the Motherwell firm Anderson, Boyes & Co had to rigorously test their products before they left the factory.
A Hidden Killer: Blantyre, 1879
The worst mining disaster in Scottish history occurred on the morning of 22 October 1877. A devastating underground explosion at Blantyre Colliery left 207 mines dead.
The subsequent investigation into the disaster found that although simple gauze safety lamps were in use by miners in areas being worked, those lamps were not fail-safe because a flame could be forced through the gauze. Also, naked flames had been allowed in all other areas of the mine which consisted of five shafts linked by tunnels. The coal had been mined using the ‘stoop and room’ method which involved leaving pillars of coal to support the ground above. This method tended to release more methane than other methods of mining because of the large surface area of coal that was exposed.
Lethal Air: Auchengeich, 1959
Wester Auchengeich Colliery near Moodiesburn, Lanarkshire was the scene of one of the UK’s worst mining disasters of the 1900s.
In September 1959 an electrical fault caused an underground ventilation fan belt to catch fire. As the fire spread, 48 men were riding a personnel train down to their shift completely unaware of what awaited them. Only one of those men would survive, the others asphyxiated.
In September 1967 9 miners were killed when fire broke out underground at Michael Colliery, then Scotland’s biggest. This led to a campaign by the National Union of Mineworkers for all people working underground to be issued with ‘self-rescuers’.
In his extraordinary memoir ‘Seven Steps in the Dark’, former miner Bob Smith recalled that during the Second World War, miners were expected to work in conditions that were previously considered too dangerous in order to meet the demands of the war effort. Here he descibes a close shave with carbon monoxide in Ferniegair Colliery, Lanarkshire:
In particular, we tended to ignore Black Damp. Our section was bad. Thee was one day Bobby asked Tam if he didn not think the air a bit sluggish and heavy. ‘Aye, ah think it is,’ Tam replied, and took the lamp of his cap to study the flame. ‘Ah thocht ah wis needin a new jet,’ he said, as he looked at the yellow flame. The flame of my lamp was also yellowish, instead of the usual clear white. I lowered the lamp to the pavement, and a thin plume of black smoke cam off it. I began to feel a tightness around the chest, and breathing was difficult. Tam looked again at the flames and the plume of smoke. ‘Git tae hell oot o here,’ he ordered. ‘Leave yer graith [tools and other hand equipment]. Come on, but dinna run whitever ye dae.’ I began to stagge, and my eyes were getting heavy and my head woozy. Someone gripped my arm. It was Jimmy, our driver. He led me further out into the road, where the air was somewhat clearer, and I found I could breath more easily.
‘Seven Steps in the Dark: A Miner’s Life’ by Bob Smith, 1991
Miners are always at risk of rock falls and larger roof collapses. The risk depends largely on the geology of the rock and methods used to support the roof.
Modern long-wall mining involves using hydraulic props that are slowly advanced with the coal face. The empty space behind is packed with waste rock and allowed to subside.
In 2014 the Health and Safety Executive replaced all previous mine safety rules with a new, streamlined set of regulations. One key change was to make the mine operator responsible for safety, rather than the mine manager as previously.
Lanarkshire’s coal mines tended to have high levels of methane. Cardowan Colliery near Stepps, for instance suffered explosions in