North Lanarkshire was one of the major centres of brickmaking in Scotland. The brickworks in the village of Glenboig had international reputations and their products were in demand all over the world.
Clay mines were located right next to the brickworks so the clay could be quickly transported by bogie to the works. John Reid recalls how the clay came into the works everyday:
Clay was taken in hutches from the Gain Mine to Glenboig. Glenboig A1 quality brick was made from the Gain Blue Clay reckoned to be the best known clay in the world at one time. We used to have the Chain Mine, Star Pit, Inchneuk and Klondyke Mines and it was amazing the amount of people that worked in these mines.
John started his working life in the Star Works in 1918 as a ‘Bencher’, putting the clay on the bench for the moulder and preparing the moulds for the maker to make the bricks. Much of the work was dirty, hard and could be very dangerous
Hexy Fowler recalls his first day down the clay mine at Gartliston in 1947:
You get a pure fright when going down in the cage. The winding engine man thinks he’s nearer the bottom than he is, so when he put the brakes on, it jolts and you’re hanging on for grim death…The first time I heard shots going off I was feart for my life.
Like his father, Hexy spent his working life in the fireclay mine.
A visit to Birkhill Fireclay Mine, Falkirk
The use of gelignite, a type of explosive by shot firers in the clay mines brought its own risks. In 1909 four miners died after an underground roof fall in the Star Pit. A group of five miners were firing shots to remove a stoop and clay and after the blast they continued to prepare for further shot firing when the roof fell in trapping four of them. The fifth man was able to escape along with the pit pony. A further fall prevented any help being given to the four trapped men who were later found dead. These tragedies were common in small mining communities and had a huge impact on everyone for years to come.
A further tragedy occurred just a year later in 1910 when clay miner, Vinsus Potterie placed five pounds of gelignite on the hob of his fireplace at home to soften it. The gelignite exploded killing four people and injuring eight others as well as wrecking the houses next door.
Luckily Vinsus was unharmed. he was charged with culpable homicide but found not guilty on the grounds that it was normal practice to heat the explosive to soften it, although it was usually done in the workplace. The jury recommended that the Glenboig Union Fireclay Company enforce more strict control on handling explosives.
Strikes were a feature of working life in the claymines. In 1900 the miners were refused a request for an increase in wages which led to them working four days per week instead of six. After four months they began a total strike, by which time 400 men had been laid off. The owner, James Dunnachie used the services of strike breaker, Scott Hunter from Glasgow who enlisted 70 men to take over the running of works and after a few weeks the strike ended and the men went back to work.