Portland 18 February 1908

4 men killed by explosion in Nursery Pit, Kilmarnock

Inspector of Mines Report

The first fatal explosion took place in Portland No. 5 Pit belonging to the Portland Colliery Company, Ltd., Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, and by it four men lost their lives. [see plan] In the same pit, but in a different seam, six men lost their lives by an explosion in the year 1900. Referring to Plan No. 1 showing the section of the Major coal workings in which the explosion happened on the 18th of February, on that day coal was being worked in the places BCD and E only. Robert Black and his two sons, Richard and William, were engaged at the point A in "brushing" the pavement of the heading J K. Bratticing, shown by dotted lines, conducted the air current to the working places, the air travelling in the direction indicated by the arrows. The heading beyond the point A was entirely unventilated. At A the heading was 10 ft. 6 ins. wide and was originally 6 ft. high, but by the brushing of the pavement the height had been increased to 8 ft. 3 ins. The roof at this point was supported by crowns which were about 4 ft. apart, needled into the coal at one end and supported by props at the other.

Shortly after noon - a few minutes after John Livingstone, the fireman, had visited the working places C D E and had gone to visit the place A - an explosion took place in the heading J K. According to the evidence of the miners who at once went out to the top of the incline J N, there was a dense cloud of smoke extending from B to L, and the bratticing was blown down between these points. The air was so foul in the heading J K that some time elapsed ere any one could enter it, and on reaching the point P the bodies of Livingstone and William Black were found. Afterwards the body of Robert Black was found under a fall of roof measuring 11 ft. by 10ft. by 1ft. thick, this fall having been heard to take place immediately after the explosion. It was two hours after the explosion ere the body of Richard Black was got at the point H, ten yards beyond his working place A. He was found lying on his face with his head towards K. At the time the explosion occurred two drawers were at the point F, and they were both burned by the flame. Other two men sitting at the point G were uninjured.

Livingstone's body was badly mangled, a leg and an arm being broken, while there was a large gash in his chest. His boots and portions of his clothing were toen off. Robert Black had a fractured skull, which was probably caused by the fall of roof, while the death of Richard and William Black was apparently due to suffocation. The body of each was more or less burned. A tin box containing 3 lbs. of gelignite belonging to the Blacks was afterwards found at G, and beside it was a can containing l 1/2 lbs, of compressed gunpowder and a coil of tape fuse. John Jamieson, the man authorised to have charge of detonators in terms of the Explosives Order, stated that on the morning of the explosion he issued five detonators to Robert Black who put them into a small unlocked box which he put in his pocket. No trace of this box nor of any detonators could be found after the explosion. It was stated by the pitheadman that he gave out to Robert Black 5 lbs. of gelignite four days before the explosion, and was then informed by him that he had not any left over in the pit. Black worked only one and a half shifts after getting his gelignite, so that apparently only two pounds of this explosive had been consumed previous to the explosion. As regards compressed gunpowder, it was found impossible to find out how much the Blacks had in the mine at the time of the explosion. It was stated that previous to the explosion the Blacks fired that day only two shots, the last being 20 minutes before it occurred, and that no warning was given by them just before the explosion that they were about to fire shots. A minute examination after the fall had been cleared away showed that there was no appearance of any shot hole at the point A. Most of the miners stated that they were certain that the smoke after the explosion was that of an explosive and that there was dust along with the smoke.

On visiting the scene of this explosion the day after it happened I found extending from A to K and in the branch roads M and O a layer of fine dry stone dust which could be raised in a cloud by blowing upon it. This dust covered the sides and debris stowed along the side of the roads and adhered to the timbering. From J down the incline to the point N, 30 yards distant, dust raised by the explosion and driven by the blast adhered to and covered the timbering, roof and sides. I was told by the officials that no firedamp whatever had been found in this section of workings except what issued from small feeders in the coal. Firedamp could be heard issuing from the coal in the places B, M, D and E and could be ignited in two of these places at the point of issue. When Mr. Mottram and I revisited these workings two days thereafter the heading J K was full of explosive gas from the point H upwards.

The places M, K and O had not been worked for some time previous to the explosion, and the entrance to them was not fenced off. Whether or not the fireman Livingstone inspected these places that morning is not known. At the fatal accidents inquiry the officials of the colliery expressed their opinion that the deceased met their death by an explosion of gelignite alone and the jury gave their verdict in accordance with this opinion. I do not agree with this verdict, and in my evidence I gave the following reasons in support of the opinion that firedamp was the principal agent which caused the death of the four men :-

(1). It is unlikely that the deceased miners would have much, if any explosive at all beside them, seeing that only 20 minutes previous to the explosion they had fired a shot, they had not even begun to drill a fresh shot-hole, and their store of explosives was afterwards found at the point G.

(2). It is unlikely that the two drawers who were burnt at the point F, 12 or 14 yards distant from where an explosive was presumably ignited, would be injured by the flame, or that Richard Black was also thereby burnt at the point H which was quite as far distant.

(3). It is extremely unlikely that the explosion from any ordinary quantity of explosive would blow down the bratticing extending from B to L.

(4). It is unlikely that the fumes from the ignition of probably not more than enough explosive for one shot would be sufficient to cause the death of both William and Richard Black.

(5). Previous to the explosion, the dust already referred to only extended from A upwards towards K. The ignition of an explosive at A or P would not drive that dust down the incline as far as the point N. On the other hand, if the explosion was caused by the ignition of firedamp extending from H upwards the presence after the explosion of the dust between A and N is at once explained.

(6). The fact that Richard Black's body was found at the point H, the very point at which explosive gas was found three days after, suggests that for some purpose or other he had gone up the heading and ignited a body of gas with his naked light at that point.

(7). There was a sharp fall of the barometer on the day of the explosion and a similar fall three days after it, and if on the latter day the unventilated heading filled with gas it is probable that on the former day a similar accumulation of fire-damp would take place.

The mangled condition of Livingstone's body points to the conclusion that he was killed by a powerful explosive while close to it. Robert Black, if not killed by the explosion itself, would be killed by the fall of roof caused by the force of the explosion knocking out the props which supported one end of the crowns. As all the men immediately concerned were killed, it is not possible to tell exactly what happened or what was the primary cause of the accident. I incline to the opinion that it was caused by Richard Black igniting firedamp at the point H with his naked light, and that the flame ignited gelignite as well as detonators (three detonators were not accounted for) close to Livingstone.

Seeing that fire-damp was being given off, it was a neglect on the part of the manager not to provide for the ventilation of the heading beyond the point A, and had ventilation so been provided, in all probability the explosion would not have happened. Although it was stated that there was no dust whatever in the heading JK previous to the explosion, the fact that the day following dry dust was present indicates that permitted explosives should have been used, while the regulations regarding detonators, which apply to all mines under the Coal Mines Regulation Acts, were not observed.

Newspaper Reports

Serious Pit Accident In Ayrshire – Explosion of Gelignite – Four Men Killed and Two Injured – A serious explosion by which four men last their lives, and two others were injured, occurred yesterday afternoon, in the Nursery Pit, Kilmarnock. A squad of miners were engaged cutting through stone, making a new level about a mile from the pit bottom. For blasting purposes they were using the powerful explosive known as gelignite . How the accident happened will probably never be ascertained, as those who could have best shed light upon it were killed on the spot. It is surmised, however, that something had gone wrong with the handling of a shot. Two possible theories are put forward. The shot may have gone off prematurely , and caused the disaster or, on the other hand there may have been undue delay in the shot taking effect, in which case the men had probably returned to investigate the cause of the misfire. The question of fire damp is not entertained. The comparatively limited area affected by the accident leaves little doubt on that point.

Pathetic features about the mishap are that the four killed include a father and two sons, while the remaining victim was a fireman who, in the course of his rounds, was fated to be on the spot at the tragic moment The explosion occurred about one o' clock At that time there was fully a hundred men at work in the mine. Some of those in the comparatively near neighbourhood heard what they described as a "crack," and knew from the suction of the air and the extinction of their lamps that an explosion had taken place. Others working at a distance were totally unaware that anything untoward had happened; but the news soon spread even to the remotest quarters, and all work was immediately suspended.

Although the explosion had caused a fall in the roof, the roads did not suffer material damage, and with characteristic intrepidity the comrades of the squad immediately involved, disregarding all personal risk, hastened to the spot. Two of the victims were found buried under the fallen rubbish, while the others were discovered a few yards off. The work of bringing the dead and injured to the surface was speedily accomplished. Alarmist rumours had meanwhile been circulated, and it was with feelings of qualified relief that those at the pithead learned the full extent of the disaster. There had been no difficulty about the identification of the bodies, and the following official list of the killed and injured was soon procured:-

Robert Black (52), miner, Riccarton Road, Hurlford
Richard Black (28), miner, Portland Row, Hurlford : and
Wm. Black (17), miner, Riccarton Road, sons of Robert Black.
John Livingstone (45), pit fireman, Academy Street. Hurlford.

Wm. Thom (19), collier, Mauchline Road, Hurlford
John Campbell (17), drawer, Maxwell Place, Hurlford.

Nursery pit is situated on the right bank of the river Irvine, about half a mile from Kilmarnock Cross, and just within the burgh boundaries. It is owned by the Portland Colliery Company (Limited) and was sunk about twenty years ago. This is unfortunately not the first time the colliery has been the scene of a serious accident. In August 1900 an explosion of fire damp occurred and on that occasion nine lives were lost. The workings extend under the bed of the river to the policies of Bellfield. and it was at that portion of the mine that yesterday's explosion took place. Although so near Kilmarnock the miners reside in Hurlford. a typical colliery village, about a mile and a half distant. The pit, which is about a hundred fathoms deep, is thoroughly well equipped, and while traces of fire damp have been found in times past, it is considered fairly safe. The men started work yesterday about six o'clock in the morning in usual course. Robert Black and his two sons were engaged in what is technically described as "driving a stone mine" between two seams. This driving consists of cutting through the stone and propping up the roof as the work proceeds. The seams which in this manner the squad were connecting are known as the Tourha and the Major seams. By the force of the explosion the props supporting the roof were wrecked and a fall of eight or nine tons immediately succeeded , obstructing access to the new cutting. Robert Black and his younger son were buried under the falling rubbish. The elder son's body was found under the frame of a self acting incline descending from the new level to the main road. The fireman Livingstone was got up a heading some slight distance off. Robert Black, when the rescuers reached him, was still alive, and they could hear his moans as they worked their way through the fall; but he never spoke, and was dead before his body was finally extricated. The body of the younger son was found alongside. The elder son bore no trace of injury, and had apparently died from suffocation. In the case of the fireman Livingstone, the chief injuries were about the head, but the upper parts of the clothing were badly torn. Thom and Campbell, the two injured men, were pushing an empty hutch up the incline towards the scene of the accident, and were only about twenty yards away. Thom, who was at the front of the hutch, was burned about the body, but Campbell escaped with comparatively slight injuries. It was found necessary to remove Thom to Kilmarnock Infirmary, but Campbell was able to be taken home. The latter subsequently gave a brief account of his experiences.

After the explosion. - Among the earliest to rush to the scene of the accident were two miners named James Rae and John Burns. They had been working about eighty yards away, and the extinction of their lamps gave them the first warning of danger. At once they made their way up the incline, but they found themselves unable, on account of the quantity of material that had fallen, to extricate the two Blacks, and had to call for assistance. Within a few minute s they were reinforced by other willing workers, and the task of getting at the bodies was soon accomplished. Dr Beveridge and another medical man were at the pithead by the time the injured had been brought to the surface, and they rendered all the aid in their power. The bodies of the dead men were first taken to the Infirmary, and after being coffined there, were conveyed home. The funerals will probably take place to morrow. Exaggerated rumours reached Kilmarnock regarding the disaster, but so speedily did its real extent become known that the first alarm was disarmed, and comparatively few people were at the pit mouth when the bodies were brought to the surface. Naturally the accident caused the widest sorrow in Hurlford where the victims were all so well known. The occurrence will not to any considerable extent interfere with the ordinary working of the colliery.

The Victims - The Blacks are a very old Hurlford family. They are known in the village as very industrious, hard-working, respectable people, and are held in high esteem. Their home life was considered ideal. The father had been employed in the pit since its opening. Besides the two sons who died in the same hour with himself, the family consisted of the mother and another son and daughter. The surviving son Hugh is a professional footballer, who played for Kilmarnock last year, and is now at Carlisle. Richard Black, the elder of the sons killed, was married, and his wife, who has been seriously ill for several months, is left with two young children. William, the younger. resided with his father, and left a brickwork to become a miner only ten days ago. The family has been connected with the Reid United Free Church since its formation, and to the Rev W. Somerville Reid, the junior pastor, fell the painful duty of breaking the melancholy news to the relatives. A rumour of the accident had reached Richard's home and his invalid wife, when the minister entered the house, pathetically exclaimed , "My dear husband; don't tell me he has been taken away. " .

John Livingstone, who had been engaged in the pit for eight years, is survived by his widow and a family of four, all grown up. He was a member of the Parish Church, and along with his wife attended the evening service on Sunday. John Campbell, the less seriously hurt of the two injured men, was seen at his house by one of our representatives. He was in bed, and, though a bit shaken, seemed little the worse for his experience. He said he was suffering more from fright than from anything else. Campbell, who is a lad of seventeen years, and is employed as a drawer, said he was about twenty yards away from the spot where the fall took place. The first thing he heard was the noise of air suction. At the time he was pushing: an empty hutch up the " brae, " and was in a stooping position, with one hand on the hutch and the other gripping the rail to give him leverage. Thom, the other injured man, was at the front of the hutch, nearer the scene of the accident, and they were going towards it. He felt a choking sensation, and “when his wind came back” he heard Thom crying, "Go on." At the same time Thorn took him by the hand. He crawled down the brae, and got on to the road, Thom practically hauling him out. “I was burned about the back of the neck," said Campbell, When the explosion occurred our lamps were knocked out. I was brought up immediately, and never saw any of the other men. I was a bit dazed. I had only been working in the pit for three weeks, having been employed previously in the brickworks.

John Burns, miner, who is brother in law of Campbell , and resides on the opposite side of the same row stated that he was working at the face at the time. "I was taking coal out," he said, "Just about eighty yards away from the section where the explosion took place. The first intimation I got of it was the heavy suction of air, and the light of the lamps going out. To my companion , James Rae, I said What is that? He replied – It is the fumes of an explosion. Rae then said - I will need to go up the brae head to see what is doing. Bums proceeded to explain the operations of Black's squad, and said the fireman Livingstone was on his round of visits of inspection when he met his death. "I had spoken to him only five minutes beforehand," said Burns " and  joked with him, and the next thing I saw was him lying dead in the section." [Scotsman 19 February 1908]