Starlaw Shale Pit, Bathgate - 9 April 1870

Eight men killed in fire at shale pit:

  • Patrick McComisky, coal miner, age 28, married to Mary Jane Oliver
  • Peter McComisky, coal miner, age 26, married to Ann Curran
  • James McNeil, coal miner, age 36, married to Mary Heeps
  • John McNeil, coal miner, age 32, married to Elizabeth Simpson
  • David Muir, coal miner, aged 17, single
  • William Rankin, coal miner, age 28, married to Jane Dunlop, died 10th April, severe burns and fracture of leg
  • William Rushford, coal miner, age 35, married to Mary Jane Moore
  • William Wands, coal miner, age 27, married to Janet Strang

Newspaper Reports

Fire in A Shale Pit Near Bathgate - Loss of Seven Lives
On Saturday, an accident of a somewhat unusual character, and resulting, we regret to say, in the loss of several lives, occurred at the Starlaw shale pit, about three miles to the south-east at Bathgate. The pit in question forms part of the Boghall Shale and Coal Works, belonging to Messrs E. Meldrum & Co. - a firm which, besides Mr Meldrum of Dechmont, includes Mr M'Lagan of Pumpherston, MP, and Mr George Simpson, Viewfield, parish of Shotts. The Starlaw pit has been in operation for about three years, and has been worked to the extent of several acres. It has only one shaft, about forty fathoms in depth, and this being sunk upon the slope of the seam, the workings extend both upwards and downwards, reaching about 200 fathoms in one direction and 100 fathoms in the other. In accordance with the usual practice in single-shaft pits, ventilation is provided for by dividing the shaft into two sections, an upcast and a downcast, and placing a furnace near the foot of the former, so as to create a current of air. The partition between the upcast and downcast consisted of thick planks, and the sides of the shaft were lined with timber, with the exception of some 20 feet at the bottom, where the stratum was so firm as to render such support unnecessary. The ventilating furnace was placed about 30 feet from the foot of the upcast with which it communicated by a flue of 31 feet in height. Both sections of the shaft were used for the delivery of shale ; but whereas the down-cast was open to the workings, the bottom of the up-cast had to be closed in, with the exception of a door which was opened for a minute at a time when there were trucks to be wheeled to the cage. The ventilating furnace was in the charge of John Pate, the roadsman, who, under Robert Watt, the manager, seems to have exercised a general supervision of the underground workings. It was fired in the morning before the workmen went down, and again about half-past eleven in the forenoon, the firing being regulated so that the dense smoke thereby produced should pass up the shaft at meal hours, when it would not incommode the men employed on the pit bank.

On Saturday the pit was at work as usual, there being employed in the various workings fifty-six men and boys. The furnace is said to have been fired about half-past eleven, and it must have been very shortly afterwards that Robert Moffat, who was employed, as fireman in the pit, observed that the soot covering the wooden lining of the upcast had caught fire. It is supposed that the cause of ignition, was a spark from the furnace. A similar mishap, it seems, took place about three months ago, on which occasion the fire was put out without difficulty. On observing the accident Moffat and another man named Archibald M'Nicol ascended the shaft, and obtaining some water, succeeded, as they thought, in extinguishing the fire. About ten minutes later, however, Moffat had his attention arrested by the noise of something falling in the shaft, and on opening the up-cast door discovered that the fire had broken out again. Thereupon he lost no time in summoning Pate, who was engaged at the time in the lower part of the dip workings. Pate hurried to the shaft, and on looking into the upcast found a considerable portion of the wooden lining in a blaze. Foreseeing the danger to which all in the pit would be exposed, he despatched messengers through the workings to warn the miners to repair to the abaft, he himself ascending at once to the pit-head, with the intention of getting water poured down upon the fire. The alarm having been spread through the pit, the workmen hurried from all quarters towards the shaft, and as fast as they arrived the cage working in the downcast conveyed them to the bank. The engineman, James Steel, apprised of what had happened below, had set to work with a will to render all the assistance in his power. In the excitement of the moment the usual signalling apparatus was dispensed with, and Steel kept lowering the cage, allowing it rest at the bottom for a sufficient time to let men get in, and then heaving up with all possible despatch.

When Pate reached the top, he forthwith set to work, to get water poured upon the fire. At first he bethought him of the pumps, which are constantly kept in operation in the downcast shaft, but he presently found it would be impossible to conduct the water from these into the upcast without interfering with the movements of the cage in which the miners were getting drawn up. In this emergency he broke a pipe used for conducting water to the condenser of the pit-engine, and directed its contents upon the flames, which by this time were bursting out from the top of the shaft. The attempt to quench the fire proved utterly futile In spite of all the water that could be poured down, the flames kept gathering strength with frightful rapidity, till they blazed out with such violence as to render it almost impossible to approach the pit-mouth. Meanwhile the brave Steel, though exposed to scorching heat, stuck manfully to his engine, lowering and raising with, the utmost precision the cage which formed the only hope of the poor miners below. Of course only the cage in the down-cast was available. The other being attached to the same drum, had made two or three descents into the roaring furnace of the upcast, when the rope yielded to the fire, and it dropped to the bottom. Fortunately the rope in the downcast held out for a few minutes longer, though it too caught fire shortly after the other. Thanks to Steel's nerve and presence of mind, no time was lost, the cage, we are told, being lowered and raised in little more than a minute. For five or six trips it came up crowded with miners, 8 or 9 men having in each case packed themselves into a space intended for four. So deftly was the operation managed, that as fast as the poor fellows, running from various distances in the workings, arrived at the pit bottom, the cage was there to receive them and whirl them aloft to safety. It may readily be supposed, however, that the passage to the open air, swift as it was, seemed all too long to the occupants of the cage. The wood work of the apparatus caught fire ; the iron-work was nearly red hot; in the up-cast shaft, separated from them only by a thin partition, a raging furnace threatened destruction ; while the burning rope by which they were suspended seemed likely every instant to give way and leave them to their fate. So far the actual progress of the fire had been con fined to the upcast, but the down-draught carried the smoke and flame over the top of the partition into the downcast and so into the pit, rendering the air quite stifling. All the men suffered more or less from this, but, strange to say, most of those who came up in large parties escaped without even having their whiskers singed. At length after several batches of eight or nine each had been safely brought to bank, the cage on its next descent came up empty. By this time the fire had burst through the top of the partition and was blazing in full volume from both sections of the shafts cutting off all possibility of ventilation, and giving rise to the most serious apprehensions as to the safety of those still in the pit. The cage was forthwith sent down again, and presently returned with two men named Patrick Grant and William Forrester. So blinding were the flames and smoke :that the men were not seen by those on the pit bank; and some one having called out that the cage was empty, it was straightaway lowered again before its occupants had the chance of getting out. The feelings of the poor miners on being thus sent back to the frightful prison from which they had all but escaped may be more easily imagined than described. On reaching the bottom, Grant in desperation was on the point of throwing himself out of the cage, but fortunately the apparatus was whirled up again before he could accomplish his purpose, and this time he and his companion lost no time in scrambling out. Notwithstanding that they had passed three times through the burning shaft, both men escaped with comparatively little injury. Their hair and whiskers were singed, and Grant, besides being a good deal bruised and shaken, had his left hand badly burned by grasping an iron bar of the cage. At the time when Grant and Forrester left the pit bottom, there were no other miners there, and though they called for any of their comrades who might be within earshot, they received no answer. After they had been rescued, the cage made three fruitless descents ; but at the fourth, it came up with other two men, named Thomas M'Lean and William Rankin, who had in the interim managed to crawl to the shaft. On getting into the cage, they had endeavoured to bring along with them a third man, named William Wands, but he was too much overcome by the heat and smoke to keep his position, and slipped off as the cage began to ascend. M'Lean and Rankin were unfortunately without their coats, and as they were drawn up through the burning shaft the flames told with terrible effect on their naked arms and shoulders. When they reached the top the exposed portions of their bodies were so badly scorched that the skin peeled off at the touch. M'Lean was able to stagger from the cage, but Rankin, in getting out, entangled his foot with some portion of the apparatus, and falling heavily, broke his leg. After the cage had made one or two more descents, each time comping up empty, the burning rope gave way, thus cutting off all hope of escape from the seven miners still remaining below.

During the ten minutes or so that this terrible scene had been going on at the pit-head, the alarm had spread to the various rows of cottages connected with the colliery. The wives and children of the miners, in a state of wild consternation, hurried to the pit, and very affecting were the greetings that were interchanged as one after another of the survivors emerged in safety from the smoke and flames. As time wore on, the crowd rapidly increased, old and young trooping to the colliery from all parts of the surrounding country, and Bathgate in particular sending forth a large proportion of its population. Among the earlier arrivals was Mr Birnie, manager of the Uphall Chemical Works, who took charge of the arrangements until Mr Simpson, one of the partners of the Boghall form, reached the spot. Dr Kirk, surgeon to the colliery, was speedily at hand to lend professional aid, and by his directions the seriously injured men were conveyed —Rankin to his own house, and M'Lean to that of his father in the colliery village.. In the course of the afternoon, Drs Longmuir and Doig, of Bathgate, came out to give what relief might be in their power. A detachment of police, under Mr Inspector Anderson, was also promptly in attendance, and rendered efficient assistance in preserving order. Later in the day came Provost Waddel and several of the Magistrates of Bathgate, and in the evening Mr Little, assistant Fiscal for the county, with Mr Colquhoun, Chief Constable, and Mr Gardner, Superintendent of Police, arrived from Linlithgow.

Even before the cage-rope gave way, and while the chief interest was concentrated on the shaft, those on the pit bank had their attention, diverted to the wooden framework supporting the winding pulleys, which, with the scaffolding of the bank, had caught fire, This framework overhanging the shaft, it was feared that if it were burned through the iron wheels would fall down and block up the pit. Accordingly no time was lost in endeavouring to pull it down, and, after much labour, rendered doubly difficult by the heat and stifling smoke, this was at length effected. The beams of the scaffolding were also cut through, so as to prevent the flames from spreading to the adjacent shale heaps; and after, some hours of severe toil, during which all the water obtainable was exhausted, the flames above ground, which at one time had blazed up to the height of thirty or forty feet, were completely subdued. The fire in the pit still smouldered, and it was not till half-past-six in the evening that it had so far abated as to admit of a descent being attempted. A temporary winding apparatus having been adjusted, and a service-funnel erected with a view to restore ventilation, James Miller and John Pate got into the tub, and proceeded to repair with canvas the breaches which had been made in the mid-wall of the shaft. It was only after repeated attempts that they contrived to reach the bottom; and there, making their way with great difficulty, on account of the stifling state of the air they found, about eight fathoms from the shaft, on the dip-side of the workings, the bodies of two brothers, named James and John M'Neill. Both of these men had been working near the top of the rise, and in order to reach the place where their bodies were found they must have passed the shaft. They had come up, it is supposed, after the breaking of the rope, and finding their chance of escape cut off, had moved into the dip-workings in the hope of finding better air. Their strength, however, had been nearly spent in the effort to reach the shaft, and after stumbling along for about fifty feet they sank down together and expired. The bodies were found lying on their faces. There were no marks of injury observable, and the faces wore a calm and peaceful expression. Pate and Miller removed one of the bodies - that of James M'Neill - to the shaft, and along with it were drawn to the surface. They were so exhausted by the descent that it was necessary for them to rest awhile before going down, again, and their places were promptly taken by James Robertson and Thomas Snodgrass, who presently returned with the body of John M'Neill. The work of exploration was then undertaken by Archd. M'Nicol and Robert Moffat, who discovered the body of Wm. Rushford, also in the dip workings, about 10 fathoms from the shaft. He too had been working in. the rise, and the position in which he was found is to be accounted for in the same way as in the case of the M'Neill's. The body was lying between two rows of hutches, being, like those of the M'Neils, without any external marks of injury. The next to go down were James Miller and Alexander Black, who in two successive descents recovered the bodies of Peter Comiskie and David Muir, the latter at the head of the dip and the former in the rise workings. The body of Muir showed a slight abrasion on the face, and the poor fellow's cap was firmly clenched between his teeth, as if in the agonies of death he had tried to keep out the smoke which was stifling him. By the time these bodies were taken to the bank the shaft had got so much clearer that four men, named James Hately, Bernard Ferrans, Archibald M'Nicol, and James Robertson, went down to continue the work of exploration. Penetrating some eighty fathoms into the dip, they found the body of Patrick Comiskie, brother of Peter above, mentioned, who had, like the other sufferers, been, working at the rise at the time when the accident occurred. Owing to the difficulty which had been experienced in penetrating the workings, the recovery of the bodies above specified had occupied the whole evening, and it was not till eleven o'clock that John Wallace and Thomas Snodgrass discovered the remains of William Wands. This unfortunate man, as we have stated, had actually been got into the cage by two friendly comrades, but, being unable to support himself there, had staggered off and dropped down to die at no great distance from the shaft.

The various bodies on being brought to bank were examined by the medical gentlemen present, who gave it as their opinion that the deceased had succumbed very rapidly after the complete stoppage of ventilation, which must have occurred when the mid wall of the shaft was burnt through. As may be supposed, the scene at the pit-head during the evening, as one ghastly object after another was brought up, was one of painful excitement.. The crowd was kept back to some distance from the shaft, but it was only with the utmost difficulty that the wives and other relations of the deceased could be restrained, and the lamentations of the poor creatures were heart rending to hear. The bodies were in the first instance conveyed to the carpenter's shop, and having there been coffined, were removed as soon as possible to the homes which the accident had rendered desolate.

The following is a list of the deceased, with such particulars as have been ascertained with respect to their families:

James M'Neill, 45, leaves a widow and 4 children
William Rushford, 35, widow and 5 children
John M'Neill, 35, widow and 5 children
William Wands, 22, three months married
Peter Comiskie, 27, widow and 1 child
Patrick Comiskie, 24, widow and 1 child
Wm. Muir, 17, unmarried; mother residing in Fife

All of the above, with the exception of Patrick Comiskie, who lived in Bathgate, resided at Starlaw Rows.

With regard to the injured men, the only serious cases are those of Wm. Rankin, who, besides being severely burned, had his leg broken; and Thomas M'Lean who was very shockingly burned about the face and upper part of the body. Both of these patients were assiduously attended yesterday by Dr Kirk. In the evening, Rankin's case was considered hopeless, collapse having set in, while M'Lean still lingered in a very precarious condition. Both are married men, with families. Patrick Grant, whose left hand was burnt and twisted, was able to move about yesterday; and the same may be said of a fourth man, named James Neil, who was slightly hurt at the pit bank by a beam of wood falling on his head.

In the course of yesterday, the colliery was visited by crowds of people, attracted by the news of the accident, from all parts of the surrounding country. A shifting crowd surrounded the pithead throughout the day, discussing with eager interest every scrap of information that could be gleaned respecting the accident; and here and there among the groups zealous persons might be seen assiduously distributing tracts. The sad occurrence was alluded to in the course of divine service in all the churches for miles around. We understand that the funeral of the deceased miners is to take place to-morrow. It is expected that the damage to the shaft will be repaired, so as to admit of the colliery-resuming work in about ten days.

Considering the unusual nature of the accident, it may not be amiss to supplement the narrative given above with the following brief statements taken from the lips of survivors :-

Patrick Grant says: "It was the "corning" hour, and I was sitting taking my smoke, when a man came running and told us the pit was on fire. My neighbour and I at once made for the bottom of the shaft, but he got there before me. When I reached the shaft the cage was at the bottom, and there were eight or nine men about it. All got in except another man and myself, and the cage was raised. At this time the foot of the shaft was full of smoke, and I had great difficulty in breathing. In a few seconds after the cage had left us it returned, and I threw myself across it, catching hold of the cross-bar with my hand. The man who was with me got in too, and then the cage was launched to the top. The shaft was full of fire and smoke, and to keep myself from getting suffocated I stuffed the sleeve of my coat into my mouth. It was so dark, and we were so confused, that we did not know when we reached the pithead. Some person at the tops cried there was nobody in the cage, and before I could scramble out it was sent to the bottom. I do not know whether my companion got out; but I think he did not. When the cage reached the bottom I cried out, "Are there any men there?'' But I got no answer.. By this time the cage had got very hot, and not knowing well what to do I thought of throwing myself out. I was not able to do so, however, before the cage again commenced to ascend. The flames in the shaft seemed to have increased, and the smoke to have become thicker, when I was shot through it the second time; but I managed to escape being suffocated by keeping my coat sleeve stuffed in my mouth. I saw the rope of the cage was on fire, but I had not time to think of the possibility of its breaking. I could not see when the cage reached the surface, but I kept feeling the edges; and when I thought it was up all the way, I made a leap, without very well knowing where. I fell on the ground, and the next moment was caught by some of the men and pulled out of the smoke.

John Boyle says: "I was working in the rise workings the matter of fully two, hundred fathoms from the bottom of the shaft. My son was working with me but when the corning hour came I sent him out. Before he had time to have got past the bottom of the pit I heard him coming back and crying "Father, father, come on."  I was speaking to another man at the time, and when I heard my son cry I ran up to the roadhead and cried to him to know if there was anything wrong. Says he, "The pits on fire; come on quick or you'll lose your life." I asked him is it was gas fire. "No," says he, "it comes from the tube. The tube's on fire on the rise side of the shaft." So says I "Make you the best road you can to the bottom yourself, and never mind me." "No," says he, "go you on, and I will overtake you." There were four men - Matthew Brown, David Reid, and the brothers Wilson - working beside me at this time, and when they heard what my son said, they made for the shaft. I again told my son to push on and save himself. "I am an old man," I says, "nd so it's not much matter about me; but you are young and must save yourself." "No," he says, "I am not going till I see the whole of the men out." He then ran to the road head and called to the men above - the Comiskies and the M'Neills - that if they were not at the foot of the shaft in two minutes their lives were done. He got no answer. I had gone twenty or thirty yards towards the shaft bottom, but returning I again called on my son to come and save himself. The only answer I got was that he would perish rather than not warn all the men, He once more called out to the Comiskies and the M'Neills, but still getting no answer, I got him induced to come with me to the shaft. When we got to the bottom of the shaft, the trap doors were on fire, and all about was thick with smoke. The cage was at the bottom and seven men were in it. They cried for more, and my son pushed me into it. As I got in somebody objected that there were too many; but someone else cried, "Let as many come in as there's room for." The signal bell was then rung and the cage began to rise. For ten to twelve feet at the foot, the shaft was in flames, and all the way up it was filled with smoke; but we shot through it so quickly that none of us were injured. When we had been landed the cage went down again, and brought another lot of nine men, my son being one of them. After them, only four men - Grant and Forrester, and M'Lean and Rankin - were brought up. [Scotsman 11 April 1870]

Bathgate - The Shale Pit Accident - Funeral of the Sufferers - A public funeral of the eight miners who lost their lives at the Starlaw pit on Saturday, took place yesterday. The funeral procession met at Starlaw Row about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and proceeded to Bathgate, a distance of three miles, arriving there about 3 o'clock. Five of the bodies were buried in the Bathgate Cemetery, and two were sent off to Polmont, and one to New Monkland Airdrie, for interment there. Notwithstanding the very wet day, great crowds of people from all parts of the surrounding country attended the procession; and many of the relatives, including wives and orphan children, were present. Mr Meldrum and other gentlemen connected with the Starlaw works, and also the Rev. Mesrs. Milne, Fairbairn, Shennan, and Carruthers of Bathgate, and a number of other gentlemen and sympathisers, attended the funeral. Hearses had to be procured from Falkirk, Whitburn, Armadale, and Bathgate for the occasion ; and the whole procession was entrusted to and conducted by Mr George Rodger, joiner and undertaker, Bathgate. M'Lean, who was so severely burned, is still in a very precarious if not hopeless state. [Scotsman 13th April 1870]

The Fatal Pit Accident At Starlaw - Hopes are now entertained that M'Lean, who was severely burned, may recover. Among the subscriptions received in behalf of the widows and children of the sufferers by the accident are £100 from Mr Edward Meldrum and £100 from Mr George Simpson. [Glasgow Herald 16 April 1870]