March 1839

13 men and women rescued alive after spending 36 hours entombed in pit.

Catastrophe and Providential Escape At Edmonstone Colliery (From The Caledonian Mercury).
We have this day to record the most miraculous preservation of 13 human beings, after almost every hope of saving their lives had been extinguished. On Friday evening , about half-past ten o'clock the aides of the shaft of one of the coal-pits, of which the Messrs Stenhouse are the lessees, gave way, and completely blocked up the communication with the pit. When this happened, there were at work below nine men and four females, who were thus fast imprisoned in the bowels of the earth, and as, in the circumstances, it seemed extremely improbable that any communication could be effected before Sunday night or Monday morning, there was reason to dread the worst. The prevailing opinion was, that they must have perished from the foul air that would likely extend itself through the pit , when the free air was excluded by the obstruction at the entrance . The shaft of this coal-pit is about a hundred yards in depth, and the place where the fracture took place is about forty or fifty yards from the mouth of the pit . At this point there was formerly a seam of coal, which was worked out about two years ago the vacant space being filled up with earth and rubbish, and of course the sides of the shaft boarded and protected in the usual manner from the surrounding pressure. It is thought that the iron fastenings at this part had given way, owing partly to their brittleness , and partly to the violent pressure which they had to sustain. The first warning of the rupture was given to George Scott the person who had the charge of the pithead; he heard , to use his own words , a rattling in the pit , and immediately afterwards, a man at the bottom of the pit shouting up to him that there were deals coming down. Upon this, Scott, with the greatest intrepidity and presence of mind , ordered himself to be lowered in the bucket and even descended a little below the point where the sides afterwards collapsed; but his progress was arrested by the falling in of several planks , and, had he been a few seconds later in giving the signal to those above,he must have inevitably been crushed to death , as the very point. from which he was then rescued was instantly filled up with a solid mass. He had, however, ere the passage was cleared, heard the man at the bottom of the pit call out that the chain attached to the bucket had broken, and that a rope must be lowered, which Scott ,when he reached the top, attempted to do, being then ignorant of the extent of the calamity; but of course the rope was stopped in its progress by the chocking ruins. The alarm was then instantly given, and Mr Stenhouse of Whitehill Mains, as well as Mr Adam , the mining overseer of the colliery, were almost immediately after on the spot, and directed their attention to the means of extricating the unfortunate captives .The pit where the accident took place communicated with an adjoining pit , .the shaft of which is a few hundred yards distant from that of the former, and which served as an air-pit to it; there was , of course, a lamp or fire kept continually burning in the shaft to purify the air. In September last, there was a free passage , or air-gate , from the one pit to the other ; but since that time no person had travelled it , and it was supposed that the passage must have been obstructed by the falling of portions of the superincumbent mass. The Messrs Stenhouse and Mr Adam anticipated that the individuals in the pit would naturally struggle to make their way through this avenue of escape, and accordingly , about two o clock on Saturday morning, five men were enabled to descend the shaft of the old pit , in order, if possible, to make their way through the passage between the pits ,to aid the liberation of the others. They made the greatest exertions, notwithstanding a considerable quantity of water in the old pit , and reached 140 yards beyond the bottom of the shaft, when they were deterred from venturing farther by the foul air, which was becoming quite insupportable . In order to have gained their object , they would have required to have advanced about 300 yards farther. At two o clock on the afternoon of Saturday, a second attempt was made , but was still more unfortunate than the first, because, as was thought , the choking up of the new pit had increased the quantity of foul air in the old one , as it was at this time so noxious, that one man, who, out of the six destined for the second effort , had first descended to report , could not even get to the bottom of the shaft. All hopes of relief in this manner were now abandoned , and every energy directed towards the clearing of the shaft. For this purpose it was necessary to construct what is termed a crib; that is, a cylinder corresponding to the dimensions of the shaft. On Saturday evening, when we first visited the spot , we found a strong body of millwrights and other workmen straining every nerve in the construction of the machine, which was formed by uniting circular rings of wood, strongly clasped together with iron. It was intended to be twenty-five feet in length , and to be lowered by the crane. As far as we could judge , its operation is something on the same principle as that of the shield which is advanced progressively in the Thames tunnel. .When it met the obstructing mass; the workmen, safely entrenched within it, intended gradually to get the shaft cleared, and the crib consequently lowered until they attained that part of the shaft which is still sound , when the crib would be fixed to it by iron bolts , and the operation of removing the rubbish continued until they reached the bottom of the shaft, and opened the communication. We understand that, with the exception of the one man to whom we have alluded the other sufferers were, at the time of the accident; working at least three hundred yards from the bottom of the shaft , on a mine along the road.

Most fortunately these preparations , which were necessarily tedious in their nature, were not required, as about half-past seven o'clock yesterday (Sunday) morning the men stationed (for there had been a constant watch trimming the fire, and on the alert for any sound from below) at the mouth of the old pit heard the welcome sound of a voice. The alarm was immediately given, and the Messrs Stenhouse and the workmen proceeded with all despatch to rescue the suffering party. One man descended to render aid in case they should be too feeble to hold by the rope, and found the air in the shaft so impure, that he, coming from the free atmosphere, could with difficulty sustain it. . The first raised was the youngest girl ; who was brought up in such a helpless state, that on reaching the mouth ,those present had to lay hold of her to prevent her from falling. Her first words, and addressed to Mr Stenhouse of Whitehill Mains, were- " Eh, Sir, we have been praying a' nicht." The remainder were rapidly raised in succession, all in a very exhausted state; but the Messrs Stenhouse had warm milk in readiness, which was administered to each of them, along with a piece of bread, when they appeared somewhat revived. They were then placed on carts, among straw and blankets, and conveyed to their homes.

Soon after the catastrophe took place , the sufferers in the pit tried to remove the debris that had fallen in; but it was in such masses that they found it in vain to proceed in the task. They then endeavoured to make their way through the air-gate to the other pit. We may state , that this passage or air-gate , is only three feet wide and four feet in height , and throughout was partially filled with water. When they had proceeded a short way, they found that the water was so high that they would have perished in the attempt , and therefore they had to abandon it; During the tedious and agonizing hours of Saturday, they kept moving backward and forward nigh to the bottom of the shaft, until about six o clock at night, when they made another attempt to struggle through the air-gate , which proved as fruitless as the first. At this stage their lights all went out, and-they were of course in utter darkness. They also were giving way to despair and irresolution ; all hope of escape seeming to have disappeared. In this state they searched for a dry place of the pit , and, having found it, laid themselves down to await death , But before finally resigning themselves to what they thought their inevitable fate, they all joined in singing a hymn, after which one of the old men poured out a fervent prayer for mercy. They had also joined in prayer after the failure of the first attempt. After lying in this piteous state from six o'clock on Saturday evening until about five o'clock on the Sunday morning in utter darkness, as we have already said , they gathered resolution to make a last effort for life. By this time the water in the air-gate had fallen about two inches lower than it stood at the former attempt, although still three feet deep at one place. The whole party, accordingly , were enabled to grope their way through the narrow avenue , their chins for the most part touching the roof of the mine. In this manner they providentially succeeded in reaching the bottom of the air-pit at half-past seven o'clock, and, by the energetic exertions of those above, were as we have already mentioned , all taken out about half-an-hour afterwards , having been fourteen hours in utter darkness , thirty-four hours since the period of the accident , and thirty-six hours since they entered the -pit. Fortunately for the rest, there were two men in the pit who had a practical knowledge of the communication with the air-pit , and they accordingly acted as the pioneers of the party. They all kept together by taking hold of each others clothes; but the girls had to be carried through the water as they would have otherwise been drowned. One strong man of the party carried a woman; who was in a very enfeebled state, on his back; and this intrepid individual had besides to drag another man who had laid hold of his belt.

They were all kindly visited by one the Messrs Stenhouse at their houses in the course of Sunday afternoon, at which time they were doing well, and apparently not much the worse of the dreadful hardships and suspense they had endured. They said they did not find the air in the mine to be very bad, as they breathed rather freely although not conscious of any draught. The cause of the difference between their sensations and those of the men who descended to attempt their rescue on the Saturday morning at 2 o'clock, and on the afternoon of that day, may be accounted for by the circumstance of the party in the pit having become so far inured to the atmosphere ; and besides, during the morning of Sunday, the frosty atmosphere was particularly favourable for so far counteracting the noxious vapours of the pit.

It is a curious circumstance, that about 7 o'clock on the Saturday evening, while the workmen were employed in constructing the crib at the pit-head a person who was inclining his ear to the shaft said he heard something like, the distant haloo of several voices. However, those around thought at the time that this must have been mere imagination ; but it has been since ascertained from those rescued that about the time stated they made such an attempt to be heard by those above. It is possible that there may have been some slight ventilation through the masses of earth that blocked up the shaft, which, together with the air-gate enabled those below to breathe with comparative freedom. Had the fall taken place four or five hours later, there would have been between 50 and 60 individuals in the pit, and in all probability some loss of life would have ensued. During yesterday the place was visited by a great many people from Edinburgh, Dalkeith, Musselburgh, &c.

We understand that Sir John hope, with the greatest alacrity, despatched a strong body of his workmen of all denominations, along with Mr. Grieve, jun., the son of the manager of the worthy baronet's collieries, who lent valuable aid ; and indeed all the workmen of the Messrs. Stenhouse exerted themselves on the occasion with the greatest and most praiseworthy energy.

In the course of yesterday we received the following letter from Mr. Adam, the mining overseer:

Edmonstone Colliery, Sunday, 10th March.
Dear Sir, I am happy to inform you, that those 13 individuals that have been entombed in the bowels of the earth for the space of 36 hours, have at last, by unaccountable exertions, all miraculously made their escape this morning, and after all hopes of deliverance seemed to be at an end. All have been brought up alive, to the inexpressible joy of their friends and everyone connected with this quarter.

I thought the above communication was necessary on account of the anxiety you showed yesterday.

I am, &c. David Adam

The names of the persons in the pit are as follows :-
John Nicholson, aged about 36, married, and four children;
James Reid, 35, married, four children;
George Campbell, 60, married, two children;
John Reid, 30, married , three children ;
Peter Hay, 55, married , two children ;
Thomas Reid, 60, married , and a large family ;
James Reid , junior , 30, grown up brother to the above John Reid, married, two children ;
Jamieson Bennet, 27, unmarried, but sole support of an aged father and also a lame brother;
George Pride, 19 - his widowed mother solely dependent on him;
Elizabeth Craig, wife to the above George Campbell;
Helen Reid, daughter of the above James Reid, jun .;
Margaret Reid , daughter to James Reid, first named;
Janet Shaw, about 30 - unmarried , but who has an old father in a great measure depending upon her labour. [The Times 13 March 1839]

Review of 1846 Book on this incident

Light in Darkness; or, the Collier’s Tale. A true History. Edited by James Bridges, Esq. Edinburgh: John Johnstone. London: R. Groombridge and Sons. 1846.

In these days of no-faith, in which Christianity may be said to have become a vapid formula, almost inoperative, except as a fashion, the transitionary period, it may be, which, like a moral chaos, precedes the light, such works as this, humble and unpretending in character, and religious without cant or affectation, are yet not without effect in enforcing the conviction that a faith in something is a natural want. And, indeed, the proudest sceptic deceives himself if he would affirm that he does not constantly recognize the necessity of believing (and practically acting on this belief) in his own dependence upon some supreme power unknown and unfathomable. But amongst the humbler classes there exists even now a remnant of Christian belief, and their faith is full of a sustaining and invigorating power.

The work before us practically exhibits this great fact, and the strength of moral courage and hopeful energy resulting from a trust not merely in Providence, but the Providence of Christianity; and we particularly commend the unsectarian and liberal views of the editor. The "True History" is that of thirteen colliers left in darkness, and in the fetid atmosphere of a coalmine 360 feet deep, for thirty-six hours of doubt and fear; the pit choked up to within thirty fathoms of the surface, the sides of the pit having given way, and an avalanche of stones and rubbish suddenly enclosed them in the bowels of the earth.

The event occurred near the junction of the Musselburgh and Dalkeith Railways, leading into Edinburgh; and Mr. Bridges personally visited the labourers and their friends before and after the calamity from which they were providentially released. From one of these, a shrewd, and practical, and energetic man, the narrative is gleaned; and their experiences and changeful feelings are recorded mainly in the homely and honest vernacular of the man himself.

While engaged at their usual work, the woeful tidings are conveyed by one to the rest that the pit is giving way; and with three fearful claps, suddenly every avenue is closed up, and there is the almost certain prospect of a living burial. But there is still a remote chance of escape by a communicating air-gate, or crooked passage of great length, two to six feet high, and three feet wide - an air-passage cut through the rock to another pit. But this also is found to be choked up; hours are occupied in vain attempts to remove the rubbish; but hardly is an opening made, when the foul air puts out the lamps, and destroys their power of working.

In darkness, then, but not in despair, these strong hearts - women and children as well as men - encourage one another, by recalling stories of the ancient deliverances of the Jewish heroes and people, ofttimes at the eleventh hour; of the wandering Israelites, of Moses, Jonah, and the three doomed to the fiery furnace; and by chaunting and reciting the hymns and psalms so identified with Presbyterian religion. Another strenuous effort, even at this period of entire resignation, is made to find the approach to the other pit; and their efforts are at length crowned with success: they are hailed, and released, and rejoin their despairing families.

The second and successful attempt to escape, and the conclusion of the adventure, we cannot do better than quote, as a specimen of the tone of the work:-
"This is an interesting circumstance. These men were habituated to nice observation, particularly in regard to air, in their subterraneous occupations; and on the present occasion, their perception was as correct as it was nice. Previously they had found the air very bad, and judged it insupportable. They were right. On these occasions, the water rose nearly to the rubbish over head, very much excluding all communication of air from without. But in the interval, a change, though unknown to them, had taken place. The Back Dean air-gate had, in fact, during their confinement, become more freely ventilated than at first. This was effected through the prompt and considerate measures taken in the course of the day by Messrs. Stenhouse and Sir John Hope, of Pinkie, who had set on their engines at the different water-pits in the neighbourhood with redoubled power, and by the general draught thereby caused, had lowered the water in the air-gate the necessary number of inches to admit of a flux of air, and of the narrow and precarious passage through it, to be now described.

'Feeling the improvement,' says Peter, 'we all agreed to return with the tidings, that there was no relief appearing from the Back Dean pit; but that the air was better in the air-gate, and that we proposed to make a trial of it, if they all were agreeable.

So we returned and told them. But they were refractory and unbelieving. One, indeed, said, he had made up his mind to die where he was, and if any of us escaped with life, we might give intimation to his friends where they would find his body. It was replied, "That to be sure, if we sat there, it was inevitable death; but here the story of the four lepers occurred to be spoken to. If they stood where they were, it was death; if they entered into the city, it was still death; if they entered into the camp of the Assyrians, it was but death. Therefore they entered. We were bound to use every energy while we had breath, for rescuing our lives from destruction, and then to leave the event with God. To sit still there, was little else than suicide. If we wished to die, it was our part to buy death at the dearest rate; and we had some prospect of life at the end of the proposed trial."

It was no wonder, after all, that there was some difficulty about trying ; for since then I have seen the place again, and I can truly say, that if we had had light at the time, to see the holes into which we had to creep, I scarcely think we would have ventured to go. But see how good God was! We grieved when our lights went out; but God put them out in mercy, that we might not fear to enter into the narrow places for our life. The loss of our light was just the means of our life.

So it was agreed that three should make a trial, and the rest follow half an hour afterwards. The three appointed to go were, Jamieson Bennett, John Reid, and George Pride. But they would not go without me; so of course four were sent away. Half an hour was allowed for removing the obstacles in the way, and making a clear passage. So we four went on till we came to the water's edge. Then we sat down, and prayer was offered to the prayer-hearing God.

After this, we went into the water. At our very first entrance, we crept on our bellies for perhaps four or five yards; so low was the roof, and all in the dark. The roof had sitten down where we crept, and the water was floating round our mouths; so that we had to turn the backs of our heads round, to keep our mouths out of the water. We pressed on and on, however, and with a little more comfort, occasionally being able, with tolerable ease, to keep our feet. But soon we came to a broad flag-stone. On this, Bennett and Reid called back, that if they did not get picks, they could proceed no farther, for they had got a stone here which lay across the whole way.'

And now, let the reader pause an instant for reflection. Here were thirteen human beings buried deep down in the earth, preparing to work their way in the dark, burrowing like moles, through nearly a mile of a close, narrow, winding, and old deserted passage, known to be in disrepair throughout, who were met on their very entrance, and by way of earnest of what might be to follow, by a fallen rock blocking up their way in front." [The Metropolitan Magazine, Vol. 48, Jan to April 1846]