Donibristle Disaster Memorial, Cowdenbeath - 26 Aug 1901
Bridge Street, Cowdenbeath, Fife (west of road into Cowdenbeath from A92)
Cowdenbeath, Fifeshire. 26th. August, 1901. The colliery was the property of the Donibristle Colliery Company and eight men lost their lives when there was an inflow of moss into the mine. The colliery was in the Parish of Aberdour near the Borough of Cowdenbeath. The partners of the Donibristle company were James Armstrong Nasmyth and his son Alexander Hogg Nasmyth both of who held Mines Managers Certificates and had experience of managing mines. The senior partner was too old for him to take an active part in the running of the colliery but the junior partner, who was his nephew, directed all the main operations in his capacity as the owner. No undermanager was appointed by Thomas Rattray, the oversman of Nos. 12 and 15 Pits, which included the district in which the accident occurred, held an undermanger’s certificate.
The mineral area leased by the Company lay on the southern edge of the Fife Coal. Field and the seam that were worked lay in the Lower Carboniferous Limestone series of the Carboniferous System of Scotland. The Donibristle coal field was intersected by several large faults and the inclination was irregular but on the whole, the rise is to the south with all the seam outcropping that direction within the limits of the field that was leased.
A feature of the coalfield was that most of the workings lay under moss, 450 feet above sea level. A rough square about a mile each way, which was known as Moss Morran and consisted of flat moorland which was the home of a few grouse. On an old map dated 1662, Moss Morran was show as a sheet of water. The map was Timothy Pont’s map of Fife, published at Amsterdam as part of Blaeu’s ‘Atlas’ in 1662.
The colliery had been in operation for many years and numerous shafts and daylight mines had been in use for working the various seams. At the time of the accident there were the James and the Marion Pits to the north, Nos. 12 and 15 Pits which had recently been sunk deeper from the Mynheer to the Dunfermline Splint and during the sinking were in turn used as coal winding shafts, the Fan or Isabella Pit and the Day Mine on the Moss. There were about 270 men and boys employed underground at the colliery and about 80 on the surface.
The part of the colliery that was affected by the accident lay to the north and east of a large fault known as the Moss Morran Dyke. The Nos. 12 and 15 Pits, sunk to the Dunfermline Split Seam at 97 fathoms and intersected the Mynheer Seam at 77 fathoms. A level in that seam extended east from No.12 Pit for 120 yards and from this a stone mine was driven flat for about 310 yards, crossed the Moss Morran Dyke which had an upthrow of 20 fathoms up to the east and caught the Mynheer Seam on the rise side.
Levels were driven in the Mynheer Seam on each side of the stone mine, and headings from the levels enabled the coal to be worked across the hill on the longwall method. To the North West, the coal was exhausted. To the East the level continued for 540 yards to the working heading and terminated at a large fault a few yards further in. A portion of the coal still remained to be extracted near the outcrop and the rise to the extremity of the level.
From the Mynheer level, inside the Moss Morran Dyke, two stone mines were driven to the Parrot Seam, which lay above the Mynheer Seam and also intersected the Glassee Seam. The first stone mine was a continuation of that across the Moss Morran Dyke and was driven level. The second was 227 years further in and was driven at an inclination of 1 in 3. The workings were of a considerable area in the Parrot Seam but less in the Glassee Seam and the inundation of moss did not penetrate them. The workmen employed in these seams at the time of the accident escaped without difficulty.
The older workings to the east were worked many years before from a higher level and had been worked by the stoop and room system. They extended from the level at which they were won to the outcrop but had not been exhausted to the east so that the innermost heading of the current working passed then and was driven into the coal at the outcrop. The outer headings stopped when they reached the older workings. It was from the innermost heading that the moss burst in.
Through older workings there was an intake airway from the surface which continued along the upper roads of the longwall workings to the working faces. The inclination of the innermost heading was 49 degrees at which rate the outcrop was soon reached. The Mynheer Seam was 5 feet 10 inches thick near the burst and was directly overlaid by a blaes or shale roof. The coal was of a very good quality and was worked on the longwall system across the hill. At intervals of about 10 yards on the slope, levels, directly opposite to each other, left the heading at right angles on each side. At the working face, 14 inches of coal was left as a roof but this was worked in the heading and levels and in addition 2 feet 4 inches of the roof stone was blasted down and built on the low side of the levels while wood pillars were put on the rise side.
The heading into which the moss burst did not extend in a direct line to the main level but was worked as a ‘cut chain brae’ (a self-acting incline arranged from the running if hutches of coal from several points along its length) for 40 yards on the slope to an upper level along which the hutches were taken by hand from14 yards to a lower heading worked as an ordinary self-acting incline and 104 yards long on the slope, to the main level. The miners and the drawers worked the cut chain brae and a wheeler named William Forsythe took the hutches from the bottom of the upper heading along the short upper level to David Rattray who ran them singly down the second heading where a bottomer, James Bowman McDonald was stationed. He coupled the hutches in rakes of six and they were led to the shaft in three stages by horses.
The air current ventilating the Mynheer, Parrot and Glassee Seams, inside the Moss Morran Dyke entered by the day mine, passed down through the old stoop and room workings, along the upper levels of the longwall workings and round the faces of the Mynheer Seams. It passed down the headings and along the Mynheer level and into the inside Parrot Mine. After passing round the Parrot and Glassee faces it came out by the outer Parrot mine and along the stone mine, across the Morran Moss fault to the upcast shaft, at the top of which there was an exhausting fan. In going to and from their work, the miners in the Mynheer Seam mad use of the Nos. 12 and 15 Pits and the roads along which the coal was led. Access to the workings was available by the day mine and the airway but this route was not used by the miners although the officials made periodic journeys through it.
The officials in the workings inside the moss Morran Dyke under the manager were, Thomas Rattray, oversman, David Campbell, fireman for the Mynheer workings, Alexander Mitchell, fireman for the Parrot and Glassee workings and two roadsmen, James Rattray and James Dick. Thomas Rattray and David Campbell who would have been important witnesses as to what happened, lost their lives in the disaster.
The heading in the Mynheer Seam reached the outcrop about October, 1900 and operations were suspended in it until a few days before the accident. When the outcrop was reached the question of connecting it with the surface was considered. This would provide a ready means of ingress and egress to and from the workings and improve the ventilation. Neither of these were urgent. The miners would certainly have welcomed the new road as it would relieve them of a toilsome journey underground, including the long climb up the inclines.
Mr. A.H. Nasmyth, the junior partner, Mr. Alexander Nasmyth, the manager and Thomas Rattray, the oversman, discussed the matter. They did not agree to anything being done that was unsafe and that the connection to the surface was to be ascertained by tests on the thickness of the moss and if it proved thicker than where the shafts had been sunk, nothing was to be done. The manager and oversman, after locating the position of the heading face on the surface, probed the moss in November, 1900 with an iron rod, 15 to 18 feet long and found no bottom. The result of that was reported to A.H. Nasmyth and he conclude that the conditions were unfavourable and that nothing was to be done. The manager told Rattray that the there was no use putting in a pit there and the matter was never discussed again.
Operations were resumed in the heading on Thursday, 22nd. August and were carried on by David Campbell, pit inspector for the Mynheer workings, and by Alexander Smith, a oncost man, who had been the pit inspector in the west side Mynheer workings, James dick and James Rattray, roadsmen who occasionally assisted. A barricade was erected above the incline wheel to prevent the material worked going down the heading which was later removed to the ribsides on either side of the heading. The sand and gravel were worked away following the hard pavement of the seam and the bottom of the moss was reached on Saturday the 24th. On that day James Dick probed it by pushing forward in a slanting direction with a 17 foot long iron rod. Dick reported this to Rattray before starting work on the day of the accident and Rattray asked him if he had found any water and if he required a spade to dig out the moss. Dick said no to both questions and added that there was still 6 feet of sand to dig out. Operations continued on the 26th and about 1.40 p.m., while David Campbell and Alexander Smith were working at the face of the heading, the roof gave way and was immediately followed by a rush of moss.
The barricade appeared to have prevented the moss flowing directly down the heading and forced it along the rib sides of the upper roads. On the east side it flowed round the two upper faces but was prevented from reaching the third face by a heavy fall of roof. This road and its face remained free from moss except for a few yards from its junction with the heading. On the west side the moss had a free course and passed round the faces and into the airway, cutting off in a short time all communication in the direction of the air shaft.
The barricade gave way an hour or two after the burst and was swept down the heading along with the wheel its frame, the timber, rails and sleepers. After this most of the moss would flow directly down the heading, along the short level and down the second incline and then in the direction of the drawing shafts.
Campbell and Smith, engaged at the face of the heading, were probably smothered instantly. Three of the miners on the west side of the heading escaped by the intake airway, two others on the east side escaped by the same route after crossing the heading. The only miner who lost his life was George Herd Hutchinson who worked on the west side. He was swept down the heading and his body was found in this level. David Rattray, employed at the top of the second incline, was rescued from behind a stopping at the lower heading by his brother, James and James Dick who entered the workings by the day mine. William Forsyth the wheeler on the short level between headings, seemed to have attempted to escape down the lower heading. His body was found in a refuge hole 10 yards below the point from which David Rattray was rescued. James Dick and James Rattray nearly rescued Forsyth but were beaten back by the moss.
The remain six miners, John Farquhar, John Coleville, Thomas Bauld, Andrew Love, John Beverage and Alexander Bauld, of whom only John Coleville worked on the west side, took refuge in the No.3 road on the west side where they remained until they were rescued. The road was dry and the air was good, and except for the terrible risk they ran of the moss not getting away but rising and engulfing them and the want of food, they might have been in a worse situation.
James Dick and James Rattray, the roadsman, were underground at the time of the accident but not in the Mynheer district. Rattary came up and told his father, Thomas, the oversman, who was on the surface, of the accident and went with him to the point of subsidence. Dick went into the Mynheer level and met the moss flowing about 50 yards from the working head. He came up the pit, saw Thomas Rattray and let him know the position. Thomas Rattary, returned to the Nos.12 and 15 Pits, saw the manager and told him of the situation then a rescue party consisting of Thomas Rattray, oversman, William Hynd, pit bottomer, James Bowman McDonald, incline bottomer and Andrew Paterson, ostler, had broken through a stopping on the rise side of the haulage level about 185 yards outbye from the work heading. They had gone up this old heading to the first of the old levels above the haulage level, and then travelled inbye 119 yards to a point where the level rose close to a fall. They then retraced their steps to find that in the interval, the moss had flowed out on the haulage level, past the stopping they had removed and had entered the heading and the old level they were in. They built a light stopping or dam in the level that they were in, 96 yards from the old heading, to check the flow of the moss, and seven yards further in, excavated a road through the waste, a distance of nine yards up the hill to the next level. They arrived at the second level above the haulage level and tried to travel out towards the old heading, but 57 yards from the road they had made, they again encountered the moss.
Their bodies were found here on the 14th. December, Rattray and Paterson lying in the moss and Hynd and McDonald near them. The moss was all around them and had flowed up the old heading and into the level but had also come out above them, direct from the workings by the upper levels.
When the manager was informed of the accident about 2.40 p.m. he went to see the subsidence at the surface. He then returned to No. 15 Pit and went down to join Rattary and the rescue party but could find no trace of them. He found that the moss had advanced about 400 to 500 yards from the foot of the incline. He went to the surface and with A.H. Nasmyth went to the point of subsidence and found that the moss was still flowing into the mine. He then went down No. 15 Pit and caused a stopping or a light dam to be built in front of the moss in the level. The moss never extended past this and did not exert much pressure on it.
During the afternoon, two square pits were started in the moss near the edge of the subsidence to try to reach the workings. Work on these went on during the night but they were abandoned on the 27th owing to difficulties arising from the soft nature of the ground and the presence of water. A third pit was started and an old boiler with the ends removed was brought in to act as tubbing. This pit was also soon given up.
The plans of the workings were not in the office at the time of the accident but were in the offices of Messrs. Landale, Frew and Gemmell, mining engineers of Glasgow who surveyed the workings and were adding the results of the last survey which had been completed during the last week. A telegram was despatched and the plan arrived at the colliery about 10 p.m. and a survey was made the next morning when it was found that the three rescue pit would go down into solid coal and would have to be driven for a considerable distance before the faces were reached.
A fourth pit, round in section, was started in a more favourable position but not proceeded with as it was decided to attempt to enter the mine by the hold in the moss. As a preliminary step, two pieces of wire rope parallel to each other, and about 6 feet apart, were stretched across the hole and made fast at the ends. A carriage was fitted on the ropes which was pulled back and forth by other ropes. The hole was examined from this carriage at 12 a.m. on the 27th. A few yards of the heading could be seen and it was free from any accumulation of moss which continued to flow in and disappear.
Operations were begun to secure the side of the hole by timber and eventually the bottom of the hole or pavement of the seam was reached and signals received from the imprisoned men. James Dick of Donibristle Colliery, John Jones, mining contractor of Hill of Beath Colliery and John Seddon, miner were lowered down the heading by A rope and five of the imprisoned men were brought to the surface. While Jones and Seddon were down the heading along with Alexander Bauld, the only man who was not brought up, the moss again began to flow into the hole in large quantities. It was thought that this movement was triggered by the large crowd that had gathered surging forwards and could not be kept back. The improvised shaft was wrecked and there some near escapes of people being carried down the hole. Another attempt was made to get down the heading by James Richards of Hill of Beath Colliery but he was not successful and the operations were suspended until the following morning when the hole was again examined from the carriage and found to have increased in size but a clear opening was still available.
Two beams 51 feet long and 12 inches wide, 6 inches deep were brought forward and laid in the moss across the hole, parallel to each other and six feet apart, nearly at right angles to the line of the heading. Two smaller beams were laid parallel to each other and 6 feet apart at right angles to the larger beams and to each side of the square that was formed, iron hangers were suspended and barring bolted to them to form a shaft. This was carried down to the pavement of the seam and the space between the barring and the sand and moss was roughly packed with brushwood.
About 2 a.m. on the 26th. Robert Law, miner of Cowdenbeath, volunteered to be lowered down the heading on the end of a wire rope to which, at intervals above him, three short lengths of hemp rope were attached with the intention of bringing all the men up together. Law had a hemp rope fastened to his arm which he used for signalling. He was successful and the three men were brought to the surface shortly after 2 a.m. During the course of the rescue at the hole in the moss, several parties explored the underground workings in the hope of finding Rattary and his party but no trace was found of them. This distance the moss had flowed from the face of the heading to the dam that was erected was 684 yards.
When the moss had stopped the lower part of the upper heading was examined and it was found that only a few yards of it above the short level was filled. The upper heading down to this point was clear but a considerable quantity of moss still remained in the faces and level roads above. The airway was choked with moss to within 16 yards of its junction with the lowest working level on the west side of the upper headings. Moss extended 56 yards up the inside Parrot Mine and the two old headings, nearer the shaft than the working heading, were filled for some yards up the level.
Mr Gemmell stated at the inquiry that an area of the subsidence was 2,378 acres, the quantity of moss and water that had entered the mine he calculated at 21,100 cubic yards and gave the depth of the subsidence as 17.5 feet. When the hole in the moss could be examined thoroughly it was found that 13 feet 9 inches of sand mixed with gravel near the bottom which had been proved by boring to be rotten rock, lay directly on the pavement of the seam, then 3 feet if peat moss so firm that it overhung the sand for about a foot or two, then came the soft moss and surface crust, together about 20 feet thick. Comparatively little sand and gravel had entered the mine, the inflow was almost entirely soft moss with the consistency of cow dung.
When Dick probed the moss from below he may not have penetrated the tough stratum and even if he did this be would have closed as he withdrew the rod and prevent the flow of soft moss and water. Steps were taken immediately to recover the bodies. The hole in the moss was permanently secured by a wood lined shaft, backed by concrete. It was up this shaft that the bodies of Smith and Forsyth were brought to the surface. Operations were also commenced at the dam on the main level. The moss was filled into hutches and sent to the surface and it was sin the course of this work that Hutchinson’s body was found. On the 11th November, 415 yards of the level had been cleared of the moss as well as the inside of the Parrot mine and parts of the old headings.
Those who died engaged in the workings near the inflow were:-
- David Campbell aged 54 years, fireman
- Alexander Smith aged 48 years, oncost man
- George Herd Hutchinson aged 50 years, miner
- William Forsythe aged 20 years, wheeler.
Those who died forming a rescue party from the pit bottom were:-
- James Bowman McDonald aged 32 years, incline bottomer
- Andrew Paterson aged 40 years, Ostler
- Thomas Rattray, aged 54 years, overman
- William Hynd aged 52 years, pit bottomer.
They left written records in pencil in the time-book and in chalk on the shovel:-
“This was a case of taking out a stopping to give way when the moss came down. We cut up, and got into it, it was closed. We are choking.”
Other records showed that the oil in their lamps was spent and they would have been in the dark. Many messages were sent to their families and other entries indicated that they had no hope of rescue. Those men who were in the pit at the time of the flow at 1.40 p.m. on the 26th were:-
- John Farquar aged 40 years, miner who was imprisoned for 28 hours and rescued at 5.50 p.m. on the 27th
- John Coleville aged 33 years, miner who was imprisoned for 28 hours and was rescued at 6 p.m. on the 27th
- Thomas Bauld aged 36 years, miner imprisoned for 28 hours and rescued at 6.15 p.m.
- Andrew Love aged 40 years, miner who was imprisoned for 29 hours and rescued at 6.30 p.m.
- John Beveridge aged 32 years, miner who was imprisoned for 60 hours and was rescued at 2 a.m. on the 29th.
All the men had been at work for seven hours before the accident. The rescuers who were imprisoned for 32 hours and rescued at 2 a.m. on the 29th were:-
- John Jones, mining contractor
- John Sheddon, miner.
The Inspector said, that even if their exact position had been known at the time of the accident, they could not have been reached for some days and they would not have survived as the ventilation was cut off.
The remaining body of David Campbell, pit inspector, who was working at the face of the heading where the moss burst in, was found on the same day as the others in the moss near the dam in the old level that had been put in by Rattray’s party. His body had been carried down the working headings outward in the haulage level, and through the stopping that had been removed and so into the old level.
The inquest was held at the Dunfermline Sheriff Court on the 25th September, 1901 when Sheriff Substitute Gillespie presided. All interested parties were represented and the jury returned the following verdict “The jury unanimously find that the deceased were killed in the Mynheer Seam of the No.12 Pit of the Donibristle Colliery on the 26th August, 1901, by the subsidence of the mossy surface which flowed into the workings.”
Previous to the accident the knowledge of the surface deposits was that the immediate surface was of hard moss and heather. The sinking of shallow pits on the outcrops of the various seams had shown that soft moss was commonly found below the upper solid crust. Underground operations in the Mynheer and the seams had shown that a bed of sand or sand or gravel lay below the soft moss, separated from it by a bed of closer moss. The moss above the Mynheer heading had been probed. A flow of moss into the mine had taken place about 40 yards before which had not caused loss of life but filled a section of the workings. This inflow took place at a point 300 yards to the west of the present inflow. In one case a ‘sit’’ or subsidence had taken place without any inflow of moss. Mr. Atkinson came to the following conclusions- “Mr. A.H. Nasmyth, the manager was responsible for the control, management and direction of the mine under The Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1887 and was required to exercise daily personal control of the mine. he stated at the inquiry that with the knowledge of the moss he had before the accident he would have considered it dangerous to attempt putting through it from below and he denied on oath, any knowledge of the operations that led to the accident and stated that the oversman alone was responsible for the work that had been undertaken, expecting, that if it was successful, it would have been a feather in his cap. On the other hand, the oversman was stated to be a prudent man of large experience, he was present when the great thickness of soft moss was proved by probing it form the surface and it is difficult to conceive of his undertaking on his own responsibility dangerous work, when, even if successful, he might have expected blame for taking the matter into his own hands. David Rattary, one of the oversman’s sons, stated that his father had told him that the manager had given him permission to put up a road, and another witness said that Rattary told him he was going to ask for permission. The resumption of the work in the heading was known to the other miners. it was for some days, within the knowledge of all the under officials, of whom the only survivors, James Dick and James Rattary, roadsmen, had not mentioned it to the manager, not except for David Rattary’s statement, was there any evidence that the manager knew of the matter. The manager’s denial must be accepted but he cannot relieve himself of a measure of responsibility in respect of the discipline of the mine must have been defective if an oversman undertook such work without his knowledge and a more frequent examination of the faces would have brought this to his knowledge. It may be that there may have been some misunderstanding which owing to Rattary’s death will never be cleared up.”