28th May 1887

Dozens of miners killed at Udston Colliery

An explosion ripped through the mine at Udston Colliery shortly after nine o’clock in the morning. The explosion was so fierce that men in a neighbouring pit heard the boom despite the fact there was more than 40m of coal between them.

Seventy-three miners were killed, with twenty suffocating when the oxygen in the air was burned up, or through a build-up of after-damp, which is a toxic combination of gases including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide that lingers after an explosion. The remainder were burned to death.

“Large volume of flame”

As reported by the Glasgow Evening Post on 30 May, “a loud report underground was heard, and almost immediately afterwards a large volume of flame, followed by a huge cloud of smoke, shot up from both shafts, scorching the woodwork of the pit-head, and setting fire to the light timbers. The few people at the pit-head at once knew what had occurred, and their fears were at once increased by the appearance at No 2 shaft of the body of the first victim of the disaster – James McGourty, a lad of 17 years of age. Along with two other men he had at the time of the explosion been engaged in repairing the shaft, and as the cage [lift] was with great suddenness blown up the shaft by the force of the explosion he was caught in the woodwork, and had his neck broken in addition to his body being severely crushed.”

Victims “murdered”

Keir Hardie, who would go on to co-found the Labour Party, but was then Secretary of the Miners’ National Federation, attended a demonstration of miners at Broxburn on 1 June. The Lanarkshire Upper Ward Examiner of three days later reported that he had “referred to the disaster at Udston, stating emphatically that the 75 or 80 victims had been foully murdered as if they had been brought one by one to the pit head and shot… the lamps supplied to the men were more dangerous than naked lamps, and had been got to save the expense of 10 [shillings] each for safe ones… Mr Hardy also said there was coal dust in the mine which a small explosion would ignite and fire the whole mine. In England they washed the walls and watered the roads, but no such thing was done here.”

Government inquiry

The government ordered an inquiry, which was held at nearby Hamilton and reported to Parliament in August. On 26 August, the Derby Daily Telegraph wrote that “Chief Inspector [Joseph] Dickinson [Chief Inspector of Mines] says he considers the explosion was primarily caused by the ignition of fire-damp [gas] at an open light, a match, or by being drawn through the gauze of a ‘Scotch’ safety lamp. It was clearly proved that some of the miners… were in possession of common lucifer matches and appliances for opening their lamps, which the latter, Mr Dickson thinks, were not sufficiently safe for such a mine. The officials are acquitted of any contravention of the Act, though the inspector is of the opinion that there had been some laxity in management of the colliery.”



Other events that occured in May

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