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Starlaw pit

Background

Starlaw Pit was the site of one of the most terrifying and tragic accidents in the history of the shale oil industry; second only to the Burngrange disaster in terms of loss of life. The tragedy, and the heroic efforts of the would-be rescuers, ensured widespread coverage in the press and attracted great public sympathy. Despite this public awareness, the precise location of Starlaw Pit is now uncertain.

Contemporary newspaper accounts make clear that Starlaw Pit was opened in about 1867, was owned by Messrs. Meldrum and Simpson (E Meldrum & Company), and supplied shale to their Boghall Crude Oil Works - also known as Starlaw Oil Works. It seems likely that Starlaw Pit was one of the sequence of Boghall Pits, perhaps the site listed in this gazetteer as Boghall No. 1, however further evidence is needed to confirm this.

Starlaw Pit is unrelated to Starlaw Mine, officially known as Deans No. 3 Mine, which opened c.1907 to serve Deans Crude Oil Works.

Snippets

FEARFUL ACCIDENT IN A SHALE PIT NEAR BATHGATE - EIGHT MEN BURNED TO DEATH. One of the most disastrous accidents that has occurred in many years in connection with any mine in Scotland took place at the Boghall shale pits near Bathgate on Saturday night........The pit in question forms part of the Boghall Shale and Coal Works, belonging to E. Meldrum & Co. 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 ft. 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 Falkirk Herald, 16th April 1870

A SCOTCH SHALE PIT ON FIRE SEVEN LIVES LOST MANY MINERS SEVERELY BURNED A heart rending calamity occurred on Saturday, at the Starlaw Shale Pit, near Bathgate, Linlithgowshire. In out yesterday's issue we gave some particulars of a dreadful catastrophe by fire in Cardiff; and the one we have to record to-day is even more horrible in its details – seven men having lost their lives, many being severely burned. 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, M.P., 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. 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 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. The engineman, James Steel, appraised 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. An 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 downcast 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 confined 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 forwith sent down again, and presently returned with two men. 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 straightway 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 comparativoly [sic] little injury. Their hair and whiskers were singed. 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 having fallen heavily, broke his leg. After the cage had made one or two more descents, each time coming 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. Two men after repeated attempts contrived to reach the bottom of the pit; 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 mark of injury observable, and the faces wore a calm and peaceful expression. The body of Wm. Rushford was also discovered in the dip workings, about 10 fathoms from the shaft. The bodies of Peter Comiskie and David Muir, the latter at the head of the dip and the former in the rise workings were next discovered. 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 endeavoured to keep out the smoke which was suffocating him. The explorers penetrating some eighty fathoms into the dip, found the body of Patrick Comiskie, brother of Peter above mentioned. Owing to the difficulty which had been experienced in penetrating the workings, the recovery of the bodies above specified had occupied the whole of Saturday evening, and it was not till eleven o'clock that John Wallace and Thomas Snodgras discovered the remains of William Wands. This unfortunate man, 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 widow and four children. William Rushford (35), widow and five children. John M'Neill (35), widow and five children. William Wands (22), three months married. Peter Comiskie (27), widow and one child. Patrick Comiskie (24), widow and one child. Wm. Muir (17), unmarried; mother residing in Fife. All the above, with the exception of Patrick Comiskie, who lived in Bathgate, residing at Starlaw Rows. Concerning the terrible calamity, one of the survivors, named 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 hands. 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 reached the pit-head. Some person at the top 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 that the rope of the cage was on fire, but I had no 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. Another survivor of the name of John Doyle 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 passed 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 my road head and cried to him to know if there was anything wrong. Says he, "The pit's on fire; come on quick or you'll lose your life." I asked him if it was a 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 brother's 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, "and 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 not warn all the men. He once more called to the Comiskies and the M'Neils, 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 was too many; but some one 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 or twelve feet at the foot, the shaft was in flames, and all the way up 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. On Sunday one of the men who had been rescued from the pit died from the injuries he received - making eight deaths in all. Seven widows and twenty orphans have been left.The Dundee Courier and Argus, 12th April 1870

A second shaft is about to be added to the Starlaw shale workings which, it is hoped, will prevent such a melancholy calamity as that which occurred on the 9th April. The Falkirk Herald, 7th May 1870.

 

References

Coal Authority mine abandonment catalogue lists the following shale working:

Accident Reports

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