Saving the Lives of Shale Workers

The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh now resides in a state-of-the-art building at the Inch, Edinburgh. But until the new building was erected it had spent almost 300 years housed in central Edinburgh. Whilst in the earlier location it enjoyed a close relationship with the shale industry.

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh
The old Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh where injured and dying shale workers were often transported. Courtesy of Kim Traynor via Wikipedia Commons.

From the early days of the shale industry in Scotland, miners were regularly injured and killed at work. Local Mine Rescue Teams were, in later years, on-site to help in the events of an accident or disaster. With the National Health Service not yet in place miners contributed a portion of their wages to the hospital. In 1925 this totaled over £12,000. Monies were also regularly raised through the holding of pageants and concerts.

Royal Infirmary Pageant at Broxburn, 1928
Three miners from Westerton attending the Royal Infirmary Pageant in Broxburn, 1928


In 1936, for example, an Infirmary Day was held in West Calder to raise funds. A march through the town by ten bands and several trades displays was watched by large crows. They were then entertained by events such as fancy dress, a massed pipe band, and a display by the Boys’ Brigade. Around 100 collectors worked the streets. Such money raising events helped pay for life-saving equipment such as ambulance waggons to transport injured and dying men to the Infirmary. Newspaper reports of the time regularly end with the phrase ‘the injured man was conveyed in the ambulance waggon to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’.

Ambulance Waggon
An example of a typical early Ambulance Waggon. In later years they would become motorised.


One such tragic accident occurred in 1937. William Dornan worked at Pumpherston Oil Works, and was well known as a former full-back with Hibernian F.C. in Edinburgh. Dornan was standing atop one of the oil tanks when it exploded, throwing him to the ground. Further explosions saw him trapped and badly burned. An ambulance conveyed him to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, but he died of his injuries.

William Dornan
The aftermath of the explosion and fire at Pumpherston Oil Works in 1937 which killed William Dornan. The former Hibs player is inset.

West Calder Co-operative Society’s Ambulance Waggon

In 1874 some shale miners in West Calder, in the midst of a protracted strike, resolved to set up a new enterprise  – a Co-operative Society. And so the following year, with capital of only £70, the town’s store was opened.

west calder co-op
The West Calder Co-op Society’s first store LVSAV2006.001

Over the next few years the committee set about strengthening the venture, obtaining new properties, and expanding into surrounding towns. But the primary goal of the Society was to benefit its members by selling goods at an affordable price, and then using any profits to provide further advantages.

At the turn of the century the Co-operative Society bought an Ambulance Waggon for use by its members and others. Those using it would be charged a fee.

The use of the Waggon was overseen by the Society’s Educational Committee, as highlighted here in this lovely flyer we’ve just accessioned into the collection.

Flyer regarding the cost of West Calder’s Ambulance Waggon LVSAV2017.066

The flyer is signed by the Secretary of the Educational Committee, a man called William Barrons. So we decided to do a little digging and guess what … we came across a photograph of him.

educational committee
The Society’s Educational Committee (Barrons is in the middle of the back row) LVSAV2006.001

The Educational Committee very much sums up the ethos of the West Calder Co-operative Society, its primary aim to was to provide educational training for Society members and their families. To further this aim an Educational Department was created in 1890. Medals were awarded to schoolchildren who excelled, nursing classes were started in 1893, and dressmaking classes proved so popular that 250 members enrolled.

Over the years Ambulance Waggons served West Lothian’s shale communities well. Here’s one example:

Two shale miners – Robert Hendry, senior, and his son, Robert Hendry, jun. – residing at Port Buchan, Broxburn, were injured as the result of a shot going off unexpectedly while they were at work yesterday on Hayscraig Mine, belonging to the Broxburn Oil Company. Both men sustained numerous small puncture wounds in the body, and were removed home in an ambulance wagon.

Daily Record, 1st July 1914