Scottish coal miners in the late 1800s began their 12 hour shifts in the early morning darkness. Slowly they made the long descent into the pit, the only sounds being the drone of the winding gear and the clunking of the open cage carrying the men. The blackness became thicker and thicker as they neared the pit head. Each man carried a safety lamp and wore a token around his neck for identification. A series of tubs carried the men to the coal seams until the roof became too low for the men to stand upright. Then they would begin a crouching walk. Each man carried a simple lunch of water, bread and jam for the crouching position caused indigestion if the stomach was too full.
The men were assigned work positions and began the grueling task of hewing coal from the rock face. The coal was loaded into tubs and pulled by ponies to the bottom of the shaft where they were then hauled to the surface by the crane. The work was hot, dirty and dangerous in cramped and claustrophobic conditions. Seams were prone to collapse and noxious gases collected. Most colliers suffered from significant breathing difficulties and persistent coughs. The ponies become blind from a life in the dark. Once every summer they were brought above ground for two weeks to graze, their eyes carefully wrapped to protect them against the light. 1
Such a coal miner was Allan Syme of Blantyre, my husband’s grandfather, born in 1882. He was the son of coal miner Hugh Syme and his wife Isabella.2 Allan was said to be fifteen when he first entered the mine.3
What was Allan thinking as he descended into the darkness that first time? Perhaps it was of the Blantyre Disaster of 1877 some twenty years earlier, Scotland’s worst coal mining disaster that had killed 207 miners and left 92 widows and 250 fatherless children. 4 Not a soul in the village was left untouched by the loss. Exploding gas, called firedamp, caused the disaster and firedamp was still ever present in the tunnels. Would this be his fate?
Or perhaps Allan was simply thankful he had a job. Generations of Blantyre men were able to feed their families by working underground, sons following their fathers into the depths time and again. Only a few were able to escape the mine, the most famous being the African missionary David Livingston.
Allan eventually took a wife, Elizabeth Sneddon 5, and raised a family of six: Hugh, Allan, Peter, Isabelle, Mary and Betty. Their home was a two bedroom flat in a four-plex on Bruce Terrace, initially owned by the mine and then by the parish council. It boarded The Dandy, a wooded area leading down to the River Clyde and a view of the ruins of Bosworth Castle. Hugh would follow his father into the mine. Mary would marry a Royal Navy officer and become the mother of my husband.
Slowly conditions improved in the mines, as did Allan’s position with the mining company. The last years of his career were spent above ground as a contractor hiring the men to work in the pit. 6.
At the age of 58, Allan’s life ended tragically in the darkness of night, not the darkness of the mine. He was killed by a car as he crossed a road on his way to deliver a pay packet to an ill employee. His skull and multiple bones were fractured by the impact and he died at the scene. The driver had not been able to see him in the blackout imposed by WWII. 7
Allan’s widow, bound to a wheelchair by rheumatoid arthritis, would be cared for by his children in the house on Bruce Terrace until her own death.
- Allan is listed as a coalminer in the 1901 census. https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/view-image/nrs_census/26961400?image=44&viewed_images=true
- Personal recollection of granddaughter Elaine Shane