BOWHILL No.1. Cardenden, Fifeshire. 31st. October, 1931.

The accident occurred at Fife Coal Company’s colliery when ten men lost their lives as a result of an explosion of firedamp. Mr. John Clark was the manager of the colliery and had held the post for seven years. The accident occurred in the East Conveyor section of the Five Foot seam which was reached from the No.1 shaft. There were in the Bowhill Colliery, certain safety lamp sections where only safety lamps were to be used. Hutt’s Dock and the East Conveyor section formed one of these sections. There were electric lamps in use and the firemen had flame lamps to detect gas. Electricity was used in the section to run a coal cutter, conveyor pans and there was also an auxiliary ventilation system worked by electricity.

The firemen’s reports were produced from October 20th 1930 to August 2nd 1931 and there were no reports of gas or firedamp. The presence of gas was first reported on 2nd August 1931 and on that occasion, it was noted by the fireman, that the fan was standing. From 2nd August to October 31st the section was clear. The reports showed that the fireman had been very careful in the performance of their duties. Mr. Clark thought the ventilation was sufficient and he did not agree that it was necessary to use flameproof machinery in the section as it was section in which inflammable gas was not likely to occur. In his opinion the section could have been worked by naked lights during the last nine months.

On the day of the disaster, John Clark was coming to the section when he came to the conclusion, judging by the air current, that the fan was out of action and he started pumping in fresh air. Describing the rescue operations the second rescue brigade got to the scene of the accident about 7.30 p.m. and it was about 3 a.m. on Sunday before anyone could go in without rescue apparatus. That was about 16 hours after the accident

Samuel McGuire was the undermanager and was in charge of the No.1 Pit and the development in the East Conveyor section. On the day of the accident, the roof was weighting at the point where the fan was situated. As it would take a few hours to move the fan, he instructed Donaldson, the overman to get a squad of men and move the fan on Saturday 31st October, which was an idle day in the pit.

The party left the pit bottom about 6 a.m. and McGuire came out of the pit and knew nothing of the accident until 1.20 p.m. When he reached the scene of the accident the poisonous gasses spread about 50 yards down the face and 150 yards down the return airway. John Birrell, overman, was the leader of the second rescue team and they got to the seat of the accident about 7.45 p.m. and they found the men lying dead in the return airway

The men who died were:

  • James Drummond Paterson, miner,
  • James Smith, miner,
  • Alexander Dempster, fireman,
  • Charles Baxter Fernie, miner,
  • William Ireland, overman,
  • Thomas Smith, miner,
  • James Martin Cairns alias James Anderson, fireman,
  • William Bruce Dodds, electrician,
  • Andrew Smith, miner,
  • John Donaldson, overman.

The inquiry into the disaster was held at Dunfermline Sheriff Court in January 1932 before Sheriff Umperston and a jury. Evidence of search of the clothing of the victims when the bodies were brought to the surface on the day following the accident was given by Police Inspector Andrew Clark of the Fifeshire Constabulary. In only one case, James Anderson, alias Cairns, was found a tin box containing seven Lucifer matches wrapped in paper in his right vest pocket. In his right trouser pocket, there was a pipe which was slightly less than one-sixth full of burned tobacco.

John Clark, the manager was asked if he had any idea where the explosion occurred and he thought the centre of ignition seemed to be at a point eight feet to the right-hand side of the fan near where five men were lying. Donaldson, the leading man, was lying near the switch box but he did not think he had been operating it at the time. Clark noticed that the lid of the original fan box was broken and it was out of commission, and that the switch box had been coupled up to the fan was the switch box of the coalcutter.

Questioned on the possible causes of the explosion, Mr. Clark dismissed the possible cause as smoking and he considered that it was only a lapse of memory on Anderson’s part in taking a pipe and matches into the pit. He thought that a damaged electric lamp was the most probable cause of the explosion. It was possible that, at the point of ignition, a man broke the glass of the lamps which exposed the filament and this caused the ignition. He did not rule out the possibility of tools striking a hard portion in the working place and causing a spark but he could not explain how the gas came to be there as everything possible had been done in ventilating the place.

Harold Taylor Foster, Senior Inspector of Mines visited the scene of the accident on the night of the 31st October and his first impression was that the man lying nearest the fan motor must have been in the act of switching it on and off. A switch of that sort required a great deal of effort and to operate it he must kneel in the position in which the man was found. His first impression that the explosion occurred at the fan motor was replaced by the opinion that it occurred at the gate end box. The motor and the fan were out of alignment and the fan had jammed. The leads that connected the fan motor were not connected by an electrician.

There were several expert witness who implied that the system of ventilation was defective and Mr. Macgregor Mitchell, acting for the Company said that the attack on the ventilation system was not well-founded and asked the jury to find that the explosion was caused by a broken lamp.

The jury, under the direction of the Sheriff, returned a formal verdict stating that they were unable to say what was the cause of the ignition. They further agreed to refrain from saying whether in their opinion any person was to blame. They added to their formal verdict the following recommendations:

1) In regard to the ventilation, that so long as men are working in the section with the present system of ventilation, an auxiliary fan ought to be constantly in operation, and that the men should not be sent to work there unless there is an auxiliary fan in operation.

2) That all the electrical apparatus in this section should be constructed and maintained in a flameproof condition

3) The encasing glass of the electric cap lamps ought to be laminated or triplex glass.

Sheriff Umpherston added that he would be sure that the jury also desire to express their admiration for the courage and promptitude and James Clark, overman, Joseph Mackie, overman and James Crichton, underground fireman, in their efforts to reach their comrades. In particular the feat of Jame Clark in penetrating a far along the face as he did without safety lamp appeared to be worthy of the highest traditions.

The jury, along with counsel and agents, joined his lordship’s tribute and the suggestion was made from the bar that these acts of heroism should be brought to the notice of the Carnegie Hero Fund Trustees.


Colliery Guardian, 29th January 1931. p.231.

Information supplied by Ian Winstanley and the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.


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