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Remembering Penicuik’s Fallen Miners

One hundred and twenty six years ago, Penicuik mourned as friends, relatives and colleagues helplessly perished in the Mauricewood pit, which was engulfed in impermeable flames.

On September 5 1889 at 12 noon, a ferocious fire broke out in the Mauricewood Coal and Iron Stone Mine, rendering tens of miners trapped in smoke filled corridors hundreds of metres below the safety of the surface. That day is perhaps the most sorrowful in Penicuik’s history. For in that one dreadful instance 292 metres bellow safety, the town lost sixty three men, leaving but only seven survivors. Today, it is important to remember those who risked their lives on a daily basis to bring the country light, heat and power. Using newspaper reports from 1889, we are going to relive the events of that day 125 years ago.

For the seventy miners entering the Scotts Iron Company’s pit at Mauricewood in Penicuik, it was but another Thursday. Whilst it was a dry and otherwise pleasant, persistent cloud threatened to produce rain throughout the forthcoming day.

As per usual, work commenced onsite at 6:30am. Before the morning shift commenced, night shift inspectors George Hunter and E Lydon reported that nothing was amiss, nor had it been throughout the night. The lack of anything, varying from the norm, in the report signalled that work could commence below ground. Down seventy miners went, many of whom continued downwards for 160 fathoms (approximately 292 metres). Included within these workers was pit manager Mr Love. Mr Love travelled from the mine’s depths to the surface at 10am, where he enjoyed his normal breakfast with overman George Muir, before returning into the mine at approximately 11:15am.

Work pressed on, with the experienced men and boys removing tonnes of coal before placing it in carts to be taken to the surface. It was tough, dangerous work that paid little but there were few professions, other than mining, that came with such a sense of pride in providing for one’s family. However not everyone below ground was there to mine. At 11:30am a team comprised of William Gall, an engineer, and John Walker, a labourer, headed for the engine room at eighty fathom’s level. Here they met the day shift engineman Hugh McPherson. This was a routine visit to conduct some repairs on an engine but the workers experienced that the room was unusually warm. William Gall was forced to strip down to his underwear to bare the extreme heat.

Meanwhile something was wrong eighty fathoms below on the 160 fathom level. Here William Robb was acting in his capacity as a bottomer when a pony driver Mitchell Hamilton called for him. Mr Hamilton had noticed sparks erupting from the lower engineroom and drew Mr Robb’s attention to the matter. Upon approach it was apparent that the equipment had malfunctioned. The engineroom door ignited with gusts of flame and smoke and the bottomer rightly retreated into the corridor, shutting the draught door behind him. William Robb sounded the alarm and started his journey, by carriage, to the top of the pit.

The situation at eighty fathom level was quite different. The air here had become so laden with smoke that the engineroom workers were forced to the ground. William Gall, now naked down to his underwear, joined William Robb in sounding the alarm. Smoke bellowed behind the three men as they attempted to escape an all but certain death. Unfortunately for John Walker and Hugh McPherson, their efforts were in vain. They lay down between the engineroom door and the incline to the surface, where they took their final breaths. Filled with a drive for survival, Mr Gall pushed upwards through the smoke filled incline, his breathing laboured from smoke inhalation. Had the engineer not stripped almost nude, the extreme heat would have overcome him, subjecting him to the same fate as his friends and colleagues.

Whilst William Gall suffered from his slow, arduous walk, the bottomer Mr Robb had reached the surface. Here he joined the twenty five workers above ground. Having worked in the pit for a considerable amount of time, the thirty nine year old William Robb, knew any rescue attempts were futile. This only became clearer as a cage full of four men arrived at the surface. Determined to escape, the brave men of that cage had fought against the flames. Their efforts were clearly marked upon their skin, shown through bad burns and scarring. Two of these men had already succumb to the power of the fire, the remaining two took their final breath upon reaching the fresh, damp air of the industrial town. The death toll was mounting and there was nothing the surface workers could do.

Mourners started to arrive at the site. There was little emotion shown from new widows and bereaved relatives. Instead, with the mist, an eery silence descended on Penicuik. Dumbstruck with grief, ghost like figures drifted from their homes in the miner enclave of Shottstown to the devastated site. Whilst soldiers from the local Glencorse regiment had arrived, there was little need. Described in a newspaper at the time, “The village was one great house of mourning”.

The sun drifted behind the Pentlands and day turned to night. Flames still engulfed the labyrinth below, diminishing any hopes onlookers had of mounting a rescue mission. At 12am on September 6, despite all odds, a breakthrough was made. By increasing the speed of the mine’s fans, workers had managed to create a corridor to reach the eighty fathom level. With great caution, the rescue team went down into the charred pit. When the expert group reached the first level, they were met with the bodies of John Walker and Hugh McPherson. Despite their efforts, they had not survived the twelve hour blaze. Their bodies were returned to the surface, where they were placed in coffins ready for their funeral that would follow in the coming weeks. The harrowing discovery did not discourage the rescue team, for they did not know that there would be no more survivors. Just after 1pm on the sixth, the 120 fathom level was reached; the 160 fathom level following at 2pm. Here the lifeless corpses of nineteen men and boys were discovered. These were the final corpses to be recovered for sixth months, as come the evening of the sixth, smoke forced the closure of the mine.

Back on the surface, groups of experts were arriving. Doctors, priests and ministers had arrived to offer their assistance. The doctors were of little help, due to the lack of survivors, but the men of religion helped grieving families to understand what had happened to their loved ones.

September turned to October and families learned to function without their fathers, husbands and sons. Funerals were common place and drew large crowds from throughout the region. However the town could still not move on. Many of the bodies of the men who went to work in the morning of September 5 1889 had not yet been recovered, for the mine was deemed too dangerous to enter. The fourth of October did bring hope to the locals wanting closure, as the mine reopened for a short time. Works began to remove the water that had filled the 160 fathom level but again smoke was spotted so the mine had to be dampened. This set back caused the lowest level of the mine to be inaccessible, and so it remained for six months.

It was in the Spring of 1890 that the remaining families finally got to say goodbye to the missing. On the 16 March, 160 fathom level was reached once more. This time the smoke and water cleared to allow the rescue workers to recover the bodies that had been submerged in the Autumn of the previous year. By the end of the month, everyone was accounted for. Sixty three had lost their lives leaving only seven survivors.

In a newspaper interview back in 1889 William Robb told of his experience:

I went down the pit this morning at six o’clock. I am a dook bottomer, and was working as usual beside the lower pumping engine, which is situated on the dook at the bottom of the incline. Everything went well till about ten minutes past twelve o’clock, when the pony driver, Richard Hamilton, a boy of about 17, came past the engine house, and shouted to me that he saw sparks. I tried to find the underground, manager, but could not. I looked back, and saw sparks, and I sounded for the carriage. Before that I had shut the engine-house door, and also the trap to the blast door at the bottom of the incline, with the view of preventing a draught. I jumped into the carriage, and as it ascended and passed the other engine-house half-way up the incline, I shouted to the man Gall for God’s sake to warn the men in the mine that fire had broken out. Then I got up to the top and gave the alarm, and afterwards went down several times with the rescuing party. From my knowledge of the mine I have little or no hope whatever of any of the miners escaping with their lives.

A full investigation followed the mine’s demise. Owners Shott’s Iron Company were acquitted of any wrong doing. Luckily for the families that were left, over £120,000 of today’s money was provided by members of the local community for them. Whilst their entombed relative could never walk the streets of Penicuik again, some of the families were left messages from the deceased. When it became clear that escape was impossible, some miners in the east of the site had time to write goodbye messages. These mementos were reunited with the families upon their discovery.

One hundred and twenty five years after these brave men and boys perished, they deserve a moment of our time to reflect on what they achieved for the town. Penicuik may no longer be an industrial town. We may no longer have an industry at all, but what we do have are these memories. Let’s make sure we don’t forget them.


“In darkness they died to bring light, heat & power to mankind”

To the sixty three men and boys who lost their lives, thank you for risking your lives to provide for the town and country.