Uplifting tale amid turmoil of Reddingmuirhead Pit disaster

The scene of the rescue operation at Redding Pit following the disaster in 1923
The scene of the rescue operation at Redding Pit following the disaster in 1923
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On Wednesday, September 25, is the 90th anniversary of our district’s worse pit disaster, which saw the loss of 40 men in Redding Colliery in 1923.

Last year I wrote about the tragic sequence of events that followed the sudden inrush of water in No.23 Pit and I will not repeat that story here, but instead concentrate on one moment of relief and joy which often seem to accompany such tragedies.

As soon as those on the surface realised what had happened, rescue teams began to work out where they might best enter the pit to find survivors. They were aware of an abandoned shaft called the ‘Gutterhole’, which was filled with rubble, and were able to speak to the men below by phone and urge them to get to the bottom of that shaft.

The task of clearing the rubble then began but it was dangerous work, complicated by an accumulation of water in the shaft. At one point the water rushed down and all but swept the men away, but most held on and, by the early afternoon, 21 miners had been brought out alive.

They reported others in the vicinity but no trace could be found. The rescue continued for hours, then days and hope of finding more men alive faded.

Deep below five miners, faced by torrents of water in the darkness and confusion, had missed the passage to the rescue shaft. They waited, fighting hunger, cold and despair. In her 1988 booklet, Amanda Jackson recalled how they had only a half slice of bread between them, sucking coal and chewing matchboxes for the rest of their nine-day entombment.

They drank from pools of stagnant water and moved here and there in search of fresh air. Surprisingly they said they didn’t really feel hungry nor could they remember sleeping. One of the men, James Jack, a decorated World War One veteran, kept up the spirits of the others with his jokes and stories and each man rubbed the feet of the others with lamp oil to help keep them warm. They lay huddled together and listened. On the second day they heard an explosion which they identified as rescuers blasting a passage in their direction. One of the men put a stone in a box for each shot they heard. By the time they were rescued they had collected 13.

On October 4, the rescuers reached the men and we can imagine the scenes of joy as hands were clasped and celebratory cigarettes smoked in the darkness.

The five men – John Miller from Falkirk, Andrew Thomson and John Donaldson from Reddingmuirhead, Robert Ure from Wallacestone and James Jack from Redding – then had to crawl 250 yards to the ‘Gutterhole’ before being lifted up in a cradle known as a ‘kettle’.

For the most part they were well with only Robert Ure requiring medical attention. They objected strongly to being carried to the ambulances and John Miller refused completely and walked unaided. Sadly they were the last men found alive but next Wednesday when we remember those who died, spare a thought for the five men who survived but whose lives were ever after haunted by their ordeal.

And give thanks too for the unsung heroes of the rescue brigade who battled against all the odds to bring them safely back to their waiting families.