inding messages penned by our ancestors can be highly rewarding. Even if it’s merely a postcard, being able to read a document written in someone’s own words can help you get a sense of their thoughts and feelings – something you simply don’t get from a census return or certificate. Through personal correspondence, you actually have the ability to unravel a forebear’s personal relationships and discover what truly mattered to them.
For this month’s Gem from the Archive we head north of the border to Falkirk Archives, where one intensely moving collection of letters has been selected by Archives Assistant Margaret McLeish.
Which document have you chosen?
I’ve chosen an item in our archive collections that I find very poignant. They are notes written by Thomas Thomson, a miner at Redding Pit, in September 1923 to his wife, Elizabeth, and children, Willie and Jeanie. They were found in his sandwich box following several rescue attempts after the pit flooded on 25 September 1923.
The notes are basically farewell messages to his family scribbled on pages torn from his timekeeping notebook. He survived at least eight days underground as one of the notes says: “I am fine on this, the eighth day, if they get me.”
His body was finally recovered on 7 November 1923.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
These notes show that miners at the time worked in difficult conditions and that, at the time of writing, Thomas Thomson was aware that he was unlikely to survive his ordeal.
The Redding Pit disaster was one of the worst in Scottish mining history and had a devastating effect on the whole of the local community. Number 23 pit flooded at 5am on Tuesday 25 September 1923 and initially 66 men were trapped by the water. The flooded pit was very near the Union Canal and a disused shaft, which was already flooded.
On the first day, 21 men were rescued. Five men were trapped for nine days but survived and by the time the rescue and recovery operations were over in December, the bodies of 40 men had been found. The rescue operations were made harder by the presence of ‘ black damp’ – a suffocating mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. This was a common hazard in coal mines.
Large crowds of relatives gathered at the pithead and rescue teams were organised. For the first time in Scottish coalmining history, divers were used to explore the flooded tunnels. They came from Rosyth in Fife and used very cumbersome diving gear. They would have been unable to speak to any survivors they found because of the nature of the diving helmet of the time. The divers carried flasks of Bovril for potential survivors and messages in glass bottles to tell them what to do until their rescue.
The miners would have also had little or no light and this explains why Thomas had written some of his messages on top of the others. Sadly, the diving team did not find anyone alive.
Within days of the disaster a fund was established by the Provost of Falkirk and the local newspaper, the Falkirk Herald. The Redding Pit Disaster Fund raised more than £ 60,000 within a year to help relieve the distress of the wives, children and other dependants of the victims.
An inquiry into the causes of the disaster by HM Inspector of Mines opened on 5 February 1924. Survivors, mining experts and representatives of the owners, Nimmo & Co, were all called to give evidence as to why this disaster occurred. It concluded that a combination of ignorance, incompetence and misfortune were to blame. Various recommendations were
An inquiry found that ignorance, incompetence and misfortune were to blame