Jon Bauck­ham

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE -

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

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