talked to a lot of Miners and accident incidents came up regularly.
Mostly we tried to avoid gruesome stories but this proved impossible as
we looked at old records in the Newtongrange Miners Museum and found a
story that had to be told.
This true story ( some of the writing is impossible to read and has
many a Bible quote. We intended to fill in what we can in a shortened
version). It was republished at a later date as two mining accidents
had taken place without the records of a survivor. Except one note
written on a candle box that says
“Fret not dear Mother. For we
were singing while we had time and praising God.
Mother follow God more than I ever did.”
Light in Darkness.
(a miners tale of comradeship and faith).
Edited by James Bridges from short hand notes narrated
by Peter Hays. In the year 1846.
Where there is a rise in the ground near a small rail junction on the
permanent road from Musselburgh, Dalkieth and Edinburgh a coal mine
called High Pressure Pit had been in operation for some time.
Underground was mostly a low narrow tunnel undulating as it followed
the coal drifts, where a great deal of the work was done lying on a
side. The roof seldom allowed a man or woman space to stand was
supported by Fir staves and freestones. Light was supplied by a little
oil lamp fixed on the forehead yielding only what the dark narrow
Coal wagons were dragged by a harness on all fours in a close heat and
continual drip of water threatening on all sides.
On a early Saturday morning 9th March 1839 a crowd of people gathered
after hearing a hollow rumbling and saw the sides of the pit had given
way. The night shift workers of Men, Women and Children had only just
went underground when midway down the earth shot rubble dust and stone
To over thirty fathoms it choked the mine trapping thirteen fellow mine
workers in its dark depth.
News soon spread and help came from all over in a desperate hope of
saving as many of the thirteen lives as possible. The pit being old had
underground roads in several directions and it was hopeful an air
supply may be had from a outlying abandoned Black Dean Pit.
Labourers worked intensely to clear away the rubbish and dirt that had
accumulated in enormous quantities. To get workers down a large
wooden drum was constructed fitting close to the pit walls that
fortified them as it slowly descended.
The owner of the pit Messer’s Stenhouse worked in kind and gave
encouragement where possible. In fact all became kinsfolk in a bid to
help. The acquaintances of those trapped were visited by the editor who
found tidiness and a good fire burning with precious coal amid an air
of sounding grief and quiet resignation. They considered it was
their place to hold out hope while underground workers wrestled with
the heavy earth.
The day had now advanced and parties who worked on felt hope had
now diminished as the air underground would become foul and light would
soon vanish. Speculation grew from not so favourable to imagining them
still alive and waiting for them to appear.
Miner Peter Hay later remarked “Our pit was called High Pressure Pit
and according to regulations we went down at eight o’clock at night in
lawful employment to prepare roads to carry coals.”
“It was important to see that the work was done properly and all
employed. John Nicolson, George Campbell, Thomas Reid, Jamieson
Bennett, James Reid, George Pride and his wife Betsy. From
Millerhill, John Reid, Ellen Reid his daughter aged 15; Janet
Shaw, James Reid and his daughter Margaret Vedom aged 12.
The four women were carrying rubbish to be thrown into the gaps where
the coal had been cut. Two men were cutting the roof to make it higher
and the rest were building to hold the sides of the underground road.
The water was about two feet deep and had to be waded through. This was
just after nine at night. When George Pride who had been checking the
water level approached the others looking fearful telling them the pit
was giving way. His god brother John Nicolson would not believe this
news and continued to work for a while before he went to see for
To his dismay and the others it was all so true as three giant rumbles
closed off every avenue throwing two miners to the ground and John Reid
against the wall. John had cut his face which streamed with blood as he
turned to Peter Hay and asked what the rest were thinking.
“Peter, Peter what is to become of us?” “Well
never see our Wives and Bairns again.”
John replied. “There is no fear ; I hope we shall see them yet.”
But in truth I was in consternation at being buried three
hundred and thirty feet in the earth and closed off forever from the
We decided to try to go by way of Back Dean Pit air gate in time to
escape, thinking at the time, if this was not possible we were done for.
The air gate was constructed mainly for the passage air and consisted
of a crooked twisting pipe like road of two foot high and two and a
half feet wide. The wooden door was broken away and we travelled into
it merely to be met by a mass of rubbish. Working hard we commenced to
clear it in turns of four or five men for four or five hours. Some
parts were so small we had to use wedges to cut a foot off the side.
I went to see how they were doing and John Nicolson said, “Tell the men
to work their way back to the pit bottom as this place is completely
choked off.” It will never do, there is no air in here.” I stood for a
moment and appealed, “Oh, is there no appearance of any opening?” “No,”
Said John quietly.
Steadily we made our way back to the pit bottom and were halted by the
news of another opening in the air gate had been found. The opening was
so little we had to go carefully, but we progressed to a waters edge.
John Reid slipped in up to his chin in very chilly water, but the air
became exceptionally bad effecting five of our lamps. We were told to
move back as rubble had formed a stop difficult to clear. John told us
to take care and not to lose the precious oil lights.
On returning to the High Pressure Pit bottom we began to work on
clearing a way until the air extinguished every light we had at that
place. One light remained were we originally had all met at the
beginning of the incident and this gave us comfort. It became our
headquarters as a place to return to after any work. We were inured to
hardship from childhood but in this condition we had our fears and
sorrow for those we had left on the surface only a few hours before.
Sitting in the headquarters men were tired after the digging and women
who had been ordered to stayed there to save energy. As time went
by we became more composed as in a brotherhood gathering for prayer.
John seeing the situation proposed a prayer should be offered as death
seemed so near. He asked me to pray. I implored them to be sedate,
which surprisingly they did. Some knew the Scriptures well, in
particular Jamieson Bennettt who showed great faith. Betsy
Campbell was very composed but interrupted the silence with cries of
sorrow on not being able to see her two children again.
The rest were serene and sang verses of the 20th Psalm while I prayed.
Later we told stories of home and our daily lives in a different light.
Two men went to see if help was on the way from the Back Dean Pit. On
return told us they had gone as far as possible and had shouted in the
hope of being heard above. They listened intently but had heard no
reply, which led them to supposed the pit was filled to the day light
by mud. All hope appeared to be gone now.
Most of us were in high spirits despite this set back saying, while
there was life there was hope. Once more we prayed saying, He was the
same God as yesterday and today and as of the time of Israel helping
them escape from Egypt to the land of Canaan. On the time the Lord
spoke to Mosses. And saying, let us not despair.
By this time all lamps had gone out and the air was so bad it barely
supported us. Someone mentioned we will never see each others face this
side of time, and yet the dark was of some comfort to us.
We talked a while and mentioned a pity for those of our families above
us, then sang “I to the hills will lift thine eyes.”
One of the men said if he survived he would make amends and turn over a
new leaf, while the girls cried with hunger till the pangs eventually
wore off. At least we had plenty of water to support us and we believed
in the lord and his mercy. Looking back it was the sweetest and
shortest of all Saturdays, while we were in the heart of the earth and
banded together in song and prayer.
During the night we began to feel low and I sang a hymn to them where
the second last line was ‘ Let the wings of time more hasty fly.’
>From this we were consoled and led to talk of our families and
our lives at this pit. A pit that had gave us employment and good
people as neighbours.
Once again we sent men to look to see if relief was on the way but they
returned after hearing no helpful sound. We felt like Jonah in the
whales belly and his cries for help, and why not us, were we not
enclosed in the belly of the earth?
It may have been around six o’clock at night we decided to write our
names and state we were at least alive at that time. On the completion
of two names the lights went out but we were sure God our maker would
know who we were. While talking we became a little gloomy on discussing
if there was a way to find us and the consequences if this proved
impossible. Another party returned from the air gate with no news and
this made us feel the same way as before so we sang heartily and talked
of the Scriptures.
We decided to try one more time, those chosen to go were myself,
Jamieson Bennett and James Reid. In the complete dark we set off quite
determined. At the waters edge passed the air gate we sat down and
consulted each other and decided the air seemed a bit clearer. It was
cooler and more tolerant, so we went back a little optimistic to tell
Those at headquarters were not sure if they could believe us as the
will to live seemed to be slipping away. It is easy to see in moving to
the Back Dean Pit we would consume any energy we had left. It was down
to taking a chance or just sit here waiting for the inevitable.
Taking another attempt in the total darkness we marched close to each
other calling each others name for comfort. We moved rubble and crawled
though gaps and sometimes sank into deep cold water. The women and
children were encouraged to cling to our necks as we made our way
steadily in the deep pools. Some of the party fell behind and we were
forced to wait till they caught up.
I cried out for George Pride as he had moved away from us and
disappeared in the gloom. He did not answer and I went to find him but
took the wrong route and ended up at a pile of rubble where my ears
began to hurt and crackle, my eyes started to stream in a bad way. I
had now to make up my mind whether to keep my sanity or let it slip
away. Keeping cool was imperative ensure a return to the others. Slowly
making my way back till I heard voices and the relieve of being near a
Carefully I made my way on a different route groping with my hand and
taking steady steps. Then I began to smell sulphur and smoke and knew
this was the bottom of the Back Dean Pit. You may believe me when I say
this was of great consolation to me.
To my immense joy the rest of my friends were safe and well and
excited on hearing my hopeful news. I had felt the strength of a lion
as I crawled up to the gate but now on return I slipped into a very
weak state. Most of this was due to the bad air that made us hungry for
natural air causing me to puff and blow on any excretion or movement.
We began shouting loudly at the bottom of the pit with all the strength
we had left. To our undiluted joy we heard an answer from above and
asked for a bucket to be sent down to us. We were so weak a man had to
be lowered to help us, but he found the air so foul coming from the
fresh air he was taken ill and had to be pulled up again.
So the bucket was let down again and we were lifted into that sweet air
and bathed in the light so pleasant.
It was a Sabbath Morn and my first words were, “Glory be to God in the
highest. That I am once more on the earth safe alive.”
Such is the simple narrative of Peter Hay .
The domicile of those trapped underground.
Adams Row -John Nicolson, George
Campbell, Thomas Reid, Jamieson Bennett, James Reid, George Pride and
his wife Betsy.
From Millerhill, John Hay John Reid,
Ellen Reid his daughter aged 15; Janet Shaw, James Reid and his
daughter Margaret Vedom aged 12