The Lanarkshire Mining Industry

  History of Mining


Daniel and Thomas (Thos) Sorbie, sons of Mitchell Sorbie and Ann Thomson, are both featured in the "Coal Output"  book from Shawsburn Colliery, Larkhall - 26th November 1875. 

Also on the page is John Neilson who married their sister Margaret in 1868. Further down are James Vallance and John Mackie who both appear in the Sorbie family tree. This book was recently found in the attic of one of the old weaver's cottages in Stonehouse.

Coal was the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution. The reliance on steam engines meant a huge increase in the demand for coal and the men women and children who mined it, particularly so in the mining areas of Scotland. In 1781 the first ironstone works in Lanarkshire started at Wilsontown in Carnwath. Early coal mines were cut into exposed rock faces at the side of rivers, which also applied to shale mines (paraffin).

For centuries, people in Scotland and Britain had made do with charcoal if they needed a cheap and easy to way to acquire fuel. What ‘industry’ that existed before 1700, did use coal but it came from coal mines that were near to the surface and the coal was relatively easy to get to. Two types of mines existed: drift mines and bell pits. Both were small scale coal mines and the coal which came from these type of pits was used locally in homes and local industry.

However, as the country started to industrialise itself, more and more coal was needed to fuel steam engines and furnaces. The development of factories by Arkwright and the improvement of the steam engine by Watt further increased demand for coal. As a result coal mines got deeper and deeper and coal mining became more and more dangerous. Coal shafts could go hundreds of feet into the ground. Once a coal seam was found, the miners dug horizontally. However, underground the miners faced very real and great dangers.

Typical view of a Colliery.

The people who worked the Scottish mines, although their wages were relatively high, lived in conditions approximating legal serfdom. If a pit was sold, they became the property of the new owner; children were often bound to the coal master for life at baptism. The masters were obliged in return to keep them all their days, in sickness and old age and to provide a coffin for their burial. This extraordinary set of affairs, was sanctioned by Scots law in 1606. This meant among other things, that miners could not remove themselves from that occupation. Beggars, tramps and those guilty of minor crimes were forced into lifelong bondage in the mines. This law was not changed until 1775 when it was then allowed that all new men entering the mines were allowed to be free, however it was not fully remedied until 1799.

Local Miners - Photo taken around 1935.

Back row: 3 men, the one on the right is W.Spiers; Mid row: 4 men - second left Tam Watt.

Front row L-R: John Summers, Danny Sorbie, Rab Brown.

The 1800's saw a massive rise in the amount of coal and iron mines as the industrial revolution swung into full effect. In 1879 there were 314 iron-works with 5149 puddling furnaces and 846 rolling mills in operation in Lanarkshire and in 1881, 392 coal pits and 9 fireclay pits. This labour force was found principally in Irish emigrants who were refugees from the suffering and deprivation caused by the potato famine in Ireland. Places like Blantyre were reputed to be, at this time; "a district of pits, engine houses, smoke and grime", this description no doubt led to the nickname the town endured for many years as "Dirty Auld Blantyre".

Lanarkshire was rich in coal, with numerous early mines scattered over the county. Around 1910 the actual amount of working collieries reached their peak with around 200 in the county. Between the wars mining started to decline and miners had to travel to work, or be re-housed near the pits

 'Miners Rows'.

Mining was a dangerous occupation not only from injury, but problems caused by damp and breathing in coal dust, the mining Unions having to fight hard to improve working conditions. In the early days women and children were employed underground to haul coal,  but conditions gradually improved  with women and children doing pit head work only.

Piece Box

A Piece box was used by workmen to keep their sandwiches clean and free from mice or rats getting at the bread, this was common in the mines. The Tea and Sugar box was similarly used with tea in one side and sugar in the other, with a division in the middle. 

In the Stonehouse area around 1940 a good number if the miners still worked in Boomfield pit near the site of the current M74 motorway. The site now has been cleared, as have most other pits in Lanarkshire. In 1947, there were 190 pits of various sizes in Scotland, by 1987, there were just five. The vast percentage of coal seams have been worked out and there are no operating pits in the present day. The last colliery to be closed in the Stonehouse district was Candlerigg Colliery in 1958. We still have a legacy of the coal mining industry, with properties subsiding due to old mining working below, a prime example being the Hamilton Palace which is was demolished in 1921. This was considered by some as a just form of  ‘Miners Revenge’ for the exploitation of the local people by the Duke Of Hamilton..!!

Hamilton Palace.

Working Conditions

Although the law relating to miners had been changed for the better at the turn of the century, life was still very harsh for miners & their families in the mid 1800's. Miners were expected to work at least a daily twelve hour shift on weekdays, reduced hours on Saturday, and Sunday being the day of rest. Working in the mines was very dangerous & unhealthy and most miners who survived the physical dangers inherent in the working environment eventually succumbed to mine-related respiratory diseases such as silicosis in later life.

One of the more dangerous risks of mining, was that of the gas referred to as "Firedamp". Firedamp was/is a highly explosive gas found in coal mines, it is easily ignited by flame, friction or electrical energy.
It's principal constituent is Methane (CH4) or as it is sometimes referred to "Marsh Gas". This gas was found in most of the pits in the Lanarkhire area and often large volumes of it would be broken into during the mine workings, resulting in "blowers". Men employed as "Firemen" under the supervision of a "Firemaster" had the responsibility of checking the pits for the build up of firedamp and other dangerous gases such as "Afterdamp", i.e. Carbon Monoxide (CO) which is poisonous & Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which suffocates.
These gases were removed by various means including ventilation forced by furnaces and steam and or by "burning off" in small pockets. The firemen & firemaster would normally carry out their checks prior to the commencement of the day's work.

Cramped and dangerous conditions.

The miners working down the mines soon realised that the dangerous conditions which prevailed there should be compensated for by an increase in wages. However, when the miners lodged their claim with the pit owners they were rejected. The result of this was that the miners withheld their labour and went on strike. This initial strike was quickly curbed by the mine owners who promptly sacked all those miners refusing to return to work. Not only were these miners sacked but they and their families were evicted from their homes onto the streets. There was some resistance to the action of the mine owners but this resistance was short-lived as the police and "auxiliaries" were brought in to enforce the will of the owners upon the miners and their families, often by extremely forcible means.

Robert Smillie.

Larkhall Miner's leader. :- Born in Ireland 1857, settled in Lanarkshire. Became the President of the Miners Federation of Great Britain. Stood as a Socialist candidate for Parliament on several occasions and became MP for Morpeth 1923-29.  Died 1940. His former house still stands in Larkhall.

The mine owners then employed new labour as strike-breakers to work the mines at a newly-reduced wage. This new labour force was recruited from Irish immigrants who were desperate for work in their escape from the dreadful conditions in their native land after the famines. The Irish were not held in high regard by the general populace at that time as most people were suspicious or afraid of their Irish traditions and more importantly Roman Catholic religion. If the Irish were not looked upon with great favour by the local people, then the Irish employed as strike-breakers, "blacklegs" or "scabs" as they were called, were certainly detested by those miners whose jobs and homes they had taken.

Miner's Housing

With the influx of new miners and their families there was a demand for housing. This housing was provided in most cases as one or two room dwellings in what became known as "miner's rows". The other type of housing available was rather generously referred to as "miner's cottages". Compare both types below.
The building of these rows was the premise of the mine owners.

'Miners rows' in the Coatbridge area.

Living conditions in the companies housing 'miners rows' were primitive, with mainly room and kitchen type housing, outside toilets and external water stand pipes.

'Miners cottages' in Blantyre.

The increase in British coal production 

1700 : 2.7 million tonnes

1750 : 4.7 million tonnes

1800 : 10 million tonnes

1850 : 50 million tonnes

1900 : 250 million tonnes

The Dangers of Coal Mining

A report on deaths in coal mines to Parliament gave a list of ways miners could be killed :


falling down a mine shaft on the way down to the coal face


falling out of the ‘bucket’ bringing you up after a shift


being hit by a fall of dug coal falling down a mine shaft as it was lifted up


drowning in the mine


crushed to death


killed by explosions


suffocation by poisonous gas


being run over by a tram carrying dug coal in the mine itself

In one unnamed coal mine, 58 deaths out of a total of 349 deaths in one year, involved children thirteen years or younger. Life for all those who worked underground was very hard.


Child labour in a mine.

In 1842, Parliament published a report about the state of coal mining - the Mines Report - and its contents shocked the nation. The report informed the public that children under five years of age worked underground as trappers for 12 hours a day and for 2 pennies a day; older girls carried baskets of dug coal which were far too heavy for them and caused deformities in these girls. 

One girl - Ellison Jack, aged 11 - claimed to the Commission of Enquiry that she had to do twenty journeys a shift pushing a tub which weighed over 200 kilos and if she showed signs of slacking, she would be whipped. Children had to work in water that came up to their thighs while underground; heavily pregnant women worked underground as they needed the money. On unnamed woman claimed that she gave birth on one day and was expected by the mine manager to be back at work that very same day!! Such was the need to work - there was no social security at this time - she did as the manager demanded. Such a shocking report lead to the Mines Act of 1842. This banned all women and children under 10 from working underground. No-one under 15 years was to work winding gear in mines.

Blantyre mining disaster 22nd October 1877

The Blantyre mining disaster happened on the morning of  22nd of October, 1877 at Blantyre Colliery, William Dixons pits numbers one and two, in High Blantyre. Both pits blasted at 8:50 am. 126 men had gone down number two pit, and 107 down number three at 5:30 am. There was thought to have been 233 people down the pits, but there could have been more. The explosion was as unexpected in pit number two as it was three, but it was known that there was fire damp (gas) present in the pit and it must have been ignited by a naked light. This was Scotland's worst ever mining disaster..

On the surface, the blast was heard for miles around, with a dense volume of smoke filling the sky. Soon after lots of people began running from the rows near the pits shouting. There was another explosion, this time on Dixons number one pit, Blantyre, on the 2nd of July 1879, with the loss of 28 lives. Soon after the explosions William Dixon Ltd. erected a large granite monument to mark both disaster which reads "William Dixon Ltd. in memory of 240 of their workmen who were killed by explosions in Blantyre Colliery on 22nd October, 1877 and 2nd July 1879 and many of whom are buried here"

The Blantyre Explosion

(Clyde's Bonnie Banks)  Traditional song

By Clyde's bonnie banks as I sadly did wander
Among the pitheaps as evening drew nigh
I spied a wee lassie all dressed in deep mourning
A-weeping and wailing wi' mony's sigh

I stepped up beside her and thus did address her
Come tell me, young lass, o' your sorrow and pain
A-sobbing and sighing, at last she did answer
Johnny Murphy, kind sir, was my ain true love's name

Twenty-one years of age, full o' youth and good-looking
To work doon the mines at High Blantyre he came
The wedding was fixed, all the guests were invited
That calm summer's evening young Johnny was slain

The explosion was heard, all the women and children
Wi' pale anxious faces they haste tae the mine
When the news was made heard the hills rang with their mourning
Twa hundred and seven young miners were slain

Noo husbands and wives and sweethearts and brothers
That Blantyre explosion they'll never forget
And all ye young miners that hear my sad story
Shed a tear for the victims that's laid tae their rest

"Blantyre"A Scottish Mining Disaster. Featured on You-Tube: A Tribute in pictures and song.

Video by Hugh McKay, inspired by the songs of both Alex Hodgson and David Francey.


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