The Real Iron Ladies
In a week in which much has been written and said about ‘mining communities’ and a certain ‘iron lady’, New Cumnock marks the 75th anniversary of the Bank Pit Disaster. It is often overlooked that the loss of life at the work place was no stranger to such communities, nor the loss of work through serious injury, as the drive for coal continued relentlessly. Above ground once the grieving was over, if indeed it ever was, the ‘iron ladies‘ of the miners rows battled on to rebuild broken families.
My Collier LaddieSee you not yon hills and dales The sun shines on sae brawlie? They a’ are mine, and they shall be thine, Gin ye’ll leave your Collier laddie. They a’ are mine, and they shall be thine, Gin ye’ll leave your Collier laddie. Tho’ ye had a’ the sun shines on, And the earth conceals sae lowly, I wad turn my back on you and it a’, And embrace my Collier laddie. I wad turn my back on you and it a’, And embrace my Collier laddie. Robert Burns
Wednesday 20th April 1938
On the afternoon of Wednesday, 20th April 1938, the community of New Cumnock was stunned into shock as the news of a terrible tragedy at the Bank No. 6 Pit engulfed the miners’ rows like a black pall over a loved-one’s casket.
About 2:30pm, at the end of their shift, twenty eight men filed into the rake of hutches waiting at the landing to take them to the surface. The first seven hutches carried four men each whilst the last hutch remained vacant of passengers. It carried only the ’jock’, a safety device designed to drop and snag on the sleepers below and de-rail the empty hutch to prevent the other passenger hutches from careering down the track. Four hundred yards into the journey home the steel wire hauling the hutches snapped, bringing the rake to a halt, before it slowly began to slip back down the 1 in 3.5 slope. The ‘jock’ delayed the rake’s descent but only momentarily. It bent and buckled before condemning the eight carriages into the terrifying tunnel of darkness releasing them to hurtle at speed, swaying violently from side to side, toward the terminus hundreds of fathoms below.
The mangled mass of hutches was immediately set upon by bewildered workmates who had been waiting on the returning empty rake to take them to the pit head. The injured men were carefully extricated from the wreckage and taken to the surface on makeshift stretchers, an ascent that took over 45 minutes to complete.
Three of their colleagues had been killed instantly – John Mackie (19) and Joseph Walls (14) both passengers and Robert Murray (36) struck by the hutches as he made his way on foot to the surface, having realised there was no room in the full rake. At the pithead baths the injured Robert Milligan (32) passed away, his father George by his side while James Grozier (31) died of his injuries in Kilmarnock Infirmary at midnight. The infirmary along with Ayr County Hospital housed twenty one injured men, several of them seriously so. Regular bulletins were issued on their condition and not until the Saturday was the danger list cleared.
Saturday 23rd April 1938
On that Saturday as thousands of Ayrshire folk made their way to Hampden Park to cheer Kilmarnock on against East Fife in the Scottish Cup Final, hundreds of others made the solemn journey to join the mourners at New Cumnock at the funeral of their coal-mining comrades. From Muirkirk, Cronberry, Auchinleck, Cumnock, Skares, Dalmellington, Kirkconnel and Sanquhar they came to pay their respects.
The funeral cortege formed at 29 Burnside home of Robert Murray and his wife Mary and their three children. There waiting was Robert’s father who had been severely injured in the same pit back in February. The procession climbed slowly away from Burnside and past the Knowe Tap before descending into Craigbank a mile or so along the road where the hearses carrying the remains of John Mackie and James Grozier awaited. John Mackie stayed with his parents William and Rankin at the Stable Row – his father had been injured in the disaster but was later released from hospital. James Grozier lived with his wife Agnes and four children at their home in South-Western Road. His brother Alexander was also seriously injured in the accident and only after pleading with doctors was released from hospital that afternoon, arriving home in the New Cumnock District ambulance in time to catch a glimpse of the cortege making its way to Connel Park.
Some three-quarters of a mile down the brae the procession once again halted, first at Bankbrae the home of Robert Milligan, his wife Maggie and their three children. The final stop was at 78 Connel Park the home of Joseph Walls. Young Joe had only started working at the Bank pit some three weeks beforehand, bringing a much needed wage into the home of his parents James and Jeanie Walls and their eight children. James, the son of the shepherd at Monthraw at the head of Glen Afton, had been out of work for 6 years after being crippled in an accident at the Bank Old Pit.
The Cumnock Chronicle correspondent captured the mood – ‘Then began the saddest march of men that New Cumnock has ever seen, and pray god that she may never see again. Over 2,000 men were in the cortege, the coaches and cars were filled with floral tributes. The blinds were down in every home, the shops remained closed until a late hour in the afternoon. There was an air of solemnity abroad. The faces in that mile-long procession were drawn and sorrowful. In very truth they walked in the Valley of the Shadow. Sobbing women-folk were gathered round the doorways at Burnside, Craigbank and Connel Park and at Afton Road-end. The children too were awed to silence. They knew!”
The five comrades now re-united. The procession now made its way slowly and solemnly to the Afton Cemetery overlooking on this day the bitter sweet Afton Water, where they were finally laid to rest.
A committee, chaired by Lord Glasgow was formed to establish a relief fund for the families of the dead and injured. A leading figure in the committee was local merchant John Trotter who paid tribute to the courage, bravery and cheerfulness of miners as they went day from day not knowing what that day might bring forth. He also had the good grace to exalt the virtues of the women of the miners rows ‘who bid their men good morning as they passed out to their work, sometimes with fearful trembling; wondering whether or not they would come back again‘.
Five miners, like many more before them and many more to follow, did not return from work to their wives or mothers, or sons and daughters. The iron-willed women of the miners rows got on with raising and caring for their families but no longer would they ‘embrace their Collier laddies’.
- Cumnock Chronicle,
- George Sanderson ‘New Cumnock Far and Away’
- National Library of Scotland Maps