1871 April 15 | South Boig Pit
James Penman (12) and John Penman (40)| gas explosion
In 1858 John Penman (27), coal contractor married Margaret McBride (23), dressmaker at Church Street, St. Quivox, Ayrshire. On 4th February the following year their first child James was born at Taiglum in the neighbouring parish of Stair.
The young family moved east to the coalfield of Bo’ness, Linlithgowshire where daughter Janet was born (1860) before returning to Ayrshire where Elizabeth (1863) was born at St. Quivox and Peter (1865) at Cronberry. By the time their fifth child James (1868) was born the family had settled in New Cumnock at Blair Street, Craigbank in the miners’ row owned by the Lanemark Coal Company with father John working at South Boig pit. Sadly, an unnamed child died at Craigbank in the summer of 1870, 2 days after Margaret had given birth.
The following year eldest son James turned 12 years of age and was now working at South Boig pit alongside his father John, as a ‘collier assistant’.
“When a boy of twelve years enters a coal pit, he is attached to his father or some other man, and becomes what is known technically as a “quarter-man.” The miner with whom he works is entitled to put out one-fourth more coal than if he worked without assistance ; and from the price received for the extra quantity he pays the boy, whose duty it is to fill the coal into the “tubs ” and convey it to the pit bottom.
At fourteen, the boy becomes a “half-man” ; at sixteen, a “three-quarter-man;” and at eighteen, he assumes the title of miner, performs a man’s work, and draws a man’s pay. When the boy ranks as a “quarter-man,” he usually receives 1s. a-day ; when a “half-man,” 2s. ; and when a “three-quarter-man,” 3s. These rates are, however, subject to variation according to the amount of wages received by the men. From this it will be seen that, when the miner’s family includes two or three sons able to go into the pits, the total earnings must amount to a considerable sum.” 
At 7 o’clock in the morning of 15th April 1871 tragedy struck underground at South Boig when an explosion of firedamp severely burned both father and son. The young collier assistant John died from his injuries five hours later, at his home in Craigbank and 13 days later 40- year-old James succumbed to his injuries. To add to the sense of grieving widow Margaret with four children, aged 3 to 8 years old, was 8 months pregnant.
The report into the fatalities [ Scottish Mining Web-site] identified that on the morning of the accident the fireman discovered firedamp in an advanced section of one of the headings; extending a few feet back. Those working underground were kept back and a fence place to prevent others from entering. The pit manager arrived shortly afterwards and determined and quickly put in place a plan to have the affected heading ventilated of the deadly gas. John Penman and his son were appointed to construct a trap-door to keep the air flowing and prevent the build-up of gas. The conclusion to the cause of the accident makes grim reading, including the poignant imagery of the discovery of young James’ cap.
“it seems certain that the deceased either ignited the gas at the fence or inside of it nearer to the heading. In support of this view the boy’s cap was found in the inside of the fence, and as workmen had been passing the point frequently on the morning of the accident with open lights, the inference is that the gas lay beyond the fence, and could only be reached by passing within. Apparently, the range of safety did not extend far beyond the fence. According to the fireman it could not exceed nine yards.”
As for the preventive measures that could have been taken it is little surprise the provision of safety lamps, nowadays a nostalgic memento of a mining past, is identified –
“under such circumstances it would have been better to supply the deceased with safety lamps to work with, and prohibit persons from passing near to the fence with open lights till after the gas was dislodged.“
James’ death-certificate reveals that Constable James Jardine was the informant and of course Dr. Richard Gilbertson Henderson was the medical attendant. It is also interesting to note that deaths in the parish of New Cumnock recorded either side of James’ were those of two infants dying from scarlet fever. James’ certificate also confirmed that he was 12 years of age, whereas in the entry in the Scottish Mining web-site his age is recorded as 14 years old.
Four weeks after the death of John Penman, his widow Margaret gave birth to a son, called James, no doubt in memory of her recently departed son.
Margaret moved back to her home town of Ayr where tragedy followed with the death of her 7 year old son Peter. At Coylton she found work as a dressmaker and in 1881 at St. Quivox she married widower Joseph Williamson, iron stone miner. The couple set up home at Slammanan, Stirlingshire where Joseph and James Penman worked as in the local coalfield.
National Library of Scotland
- All maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
- Ayrshire Sheet XLII.SW (includes: New Cumnock)
Publication date: 1897 Date revised: 1895
- Old Parish Records, Births, Marriages, Deaths, Census Records, Valuations Rolls, Wills & Testaments
Scottish Mining Web-site
 David Bremner, The Industries of Scotland: Their Rise, Progress and Present Condition (1869) – Courtesy of Scottish Mining web-site.