On the afternoon of Wednesday, 20th April 1938, the community of New Cumnock was stunned into a state of 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. The pit was owned by New Cumnock Collieries Ltd. and employed some 200 men.
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), 4 Stable Row, Craigbank , Joseph Walls (14), 78 Connel Park, both passengers in the hutches and Robert Murray (36), 29 Burnside who was struck by the hutches as he made his way on foot to the surface, having realised there was no room in the full rake.
The severely injured Robert Milligan (32), 55 Bankbrae, Connel Park was taken to the surface but died while receiving medical attention at the Pithead Baths, with his father George by his side.
Another 22 men were injured and 8 of these were able to go home after receiving first aid at the surface.
The remaining 14 men were taken to Kilmarnock Infirmary and Ayr County hospitals. Sadly just before midnight James Grozier (31), 25 South Western Road, Craigbank died of his injuries at Kilmarnock Infirmary.
Bank Pit No.6, New Cumnock Fatalities
20th April 1938
Out of Darkness, Into Light
The Injured Men
Ayr County Hospital
Charles Brown (18), Burnfoot
William Ferguson (23), Stable Row, Craigbank
John Houston (34), Pathhead
*Thomas Hunter (17), South Western Road, Craigbank
James Jackson (28), Connel Park
*John Mackie (28), Long Row, Connel Park
*William Sanderson (60), Leggate
Alexander Walker, Craigbank
*Mungo Whiteford (28), South Western Road, Craigbank
Thomas Begg (28), Rigfoot Farm Cottage
Alexander Grozier (28), 9 Stable Row, Craigbank
brother of James Grozier
William Mackie, 4 Stable Row, Craigbank
Andrew Robertson (18), Connel Park
Medical Support and Rescue
Medical Support | The Evening Telegraph, Apr 21, 1938
A doctor who answered the summons sent out for medical assistance said, “It was a terrible sight which met my eyes when I reached the scene. The hutches were piled on top of one another, and we had considerable difficulty in extricating the injured. Four doctors and five nurses and myself attended the injured until the arrival of the ambulances.” As each of the injured men was taken from the wreckage, first-aid was administered on the roadway by doctors who had been summoned/,
Rescue Work | The Evening Telegraph, Apr 21, 1938
Squads of helpers took the miners to the surface, and the more seriously injured were carried up the road in improvised stretchers. Ambulance wagons and nurses from Ayr and Kilmarnock were waiting at the top to take them to hospital.
When the rescue parties descended they met Robert Ferrans and James Brown, the two men who had jumped from a hutch as it was racing down the roadway and clung to the overhead rafters.
Ferrans said that he was in one of the middle hutches when he felt it shudder. He sensed that something was wrong, and, jumping to his feet, he caught hold of a girder above him. On glancing down, he saw the hutches disappearing at a great speed down the slope. When he scrambled down the haulage way to the assistance of his workmates, he found that Brown had escaped in a similar manner.
Volunteer Account | Aberdeen Press and Journal, Apr 21 1938
John Timpany of Lanemark Cottage told a Press representative that he had heard that there was an accident at the mine. At the entrance he joined a party of volunteers who travelled down the roadway to the scene.
“We met a procession of miners bringing their mates up on rough stretchers, and when we got to the hutches they were in an absolute tangle piled on top of each other. They had run for several hundred yards before crashing. I helped to bring out some of the injured men from the wreckage and they were carried to the surface. It was a terrible sight. The hutches must have gathered a terrific speed when they broke away from the rope, and the wonder is that there were not more killed.”
James Collins | Daily Record, Apr 21, 1938
James Collins, South Western Road, Craigbank was one of the less seriously injured in the rake, although he was in the same hutch as the 14-year-old boy, Walls, who was killed outright. It was Walls’ first job, and he had started work only a few days before. When the hutches began to run back, Collins, like many others, tried to grab the waterpipes along the walls. He soon realised there was no hope of stopping their headlong rush by this means.
“I heard the rope breaking” he told the Daily Record “and then we started to move backward. The further we went down, the quicker the hutches travelled. I was with young Walls, and I thought I could do somethimg to protect him. I put one leg under the seat and the other over the top of the boy in the hope that it would save him from the crash I knew was coming. I don’t remember much after that because everything happened so quickly. I realised we had reached the 300 fathom mark, but I don’t know yet how I came to get out the hutch I had been travellimg in. My left arm was aching, but I felt quite strong, when I gathered my wits, I got up to see what I could do about the others.”
James Lees | Daily Record, Apr 21, 1938
James Lees , 1, Stable Row, Craigbank, was travelling in the fifth hutch.The rope he said, broke some distance up the haulage way from the rake of hutches and, as the runaway hutches careered down the road, a broken length of steel rope was whirling and flailing in their wake. The hutches stopped smoothly, and then ran back a little until they were checked by the “jock”, as the safety device is called by the men. The check did not last long and, before the men realised what was wrong, hutches began to run back, gathering speed as they went.
“I don’t remember very much till after we struck the loading place. I got up and started to take out the men who were pinned. I found little Joe Walls below a hutch. He seemed terribly bad, and I thought he was dead. I lifted him into a recess for shelter. I remember seeing Jimmy Grozier and Jimmy Jackson. Grozier looked pretty bad. Most of the men badly hurt seemed to have head injuries, caused through being thrown out against the water pipes.”
John Whiteford | Daily Record, Apr 21, 1938
One man, John Whiteford, escaped being in the crash because there was no room for him in the last hutch when the rake left the 300 fathoms mark. ” I was sitting with the others waiting for it to come back when I heard the rumbling of hutches coming tearing down. We scrambled out of the way, and the hutches went rushing past us and crashed. I knew my brother was there, and I hurried down to the spot. I found him lying injured and, when he had been bandaged, I helped to carry him on a stretcher to the surface.”
Tom Breckney | Daily Record, Apr 21, 1938
The story of how Robert Murray was in the Craigbank accident yesterday was told by Tom Breckney, Blair Street, who was walking with Murray towards the 300 fathom mark.
“There were several of us walking up the road” he said, “and we were about 10 fathoms below the point we were aiming for when we heard a loud noise up the road. There was shouting and rattling and, when the noise grew loud, we made for the manholes as quickly as we could. I rushed into one with four or five others, but Murray was not among us. We had hardly got inside the manhole when the rake went past us in a flash. A moment or two later, there was a crash some distance down. We knew the hutches had been derailed. It was then that I missed Murray. I was afraid he had not reached a manhole in time, and I discovered I was right when I went back down and found him lying across one of the piled up hutches. He must have been struck by a hutch and carried down 15 fathoms or so before derailment.”
Byron Stevenson | Daily Record, Apr 21, 1938
Byron Stevenson (15), 7 Stepends Row, Connel Park, had an astonishing escape from serious injury.
He was sitting in the second top hutch which plunged down the gradient when the rope snapped. Terrified to move he huddled himself up in a hutch which swayed from side to side down the gradient until the crash came.
He crept over the side, hurt his elbow slightly in doing so, and the first person he saw was a man lying dead. The boy walked to the surface, suffering principally from shock, and afterwards went home.
John Murray | Daily Record, Apr 21, 1938
John Murray, 7 Blair Street, Craigbank was walking up to the 300 fathom mark in the New Cumnock Colliery, when the crash occurred.
“I heard a terrible clatter” he told the Daily Record. “It seemed to be caused by something striking the water pipes which run along the road higher up the mine. After we heard the crash there was silence for a time, and then groans and cries. We knew then something serious had happened. We started to run up the slope and just below the 300 fathom mark saw the wreckage of the hutches. Men were lying all over the road in all positions. The only light we had was from our cap lamps, and with the aid of this illumination we set to work to do what we could do.
One of the first men that I came across was dead. I put my jacket over the body, and a few minutes later used a jacket I was taking up to the surface for a mate to cover another body a few feet away. I had a flask half full of water and gave it to some of the injured. After a bit I could not stick it any longer, so I made my way to the surface along with James Collins (his uncle) who had escaped with slight injuries. The thing was so terrible that at first I was thunderstruck. It is the worse thing I have ever seen.
- Footnote: Sadly John Murray, later known as John Taylor was one of thirteem men that lost their lives in the Knockshinnoch Disaster, September 7, 1950.
Funeral of Victims| 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.
- Sheet 67 – Ayr, Publication date: 1955
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 the Bankbrae, 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. James, the son of John Walls, 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. The services were taken by the Reverend William Jolly (Baptist Church) , the Reverend Andrew Burnett (Martyrs Parish Church) and the Reverend Andrew Lowrie (Arthur Memorial Church).
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’.
Many thanks to Mrs Rena Collins for a copy of the Daily Record’s coverage of the Bank Pit Disaster and to Jim Broadfoot for the photo of his grandfather James Grozier.
- George Sanderson ‘New Cumnock Far and Away’
- Cumnock Chronicle
- Daily Record
- British Newspaper Archive
- The Evening Telegraph
- The Aberdeen Press and Journal
- National Library of Scotland Maps
- Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’
- Scotland’s People
- Births, Marriages, Deaths, Valuation Rolls