“From the middle of the 19th century, Hamilton and surrounding hamlets and villages were dangerous places to live and work. Health and safety was not on the list of priorities and many people were killed in industrial accidents. This story tells of the carnage in Burnbank on the 19th June 1876, when dynamite exploded in a builder’s yard the site of which today would be behind Newfield Crescent at the Burnbank entrance to Pollock Avenue”
During the 1850’s, the discovery of rich coal seams in Hamilton and Burnbank heralded the beginning of the development of the infrastructure required to accommodate the industrialisation of what had been a rural setting. With the development of Greenfield Colliery commencing in May 1859, Burnbank expanded rapidly and railway lines were constructed with branches leading off to the coal mines and developing heavy industry.
Within a short period of time Burnbank, had gone from a quiet little hamlet of only a few houses and farms, to a dangerous, noisy, hub of industry with people coming from all over the country and Ireland to seek employment.
By 1876, John Watson had started extensive colliery operations in a field on the lands of Hillhouse farm and with the purchase of a small piece of land at Burnbank he now had access to the new Bothwell- Hamilton railway line which was under construction. Building this railway was Charles Brand & Sons railway contractor Hope Street, Glasgow whose workshops at Shawsburn were at the end of a narrow road just beyond the bridge which spanned the burn going under the Burnbank Road. Originally a farm, the old buildings had been adapted by the company and one of the buildings, 60 feet by 20 feet, had been converted into a store, joiners shop and a smithy, separated by a wooden partition. Another two buildings were used as stables with stalls for twenty four horses.
At twenty-five past eleven on the morning of Monday September 19th June 1876, Burnbank was rocked by an explosion so loud that it was heard beyond Baillieston, Wishaw and Stonehouse. So violent was this explosion that both the County Buildings and Hamilton Barracks along with the rest of Hamilton, shook to their foundations. Debris from the explosion caused damage to property hundreds of yards away and seven workmen employed by McAlpine, building houses at what would become Burnbank Cross were nearly blown off the roof when the building shook violently and debris rained down on top of them.
At a house thirty feet away from the smithy, a woman named Mrs Hughes who had been standing at her doorway was knocked unconscious when she was hit on the cheek by a brick and her daughter who had been doing a washing, was covered in plaster from the roof and walls. Their comfortable home was extensively damaged. Another two houses close to the site of the blast and occupied by James McGinnigan and James Stirling were left uninhabitable. In Burnbank more than one hundred windows were blown in. People ran out on to the street and collected in groups, speculating on the source of explosion and the general consensus of opinion was that a boiler must have blown up.
Men from all around the area ran towards the scene of the explosion. Navvies left the nearby railway-cuttings where they were working and soldiers from Hamilton barracks, and police and officials from the county buildings all headed as fast as they could towards Burnbank, where a huge cloud of smoke hung over the disaster.
It was evident to the people making for the site of the explosion, that whatever had taken place lay up the narrow road at Shawsburn. The first on the scene was county police officer Sergeant Cruikshanks who had been riding only 100 yards away when the explosion occurred. He arrived at the smoking ruins followed by workers from the McAlpine’s building site and was met by a scene of utter devastation. The smithy and joiners shop no longer existed and in their place was a tangled mass of wood, stone and iron. The stables were recognisable but only just. The roofs were gone, and there was a lot of damage caused by flying debris.
The rescuers heard screams of pain coming from cartwright Alexander Livingstone who was lying covered by debris. When released and questioned, he said he had been working that morning with two blacksmiths, two hammermen, two joiners, a labourer and a policeman, a total of nine men. He was carried him to the stable furthest away from the scene of devastation and laid on clean hay where he was treated by Drs Robertson and Grant who had arrived after hearing the explosion. Within a very short space of time, the disaster scene was crowded with officials and helpers, including Sheriff Spens, Commander McHardy, Lanarkshire’s Chief Constable from the County Buildings and Lieutenant Brewster and Dragoons from the barracks in Almada Street.
The scene at the smithy was one of indescribable horror with several of the bodies atomised and lying in a pool of blood near what had been the door was an unidentifiable mass of what had shortly before, been a living human being. One body was found under the upright wheels of a cart and another two were found locked together some nine feet away and a fourth some twelve feet distance. At first it was thought that there were five victims but the arrival of Constable Charles Chrichton with the news that Constable James McCall was missing increased the total to six.
Chrichton and McCall although county constables and wearing the uniform, were both employed and paid by Messrs Brand to watch the railway works. Because the joiners shop also doubled as a pay office and general local headquarters of the firm both men had arranged to meet there to see if any complaints had been lodged before they started their work. Charles Chrichton had escaped death by a few minutes as he had been on his way to the yard when the explosion occurred. Immediately after the disaster he was been dispatched to find a doctor and returned an hour later.
The remains of the victims were removed to a stable where the work of identification could begin. Constable McCall was identified by a piece of his belt and fragments of his handcuffs and police sergeant Cruikshanks and the Rev. Stewart Wright Parish minister at Blantyre had to break the bad news to his young widow Catherine who was heavily pregnant and already the mother of four children.
By that evening six sets of remains had been recovered and as dynamite had been found in the wreckage, work was halted until someone with knowledge of this explosive attended the scene. The following day the suspicion surfaced that there was a seventh victim after a local dog was found running about with a scalp which was later identified as belonging to John Kennedy a labourer.
Three people were injured; cartwright, Alexander Livingston lay unconscious for several days at his father’s Greenfield home but went on to make a good recovery. John Rafferty hammerman at the smithy had a miraculous escape. John had been aware that there was damaged dynamite being stored in the joiners shop and due to the close proximity of the smithy he had repeatedly complained about it, and warned that it could be dangerous. John had been the first one to see that something was going wrong in the workshop when he noticed a blue flame in the corner where the dynamite was stored. He quickly drew the attention of Black the foreman blacksmith’s to it and was told to get a pail of water. He had only reached the door when the dynamite exploded and the force projected him for some distance finally dumping him behind a hedge. When he recovered consciousness he staggered back to the workshops to find the building had been blown to smithereens.
Over 100 pounds of dynamite were found in the debris and one stick complete with fuse was found lodged in a chimney on the McAlpine building site several hundred yards away. There was a public outcry that despite the 1875 Explosives Act, dynamite was being stored in an unauthorised area. Subsequently James Donald Clark, engineer and sub-manager of Messrs Charles Brand & Son was charged with the culpable homicide of the seven victims.
During the trial, one of the witnesses, John Bathgate, told of how on the instructions of Dickie the foreman joiner, he carted 200 lbs of water damaged dynamite from the magazine approximately a quarter of a mile away, to Brands yard and left it in under Dickie’s bench. It was stated that Dickie was in charge of the magazine key and gave dynamite out when authorised. When it was found that a quantity of the dynamite was water damaged, Clark ordered that the magazine be cleaned out and repaired. Experiments had then been carried out with the damaged dynamite including the use of detonators, gunpowder and then a bonfire but it failed to explode and it was concluded that it was useless.
Patrick McAvoy, Donald McGinnes, James Semple, James Clark, John Rafferty and Alexander Livingston all gave evidence as to the presence of the dynamite under the bench. At the summing up of the trial the Advocate- Depute asked for a verdict of guilty but the jury after an absence of half an hour returned a not guilty verdict by a majority of 13 to 3.
Eight weeks later, the report on the results of the official inquiry into the explosion, laid the blame for the explosion at the door of the engineer Mr Clark, despite him being found not guilty in court. The inquiry stated that he was morally responsible, if not criminally responsible for the accident, because it was under his instructions that the dynamite had been stored at an unlawful place i.e. the joiner’s yard. The report emphasised the necessity of keeping dynamite free from contact with water whereby it became extremely dangerous and unstable. Messrs Charles Brand & Son were also implicated.
At Hamilton Sheriff Court the following March the young widow and children of James McCall sued Charles Brand & Son for £2000. Despite the finding of the official inquiry she was awarded only £150 damages.
William Dickie. 50. Foreman joiner. Native of Ayrshire.
George Horne. 43. Joiner. Native of Ingie, Buckie, Banffshire.
David Black. 29. Foreman blacksmith. Native of Balerno.
John Fraser 26. Native of Inverness.
William McLay. 22. Hammerman. He belonged to the district.
John Kennedy. 66. Labourer. Native of Elginshire.
James McCall. 25 Police Officer. High Blantyre.
© Wilma S. Bolton