Remembering the Burngrange Disaster

“A disaster unprecedented in the long history of shale mining…”

Burngrange Memorial, West Calder.

72 years ago today an underground explosion and fire claimed the lives of fifteen men at Burngrange pit.

The disaster and rescue attempt were national news, but the impact on the local communities and the victims’ families is still felt today.

The flame from a carbide lamp ignited a pocket of firedamp. Only a small explosion was felt at first, but this ignited more gas and within half an hour the timbers and oil shale in the mine were on fire. Thirty eight men were able to escape, bringing with them the body of John McGarty who had been killed by the initial explosion.

Another fourteen men were trapped behind the fire. Despite “one of the most dramatic and gallant rescue bids in the history of mining”, the trapped men could not be reached, and their bodies were brought out of the pit on the 15th of January.

The fifteen victims left behind a total of 11 widows and 26 children. Burngrange was the worst disaster in the history of Scottish shale mining.

Newspaper coverage of the disaster in the Midlothian Advertiser (c) West Lothian Local History Library.

Below, we remember the Burngrange victims’.

John McGarty: The first victim

John McGarty was the first casualty of the Burngrange disaster. The explosion knocked him off his feet and his head hit a hard object on the way down. A stretcher party was sent to rescue “Jock”, as he was known by his workmates, but he died on the way out. A fractured skull was the official cause of death. John had not been scheduled to work on the night of the disaster. He was covering the shift of “Tammy Tamson” who was attending a “Mines Rescue” training course. John McGarty’s funeral was held at West Calder Cemetery on the 14th January whilst the search for the trapped men continued.

George Easton

George grew up in West Calder and was the son of shale miner George Easton and his wife Elsie. George married domestic servant, Elizabeth Marshall in 1918. His wife Elizabeth had suffered the loss of a loved one before; she lost both her parents during childhood and was adopted by her great aunt. Seven weeks before the disaster, the Easton family had moved into a brand new prefab.

The body of George Easton was the last to be found; it was 550 feet further into the mine, near the working face. George Easton suffered from heart trouble and it was thought that he hadn’t been able to run as fast as the others.

Friend and relatives of George stood in the pouring rain watching his body being removed to the ambulance. His brother was so overcome that he had to be helped away. George’s wife Elizabeth died in 1989.

Anthony Gaughan

Anthony Gaughan was born in Ireland. At the age of 24 he left Scotland for New York. His stay in America was not a long one; he married Elizabeth Bruce in West Calder in 1926 and the couple went on to have a son and daughter, Pat and Anne. Their son Pat was in the Regal Picture House when it was announced that there had been an explosion in Burngrange Pit. He went home and took his mum to the pithead. After standing there for two hours, the pair were taken to the office to wait for news.

James McCauley

James McCauley had worked at Burngrange since it was sunk in 1936. Less than a year before the disaster, James had been injured in a shot firing explosion that had killed his companion, Frank Wightman. Tragedy hit the McCauley family again only three months after the disaster. On 11 April 1947 his widow Mary died from epithelioma (a type of cancer). She didn’t live long enough to receive any money from the Burngrange disaster fund.

John Fairley

Twenty-year old John Fairley was the youngest victim of the Burngrange disaster. John lived in Seafield and was the son of a general labourer, John Fairley, and his wife Anne. John Fairley did not live long enough to have a family of his own.

John Lightbody

John Lightbody originally came from Cobbinshaw. He was the son of a shale miner and started working in the pits when he left school. John married Sheena in 1941 and the couple settled in West Calder. By 1947, the couple had two daughters; their eldest daughter, Mary, had just started school. Sheena had been in bed when she hear the siren sound at 9.30pm. The sirens did not cause her any alarm. However a neighbour and friend came to the door later with news of the accident.

John Lightbody had been a Senior Deacon of Thistle Lodge, No 270, West Calder. The minutes of the lodge record his presence at a meeting only two weeks before his death. He was buried with full Masonic honours.

William Ritchie

William Ritchie had not been due to work on the night of the Burngrange disaster. His sister-in-law, Meg, hadn’t been well. His brother, Jimmie, asked him to swap shifts. The favour cost him his life.

William was married to Elizabeth. The couple had three children, Cecilia, William and Lily. Cecilia was 15 at the time of the disaster. The adults of the family didn’t talk about what has happened in front of the children. She does recall that her grandmother had put her father’s belongings in a basket. There was a strong odour and his coins were discoloured. Cecilia went on to marry the brother of John McGarty

David and William Carroll

Seafield brothers, David and William Carroll both lost their lives in the Burngrange disaster. William was married to Elizabeth and had two children, Nancy and Peter. David was married to Nellie. The couple had five children, Peter, David, Jeanette, Billy and Anne. It is believed that one of the brothers had swapped shifts with another family member. This wasn’t the first mining tragedy to hit the family. Their father died at the age of 36 following an explosion at Breich pit.

Henry Cowie

Henry Law Cowie was the son of Christina Roberts. His stepfather and three of his seven brothers, William, Alex and Eddie, worked at Burngrange. Fortunately, they weren’t working on the night of the disaster.

Thomas Heggie

Thomas Heggie was the son of a shale miner. After starting his working life in the shale mines, he served in the Royal Scots during WW2. He married Mary Telford in 1940; the couple went on to have two children, Kenneth and Isabel. He is buried in Livingston Parish Churchyard. Mary married again a year after the disaster.

William Findlay

William Findlay was born in Kirkliston to a domestic servant, Helen Shields. William had a difficult start in life; at the age of 10 he was living with adoptive parents. William was married to Catherine Rodger. By the age of 1947, the couple had three grown-up children, Thomas, James and William. Willam Findlay was one of two victims who had suffered unexplained burns. The other was William Ritchie.

Sam Pake

Samuel Pake served in the Navy from March – October 1944. In the October he was released to the reserves to work in the shale mines. He married Agnes Farquar in 1945. By 1947, the couple had one daughter, Yvonne, and another child on the way. Sam did not want to spend the rest of his working life in the pits; he had applied to join the police. Tragically, his acceptance letter arrived on the morning of the disaster. Struck down by grief, his wife went into premature labour. She gave birth to a son, Samuel.

David Muir

David Muir was the sixth of ten children born to James and Margaret. David served three months with the Royal Navy during WWII. He was called back to serve in the pits.

David and his pal Sam Pake were both at the top of the tunnel brae at the time of the explosion. They had been talking to Alexander Todd when they felt two “wafts of air” which extinguished their lamps. They teased young Alexander for being scared but said they would “tell the boys.” David and Sam went back towards the face. Neither men or their fellow workers made any attempt to leave at this time. By the time they realised that something was wrong, it would have been too late.

William Greenock was also killed in the Burngrange disaster. Unfortunately, we don’t have much information on William.

A memorial to the Burngrange victims was unveiled in 1989 on the Co-op Society clock in West Calder to remember all of the 15 men killed that day.

Burngrange Memorial names, West Calder.

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