An accident in a coal mine

John Adamson (1886-1962) and Elizabeth Hoggan (1891-1984)


Part 1: The Kingseat (Dean) Colliery  (12 December 1925)


Kingseat No 1 Pit had been shut in 1902, but now it had been re-sunk. It was possible to access the Dunfermline Splint coal seam much more efficiently than ever before. The coal mine was part of the Dean Pit complex of shafts at Kingseat, a couple of miles east of Dunfermline. The company was run by Thomson Smith, David Smith and David Nicolson, but the manager of Kingseat No 1 Pit was Alex Walker, and he didn’t look pleased at all. Beside him was Sandy Doig who was the foreman of the surface workers. Doig managed to look even less happy than Walker.

“Johnny Adamson – over here if you please and as quick as you can. You too Wullie Lawson. I can see you there. Doing bugger all as usual,” growled the choleric Doig. “I was just about shaken to bits coming up in the cage. Something is sticking at present.”

“This will never do. Adamson: those hawsers need more greasing. Slacken off the wires at the top, and then get Lawson to hold the break on the cage and get on top and make sure that all moving parts are well greased.”

“Yes, indeed Mr Walker,” said the quietly spoken Adamson. “I’ll have it done right away.”

The investment to re-sink Kingseat No 1 had been considerable. The last thing that the mine needed was an inefficient cage.

It was a cold winter’s morning, but no snow on the ground. Puddles in the yard were frozen. The sky was a pale blue with a hint of red to the east, where the sun was just beginning to rise. The men wore old jackets over their overalls, heavy work boots, scarves and flat caps.

Adamson and Lawson began work. Some of the other men wandered past and offered jocular assistance. In particular, the butt of their jokes was Wullie Lawson who was generally regarded as not the brightest man in the village. It was well known that he couldn’t read or write, and some of the crueller wits took the opportunity to plaster him with unhelpful and unsought advice. In short, they were baiting him.

“Right boys, you’ve had your fun. Leave Wullie alone and we can get this job done,” called Adamson from the top of the cage. 

Wullie, red-faced and angry was standing by the manual break at the top of the shaft. 

The group of lads moved away, but one of them spied a nice round piece of coal lying in the dirt. He stooped and spun round. Then threw the coal with unerring aim at the back of Wullie’s head. It struck with a dull thud. The enraged Wullie turned round, saw the boys laughing, and charged across the yard, leaving the break untended. The cage began to move. Slowly at first, and then with ever increasing velocity it descended into the shaft. Johnny Adamson was on top of it. A horrified Wullie Lawson ran back to the breaking mechanism and grabbed desperately at the handles. It slowed the cage a little but still it hit the bottom of the shaft with a mighty crash. Adamson was thrown ten feet into the air and back on to the roof of the now mangled cage.


Part 2: The West Fife General Hospital, Dunfermline (14 May 1926)

The gash through the left cheek, caused by a flying steel hawser, had healed leaving a red wheal across Johnny Adamson’s face. The myriad of cuts and bruises had gone. The broken arm was a thing of the past. However it was only now that he was getting out of hospital, and he would never walk without a limp again. For his back had been broken by the fall. The hospital had supplied him with a surgical corset (and a spare), along with a set of shiny new black shoes. The right shoe had a built up sole almost an inch thick because the back injury had caused his right leg to be significantly shorter than his left. Nor would he ever escape pain in his back for the rest of his days. What was done could not be undone.

But now all was forced jollity and much packing. Today he was going home with his wife, Liz, who had come in by tram from Halbeath to collect him from the recovery ward. Six months in hospital and still walking with two sticks had altered Johnny Adamson’s horizons markedly. 

With a wave of a stick to his fellow patients in the ward, he was off and away down the brightly lit corridor towards the hospital side entrance on the New Row.

“I’ve been reading the news and it’s not good, ” said Johnny.

His efficient but slightly fussing wife responded, “No. The General Strike is over. The TUC were at Downing Street and have given in. The miners are on their own.”

“Lizzie: have you had any replies to your letters?”

Liz frowned, “Not any yet. But you can understand them. No-one has time for individual cases when the country is in such a turmoil. I can’t even get to speak to anyone at the Fife Miners Association. They are all taken up with the strike. So no-one is committing to support a medical tribunal. I’ve even written to Willie Adamson, but again I haven’t heard back.”

“Well that is understandable. I’m sure they’ll get round to us.”

“Some good news Johnny though. Captain Wallace has been round to assure us that we can stay rent free in the Pleasance Road until this is all sorted out. He even said that he could find some work for you with your father if there was nothing suitable at the mine.”

Just at that moment, there was a metallic throb on the tram rails, and a tram appeared under the railway arches.


Notes

  1. Mining around Kingseat probably started in the early 19th century. There were several mines north-west of the village, and from mid-century they were being operated by the Henderson, Wallace company. The Wallaces pretty much owned Halbeath and the Adamsons were closely associated with them as farm servants. In 1902, the Kingseat Colliery Company re-opened the redundant workings and invested in what became the Dean Colliery complex of shafts. In 1925, No 1 Mine was re-sunk. The Dean Colliery operated until 1945 when it was closed by flooding. 
  2. The accident happened much as described according to family legend. John Adamson had substantial minor injuries, but the main issue was a broken back. He walked with a limp and a built-up boot ever afterwards. Equally he wore a tightly laced surgical corset to support his lower back. He had chronic back pain. More than that, he was unable to perform any heavy work. This restricted him to light labouring jobs on either Halbeath Farm or in adjacent coal mines as work became available – which was sporadic.
  3. John Adamson spent 6 months in hospital. There never was a formal compensation claim. He felt overlooked  by his union as a result. He was released just after the collapse of the General Strike on 11 May 1926. Like all Fife miners he was then on strike for six months until effectively starved back to work in November/December. My father’s first memories (he was born in 1921) were of picking poor quality coal off the spoil heaps (known as bings) for fuel. The pay of the miners fell markedly, the hours that they worked went up and the legacy of bitterness in the Fife coalfield would last for generations.
  4. William Adamson (1863-1936) was the local MP and leading Labour politician. He was born and raised in the small village of Halbeath and knew Alexander Adamson (1858-1931) and his son Johnny. My family assumed that they were cousins of sorts although I cannot see any close connection with the aid of modern genealogical resources. Adamson was very much involved in the General Strike having been the leader of the Fife coal miners’ union from 1908 as General Secretary, MP for West Fife from 1910, and also having been previously both Leader of the Labour Party at the end of World War One, and then the first socialist Secretary of State for Scotland in 1924. In 1926, Willie Adamson was fighting both the coal mine owners on one hand and communists on the other, who would eventually split away to found the Reform Union in Fife. No help for Johnny Adamson was forthcoming as far as I am aware.


 

The authors' grandparents, John and Liz Adamson,

An early 20th century coal miners' cage

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