It was a disaster that claimed more than 60 lives and left countless others shattered.

Now, almost 170 years after the Victoria Coal Pit explosion took place, a fundraising drive has been launched to pay for a memorial to its Barrhead victims.

More than half of those tragic souls who perished in the disaster at the Nitshill pit were buried in unmarked graves at the old St John’s Church graveyard.

As the decades since have rolled past, the graves have been gradually hidden as the Darnley Road site became overgrown.

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However, James McEwan and Willie Leckie are determined to make sure the tragic miners get the respect they are due.

Left with some spare time on their hands during the coronavirus lockdown, they have been staging a cleaning-up operation at the graveyard – and now want to install a permanent tribute to those who lost their lives that dreadful day in 1851.

Willie, 52, told the Barrhead News: “James contacted myself to see if we could go up and tidy the cemetery.

“St John’s Parish Church was there many years ago but it burned down in an electrical fire back in the early 1940s. What is left is the old churchyard cemetery, which hasn’t been maintained for years, so James and I have taken on the task of looking after it.

“During the clean-up, we found out there are miners buried there who died in the Victoria Coal Pit disaster – and many of them were from Barrhead.

“One of the youngest miners was a nine-year-old boy.

“We want to raise around £5,000 to put up a memorial stone for those who were killed.”
Willie is urging local businesses and residents in Barrhead to support the fundraising drive.

“If businesses and people in the town could donate to this, it would be fantastic,” he said.

“James and I will be continuing to look after the cemetery.

“It was in such a terrible state when we started. We came across an empty can of Coca-Cola and would you believe that the expiry date was 2011?

“When the place had last been maintained, I could not tell you.”

James, 60, is also appealing for help to pay for the memorial stone.

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He added: “It’s such a shame that the old graveyard has been allowed to deteriorate so badly over the years but I’m happy to be working away at it with Willie, to look after it.

“It feels like we’re doing something to help and we’ve noticed that people are starting to visit it again.

“If we can get a memorial stone for the unmarked graves, it would be great.

“It would mean these people who died in the disaster are remembered.”

Explosion at Victoria coal mine claimed 61 lives

A total of 61 men and boys died on March 15, 1851, when a massive explosion rocked the Victoria coal mine.

The blast, just before 5am, could be heard several miles away.

A newspaper report of the time described the disaster as a “deplorable calamity” and added that, within a few hours, as many as 20,000 people had gathered at the pit head, in Nitshill, hoping for news of their loved ones.

There were 63 people in the pit at the time of the blast – 55 men and eight boys.
Only two – John Cochran and David Colville – survived, although they suffered horrific burns.

The majority of the men who died were married and some had their young sons working down the pit with them.

It was estimated that 65 children were left fatherless.

The Victoria Pit – the deepest in Scotland at the time – was owned by the Coats family, from Paisley, who contributed £500 to a fund for the relief of the families of the sufferers.

To support the fundraising drive, call Willie on 0784 327 4867.