My Ancestors

Was it murder

by Grahame Thom

I have been researching family history for just over 50 years. Some years ago I wrote an article about my Thom line covering seven known generations and I had reached the position that I was unlikely to find any other significant information about them.

My great great grandfather, Robert Thom, was born about 1835 at New Dundyvan in the Parish of Old Monkland, east of Glasgow. Scotland, to Robert Thom, pithead man, and Agnes Whitelaw. I have not been able to find his baptism. Robert married Margaret Fleming of Barthgate, a domestic servant, in the Church of Scotland, Baillieston, Old Monkland, on 6 February 1857.

Over the next 15 years Robert and Margaret had eight children, all born in the Parish of Old Monkland. It is likely that Robert worked in the local coal mines for on 25 July 1897, aged about 62 years, he died in No 10 Pit at Rosehall of cardio-syncope. Over many years of researching I thought this was the extent of my knowledge of Robert’s life. His son Robert, born 1860, immigrated to Queensland in 1883.

The following towns in the parish of Old Monkland appear in the records relating to this Thom family in the mid 1800s – Baillieston, Brownshill, Coatbridge, Dundyvan, Gartsherrie, and Luggiebridge. All these towns were associated with coal mining and iron works.

In speaking about Coatbridge in 1845, Robert Baird said “There is no worse place out of hell than that neighbourhood. At night the groups of blast furnaces on all sides might be imagined to be blazing volcanoes at most of which smelting is continued on Sundays and weekdays, day and night without intermission. A coat of black dust overlies everything.” (1)

Early in 2019 a family history magazine I was reading mentioned the website Scottish Indexes. This was a new site for me, so I did a simple search for Robert Thom. Included in the twelve results were the following two entries.

High Court – Crown Office Precognitions
Robert Thom, engine keeper, No 1 Pit, Kirkwood Colliery, Old Monkland
Luggiebridge, Old Monkland, Lanarkshire
Age 26, birthplace Lanarkshire,
Accused, 1862

High Court of Justiciary Trial Papers
Robert Thom, age 26, birthplace Lanarkshire, accused, 1862

The above personal details fitted my ancestor Robert Thom. I pondered for a couple of weeks as the cost to obtain the images of the documents was 45 pounds. I then decided I just had to find out what this was about. I received by email 88 images of original legal documents. (2)

By 1862 Robert and his family were living at Luggiebridge, not far from the Kirkwood Colliery. He was working at Pit No 1 at the Colliery as a winding-engine keeper. He was responsible for keeping the engine and boiler in good working order, and for its operation including responding to the various signals made for raising and lowering the pit cage.

The bottom of the No 1 Pit was 80 yards (about 73 metres) below ground level and was in charge of the bottomer. He was responsible for making the signals to raise or lower the cage, and to ensure that the cage was loaded correctly, whether with men or coal.

A drawer was the person who brought the coal in a hutch from the coal face to the bottom of the  pit. He was responsible for loading the hutch into the cage.

An accident occurred on Thursday 19 June 1862 at the No 1 Pit. The drawer, Andrew Blackadder, aged 14 years, brought a hutch of coal to the shaft and attempted to load it into the cage. He found this difficult and was assisted by the bottomer, Alexander Neilson, who, as usual, stepped partly into the cage. Suddenly the cage was raised and Alexander was squashed against the form work at the top of the entrance to the Pit. He died within minutes. Andrew stated in his written evidence that he heard no signal for the cage to be raised.

Next day at nearby Airdrie, Robert was arrested and charged with culpable murder, in that he caused the death of Alexander Neilson by raising the cage without receiving the signal to do so. He was held in Airdrie jail until 24 June when he was released on bail.

Over the next 3 months preparation for the trial took place. Statements were taken from 14 witnesses and other documents gathered, such as the rules about the duties of staff and the operation of the colliery.

Robert appeared before Lord Dees and a jury at the Glasgow Circuit Court on 16 September 1862. But after five witnesses were examined for the prosecution, some doubts arose as to whether a signal had been made or not. Lord Dees advised the jury to find Robert not guilty and he left the Court a free man.

From a research point of view, the lesson from this find is that because of new information being continuously placed on the internet, there is a need to regularly review the contents of relevant websites for any new information. Perhaps one day I will find out when Robert was born.


1. Book Coatbridge: Three Centuries of Change – Peter Drummond and James Smith, Monkland Library Services, 1982

2. Website Scottish Indexes – httpss:// – accessed June 2019. National Records of Scotland references JC26/1862/184 and AD14/62/49

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