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The Mauricewood Devils

Book Review: The Mauricewood Devils shines light on a dark chapter in mining history

ON the September 5, 1889, at the Mauricewood Colliery, near Penicuik, Midlothian, 65 men and boys were working in the mine. Around lunchtime, some wooden boards caught fire and the flames quickly spread to a coal seam, creating a smoky inferno.

Two men survived and 63 died, including a 12-year-old boy. It devastated the lives of their dependents, many relying on the miners to keep their families from the poor house. Outside of the immediate area, the disaster is little-known today.

Drawing on her own family history, Dorothy Alexander has fictionalised the events of 1889-1890, telling the story through the eyes of Martha, the daughter of a miner, and her step-mother, Jess, both having lost the man they loved. She intersperses their narratives with contemporary, factual reports, which demonstrate how differently the authorities assessed the events. Alexander has arranged these in 50-word paragraphs in traditional ballad metre. These blunt reports, which concentrate on the financial losses, provide a callous counterpoint to the grief and despair of the families left behind.

The key to the story working as a novel is making Martha’s seven-year-old voice convincing and Alexander achieves this with aplomb. In order to relate the story, Martha must impart facts that most children wouldn’t know or understand but Alexander seamlessly slips them into the child’s narration. Martha is a bright and endearing character who has lived with her grandparents and sister Helen since the death of her mother shortly after her birth. Her grandmother is a hard woman who never fails to let Martha know that she “killed” her mother. The two girls are always hungry and spend most of their time out of school doing chores. They always look forward to their father’s visits with his second wife, Jess, knowing there will be ample food on offer.

Jess is a no less sympathetic character, waiting anxiously until March 1890 for her husband’s body to be brought up from the mine. She works at the nearby paper mill which affords her more choices than many women of the time. She has always wanted her husband’s two girls to live with them but their grandparents want to keep them close at hand. Jess tries to support the women whose men have already been brought up for burial knowing she must face that traumatic day herself.

Through Jess, we see the women who became known as the Mauricewood Devils in a different light from that which is recorded. When the authorities decided to cap the still burning mine, only 30 or so bodies had been recovered. Many families were left in limbo, grieving but without a body or a grave to mark their loss. Several women got together to demonstrate against the mine owners, demanding the mine should be opened and the remaining bodies recovered. Many were taken aback by the women’s courage in taking on such powerful figures; many were horrified that women should behave in such a manner.

The mine was finally reopened in March 1890, and the rest of the miners were recovered. It soon became clear that several men were still alive when the mine shaft was capped, which compounded the families’ horror.

Alexander has used the memories and stories related by members of her own family to add colour and authenticity to her story. The monologues bring a sharp focus to 19th-century life in small mining communities, through the eyes of both a child and an adult. The work was backbreaking with very few health and safety measures, and it wasn’t so long before this period that women and girls worked in the mines too. The social conventions of an underprivileged, working-class community are revealed as people try to pull together and survive the disaster. There was a fund set up to assist the dependents of the Mauricewood miners but the rules as to who qualified were strict. A woman who remarried was immediately cut off and once children reached 14 years they too were left to fend for themselves.

This is an engrossing story about a vital piece of social history. If that sounds dull, be assured that Alexander’s finely wrought characters are anything but. Martha and Jess sparkle amongst the poverty and coal dust, their voices ringing out down the years that have seen too many people lost in industrial disasters. It is an important tale, beautifully told, and deserves to be better known.

Published by Freight Books.

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Author:

Freelance writer, reviewer and radio presenter/producer. Cats Protection Giffnock & District Branch volunteer

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