original text by Dr Gilbert T. Bell

To be read in conjunction with the map of Bellshill

The history of the area starts long before Mr Bell ever owned his hill and before coal and industry put Bellshill on the map. Here we see part of the line of – or as the map has it, ‘the course of’ – the Roman Road as it makes its way from the Castledykes fort (near Carstairs) towards the western end of the Antonine Wall at Old Kilpatrick. A little south of our map, at Bothwellhaugh, was another Roman fort complete with bathhouse. All these local Roman remains probably date from around 150AD, but there is really little or no trace of this stretch of the road to be seen today.

We know nothing about Mr Bell, but he was possibly Patrick Bell, a seventeenth-century Provost of Glasgow, and he had land holdings here. He probably also owned a mill, and a village named Bellmill appears on early maps. That village disappeared, but is believed to have been located near the quarries, for Bell had built houses there for his quarry and estate workers. His own house may have been on the site of the later farmhouse of Bellziehill (simply a corruption of Bell’s Hill). By the time Bellmill disappeared, another village had developed to the east on the same road, the main turnpike road serving Glasgow and Edinburgh. This village was known as Crossgates as there was a tollgate there, as well as an inn where travellers could have refreshment. By about 1820, the village had grown in importance and acquired the name of Bellshill. One of the roads of present day Bellshill is named Cross Gates to recall its historic roots.

It is likely that coal was mined locally in the early seventeenth century, but the area around Bellshill remained agricultural and the village developed as a weaving centre. It did grow however – its population in 1841 was 1,013 and, by 1881, it had more than doubled to 2,572. But coal changed this dramatically: by 1911, its population was 8,786; and by 1931, it was 17,411. The reason for this spectacular growth was that, by about 1870, mining technology had advanced and coal in deep lying seams could be extracted; thus, the coal deposits around Bellshill and Bothwell could be profitably harvested. Railways meant that the coal speedily found its way to customers.

Bellshill was to be surrounded by collieries. Although none are named on our map, we do have lots of the housing – miners’ rows – provided by the mine-owners to accommodate their workforce. Some of the largest coal producers in Lanarkshire had pits here. William Baird & Co, of Gartsherrie, opened the Bothwell Park Colliery at Fallside in 1879. It employed a total of 668 workers, with 548 working below ground and 120 on the surface. Of these, 332 lived in the miners’ rows we see here, which had been built in 1879. The Summerlee Coal & Iron Company owned Orbiston Colliery, which employed a total workforce of 731, with 589 men working underground and 142 on the surface; 248 workers and their families were accommodated in the housing provided by the mine company in 1892. East Parkhead Colliery was operated by the Wilsons & Clyde Coal Company and it employed 353 workers of which 302 worked below the surface and 51 above ground; 105 of the workers were housed in the cottages here. They also operated the Douglas Park pit which had a total workforce of 347 with 304 below ground and 43 on the surface, with 163 workers housed in the miners rows of Douglas Park and East Parkhead, both of which had been built in 1895.

The railway historian John Thomas has described Lanarkshire as “an el Dorado for the railways”. The mineral wealth of the county meant there were potentially rich pickings for railway companies, for not only raw materials, but also manufactured goods and passengers required to be conveyed. By 1879, Bellshill had two railway stations – one on the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), and the other on the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMSR). The LNER line closed in 1951 and, thus, only one station remains. With the electrification of the ’Hamilton Circle’ in 1974, the station continues to have a busy regular passenger service. On the left hand edge of our map is Fallside Station, on the LMS Clydesdale line; this opened in 1877 but closed in 1950, although the line itself remains operational. The line also serves as the boundary between North and South Lanarkshire with Bellshill being within North Lanarkshire.

Tramways came to Bellshill in 1913, but there is no trace of tramlines on our map because, in 1931, the Lanarkshire Traction Company put buses on their old tram routes and the tracks were lifted. Now most things go by road and, to cope with increased traffic flows, the Bellshill By-pass (A725) was built in 1967. The line of the road is a little to the east of Bellziehill.

Bothwell Park brickworks opened in 1902 and continued in production until around 1945 when the firm re-located to the West Midlands (where it still flourishes). The buildings shown here were demolished and cleared in the 1970s and, as can be seen, the brickworks consisted of seven kilns. These were built from 1902–30, with the largest 10 metres in diameter and 18 metres high – it was known as Big Ben.

A large number of Lithuanians, escaping poverty and persecution, came to the Bellshill area and, by 1914, possibly as many as 5,000 had settled in the area. Many of them worked as miners where the pay was much better than they had been used to, but mines were notoriously dangerous places to work and they shared in the accidents and tragedies. The railway line we see here going off to the East in the top right hand corner is bound for Hattonrigg Colliery and it was the scene of one of these accidents. On 19 January 1910 at Hattonrigg, a cage carrying eight men, who had just finished their shift, tumbled down the shaft as it neared the surface and all were killed. Six of them were Lithuanians – all the victims were buried in Bothwell Park Cemetery. Perhaps the most celebrated of those interned in that cemetery, however, was Colour Sergeant William Gardner (1821–97) of the 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch) who won the VC during the Indian Mutiny in 1858. On his return he lived in Bothwell with his wife and four sons, and long served as Drill Sergeant to the Lanarkshire Volunteers.

Off our map, to the Southeast, stood the elegant Orbiston House. At times the house was known as Douglas Park, for it was owned by, indeed possibly built for, Gilbert Douglas, a West Indian merchant who purchased the property in 1800. On his death, his wife inherited the property and, as she acquired much of the Orbiston estate, she renamed the house Orbiston. Mrs Cecilia Douglas moved in exalted circles: at one time or another she entertained Sir Waiter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, and Sir John Moore of Corunna fame. She died in 1862 having lived to be 91 years of age. On her death, Orbiston was purchased by the Neilson family who owned the Summerlee Coal & Iron Company.

The Orbiston estate’s real claim to fame was that it was the scene of a notable experiment in community living. Robert Owen, of New Lanark fame and author of A New View of Society (1814), had two faithful disciples in Archibald Hamilton and Abram Combe, who desired to establish a model society – a new ‘Babylon’ to its critics – and work began on site in 1825 on land that had been purchased for almost £20,000. The plan was to have a community of 1,200 people. The central block, known as Liberty Hall, was completed but financial problems resulted in little else being built. Two hundred and fifty people joined the community, and all sorts of trades were carried out, including iron founding, market gardening and printing. As ill health struck its founders and financial problems multiplied, the project collapsed and those who had come to join the community departed in 1828.

Mrs Douglas had always desired to expand her estate, and this presented a golden opportunity. She had never much approved of the idea of the Orbiston venture anyway, and resented the four-storey block on her doorstep  so she purchased the site for £15,050 and had the buildings demolished. Time is, of course, no great respecter of any property, and Orbiston House too has gone – it was possibly demolished in the 1930s – and much of the estate became the golf course of Bellshill Golf Club. New housing was built in the 1950s on the land at the southeast corner of our map, and there the street names remind us of the sad story of the Orbiston community: here we have Babylon Road, Community Road, Hamilcomb Road, Liberty Road, and New View Drive.

By 1935, things had gone sadly downhill for coal mining in these parts. The clues are here. On the east side of the map we see a branch line labelled “Dismantled Railway”, which hitherto led to Bellshill Colliery, and a pit shaft has become an Old Shaft. The spoil heaps we see here are all that remains of Bellshill Colliery. Other collieries fared no better. Orbiston had closed in 1925, Douglas Park in 1929, and East Parkhead in 1930. Bothwell Park closed in 1932, and here we see the remains. Our map also shows the branch line heading south to the Bent Coal Company’s Hamilton Palace Colliery. That colliery had opened in 1884 but, it too, finally closed in 1959.

Soon the miners’ housing would also disappear, largely unlamented, for it was sub-standard, lacking basic amenities like running water and toilet facilities. The sanitary accomodation had been generally a common dry closet and ash pit, while the water supply was a stand-pipe in the street from which residents filled their buckets. The houses had no damp-proof course to prevent rising damp, and little in the way of insulation. People no longer wanted to live in single-ends or room and kitchens or to share toilets. Apart from the housing now on the site, at the bottom right of our map we here see some of the new inter-war housing, just to the north of Bellshill Cross. Much of what we see here as open space would later be built-up as housing or industrial estates.

Over the years new industries have come (and gone, in many instances), but Bellshill soldiers on. Its population is around the 22,000 mark. Its station, off Hamilton Road, might be little more than a shelter, but at least trains still carry passengers to and from Glasgow. Bellshill was never a place of beauty, but it is home to many people – and, without doubt, their houses are better, more comfortable and commodious than those of 1935; and their jobs are much safer than mining ever had been. Bellshill provides schools, shops and churches – it remains a vibrant community. It is good to look back on 1935, but it is better to do so from the comforts of the twenty-first century.

Further Reading:

Ian L Cormack’s Old Bellshill (1982) is a good starting point, while Rhona Wilson’s Bygone Bellshill (1995) and Helen Moir’s Bellshill (2002) present a fascinating pictorial record of the town’s history. The Housing Condition of Miners Report (1910) by Dr John T Wilson, Medical Officer of Health for the County of Lanark, gives details of miners’ housing, while Alexander Cullen’s Adventures in Socialism (1910, reprinted 1972) tells the story of the Orbiston Community and its utopian solution. Robert Owen’s A New View of Society (1814) was reprinted in 1970.