Mawstone Mine Disaster - 75 years on

Just outside a small Dales village, 75 years ago this week, there played out a tale of heroism unsurpassed in the history of mining.

Of the eight men killed at Mawstone Mine on May 23 1932, three were rescue workers, overcome by the same poisonous gas that befell their colleagues following an explosion hundreds of feet below ground.

Few official records survive to this day, but two residents of Youlgrave, which sits half a mile north of the old lead mine, have delved into history to help ensure the events of the day are not lost.

Andrew McCloy and Norman Wilson have produced an anniversary booklet to mark the saddest and proudest day in the history of their village.

"It was felt this anniversary should be marked with something lasting," Andrew said.

"Most of what we've produced been pieced together through newspaper reports but it's a shame that so many official records have been lost.

"The essence of this story is that three people were killed going back to rescue their comrades - it's a tale of simple and genuine heroism."

The sense of community enjoyed in 1930s Youlgrave, and a brotherhood among the miners themselves, must have played no small part in motivating men to venture below ground, some more than once, in search of the missing.

But these close links also compounded the tragedy.

Norman, who was six at the time, said: "Then, quite simply, we had more time for each other.

"And the downside of that is that, when tragedy came, it came to someone you knew.

"Grief, like happiness, was shared."

On the day of the disaster, six men were working below ground on a ventilation fan. The only survivor of the six, George Frost, told how he was knocked to the ground by an explosion while returning from the shaft bottom. He was able to return to the surface and raise the alarm.

The mine manager, Kenneth Seville, descended in the cage at once. An exhausted Seville returned 15 minutes later, confirming he had found the men but had been unable to pull anyone out.

As more help arrived on scene, others, including the village doctor, blacksmith and pub landlord, went down - with just a handkerchief or cap held over their mouths.

Seville, descending for the third time, led a rescue party of Eric Evans and Jack Birds, two of the youngest workers at the mine. All three would be brought out dead.

Herbert Slaney, of Bank Top, Youlgrave, gave this account of the frantic scenes below ground to a Daily Mail reporter in 1932: "There were acrid fumes like thick fog, making useless our electric lamps; the heat was unbearable and the poisoned atmosphere was death itself. I crawled for nearly 20 yards before realising the hopelessness of it all, and I got back just in time."

The bodies of John William Birds, William Brindley, John Eric Evans, John Gallagher, William Geoffrey Gould, James Porter, Poultney Porter and Kenneth Seville were recovered by a team from Clay Cross armed with breathing apparatus, and laid out in the mine office.

Andrew said: "In researching the disaster, we didn't want to shirk the issue of why it happened.

"In circumstances like these people will want to find a scapegoat, but I think in this instance it was just a tragic accident."

Norman added: "The coroner said if you looked deep enough you might find something that hadn't been done properly, but the miners knew the risks and took them every day."

The inquest found that the men had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, probably accelerated by burns and shock.

Mine captain Poultney Porter and his son James were taken back to their native Cumberland for burial, while the other five were laid to rest at All Saints Church, Youlgrave, on a rainy day. The Sheffield Independent described how the funeral day skies "wept in sympathy".

The mine was never worked again, although evidence suggests that was not for the lack of trying.

Today the site is derelict and out of bounds for the public.

"Youlgrave Water still draws its water from the site so, in some way, it is still supporting the village," Andrew said.

"It is a very haunting sight. Like many mines it is just a remnant of what was, but here it has added poignancy."

A remembrance service will be held at All Saints Church, Youlgrave, at 11am on Sunday June 3.

The Mawstone Mine Disaster commemorative booklet, by Andrew McCloy and Norman Wilson, can be ordered from The Bugle, Englemere, Brookleton, Youlgrave, Derbyshire DE45 1UT.

Cheques for 2.50 should be made payable to The Bugle.