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The Greenside Lead Mine Disaster

7 July 1952

Greenside Lead Mine in Patterdale Parish was one of the world’s most famous mines and had an incalculable impact on the parish and its people for 140 years.

During its working life it directly employed 300 men including hundreds in the support services. It built 52 cottages in Glenridding and at Seldom Seen as well as other houses in the dale. It supported the church (the communion plate and cup is made with Silver from the mine) and helped with building the school.

When the mine closed it had a huge detrimental impact on the parish including depopulation shown by the school numbers which in the 1950’s were over 100 and went down to less than 20 with many houses became holiday homes.

The mine workings reached 1420 feet below ground (320 feet below sea level) stretching out nearly two miles. It was on the fateful day of the 7th July 1952 that four men were killed in a tragic accident.

Thirty-six miners gathered for the morning shift. Some noticed an unusual smell as they went deeper into the mine. It was put down to some creosoting which had been done over the weekend. The men entered the cages and went down to the 90 fathom level where the smell was stronger. They separated to go to their various places of work On the 175 fathom level some of the men began to feel ill. One of the miners said: “It was a sickly smell and first caught me in the stomach. Then my knees began to give out and I had a violent pain behind both eyes, Then I passed out”.

The gas was not due to blasting, but to a fire in the woodwork at the far Northern end of the mine. Over the weekend the timbering above the 200 fathom level had set ablaze allowing rock to spill into the shaft. Although the men knew nothing about this, the compressed air line which took air down the North Shaft had been broken by the rock fall and when the compressor started up, the blast of air from the fractured pipe fanned the flames into an inferno and blew the gases from the fire down the shaft. As men began to collapse some realised that they were in danger and dragged their unconscious comrades with them to Smiths shaft where the alarm was given and the cage was lowered to bring the men back up. These miners eventually staggered into the fresh air.

Men from the morning shift of surface workers, went to the rescue. The air hoist lowered one of them, Leo Mulyran, 150 feet down the shaft. Very soon he became ill. Another group of miners begun to feel the effects of the fumes in the north end of the mine and were retreating when they found Mulryan in trouble. One of these miners later said “We could hear Leo Mulryan moaning and Dick Mallinson said he would go and get him. The other two of us were not sure we could make it to the top and we carried on. I passed out coming up one of the shafts in the cage” Mallinson set off down the ladderway and on reaching the bottom shouted up that Mulryan was in a bad way and he was coming back up. He managed to get part way back up before collapsing.

Meanwhile surface workers George Gibson 33 years old, Eddie Poole 22 years old and John Miller 29 years old had raced ahead of the main party. On reaching the head of the shaft they peered down and saw Mallinson slumped on a ledge partway down the ladderway and thought they could hear Mulryan moaning at the bottom. Scorning the obvious danger, Gibson and Miller set off down the ladders leaving Poole to operate the air hoist which they intended to use to bring the men out. Unfortunately air was rapidly lost from the broken air pipe and the winch was inoperable. Poole began to slide into unconsciousness and moments later he was carried out. Douglas Hodgson and Gordon Hamilton volunteered to go down to the 175 fathom level and disconnect the air line so the escaping air would blow the gas back down the level and supply some fresh air to the trapped men.

The deadly gas was flowing too strongly and Hodgson was soon overcome and had to be put into the cage by two other stricken men. Unfortunately Hodgson's feet were left protruding from the cage and as it came up to the 90 fathom level, they were crushed between the cage floor and landing stage.

Greenside was a deep mine in the heart of the mountain, reached only by a single very long tunnel making it very dangerous to attempt a rescue.

All that day the fire raged on in North shaft and the gas increased inexorably. By 10.00pm that Monday night the carbon monoxide concentration had reached such a level that the rescue workers were driven from the mine. The agonising decision was finally made that four the men must be dead and so the mine was closed until such time that the gas had cleared sufficiently for the bodies to be brought out.

On Wednesday the 16th July, nine days after the accident the gas had dispersed sufficiently for the bodies to be recovered. This dreadful accident, the worst ever at Greenside, shocked the whole community, but the incredible bravery of the men who risked and lost their lives in trying to save their comrades was something of which they could all be proud. Official recognition came early the following year when George Gibson, Richard Mallinson and John Miller were posthumously awarded the Edward Medal by the Queen. Cyril Conner was awarded the MBE and Walter Burnett the BEM. Wilfred Kirk and Richard Glaister, from Winscales Rescue Station, were awarded the Queen’s Commendation for bravery. Incredibly the surgeons who attended Douglas Hodgson managed to sew his feet back on and pin the shattered bones so that although lame he was able to walk again.

The exact cause of the fire remained a mystery.