MARKHAM PIT: The day a community fell silent

Markham Pit disaster from 1973 - microfilm copies for 40th anniversary
Markham Pit disaster from 1973 - microfilm copies for 40th anniversary

Forty years may have passed since a disaster at Markham Colliery claimed the lives of 18 miners, but for the families devastated by the tragedy the memories are still fresh.

On Monday, July 30, 1973 a cage carrying men down the mine near Staveley failed to slow down, and plummeted to the pit bottom.

Markham Pit disaster from 1973 - microfilm copies for 40th anniversary

Markham Pit disaster from 1973 - microfilm copies for 40th anniversary

Men working underground heard the screams of their 30 trapped mates.

One of the first men to reach the wrecked cage was Harry Furniss, of Brimington, who told the Derbyshire Times he had been standing close to the shaft bottom when he heard the whine of the cage picking up speed.

Mr Furniss began running back into the pit when he heard a “terrific bang.”

He added: “When I looked back it was a terrible sight - the men were huddled up against each other, all arms and legs and all tangled together. There was blood everywhere.”

Families were left devastated as 18 men lost their lives and a further 11 suffered serious injuries.

Twin sisters Lynn Robinson and Sadie Start’s father, Joseph Birkin, was killed on that fateful day.

Mr Birkin, 60, of Birkinstyle Lane, Shirland, a face worker at Markham who had been down the mines since he was 14-years-old, was looking forward to his retirement.

Lynn said: “We were just one of many families who were deeply affected by that awful tragedy and the memories of that day and the weeks that followed are still painful.

“My sister and I were 21 years old in 1973 so were of an age to clearly recall everything that happened.”

Rob Shelbourne said he can still remember answering the phone and his uncle Harold asking to speak to his dad.

He added: “Dad just dropped the phone, grabbed the car keys and ran out of the house. It turned out he was shotfirer on that shift but his mate asked him to swap shifts so he could attend a family do. My uncle thought dad was on his usual shift and would have been on that cage.”

Former miner Lawrence Humphreys added: “I knew something had happened, as I was going home after being on the night shift.

“I saw the cage rope take the top off the Blacksmiths shop roof.

“I returned on nights and being an electrician and being the only one to turn up, was given the duty as being in charge that shift and had to remain in the pit bottom.

“The cage was still there, sunk into the sump boards. After the shift had ended I went and gave my notice in straight away, that was it for me and also the fact it was some of the members of my face team who lost their lives.”

To mark the 40th anniversary of the disaster a commemoration event will be held at Markham Vale, which is built on the site of the former colliery.

The event will see the first two figures in a memorial to the miners who lost their lives, unveiled.

The 1973 disaster was the third at the colliery, following accidents in 1937 and 1838, with a combined total of 106 miners losing their lives.

The memorial will be made up of 106 steel figures, each carrying a tag with the name of one of the miners, along with their age and job role.

The first two figures to be unveiled will bear the names of the youngest and oldest miners killed in the disasters.

The youngest miner was 18-year-old Arthur Brown, a pony driver killed in the 1938 disaster. The oldest was Albert Tyler, a 64-year-old back repairer who died in the 1973 disaster.

Every tag on the figures will trigger a different piece of information – including video, audio and written works – via apps and web links through mobile phones and hand-held devices.

These will include interviews with local miners, historians and accounts of the mining disasters.

Derbyshire County Council, Staveley Town Council, and Alkane Energy – whose premises are above the site of the mine shaft where the disaster occurred – have worked together to organise the event, led by Father Stephen Jones, Rector of Staveley.

A commemorative stone will be unveiled, Ireland Colliery Brass Band will play at the service and wreaths and flowers will be laid.

To meet assemble at 10.30am at Markham Vale Environment Centre, on July 30.