MARKHAM PIT: “The day our lives changed forever...”

Microfilm copy of Derbyshire Times Front page James Reddish recovering in hospital following the Markham Pit disaster 1973
Microfilm copy of Derbyshire Times Front page James Reddish recovering in hospital following the Markham Pit disaster 1973

Forty years ago a cage carrying 29 men at Markham colliery plummeted to the pit bottom.

Eighteen miners lost their lives and a further 11 were seriously injured.

NDET 1-8-13 MC 1'Val and Malcolm Cowley. Maloclm survived the Markham pit disaster 40 years ago.

NDET 1-8-13 MC 1'Val and Malcolm Cowley. Maloclm survived the Markham pit disaster 40 years ago.

Only two miners survived from the bottom deck of that cage. They have spoken exclusively to the Derbyshire Times.

‘Age and luck’ on their side

James Reddish and Malcolm Cowley both say they had age - and luck - on their side on July 30, 1973.

James, then 25, of Brimington and 29-year-old Malcolm of Stanfree, started working at the colliery in Duckmanton just four months before the disaster.

James Reddish

James Reddish

James who was running late for work that day, said: “I had to rush and when I got to the cage I thought it was full. I said I’d catch the next one but someone shouted to squeeze up so they could get one more in.”

As the cage lowered to the pit bottom it normally began to slow down as it reached the middle of the shaft - but this day was different.

On the surface the engine man was trying desperately to stop the runaway cage after the brakes failed while his colleagues going underground where unaware of their fate.

James said: “I knew it was going too fast as I remember saying that to a bloke in front of me. After that I don’t remember anything until the rescuers dragged me out of the twisted metal and dead bodies.”

It was all over in a matter of seconds. The double-decker cage crashed into the bottom wooden landing baulks with enormous force.

James said: “I must have passed out before we hit the bottom. I have no memory of the impact.

“All I remember is coming round and having no feeling whatsoever.”

He added: “The roof of the cage was pressing my neck into my shoulders. The man in front was sitting in my lap. It had all concertinaed and I was sitting in someone else’s lap.

“When I tried to move, that’s when the pain kicked in. I was screaming my head off, I was just in so much pain it was unbelievable.

“As they pulled me out I remember someone saying ‘be careful’ and someone else said ‘we can’t do any more damage to him than is already done.”

Men were taken to Chesterfield Royal Hospital where James was treated for breaks in his spine, ankles, legs, hip and knee.

Three weeks after the tragedy James’s daughter Kirsty was born but he was not allowed to see his baby until his wound infections had cleared up - weeks after the tragedy.

He added: “It was hard, she wasn’t allowed on to the ward. For the first month I couldn’t move from my bed.”

James finally returned home on bonfire night but said it was strange settling back into family life.

Little did he realise then the major impact the disaster would have on his life.

Physically he was a broken man, on crutches for five years but emotionally his life was also in tatters.

His marriage broke down and unable to live close to where the accident happened, in 1978 he moved to Cornwall.

He said: “I just didn’t feel like I was progressing. My wife had left me, I needed a complete change of lifestyle and scenery. I didn’t tell anyone I was going.”

He added: “For the first 15 to 20 years after the accident I really couldn’t talk about it.

“As years go by dealing with it gets easier but you never forget. I can’t imagine any of the survivors could honestly say they’ve managed to block it out of their minds.”

The fateful date has never been far from his thoughts and 17 years ago his granddaughter Ellie was born on July 30.

James, 65, added: “It’s such a coincidence, the date has always been with me.

“I’ve only been back to Derbyshire twice since I moved but when it gets to the 50th anniversary I may pay a visit.”

The accident ‘that could never happen’

Malcolm Cowley should not have been in the cage that morning.

He should have been working afternoons but had been forced to swap his shift due to holiday cover.

Malcolm, 69, who now lives with his wife Val, 67, in Unstone, said he was not afraid when the cage began to drop. This was the accident that could never happen as miners had been promised the cages were safe.

But as the cage plummeted he passed out and the next thing he remembered was waking, in the darkness, with agonising pains in his legs and back.

Malcolm had broken his legs, ankles, hip, ribs and back.

When Val rushed to Chesterfield Royal Hospital she was unable to find Malcolm at first.

She added: “I didn’t know which one was Malc. They all looked the same, all black and covered in coal dust.

“There was so much happening and you could see some of the men were very badly injured.”

He spent eight months in hospital, finally coming home on March 1 - and on March 2 he and Val were married.

But Malcolm’s life had been changed forever and he never fully recovered from his injuries.

Unable to walk far, the former miner had to give up work and Val became his full time carer.

He said: “It has been difficult. I always used to be busy doing something and it wasn’t very often I had a day off work. I’ve never been able to walk far since.

“But I think age was on my side that day and I was lucky. I try not to think about it but I still remember it clearly. You can’t forget it.”

Val added: “It ruined his life completely. He can’t really do anything now.

“But at least he is here. He’s one of the lucky ones.”