My great-uncle James (Jim) Allen was a miner. At 32 he enlisted in WWI, then returned home to work in the rich Brisies tin mine at Derby, in north-eastern Tasmania.
I have vague memories of my grandmother talking about relatives at Derby when I was a child, but took very little notice.
Oddly enough, the mine had been named for the winner of the 1876 Melbourne Cup.
The valuable tin was separated from soil or ‘overload’ by sluicing using high pressure water jets.
At 3.15pm on January 6 1926 a great mound of sludge slipped into the mine where a group of men were working.
One was swept away by the debris, but miraculously landed on solid ground. He immediately jumped down to help others. Another worker, Cecil Keen, was hit by the full force of the slide while tightening the pipes of the hydraulic water pump. His fingers were jammed in the machinery and he was suspended in mid-air until another deluge of material freed him. Unfortunately that second slippage also fractured the pipes. Keen fell into the rising water, but was able to swim to safety. He lost several fingers and fractured an arm.
Two men, my great-uncle and John Bastick, were buried to their waists. As Bastick was deeper, his rescue was the most urgent. A pole was placed between his folded arms and efforts made to lever him out. Nothing worked, because one of his legs was trapped. In the end he said quietly, ‘It’s all over boys’ and asked them to say goodbye to his wife. He drowned minutes later.
Next, a rope was tied around Jim’s waist and a group of eight men tried desperately to pull him up. Unfortunately he too was pinned by a leg, and he eventually called for them to stop; ‘My leg is trapped under a pipe. I cannot take anymore.‘ For the next twenty minutes the poor man remained there as heroic, but fruitless attempts were made to reduce the level of the water using buckets. In the end his friends could only hold his head up until the water rose and covered him. It was said that both men met their fate with great courage. Jim was forty seven years old.
An old soldier who had been at Gallipoli and in France said he had never witnessed anything quite so dreadful as the way the two men died.
A new pump had to be procured before the mine could be drained and the bodies removed.
The coronial inquest found no blame could be attached to anyone for the tragedy. However, I’m sure that these days questions would be asked about safety precautions relating to the sludge pile.
In the final moments of Jim’s life some of the men just could not bear to watch, and turned their heads. I can well understand this reaction, but I hope that at least one of his mates felt able to hold his gaze.
Both men were buried on the same day at nearby Branxholm cemetery. As a returned soldier, Jim Allen’s coffin was draped in the national flag.
LAID TO REST
Like most working class men, Jim did not have a will. Well let’s face it, there was nothing to leave except perhaps a small insurance payment from his lodge.
Dear me, sixty four pounds wasn’t much to sustain Nellie and her five children. And with no-one judged to be at fault, the funds would not be swelled by compensation. Jim was Nellie’s second husband, her first, Frank Gorey, had been killed in an accident at Renison Bell mine in 1915. He was caught in a winch and suffered terrible injuries.
Nellie Allen did not marry again. She lived with her daughter in later life, and died in 1974, aged 92.
The Basticks moved to Victoria. In January 1932 Edith Bastick expressed her family’s continuing sorrow in a memorial notice.
The tin mine has long since closed and the sleepy town has reinvented itself as an internationally renowned mountain bike centre. You can read about its transformation HERE.https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-26/mountain-bike-trails-driving-major-change-in-derby/9276384