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.

The village of Derby, with the mine in the foreground.

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.

Water pump in action at the Derby tin mine

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.


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.

  1. What a tragic tale.

    • Pauline

      Yes, so many of my relatives had difficult lives. I am always conscious of what a happy, carefree time I’ve had of it.

      • Hello Pauline, Would you know if one James Allen’s children was known as “Mick” Allen. In the 1960’s I worked with a Mick Allen, who was married and lived in Chigwell. He was a Technicians Assistant, employed by the PMG. I travelled through Derby with hime on a number of occasions, on once such where we walked around some of the mining ruins there. He told me that his father had been killed there during the 1929 floods, and I gather that very little, if any, compensation or other assistance was ever made available to his mother. I imagine that the Depression of the 1930’s would have added to the family’s trials. From memory, Mick served in the RAN during WW2 and I fancy he had some connection with the people who ran “Mather’s Domain Stores” in Hobart. I may have a record of his death somewhere here.

        • Pauline

          Hi Barry, if you look down the comments you will see one from Tony Sweeney, who talks about James Allen’s children. Of course the 1929 flood was a different disaster, where 14 people died.

  2. Such a sad story for so many people, not the least those left behind. My great uncle Steve Whiting, his wife Alice and their three sons were swept away, along with their house, in the same disaster at Derby. Steve was a veteran of the Boer War and married a bit late in life. Thanks for posting Jim Allen’s story. I recall reading those awful details when i was researching the Whitings’ fate – but you have provided the personal story.

    Best wishes

    Fran Keegan

    • Pauline

      Oh Fran, I have been reading about that terrible flood and what happened to your relatives. Would you consider writing something about it for my website?

  3. There were many tragic tales of many mines in Tasmania, yet none were so tragic as the 1929 flood caused by extreme weather that broke the Cascade Dam killing 14 people in Derby. My great grandfather (Donald Richardson) was one of those washed away. His wife, my Great Grandmother, was watching from the hilltop with MRS Brodie (Cave), also washed away. Brodie and Richardson were horsemasters for the Brisies Mine and were putting their great Clydesdale Horses in their stables when the water came through. They heard the noise and realised what was happening, but could not run fast enough to safety. Both their wives watching must have been so very tragic for them. I note from newspaper articles after the disaster that the mine was made to pay compensation to them. This sustained my grandmother through the Great Depression. Happy to share more if you like.

    • Pauline

      Thanks so much Warren. Yes, I have just been writing about Constable Taylor and his boat rescue of the eight miners after the flood. If you look down the comments you will see one from a descendant of the Whitings, who lost five family members. I’m so glad compensation was paid. Dear me, such hard times sandwiched between two wars.

  4. Hi Pauline – when I reread your story I realised Jim Allen was in a previous disaster at Briseis mine in 1926 not the 1929 disaster that took Steve Whiting and his family. There were similarities in the experience os some of the miners. I had forgotten that the mine had a bit of a history – as i suppose all mines did in those days.
    Re writing a piece for you – I would love to but not at the moment as I am up to my neck in uni assignments at the moment. I should really have my head in the books now, not enjoying myself reading interesting websites like yours!

    • Pauline

      Ah yes, I understand completely. I’m supposed to be finishing a book instead of writing website stories. The trouble is, I find social history so interesting. Very best of luck with your uni studies.

  5. A further tragedy in 1927, was that of my other Great Grandfather, Sydney Bishop, who was killed when the tailing race he was clearing overwhelmed him, pinning him down with debris, which caused him to drown. This was a tin mine at Moorina. His safety man had left his post for just a moment when it happened, but was cleared of such action at the inquest. Luckily for my Great Grandmother, Madeline Bishop (nee Counsel), was in receipt of an annual stipend from her Great Grandfather, James Smith, who was a former convict that built the Disappearing House at Conara (The Corners) and who had amassed a great fortune in his post convict days as a farmer and Inn Keeper. This fortune enabled all of his descendants living at the time he died to receive an annual stipend. Both Sydney and Madeline are buried in the Moorina Cemetery.

    • Pauline

      What a fascinating family history, Warren. I remember the Disappearing House so well, I’ll write a story about it. Do you have any photos of the Bishops?

      • I have written extensively about them all. Drop me an email, Pauline, and I will share what I have written about them and some photos.

  6. fascinating as i’m down in Tas. But also tears for those poor men and their families.

  7. Helen Kathleen (Nellie) Allen was my Aunt, my father’s sister. She had a hard life. Dad said that she turned grey almost overnight after Frank died. She also went blind. Her blindness was cured with an operation in later life. An operation not available to her in earlier years. She had two children to her first husband Frank Gorey, Frank and Mollie. A further four children were born from her marriage to Jim Allen. Elizabeth, Jimmy, Newman and Nellie. Elizabeth died as an infant and Jimmy drowned. I think it was in the 1960’s.
    She moved to Hobart and spent her later years living with her daughter Nellie. Despite all her hardships Nellie lived a long life. She passed away in 1974 aged 92.

    • Pauline

      Oh wow, thanks so much for that information, Tony. Poor Nellie, what a lot she had to cope with. I will update the story. So the paper got it wrong with the name Frank Carey. I really appreciate you taking the time to leave this message. BTW, my Grandfather Allen’s name was Newman and it was my father’s middle name.

  8. My Dad (Syd Sweeney) was very close to Nellie and we regularly visited her. I knew young Jimmy, Newman and of course young Nellie. The Sweeney family left Killibegs in Ireland because of the potato famine. The family, along with my then 2-year-old grandfather, Daniel, arrived in Van Dieman’s Land in 1853. They became Tasmanian pioneers. Miners, bushmen, builders and publicans.
    I have written about the family’s WW1 Experiences in “Sweeneys’ War”. It can be read, free of charge on the following link:

    • Pauline

      Thanks Tony, and well done. It’s so important to document our social history.

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