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The 1912 North Mount Lyell disaster (also known at the time as the Mount Lyell disaster and North Mount Lyell fire)[1] refers to a fire that broke out on 12 October 1912 at the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company operations on the West Coast of Tasmania. The mine had been taken over from the North Mount Lyell Company in 1903.[2]



The fire started on a Saturday morning, between 11:15 and 11:30 am, when the pump house on the 700 ft level of the mine was reported as being on fire. Only 73 men made their way to safety on the first day. Initially the status of the fire, numbers, casualties and survivors were confused in the first day or so. Considerable problems occurred removing men from the mine who were still alive. Many became trapped as they were working in remote stopes and didn't know of the fire until it was far too late, as there was no emergency warning system operating in the mine. Instead, men had to run along the levels and drives calling to the men, warning them of the serious danger that faced them. 170 men entered the mine that day. 42 were never to be seen alive again.[3]

"Letter From A Dead Man"Edit

During the rescue party's attempts to find any still alive in the stifling depths, they came across a group of men on the 700 ft level. One of these, Joe McCarthy, left a note pinned to a timber with a "spider" (a tool the miners used to hold their candles in). The note read:

"Seven hundred level. North Lyell mine, 12-10-12.
If anyone should find this note convey to my wife.
Dear Agnes. - I will say good-bye. Sure I will not see you again any more.
I am pleased to have made a little provision for you and poor little Lorna.
Be good to our little darling.
My mate, Len Burke, is done, and poor old V. and Driver too.
Good-bye, with love to all.
Your loving husband, Joe McCarthy."

"40 men in 40 stope"Edit

On Monday 14 October, 1,100 ft of rope was lowered down the main shaft of the mine. Attached to it was a signal gong. It was originally meant for the men working on fixing the skids in the shaft, however, late in the afternoon, watchers heard the rap of the line. It sent the message: "Pull to surface". When the rope was pulled up, a handkerchief wrapped around a tobacco tin was attached to it. Inside the tin was a penciled note: "40 men in 40 stope. Send food and candles at once. No time to lose. J. Ryan"

Rescue attemptEdit

The rescue attempt involved the transporting of breathing equipment from one of the Victorian mining towns to Queenstown, via a speedy shipping across the Bass Strait and the alleged fastest times by engines on the Emu Bay Railway, the Government Strahan–Zeehan Railway line between Zeehan and Regatta Point, and from there by the abt line to Queenstown.[4]

Such was their rush to get the rescue gear to the mine, the SS Loongana, the ship which crossed Bass Strait carrying the equipment, made the crossing in 13 hours, 35 minutes - a record which stood for many years. Also the train travelling times between Burnie and Queenstown were never bettered.[5]


As a result of the fire, initially 42 lives were lost; the bodies were buried in unmarked graves in the Queenstown General cemetery. Initially, the first two bodies to be recovered were buried in the Linda Cemetery, however when the final victim (John Bourke) was recovered, the pair were buried at Queenstown at the same time as Bourke. One of the miners, Albert Gadd, who escaped death and then re-entered the mine to assist in the rescue efforts, was hospitalised in Launceston and died on 20 February 1913 from carbon monoxide poisoning.[6] Gadd, whose wife was delivered of a son two months later, can be regarded as the 43rd victim of the mining tragedy. He was posthumously awarded the Clarke Gold Medal from the Royal Humane Society in Melbourne. Silver medals were awarded to 30 rescuers, among them engineer Russell Mervyn Murray, later the mine's general manager.[7]

Royal CommissionEdit

The royal commission that was held at the time of the retrieval of bodies after the fire, and despite various theories as to the cause of the fire, an open verdict remained.[8][9]

Although Blainey covers the details of the disaster in The Peaks of Lyell, writing 40 years after the event, there were still variations upon the "official" versions of the event, amongst "old timers" in Queenstown. Some of these are aired and detailed in Bradshaw's verbatim record of the newspaper reports and the royal commission, as well as being incorporated into Crawford's recent novel.

A number of themes arise from reading Blainey, and others on the subject: the rise of trade unionism on the west coast at the time, and the lack of preparedness for such disasters by the mining companies. Also one recurring theme in some of the stories was the rumour or suggestion of the presence of a woman disguised as a man working underground.

At the Centenary of the event at the Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival Peter Schulze's book An Engineer Speaks of Lyell [10] elaborates an argument that the most likely cause of the fire was an electrical fault[11] as a result of faulty installation of the pump motor at the 700 ft level. Schulze, who had access to more documents than Blainey and the twin advantages of an electrical engineering background and mining experience, concludes that the Royal Commission process was manipulated to give a result that best suited the Company, for whom an adverse finding could have been financially ruinous. It was especially at fault for naming the suspected arsonist, against whom there was no evidence apart from his prominence as a Union leader. He concedes that following the accident the Company followed best practice in mine management and labour relations.[12]


This list of victim details is compiled from the following sources:

Name Status Age Address/Place of Origin Notes
John Bawden Single 25 England Resided at Linda Valley, Tasmania. Had relatives living in Truro, Cornwall, England
Valentine Bianchini Single 48 Austria Identified by his earring
John (Jack) Bolton Single 38 Gormanston, Tasmania Resident of Gormanston, Tasmania
John Bourke Single 24 Victoria Mother lived at Daylesford, Victoria. His body was the last recovered.
William Henry Bowker Married 42 Ballarat, Victoria died 1 September 1919, aged 49 leaving a wife and 7 children
Samson Rodda Bray Married 33 Bendigo, Victoria Wife and one child living at Bendigo, Victoria
Louis Burke Married 43 Sweden Wife residing in Hobart, Tasmania
John Creeden Married 46 Westbury, Tasmania Identified by his gold crowned front tooth
James Davey Married 37 Victoria Wife and four children living at Linda Valley, Tasmania
Albert Mansfield Gadd Married 32 Queenstown, Tasmania Died 20 February 1913. Native of Hobart, Tasmania. He had 7 children, his wife pregnant with their eighth when he died. Albert was posthumously awarded the Clarke Gold Medal for bravery from the Royal Humane Society. His brother Gilbert was rescued from the1000ft level.
George Gard Single 21 Queenstown, Tasmania His married sister lived in Queenstown, Tasmania, and his mother lived in Victoria.
Thomas Gays Single 22 Victoria Gave up his place in the last rescue cage to a married man.
Charles Green Single 22 Launceston, Tasmania Native of Launceston, Tasmania
Francis Henry Guy Married 27 Victoria Wife and three children residing in Queenstown, Tasmania
James Thomas Hall Married 32 Mount Lyell, Tasmania Brother rescued from the 1,000 ft level. Native of Campbell Town, Tasmania. Wife and two children living at North Lyell township.
Eden Aloysius Hills Single 21 Hobart, Tasmania Native of Hamilton, Tasmania. His sister lived in the area, whilst other relative residing in Hobart, Tasmania.
William Horne Married 45 Black Lead or Buninyong, Victoria Married with six children
John Jenkins Married 28 Hobart, Tasmania Wife of twelve months residing in Hobart, Tasmania
Henry Jones Single 22 Hobart, Tasmania Sister living in Queenstown, Tasmania. Neither parent living.
John Martin Leeman Single 27 Victoria Body identified by his brother Charles
Zephaniah Lewis Married 41 Victoria Wife and eight children living at Gormanston, Tasmania. Body identified by oldest son William.
Thomas Maher Married 31 Victoria Wife in Linda Valley, Tasmania
Joseph McCarthy Married 40 New South Wales Wife and child residing at Linda Valley, Tasmania. To them a letter pinned to the wall by a "spider", was addressed.
Eugene Felix McCasland Single 27 New South Wales Engaged to a girl from Linda Valley, Tasmania
Edmund Michael McCullagh Single 49 Richmond, Tasmania Lived with his sister and brother, Thomas, at Queenstown, Tasmania.
James Bede McGowan Single 23 Queenstown, Tasmania Identified by his brother Martin
Bernard. McLoughlin Married 35 Ballarat, Victoria Never saw his youngest child as it was born after he left for North Lyell
Arthur McMaster Married 27 Victoria Identified by brother-in-law, Thomas McHenry
Herbert John Mitchell Single 23 Linda Valley, Tasmania Mother living in Black Lead, Victoria
Peter Moore Single 48 Ireland Left a note for the landlady at the Boarding House, letting her know where to send warning if anything should befall him.
Cornelius O’Keefe Single 26 Tasmania Identified by his father, John
James Robert Park Married 37 Victoria No children, but wife, Annie Eleanor living in Linda Valley, Tasmania.
Christopher Quake Single 50 Victoria Formerly known as W.J. Smith, but better known by the nickname of "Speewa".
Patrick Reiley Widower 46 Tasmania Identified by his brother John. Native of Westbury, Tasmania. Resided in Linda Valley, Tasmania. Had three children, two daughters and a son, residing in Hobart.
Francis John Rolfe Married 31 Victoria Shift boss. Two children residing at Linda Valley, Tasmania.
James Roland Rolfe Single 22 Victoria Parents living at Malmsbury, Victoria. Rumours stated that he was the brother of Francis John Rolfe
Thomas Saunderson Married 37 North Lyell, Tasmania Had a wife named Wilhemina and a daughter named May.
Leonard Sydney Scott Married 22 Victoria Identified by his father-in-law, Charles Morley. He had a wife named Louisa and a six-week-old daughter named Violet. Native of Melbourne, Victoria.
James William Smith Single 19 Tasmania His mother was residing with Mrs O'Connor, Princess St, Port Melbourne.
John Studwell Single 20 Tasmania Father residing at Manly, N.S.W.. Formerly from Beaconsfield. Identified by the initials "J.S." tattooed on his left forearm.
James Tregonning Single 18 Kyvalley, Victoria Recently arrived from England with father Daniel Tregonning, and younger sister, Eva Frances Tregonning.
William Tregonning Single 20 Kyvalley, Victoria Recently arrived from England with father Daniel Tregonning, and younger sister, Eva Frances Tregonning.
Richard John Treverton Married 34 Queenstown, Tasmania Wife and two children residing at Queenstown, Tasmania. Better known as "Snowy".
Henry Wright Married 54 North Lyell, Tasmania Resided at Linda Valley, Tasmania. Two daughters; one aged 17, the other aged 23


The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival of 2012 celebrated the centenary of this event. Part of the celebrations included a collection of songs entitled Fire Underground performed by The West Coast Singers, an ensemble of vocalists organized and directed by Kerrie Maguire.[13][14][15][16][17] The West Coast Singers toured Tasmania with this concert in the following months, including performances at the Cygnet and Tamar Valley Folk Festivals in January 2013.[18] The tour wrapped up with a performance at the Paragon Theatre, Queenstown in June 2013, on the 100th anniversary of the last funeral of the disaster's victims.


  1. ^ Later references now conflate the North Mount Lyell and Mount Lyell locality names to the Queenstown disaster
  2. ^ The Peaks of Lyell Fourth Edition, end of chapter 17 The Fall of an Empire page 161
  3. ^ The Peaks of Lyell Fourth Edition, start of chapter 22 The Disaster page 214
  4. ^ Singleton, C.C. and Burke, David (1963) Railways of Australia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney - pp132-135 regarding the 15 October 1912 train trip - and Emu Bay and Mount Lyell railways contexts
  5. ^ The Peaks of Lyell Fourth Edition, middle of chapter 22 The Disaster page 222
  6. ^ "A Lyell Hero". The Examiner (Tasmania). LXXII, (46). Tasmania, Australia. 22 February 1913. p. 6. Retrieved 17 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  7. ^ "For Bravery". The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) (10650). New South Wales, Australia. 12 July 1913. p. 15. Retrieved 15 February 2019 – via National Library of Australia. This article gives names of all recipients.
  8. ^ Rimon, Wendy. "The Mount Lyell Fire", page 244 of The Companion to Tasmanian History.
  9. ^ Tasmania. Royal Commission on the North Mount Lyell Mining Disaster; Tasmania. Parliament (1913), Royal Commission on the North Mount Lyell mining disaster : report of the Royal Commissioner, Government Printer, retrieved 12 October 2012
  10. ^ Schulze, Peter Ross (2012), An engineer speaks of Lyell : a quadrilogy, P. R. Schulze, ISBN 978-0-646-58279-5
  11. ^ Cause of Mt Lyell disaster questioned
  12. ^ Schulze, Peter (September 2011), "The North Mount Lyell disaster - a miscarriage of justice", Journal of Australasian Mining History, 9: 94–116, ISSN 1448-4471
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ "program of the 2013 Tamar Valley Folk Festival, including The West Coast Singers".

Further readingEdit

  • Blainey, Geoffrey (2000). The Peaks of Lyell (6th ed.). Hobart: St. David's Park Publishing. ISBN 0-7246-2265-9.
    • First written in the early 1950s, Blainey had access to some people who were alive at the time of the disaster
  • Bradshaw, Noeline. The North Lyell Mining Disaster. Queenstown: Galley Museum Volunteer Committee. (Available at Galley Museum)
  • Crawford, Patsy (2004). God Bless Little Sister. Margate: Red Hill Books. ISBN 0-9752152-0-5.
  • Rae, Lou (2001). The Abt Railway and Railways of the Lyell region. Sandy Bay: Lou Rae. ISBN 0-9592098-7-5.
  • Whitham, Charles (2003). Western Tasmania - A land of riches and beauty (Reprint 2003 ed.). Queenstown: Municipality of Queenstown.
  • Whitham, Lindsay (2002). Railways, Mines, Pubs and People and other historical research. Sandy Bay: Tasmanian Historical Research Association. ISBN 0-909479-21-6.

Primary sourcesEdit

(in some parts Bradshaw has direct transcription from the Zeehan and Dundas Herald for similar dates)

External linksEdit