East Anglia isn’t generally known for mining since there are no known useful mineral deposits. However, the discovery of a rich resource on the land of William Nockles in 1904 led to a short lived period of localised mining in the area now beside the modern A14 outside Ipswich, Suffolk. Like the rest of Britain, the area was covered in a thick sheet of ice in the last Ice Age. It appears that there was some form of natural disaster: the earth was still settling down and earthquakes and volcanic eruption was far more frequent. Archaeologists believe that a huge herd of woolly mammoths were killed in one such event. They died together with their young who were believed to suckle mothers for a similar period to modern elephants.
William Nockles was not concerned with their fossilised remains. However, by the nature of the freak accident the nursing mammoth’s milk had been preserved in the form of a rich cheese deposit. It was this that William sought to exploit, using local labour to dig down and extract it. Although the initial find had been discovered just below the surface, the workers had to dig up to 20 feet down to reach the main seam. Suffolk soil is remarkably sandy and unstable in the area, yet Nockles seems not to have allowed for much reinforcing of the open cast face where extraction was made.
Whether it was a desire to recoup costs as quickly as possible or an effort to prevent the cheese being spoilt by wind and weather, the operation worked on a double 12 hour shift system. (9am – 9pm, 9pm – 9am.) Certainly the face was not that wide, so only a limited number of miners could access it at any one time. Space was tight, and young boys were employed to cart the cheese away in wheelbarrows which they had to steer around the rough terrain. Although children had been banned from mines in the Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1842, it did not cover open cast operations.
It was on the nightshift on August 24th 1905. It had been very hot during the day, but at around 9pm there was thick cloud cover making it quite dark. The miners used tallow candles (which they had to pay for themselves) attached to their hats with wet clay to provide a glimmering light to work by, digging into the already slightly melted deposits with picks and hauling it down into the wheel barrows, many of which were operated by their sons.
The two survivors (John Hewlett and Richard Catchpole) said that there was no warning. A mass of the part - melted cheese (probably affected not just by the days sun but the heat of the candles) suddenly slumped almost silently on top of the workers. By the time that help was summoned from houses about half a mile away the victims had succumbed to crushing and suffocation. Twelve men and five boys were killed, and are buried together in Little Blakenham churchyard. Nockles insisted that they had been negligent and refused to pay any compensation to the widows, but a local parish clerk called Frederick Packman wrote and published a broadside news sheet and ballad about the disaster. It was sold for a penny and all profits were divided between the widows.
The mine never re-opened and Nockles disappeared. His death was later recorded in Lancashire six years later. The workings flooded, but Needham Lakes as it is now known can be seen from the A14 between Ipswich and Stowmarket.
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