Merstham Mines Rescue - 22nd March 1986

incident report compiled by Peter Burgess

On the evening of Saturday 22nd March a gcup of Scouts from the 4th Purley Troop entered the Chaldon Bottom quarry workings via Bedlams Bank entrance. Their leader, Derek Hands, had taken Scouts underground in Surrey several times before, and he took his ten boys to the Ockley wood end of the workings. On returning towards the entrance, seven Scouts at the front of the group became separated from the four at the rear (including Mr. Hands) when a torch failed. The group of seven missed their way and sat down to wait to be found. The remaining four, failing to rejoin the others, surfaced and the alarm was raised from a nearby house at about 11.00 p.m.

At 11.15 Malcolm Tadd received a call from the police asking for assistance in locating the missing boys. The Fire Brigade were already on the scene in force when the first cavers arrived at 11.40. The delay between initial call out and arrival was because several phone calls had to be made to alert other cavers, and lifts were arranged to collect them.

The Fire Brigade had worked hard. Floodlights, generators, dinky little blue sticks marking a path to the entrance. It looked like something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Stan Mitchell was first on the scene, quickly followed by Chris and Cathy Bayley, myself and Simon Jones. A word with the police incident officer established some facts regarding the lost Scouts. It was believed that the boys were somewhere between the Bedlams Bank and Chaldon Bottom entrances. Fortunately, Mr Hands had gone back into the workings with two firemen to, search westwards, and he was, therefore, unavailable to speak to. I say fortunately because, by luck, the Scout we spoke to gave us the impression that they had gone east from the entrance on their caving trip. If we had searched westwards, the boys would not have been found so swiftly because, as it turned out, they were found in an easterly direction.

Stan and I entered via the Chaldon Bottom entrance and worked towards Bedlams Bank, whilst Chris, Cathy and Simon worked in the reverse direction from Bedlans Bank. Our plan was explained to the incident officer.

Here, I'll let Chris take up the story:

"I went and changed and entered Bedlains Bank soon after midnight with Cathy and Simon, On my way I was asked and gave directions as to where the other entrance was as they wished to station a police officer and ambulance at Chaldon Bottom. On reaching the Bedlams Bank entrance I commented to the effect that for firemen to conduct their own search would mean that once we had found the kids we would have to go and find them!

"On entering the mine I thought I had been transported to Knossos as I nearly decapitated myself on the essential minotaur hunting kit (a line of stout twine), In fact, it was the cable for floodlighting the entrance area of the mine. Keeping the lights company was an unhappy firenan who thought we were bringing tea! A further fireman was stationed out of sight down the Groutings drive; neither knew which way Mr. Hands and two firemen had gone, so we headed off down the main drive towards the Bedlams Bank East area."

Chris's group carefully searched the first few drives east from Bedlams entrance by dividing, Chris looking in the low crawls, and Simon and Cathy working around through the open sections. Continuing this process of splitting and arranging a rendezvous each time, Simon and Cathy quickly located seven tired, cold and worried Scouts who had been sitting with one candle for at least an hour and a half, their carbide lamps having run out of water.

Chris continues:
"They had, on becoming separated, found a lot of dead ends and just wandered around hoping to find tho entrance, until their lights failed, when they had no option but to sit down and wait, only a few minutes from the entrance. They were quickly shepherded back to the bottom of the main drive, where cathy and Simon took them back to the entrance. I went back to meet Peter and Stan to give them the good news and the bad (one Scout leader and two firemen still to be found). I met them at the link between Bedlams Bank and Chaldon Bottom workings."

In the meantime; Stan and I had come from Chaldon Bottom along the northern working face route, blowing a whistle at each major junction. Had the others not found the boys by the time we met, we were going to cover the up dip sections but, as it happrned, that was not necessary.

After we had retrieved Mr. Hands and the two firemen, the Fire Brigade and their lighting (3) were eventually removed from the area inside the entrance, and the mine was declared empty (except for a few bats) by the cavers present. The lid was replaced. Back at the road we met the ,"gentlemen of the press", David Burton, from the Surrey Mirror, listend carefully to our story and made several notes. His story, later printed in the Surrey Mirror and the Redhill and Reigate News, gave a good summary account of the night's events; and does credit
to the reputation of the local press.

However prowling around that night were a couple of freelance reporters looking for pickings. Attempts by them to interview the victims and leader were resisted when one of then declared that he wanted to "give the people what they wanted to read".

On the evening of 5rd April a meeting was held at the Reigate Fire Brigade H.Q. Training Centre with representatives of Fire, Police, Ambulance and cavers present. We discussed the event, and planned for future incidents. The following points were considered of importance for the future:

  1. A call-out list of local cavers in order of "usefullness" is to be deposited at Reigate, Godstone and Caterham Police Stations.  This list is to be updated annually.  The Police would initially, contact one of those people only.
  2. Notices may be put at some of the entrances, as is done on Mendip, giving emergency procedures.
  3. If surfaced victime stay on top, they could provide essential information regarding the location of a missing party.
  4. Anybody other than cave rescue team members who attempts a search runs a risk of becoming lost themselves.
  5. More practical headgear was proposed for Fire Brigade personnel who go underground.
  6. One caver should  stay on the surface to help communications and co-ordination.
  7. Rescue exercises are to be held with the Fire Brigade.

Other points of relevance to us are:

  1. Victims should be advised not to talk to the press.
  2. A cavers press spokesman should be appointed.
  3. Two routes are to be marked in the quarries - one to the Groutings, and one to the Chaldon Bottom area.  This will allow lost groups to find their way out and will, it is hoped, take visitors away from areas that could benefit from such a conservational measure.


Those who took part in the rescue or otherwise attended the incident were:

Stan Mitchell, Chris Bayley, Cathy Bayley, Simon Jones, Peter Burgess, Malcolm Tadd, Graham Christian, Paul Sowan, Stuart Goldsmith, Bruce Osborne, Nick Catford.

On standby were:
Howard: Walden, Chris Grimmett, Sheelagh Halsey, Jim Stevenson.

Peter Burgess