The Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Severn, the Undermanager at Mapperley Colliery

Thomas Severn was an experienced miner, working as a deputy at both Clifton and Stanley Collieries before moving to work as an Undermanager at Mapperley Colliery. He had been born in April 1875 on land owned by Swanwick Colliery as his father, Thomas Senior, had been a manager there. Thomas Junior had mining in the blood, something he passed onto many of his own sons. Perhaps that is what makes his disappearance even more confusing.

On the 5th of June 1918, Thomas, who was 43 at the time, started his shift as normal at 6am. On his break time he had been entertaining other miners with a song he was due to perform that night at a concert. As a member of the local church choir he was well-known for his singing. Yet, within a few hours something changed. The last person to see him alive five hours later was his son Claude, who was 17 at the time. Thomas passed Claude and the group of day workers, known as datallers, he was working with on his way to inspect another part of the mine. Claude later recalled that he felt something was wrong as his father hadn’t been talkative when he saw him.

Photograph of Stanley Colliery Home Guard during WW1. Thomas Severn is the man seated on the extreme left, as shown on

The first sign anything was wrong was when Thomas didn’t return to the surface at the end of his shift. An initial search was made in the area he was known to be heading to, but there was still no sign of him. The search group quickly expanded to include 40 to 50 men whilst they waited for the local mines rescue teams to arrive. Their focus was on searching all recent rock falls throughout the mine. As a last resort dogs and even a clairvoyant was brought in to try and find the missing man. Despite the two-month long search which cost £2,000 (just over £58,000 in today’s money), sadly he was never found and was presumed dead. Not even his lamp was found to help identify his last movements. He left behind five children and a wife he had not been married to for long before his disappearance, as his first wife, the mother of the children, had died young.

Many opinions and rumours circulated at the time about what had really happened on the day of the disappearance. There were three main explanations that seemed to stick: murder, disguise and fleeing the country, or suicide. However, there was no evidence to support any of these outcomes, but without a body or anything else to use, any of these could have been a possibility. Hope did come in the 1950s when there were attempts to use the site for opencast mining. In a newspaper interview in 1953, Claude spoke of the hope he felt when the opencast part of the site explored the area his father was last known to be. There was a rumour Thomas had been found, including with a stick and watch. Claude admitted he ran down to the site, demanding to see the remains as he could identify the watch, for it had been his own watch his father had borrowed that day. The men working told him there had been nothing found. The upsetting time the family went through without answers is also shown in Nellie, the only daughter of Thomas, who was interviewed for the same article as Claude. She vividly remembered the time as she had been 19, but it meant she played mother, rather than sister, to her younger siblings after their father’s disappearance.

It was thought that was the end of the story, until in 1988, a letter offering a point of contact about the disappearance was sent to the Ilkeston Advertiser, the local newspaper covering stories in the Ilkeston area. The man who had written the letter, Ray Huthwaite, claimed he was one of only two people to know the truth of what had happened to Thomas Severn. As a member of the Ilkeston History Society, Ray had been contacted by George Wain, a former pit deputy who had worked at Mapperley at the time of Severn’s disappearance. Wain had made the Ray and the other man swear not to tell anyone of the events of that day until after he had died, which he did in 1981.

Mapperley Colliery Soft Coal Workings at a similar time to the disappearance, 4 Dec 1915, D2713/85

George had just finished his shift and had gone up to the surface when he noticed a miner collapse in pain. He went to help the injured man as he was a member of the St John’s Ambulance, but the man knew he might be dying, so he decided to tell George what had happened. The man suggested that Thomas Severn had died after he and some others had hurriedly sealed off a roadway to an abandoned part of the mine. The pit was in a financial pickle and the management had decided to explore unused sections for better coal seams, rather than immediately sealing them off when they were legally declared unused to the Inspectorate. If this is true, it meant that Thomas, perhaps accidentally, had been cut off during his rounds and possibly holed in during the sealing of the roadway.

These new findings were reported to the Police at the time of the publication of the article in the late 1980s, which the Police promised would be investigated. However, with the passage of time these claims couldn’t be corroborated. Instead the file was listed as closed. As Pete Pheasant, the journalist who received the tell-all letter, reiterated in an article on the same story he wrote for the Derby Telegraph in 2017, perhaps this mystery may be solved in the future if some archaeologists ever find the remains of Thomas Severn, something which I hope will happen. For now though, it’s been an interesting story to look into and if you would like to look deeper into it, there is plenty of articles online and from papers at the time to look through. Hector Tyler has also written a book about the disappearance, which is also a must for anyone interested.


‘Missing Colliery Under-Manager: Mapperley Pit Mystery Still Unsolved’, Ripley and Heanor News, 17 October 1919

1901 Census

1911 Census

Alfreton Parish Births and Baptisms Register (1859-1890)

Hobson, B., ‘He Vanished Down Pit 35 Years Ago’, Derby Evening Telegraph, 17 April 1953

Pheasant, P., ‘Was Missing Miner Entombed in Coal Mine in Rush to Cover Up a Lapse in Safety Measures?’, Derby Telegraph, 19 June 2017

Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners. 

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