Gary John McElliatt’s Ill-Fated Exploration of the Deep Ecton Mine

Gary John McElliatt’s Ill-Fated Exploration of the Deep Ecton Mine
Incident LocationDiver Full Name
Staffordshire, EnglandGary John McElliatt

The world of cave diving poses an unusual and unique set of risks. But like any extreme sport, such risks can be managed with the right plan and experience. If there is a disunion of either one of those mentioned factors, your dive of bliss and joy can become your hell on earth in the blink of an eye.

The Ecton Mine

Visitors to the beautiful and tranquil Upper Manifold Valley today would scarcely believe that the green and verdant hillsides of Ecton were once the scene of industrial activity on a scale like no other, both above and below ground. On Ecton Hill, Staffordshire, England, lay a group of mines unusual for the Peak District. The mines produced predominantly copper rather than lead and zinc. The names of the mines are as follows: Deep Ecton Mine, Deep Shaft, Clayton, Dutchman, Bagmine, Chadwick, and Waterbank. The most impressive being the Deep Ecton Mine known for its extremely deep shafts. The Deep Ecton Mine has been mined since the Bronze Age and, in the 18th century, was a major producer of copper and the deepest mine in Britain.

Ore-bearing rock would have been extracted with men being paid in a percentage of the value of the ore. Women and children worked on the dressing floors. Women used hammers to break up the ore into small pieces, and boys then barrowed the ore to a shed where young girls sorted it into three different grades. It was then beaten down further into finer grades, then taken to the “buddles,” large artificial ponds, where it was mixed with water and poured down a sloping surface to separate out the denser ores from the rock residues.

Ecton, at times, produced ore up to 60% purity, and copper was extracted for a wide range of uses, including the manufacture of brass and the ceiling against barnacles of Royal Navy vessels. Ecton Hills is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), and the Ecton Mine itself is an underground SSSI. The geology and mineralization of the area are characterized by complex folding and faulting of the limestone exposures. These, both on the surface and underground, represent a valuable study resource as well. The rock exposures at nearby Apes Tor provide opportunities for the study of geological structures, which can then be seen again underground, for example, in Salt’s Level.

Technological Developments and Mining Operations

Some of the earliest technological developments were a steam engine developed by Bolton and Watt, which would have pumped water and moved madden ore around the caverns as the mining became deeper to follow the ore. The need to pump water out of the mine became ever greater. To combat this, an underground water pumping engine housed within a vast man-made cavern was built in 1783.

The Deep Ecton Mine was eventually worked to a depth of 1,090 feet below the ridge top. By then, something more powerful was required to wind the ore up from the depths. Thus, in 1788, a steam-powered winding engine of the latest type built by Bolton and Watt from Birmingham was installed in an engine house at the top of the main shaft. Mining below river level ceased in the 1850s. The mine was allowed to flood, and all production stopped in the 1890s. During this time, fortunes were made and lost.

Gary John McElliatt’s Dive

Let’s fast forward to the 20th century. On the 10th of March 1963, Gary John McElliatt and a group of cavers arrived at Ecton Hills. They parked at the roadside beyond the ruins of an old building thought to be associated with the railway and began the ascent up the hill. Along the way, they planned to explore the deep flooded shafts of the mine.

After exploring the maze of tunnels, chambers, and canals the mine had to offer, around lunchtime deep in the heart of the hill, the group reached the head of the main shaft located at the center of the mine. This specific 1,000-foot-deep flooded shaft piqued Gary’s interest. Gary heard that at about 100 feet down one of these shafts, there was believed to be a side passage. In easy excitement, he borrowed a twin-set air tank which had already been used that afternoon by the group. At 100 feet, this air would only last Gary 10 minutes. This act was optimistic, but since Gary was an experienced diver, they thought nothing of it. The team set up a signaling system for Gary.

The signaling system was as follows: One pull on the line – alert, two pulls – payout more of the guideline, three pulls – take in the guideline, four pulls – pull me up, and lastly, six pulls – meant he was about to enter the side passage. This was different from the standard BSAC code, which then, as now, was one pull – alert, two pulls – stop, three pulls – go further from base, four pulls – return to base, and six or more pulls signified alarm.

With the system in place, Gary began his descent into the bottomless tunnel. He swam 100 feet down and peered around for the side passage. Not finding it, Gary realized that the side passage must be further down than what was thought. So, he kept on going down until he reached a depth of around 260 feet. Finally spotting the entrance to the passage, he gave six pulls to signify that he was now entering the side passage. He was given a total of 240 feet of line before continuing down the passage.

At this point, Gary had already spent multiple minutes on the dive, and as stated earlier, at 100 feet, the air in his tank would only last for about 10 minutes at that depth. But since Gary kept swimming down to find the side passage, his air consumption rates continued increasing, resulting in more air being used. Something Gary had not paid attention to. Gary gave two more pulls and continued swimming down the tunnel, hoping to see where it led to. At this depth, the effects of nitrogen narcosis would have now become more apparent in his behavior. Gary, totally disoriented and confused, didn’t realize the severity of the situation and his air supply that was running crucially low.

The group began to worry when Gary failed to respond to signals, but since Gary was experienced, they thought nothing much of it. As ten minutes passed, the group began to seriously worry. Now, Gary had not signaled any signs of life for quite some time. Devastated, they concluded that something went seriously wrong and began planning for a recovery of his body. A different pair of divers from the BSAC began the descent into the tunnel. Gary’s body was spotted floating to the surface. His gag was not in his mouth, his weight belt was missing, and his bottles were completely empty.

Upon the body being recovered to the surface, at post-mortem, Gary’s death was found to be caused by anoxia. Anoxia occurs when your body or brain completely loses its oxygen supply. Gary had not allowed a sufficient air margin for the dive, along with the effects of nitrogen narcosis significantly impairing his judgment, which caused him to swim further and further down the side passage in search of its end. By the time he realized he ran out of air, he was just coherent enough to remove his weight belt in a last-ditch effort to ascend to the top, but unfortunately, it was too late.

This is a story of a horrible tragedy that could have been easily prevented. It’s easy to say that what Gary should have done was locate the side passage, then head back to the entrance of the shaft to get more air before exploring the passage. But in an environment as extreme as cave diving, thinking can be easily swayed, and unfortunately, Gary’s life had to be the example.

Before your next dive, consider insurance – it’s like having a dive buddy for unexpected challenges. Dive safe, dive covered. Explore options here


What is Ecton Mine?

Ecton Mine is a group of mines located in Ecton Hill, Staffordshire, England. It was a major producer of copper and known for its deep shafts.

What were the working conditions in Ecton Mine?

Men extracted ore-bearing rock, while women and children worked on the dressing floors, breaking up the ore and sorting it into different grades.

What technological developments were used in the mining operations?

A steam engine was developed to pump water and move ore around the caverns. Later, a steam-powered winding engine was installed to bring ore up from the depths.

What happened during Gary John McElliatt’s dive?

Gary John McElliatt, an experienced diver, explored the deep flooded shafts of Ecton Mine. He ventured into a side passage but ran out of air due to miscalculations and the effects of nitrogen narcosis. His body was later recovered, and his death was caused by anoxia.

How could Gary’s tragedy have been prevented?

Gary should have ensured a sufficient air margin for the dive and not let nitrogen narcosis impair his judgment. He should have located the side passage and returned to the entrance to replenish his air supply before exploring further.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
All diving accidents