In the small town of Haslingden, nestled within the rugged landscape, lay a relic of the past known as Pike Law Quarry.
A disused haven of mystery and adventure, its tunnels had captured the imaginations of generations of local boys. Little did anyone know that the innocent exploration of these dark, forgotten passages would lead to an unforgettable tale of camaraderie and survival.
It was a wet summer’s day on August 20, 1929, when five daring young souls embarked on an adventure that would etch their names into the annals of local lore. Eleven year-old Vincent Butler led the expedition alongside his eight-year-old brother Terence, Charles Fulshaw and Walter Metcalfe, both eleven, and nine-year-old George Schofield. Armed with little more than candles and matches, the boys set off to conquer the depths of Pike Law Quarry’s hidden tunnels.
It was around 1:30pm when the boys arrived at Sykeside. The tunnels, once echoing with the sounds of industrious miners, now became a playground for the young and adventurous.
Undeterred by the stories of the quarry’s eerie past, the boys ventured deeper into its heart. George Schofield, perhaps sensing a foreboding atmosphere, retreated shortly after entering, leaving the others to forge ahead. The tunnels, dark and winding, held the promise of thrilling discoveries and secrets waiting to be unveiled.
But fate took an unexpected turn. As Charles Fulshaw followed his companions, the walls of earth and stone betrayed their age, and a portion collapsed behind him. A heavy stone fell, striking his foot and causing a painful injury.
With their limited tools of candles and matches, the boys huddled together, their shadows dancing upon the rough walls. But despite their predicament, their spirits remained unbroken. Vincent and Terence, older and more resilient, worked tirelessly to free Charles from his rocky prison.
On the far side of the hole the foul air in the tunnel put the candles out and they could not be relit. In the darkness they could not find their way out and after walking for some time due to the foul air they fell asleep.
When the boys failed to return home for tea, their parents became concerned and when George Schofield informed his parents where the other boys had gone to, a search was begun at the quarry by men who knew the tunnels and other places.
As the sun dipped below the horizon and darkness enveloped the quarry, the sounds of rescue efforts echoed through the passages. Local miners, alerted by the absence of the boys, rallied to their aid. But it would not be their efforts alone that would lead to salvation.
Amidst the oppressive darkness that had swallowed them, the tunnels of Pike Law Quarry became an eerie maze, their air thick with a noxious presence that extinguished the boys’ candles.
Left without their fragile light, the young explorers were condemned to a chilling blackness that rendered their surroundings alien and unnavigable. Lost, disoriented, and increasingly fatigued, they huddled together to try to keep themselves warm.
Despite the best efforts of those searching the mines, nothing of the boys could be found and it was at around 10pm when the police were summoned.
PC 122 Thomas Braithwaite, a former iron ore miner, confronted the inky blackness with a steely determination. Armed with his experience and the conviction that they were out there somewhere, he led the search. Alongside two dedicated civilians, John Paton and Joseph Holden, he plunged into the damp, stale atmosphere that gripped the underground tunnels.
It was relentless persistence that guided them, inch by inch, through the labyrinthine passages. Traversing a distance of over half a mile, their voices echoed against the damp walls as they called out, their flashlight beams cutting through the dense gloom.
Just as it was appearing that there was no hope in finding the boys, the three men arrived at a wall which at first glance looked impassable. But towards the bottom was a small hole, just big enough though for someone to crawl through, albeit on their stomach.
PC Braithwaite wriggled through and managed to make his way towards the opposite side, and after a short drop to the ground below, he heard a child’s voice echoing in the darkness. The constable continued forwards for a further 12 minutes and to his relief, he found the boys, many of them huddled together and sleeping.
Their fitful sleep had brought a respite from the dire circumstances, but fate had other plans. And then, the beam of a torch light and the sound of familiar voices calling out their names reverberated through the chamber.
Amidst the arduous crawl back through the damp, wretched tunnels, the boys were carefully brought to the surface at around 12:45am.
It was later reported that the boys had walked around 200 to 300 yards through the tunnels, and had ended up directly under the children’s home of the Board of Guardians (now a new housing estate that was also the former grounds of Rossendale Hospital).
Parents embraced their sons, tears of relief glistening in their eyes. The valiant efforts of those above ground had triumphed, and the unwavering determination of a police officer and his companions had averted a potential tragedy.
The lives of the young boys, teetering on the precipice of danger in the depths of Pike Law Quarry, were undeniably owed to the courage and determination of Thomas Braithwaite and his valiant companions. Their selfless actions had defied the odds, pulling the children from the clutches of darkness and despair and this incredible act of heroism did not go unnoticed.
In a poignant recognition of his exceptional service, Thomas Braithwaite was bestowed the King’s Police Medal, a prestigious honor that celebrated his unwavering commitment to duty and his instrumental role in saving lives. The medal was presented on March 4, 1930, in the hallowed halls of Buckingham Palace, a testament to the impact his actions had on both his community and the nation.
Born in 1899 in Cleator Moor, Cumberland, Braithwaite’s journey from a coal miner’s life to that of a dedicated police officer was marked by a sense of duty deeply rooted in his character. Joining the Lancashire Constabulary in February 1922, he was stationed in Haslingden, where he would etch his name into the town’s history.
His past, shaped by both adversity and valor, included service as a soldier with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment during the tumultuous years of the Great War. His experiences, both on the battlefield and in the depths of the quarry, had forged in him a spirit unyielding in the face of challenges.
In recognition of his exceptional contributions, the King’s Police Medal was complemented by the Lancashire Constabulary Merit Badge, a symbol of his steadfast dedication to his calling. Moreover, a Certificate of Honour from The Order of St John of Jerusalem was bestowed upon him, a testament to the impact his actions had on the community’s collective heart.
As the years passed, Braithwaite continued to serve, his commitment never wavering. Climbing the ranks to the position of Sergeant, he remained a steadfast guardian of the peace until November 1947. His legacy of exceptional police work and unwavering dedication remained embedded in the annals of Lancashire Constabulary’s history.
Interestingly, Sergeant Thomas Braiwaite, as he was now known, would later be involved in the search and rescue mission of many children who had been in attendance at the Holy Trinity School in Freckleton when a B-24 aircraft tragically lost altitude due to severe turbulance before crashing into the school, killing all 3 crewmen as well as 58 individuals on the ground, with 38 being school children aged from 4 to 6. This accident occurred on the 23rd August, 1944 and was the deadliest aviation accident to occur in Britain during the second World War.
Sergeant Thomas Braithwaite (fourth from left) at the Frekleton memorial in 1947.
Braithwaite’s tale serves as a reminder of the profound impact one individual can have in the lives of others, a beacon of hope and courage for generations to come. From his humble beginnings as a coal miner to his elevated status as a hero, his journey embodies the indomitable spirit of service and sacrifice that defines the noblest of endeavors.