The Boy Cope, who cheated death twice

bulli mine disaster inset herbert cope

The scene at the pit top, Bulli Colliery, March 23 1887. Inset: Herbert Cope at the age of 17. Pictures: Mick Roberts Collection


ONE of the survivors of the 1887 Bulli mine disaster, who lived to tell the tale of his miraculous escape from the catastrophic methane explosion that extinguished the lives of 81 men and boys, was Herbert Cope. He became known as “The boy Cope”, and rarely spoke of the tragedy for the remainder of his life.

Seventeen-year-old Herbert Cope was working as a wheeler at Bulli pit when methane gas ignited inside of the colliery, killing all his work mates, about 2.30pm on March 23 1887.

Cope literally walked away from the tragedy, and lived to the ripe old age of 84, rarely speaking of his brush with death, not even to his family.

Born at Redfern in 1869, the youngest of eight children, Herbert’s parents William and Jane died in 1880 and 1881 respectively and he was raised by his oldest sister Annie from the age of 12.

In 1882, his brother Sidney was running a Newton butcher shop, which later he relocated to Bulli.

Sidney and another brother David opened the butcher shop, and young Herbert gained work in the Bulli Colliery, living with his family in Russell Street Woonona.

Speaking with the late Ken Cope of Sylvania, in 1999, the grandson of Herbert, I gained an insight into the man who, I discovered, played poker with death on more than one occasion.

Ken, then 76, was 25 when his grandfather died, and he had vivid memories of the old man who survived, what was then, the largest loss of life as a result of an accident in Australian history. Only the Mt Kembla Colliery disaster in 1902 would surpass the Bulli tragedy.

Ken said his grandfather was a quiet, stern and at times angry man, who had experienced the worst and best life could offer.

In a rare interview in the Daily Mirror in 1949 Herbert Cope recalled that fateful day when victims, ‘burned to a cinder, heads smashed-in, arms and legs broken and fearful gashes on the bodies’, were recovered and carried over a mile to the tunnel mouth where identification proved difficult and, for many, impossible.


An artists impression at the time of preparing the victims’ charred and burnt bodies in the engine shed near the corner of today’s Hobart Street and Princes Highway, Bulli after the explosion. Photo: Mick Roberts collection.

Herbert, who was earning 25 shillings and six pence a day, was walking out of the mine tunnel for lunch at the time of the explosion.

“I saw the props straining and I thought it was an earth fall. Then a tremendous blast flung me violently against a pit prop,” he said.

“That’s all I knew, except that I managed to stagger the rest of the way out.”

Those few sentences are the only recorded comments of a survivor of the infamous explosion.

The blast left Herbert with a wound on his left shin that would be a constant reminder of the disaster. The ulcerated gash never properly healed, and was dressed daily until he died, according to grandson Ken.

After the explosion Herbert never returned to the pits and married local girl Ann Pure Parsons in 1894. He worked for his brothers, Sidney (a juror in the mine explosion inquest) and David, at their Bulli butcher shop, where fate again dealt him another cruel blow in 1895. Herbert incredibly cheated death for a second time when a boiler exploded at the shop killing both Sidney and David.

Herbert Cope, aged about 70.

Herbert Cope, aged about 70. Photo: Mick Roberts collection.

Work was scarce in the northern Illawarra coalfields when the Cope family left the region. Herbert and his wife Ann made 548 Railway Pde Hurstville their new home in 1920 and he opened a fruit shop in nearby Forest Road. He reared seven children, later operating a fruit run around the district in a horse and cart, with some of his children following in the business.

Better late then never, Herbert’s luck changed for the better at the age of 69, when he won first prize of £5,000 in the 1938 state lottery. With his new found wealth he bought the latest model Vauxhall, a trailer and a tent to indulge in his love of fishing. He would regularly make fishing trips down the south coast from Hurstville to camp on the shores of Lake Illawarra.

Grandson Ken told the tale of his granddad’s mining instincts making a sudden resurgence while on one of his fishing expeditions.

“Granddad’s eldest son Herbert (Jnr) had a Harley Davidson motorcycle and the accelerator stuck and he couldn’t stop. Grandad yelled ‘I’ll stop it son’ and using long ago skills as a wheeler in the pits, ‘spragged’ the spokes with a piece of timber,” Ken said.

In his 70s Herbert, the Cope patriarch, regularly entertained the family on his piano accordion or Pianola, and made sure all his children had an example of his new past time in their yards. A hobby of building concrete statues embedded with shells was a must in the Cope family’s yards.

herbert copes home hurstville 2 google

Herbert Cope’s family home at Hurstville in 2017. Picture: Google Streetview

The remarkable life of Herbert Cope, who cheated death twice, eventually winning a fortune on the state lottery, ended in 1953 at Hurstville aged 84.

In a strange coincidence he died and was cremated on the same day as Jack Price, a survivor of the 1902 Mt Kembla Colliery disaster. Both had won state lotteries.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020

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