P.B. Smith. 17th March 1938 - 19th November 1998
It was a great shock to myself and most of the caving world when we heard the news of the death of Peter (PB) Smith in a tragic accident at Leeds General Hospital whilst dismantling scaffolding. For those who had caved with PB it was even more surprising as he was very particular about all safety considerations.
PB had been a mainstay of the Derbyshire caving scene since the 1950s and was always associated with the TSG and its forebears (BSA North Midlands Group and the Technical Projects Unit). In the earlier years he caved with the likes of Les Salmon, Ken Pearce and Harold Lord and was involved with the new discoveries in Giant's Hole and Carlswark Cavern.
In the late 1950s and '60s his particular forte was dam building, a technique which had previously been used successfully to pass Backwash Pool in Giant's Hole. The principle was simple; build a dam across the passage close to the sump then transfer the water from the sump to the dam, go through the sump and come back before its full again. PB built dams in Gautries Hole in the late 1950s and successfully passed a sump only to find further impenetrable sumps a few hundred feet ahead.
The next major project was the sump at the end the then recently found New Oxlow. The first task was to reduce travelling time and PB put fixed ladders on the second, third and fourth pitches as well as stabilising some of the stacks of dead's with concrete. Then came the hard work, carrying in the sand and cement. This sump was more problematic in that it had a sizeable stream flowing into it and the dam had to be big enough to impound the stream as well as to hold the water from the sump. The sump was passed successfully and a large chamber was found but unfortunately it soon closed down at another impenetrable sump.
PB exported his technology to Mendip and built the dam on the first Mud Sump in Swildon's in 1965, At one time during the 1960s PB was virtually the only person on Mendip willing to go down the fetid Priddy Green Sink where he built a series of dams so that he could attack the bottom choke.
He also did some serious work in Aggy assisting Harold Lord with the survey. In 1963 Pearce pushed the Southern Stream Passage at Easter and the BSA returned at Whitsun and explored the Main Stream and Beza Passages. PB helped Harold survey all the new passages that weekend in a single 28 hour trip.
PB caved extensively abroad, mainly in France, which is somewhat surprising as he gave the impression he was not 'over keen' on France or the French. Whilst in France he professed his favourite food was 'poisson gateau'. I believe his first caving trip to France was as surface backup on Ken Pearce's 1963 Berger expedition.
He returned to the Berger again in 1967, on the Pegasus expedition, when he was unfortunately involved in a car accident on the road up to the Sornin Plateau. His new van careered down a very steep slope before hitting a tree and one of his passengers (Celia Chambers) broke her neck, but she later fully recovered. The van was written off but PB did not let things like that put him off and with the judicious use of a jig and jacks, provided by M. Petzl, and neoprene and Evostik the vehicle was soon serviceable and was driven back to Sheffield. He got fed up being stopped by the police enquiring about the road worthiness of the vehicle and scrapped it about a year later.
He continued his assault on Peak Cavern with the construction of a cap over the Speedwell Pot (a flood overflow from Speedwell Cavern), this diverted the flood water through the Treasury and cleaned this sump out so that it could be dived. He also undertook several digs and 'erected' impressive scaffolding up Maypole Inlet. He carried on playing with water and dammed up the Main Stream Inlet so that the water could be used to wash out the mud. He also built a water monitoring dam close to the Buxton Water Sump.
Later PB was extensively involved in solving Radon problems in several show caves and his work in Blue John Cavern will remain as a monument to his ingenuity and building skills. Numerous brattices where constructed in Blue John, some of them over 25m off the floor. He did complain, mind you, after carrying a 75kg fan a quarter of a mile into White Scar Cave.
He also assisted me on some of my many trips to Cornwall photographing the Geevor, South Crofty and Wheal Jane Mines. On one occasion in Wheal Jane we needed some back lighting from the other side of a deep pool and PB volunteered to wade through, the water was so hot that it took him about 5 minutes to immerse himself into it.
PB's other great interest was skiing and in recent years he had visited the Alps every winter. He first started skiing in the Cairngorms in the 1960s when he would roll up in a blue boiler suit. On one occasion he was heard saying 'you don't need an ice axe in the Cairngorms'. Five minutes later he was 250m lower and being taken to hospital.
On the formation of the BCRA in 1973 PB became the Deputy Chairman and later took the specially created post of Mining Recorder. He stayed on the BCRA council for the next 10 years.
The TSG stand at the 1998 Hidden Earth Conference was a complex latticework of scaffolding, delivered and 'erected' by PB to demonstrate how a shaft top gantry should be constructed for safe bucket hauling. Against strong competition, the three judges were unanimous in awarding the Best Club Stand prize to his club.
PB was almost unique in the caving world and had continued to be active, with no breaks, for well over 40 years. When the White River Series in Peak Cavern was discovered, PB made the effort and visited the new finds, hard trips for a man who was approaching 60.
PB was never short of an anecdote and never seemed to repeat himself. Whatever you said to him he had got a mate who had done something similar. He was down to earth and prepared to tell people a few home truths; this did not always go down too well, mainly because he was usually too close to the truth for comfort. His mannerisms and direct approach took some getting used to but to those who got to know him they found he was very generous, except at buying rounds of drinks, of course — but everybody has principles! Away from the caving community he could be very different and whilst staying at my home he would keep the children entertained for hours.
PB was one of the great caving characters and will be sadly missed.
Paul Deakin, 9/2/99
First published in Caves & Caving, Spring 1999