In the summer of 1980, an extraordinary and disturbing event took place at an annual show in Nottinghamshire, leaving a lasting impression on those involved. The Hollinwell show, held on the 13th of July near Kirkby in Ashfield, saw hundreds of children mysteriously collapsing. The symptoms they reported included fainting, nausea, and dizziness, with many requiring hospital treatment. Although an official report attributed the incident to “mass hysteria,” some families and observers have never been satisfied with this conclusion and continue to seek alternative explanations.

The day of the Hollinwell show seemed perfect at first glance. The weather was sunny, and the showground was bustling with families enjoying the stalls selling various treats. Coaches arrived early, packed with excited children in vibrant majorette uniforms, ready to perform in the marching bands—a common feature of events in mining communities at the time.

Clair Brown, then an eight-year-old participant, vividly remembers the excitement and anticipation of the day. The marching bands, with their elaborate costumes and synchronized performances, were the highlight, embodying the community spirit and competitive edge of such events. Clair recalls how everything abruptly halted: “I can remember it all stopping, all of a sudden. I think I can remember seeing a couple of children on the floor and panicking. Then I remember going home.”

The scene quickly descended into chaos as children began collapsing en masse. Clair’s grandfather, Ken Hughes, recounts the confusion and fear that spread: “All of a sudden, there were ambulances coming through the gate. It felt like a panic then. All we were doing was running about the field looking for our own children.”

Initial fears centered around food poisoning, leading to announcements urging people to avoid consuming any sweets or water. Judy Vaughan, a band leader, describes her efforts to manage the crisis: “As we were setting off to come home, one of the girls was crying. Her eyes were red and sore. She said, ‘I don’t feel well. I don’t feel as though I can sit up straight.'” Vaughan and her group rushed to Nottingham City Hospital, where staff treated the affected children and later discharged them.

Meanwhile, Clair, who had left the show earlier, experienced a sudden onset of symptoms at home. Her mother, Ann, recalls the frightening moment: “She came in and said, ‘Mummy, I don’t feel very well.’ She was frothing at the mouth. Her eyes were running.” Clair was taken to Chesterfield Hospital, where she spent several days. Ann reflects on the lack of clear answers: “They never said what caused it so I don’t know what the doctors thought.”

The official report by Ashfield District Council, compiled with input from medical professionals and police, stated that around 400 individuals, mostly children, were affected by the incident. The report detailed the symptoms and the timeline of collapses, concluding that the incident was due to mass hysteria. However, many families, including Ann and Clair, found this explanation lacking. Ann questioned the report’s findings, noting the delay in her daughter’s symptoms: “My daughter was home two hours before she was took poorly. So, where’s your theory there?”

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In 2014, former Labour MP Dennis Skinner criticized the investigation, suggesting it was not taken seriously due to the socio-economic status of the affected families. He believed the incident was dismissed too quickly and without thorough examination.

Various theories have emerged over the years, ranging from gas leaks from nearby mine shafts to pesticide exposure, and even paranormal events. Jon Wright, a forensic science expert at Nottingham Trent University, revisited the case to explore these possibilities. Wright examined the official report and noted the presence of bleaching powder used excessively in the portable toilets near where the children had been standing. He suggested that a chemical reaction might have produced toxic gases, contributing to the symptoms.

One alternative theory that has been proposed is the possibility of a gas leak from the nearby mining shafts. Given the area’s mining history, some believe that a sudden release of gas could have drifted over the showground, causing the symptoms reported by the children. This theory is bolstered by historical accounts of similar incidents in mining areas, where gas leaks have led to mass illnesses.

Another theory involves the use of pesticides on the surrounding fields. Some locals recall that fields near the showground had been sprayed with chemicals just days before the event. Although official reports claim that the pesticides would not have posed a threat, there remains speculation that a combination of environmental factors could have led to the children’s symptoms. The theory posits that a unique set of conditions could have caused the pesticides to become airborne and affect those at the showground.

More intriguingly, some have speculated about a paranormal event. The Hollinwell showground is situated near several sites reputed to be haunted, and there are whispers of strange occurrences in the area. While these theories are often dismissed as mere superstition, they contribute to the enduring mystery of the Hollinwell incident. Stories of unexplained phenomena, ghostly apparitions, and otherworldly presences add a layer of eerie intrigue to the event.

Clair Brown, now an adult, has faced numerous health challenges, including difficulty conceiving naturally, kidney removal, and double breast cancer. She speculates whether these health issues could be linked to the Hollinwell incident: “We sit and speak about it and wonder if all of my health problems are connected but you just don’t know.”

Ashfield District Council leader Jason Zadrozny expressed sympathy for those affected and acknowledged the concerns about the report’s accuracy. He assured residents that the council now imposes strict safety conditions on event organizers to prevent such incidents from recurring.

The Hollinwell incident remains a deeply unsettling event in Nottinghamshire’s history. Despite the passage of time, questions linger, and the affected families continue to seek answers. Whether due to chemical exposure, gas leaks, mass hysteria, or some unknown factor, the incident left an indelible mark on the community, shaping their collective memory and ongoing quest for clarity. The mystery endures, a testament to the complex interplay of human experience and the unexplained, reminding us that not all questions have simple answers.

Sources:

Nottinghamshire Live

BBC

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