Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Pitmen's Requiem

Perhaps as you get older, your total experience has accumulated to such an extent that your world seems to get more inter-related and condensed. This may be why since I recently reached 75, I have identified so closely with two books I have read. The first of these, I reviewed here. It deals with a book that was first published before I was born. The second book was only published last year and I feel that it was written especially for me - although I may not be alone in this thought. The book is "The Pitmen's Requiem" (Northumbria Press 2010) by Peter Crookson.

The starting point of Crookson's book might not only seem to be of general relevance to myself, as its theme will appeal to many. Crookson sets out to write a biography of Robert Saint who wrote the music for the miners' brass band hymn "Gresford" - which can be listened to via this link. I, like numerous others, feel a special attachment to this music. I recently heard it played at a telling occasion at the cemetery at Easington Colliery on the 60th anniversary of its major pit disaster. I have since heard it played at the Durham Miners' Big Meeting, which still continues a tradition started in 1871.

The tune was composed in memory of 256 men and boys who were killed in a massive explosion at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham in 1934. It is played after all mining disasters,their anniversaries and on most occasions when brass bands play a programme in past or present mining areas.

The tune was not, however, composed by a Welshman, but by a former coal miner in County Durham. Robert Saint was born in Hebburn on the south bank of the Tyne, in an area which was then part of County Durham. Between the ages of 14 and 27, Saint worked at Hebburn Colliery until it closed in 1932. He then spent two years on the dole in an era of deep economic depression; supplementing his small allowance by being a saxophone player in a local orchestra and also by giving piano lessons. He then moved on to work with the National Equine Defence League showing a special interest in the well-being of pit ponies.

Whilst Crookston writes a telling tale about Saint, he also ran into trouble in seeking to unearth research material. For working class people seldom hold onto written material about their lives. Crookston spells out the problem in a beautiful chapter entitled "No Shoebox in the Wardrobe". So the author then starts to ask a well selected group of people what "Gresford" means to them and then gets them to elaborate about their own experiences of the Durham and Northumberland Coalfields. It is a formula of genius.

I mention five sets of these people below, as I see myself as having some forms of link with them.

(1) I was in the same class as Cecil Peacock in the Infant and Junior Schools at Easington Colliery. After the recent service of remembrance for the 60th anniversary of the Colliery's pit disaster, I reminded him that for a period when we were at school we were taken out of play periods so that he could help me to improve my spelling. Cecil became on expert on brass bands, "Gresford" and music in general; becoming the administrator for musical education for the Durham County Council. He started his working life as an electrician at the local pit and appreciated something which I never knew. He tells us that the explosion at Easington Colliery which killed 81 miners and then two rescue workers, occured at an underground spot almost two miles inland from the beach. I knew that the pit's operations went out under the north sea and had assumed that that was it; even though my own father was in the pit in a safe seam at the time of the explosion. In fact I was so astonished by Cecil's claim that I checked it out. I could find nothing in the official report of the disaster: but Mary Bell, a local historian and writer, tells me the following - "The explosion was inland where Cecil pointed out. I have a record of a rescue worker from Murton. He told me that he was working down the inland pit at Murton at the time and he was very near the disaster area. He felt although he had to go by lorry to Easington he wished he could have gone through the 'wall' and got there much quicker. Also people living up Canada (a district of Easington HB) said that sometimes they could hear when 'firing' was going on down the pit." On a school bus a few hours after the explosion, I passed what was a greyhound track above the point where the explosion took place. It has taken me 60 years to discover the significance of the spot.

(2) I have recently been in phone, postal and email contact with Heather Wood and she is also interviewed for Crookston's book. She chaired the organisation "Save Easington Area Mines" (SEAM) in 1984/5 and provides an important description of the role of women during the miners' strike of those years. She has recently written a book entitled "Fight To The Finish" (Northern Voices Community Projects, 2011) published about her late father, Gordon MacPherson who worked at the pit at Easington. Luckily Heather (and her mother) have kept the equivalent of "a shoebox in the wardrobe" and her book includes poems and stories by her father. He had a keen sense of humour, which he used for serious purposes.

(3) Additionally, I have been in touch by phone and correspondence with Alan Cummings who was Easington Colliery's Lodge Secretary when both the 1984/5 strike took place and the pit was closed in 1993. He still continues with his duties today, covering compensation cases and keeping Easington's mining tradition alive. Easington was as united during the period of the long drawn out conflict as any other colliery in the country. Cumming's gives a gripping account of those tough days.

(4) Tony Benn is also interviewed, for he selected Gresford as a tune when he was on Desert Island Discs and because he is a regular at the Durham Miners' Gala. You can hear him speaking for himself on these matters on the second video shown via this link. My connections with Tony have been substantial. Not only were we members of the Socialist Campaign Group in the Commons, but the Constituency I represented lapped around Tony's in Chesterfield in a "C" shape. In fact, Chesterfield was our common meeting ground via the Derbyshire Miners' Offices. For the area I represented had a very similar mining tradition to that of the Durham Coalfield.

(5) Crookston also interviews Arthur and Vera Bartholomew from their home in Byron Street at Easington Colliery. Although I know neither of these, I knew Byron Street well. My first girl friend lived there. Her father had been killed in the 1951 pit disaster. Arthur Bartholomew was 92 at the time of the interview and has a memory going back to his starting work in the pit at Dawdon Colliery (two miles north of Easington) at the age of 14. He was fore-overman at Easington at the time of the explosion, which was also the job held by my former girl friend's father.

There are many other elements of Crookston's book which I identify with. He takes a walk down the main street at Easington - Seaside lane. The strangers he passes are very friendly. In retirement my father walked down the length of most of Seaside Lane on almost a daily basis, enjoying the banter. But Crookston's is also depressed by the dereliction of closed shops and the abandoned Junior and Infant Schools which has had preservation orders placed on them. One of these schools was the scene of the count for Manny Shinwell's dramatic electoral victory over Ramsay MacDonald in 1935, but even Cecil Peacock now wants it to be demolished. Yet I remember the Seaside Lane of the post-war years with affection. For its main stretch, one side of Seaside Lane was dominated by a row of private shops, with a mix of two cinemas, a club, a pub, a barbers, a billiard hall, the functioning infant and junior schools and the Co-op. Then it reached the block of colliery houses. The other side of the Lane had some of Easington's posher houses, a doctor's surgery, well kept allotments near the waterworks, two Methodist chapels (a third for the Wesleyan's by then being used as a warehouse), churches for the Anglicans and the Pentecostals, an opening leading to the Miners' Welfare and to the Welfare Grounds with its football pitches, bowling greens, tennis courts and a cricket pitch; then at the bottom Walter Wilson's and Byron Street. (There are some enthralling poems by Roy Sanderson and Mary Bell about Easington. These contrast my own past experiences with Crookston's modern ones. I am unable to provide the link to these at the moment, but will add them sometime if I can.)

I was, no doubt. biased. But I felt that Easington was a cut above other Colliery areas. Inland pits often had ugly pit heaps and their coal dust to contend with, but Easington dumped its waste out of immediate sight, into the sea. It ruined the beach, but did not effect daily life. Nowadays the beach has been cleaned up; but the communal provisions have massively declined.

I am mistaken if I am giving the impression that Peter Crookston's book is mainly about Easington. Its central theme is about "Gresford" and its composer who was based in the Tyneside area, which I never even travelled to before I was 12 or so. I have homed in on the bits I relate to. Some of this now takes me into the areas close to Easington.

Peter Lee, an earlier leader of the Durham Miners is dealt with. He became the first Labour Leader of the Durham County Council in 1919 and had a new post-war town near Easington named after him. I knew Peterlee in its early days well. My grandmother, Uncle, Aunt (and her family) were amongst its early occupants. Following on from my becoming Secretary of the Easington Colliery Branch of the Labour Party, I became Secretary of the Peterlee and District Fabian Society. Although our monthly meetings were held in Peterlee, our biggest event was a day school held at Easington Secondary Modern School with 78 people attending.

Crookston takes us to coastal Collieries close to Easington, including Seaham where I started work as a railway clerk. Horden where I next worked at their railway station and Dawdon where as a young teenager I fixed up a football match and John Fickling on our side scored from his own half on a full sized pitch. But above all, Crookston takes us in and out of the inland area of Shotton Colliery, where my wife comes from. Her father was an onsetter at the local pit, with its pit heap almost spilling out onto its Front Street. It was described in J.B. Priestley's "English Journeys" in 1932. Invariably, Crookston has a chapter entitled "The People Priestley Admired" - although the references here are again to Tyneside.

Even when we return to the story of the man who composed "Gresford", I am still sent off to my own recollections. In a chapter entitled "Lament for a Vanished Culture". Crookston writes of his father and Robert Saint in deep conversation about the writings of Robbie Burns in 1948. This leads to a description of miners' home libaries and the self-taught tradition. Numbers of miners in the tradition of the autodidact, built up their own serious libraries. One collection of works stressed by Crookston is the Odhams Press "Home University Library". To this he could have added the Odham's Press "British Encylopedia." Next to my computer, I hold 24 hard book volumes of these two Odham's collections. They were the prize possession of my Uncle Bill (William Gray) who worked from the age of 14 to 65 in the pits; first at Sunniside in the south-west Durham Coalfield, then at Easington.

The fact that Peter Crookston hits all the right cords with me is that he is a skilled writer from a Great Northern Coalfield's background. It is also deeply significant that we were both born in 1936 and then each left the north-east in 1963. We are both at a time of life when we want to know more about our roots. Not in the sense of "Who Do You Think You Are?", but in the sense of what immediately shaped our early life.


Mary N Bell said...

Brilliant. I have wonderful memories of Easington Coll. and also thought it was the best pit village. I visited Sunniside near Tow Law a few years ago and as told thay thought all who had moved to work at Easington Colliery were rich. I think we were! I have written a book on My Easington and just have a few pictures to put in it.

Mary N Bell

Harry Barnes said...

Mary : I am pleased that you now have a blog facility. I look forward to reading your book. I was at the Durham Record Office yesterday doing research into developments at Easington Colliery mainly relating to the 1912 to 1914 period.