Moving anthem to tragic miners

IT remains one of the most haunting images in the history of mining.

A total of 261 men died when an explosion of firedamp ripped through Gresford Colliery in North Wales in 1934.

Only 11 bodies were recovered. A remaining 250 men, all of whom had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, were left entombed.

Hundreds of miles away, in a flat above a shop in Victoria Road East, Hebburn, Robert Saint, himself a former miner at Hebburn Colliery, was moved by the tragedy.

An accomplished musician, who had grownup in the tradition of the colliery brass band, he distilled his emotions into a hymn.

Today, that hymn, Gresford, remains the anthem of a now-lost industry, a threnody that runs through the rise and fall of a whole way of life that still has a strong resonance here in the North East of England.

How strong, is superbly illustrated by The Pitmen's Requiem, part-biography, part-valediction, from the pen of journalist Peter Crookston, who was born and brought up at Hebburn, which as a shipyard and colliery town, is also interwoven through history.

Peter Crookston was a 10-year-old when he first met Saint, just after the end of the Second World War, and only a few years before the composer's death.

Saint had left mining behind by then. Hebburn Colliery had closed in 1932, and he experienced a long period of unemployment.

He was, though, able to escape into his music, giving lessons and leading a dance band, the Kensington Dance Orchestra, which performed in halls around the mid-Tyne area and South Shields.

In 1938 he composed the Mauretania March, in celebration of the most famous liner ever to come out of the Tyne yard of Swan Hunter.

Later, he and his wife, Doris, ran a smallholding beside the River Don at Hedworth.

Here, Saint became northern inspector for the National Equine (and Smaller Animals) Defence League. More informally, he was the local 'poor people's vet' and a campaigner for pit ponies' welfare.

His contribution of Gresford to the musical iconography of the mining industry has not always been realised or appreciated.

Former MP Tony Benn, who chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs on Radio Four, recounts how he thought the piece he heard annually at the Durham Miners' Gala had been the work of a Welsh composer.

In this respect, in this thoughtful, almost lyrical book, Peter Crookston uses Robert Saint and Gresford, and others' memories and perceptions of them, as motifs to tell the bigger story of what happened to mining in the North East, through long years of disasters and strikes.

To David Guy, president of the Durham Miners' Association, who started work underground at Dawdon Colliery at 15, Gresford will always be associated with the deaths of so many miners.

When Ellington Colliery closed, the hymn, played at the gates, was considered the only fitting tribute.

At Easington – still scarred by the 1985 strike – it is played every year in the garden that commemorates the colliery disaster there in 1951.

The book, which has a foreword by writer Margaret Drabble, has, as she says, an elegiac quality; that impression of trying to catch the sense of a place and time while they grow more insubstantial by the day.

Highly recommended.

* The Pitmen's Requiem, by Peter Crookston, is published in paperback, 11.99, by Northumbria Press, Newcastle. For more details, visit the publisher's website using this link.