A COMMUNITY turned back the clock yesterday to honour 83 men who lost their lives in one of Britain’s worst ever pit disasters.
Hundreds of people turned out in Easington Colliery, County Durham, to pay tribute to the 81 miners and two rescue workers who perished in a massive explosion 900 feet underground at the Duck Bill Seam 60 years ago yesterday.
Easington Colliery Brass Band led a parade bearing the colliery banner from the site of the mine entrance – now a grassy mound overlooking the North Sea – up the town’s main street past boarded-up pubs, bookmakers, fast food takeaways, a tattoo parlour and numerous terraced houses with To Let signs in front of them, to the red brick Church of the Ascension.
There a service was conducted by the Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Rev Mark Bryant, and Easington vicar the Rev Chris Pearson to a packed congregation inside the church.
Outside in the church driveway overlooking an allotment burly, shaven headed men unable to get inside solemnly followed the service sheet.
Shirley Robinson, who was a baby when her father Joe Lippeatt was killed in the explosion, read a moving poem written by her mother Margaret, now 93, earlier this year.
Margaret was too frail to attend the service but had written the poem intending it to be read out there.
Many of those present were able to remember the disaster.
They included Cyril Peacock, who was a 15-year-old band member in 1951.
“I remember the band playing at about 50 funerals in a week and a half,” he said. “Then the next week we played at a service for the 11 Catholics who died in the explosion. My father Cyril was band leader at the time. I am still known as Cyril Peacock junior.”
A police escort followed the parade to the church.
“We haven’t seen you since 1984,” one retired miner joked with an officer, a reference to the bitter fighting between police and pickets on the streets of Easington during the miners’ strike.
Alan Napier, former leader of the district council and now deputy leader of Durham County Council, said the turn-out showed that the 83 men who died are by no means forgotten.
“When the explosion occurred the colliery was probably the only source of employment to the community.
“The disaster touched everyone in the community. There is nobody who would have escaped without having a father, brother, uncle or friend killed.
“It is moving to see such an impressive turn-out, to see people standing outside because the church is full, especially to see small children here.
“This turn-out is especially impressive coming as it does 18 years after the colliery closed. Now there are no mines left in the Durham coalfield but these men will not be forgotten. People have travelled from far and wide to honour them,” added Coun Napier.
And therein lies the rub.
It wasn’t the deaths of 83 men which knocked the stuffing out of this proud community, tragic though it was. They fought back from that.
It was the decision of the Conservative Government to close the pit in 1993 from which they have never really recovered.
Disaster at dawn
THE eerie wail of the pit accident alarm at dawn on May 29, 1951, was the first the people of Easington knew of the catastrophe that would engulf them.
The blast tore through an area known as the Duck Bill, 900 feet below the North Sea. It sent a nine-mile wall of flame through the mine.
Eighty-one miners were killed either by the explosion itself or by the poisonous gas that filled the mine in the aftermath. That gas would also kill two rescue workers.
Those men would not be forgotten. A statue was erected in their memory and villagers also planted 83 trees along Memorial Lane, a road leading to the Welfare Park, which has become a cherished symbol of remembrance.
‘Sixty years since you were taken away’
This poem, called Epilogue to my husband Joe, was written this year by Margaret Lippeatt. It was read out by her daughter Shirley Robinson at yesterday’s service
My name is Margaret Lippeatt
This year I will be ninety three
My thoughts often go back to how it used to be
I was proud of my home and my family
Until that awful day in May
When all my happiness was taken away
I was confused and lost but had to be strong
I could not be brave, everything was going wrong
The children were too young to understand
But people were kind and held out a helping hand.
Sixty years have passed since you were taken away
But the ache in my heart, dear Joe, is still with me today.
The children have grown up and have families too.
I know in my heart, you have helped me through.
I am left with fond memories
That will never fade away
And with God’s help
I will stay strong
And face another day.
God Bless, Margaret – February 2011