Author's new play to commemorate South Tyneside mining disaster digs up surprise for cast member

First-time actress discovers her an unknown ancestor is the focus of drama about South Shields disaster

Tracy Office with Peter Latham
Tracy Office with Peter Latham

When Tracy Office heard a community theatre group was recruiting for a new play to mark the anniversary of a local mining disaster, she decided to audition despite never having acted before.

A few days later, she not only landed a major role but also discovered an extraordinary family coincidence dating back five generations.

The chain of events started when local writer and director Peter Lathan was commissioned by The Customs House in South Shields to create a play to mark this month’s 175th anniversary of the infamous St Hilda Colliery tragedy, which claimed the lives of 51 men and boys, the youngest just nine years old.

During his detailed research, the name of real-life victim Benjamin Gibson - who had died alongside his two sons, Richard, 16, and 14-year-old Thomas - caught his attention and, despite having little to go on other than those names, Peter decided to place them at the heart of his drama, Cold in the Clay.

He said: “There was very little information about Benjamin, except that he was a stalwart of the Templetown Primitive Methodist Chapel and, in the week before the explosion, gave testimony which brought ‘tears of joy’ to the congregation.

“As that was all the info I had. I invented a family for him and the focus of the whole play is on that family.”

During the audition process he picked out first-time actress Tracy, whose only acting experience had been in the occasional school play years earlier, thinking she would be perfect to play Benjamin’s wife.

It was while the cast were busy in rehearsals, bringing the families to life, that they made the extraordinary discovery that Benjamin Gibson was in fact Tracy’s direct ancestor: “her great - times five - grandfather!” says Peter who is amazed at the coincidence which Tracy uncovered by chance in her family tree.

“It was bizarre,” agrees 41-year-old Tracy, who runs an oil and gas supply business from her South Shields home where she lives with her partner and 18-year-old daughter Courtney and has been doing her family tree “on and off” for years.

Fascination by local history, she had read a newspaper article about the pit disaster, which was caused by an explosion underground on June 28, 1839, and wondered if there might be any family connection.

She said: “I was interested in the subject of the play so I went to the casting. I work for myself from home and get a little bit bored so it’s good to get out of the house!”

Peter, who has built up a company of actors and holds annual auditions for new members for his popular community plays, said: “When we cast her, it turned out Tracy has an interest in genealogy and had seen a Gibson somewhere in her family tree but hadn’t followed that line yet.”

Tracy added: “I went through the whole list of names and in my family tree I came across a Charles Gibson, who had a father called Benjamin.

“I thought ‘wow!’ It was bizarre. I thought it might be something like a distant uncle twice removed. I didn’t expect it to be quite so direct.”

She managed to trace other sons and says that while Peter’s story uses artistic licence, some of his guesswork is bang-on.

Tracy’s character, however, is fictional as the real Benjamin Gibson was married just once and had several children while in Peter’s story she plays the bereaved second wife and there is added family drama concerning offspring from his previous marriage.

Tracy’s family - her parents live nearby - were also “flabbergasted” at the connection as there had never been any stories passed down in the family about the infamous pit disaster, she says.

“We didn’t know. It was too far back.”

They are keen to see the play but Tracy, who is feeling nervous about the “big part” she’ll be playing, wants to first build up some confidence ahead of her debut.

Cold in the Clay will run at St Hilda’s Church in the Market Place, South Shields, from June 27-29.

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