A town falls silent for the victims they never knew

THE tolling of the church bell could barely be heard above the sound of the strong winds buffeting the marquee.

THE tolling of the church bell could barely be heard above the sound of the strong winds buffeting the marquee. But the message was loud and clear nevertheless.

Each of the 168 chimes from the bell of St Andrew’s Church 100 yards away represented one of the men and boys killed in the Burns pit explosion at Stanley, County Durham.

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At 3.45pm precisely yesterday – the time 100 years ago when the first muffled explosion was heard underground – St Andrew’s congregation members Bob Carr and George Trotter began ringing the bell. And in the marquee which enveloped the memorial in the shape of a pit wheel, a gathering of 300 remembered. They remembered and mourned those they had never met, but whom for many were distant relatives.

Such as Edward and Henry Manistre, aged 19 and 15 respectively, remembered by their great niece Pauline Oliver – whose grandfather Frederick Manistre survived the disaster.

Mrs Oliver, from "the other Stanley", Stanley Crook in south west Durham, said: "I felt as if I simply had to come here today to pay my respects. They were so young when their lives were taken."

The service was conducted by Father Joe Park of Stanley’s St Joseph’s RC Church who led the prayers. It had been organised by Derwentside District Council.

Council chairman Eric Turner was also chairman 14 years ago when Kevin Keegan, at the time the highly successful manager of Newcastle United, unveiled the memorial to the disaster in front of which the service took place yesterday. His grandfather Frank Keegan helped to rescue some of the survivors.

Only 34 pitmen survived the blast, which caused the biggest single loss of life in County Durham during the 20th Century.

Coun Turner said: "I also had the honour to be present as council chairman in 1995 when Kevin Keegan unveiled this memorial. I am extremely proud to be here again 100 years ago to the day of the disaster."

Council leader Alex Watson said: "This is as great a community get-together as we could ever wish to see. We are remembering men and boys killed working in appalling conditions at a time when human life meant less than the life of a donkey. Men and boys were literally burnt to death."

Hearing the first blasts from the underground explosion, thousands of people rushed to the doomed colliery in a rescue effort.

It wasn’t until 14 hours later that the first of the survivors could be brought to safety. Meanwhile, 168 miners lay dead underground, killed by the force of the explosion, or by burns or carbon monoxide poisoning. One of the first witnesses on the scene was Jack McGregor, who had finished his shift down the mine just three hours earlier. Mr McGregor was interviewed by photography student Duncan Davis in 1972, when he was 93.

Mr Davis, 57, originally from Stanley but now a publican at the Black Bull, Frosterley, Weardale, was also at yesterday’s ceremony. He had presented the tape of Mr McGregor’s interview to the archive department at nearby Beamish Open Air Museum.

"Jack McGregor told he how he had been feeding his hens and pigs in Clifford Street when he heard the explosion and rushed to the pit head. The only people there were miners waiting to go down the next shift. He told me he remembered them saying there was no chance of finding any survivors."


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