Search for film of life in disaster coal mine
Jan 12 2009 by Paul James, The Journal
AS A young photography student Duncan Davis made a pioneering film about a County Durham mining disaster which claimed 168 lives.
The West Stanley pit disaster on February 16, 1909, was one of the worst in British history.
Duncan, originally from Stanley, who was studying photography at Derby College of Art in 1972, decided to make a film showing what life was like deep underground.
Part of the 20 minute documentary included an interview with 93-year-old Jack McGregor who worked at West Stanley colliery, known locally as The Burns Pit, at the time of the disaster.
Duncan, now 57 and landlord of the Black Bull pub at Frosterley, Weardale, recalled: “Describing the scene to me 64 years later at South Moor, his voice shook with emotion and his eyes misted over as he relived the terrible time. He climbed over the bodies of dead pitmen hoping he would find survivors somewhere in the tunnels.
“In the dim light of his safety lamp he thought he had found survivors sitting in a group but their lifelike ruddy complexions were caused by suffocation from the deadly firedamp. He told me of the silent crowd of wives and mothers gathered at the pithead.”
Duncan’s film, which also contained footage taken down the long-gone Marley Hill colliery near Sunniside, Gateshead, was called “Last Shift For Me Father” and was released in 1974.
Although the British Film Institute has a record of the film, Duncan has been unable to find any surviving copies.
He explained: “The centenary of the West Stanley pit disaster is next month, and I would love to find a copy by then.
“I know there are at least three copies surviving, but the last time I saw the film was around 20 years ago at the Discovery Museum in Blandford House, Newcastle.
“I have contacted the Discovery Museum but they cannot find it in their archives.
“Durham County Council’s education department did have three copies but they have been unable to trace them.
“I am hoping an appeal in The Journal will jog somebody’s memory and a copy of the film may turn up in a dusty archive somewhere.
“The interview with Jack McGregor alone makes it worth preserving.
“The footage underground at Marley Hill colliery, which includes pit ponies, is also of historical interest. I wrote to Derek Ezra, who was the chairman of the National Coal Board, and he gave me permission to go underground to film.”
To mark the centenary of the disaster Duncan plans to host a miners tribute night in the Black Bull on Sunday, February 15, featuring local singers Johnny Handle and Benny Graham.
“It would be marvellous if I could show the film as well,” he added.
Anybody with information can contact Duncan on (01388) 527 784 or by email on Duncan@picturedisc.co.uk