Cold in the Clay

I’ve already written about the play that took me almost 21 years to write (in Remembrance 33). That was Cold in the Clay, the third of our community plays. It was performed in June 2014, the 175th anniversary of the Hilda Pit Disaster in South Shields, a disaster which claimed the lives of 51 men and boys, the youngest only 9 years old.

Research had led us to Ben Gibson and his two sons Richard and Thomas, all of whom were killed. There was another miner, a 19-year-old, who was also killed and he was due to marry the daughter of another dead miner, so I decided the Gibsons should have a daughter, the girl he was due to marry. I thought it would give us more scope if Ben’s first wife had died and he married again, therefore having a second family.

I also learned that he had been a devout Methodist, a preacher who had brought the entire congregation to tears just a week before the disaster.

And so I built up a back-story, using hints from the very limited biographies of the victims. I wanted the audience to be able to connect with the story through people they felt they knew. 51 men and boys died and that’s shocking but almost abstract. However if four people you know are killed, that hits much harder. I remember, after the first night, an audience member commenting on Facebook, “if you’re going to see Cold in the Clay, take plenty of tissues.”

I used verbatim accounts of public meetings, including the inquest on one of the victims, contemporary newspaper accounts, and interwove them with the Gibsons’ story. I used music, hymns such as "Oh for a Thousand Tongues", "Abide with Me", "Rock of Ages" and "Gresford", the miners' hymn (even though it was totally anachronistic), alongside the words I wrote to the Scottish lament “The Flowers o’ the Forest”.

We had a cast of 29, varying in age from 8 to 72, playing 38 characters, as well as a choir of 11 and a brass ensemble (as brass bands have been for so long associated with pits and pitmen).

We didn’t build up to the actual disaster as the climax of the play but, after three scenes to introduce the audience to the family, we went straight into the accident itself and the rest of the play focused on its effects, both on the Gibsons and the wider South Shields community, using a kind of mini-Greek chorus to link the reactions of the family and the wider community together.

Ray Spencer decided that the venue should be the parish church of St Hilda, which stands just a few hundred yards from where the pit used to be (it closed in the 1940s). Many of the victims are buried in the churchyard which gave added poignancy to performing it there. It is a very beautiful church and really was the perfect venue.

And as part of the anniversary commemorations, South Shields artist Bob Olley designed a banner for the Hilda pit, for it had never had one, and, after it was blessed in a special service, it became the backdrop for the play.

21 years in the making! And, as it turned out, that was entirely right, for bringing together the anniversary, the use of the church and its closeness to the pit and Bob’s new banner which looked down on the cast and audience, gave it all such emotional power. We finished with "Gresford" and, as that ended every night, so many of the audience—and the cast!—were in tears.

It's almost as if it were fate!

And there was one amazing coincidence. We cast a lady called Tracy Office, who had never acted before, as May Gibson, the (fictional) wife of Ben Gibson, and it turned out that she was related to the Gibson family. It made a nice publicity story for the show!