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Gresford, the Miners' Hymn

An exploration of Robert Saint's haunting melancholic hymn written to commemorate the 1934 Gresford pit disaster. From February 2012.

The haunting melancholy of Gresford, the Miners' Hymn, is the music explored in this week's programme.

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners' Gala.

Contributors to the programme include:
(note: since the programme was broadcast, we've been contacted by the daughter of the man who wrote the words to Gresford: his name was George Leslie Lister and he wrote the words in 1970).

Albert Rowlands, now 91, was working in the lamp-room of Gresford colliery when there was a devastating underground explosion. His father was among the men lost.

Peter Crookston is the author of 'The Pitmen's Requiem' a book which explores the history of the great northern coalfield and the life of Robert Saint.

Robert Saint's grandson, David Saint, is the acting principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire and organist at St. Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham. Playing through Gresford on the cathedral organ, he explains what makes the piece work at an emotional level.

Cecil Peacock is a former miner, musician and music teacher. Illustrated by his own rendition of Gresford, he recalls playing Gresford at the funerals of 83 miners who died following the Easington Colliery disaster in 1951.

Max Roberts is the Director of the hugely successful play, The Pitmen Painters, which tells the story of a group of miners in the 1930s who studied art and whose work became internationally renowned. He talks about why he decided to use the hymn Gresford - sung wonderfully in harmony - at the end of the play.

Roy Dickinson attended the famous Durham Miners' Gala every year. As a small boy he was overwhelmed when he walked into the vast space of Durham Cathedral... hung with miners' banners proclaiming socialist slogans... with Gresford as the musical backdrop... bringing tears to the most hardened of miners' eyes.

Canon David Griffiths is a former miner, and was once the priest of Gresford Parish Church. He commissioned a painting to commemorate the disaster and the men who lost their lives.

With thanks to Trevor Sutherland and the Llay Welfare band who kindly allowed us to use their version of Gresford to illustrate David Griffiths' interview.

Producer: Karen Gregor

NB: Some sources say that 266 men lost their lives, some say 265. The figure given in the official report of the Public Inquiry by HM Inspector of mines is 265, which is why this number was quoted in the programme.

This quote from Peter Crookston's book 'The Pitmen's Requiem' provides clarity (thanks to Mr Crookston for permission to quote):

Of the 261 men killed by the explosion in the Dennis Section of the mine, at 2 am on Saturday 22 September 1934, only 11 bodies were recovered. All had died from poisoning by carbon monoxide, a gas known to miners as afterdamp, which is formed following an explosion of firedamp. Three members of a rescue brigade died from the same cause later that day as they tried to find survivors.

'Fire followed the explosion,' wrote the Chief Inspector of Mines, 'and more particularly an extensive fire in the main intake airway.which was fought continuously and unavailingly until the evening of the following day, by which time it was certain that all men unaccounted for must be dead and the conditions as regards the presence of inflammable gas had become imminently dangerous.'

Both shafts of the colliery were capped and sealed off. For three days after the explosion other explosions followed as fire raged through the gas-filled section of the mine, one of them killing a surface worker when he was hit by debris blown out through a capping seal. This brought the total number of dead to 265.

A man died months later and the miners' union said he had also been a victim of the disaster, so his name was put on the memorial in Wales, which is where the figure 266 comes from. But for those actually killed by the explosion, its aftermath and the gas, the figure is 265.

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