The mining town of Easington Colliery has had a relatively short existence, originating in 1899 when the pit shaft was sunk. It was one of many mines along the Durham Coast; Seaham, Dawdon, Vane Tempest, Blackhall, Hawthorn… Every settlement had a coal mine.
The coal wasn’t easily won here either. Whereas further north in Northumberland it lies relatively near the surface, leading to open cast mining, here it was deep below the sea. Dangerous work in one of Europe’s most productive mines
In the early hours of the 29th May 1951 the 38 men who had worked the night shift were coming to the end of their working day. The 43 men who were to replace them had already descended the shaft and were also 900 feet below ground when the coal face cutting machine struck iron pyrite, the mineral we generally refer to as fool’s gold. Few consider the original derivation of the word from the Greek pyr, meaning fire. Perhaps not even the miners who were aware of its properties.
Pyrites creates sparks when struck with steel, and was incorporated into the firing mechanism of early firearms for this purpose. Now a naked flame isn’t necessarily a problem in a mine, candles were used before the invention of the safety lamp in 1815, but bring that flame into contact with a pocket of gas and the scenario changes. Quickly. Especially if that gas was methane.
All 81 men were killed in the explosion as over 100m of roof collapsed and buried them. The death toll was to increase in the coming days as two rescue workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in separate incidents – the lungs of miners being so full of coal dust that they were more prone to breathing difficulties.
Despite this, the pit continued to be a source of pride to the local workforce, until it’s closure in 1993 when a third of the town’s population were made redundant at a stroke. A second disaster.
Though given a pseudonym in the film, the stage musical is clear that the story takes place in Easington. This is the setting for Billy Elliot.
Two decades later and there is still deprivation here; the derelict school is testament to that. Though born only a dozen miles or so away from here I felt like an outsider when I came to explore the beach for something as trivial as a picture.
Perhaps it was the weather. Or the cliffs that make the beach difficult to reach. The rocky nature of the shoreline maybe? The lasting debris of an industrial past on this coast? Or was it the inherent joylessness of the town that meant the place was deserted?
I’m usually glad of such opportunities to photograph the environment without waiting for people to move out of shot, but today the seascape felt as if it needed something to complete the scene. A boat perhaps, or some birds to add interest.
There were neither to break my solitude. Life had been sucked out.