A Gala Frozen in Time – Michael Chaplin

In the 1950s, the great writer Sid Chaplin flew home to Durham to cover Gala day for Coal magazine. He was accompanied by photographer Harry Smead.

Sid's son, the writer and broadcaster Michael Chaplin, discovered a series of photographs that document Sid and Harry's day in Durham.

Here, Michael writes about that Gala, frozen in time, and asks for your help in solving the mysteries that remain about that day...

            The noise began as a distant buzzing. It was usually our Mam who heard it first, especially in the summer, for on fine days she usually had the kitchen door open. As the noise grew, she would go to the back step, look up and then suddenly the little plane would appear over the house with a rush and a roar. She would wave and sometimes catch a glimpse of a face at the passenger window she imagined was smiling at her: her husband. And then the plane flew over the yard with its outside toilet and tin bath hanging on the wall before disappearing over the little hill behind Gladstone Terrace in Ferryhill. If they weren’t at school, Mam would shout for Gillian and Chris to go and meet their father – though not me, I was only a toddler - but usually they were only part of the reception committee of children. After all a plane landing on a football field in a Durham mining village in the early 1950s wasn’t a common occurrence…

            So who were these people?

            The man in the plane, the face at the window, was my late father Sid Chaplin and the waving woman his wife of 10 years, my mother Rene. The pilot of the plane was a man called Harry Smead who when he wasn’t flying around the country was a photographer for Coal, the newspaper of the National Coal Board, which had come into being a few years before. If Harry was the snapper, Sid was his writing sidekick and as a pair they travelled around the country looking for stories about mines, miners and their families. My dad had the right qualifications: born in Shildon in 1916, the son of a pit electrician and his wife, he grew up in the Depression and its years of unemployment, poverty and hunger. He left school in 1930 and learnt his trade as a colliery blacksmith while simultaneously educating himself through the Workers’ Educational Association and the Spennymoor Settlement. During the Second World War he began to write poems, short stories and novels about the mining culture he knew and this led to the publication of three acclaimed books and the offer of a job as a journalist on Coal, which began in January 1950 in the NCB’s offices at the back of Buckingham Palace. In fact he was hardly ever there, becoming the go-to reporter for his editor Robbie Robertson when assignments in the coalfields appeared. Sid later told me he had visited every working colliery in Britain (the NCB acquired 958 pits in 1948) and claimed he and Harry navigated their way in the skies not by rivers or towns, but from pit to pit.

            Many of these assignments resulted in soft features, but sometimes they revolved around news of the hardest kind. In September 1950 he and Harry reported on the deaths of 13 miners at Knockshinnoch in Ayshire after an underground lake of mud broke into the workings. Worse was to follow a year later at a pit a few miles from Ferryhill. One day in May 1951 at 4.35 in the morning, blunt picks on a coal-cutting machine deep underground at Easington Colliery hit some pyrites in the rock and generated sparks, which ignited firedamp leaking from the void above. The resulting explosion travelled through the pit and despite the heroic efforts of rescue workers, 83 men died. My father arrived later that day and observed the aftermath, including the funerals, before writing a deeply-felt four-page piece of reportage called Long Day At Easington. It came at a cost: the writer was traumatised for some time by what he had seen, on his patch to his people.

            And then there were happier stories, like that time they flew north to make a feature about the Durham Miners’ Gala…

            A little while ago tucked away in an old book of my father’s, I came across five photographic mementoes of that visit, reproduced below. I have taken much pleasure at looking at them and trying to ‘read’ them…

 

Michael_Chaplin_1.jpg

  1. The writer Sid and the photographer Harry, smiling at the camera, with the tools of their trade: Sid holding his notebook, squinting at the sun, and Harry in aviator sunglasses with his classy Rolleiflex camera around his neck. From the short sleeves the day is obviously warm, despite the early hour (Harry’s watch reads 8.25). A bus has stopped behind them and an arm waves, perhaps at the camera or indeed at the elderly man to the right of frame. We will see more of him…
  2. The journalists at work. Sid seems to be asking a question, his pen poised for reply, while Harry waits for ‘the moment’. Then there’s the subject, dressed immaculately in flat cap, collar and tie, three-piece suit in black, watch chain draped across the waistcoat. His expression is kindly, almost cherubic, the hands held respectfully behind his back, with full moustache, slightly bulbous nose and round-framed glasses. In perhaps his 70’s, he looks the picture of an Edwardian gentleman, a member of the working-class aristocracy of miners in those golden years before the First World War.
  3. The location moves to the City of Durham. Readers more familiar with it will know the exact spot. A passing United bus moves down a busier street under a sign advertising Wills Gold Flake. Arms aloft to the right, the bandleader moves the procession on, the band playing (I wonder what?) and followers marching behind immaculately dressed: there’s even a bow tie. The banner with its depiction of Durham Cathedral is that of Brandon Colliery and it is draped in black, the sign of at least one fatality in the pit in the previous year.
  4. Here we are later on the Racecourse, in front of a stall selling sundry items including brushes, hats, (possibly silly) and what look like crackers. A handsome young guy is looking at the camera, a young boy is about to cross bottom frame, while our three men occupy the focal point. The two young men (Sid was 34 in 1950) are in relaxed mode, each wearing a fez with tissue-paper trimmings and holding a fast-diminishing ice-cream sandwich. The old man at the centre of the frame has no truck with such frivolities. His hair and moustache may be white but his face suggests good health as well as stiff-backed dignity. Staring directly at the camera lens, he seems to be looking down the decades at us. I wonder what he is thinking…
  5. The final shot of the sequence is the Racecourse field towards the Wear and a sequence of banners, taken I think from the grassy bank by the roadway from Old Elvet and the County Hotel with its balcony of Labour Party royalty. I love gazing at the detail of this picture. From the stacked crates of beer a bar is in operation bottom right and a policeman is either standing guard or quietly requesting one on the house. It’s obviously hot: various ladies are wearing their best hats, of course many of the men retain their caps, while someone holds an umbrella bottom left. Intriguingly just to the right of this a bespectacled man in a white shirt is turning to the left with a knotted handkerchief on his head. And hear this – I think he might be my Dad! He was always, embarrassingly for his children, fond of the knotted hankie look…

 

Some mysteries remain about these photographs of long ago and I wonder if my readers might be able to solve them. Shout up if you have any ideas…

 

  1. Sid and Harry appear in three of these images, so who photographed the photographer?
  2. I would dearly love to know the identity of the old man, where he was from and what his story was. Does anyone out there know him?
  3. Finally any guesses about what year this Gala took place? I know for sure it was in the early 1950s. I rather wish it was on July 14th 1951, and here’s why. I was born 11 days earlier. Naturally I didn’t I attend, but I’ve been to many Galas since - and I hope to get to many in the future…

Michael Chaplin

July 2020

If you are able to help answer Michael's questions, please get in touch with us by email to marras@durhamminersgala.org.