Shining a Light on Community Spirit

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Every picture tells a story and perhaps few more vividly than those documenting pivotal moments in life. One such film capturing the horror and aftermath of England’s worst mining disaster in Barnsley more than 150 years ago is again shining a light on a spirited community after scooping a highly prestigious award.

Professor Stephen Linstead

The poignantly-titled Black Snow documentary was made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of The Oaks Colliery disaster in 2016 and owes its success to a meaningful collaboration between Barnsley Professor Stephen Linstead and a dedicated team of local volunteer researchers, many of them ex-miners.

The film was one of just five to be nominated for this year’s prestigious Best Research Film of the Year Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It beat off strong competition including compelling stories about the Grenfell Tower fire, the legacy of South African apartheid, women’s suffrage and the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Professor Linstead of the University of York, himself the grandson of a Grimethorpe coal hewer, said the award was a real boost for the volunteers who had given up their time to make things happen in the community and were still doing so.

Black Snow has already been watched by schoolchildren across Yorkshire in the sharply contrasting comfort and safety of their classrooms. Like many a history lesson, young pupils can only imagine the heart-breaking events that unfolded on that fateful day of December 12th 1866.

What started out as a typical working day at Hoyle Mill near Stairfoot turned into a waking nightmare when a devastating explosion struck deep inside the mineshaft. A second, bigger explosion followed the next day and, despite heroic rescue attempts, the tragedy eventually claimed the lives of at least 361 helpless victims.

Few of us can truly grasp the harrowing legacy that was to be stamped as painfully as burning coal on a close-knit community that had hitherto thrived on its proud mining traditions and heritage.

The tragedy had remained relatively unremembered until 2015 when a group of ex-miners, trade unionists and local historians attempted to raise money to erect a memorial for its 150th anniversary.

Graham Ibbeson working on the sculpture

The milestone date in 2016 brought the dim and distant past sharply back to the present day with a number of events and activities to mark this harrowing chapter in local history. A two-month exhibition opened at Experience Barnsley Museum which attracted more than 5,000 visitors. People and Mining and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) campaigned and fundraised for a monument to the fallen miners and a new memorial, crafted by Barnsley-born sculptor Graham Ibbeson, was unveiled and installed off Church Street the following year.

During research into the disaster, Graham, the son of a Barnsley miner, made the moving discovery that it had claimed the life of one of his own relatives, George Ibbeson, the brother of his great, great, great grandfather. Graham’s personal connection to the events of 1866 and to the Barnsley community resulted in ‘the best work’ of his career – a bronze sculpture of a desperately bewildered mother and child with coal cascading down her back and her lost husband depicted beneath her feet.

The Oaks Colliery Disaster Memorial

The film draws on testimony of the time to create characters to voice their stories and integrates virtual reality sequences to recreate the disaster. It also uses new arrangements of a song written by a miner and a specially composed theme.

Professor Linstead said: “The film also tells the story of a politically forgotten post-industrial community struggling to recover itself in remembering the disaster and a brilliant sculptor, on the brink or retirement, discovering himself anew in his efforts to make one last masterpiece; a memorial tribute to the surviving community in the striking shape of a mother and child heading both in panic towards the stricken pit and in awe of the unknown future that awaits them.”

There were 25 shortlisted films overall in five categories which were judged by a 15-strong panel of film industry experts and leading academics. The winners were announced during a ceremony at the London headquarters of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) last November. They each received a trophy and prize money to put towards their future film-making projects.

Black Snow is available temporarily on the AHRC You Tube channel and more information is available via the website at www.oaks1866.com

Professor Linstead and musical director Jed Grimes have also released a CD and created a 90-minute multi-media live performance – The Black Snow Roadshow – featuring the film, songs, poems and mining stories which is available to book. They’ll also play Doncaster’s Little Theatre on Friday, April 5th.

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