FIFTY years to the day since the last miner emerged blinking into the sunshine from a village’s pit, a community came together under a cloudless sky to mark its closure with unveiling of a new statue.

Dozens of people turned out at the Wheatley Hill Cemetery, in east Durham, to see the Last Shift, by artist Ray Lonsdale revealed for the first time.

The creation of the statue, based on a photograph of local miner Tom Davies in his pit clothes, was the culmination of four years of hard work to raise more than £22,500 to commission the work.

The idea was first suggested at the Wheatley Hill Mother’s Club by one of its members, Irene McTeer, who had the dream of commemorating the closure of the mine with a statue.

Mrs McTeer unveiled the Last Shift, before it was blessed by the Bishop of Jarrow, The Right Reverend Mark Bryant.

Addressing the gathering, Last Shift committee member Gordon Tempest said: “Friday May 3, 1968, 50 years ago to the very day, marked a black day in the history of our village.

“Wheatley Hill Colliery, the single reason for our village’s existence, produced its last tonne of coal – it’s closure ending 99 years of coal mining here.

“In doing so our community lost its mainstay. It lost the social welfare support of the miners themselves and more than 500 jobs left the village.”

He added: “Many tonnes of coal were produced by the hard work of local men over the years following the colliery’s sinking in 1869 and the village grew and prospered.

“But there was a cost in human terms. Without putting a dampener on today’s proceedings we remember poignantly the 123 men and boys aged between 13 and 73 who lost their lives working at the colliery.

“The first was John Chatt, a matter of months after the pit opened, and the final fatality was one of my mentors and my friend, Eric Snowdon, in November 1966.”

Mrs McTeer said: “I go the the Big Meet every year and bought a plaque which I have on my wall. Four years ago I happened to look at it and realised we were coming up the 50th year of the mine’s closure. I thought we surely we need to do something to commemorate the event.”

Shortly after she mentioned it to a supportive mother’s club a committee was up and running.

She said: “It has been a long hard road, but the committee for the Last Shift have done an exceptional job to bring us here today and I want to thank each and every one of them for their hard work.”

Blessing the statue, the bishop said: “Fifty years ago today was a very dark day in the history of this community.

“But today, if you like, there’s a bit of resurrection. Because the way that the community has pulled together to raise the money to work out the vision says that in midst of everything today, there is a real sense of hope within this community and there are things to be thankful for.”

The event was attended by pupils from St Godric’s RC Primary School, who performed a miners’ song, as well as by children from Wheatley Hill Primary School and Wellfield Community School, along with dignitaries, including local parish and county councillors and Mr Lonsdale. Music was provided by GT Group Band Peterlee.

Adding colour to the proceedings were mining banners brought by lodges from surrounding villages.

Durham Miners’ Association chairman Alan Cummings said: “The work that has gone to raising the money for this is magnificent.

“It’s a marvellous way to remind people of the last shift in 1968.

“Here we are in 2018 and mining communities are still celebrating their history and culture, which is really important. I have a lot of admiration for the people who have strived hard to raise funds for this magnificent statue.”