TRIBUTES have been paid to the ‘real Billy Elliott’ - a former miner and devoted pit band supporter whose final wish was for mourners to ditch flowers for cauliflowers.

Renowned for his sense of humour, Mr Elliott retired as a result of ill-health following the closure of Vane Tempest Colliery, Seaham, in 1993 and dedicated the rest of his days to keeping afloat Fishburn Band - co-founded by his father George Elliott and described as “the love of his life”.

The grandfather, who played a “major role” in the Fishburn community, led the band for many years at Durham Miners’ Gala before his granddaughter took over the official duty.

He will be honoured by Durham Miners’ Association chairman Joe Whitworth at next year’s Big Meeting following Fishburn Band’s annual performance of Gresford - The Miners’ Hymn.

Association secretary Alan Cummings said: “Billy will be a huge miss. He has been involved (with the association) for a number of years, in particular with Fishburn Band - that’s been the love of his life.

"He’s not been in the best of health but has been to the Big Meeting on his scooter for the last two years. That is the mark of a man who was committed to the band. That day was his day.”

Mr Elliott was born on March 18, 1947, in Trimdon Colliery, and was one of five sons to parents George and Mary Elliott.

A miner and founder member of Fishburn Band with Mick Terrans in the early 1950s, George and his family moved to Trimdon Village then Trimdon Grange before settling in Fishburn where he died down the pit - leaving his young family behind.

At the age of 17, Mr Elliott set out on a career underground and worked in pits at Fishburn, Kelloe and then Vane Tempest. He married Christine Tempest in 1970 and the pair had two children, John and Anne-Marie.

Following the pit closures he was unable to work due to health problems but turned his attention to volunteering and supporting the community.

It was at this time he, along with other individuals and Fishburn Working Men’s Club, helped save Fishburn Band.

Friend and former Fishburn Band manager of several years, Stewart Wilson, said: “Billy was instrumental in keeping the band going. If it hadn’t have been for him and his financial support the band would have folded.

"He wanted to keep the band going himself in his father’s memory.”

A spokesperson for the band added: “Billy was a long time supporter of the band, someone with extraordinary skills for fundraising and one of the founder members of the Fishburn Band Supporters Group.

“Unfortunately Billy had suffered with ill health for many years and although this had impacted on his day-to-day life, he still had a strong connection with the band and was ever present at the Miner’s Gala, leading the band around Fishburn and into Durham.”

It is estimated Mr Elliott’s tireless work for the band and community saw him raise hundreds of thousands of pounds in his lifetime.

His daughter Anne-Marie Gavin described him as “the real Billy Elliot - light on his feet”, adding he was “larger than life, a character and wind-up merchant”.

And paying tribute to his father, his son John said: “He was the heartbeat of the community, a stalwart and inspiration.”

Mr Elliott died on Remembrance Sunday aged 71.

He is survived by his two children and four grandchildren.

Fishburn Band will play Arnhem, Blaze Away and Gresford at Mr Elliott’s funeral at Wear Valley Crematorium, Coundon, at 3.30pm on Monday.

A keen gardener, he requested cauliflowers in lieu of flowers and asked for any donations to be made to Fishburn Band and University Hospital of North Tees.