Hundreds of jobs lost . . . and an ordinary man dies: One miner among many laid off at a colliery in Tyne and Wear burnt himself to death. Esther Oxford tells the story

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN Jim Duggan first saw smoke coming from the red-brick terraced house opposite he thought that it was just an electrical fault. He called the fire brigade.

Then he saw David Frelford's car parked outside and became worried. Again he comforted himself: his wife had seen Mr Frelford take his children to school just two hours before. But the smoke continued to pour out of the bathroom. Agitated, Mr Duggan banged on the doors and on the windows. He peered in: the ginger cat was leaping from chair to chair, ears taut, eyes huge. Then he heard the crackling.

By the time the firemen reached Mr Frelford he was dead. Mr Duggan thought that it must have been a tragic accident: 'Davey' must have been suffocated by the fumes. He watched the body being taken away, then went back into his house with his wife, worried about the state of his own heart.

It was only when he saw the front page of the Shields Gazette that evening that Mr Duggan learnt the truth. David Frelford, a colliery engineer made redundant a few weeks before, had burnt himself to death. His wife, Linda, was being comforted by relatives; his children, Jack, nine, and Graham, seven, had been left to finish the day at school before being taken to their grandparents.

'We were baffled. Davey was such a family man,' said Mr Duggan, lifting his glasses to wipe his eyes. 'He was just an ordinary, family man.'

Mr Frelford was brought up in Brockley Whins. He had two brothers and an ordinary childhood: Beatles music, football at the YMCA. At 15 he left school and went to work at Boldon colliery in South Tyneside. Twelve years later he was made redundant. He picked himself up, told his wife they would have to move, and found a job at Westoe colliery, South Shields.

When news filtered through last May of possible mine closures - Westoe among them, Mr Frelford, whose job was looking after the skip- loading plant, started to worry. Work was hard to come by in a borough where unemployment is 26.7 per cent. There was a time when he might have got a job in the shipyards as an electrician, but Swan Hunter's failure to win a pounds 170m contract for a Royal Navy helicopter carrier ruled that out. Younger men might retrain, but he was 39. Colleagues took jobs as security guards, or cleaners for pounds 1.60 an hour - but they worked 80- hour weeks, and he had a family.

Black October came and went. The 800 miners at Westoe were told that the colliery might shut in six weeks or six months. Some were ecstatic: they were the older ones, looking forward to a handsome redundancy pay- off and an early retirement. Mr Frelford did not take the news well. For the next six months of uncertainty he suffered from not being able to plan, of thinking 'this week is the last week'.

'It was torturous,' said one miner. 'Everyone suffered.' But colleagues had heard that Mr Frelford took the wait exceptionally badly. There were reports that he had taken time off work for 'anxiety', that he had had a nervous breakdown and been taken into hospital.

He came back to work looking normal. He worked as conscientiously as ever. 'But it played on his mind,' said Michael Meughen, 44, a colleague. 'It must have done. But I didn't know anything about it.'

Others would not have known either. The job was a lonely one: 923 feet underground, alone for hours on end. There was no one around to notice a change in temperament. Asked if he could name a friend whom Mr Frelford might have confided in, Mr Meughen said no, he could not. David was a quiet chap, he said. Not one to talk 'deeply'. He was the kind of man who drank three pints at the most, exchanged a few words about football and then went off home to the wife.

Last Wednesday, David Frelford took his children to school, as he did every day, and went in to see John Pattinson, Mowbray Junior School's headteacher. 'He was showing genuine concern about Jack', said Mr Pattinson. 'There were no problems mentioned. I knew he had been made redundant . . . but he seemed perfectly happy.'

On Thursday morning, David Frelford dropped his children off, went home, put the chain on the front door and bolted the back door at the top and bottom. Then he wrote a note, climbed the stairs, went into the bathroom, poured petrol over his clothes and, with a match, set himself alight.

From the front of the house it looks as though nothing has happened. On a windowsill there is a bowl of china flowers.

In the South Shields Social and Labour Club - known as the 'Top Club' - the mood was bitter, protective of Davey, hostile to outsiders. A collection had been held for the family: pounds 10 notes, pounds 20 notes were dropped in, said Tony Marson, who worked with David when he first started at Westoe.

'It could have been any one of us,' he said.

He knows most of the 1,600 members at the Top Club. 'I have seen quite a few drop out of life for nine months because of anxiety,' he said. 'They have a few pints and their tongues loosen. I had one guy turn to me and say: 'I'm frightened. I can't get up in the morning. I can't face life. I am afraid.' They panic you see.

'They say to me: 'Why do I feel this when I am so strong? I am not macho, I am just strong.' But they start thinking about what is happening to them, about their families, money. They just start shaking. The floor comes up and hits them on the forehead.

'For most men, just looking at your bairns is enough to keep on going. But sometimes you see their open mouths and all you can think is: 'Where is the bread and butter to come from?' You force yourself - no matter how low you get. But it is hard for men who are made redundant when they are 35 to 40 years old. They have no working life left.

'Davey's death is frightening precisely because we have all been there - or close.'

But why the blaze? 'It was a protest against this government', said one man. 'It is political,' said another. Some said he must have been deranged.

British Coal had another theory. 'We always get a few', said Peter Heron, a spokesman for BC. 'Usually they throw themselves down a shaft, or stick their head on a railway line. David Frelford was just highly strung. He was not a well man. People always say - oh, the suicide, it is obviously work-related. Obviously nothing] We don't know that.'

Friends and colleagues disagree; they say there was nothing else. Mr Frelford thought the world of his family, his wife.

Most men, Mr Marson said, cope with the hurt of being 'written off' by sticking their heads in the sand and pretending that it is not happening. Some become cynical; others cling to any routine they can find - even if it means coming to the pub and talking about work and colleagues as if they were still the 'community' they were two weeks ago.

Westoe does have a community, but it is a very small one and it is broken.

The pit has been 'mothballed' until a buyer comes along. But the miners are not deceived. It is over, they say, as they walk the dog or wander through the graveyard and gaze over the wall at the ugly red-brick colliery - sliding conveyor belt, raised watch-house, Victorian wash-house, smooth piles of coal - and feel the colliery shudder on.

'That place kills,' said one old man looking at the colliery. He spent his working life there. In a plastic bag he had a loaf of bread for one of his nine daughters. She always said: 'Dad, you shouldn't,' but he did anyway.

'As I see it you are born, you walk around and then you die,' said the old man. His voice was strong. 'I can stand here, by this pit and say to you, I wish I had never been born.' Then picking up his bag, pulling his cap further down his forehead in the hot May sun, he walked on.

(Photograph omitted)