The Crimdon song and dance man who became a hero of The Somme

Few people had as much of a story to tell as Gilbert Oliver.

Tuesday, 7th June 2016, 10:00 am
Crimdon in the 1950s.

In 1956, he gave an interview to the Northern Daily Mail when he was the entertainments manager at Crimdon Dene.

But behind it all was a tale of a man who fought in one of the great battles of the First World War.

Gilbert Oliver.

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Whitburn-born Gilbert lived much of his early life in Crook, and left school at 13 to become a grocer’s assistant.

But his relatives were all pitmen and he soon did the same when he joined his dad at Bearpark Colliery, starting as a trapper. It didn’t suit him and by the time he was 21, he had worked at five different mines.

He told the Northern Daily Mail in 1956: “Money was hard to come by on those days and you worked in the pit where you could get the most.”

But he wanted more than the meagre wage he was earning at the time. He moved on to Benfield where he hoped to become a putter. Fate intervened and the colliery flooded while he was there.

Gilbert Oliver.

There were no casualties but part of the mine had to be sealed off and Gilbert was one of the men to be made redundant. He moved to Easington Colliery where he got the job he wanted as a putter.

It was better conditions and more money - and there was an added bonus. He met Ernest Featonby, another putter. They became lifelong friends and teamed up as a song and dance act. They were soon getting engagements at local concerts.

But just as life was looking good, the world went to war. The best pals volunteered and joined the Royal Field Artillery.

They were attached to the same battery and were both promoted to corporal.

On July 2, 1916, their battery engaged the enemy at the Battle of the Somme. It dragged on for months but that October, Cpl Oliver was in his gun pit when it was hit by a German shell. His leg was badly wounded.

The next few months were a constant round of lengthy stays in French and British hospitals before he finally recovered and went home to Easington to look for work.

Trouble was, there was none for him, mainly because of his disability.

After months of searching, he got a job in the miners’ lamp cabin at Easington pit. His old mate Ernest Featonby was there.

They teamed up once more to form a new act called The Oliver Brothers and entertained troops at camps throughout Durham and Northumberland.

Gilbert left Easington pit in 1941 when he joined Easington Rural District Council. He stayed in the clerks department as a clerical assistant for five years until a job came up as entertainments manager at Crimdon Dene.

He won that post ahead of 95 others who applied for the job.

Who remembers the man who served his country, lost a leg and came home to became a song and dance man once more?