Days of yore at Durham Miners’ Gala

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As Wearside prepares to celebrate Durham Miners Gala on Saturday, nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner looks at the history of the iconic event

THE pits may have long since disappeared – but the pride and spirit of those who once toiled beneath the earth still lives on.

DURHAM GALA: Seaham Lodge Banner.

DURHAM GALA: Seaham Lodge Banner.

This Saturday will see thousands gather in Durham for the Big Meeting – a 143-year-old celebration of a rich mining heritage which has gone, but is never forgotten.

“Against all odds, the Gala has survived as a beacon for all working people,” said local historian Carol Roberton, who grew up Whitburn – then a colliery community.

“Old pit communities parade new banners with old messages as relevant now as in the past. There is a deep sense of belonging felt by all who take part in the Gala.”

The sun shone down on 5,000 miners and their families as they headed for Wharton Park, in Durham City, on August 12, 1871, for the first Big Meeting.

The event was the brainchild of miner and future MP William Crawford – and followed his call for a demonstration of solidarity among North-East pitmen.

“This is the first great gala day of Durham Miners’ Mutual Confident Association. I only pray that it will not be the last,” Crawford told the assembled crowd. His prayers were to be answered. Indeed, Durham Gala was to become an event which only World Wars and major strikes could prevent. Even the demise of the region’s pits failed to halt it. “The Gala reflected – in its parade of brass bands and banners – a unique and close-knit culture, developed out of the hardship of toiling underground,” said Carol.

“Part political meeting, part family outing, part renewal of old acquaintances, part celebration of the past and part hope for the future. The gala is all that – and more.

“There is a shared pride in being part of the greatest demonstration of working class solidarity in the world. It is all about remembering and celebrating our past.”

The early days of the Miners’s Gala saw lodge banners expressing hopes for unity between masters and men – as well as the belief that arbitration would bring justice.

Such sentiments were usually reflected by the guest speakers – almost exclusively Liberal politicians – but Irish nationalists and even a Russian anarchist appeared too.

As the 19th century started drew to a close, however, the speakers began to change – reflecting a clash of ideology between Liberal leaders and ever more socialist miners.

And, by the time James Keir Hardie, leader of the socialist Independent Labour Party, spoke at the 1905 Gala, the battle between Liberals and socialists was all but over.

The climate of political change was then reflected in the banners marched into the Big Meeting – with portraits of Keir Hardie appearing on banners as early as 1907.

During its heyday, 250,000 people would squeeze into the narrow streets of Durham to parade their pit banners.  

However, by the 1970s, crowd numbers were dwindling.

Colliery closures across the North East – as well as the emergence of new energy resources like North Sea gas – were blamed for the declining popularity of the Gala.

Indeed, by the late 1990s, it was feared the Big Meeting would disappear forever – until a campaign by former Echo journalist Carol helped revive its fortunes. “Cynics thought it would never survive. They thought support would wither, but they didn’t understand how deeply mining people are attached to their roots,” she said.

“Responses came in by the boatload once I started writing about the Big Meeting. It’s probably the most heartwarming thing I ever worked on. I met some lovely people.

“Afterwards, I was invited on to the platform at the Gala. Tony Benn was weeping – and so was I! I kept thinking of my family’s past generations, and what they would have thought.”

Today the Big Meeting attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year – but Durham Miners’ Association has been forced to appeal for help to ensure it continues into the future.

“Our Gala is the biggest celebration of trade union and community values in Britain today. It is an inspiration to all who participate,” said general secretary Dave Hopper.

“But since our coalfield was destroyed, we have had no regular subscription to our funds from working miners. The cost of the Gala is increasing year on year.

“Without a viable source of income, DMA can not fund it indefinitely. However, we are confident we have sufficient friends who want the Gala to continue.”

•To find out how to contribute to the Gala fund, log on to www.durhamminers.org