Wearside Echoes: Unearthing mining heritage

SEVENTIES SCENE: The Gala in the 1970s.
SEVENTIES SCENE: The Gala in the 1970s.
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THE political and industrial struggles of the miners who once toiled beneath the land of County Durham have been mirrored by events at The Big Meeting for the past 141 years.

Now, in a detail-packed book by local historian Dave Temple, the history of the Durham Miners’ Gala has been told in full for the first time – complete with vintage illustrations.

“The book shines a light on the heritage of mining, and will be an important reference for the battles that lie ahead,” said Dave Guy, president of Durham Miners’ Association (DMA).

“The Tories destroyed our mines, but they could not destroy the pride, community spirit and solidarity forged over centuries of adversity.

“That is why the Durham Miners’ Gala did not die with the industry, but has increased in strength and become a beacon for the whole of the working class.”

It was on August 12, 1871 – a warm and sunny day – that miners and their families gathered for the first Big Meeting in Durham. It is a tradition which continues to this day.

“The ideals and ideology of miners, their moods and their thinking, have always been reflected in lodge banners,” said Dave Hopper, general secretary of the DMA.

“Early banners expressed the value of unity, the hope that peace would prevail between masters and men and that through arbitration, miners would receive justice.

“But the present Wearmouth banner depicts a courtroom scene in 1869, when attorney WP Roberts succeeded in breaking the hated yearly bond tying pitmen to the colliery.

“This triumph inspired the formation of Durham Miners’ Association and, when the banner was carried in the Gala of 2011, it connected us in spirit to that first Gala in 1871.”

The early banners expressing hopes for unity were sentiments usually reflected by early guest speakers – almost exclusively drawn from the radical wing of the Liberal Party.

There were, however, exceptions – with several Irish nationalists, a champion of women’s rights and, on one occasion, a Russian anarchist, invited to talk.

“As the 19th century drew to a close, speakers began to change – reflecting a clash of ideology between Liberal leaders and the growing socialist consciousness of miners,” said Mr Hopper.

“The Area Council of the Durham Miners’ Association voted to affiliate to the Labour Party in 1907 and, in a few short years, this new party dominated the political life of County Durham – as it does today.”

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

But, while the slogans continued the traditional themes of unity, education, liberty, peace and friendship, the struggles of the 1920s and 30s inspired more socialist themes too.

Slogans such as “Workers of the world unite” and “Labour is the source of all wealth” could be seen on the streets of Durham, together with portraits of Marx and Lenin.

“The traumatic defeat of 1926, when miners were betrayed by the TUC and left to fight alone, will never be forgotten. Neither will the triumphs of 1972 and 1974, or the bitter year-long strike of 1984-85,” said Mr Guy.

The final and much-mourned end to mining could have spelled disaster for the Gala – but a campaign by journalist Carol Roberton, of the Gazette’s sister paper, the Sunderland Echo, helped revive its fortunes.

A grant from New Zealand businessman Michael Watt covered costs until 1999 and, after a series of articles by Carol, fundraising events were held across the region.

“Cynics thought the Gala would never survive,” said Carol.

“They thought support would wither, but they didn’t understand how deeply people from mining communities are attached to our roots.

“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.

“Some pit villages started banner campaigns to replace old ones, which hadn’t been paraded in years because they were too fragile, while others organised charity events.

“I was invited on to the platform at the Gala, alongside the speakers, and, even more emotional for me, on to the balcony at the County Hotel to watch the bands march past to the racecourse.

“Tony Benn was weeping openly – and so was I! I kept thinking of all the past generations of my family, and what they might have thought to see me up there.”

Today the Gala remains a hugely-popular event, with the 2011 meeting attracting a crowd of more than 100,000.

“The Gala is all about remembering and celebrating our past,” said Mr Hopper.

“A past which not only tells us who we are, but determined where we are going – and that is important.”

* The Big Meeting – A History of the Durham Miners’ Gala can only be obtained from Durham Miners’ Association. A hardback copy costs £19.50 plus £4 postage and a paperback is £14.50 plus £3 postage. Send a cheque or postal order to: The Durham Miners’ Gala Book Project, PO Box 6, Red Hill, Durham, DH1 4BB.