Updated: May 21
In his third piece for the website, renowned local author Ken Smith discusses the history of the famous meetings in Durham and Northumberland, where miners and their families congregate and celebrate their common heritage and cause. While the pits themselves are gone, Ken highlights the camaraderie and friendship the meetings continue to evoke.
Dr Tom Yellowley has also provided a brilliant gallery of photographs to complement the piece.
The annual Durham Miners' Gala has survived the closure of every deep mine in the North-East and today has developed into the largest rally of trade unions in Britain. The event always attracts many thousands of people.
The Gala – affectionately known as the Big Meeting – began in Victorian times as a demonstration of the miners' solidarity and was intended to send a clear message to the employers that the men were united and determined to obtain their “reets”.
However, the Gala also developed into a major family day out, an occasion for fun and enjoyment, and an opportunity for people from the many scattered pit communities of County Durham to meet and socialise.
The first Durham Miners' Gala was held at Wharton Park, Durham City, in 1871, although every Gala since then has been held at the old racecourse in the city, next to the River Wear. With one or two exceptions in earlier years, the event has always taken place on the second Saturday in July.
The Gala has been held in most years since 1871, apart from 1915-1918 and 1940-1945 (during the two world wars), in 1921-1922, during the Great Lockout and General Strike of 1926, in 1984 during the Great Strike against pit closures and during the COVID 19 pandemic in 2020-2021. However, a successful miners' gala, not organised by the DMA, was held at the colliery village of Burnhope in 1926.
The Big Meeting has been organised by the Durham Miners' Association (DMA) on its own for most of its history. The DMA was formed in 1869 as the pitmen's trade union. However, in recent years the event has been jointly organised by the Friends of the Durham Miners' Gala (known as the Marras) in partnership with the DMA.
The Gala begins with former miners, their families from the former pit communities, friends, well wishers and members of other trade unions assembling at different points in Durham City in the morning. The many Durham miners' union lodge contingents, with their impressive and colourful banners held proudly aloft, then march through the streets of the city, parading down the historic thoroughfare known as Old Elvet. They are accompanied by brass and silver bands (and sometimes pipe bands) playing a medley of stirring tunes. A spirit of camaraderie, friendship, celebration and enjoyment is in evidence.
A considerable number of the bands which play at the Big Meeting can trace their origins to the collieries and many still retain the name “colliery” in their titles. The proud tradition of musicianship in the pit communities is a strong one and today there are many talented young people who play in the bands, helping to continue that tradition.
Many of the bands pause at the County Hotel in Old Elvet and serenade the Gala's leading guests and DMA leaders who stand on the hotel's balcony. The atmosphere is always good-humoured and friendly.
The contingents with their banners and bands continue down Old Elvet to the former racecourse where there are stalls, tents and a funfair. The banners are tied to the fences surrounding the field, creating a colourful display.
Before the speeches, the Mayor of Durham, accompanied by a ceremonial bodyguard, welcomes the men, women and children to the city. The famed miners' anthem, entitled Gresford, is played in front of the platform by a chosen band. This beautiful anthem was composed by Hebburn miner Robert Saint to commemorate the 266 miners who died in the Gresford Colliery disaster of 1934.
The speeches on the racecourse have always been a central feature of the day. Many renowned Labour politicians and trade union leaders have addressed the Gala crowds, including the first leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health who founded the National Health Service.
Later, the banner contingents and bands begin the march out from the city centre. They again parade down Old Elvet, with many marching over Elvet Bridge, still serenading the onlookers and often pausing to play popular tunes by the steps at the junction with Saddler Street.
Today, as well as the miners' lodge contingents, members of many other trade unions take part in the parade, carrying their own banners and giving great support to the event.
The Durham miners' standards now represent each former pit community as well as the lodges of the union. They symbolise the brotherhood of the pitmen, their essentially humanitarian values and the warm, friendly spirit of those communities. New standards are still being made to replace old, worn ones which have become too fragile to parade or have been lost in the mists of time. The Heritage Lottery Fund frequently helps to pay for the cost of these new icons of trade unionism. However, money towards the cost is often raised by the pit communities themselves.
Yet the history of the banners is not confined to symbolism. They have played very important roles in real life, helping to recruit men to the union, acting as inspirational rallying points, strengthening the miners' unity during times of strike and lockout, giving solace in times of ordeal and paying due tribute to the departed at funerals.
The standards have frequently carried across their tops poignant reminders of the great dangers faced by the miners, including firedamp (methane gas) explosions, afterdamp (carbon monoxide gas following explosions), chokedamp (lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, sometimes developing after explosions), flooding, falls of stone from the roof of the workings and accidents involving tubs, all of which could be fatal. In addition, many thousands of pitmen died as a result of serious health conditions engendered by coal dust.
At the Gala black crepe was draped across the top of a banner if one or more miners from that union lodge had been killed in a colliery accident during the preceding year. Black crepe was also draped across standards at funerals. This solemn rite is still continued today if leaders, officials or other stalwarts of the union have passed away.
The most serious disasters in the region's collieries led to loss of life in treble figures. They were: New Hartley (204 dead), West Stanley (168), Seaham (164), and Wallsend (102). Other disasters included Haswell (95), Felling (92), Easington (83), Burradon (76), Heaton Main (75), and Trimdon Grange (74).
The parading of banners by the North-East miners has a long history and is recorded as occurring as far back as the major strike of 1831. The stoppage involved miners both north and south of the Tyne. As a result of this dispute the pitmen won a reduction in the long hours that boys worked in the mines and the abolition of “tommy shops”. These shops were controlled by the pit owners and the miners were forced to buy provisions from them.
On the afternoon of Gala day, the annual Miners' Festival Service takes place in Durham Cathedral. At this special service, which was first held in 1897, new banners are dedicated and blessed by the Bishop of Durham or other senior clerics. There is always a full congregation. Bands and banners enter the cathedral in slow procession, the musicians playing majestic, solemn music. After the service, they march out to jaunty melodies, the congregation clapping in time to give them a rousing send-off.
A veteran Haswell Lodge banner of the DMA, dating to 1893, is displayed on a wall of the South Transept at the cathedral. A memorial to the Durham miners, which takes the form of an ornate fireplace, can also be found in the cathedral, together with a pitman's safety lamp. Below the safety lamp is the miners' book of remembrance which lists on a colliery-by-colliery basis the names of County Durham pitmen and boys who were killed working in the mines.
This book, the banner and the memorial are a reminder of the fundamental role the miners played in the history of County Durham and of the thousands who lost their lives to fuel the engines of the Industrial Revolution and provide heating and lighting to millions of homes.
North of the River Tyne, the banners of the Northumberland miners were paraded at the annual Northumberland Miners' Picnic, which for many years after the Second World War took place at Bedlington, where the speeches were delivered from the bandstand in Attlee Park. However, Blyth Links, Morpeth and Newcastle's Town Moor were among earlier venues chosen for the event.
Speakers at the Picnic have included Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was Minister of Education in the first and second Labour governments, Ellen Wilkinson, Labour MP for Jarrow who championed the cause of the Jarrow marchers in the 1930s, and A.J. Cook, leader of Britain's miners during the Great Lockout and General Strike of 1926.
The first Picnic was held in 1864 at Blyth Links, although the first to take place after the election of Thomas Burt as secretary of the Northumberland miners' union was held in 1866 at Polly's Folly, a field between Bog Houses and Shankhouse. In 1874, Thomas Burt became one of the first two miners to be elected to Parliament. He had started work as a young boy operating the ventilation doors in a mine.
The Picnic featured a keenly fought brass and silver band contest, the top trophy being the Burt Challenge Cup. To win this trophy was a major achievement.
Today, there is no contest, but the Picnic takes the form of various events at Woodhorn Colliery Museum, close to Ashington, with bands and other musical entertainment included. In addition, a memorial service is held for all Northumberland miners who lost their lives in the pits of the county.
In the autumn, former miners, their families and friends take part in the annual Thomas Hepburn memorial service at St Mary's Church, Heworth, Gateshead. Hepburn, who is buried in St Mary's Churchyard, was the pioneer leader of mining trade unionism in the North-East in the early 19thCentury. A man of courage and peaceful intent, he led the strikes of 1831 and 1832. Hepburn was a great advocate of improved education for the miners and their children.
In 1832, the mine owners refused to employ members of Hepburn's union and this resulted in the strike of that year. The stoppage led to evictions of pitmen and their families from colliery-owned houses and ended in defeat for the union. Hepburn was reduced to extreme poverty. He was eventually forced to give up union activity in order to obtain employment – at Felling Colliery. A Primitive Methodist lay preacher, Thomas Hepburn had worked as a miner at Urpeth, Fatfield, Jarrow and Hetton collieries.
During the annual memorial service pitmen's banners are on display inside the church. Afterwards they are carried outside to Hepburn's graveside where Gresford, the miners' anthem, is played by the Durham Miners' Association Band and wreaths are laid.
Hepburn's gravestone carries the words: “Shorter hours and better education for miners.” A further inscription states that he led the 1832 strike with “great forbearance and ability.” The stone was erected by “the miners of Northumberland and Durham and other friends.”
Ken Smith is a retired Newcastle journalist who has written, often with co-authors, a number of books on aspects of North-East history, such as shipbuilding on the Tyne and the region's coal miners. His co-authors include Dick Keys, Ian Rae, Ron French, Tom Yellowley, Jim Cuthbert and Ken's wife, Jean.