Resident writer and renowned local historian Ken Smith explores the history of two of the North East's most iconic Trade Union banners, still emblazoned in Durham Cathedral and Wheatley Hill. The banners represent the suffering and achievement of the mining communities they embody, often illustrating the figures who led them.
The wonderful trade union banners of the North-East miners are perhaps the most colourful and eye-catching aspect of the region's heritage. The parading of these impressive standards by pitmen north and south of the Tyne dates back to the early 19th Century and that tradition still continues today at the annual Durham Miners' Gala.
Among the veteran banners which have survived the ravages of the years is the standard of Haswell Lodge of the Durham Miners' Association (DMA), which is displayed on a wall of the South Transept at Durham Cathedral. The DMA was formed in 1869 as the pitmen's trade union.
This historic banner, which dates to 1893, depicts three pioneers in the history of the association. “They being dead yet speaketh,” declares the motto beneath the figures, indicating that their message of trade union principles continues today. The words are a modified quotation from the Hebrews chapter of The Bible.
On the left of the Haswell banner stands Tommy Ramsay, holding his crake (rattle). He was a veteran of the strike of 1844 during which miners and their families were evicted from their colliery-owned houses. A fervent believer in the importance of miners' unity, Tommy toured the pit villages and towns of County Durham with his crake, encouraging men to attend the meetings and join the newly formed DMA.
Calling out words such as “Lads unite and better your condition”, he faced strong opposition from mine owners and is remembered for his pioneering efforts in the cause of mining trade unionism.
Tommy Ramsay died in 1873 and is buried in Blaydon Cemetery, where his memorial depicts this stalwart of the DMA standing beneath a canopy. There is little doubt he was regarded as a man of courage by his fellow pitmen. A plaque on the memorial states that it was erected by the miners of Durham, a sign of the high esteem in which he was held.
Tommy's call for unity has been echoed down the years on many banners of the DMA and National Union of Mineworkers. They have frequently carried the motto: “Unity is Strength.”
Also depicted on the banner are two other significant men in the history of the miners. Seated in the middle of the three pioneers is Alexander McDonald, who was a Scottish and national miners' union leader. In 1874, he became one of the first two miners to be elected to Parliament, the other being Northumberland pitmen's leader Thomas Burt.
They both became so-called Lib-Lab MPs. These were members who had been sponsored by trade unions or the Labour Representation League in alliance with the Liberal Party. The League is not to be confused with the Labour Representation Committee of 1900, which in 1906 was to adopt the name Labour Party.
The third figure, seated on the right of the banner, is William Crawford, who as general secretary led the DMA during most of its early years. He worked with all his energy to make the union a success and was a great believer in arbitration and negotiation as a way to solve disputes.
Crawford spoke at the first Durham Miners' Gala in 1871 and the following year led the first delegation to meet the coal owners for official talks. It was at this meeting that the Bond, a hated annual contract which the miners' were forced to sign, was abolished in the County Durham pits. Crawford became a Lib-Lab MP in 1885 when he was elected to represent Mid Durham.
The other side of the banner carries a painting of four different Durham miners' union officials, including general secretaries John Wilson and William Hammond Patterson, accompanied by the motto: “But to act that each tomorrow finds us further than today.” Wilson briefly served as Lib-Lab MP for Houghton-le-Spring and later, in 1890, was elected for Mid Durham after Crawford had passed away.
Another veteran miners' standard is displayed at Wheatley Hill Visitor Centre, in Wheatley Hill village cemetery. It is the banner of New Herrington Lodge of the DMA and dates to around 1932. This icon of trade unionism was produced by the renowned banner-making firm of George Tutill at its London studios. Tutill produced more banners for the North-East miners than any other firm.
The theme of the New Herrington banner is “Emancipation of Labour”. A female figure symbolising “Progress” leads a group of men, women and children towards a better life in the “Co-operative Commonwealth”. She holds a floral wreath in one hand and a banner in the other featuring the words “Emancipation of Labour”. The motto is a quotation from Marx and Engels: “Workers of all lands unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.”
This socialist theme has been a favourite with various Durham union lodges over many years and can be traced back to a George Tutill design believed to have been inspired by a Walter Crane drawing of the early 1900s. Walter Crane was a highly talented artist and socialist. He produced many fine illustrations for children's books and also created works for socialist journals. Crane is acknowledged as one of the luminaries of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The other side of the New Herrington banner shows a view of Conishead Priory, near Ulverston in Cumbria, which was used for many years as a rehabilitation and convalescent home for injured or sick Durham miners. It opened in 1930. A number of other DMA lodges have also featured views of the Priory. The recovering pitmen were able to play bowls and putting in its beautiful grounds and were sometimes taken on trips to the nearby Lake District.
Some injured Durham men went to a rehabilitation centre at The Hermitage, Chester-le-Street, opened during the Second World War, where the therapy included games and other exercises. Paintings of The Hermitage have been carried on several lodge standards. The inclusion of Conishead Priory and The Hermitage indicates the great appreciation the miners had for these welfare facilities.
Other buildings shown on various banners include Aged Miners' Homes in the many pit communities throughout much of the region, and Durham Cathedral, where the annual Miners' Festival Service takes place on the afternoon of Gala day. Views of the pitheads are also sometimes chosen, two examples being Greenside and Silksworth. A banner of the Ashington Federation of the Northumberland miners' union displays the pitheads of the mines in the federation – Ashington, Ellington, Lynemouth, Linton and Woodhorn. Also sometimes pictured is the Miners' Hall, Redhill, Durham City, which opened as the headquarters of the DMA in 1915.
Many of the older banners of the Durham miners are today in the care of Beamish museum and most of the Northumberland miners' standards are cared for by Woodhorn Colliery museum. The DMA also holds an important collection of its banners in storage and others are to be found throughout the coalfield in venues such as former miners' welfares, community centres, schools, council offices and churches.
Retired Newcastle journalist Ken Smith is co-author, with his wife Jean, of The Great Northern Miners. He has also written more than 20 other books on aspects of North-East history, often with co-authors, including shipbuilding and shipping as well as coal mining.