Women Making Memory: County Durham Women Making Sense of their Mining Heritage

It is true to say the history and our conversations about the North East's mining heritage and its legacy is built around the men that made them. Their courage and sacrifice in building Britain through the industrial revolution and 20th century is why they are still revered today. However, the backbone of their strength is the families who supported them and the women who fought side by side through the hard times and the good.


Anya Chuykov has undertaken some research on the women behind the mining industry to dig out their stories and the impact they had on the wider movement.

 

It is likely that when you think of mining, one of the first images that comes to mind is that of a man labouring in a dark pit. Men themselves understood and understand mining to be masculine. Actor Richard Burton describes how during his childhood, “every little boy’s ambition was to be a miner, because they were the kings of the underworld.”


The Pitman’s Parliament at Redhill’s, built to host the Durham Miner’s Association, visually inscribes the firm association between mining and masculinity. The famous building is filled with banners and portraits, all of which coincidently are of men. It leaves a lasting impression of mining, and the communities and heritage which it encompasses, as male.


The Durham Mining Museum, which I visited in October left me with a similar impression. The museum is filled with fascinating memorabilia and mining equipment, and its volunteers are passionate about sharing their memories. With so little acknowledgement of women, however, I couldn’t help but feel that half the story was still missing. The only real acknowledgement of any female presence in County Durham was in some of the badges that were displayed. A volunteer, Mary, herself acknowledged this and shared my frustration with the exclusion.



I met with Heather Wood at the Durham County Hotel to discuss this erasure, and what is being done by women in County Durham to counter it. Heather was a lead activist in the Easington Colliery mining strikes during the 1980s. She is now a key member of the Durham Woman’s Banner Group, and continues to speak publicly on her mining heritage, politics and feminism. She remembers her community and the strikes in vivid detail, but most importantly she kept emphasising the constant, unrelenting strength of women. Heather laughed, as she told me that “we hear men were always in control in mining villages, but they weren’t. Women let them think that.”


Women were, indeed, crucial to upholding the strength and unity of mining communities. Powerful wives and powerful matriarchs were aplenty. Heather Wood’s own mother, Myrtle Macpherson, was awarded with a Merit by the Labour Party for supporting her community during the 1980s miners strikes through running a soup kitchen. The 1926 miner’s Lockout strike would also not have been sustained nearly as long without the unwavering support of women in the mining communities.


The emotional resilience of miner’s wives, remembered so vividly by Heather, struck me. We so often only consider the injury and suffering of men working in dangerous pits, but disaster and death were very real threats for women too. One of the most devastating accidents in Durham’s mining history was the explosion at the Easington Colliery in 1951. 81 miners died, leaving many women widowed and alone to provide for their children. The daily reality was that at any moment, women could be left as the sole providers for their growing families. Heather remembers the strength and bravery of her mother and grandmother, who were a “formidable force”, and despite death, injury and fear continued to hold their family together.


Evidently, even though women were banned from working in the pits since 1842 they continued to be the crucial force which sustained mining communities. Even exclusion from working men’s clubs, most national organisations and trade unions did not prevent women from political organisation. As well as being involved in strike action, women in County Durham were a key force in the creation of the Labour Woman’s Gala, which started in 1925 inspired by the Durham Miner’s Gala. Clearly, the fact that we understand the hardship of mining and life in mining communities through the body, work and struggle of men must change.

So how are women in County Durham today making sense of their important past in mining communities? One thing is for sure, and that is that much like their predecessors, they are not passive. They are finding numerous ways to illuminate the difficult and incredible lives of Durham’s women. A recent book, Women of the Durham Coalfield by Margaret Hedley, is one such effort. Hedley seeks to construct the life of what she argues is the average Durham mining wife through the story of one illiterate mining woman-Hannah.


The most striking effort is undoubtedly the work of the Durham Woman’s Banner Group. Their core goal is to celebrate and give support to all women, “with a particular emphasis on recognition for historically important women of the Durham Coalfield who history has forgotten”. To achieve this, they work tirelessly across County Durham. A recent project called 'Let Them Be Heard' worked with Year 5 and 6 school pupils to teach them about female activists and histories. Another development has been the appointment of Lynn Gibson, one of their members as Secretary of the Durham Mining Museum to encourage a more diverse celebration of the mining past.


Most importantly, these women are working to insert a female presence into the Durham Miner’s Gala, which is a day celebrating Durham’s mining history. Ironically, even though women have been instrumental in organising the event and leading the bands which perform, the iconography of the banners displayed on the day is overwhelmingly male. The Durham Woman’s Banner Group has set out to make the importance of this female presence clear, and celebrate the forgotten women’s work in mining communities.


Photo of Durham Miner's Gala. Source: Paul Simpson

In 2018, the Group unveiled the first ever woman’s banner. It was made up of a patchwork of twelve separate panels, made by over forty women coming together from all over County Durham for their very first crafting session. The banner was in itself a momentous occasion. It marked the first time an all-women group would march with an all-women banner, on the centenary year since women were given the right to vote in the UK. It was unveiled in the Pitman’s Parliament at Redhill’s. Heather Wood remembers this as a historic moment, when Pitman’s Parliament, a space known for its inherent masculinity was overthrown by women showing that their experience of the mining past matters too.


More recently, the Group unveiled their second banner on International Woman’s Day in 2020. The banner this time was silk, in the tradition of the banners which have historically been paraded during The Big Meeting. Rich in colour and visually impressive, this banner is a celebration of women and their achievements both past and present. The front of the banner demonstrates how women are trying to remember their mining heritage by making it visible. It depicts numerous women from the North-East standing proudly and firmly in the Pitman’s Parliament. Heather Wood is among those depicted, for her work in the miners’ strike, along with her mother Myrtle MacPherson. “Everybody’s Nanna” is another striking figure, who represents the powerful matriarchs which mining communities were so often sustained and supported by.


Front of the Woman's Banner 2020, shown to Anya by Heather Wood. Source: Anya Chuykov

Alongside the Woman’s Banner Group, women are working to make their historical presence seen. A temporary exhibition, Breaking Ground-Women of the Northern Coalfields, launched between 2018 and 2019 is one such example. Through photographs, art and personal histories, this exhibition shows numerous pit women, who laboured hard prior to the pit ban in 1842, and some who even continued to do so after.


Painting by Archie Rhys Griffiths, On the Coal Tips, 1928-32

Not only is the past being resurrected through art and photography, but it is also being given perspective by the creative work of women in County Durham. I was able to get in touch with Fleur Griffiths, who is running a community project which involves women from all over County Durham coming together to create bunting. Each individual bunting includes a drawing of what feminism and heritage means to these women. The plan is to display this bunting at the Gala with the Durham Woman’s Banner Group, to once again counter the overwhelming iconography of masculinity.


An example of bunting by Fleur Griffiths. Source: Anya Chuykov

Women in County Durham are inserting themselves into their mining past, and in doing so are proving a powerful counterforce to the male-dominated mining history with which we started. They are not historians, nor are they miners, and yet they are using visual material to help illuminate the dynamic role of women in County Durham’s mining past. Their work shows that perhaps to understand the past, it can sometimes be more helpful to turn to the present.

 

Anya Chuykov is a third year History student at Durham University.

 

1. Draper, Daniel. The Big Meeting. Shut Out The Light, 2019, 13:28-13:37 2. https://www.hartlepoolmail.co.uk/news/people/we-are-privileged-have-known-her-says- miners-union-chief-he-leads-tributes-trade-union-stalwart-myrtle-macpherson-74484 3. Hester Barron, The 1926 Miner’s Lockout: Meanings of Community in the Durham Coalfield (Oxford, 2009), p. 139. 4. https://www.wlv.ac.uk/research/institutes-and-centres/centre-for-historical-research/coal- and-community/resources/case-study-pits/easington/ 5. https://cityofdurhamlabour.org.uk/womens-gala-meeting/ 6. https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/women-of-the-durham-coalfields/ 7. https://womensbannergroup.org.uk/ 8. https://northernheartlands.org/project/cif-round-3-let-them-be-heard-womens-banner-group/ 9. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-45824958