Saturday 9 July 2016 saw the 132nd Durham Miners Gala, otherwise known as ‘The Big Meeting!’ This annual event takes place in and around Durham City Centre, the Old Racecourse and Durham Cathedral and this year attracted a crowd upwards of 140,000 – including myself, Paula, Ben and Annabel.
The first Gala was held in the amphitheatre at Wharton Park on 12 August 1871 at noon when Durham Miners Association President, William Crawford, took to the platform. His first words – the first ever spoken at a Gala – were: “This is the first great Gala day. I pray that it will not be the last.” Since then, there have been 132 Galas and only two world wars and two national strikes have prevented the Gala taking place.
The Durham Miners Gala, for many people, is an unknown event and yet it is one of the largest gatherings of Trade Unionists in the world and celebrates a sense of fellowship and community around the Colliery and its Brass Bands – despite the fact that the last pit in the North East closed in 1992 and the industry, nationally, never recovered from the miners strikes of 1984/5.
The above photo of the Silksworth Banner was taken in 1953. The one below I took at this years Gala.
So, what made me to want to attend this annual event? Well, for one, I am the son and grandson and great-grandson etc., of a miner. My childhood years were spent growing up in a mining community (Silksworth, Sunderland, Co. Durham) until its Colliery was closed in 1971 – despite having many years of coal in its seams. Secondly, until moving away in 1988, I played with both Silksworth and Ryhope Colliery Brass Bands (playing Tenor Horn, Euphonium and Eb Bass). Thirdly, I have many fond memories of this amazing day and wanted to let my family have a taste of the nostalgia of my youth!
Traditionally, Colliery bands would march though their villages starting early in the morning and the make their way to Durham from all directions and, for many, that tradition remains today. The main assembly point is the Durham city centre Market Place (other assembly points are the Miners’ HQ at Red Hill near the railway station and the New Inn on the west of the city). Bands and banners start to march to the Racecourse from about 8.30 am. In actual fact, I heard the first band marching down the Old Elvet bridge at 7.15 am (we were staying in a nearby riverside apartment) and so I was up and out pretty quickly so as not to miss anything.
The focal point of the Gala is the County Hotel at Old Elvet where the three legs of the procession converge. Here, the union leaders, invited guests and local dignitaries greet the march from the hotel balcony and the bands pause to play their ‘party piece’ before marching the short distance to the Racecourse. I must confess, I shed a few tears during this time – Brass bands have a tendency to do that to me!
The procession can take three to four hours due to the huge numbers attending and the frequent pauses at the hotel. However, a wonderful atmosphere of street theatre is created making the occasion more a fiesta than a march. I stood on the corner at the ‘Half Moon Inn’ from 7.30 am until 12.15 pm (the family were not so enthusiastic and ‘came and went’ during this time) until we walked to the Racecourse so as not to miss the speeches. Bands were still arriving as we left.
On the Racecourse, the banners are strapped to the surrounding fences creating a colourful tapestry of working class history. On the riverside, there are rides for the children and stalls selling everything from books to fast food. Overlooking the Racecourse, there is a fun fair with some scary rides for the more adventurous – though it was a little loud when the speeches were taking place.
At 1.00 pm, the platform party arrived and Davey Hopper, president of the Durham Miners Association opened the meeting (very sadly, Davey died suddenly on 16 July and will be a great loss to the Trade Union Movement). Speakers included several Union leaders, as well as Frances O’Grady (leader of the Trade Union Congress) and veteran Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, with his frequent references to ‘Dodgy Dave!’ (David Cameron) and Jeremy Corbyn MP (leader of the Labour party). Whatever his unpopularity within the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn was well received by grass-root Labour supporters. In fact, in responding to the pressure he was under, he responded by saying:
There is no pressure on me. None whatsoever. The real pressure is when you don’t have enough money to feed your kids, when you don’t have a roof over your head, when you’re wondering how you’re going to survive. That is the real pressure in our society. Those people struggling on low pay, on zero hour contracts, that’s the brutal pressure put on people every day of the week.
After the speeches, four selected bands and banners marched to the Cathedral for the Miners’ Service. Unfortunately, because of the overlap of speeches and the start of the service, we weren’t able to get there – next year maybe?
Meanwhile, back at the Racecourse, the banners are lifted when the various miners’ lodges decide it is time to go and march back to the County Hotel where they play another tune exuberantly but, sometimes, a little less professionally due to the intoxicating effects of the day’s celebratory atmosphere!! They then make their way up to the Market Square where another tune is played.
What, then, are my observations on my ‘trip down memory lane?’
1) It was a fantastic experience to join in a wonderful sense of community, recognising those who are not willing to allow their history/heritage to be forgotten. It was a family event and the youngest to the oldest found a place to participate – with many schools carrying their own banners for the day. In fact, the motto of the Durham Miners Gala is: ‘Celebrating Heritage, Comradeship and Community’ seems to fit very well indeed.
2) Brass Bands still pull at my emotional heart-strings!
3) It was interesting to note how many of the stirring speeches included the Christian values of Care, Compassion and Benevolence and a call to active participation in the fight to create a better world for everyone.
4) It was very apparent to me that there is still a ‘North / South divide’. Many North East communities are still reeling from the closure of the pits and the shipyards, causing mass unemployment at the time and the subsequent loss of the skills they brought to the industrial landscape. Issues of finding a job and the opportunities of further education, which are a given for many people down South is not the case for those in the North. In fact, I didn’t know anyone from my Comprehensive School who attended University. I left school at 16 yrs to become the wage earner for my family after my dad was disabled as the result of a ‘roof fall’ down the pit in his late 40’s. However, since then, I’m the first person in my family to be educated to degree / M.A level and I’m pleased that my children will have much better opportunities for University and employment than I was able to have in my youth.
Yes, it was hard growing up in a mining community, however, my upbringing instilled in me many working class values and a ‘work ethic’ which I’m proud to hold onto. So why did I move away? I was employed in the Building Trade (sales and management) for ten years but I knew that the company I worked for, despite trading for over 140 years, wouldn’t survive the closure of the mines and shipyards (and I was proved right) so, in 1988 I joined the Prison Service and found myself posted to Wormwood Scrubs and then HMP Liverpool. However, this experience was an instrumental part of my journey to ordination, which may not have happened had I remained. But that, as they say, is a story for another time!
This is an interesting news item from British Pathe News 1957.
If you are on Twitter use #DurhamMinersGala and you’ll find some fantastic photos and interesting articles about the day.
In addition to ‘The Big Meeting’ Durham is an amazing City and a fantastic place to visit – why not make a point of visiting for the second weekend in July? It will be an experience you won’t forget!
This wonderful depiction of the Durham Miners Gala is by Tom McGuinness. The great pitman painter was born in Witton Park, County Durham in 1926. He created this magnificent oil painting of The Big Meeting in 1976.