Durham Miners’ Gala – The Big Meeting in north-east England

A lot of people in the north-east of England hope for fine weather on the second Saturday of July. That is the day of the Durham Miners’ Gala.

If the sun shines on 8 July as many as 200,000 people are expected to head into Durham City to attend the 2017 event. It will be the 133rd Durham Miners’ Gala.

Nicknamed the Big Meeting, the first of the annual events was held back in 1871. It soon evolved into one of the United Kingdom’s biggest annual trade union and Labour movement meetings.

An ex-miner from Greenside Colliery at the Durham Miners' Gala.
An ex-miner from Greenside Colliery at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

Marching bands and union banners

All of the region’s deep coal mines have been closed but the union banners from collieries are still paraded through the city to the Racecourse cricket ground, by the River Wear. Marching brass bands play along the route. It’s the colour and festival atmosphere, as much as the politics, that attract many attendees.

The County Hotel (Old Elvet; tel. 0191 3866821) is one of the key stops along the way. Bands play for the dignitaries gathered on the hotel’s balcony.

Union leaders and politicians address the gathered crowd during speeches from a podium on the Racecourse cricket ground. In 2016 Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, veteran Member of Parliament for Bolsover Dennis Skinner and Napoleon Gomez, leader of Mexico’s Los Mineros, counted among the speakers.

Washington Glebe Lodge banner at the Durham Miners Gala.
Washington Glebe Lodge banner at the Durham Miners Gala.

Information about various aspects of trade unionism and mining history is displayed within marquees erected on the cricket ground.

I first attended the Durham Miners’ Gala as a bairn of six or seven with my parents and grandparents. It was the fairground rides, by the riverside, that I remember most clearly. And being given one the square-headed nails that were used in the horseshoes then worn by pit ponies.

One of the first thing anybody growing up in County Durham and the surrounding area learns is that Gala is pronounced ‘gay-lah’ not ‘gar-lah’.

As an adult, I return to photograph the banners and speakers, and to create reportage of people enjoying the day. As a history graduate I’m well aware that the Durham Miners’ Gala as a part of my region’s heritage.

A man by the Lambton Lodge banner during the Durham Miners' Gala.
A man by the Lambton Lodge banner during the Durham Miners’ Gala.

Coal mining in north-east England

The pit wheels and slag heaps of collieries were once a common sight in County Durham and neighbouring Northumberland, which collectively formed the Great Northern Coalfield. Nearly 250,000 men worked mining coal in the north-east of England in 1913, when roughly a quarter of Britain’s coal, around 56 million tons, was hewn from mines in the region.

Coal mines were then a major source of employment in the United Kingdom. In 1920 they accounted for 1,191,000 jobs.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, speaking at the 2016 Durham Miners' Gala.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader during the general election defeat of 2017, speaking at the 2016 Durham Miners’ Gala.

When the coal mining industry was nationalised, in 1947, the Durham Coalfield had 234 deep mines. None remain. The last to close was Wearmouth Colliery, in 1994, whose pithead is now the site of Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light.

Many of the communities in which mines were located were close-knit. Some of the villages and small towns where coal mines provided the chief source of employment have never fully recovered from the closure of their pit. Parading their banners is, for some, a reminder of better times.

Ricky Tomlinson speaking at the 2013 Durham Miners' Gala.
Ricky Tomlinson speaking at the 2013 Durham Miners’ Gala.

Attending the Durham Miners’ Gala

“I think it’s a celebration of working class life in the north East. The pits have gone but it hasn’t broken the spirit of people or the communities. It’s now become a great festival, a carnival. Some people come for the fun fair, some people come for the speeches, some people come for the bands, some people come for the banners, some people come for the laughs. It brings people together,” said Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror, while talking to me after the 2016 Durham Miners’ Gala.

“There’s nothing else like this in Britain. There’s no other festival, gathering, gala — call it what you want — like what happens in Durham, so it has to continue. In fact, it’s thriving and, ironically, seems to be doing better since the pits went than when they were here. I think it’s because people want to focus, they want to come and be with other people to have a good time, as well as to have the politics,” he added.

Kevin Maguire speaking at the 2013 Durham Miners' Gala
Kevin Maguire speaking at the 2013 Durham Miners’ Gala

A Member of Parliament’s viewpoint

“The Durham Miners’ Gala is, in my view, the most important Labour and trade union event of the year. It’s an event that people come together, from across the country, from various trade unions, in their thousands, to celebrate the struggles of time gone by, to learn from the struggles of the past year and to discuss the struggles of the year ahead. It’s a day to remember our heritage. It’s a day to fight for a better future. It’s a wonderful day, where you catch up with friends old and new. There’s a real positive community spirit here; a socialist spirit here; a working class spirit here; and I’m always proud to attend,” said Richard Burgon, the MP for Leeds East, who was one of the speakers at the 2016 Big Meeting.

“I’ve been coming to the Durham Miners’ Gala since I was a young lad and never imagined I’d be invited to speak…so it was a really emotional day and I was please to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with international guests, with people like Dennis Skinner, with trade union leaders, with our elected leader Jeremy Corbyn and, fundamentally, with all of the people out here today demonstrating that they want a better a society,” he added.

Richard Burgon, East Leeds Member of Parliament, speaking at the 2016 Durham Miners' Gala.
Richard Burgon, East Leeds Member of Parliament, speaking at the 2016 Durham Miners’ Gala.

Participating in the Durham Miners’ Gala

“It means a hell of lot. It’s one day in the calendar year that we always look forward to. We see a load of old comrades, friends, marras as we call them. It means a great day for us. That’s the big thing for me, to see everybody. They’re all here, it’s great. I’ve been involved 10 years now, carrying the banner from New Herrington,” said Paul Young, who was a coal miner for 12 years.

“Today’s really about bands coming together, playing some good music and having a good time. I play B-flat bass and have played a lot of tunes today. I’ve been many times. I love it. It’s the best weekend of the year,” said Alex, a member of the Strata Brass, visiting the north-east from Barnsley in South Yorkshire.

And, for some, attending the Durham Miners’ Gala is simply a reason to get out and enjoy a few pints. The pubs of Durham City are, no doubt, preparing for a busy day.

Some bands come from far afield. Jaipur Kawa Brass Band at the Durham Miners' Gala.
Some bands come from far afield. Jaipur Kawa Brass Band at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

Further information

Find out more about the Durham Miners’ Gala via the Durham Miners’ Association website. The Friends of Durham Miners’ Gala is also a useful source of information.

For about the attractions and things to do in the city of Durham and surrounding county, see the This is Durham website.

Visit North East England is a portal to tourism related websites across the region.

The photographs illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.

2 Comments

  • Anne Morgan

    July 7, 2017 at 14:06 Reply

    I consider myself to be a trade unionist, yet I’ve never been to the biggest trade union event of the year *hangs head in shame*. It’s a bit late to organise it for this year, but I’ll really have to try to do better next year. It seems like a great day out and Durham’s a lovely city, I could easily make a weekend of it. Don’t know why I haven’t already.

    • Stuart Forster

      July 11, 2017 at 12:48 Reply

      Thanks for your comment Anne. The 133rd Durham Miners’ Gala was certainly a good day out. Around 200,000 did indeed gather under the summer sunshine.

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