Durham Miners' Gala

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Durham Miners' Gala
Durham Miners Gala 2008 Old Elvet Bridge.jpg
Durham Miners Gala 2008 Old Elvet Bridge
Date(s) second Saturday in July
Location(s) Durham
Inaugurated 1871 (1871)
Most recent 2014 (2014)
Attendance 50,000
Organised by Durham Miners
Website
durhamminers.org

The Durham Miners' Gala is a large annual gathering held on the second Saturday in July in the city of Durham, England.[1] It is associated with the coal mining heritage (and particularly that of miners' trade unionism) of the Durham Coalfield, which stretched throughout the traditional County of Durham. It is also locally called "The Big Meeting" or "Durham Big Meeting". In the context of the Durham Miners' Gala, "gala" is usually pronounced "gayla" rather than the more common pronunciation "garla".[2][3]

Its highlight consists of banners, each typically accompanied by a brass band, which are marched to the old Racecourse, where political speeches are delivered. In the afternoon a Miners' service is held in Durham Cathedral which may include the blessing of any new banners.

History – out of unionism[edit]

The gala developed out of the miners' trade unionism, with the first Union being established in 1869.[4] The Durham Miners' Association organised the first Gala, which was held in 1871 in Wharton Park, Durham.

It developed into the largest unofficial miners and trade union gathering in the United Kingdom. At its peak the Gala attracted over 300,000 people[5] – over 7 times the population of Durham city itself.

Banners would traditionally be taken on foot from its particular colliery into Durham, and the event was marked by large unions of men marching on the roads leading into the city.

The socialist, and often communist, nature of the miners' unionism found expression in the Gala. In particular, the banners contain several images of notable socialist/communist figures, and captions capture similar sentiments.

The Gala was cancelled from 1915–18 (due to the First World War), 1921, 1922, and 1926 (all due to strikes), and again from 1940–45 due to the Second World War.[6] The effect of the 1984–85 miners' strike, which saw miners across the Durham Coalfield strike, also led to the Gala being called off in 1984.[6]

The closure of collieries in County Durham, particularly after the Second World War, reduced the numbers attending the Gala. Nonetheless, even if a colliery was closed, the banner was often still marched.

The centenary Gala was held in 1983.

The banners[edit]

Most banners represent lodges of the National Union of Mineworkers in the Durham Area. However, other unions have also been represented, particularly in recent years, as well as Union banners from other parts of the UK, including NUM lodges of the Yorkshire branch, and South Wales.

They are made of silk, are rectangular, and hang from a cross member, from which guide ropes are held by those carrying it.[7] Traditionally banners were draped in black cloth when there had been a death in the pit during the previous year. More recently following the closure of pits across the county they are draped with black cloth on significant anniversaries of disasters at the colliery they represent.

Many banners contain explicit socialist or communist references, having renderings of Marx, Lenin, and other prominent figures such as miners' leaders, or politicians. Chopwell, often referred to as "Little Moscow",[8] has the only banner (the 1955 version) that contains images of both Marx and Lenin (as well as the hammer and sickle). The 1935 Chopwell banner toured the Soviet Union and is thought to reside somewhere in Moscow today.[8] Socialist expressions also take the form of captions – for example, "Socialism through evolution" and "Need before greed" (on Blackhall Lodge's banner).

Christian themes having a socialist resonance also figure on some banners.[7] Three successive banners of Lumley Lodge (1929, 1960, 2005) have depicted the "Lion & Lamb" and "Turning Swords into Ploughshares" images from the book of Isaiah on either side, uniquely the only all biblical banners in the Durham coalfield.

More recently, residents in former pit villages have taken it upon themselves to restore, or even create, banners. This has involved the reintegration of collieries that had left the Gala. Some banners, such as Spennymoor's, represent a group of former local collieries rather than individual ones. These have received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.[9]

Gala today[edit]

No deep mines remain in the Durham Coalfield, down from the over hundred that were present at the coalfield's peak. Despite this, the Gala continues to be organised.

The 122nd Gala, held in 2006, attracted over 50,000 people, and approximately 100,000 attended in 2009,[10] making it one of the biggest political gatherings in Europe. During the morning banners are still marched to the racecourse with its tradition of speeches (recent notable speakers have included Tony Benn, Billy Bragg and Ken Livingstone) then in the afternoon to the cathedral. [11]

In 2012 Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addressed the 128th Gala; he was the first Labour Party leader to speak at the Gala for 23 years, the last one being Neil Kinnock in 1989. He praised the event as a "a great North East tradition" and attacked the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, saying it had "lost a generation of young people".[12]

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