Next Durham Miners’ Gala will be held on Saturday July 11 2015.
A number of people who have never been to the Big Meeting have asked us to publish on our website the time it begins, where to assemble and other details.
This is a simple request but requires a quite complicated answer because the Gala is not like a normal trade union march. In fact, it has no start time, no finish time and no one place of assembly.
Traditionally, the colliery bands would march though their villages starting early in the morning and the make their way to Durham from all directions and, in the main, that tradition remains today.
The main assembly point is the city centre Market Place and bands and banners start to march from there to the Racecourse from about 8.30 am. Other assembly points are the Miners’ HQ at Red Hill near the railway station and the New Inn on the west of the city.
The focal point of the Gala is the County Hotel at Old Elvet where the two 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 where there is a platform for the speakers.
The procession can take three to four hours to pass the County Hotel due to the huge numbers attending and the frequent pauses at the hotel. However, a wonderful atmosphere of street theatre is created there making the occasion more a fiesta than a march.
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.
In the marquees, there are many exhibitions and a place where tea and sandwiches can be bought run by the Durham Labour Party. And, on a field overlooking the racecourse, there is a fun fair with some scary rides for the more adventurous.
At 1 pm, the platform party arrives and the Chairman opens the meeting.
After the speeches, four or five selected bands and banners march to the Cathedral for the Miners’ Service. Whether you are a believer or not, this is worth a visit for the sheer dramatic experience.
Back on 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.
The centre of Durham is closed to traffic from 7.00 am but access is possible, for those who arrive early, to the multi-storey car park close to the Market Square. There are three large park-and-ride car parks. For a location map, see Park and Ride at www.durham.gov.uk › Transport and streets › Parking
Parties travelling by bus can alight on the main road, directly below the Market Square and their drivers will be directed, by the police, to a large coach park at The Sands on the riverside.
For those who want to make a weekend of the experience there are a variety of hotels in Durham and the surrounding villages. A particularly good deal is provided by Hatfield College close to the Cathedral Green see: www.dur.ac.uk/event.durham/venues/colleges/hatfield.college/accommodation/
Remember, it pays to book up well in advance.
We are sure you will have a great weekend.
We welcome you to our Gala!
The full programme for the day is also available in the official Gala Day brochure on sale throughout the march and on the Racecourse.
This is the first chapter of Dave Temple's comprehensive history of the Durham Miners' Gala which can be bought from the shop on this site.
The Big Meeting - A History of The Durham Miners Gala by David Temple
To the genteel town-dwellers they were clannish, taking their pleasure in ale-houses, gambling at pitch and toss or wagering on cockfights. They poached the squire’s pheasants and stole turnips from his fields. They were beyond the pale. But it was their smouldering discontent, which could erupt at any moment into riot, that was feared most.
Even the religious miners were feared – perhaps more so. The Church of England, with its deference to masters and its congregation of gentlemen, doctors and merchants, had little influence in the villages. Methodism with all its splits and factions was the established religion of the pit communities. Almost every pit village of any size had at least two chapels, usually Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist, dividing the village ideologically – Wesleyan for the master’s men, Primitive for the Union.
While the Church of England claimed God for the monarchy, the state and capital, the Durham Primitives claimed God for the working class, the co-operative store and the Union. Organised in circuits of travelling lay preachers, these men were regarded as dangerous fundamentalists and thoroughly subversive.
Abstaining from strong drink, dedicated to education and self-improvement, and frowning on marriage outside their own Primitive sect, these ‘religious extremists’ never accounted for more than 15 per cent of the community. However, they were respected as honest, decent men and were hugely influential.
When the Mines Act of 1860 came into force, it allowed miners to elect one of their number to check the weight of coal raised from the pit, and it was often a Primitive Methodist who was chosen. The checkweighman’s job, however, was more often than not a poisoned chalice.
One way the Master circumvented this law was simply to sack the checkweighman. Since the law stated that the workmen had to elect ‘one of their number’ to be their weighman, a sacked man became immediately ineligible. Consequently, 10 years after the Act had come into force, many Durham miners were still being cheated out of the limited protection the law provided.This was just one of the ‘reets’ for which the miners were marching to Durham.
On their way they passed farm labourers with backs bent, sickles and scythes in hand, bringing in the harvest. At first glance these two types of workers could not have been more different, the one working in the sunlight and the fresh air and the other in the darkness and foul air of the mine. However, they were united in one important respect – the terms under which they toiled. Farm servant and miner alike were tied to their employer by law.
Any miner who left his employment without a certificate of release could be hauled before the magistrates, fined or imprisoned and sent back to his employer.
For this reason Richard Rodrick, John Perkins, James Stewart and Richard Harle were not on their way to the first Gala. They had been summoned to appear before magistrates J Fawcett and Rev W Greenwell at Durham County Court for leaving their employment without permission.
Rodrick and Perkins had absconded from East Hetton colliery but agreed to return to the mine under a surety of £5.
James Stewart was charged with leaving Sherburn Hill colliery but could not attend court due to injuries he sustained at Tudhoe colliery, ‘whither he had gone’. The summons was ordered to stand for a month.
Next in the dock was Richard Harle, who had also left Sherburn Hill pit to work at Tudhoe. The Durham Chronicle reported:
The overman insisted that there had been few complaints about the ventilation in the pit, although he agreed that Harle had been off work sick. He intimated that the real reason for Harle’s objection was that he had drawn a bad cavil and found it difficult to make a wage.
Magistrate Fawcett then told Harle that he must return to the pit but Harle stuck to his guns and refused, reiterating that it was bad for his health.
Fawcett then made a statement that must have brought a wry smile to the face of any pitman present,
Harle protested that when he asked the doctor why his health was so bad the doctor said the air down the pit was not as good as that at Sacristone colliery, where Harle previously worked.
In a surprise turn of events the magistrates agreed that Harle be fined 10 shillings and his contract annulled.
An end to this hated bond was one more reason to be on the march that morning.
This first Gala was not the birth of trade unionism among Durham’s miners; that was already an old and painful story. This was a new beginning – a fresh start, a chance to build a county union that would survive.
Some of those marching to Durham that day would remember a Primitive lay preacher from Hetton pit, Tommy Hepburn, who inspired and led the miners’ victory of 1831 which reduced the working day of infants from 18 hours to 12. They would also remember the crushing defeat a year later when the owners combined to smash the union, evicting their families from their cottages, flooding the county with armed dragoons and hanging and then gibbeting the innocent miner James Jobling at Jarrow Slake.
Many would be old Chartists. Men from Thornley who in 1839 laid the colliery idle, commandeered a locomotive and drove it packed with miners to a Chartist meeting in Sunderland. These were men who only returned to work at the point of a bayonet when the 98th Regiment of Foot arrived in the village.
Many more would remember the great struggle of 1844, when the union of Northumberland and Durham was again smashed by an unholy alliance of coal owners and the state.
One old man who remembered those times more than most was Tommy Ramsey or ‘Old Tommy’ as he was affectionately known. Tommy was a youth in the 1831/ 32 conflicts and had played a leading role in the great struggle of 1844. He was one of the best known union ‘missionaries’ of the dark inter-union years. He trudged from village to village, crake in hand, badgering any miner who dared stop and listen to him, preaching the cause of combination. He slept rough in the fields and was dependent on the clandestine help of fellow believers to sustain him. Now he was attending the first Gala, a paid agent of the new union.
These memories, while they must have haunted the older men, could not dampen the enthusiasm and optimism of a new generation now on the move, united in a new union formed only two years earlier in 1869. Durham miners were moving in a changing world. Trade unionism, after so many setbacks, was now gaining strength and establishing itself. After much campaigning, the Liberal government had finally passed the Trade Union Act of 1871 which gave some legal status to trade unions. But there was a sting in the tail – the Lords had also passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made picketing an offence punishable by imprisonment.
The miners, however, had no influence in the political process. Voting was not for the working man and certainly not for women, whatever their class. In 1867, the Tory Prime Minister, Disraeli, stole Gladstone’s thunder by passing a bill extending the franchise to male householders in the boroughs. Miners living in the county in their damp, jerry-built tied cottages were excluded, as were the vast majority of the working class. Consequently the views of the ‘lower classes’ could be expressed
It was not just Durham miners who were on the move. Not many miles away, the factories and shipyards of Tyneside were at a standstill as the engineers’ unions were locked in a desperate struggle to achieve a nine- hour day.
Across the channel in France just four months earlier, in the aftermath of the defeat of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte at the hands of the Prussian army, the workers of Paris had taken over the city and established the first proletarian democracy – the Paris Commune.
In the reading rooms of the British Museum, racked with pain, a German asylum seeker by the name of Karl Marx was avidly studying these events. He had published the first volume of Capital, his epic analysis of the capitalist system, five years earlier. It was yet to be translated into English but was available in German and Russian. Unusually the Tsarist censorship police, not known for their liberalism, allowed it into Russia on the grounds that ‘few would read it and even less will understand it’.
It would be a while before the slogans penned by Karl Marx would appear on the banners of the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA).
Across the Atlantic, the people of the United States were recovering from the bitter and destructive civil war which had finally freed the southern slaves and preserved the Union.
One Union soldier, an Irishman by the name of Thomas O’Kelly, had come home to fight for his country’s independence. In February 1867 he took part in an abortive raid on Chester Castle in an attempt to capture arms for an Irish uprising. Later that year it was the successful attempt to rescue Kelly, when he was arrested in Manchester, that led to the accidental death of a policeman. When three of his rescuers were hanged in public they became known as the Manchester Martyrs. As the miners marched to Durham, Thomas O’Kelly was back safe in New York planning the next phase of the Irish struggle with the good wishes of the Durham miners.
As the crowds gathered on the field at Wharton Park there was an air of celebration. For several years trade had been good. The coalfield was expanding, with new shafts being sunk almost every week. Miners were now in demand. Although the new County union as yet only organised a minority of Durham miners, conditions for growth were good. Advances in wages were being achieved, but there was much to do.
The gathering had the feel of a country fair. Many miners were accompanied by their wives or sweethearts. An area had been reserved for dancing to ‘the refrains provided by an orchestra’. On either side of the dancing area the sloping banks of the Park provided a natural amphitheatre for the meeting. Twenty pounds had been put aside for three prizes for a band competition and a series of athletic competitions had been organised.
The country fair atmosphere soon gave way to that of a revivalist meeting when, at 12 noon, William Crawford, Chairman of the meeting, rose to address the crowd. Behind him was the banner of Thornley colliery and in the amphitheatre, fluttering in the breeze, a banner bearing the slogan: ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’.
William Crawford, an experienced trade unionist, was typical of the early leaders of the DMA. He had been Secretary of the short-lived combined union of Northumberland and Durham which was formed in 1863. In 1865, when the Northumberland miners split from the Durham men, Crawford became the Secretary of the Northumberland Miners Association, only to leave the same year to be Secretary of the Cowpen Co-operative Society. In his youth he had been influenced by the Chartist movement and was a Primitive Methodist and a stern disciplinarian.
After assuring the crowd that the finances of the union had never been stronger and that the benefits in increased wages were affecting more and more men, he gave the following example of the growing confidence of the new association:
Crawford then introduced William Brown from the North Staffordshire Miners’ Association. William Brown chose to sing a song written by himself to the tune of ‘Old Hundred’, and ‘the company joined most heartily in swelling the refrain’.
William Patterson, a checkweighman from Roddymoor Colliery, Crook, moved to the front of the stage to read the first resolution to be put to the meeting:
The resolution ended with a call on all miners in the United Kingdom to agitate for the Bill to be passed in the coming session.
The second resolution deplored the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment to the Trade Union Act which made picketing a criminal act, carrying a three- month prison sentence.
Speaking to the resolution was Alexander MacDonald.
MacDonald, a former Scottish miner, was the leader of the National Miners’Association, a loose association of county unions. He had started work as a pit lad at the age of eight and embarked on a path of self- education, which gained him access to Glasgow University at the age of 25. While studying he supported himself by working the holidays down the mine. After qualifying he took up a position as a school teacher. His thrift and careful investment in mining stock made him independently wealthy at a young age, allowing him to devote himself to the cause of the miners. His vision of a national union was that of a campaigning organisation putting pressure on Parliament to secure legislation to better the condition of miners.
As he rose to speak the crowd erupted into rounds of continuous cheering and after expressing his pleasure
at being present and wishing the new union well he declared:
Speaking to the resolution he railed at Parliament for its failure to pass the Mines Inspection Act and, to cheers from the crowd, he called upon miners throughout the land to protest and ensure its passage in the next session. He referred to the shocking fact that 1,000 miners were killed in the pits every year and 10,000 injured, 4-5,000 of whom were permanently lamed and unable to pursue their employment. He continued:
He then moved on to the question of the hours boys had to work in the mine:
He continued attacking the ‘Masters in the House of Commons’ who had kept secret their deliberations in committee with regard to the hours of labour and then issued a statement saying that they only wanted pit boys to work 120 hours a fortnight.
MacDonald had told the coal owner that the real reason was that when machinery broke at a pit and the boys could not work for a week the owners wanted the right to work the boys almost continuously the next week to make up for the loss of production.
MacDonald then confronted the coal owner with a pertinent question:
The owner replied, ‘Oh no; that would kill it’.
MacDonald then said that the owner would not allow his four-footed animals to be treated as badly as he would treat the poor little two-footed pit boy.
Turning to the question of weighing coal at bank, MacDonald recalled the last time he was in Durham he heard that, at some collieries, if a tub was under- weight the whole tub would be disqualified, the pitman would receive no reward, and the whole of the underweight tub would be claimed by the master. However, if a tub proved to be overweight, the pitman would not be paid for the extra weight of coal.
Turning to the Criminal Law amendment which the Lords inserted into the Trade Union Act, MacDonald raged at the establishment. According to him the Act had some merit but was ‘hardly worthy of support’. The amendment made it even worse.
MacDonald was referring here to the strike of engineering workers on Tyneside for the nine-hour working day. He appealed to the miners not to stand aside.
MacDonald explained that the necessity of the time was the struggle for a shorter working week, in an age when the introduction of machinery in industry was increasing the productivity of labour beyond all recognition.
MacDonald then made reference to a world movement taking place in ‘the far distant east and Russia, in the United States, too, the cry is for short time’. He then expressed his belief that, in the not too distant future, a Liberal government would be elected which would pass an Act making an eight-hour day for boys a legal requirement.
MacDonald sat down to prolonged cheering and applause. He was followed by Mr Hendry from Addison colliery to move the second resolution. Before he did this he urged the meeting to take note of what MacDonald had said about supporting the Tyneside struggle.
Hendry then read the resolution.
Mr Normansell, Agent of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association, was then introduced to speak to the motion.
John Normansell was born in Torkinton, Cheshire, in December 1830 and, having been made an orphan, worked at the pit from the age of seven. At the time of his marriage at the age of 19 he had received no education and could neither read or write. He left the North West and found work in the mines of South Yorkshire, where he gained a reputation as a formidable agitator against unfair weighing. Following a lockout in 1864, when 37,000 Yorkshire miners were locked out by the owners, Normansell was elected Secretary of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association.
Rising to loud cheers, Normansell informed the meeting that the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association was one of the strongest unions in the country, but this had been achieved with considerable labour, and if the Durham Association was to become as strong then they would have to labour equally hard – and, ‘You will have to pay for it!’ (Laughter.)
He explained how important it was for the union to incorporate funds which would compensate miners who were sick or injured and help the widows and orphans. Although there were, he said, Friendly Societies such as the Oddfellows who did a similar service, and he for one was a member of the Oddfellows, these organisations could not attend to the issues of hours and pay in the way that a trade union could.
Normansell spoke with the air of a teacher lecturing his pupils, but the listening Durham men took no offence.
In urging the Durham men to better their conditions, Normansell stressed the need for the equality of miners’ conditions throughout the country.
Normansell continued to extol the advantages of the union, saying that men should not complain about the cost of paying men to represent them. He had not, he said, saved a penny as a miner or as a trade union official and, pointing to the rotund appearance of the representative of the Lancashire miners, he declared to loud laughter, ‘It is only Mr Brown who has succeeded in getting fat out of you’.
The next to propose a resolution was Old Tommy Ramsey. The resolution celebrated the principles of trade unionism and called for the meeting to ‘pledge itself to use its utmost endeavours in expanding the application of its principles.
Mr Brown was called to speak to the resolution. He said:
Brown endorsed the plans which both MacDonald and Normansell had put to the meeting, but emphasised that it was the men in Durham alone who had to carry the struggle forward.
He then gave some advice to the unmarried women listening. He advised them if a man were to propose to them they should first ask him if he is a union man.
He repeated the accident statistics of 1,000 dead a year and 5,000 permanently lamed, adding to cries of ‘Shame!’ that the average age of a miner was just 26 years.
Now, with all the emotion he could muster, Brown hammered home the need for Durham miners to catch up:
After the usual vote of thanks to the speakers, the meeting of the first Gala closed and after a half-hour pause the band contest began, after which the pole- leaping, quoits and other competitions commenced.
The crowds made their way home from Durham in good order. Discipline had been maintained. There were no more instances of drunkenness in Durham that night than were experienced on any other Saturday. The City Fathers gave a collective sigh of relief – they had survived the invasion.
For the coal owners of the Durham coalfield, however, the first Gala posed a big question: how to respond to this new union? Should they use force to smash the union and demoralise the activists as they had done in the past? Or were these reason-seeking union leaders, clad in their frock coats and top hats, men with whom they could do business? The coal trade was expanding. The work was plentiful.
Was it to be confrontation or compromise?