Dave Hopper was born on April 8 1943, the first son of Timothy and Barbara, in a small colliery house directly opposite the gates of Wearmouth Colliery, Sunderland, where his father worked. His primary education was basic and, at a time when fewer than ten percent of Sunderland’s children were awarded a place at a grammar school, Dave spent a year in the local secondary modern before passing the entrance exam for Villiers Street Secondary Technical School. He was an able pupil, a keen footballer and was already honing that legendary acerbic wit that delighted his classmates and annoyed the teaching staff in equal measure.
Sunderland’s many shipyards and engineering factories were enjoying a post-war boom and there were ample jobs for Dave to choose from. However, he decided, at the age of 15, to follow his father down the pit.
As a teenager, he enthusiastically embraced the age of rock n’ roll – Edwardian “drapes”, beetle crushers and all. One night, on the dance floor of the Seaburn Hall, he met Brenda Lough, fell in love and after a short courtship they married on December 1 1962 – he was 19, Brenda, 18.
At the pit, Dave’s first job was stone picking on the surface screens amid the din and dust, a job he detested. When 16 and allowed down the pit, he first worked at the shaft bottom loading tubs into the cage. From there, he progressed in-bye and finally, at the age of 19 and fully face-trained, he began hand-filling on a three-foot-high coalface – the most physically demanding job at the pit. In Durham, the men picked the face teams and the whole team shared piece-rate earnings equally. Comradeship and co-operation were essential and Dave forged bonds that lasted his lifetime.
Gary, his first child, was born in March 1963 and eighteen months later Brenda gave birth to their second child, Deborah, in September 1964 and their third child, Beverley in March 1966.
With a growing family to feed, Dave moved on to drilling in the development drifts and later operating a Dosco road-header in the new 15 70 horizon that was heading for the high coal reserves under the North Sea.
In 1967, the introduction of the National Power Loading Agreement replaced piecework and halved Dave’s take home pay. By the time Jason, the fourth child, was born in April 1970, large-scale dissatisfaction was spreading throughout the British coalfields. Miners who had been so compliant since Vesting Day 1947 were at breaking point and, in January 1972, they struck for seven weeks for higher pay and won substantial increases.
Dave now began to take a keen interest in the union, encouraged by his father, Timothy, who was a union safety inspector and a member of the lodge committee. He read avidly about the history of the labour and socialist movement and became convinced that capitalism was the enemy of working people the world over, never wavering from this view.
His growing militancy brought him into conflict with the moderate area leaders and after the Incentive Scheme was introduced in 1977, by stealth, after twice being rejected by national ballot, Dave and a group of young miners decided to form a discussion forum – called the Durham Left – dedicated to creating a more combative area leadership.
By 1981, they had succeeded in changing the rules governing the election of the union’s Area Executive Committee making it more democratic, enabling Dave to be elected in 1982. Most importantly, in 1983, the Durham Left was instrumental in getting the first Durham rank-and-file miner elected to the National Executive Committee, giving the left a vital majority of one. This was to prove decisive in the coming struggles. In that year, the influence of the left was further strengthened when Dave was elected secretary of Wearmouth’s 3,000-strong lodge.
In 1984, the Wearmouth Lodge was among the first to strike against pit closures. Throughout the strike, Dave remained dedicated to achieving a successful conclusion while Brenda, an active trades unionist herself, worked tirelessly raising money and feeding miners and their families.
When the strike ended, Dave was elected General Secretary of the NUM (Durham Area) and with Dave Guy, the newly-elected President, formed a strong area leadership in the most difficult of circumstances. They opposed all the subsequent pit closures, the new draconian discipline procedures and the attempts to lengthen shift times underground. Above all, they stood by all those miners who had been sacked during the strike, getting many reinstated and supporting the others financially.
When the last pit in Durham closed in 1993, all appeared lost. The union’s resources had been consumed in the strike, there were no miners to pay subscriptions and it would have been easy to have walked away. However, that was not how the two area leaders saw it. The building assets of the Durham Area were put up as collateral and the union fought a court battle for compensation for members suffering from the industrial disease vibration white finger. When they won, £1.7 billion in compensation was paid to miners throughout the coalfields of Britain. A similar success with bronchitis and emphysema was to follow.
In 1997, disaster struck Dave’s family when Brenda, after a four-year battle with cancer, died on November 23 at the age of 53. The family was heartbroken and Dave struggled to face life without his wife to whom he had been devoted for 31 years.
Dave was passionately against the British intervention in Afghanistan and, when Tony Blair took the country to war in Iraq, he was incensed and left the Labour Party in which he had been an active member and office holder for over 30 years. He was totally opposed to the policies of New Labour and saw its refusal to reverse Thatcher’s anti-union legislation as a betrayal of the very people the party was formed to protect. He referred often in his Gala messages to the disgrace that, after 13 years of Labour Government, the gulf between rich and poor had actually widened.
Under Dave’s leadership, Durham miners played an important role in providing aid for Cuba, donating money to buy ambulances for its health service and computer equipment for schools. It was during a visit to Cuba that Dave met and fell in love with Maria Zarzabal whom he married in the Cuban Embassy in 2006 and became a stepfather to her two children, Samuel and Esther. This gave Dave a new lease of life that they enjoyed for 11 happy years together.
Dave was a passionate internationalist and anti-fascist who hated racism of all kinds. He supported all working people fighting oppression and was widely admired for his straight talking. Above all, he believed that the capitalist system, based on the exploitation of working people for the enrichment of the few, is not and can never be the highest level of civilisation that humankind can achieve. Whatever the difficulties and problems, he was adamant that we have to strive to replace it with a socialist system under which the weak are protected and everyone can enjoy the full fruits of their labour.
The Durham Miners’ Gala, which under his leadership has grown and developed into Europe’s largest celebration of community and trade union values, is his legacy and he leaves it to us all to cherish and guard with all the passion he demonstrated throughout his life.
Dave leaves behind his beloved wife Maritza, four children and two stepchildren, eleven grand children and six great-grand children.