Photo: Red Hills features on many miners' banners
The Miners' Hall in Durham "Red Hills", as it is known, is one of the finest trade union buildings in Britain.
It is still the headquarters of the Durham Miners Association. Built in 1915, it was the second miners’ hall in the city. The first, in North Road, became too small for the union headquarters as membership rose to over 150,000.
The Durham Miners' Association was once a powerhouse of the Labour movement and a socialising force within County Durham and beyond. It built houses for retired miners, welfare halls in almost every pit village, libraries and hospitals through its members’ subscriptions. Founded by liberal Methodists in 1862, the union was the body politic from which modern labour politic rose.
At its height, the County Durham coalfield employed almost 250,000 mineworkers and their union was the lifeblood of their communities. The last mine in the county closed in 1993, but the community culture born of the industry and collective resilience carries on. Every second Saturday in July over 150,000 people gather for the Durham Miners' Gala – a unique display of banners and bands reflecting traditional communitarian values.
There is nothing like this in the world. And Red Hills stands at the heart of it. Despite the demise of the coalfield, the miners hall has continued to be a hub of cultural activity. It’s magnificent Council Chamber, once known as "The Pitman’s Parliament", regularly hosts performance art and community meetings.
The building is used by myriad community groups, including the Banner Groups – a network of activists who restore, repair and recommission the banners of their union lodges. The Banner Groups have become a focal point for community pride and action in the former coalfield and the banner a symbol of social cohesion in villages challenged by post-industrial blight.
Red Hill also acts as a venue for musicians, visual artists and cinema. Its historical artefacts provide an eclectic archive of labour history throughout the peace and war of the 20th century. But the Red Hill’s fabric needs renewal for it to fulfil its potential at the heart of its community. A broad-based consortium of supporters has banded together to try to secure the future of this splendid and versatile building. They include supporters from trades unions, Durham County Council, Durham University and abroad. The common cause is to ensure that this precious Grade II building is given a new lease of life.
Throughout the summer and autumn of 2017, we will be asking all those passionate supporters and users of Red Hill what they would like to see it doing in the future. Already, musicians are wanting to use it for performance and practice space; banner makers and groups for restoration workshops and theatre groups for staging shows. There will be a series of 'big meetings' at Red Hill where people can see the potential of restoration and development of the building. Their comments and ideas will be the basis of a bid to find the money to start the project.
Red Hills will be a place where things are made and done. It will reflect and preserve the rich heritage and culture of County Durham. DMA Secretary Alan Cummings said: “We have an ambitious plan to secure the future of Red Hills as a hub of heritage and culture for County Durham. The intention is to leave a vibrant and active legacy to the county which keeps our value and traditions alive. We are looking towards Red Hills future as much as its past. I hope you will all support and be as passionate about it as we are.”