Standing room only as Ken Loach speaks at the Thomas Hepburn Memorial Service

There was standing room only as people remembered Thomas Hepburn, founder of the first miners trade union on Saturday (October 14).

And filmmaker Ken Loach received a standing ovation for his address drawing learning and inspiration from Tommy’s life.

More than a dozen banners were in attendance at St Mary’s Church, Heworth on Saturday, including the banner from Mr Loach’s latest film. Currently in cinemes, The Old Oak is set in a former Durham mining community and was filmed in Murton and other North East locations, including at the Durham Miners Gala.

Hepburn spent his life working to improve the lives of miners and their families, and founded the Colliers United of Durham and Northumberland in 1825. He is buried in the churchyard at St Mary’s.

Mr Loach used his address to draw lessons for today from the life of Thomas Hepburn and called on activists to unite on principles to continue the fight for social justice today.

Speaking afterwards, he said: "If we stick together we can always win because the working class is the strongest element of society. There is the power, but we need unity. 

“I think the great need now for the left - the inheritors of Thomas Hepburn to unite around our principles."

The service also included readings from MP for Easington Grahame Morris and from the Mayor of Gateshead Cllr Eileen McMaster. Folk singer Bill Elliott was unable to perfrom due to illness and has the best wishes of the Durham Miners Association (DMA).

The DMA Brass Band played during the service and then performed Gresford, the Miners’ Hymn, at Hepburn’s graveside before the laying of wreaths. Mr Loach laid a wreath on behalf of the Durham Miners Association.

Alan Mardghum, Secretary of the DMA, said: “Our thanks go to Ken Loach for joining us and giving such a powerful and inspirational address. We thank also the wonderful DMA Brass Band, Cllr McMaster, Grahame Morris MP and our friends at St Mary’s Church for hosting the service.

“It was wonderful to see so many people, particularly local schoolchildren, in attendance to remember such an important figure in our history. It was great that local schoolchildren were there and laid a wreath in memory of Thomas Hepburn.”

Thomas Hepburn was born in Pelton in 1795 and began his working life at Urpeth Colliery at the age of eight following the death of his father in a mining accident. He went on to work at Lamb’s Colliery in Fatfield, Jarrow Colliery, then in 1822 at Hetton Colliery. The same year, he became a Primitive Methodist and a lay preacher. At Hetton, he founded the first miners’ union and became its leader.

In 1831, the union led a successful strike, winning a reduction in the working day from 18 to 12 hours – for children under the age of 12. Following this, the colliery owners organised to destroy the union and Hepburn and other leaders were blacklisted.

Hepburn remained an active Chartist throughout his life, and dedicated himself to working-class education. He died in December 1864 at the age of 69. His portrait features on several Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) lodge banners.

Our thanks to Mark Pinder for the photographs on this page. You can follow Mark @markopinder on Instagram here and @markpinderphoto on Twitter here.