On Monday 14th of July I reflected on roots and especially on my home village. On Saturday July 12th before I left for Temple Balsall I experienced a ritual that has shaped the North East for many years. The Colliery band and banner getting ready for Durham Miners gala – always held on the second Sunday of July. Here is an old family picture of the event:
In this picture you get a sense of the sheer scale of this community event:
The gala developed out of the miners’ trade unionism, with the first Union being established in 1869.It developed into the largest unofficial miners and trade union gathering in the United Kingdom. At its peak the Gala attracted over 250,000 people – approximately 6 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 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.
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 .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 and Lennin, and other prominent figures such as miners’ leaders, or politicians. The 1935 Chopwell banner toured the Soviet Union and is thought to reside somewhere in Moscow today. 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.
The Gala today
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, 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 then in the afternoon to the cathedral.