Durham's Big Meeting: The Twentieth Anniversary This Month of the 1985 Durham Miner's Gala, the First to Be Held after the End of the Miners' Strike of 1984-85, Will Be a Time for Reflection and Pride. Hester Barron Considers the History and Social Meaning of the Durham Miners' Annual Day Out

By Barron, Hester | History Today, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Durham's Big Meeting: The Twentieth Anniversary This Month of the 1985 Durham Miner's Gala, the First to Be Held after the End of the Miners' Strike of 1984-85, Will Be a Time for Reflection and Pride. Hester Barron Considers the History and Social Meaning of the Durham Miners' Annual Day Out


Barron, Hester, History Today


EVER SINCE THE FIRST ANNUAL MEETING of the Durham miners in 1871, the Durham Miners' Gala has been noted for its ability to impress and to inspire. The day always starts early as each lodge (the local branch of the union at every pit) processes behind its banner and colliery band to Durham City. The march continues through the city to the racecourse, where platforms ale erected, speeches given, a fairground and stalls set up and picnics laid out. In the afternoon there is a cathedral service, and then there is a final chance to meet friends and have a few more drinks before journeying home. The Gala's value to the mining (and ex-mining) community lies in its feeling of connection to the past, giving a sense of history and belonging.

Yet, however unchanging they may appear to be, rituals are invariably affected by the historical context within which they are performed. David Cannadine, writing about ritual in relation to the British monarchy in The Invention of Tradition (ed. Hobsbawn and Ranger, 1983), argued that ritual needs to be considered within its social, political and economic setting, for even if its 'text' remains unchanged over time, its 'meaning' may change profoundly. Here I shall be looking at how the same kind of rituals were performed at two very different points in the Gala's history, first during the 1920s and then in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The most potent symbols of Gala Day are the lodge banners. In the 1920s it was normal for about a hundred banners to be paraded at the Gala each year, acting as symbols of collective identity for the tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of miners and their families who attended. The miners' leader Jack Lawson noted that 'a colliery without a banner is almost unthinkable ... No regimental flag is dearer to the soldier than that emblem ... to the miner' (A Man's Life, 1932). The images on the banners tended to be celebratory rather than defiant, stressing conciliation, moderation and the benefits of unionism and education, and were accompanied by slogans such as 'Knowledge is Power' and 'Come Let Us Reason Together'. They were consistent with the union's recent tradition of moderation. The Durham Miners' Association (DMA) had been the last district to affiliate to the national union in 1908, which in turn had been the last major union to affiliate to the Labour Party a year later. Although the dominant politics of the coalfield had begun to change after the First World War, images like these echoed the memory of Lib-Labism, as much as they were consistent with early Labour Party philosophy (the Lib-Labs were trade unionists elected as Liberal MPs with no connection to the Labour Party). The moderate imagery chosen by most lodges also fulfilled a functional role. Banners acted as recruiting posters for the DMA, reminding waverers of the benefits of membership, with pictures of aged-miners' homes, or of injured miners or widows receiving help from the union.

Religious scenes were also ubiquitous, with portraits of the Good Samaritan appearing as frequently as those of Labour leader, Keir Hardie. The religious heritage of the Durham miners was also apparent in other features of the day, such as the well-attended cathedral service. Indeed, the cathedral itself frequently appeared on banners, reflecting its popular association with Gala Day. But the choice of religious imagery did not preclude a political message. Many of the miners' leaders, including A.J. Cook, the fiery leader of the miners during the national lockout of 1926, had been, or still were, Nonconformist lay preachers. Cook's portrait was featured on one side of a 1921 banner, the other side of which depicted Jesus walking on water.

The banners reflected the concerns of a coal-field whose political and religious outlook was continuing to evolve. Perhaps the best example of ambiguity can be seen in Bewicke Main's banner, in which Lenin peered over the shoulder of Ramsay Macdonald. …

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Durham's Big Meeting: The Twentieth Anniversary This Month of the 1985 Durham Miner's Gala, the First to Be Held after the End of the Miners' Strike of 1984-85, Will Be a Time for Reflection and Pride. Hester Barron Considers the History and Social Meaning of the Durham Miners' Annual Day Out
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