From early morning on the twelfth of August in 1871 groups of miners and their families made their way steadily towards the City of Durham. Like small conquering armies they headed towards the cathedral city along the small roads and tracks that snaked through the countryside marching behind heavy canvas banners held aloft by those at the head of the column. Many travelled by foot but some rattled their way towards the city on horse drawn wagons. The pitmen, whilst a little apprehensive about the welcome they might receive from the city folk, marched proudly and with purpose.
The city people were not happy that these pitmen were making their way towards their city. They were, in the eyes of those who lived within the relative comfort of the city, a race apart. Living hand to mouth in small isolated villages they eked out a meagre existence. These pitmen who lived constantly within earshot of the clatter of the winding engines and who were always covered by the ever present black dust that permeated everything they owned. Living in their small homes engulfed with the sulphurous fumes that spewed from the ventilation furnaces they were, to the city dwellers, like marauding clans. Coming to their city and taking their pleasure in ale-houses, gambling at pitch and toss or wagering on cockfights. On their way to town they poached the squire’s pheasants and game and stole turnips from his fields and if all of this wasn’t bad enough it was their smouldering discontent, which could erupt at any moment into riot, that was feared most.
These days the Durham Big Meeting is a little more sedate, if no less lively or busy. Still open to the odd pint or two being swilled and in its recent past even the odd fight or two has been known to break out. But generally speaking the Durham Miners Gala, or ‘Durham Big Meeting’ as it is called locally, is a little less violent. The winding engines have slowed to a halt. The black dust has now settled. The sulphurous fumes no longer rise into the air. Where once a hundred mines made up the mighty Durham coalfield, today, none remain.
Today, events began with many hundreds of people meeting up in the Market Place of the city. the main assembly point for the start of the parade through Durham. The colliery brass bands and banners, followed by those with allegiance to those former great colliery villages start to march from there to the cities Racecourse. As they pass the County Hotel on Old Elvet they walked past union leaders, invited guests and local dignitaries who greet the march from the hotel balcony.
The procession can take three to four hours to pass the County Hotel due to the huge numbers of people attending and the frequent pauses at the hotel. However, an amazing atmosphere of street theatre is created making the occasion more a fiesta than a march.
The bands pause beneath the balcony to play their musical ‘party piece’ before marching on the rest of the distance to the Racecourse where a platform waits for the speakers to address the crowds. There are food stalls, funfairs and rides offering excitement and thrills to those willing to have a go. Their banners, carried with pride through the city are now all secured to the surrounding fences in a tapestry of tradition and working class history that remains a source of pride and sadness for an industry lost to the people of the Durham coalfield.