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 appeared, at least to the city dwellers like marauding clans. Coming into their city and taking pleasure in the 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 Miners Gala is no less lively or busy. The people still come but these days they make their way into town in buses or cars rather than making the long walk. People are still partial to the odd pint…or several and in its recent past even the odd fight…or several have been known to break out. But generally speaking the Gala, or ‘Durham Big Meet’ as it is called locally is a little less troublesome. There is a little less of the smouldering discontent and more of a carnival atmosphere pervades. But some still remains. As the speakers, including long time Labour MP and former miner Dennis Skinner address the crowds at the racecourse once the march through the town has ended the political and trade union rhetoric is strong. Feelings remain high among the gathered crowds who listened to the speakers. It always will be in what remains a strong Labour and union area. But in as far as the pits are concerned the winding engines have slowed to a halt. The black dust has now settled. The sulphurous fumes no longer rise into the air and where once a hundred mines made up the mighty Durham coalfield today none remain.
Events this Saturday began with many hundreds of people coming together in the Market Place – the main assembly point for the start of the parade through Durham. The colliery brass bands play with vigour as they are followed by their respective banners. Carried by proud men from the outlying towns and villages. Behind these come those with allegiances to those former great colliery villages and together they begin the march from there to the racecourse. Many hundreds of people stand watching along on the route and applaud them as they pass. As they come to the County Hotel on Old Elvet they pause as each band plays a tune to the union leaders the invited guests and local dignitaries who greet the march as they look down from the hotel balcony before stepping off again on the last part of their journey through town.
With thousands of people watching or taking part in the procession it can take three to four hours to pass the County Hotel but an amazing atmosphere of street theatre is created making the occasion more a fiesta than a march.
On arrival at the Racecourse a platform awaits for the speakers to address the crowds. The racecourse quickly fills up with everyone sitting around on the grass. A thousand picnics. There is a lot of drink. Around the perimeter of the field there are food stalls, funfairs and rides offering excitement and thrills to those willing to have a go. Bells, whistles and loud music rise up from the showground amusements in an endless and confusing din as they compete for trade. The smell of food floats through the crowds. Burger stalls. Chips. Candy Floss. Ice cream. Children run playfully amongst the crowds. Younger people drink and have a laugh. Groups of lads show off to groups of girls. Groups of girls show off to groups of lads. Older people and families sit amongst them. The banners that were carried with pride through the city are now all secured to the perimeter fence. Colliery and town band instruments placed carefully at the foot of them. Marking their spot.
This year is the 30th anniversary of the miners strike and Durham Big Meet remains a colourful tapestry of traditions and working class history. Police said around 100,000 people attended this meet – the biggest attendance since the miners strike. It remains more about the people than the politics. This is how it should be but both are intertwined. It is about the people who take part or line the streets. Especially for the younger people or children who will come to know and understand an important part of their regional history. It remains a source of great pride and long may it be so and yet it is also tinged with some sadness. Sadness for an industry lost forever to the people of the Durham coalfield.
The following poem is by John McNally.
A miner of the Morrison Busty Colliery, Annfield Plain.
The Durham Big Meeting
I see them invade our fair city, their coloured banners high.
I hear the martial music, as each lodge goes marching by,
My heart is filled with northern pride that all we miners know,
And I, with teaming thousands more, reflect an inner glow.
Oh! Come you Durham miners, come across the River Wear,
With many a laugh, and many a song, and many a hidden tear.
With banners fluttering in the breeze, and many a head held high,
Each Lodge comes gaily into view, and then goes marching by.
As I pass the County, each band outplays the rest,
For there the miners’ leaders stand, with many an honoured guest.
I wonder what our leaders feel, like generals, as they view,
The best shock troops of Europe were never quite as true.
They must be proud, Sam Watson, Jimmy Kelly, and the rest,
To know that passing years have proved they really stood the test.
Above the River Wear so proud, erect, serene,
The beautiful Cathedral lends its grandeur to the scene,
As it has done through all the years the miners rallied here,
A monument to all their hopes, and to their God so near.
So yearly let it still unfold, this pageantry so dear,
And let the miners’ lodges march across the River Wear,
And, we’ll be there, we Durham men, to give a Durham greeting,
To welcome all the miners as they come to their BIG MEETING.
Below are a few of my shots from the day…..
One of the colliery bands and their banner stops outside the balcony of the County Hotel to play in front of large crowds
Nora Newby, 80, from Chilton is one of the first to arrive. Standing in the same spot from 6am for 59 years.
Former miner Billy Huitson, 88, stands and salutes one of the colliery bands as it arrives at the County Hotel
Long time Labour party politician and former miner Dennis Skinner addresses the crowds on the racecourse
CAMERA INFO – All my pictures from the day were shot with a Fuji X-Pro 1 fitted with an 18mm f2 lens (27mm equivalent) and a Leica M9 fitted with a 50mm f2 Summicron lens. The Summicron lens was also fitted with a 3 stop ND filter allowing me to shoot at wider apertures in the bright sunshine. All pictures were subsequently edited using Lightroom 5.5 and Photo Mechanic. Some minimal dodge and burn techniques were used on some of the pictures using Photoshop CS3. No excessive manipulation of any images was carried out and any editing was in line with what could be achieved in a traditional darkroom.
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Images remain copyright Ian Forsyth / London News Pictures
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