Book recalls the splendour of the Durham Miners' Gala

PUBLISHED: 14:18 22 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:49 20 February 2013

Book recalls the splendour of the Durham Miners’ Gala

Book recalls the splendour of the Durham Miners’ Gala

Jo Haywood enjoys the splendours of the Durham Miners' Gala through the pages of a new local history book

When miners started holding an annual gala in Victorian times it was a clear demonstration of their comradeship and solidarity.

It was essentially a trade union gathering of hard-working men seeking fair treatment, improved pay, safer working conditions, compensation for injury and support for families in the event of a pit death. They believed that communities that worked, rested and played together were a force to be reckoned with, and that nothing and no one could ever bring them down.

And then along came Margaret Thatcher, the exception to almost every rule in the book. But even she couldnt crush them entirely. She took their livelihoods and their future prospects, but she couldnt quite snuff out their enduring spirit.

In their new book, Splendour of the Gala (9.99, Ergo Press), Ken and Jean Smith capture this indefatigable spirit of North East mining communities while chronicling the phenomenon of the Durham Miners Gala which, remarkably, has gone from strength to strength since the closure of the last deep-mined colliery in the area in 1993.

It is more than 140 years since the first miners gala and it would take a tome the size of a Volvo to cover the entire history of this iconic North East event. Instead, this relatively slim volume (it comes in at a more manageable 114 pages) relates the annual story from the selection of banner carriers to the early morning parade and the slow yet satisfying return home at the end of gala day.

Bands and banners are potent icons of mining communities and nowhere more so than in the North East, said Dave Hopper, general secretary of Durham Miners Association. Even today we are witnessing a resurgence of local groups raising funds to have new banners made or old ones lovingly restored to take pride of place in their communities and to remind the younger generation how important coal was in the lives of their villages and their people.

Over the years, miners galas have developed into major family days out, an occasion for fun and socialising as well as being a celebration of the North Easts industrial heritage.

The heritage is as deep and rich as the seams that evoked it, said co-author Ken Smith. Coal was the lifeblood of thousands between the North Pennines and the North Sea and today many people still living in the area are descended from miners.

Although coal was a mainstay of the economy, it was also the source of heartache, struggles, ordeals and great personal loss. Many communities would have sunk under its weight, but the miners of the North East, underpinned by the strong influence of Christianity, socialism and trade unionism, managed to stride on through with cheerful resilience. And continue to stride on now with their gala day banners held high.

This warmth and these principles shine through in the colourful lodge banners, said Ken. Painted on both sides, they express the values which transcend narrow materialism. They tell the story of a peoples determination to overcome injustice and to care for each other in the face of hardship, adversity and tragedy.

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