Time for Big memories

The Easington banner flies in front of the County Hotel at the Durham Miners Gala 2006
The Easington banner flies in front of the County Hotel at the Durham Miners Gala 2006

LOCALS know it as the Big Meeting.

To outsiders, it is the Durham Miners Gala and it remains a cornerstone of North East tradition.

Chris Cordner looks back on an event which attracts thousands of people every year.

THOUSANDS of people will pour into the centre of Durham this Saturday.

They will dance, they will parade, and they will listen to the speeches of leading unionists and politicians.

This is the 140th anniversary of the first Durham Miners Gala.

This is an event steeped in the traditions of the pit industry.

The Durham Miners’ Union organised the first Gala which was held in 1871 in Wharton Park, Durham City.

It soon developed into an event which, at its height, attracted more than 300,000 people who “followed the bands” through the streets of the city.

It shows no sign of dwindling in popularity, even though the last County Durham colliery closed in 1994.

Paul Stradling, a Durham county councillor for Horden has been one of the regulars since the late 1950s when he was a lad.

“In my time, it was taken as read that you went to the Big Meeting,” said Paul.

He recalls that momentous date in the calendar when the hair on the back on your neck was raised.

For the uninitiated, Big Meeting day always starts early. Usually around 5am.

“You got up early and went to the miners hall in your own village. Everyone came out to hear the band. It brought a lump to your throat.”

Every pit village in County Durham would have their own colliery band and banner.

And every pit villager would be out on the streets to see the banner paraded proudly through their own community before heading for Durham City with a convoy of buses following - taking villagers to their yearly ritual.

“We used to get eight buses leaving Horden and loads of other people making their own way there. There would be 400 or 500 of us from Horden. Multiply that by 250 collieries and that’s an idea of how big it was.

“When you got to Durham, you couldn’t get any further than Redhills or the DLI,” said Paul. “You had to walk the rest.

“It was an exhausting day for a young lad, but I loved it,” said Paul.

In its heyday, dozens of pit bands would throng on the outskirts of Durham at different gathering points - each getting ready to march through the city and down to the racecourse.

“You couldn’t move on the pavements so it was best to be on the roads - singing and dancing in front of your banner,” said Paul.

Once the parade was over, the massed ranks would gather to listen to the specially invited speakers.

“That was the highlight for me, with me being a unionist.”

Alan Cox, a fellow county councillor, started at Blackhall pit in 1958 as an apprentice electrician. “The Gala was a celebration of the mining industry. They were fantastic times but the pits closed over the years. In the end, it all pretty much went in the Thatcher era but I am pleased to see the Gala has survived.

“It is important that we have kept the Gala so that younger generations know about the times when we had comradeship, when people relied on their marra and you sometimes depended on their colleague to save their life in difficult working conditions.”