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The Big Meeting
A History of The Durham Miners Gala
David Temple


Hardback ISBN: 1 901237389
Softback ISBN ; 1 901237397
243 pages.


Hard back £19-50 plus £4 p&p
Soft back copy £14-50 plus £3 P&P
And in Hard Back £19-50 plus £4 p&p

Published and Printed by TUPS books, Washington, Tyne and Wear.


James Connolly said that The Cause Of Labour Was the Cause of Ireland, and the Cause of Ireland was The Cause of Labour.
To great extent this is also true of the politics of coal, and the position of the Durham miners within that. Coal and by extension the miners and their union poised over the jugular of The Empire and expanding capitalist ‘Workshop of the World.’ What miners thought and did mattered. The Durham coalfield was the epicenter of that whole strategic ensemble . Since1871 and the first ‘Big Meeting’ through to the days when quarter of million miners and their families marched to claim wa reets through to last July’s 100,000 plus the gala, or Big Meeting has always been and remains Europe’s largest labour movement event.  Other Areas of course had Gala’s, demonstrations, picnics or Eisteddfods, but none ever compared in size or importance with Durham, and it was to Durham that union and political leaders aspired to appear, it was the vast public stage of many a crowning career or aspiration to achieve high office . 

Dave Temple’s book is much much more than a simple history of the Big Meeting, though a comprehensive history of the event 141years down the line was long overdue. Dave uses the gala, the composition of the platform the content of the speeches, the year, , the  temperament of the crowd to take us through the history of this vast coalfield, and by extension the pulse of the working class movement as a whole . This is history the way we learned it, as kids, as political teenagers, from the knee, via the preceding generations and  via the banners and their illustrations, these were class history lessons as moving tapestry and pageant.  Like moments captured from time, the banners carry yesterdays leaders yesterdays struggles, each decade and each generation adding a little more to the ongoing story, the ‘bond’ lockouts, arbitration, parliament, reform, strikes, revolution, ideologies. The illustration of our work, from picks and thin seams and ponies to massive tunneling machines and coal cutters.  This history like my own I suppose rambles, but where does it ramble ? Down fascinating asides,  through branches and tributaries of the main path, the militant movement of miners wives organizing a county wide boycott of butchers who put up their prices following miners wage increase, with pickets,  attacking the wives who defy the common cause.  The rank and file miner the man at the pick point not simply the leader in the suite. The bloke and his wife in the field rather than just those standing on the platform. Explosions, disasters, pit work and crack.

The first Big Meetings, and the platform predate independent working class representation and parties and it is those of radical liberalism which stand in lieu,  many of these developed from and alongside the physical force wing of Northern Chartism, they stand for revolution, and passionate internationalism. The exponents of Irish Home Rule , a united Poland, Garibaldi’s  red shirt campaign joined the voices of moderate Methodism and industrial coexistence.  The first meetings seen hundreds , thousands, tens of thousands making their way to Durham, many marching fifteen miles each way, other hiring fleets of special trains, even traction engines pulling wagons.  This was a real meeting, with real resolutions, and speeches, and votes for and against. The crowds were so great, two platforms were organized simultaneously, The great desire of the 1870s, was that the vindictive and rapacious coal owners would go and the mines would belong to the miners directly and at first the Durham miners started to deposit large sums of money with the aim of buying the pits, and running them as mining cooperatives. Forty years earlier at the dawn of the union the miners talked of seizing the collieries and running them themselves.   By 1947 we had entered ‘A New Era’ with nationalization of the industry a left wing reforming government and an end to all that had been pre-war. The CPGB spectacularly misjudged the mood of the post war population and despite a massive growth in membership to 60,000 on the back of the popularity of the Soviet Union’s contribution to defeating fascism, called for a national government under the leadership of Churchill! The masses swept him from No 10 and clear out of parliament, voting for Atlee and ‘socialism’ though it was clear something far more radical had been in the wings, but without formal political expression. Two communist MPs were elected together with 393 Labour MPs . The liberals were wiped out.

The chronology of speakers, each selected by ballot of the lodges is a revelation of political aspiration and admiration. Charles Bradlaugh, who spoke on 11 occasions between 1871 and 1880  the most popular speaker of the period and darling of the gala crowds, Militant republican, atheist, champion of women’s rights, abortion, and an independent Ireland. He was a passionate campaigner for land reform, and against all imperialist adventures, a ruthless anti monarchist critic, and a Liberal.  The far left , radical and revolutionary wing of Liberalism was often easily to outflank subsequent moderate leaders of the yet to form Labour Party.  Annie Besant , his comrade on ‘The National Reformer’ were both convicted of publishing material likely to deprave and corrupt by publishing Charles Knowlton’s work on birth control. Annie was a darling of the Durham miners and the gala but implored the miners to reject ruinous strikes and seek arbitration. She was the first women invited to speak on the platform in 1884. Joseph Cowen ‘the Friend of the Northumberland and Durham Miners’  passionate advocate of working class power, trade unionism, education, cooperation, internationalism and the bomb and the gun. In 1863 had converted a merchantman into a man o war, to harass the Tsarist navy in support of the Polish independence movement. We could list name after name of Chartists and radicals (and Dave does of course and much more) few platforms were absent of Irish home rulers. Prince Peter Kropotkin Europe’s most famous anarchist, “was probably the most remarkable man to speak at the Durham Miners Gala”.(1882).  By 1906 we see the start of Lib/Lab MP’s and Labour Representation candidates running with liberal support, and then the start of the Labour Party proper which over time would oust Liberals from the platform. Keir Hardie becomes a patron saint of the gala and miners banners nationwide ever since.  The platform always chosen by ballot of the miners, swayed this way and that, through syndicalism, and the early communist movement, left and moderate labourism and all causes of the movement over time. The invitation of Saklatvala in 1928 reflected the great growth in membership and influence of the CPGB following the general strike “When  Communist Party members marched in uniform formation on to the racecourse in 1928 it marked the end of the united front tactic.” From now on the Labour Party was the enemy. Peter Lee the famous Chair of Durham County Council and General Secretary of the Durham Miners Association a much loved moderate, attempted to mount the steps of the platform he found his path barred by the uniformed members of the Communist Party. “In his biography Peter Lee , Jack Lawson paints  heroic scene of Lee fighting his way up the steps, inspiring others to come to his aid.”

In 1932 despite depression and 70,000 unemployed miners and many more on short time 200,000 gathered and marched and danced at Durham “The procession through the streets of bands and banners, followed by the continual stream of humanity of men carrying their children upon their shoulders and young men and maidens dancing gaily to the music en route, formed a spectacular that it is not soon possible to forget. All cares and worries were thrown to the wind for this one day.” (Durham Advertiser). There was one big change all the banners which had proudly displayed portraits of MacDonald had had his image eradicated “Some had been painted over with the portrait of a different leader, others displayed just a blank space while on one a white sheet had been neatly sewn to obliterate his image” MacDonald of course was universally held as a class traitor for agreeing to the Kings request to head up a National Government but remain Prime Minister rather than stay principled in opposition, or even form a Lib Lab coalition.  The image which amuses me most is where MacDonald’s face is painted out  with  some other Labour leaders head and face  painted in occupying  his headless body and suite.

The post war euphoria seen the Rt. Hon Clemant Atlee, the most reforming Labour Prime Minister before or since address a crowd of 250,000 who were convinced ‘our day had come’. Now too came former miner’s leaders in the office of National Coal Board. 1947 was to be the dawn of a brave new world, it was hailed by a strange reception “The reporter from The Durham Advertiser was perplexed:
“It is true the Durham miners were meeting on a day a new era is dawning but they did not demonstrate (it);there was no fanatical cheering when the subject was referred to .The Chancellor must still be wondering why there was almost complete silence when he proclaimed slowly and deliberately ‘today the coal mines belong to you and I’. He waited a moment or two but there was no vocal response from the crowd not any sound of hand clapping. This epoch-making declaration was received in stony silence.”  Dave comments correctly this was not the ‘workers control’ or miner’s ownership or nationalization we had fought for so long. Besides which never mind ‘owners’ at pit level the self same gaffers sat behind the self same desks,  As St Hilda’s Lodge , South Shields proclaimed when refusing to join ‘Vesting day celebrations; ‘It is just a different play with the same old actors’. Nonetheless
Aneurin Bevan spoke for many when he declared we had seen the back of the hated coal owners :- “This gala marks the end of a black era and the beginning of a brighter one. Young miners need never  fear unemployment again or  suffer victimization at the hands of vicious colliery owners.”
Just two decades later unemployment was again stalking the coalfields and mines were going down like nine pins, four decades down the line and the vicious black list and victimization was back, a short time later so were the coal owners.

Despite our cynicism at the time and now the benefit of hindsight, by 1950s the industry had changed, wages and conditions and especially safety were improving, basic human improvements of pithead baths and canteens and union rights , educational facilities, went hand in hand with new council estates, decent schools and the belief that the balance of class justice would never tip back to the dark  days of the nineteenth century or even the 20’s and 30s which had been so much part and parcel of the history of the miners. The gala’s reflected that optimism, and the belief that this was just the start of unending improvement and reform and redistribution.

By the end of the 50s, youth culture had emerged as a distinct phenomena and the young miners embraced the rock era with passion, the local papers came to describe the Gala as ‘the Teddy Boys picnic’ and bemoaned the drunkenness and violence, as the 60s wore on the new outrage was the sex on the river banks and couples in their hundreds in the woods like some brass band version of Woodstock. But if truth is known, the gala had always been a place to strut your stuff, photos from the 20’s and 30s show ‘flappers’ and the Charleston and young men in their straw boaters and oxford bags.

We are taken via the Big Meeting through the period when the miners storm back centre stage in the 70s, smashing wage restraints, bringing down a government and retaking the title they were given in the 1920’s as ‘the storm troops of the TUC’.  By the great strike of 84/5 and the final encounters at the beginning of the 1990’s the Durham miners and the Labour leadership had parted company with the gala and the miners nationwide. Kinnock is the last Labour leader to speak, to a crowd that simply melted away as he spoke, the contempt was palpable. They have never been back, despite the assurances of the Miliband boys that if elected Leader of the Party either of them, would be back to take this platform and bring Labour back to the masses. Last year, Ed refused to appear unless Bob Crow was uninvited, with tremendous principle the Durham miners leaders told Ed, he didn’t pick the people who spoke on this platform, the miners did that and they had picked Bob.

The last pit in Durham closed in 1994 the giant coalfield, which still holds stocks of rich coal seams for half a millennium sealed its shafts and that ought to have been the end of the story.  But mining is not just a job, its not just work at the pit, mining and the miners union is woven into the DNA of Northumbria .With old traditions and cultures and values and inspirations being swept from the country, and the new hard nosed Thatcherism embraced by New Labour with the death of traditional industry and union strength, with no new clarity of vision for socialism, this tradition refused to die. The bands kept playing, the banners kept flying, and something strange started to happen. The crowds started to return,  old banners were dusted down, bands revived, banners were reconstructed resurrected from history by new generations, young folk man brass instruments, community and schools retitled old banners and at last the trade union movement now marches at the side of the miners,  though they didn’t do so when we needed them most during the decade of strikes and resistance.

Last July 100.000 people turned out at Durham, for the 144th year of the Big Meeting, ancient old banners with timeless messages resurrected and reconstructed join modern union giant inflatables and modern union conglomerates with their modern images and flags. The big fair ground which left the scene for some years is now back and big and scary as ever, the chip stalls still fry all day, the drink and songs and dancing and sometimes fighting still flow, but that platform is still hugged, the crowd is still attentive though not always quiet, it never has been, and the speakers are still looked to for inspiration and vision.  Dave has done us a great service with this book  and this review could only ever touch on the depth and colour of its story.

The book comes with a fully comprehensive list of Big Meeting speakers from its inception; it also contains samples of many of their speeches which were recorded verbatim. The final pages of the book host a wonderful assemble of all the Durham Miners Gala’s in existence, remade or on record, of course sod’s law dictates he would miss four of the still existent ones, much to annoyance of those Lodges, although they are mentioned in the body of the work.  If I had one criticism it’s his annoying abandonment of footnotes and individual sources, offering only generic general source titles.  This doubtless makes for a much more readable book for your average punter and that’s his target readership,  but a complete fully footnoted and sourced edition should at least be offered since the work has already been done., and serious researchers ought to be able to look them up.

This years Big Meeting is 14th July, get to Durham City for 8-30 for the first bands coming in.

Not available from bookshops, only available from The Durham Miners Association PO Box 6
Red Hill, Durham DH14BB Cheques and PO’s made out to The Durham Miners Gala Book Project.



This is not to say any Chartists as such appeared on the platform, although Physical force Chartism was cheek by jowl in the leadership of the first miners unions and Chartist organisation by the time of the first gala Chartism only remained in influence and organisational tradition.