The Durham Miners’ Gala is remarkable for its takeover, for a day, of a picture-postcard city by the workers of its hinterlands. In an age of casualisation and precarity, this festival of political solidarity may seem surreal, quaint, or absurd, but it’s a powerful reminder of working-class culture’s past and present transformative power.
It’s easy to forget that industrial unionism had strange and rocky beginnings, mirroring the harsh and volatile imposition of industrial capitalism to which it was a response. Early unionism was pre-modern in form and content, with local rural folk culture transforming into industrial culture as material conditions shifted, and cross-country migration for work generating a cross-pollination of traditions and beliefs.
Like experimental scratch demos developed before more polished recordings, it often drew on folklore and myth to shape emerging political tactics and demands, and could contain rituals rooted in the methods of earlier craft guilds, including swearing on the Bible and quasi-masonic rites. In the 1820s Welsh coalfield, miners who called themselves the Scotch Cattle organised and instilled discipline during strikes while dressed in animal hides and horned headdresses. These early, often bizarre, attempts at collective bargaining were an appropriate response to the conditions in which they evolved: brutal work regimes and repressive victimisation of union members making them, of necessity, both secretive and uncompromising.
Out of these chaotic shadows, as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, unions representing the mass of industrial workers became institutionalised. The Durham Miners’ Gala was established in 1871, as one part of a self-sustaining community infrastructure set up by working people — particularly miners, for whom remoteness and isolation meant heightened solidarity and collective support. Libraries and welfare halls were built through workers’ subscriptions, adult education courses set up and workers provided for, from widows and orphans funds for the families of miners killed or injured at work, to convalescent homes for miners themselves.
Britain’s mining communities, called into being by the strategic importance of coal to the Industrial Revolution, created their own leisure and culture that grew around local mines like pearls around a speck of grit. The Durham Miners’ Gala’s carnival aspect builds on traditions of social gathering in mining communities: big days out woven into the festival calendar or becoming nationally important annual events on their own terms.
From the 1860s onwards, local and regional miners’ picnics and carnivals combined political rally with family day out, full of music, dancing, sports, and drama. Local holiday savings schemes enabled miners and their families to have a week’s paid holiday — often for the first time — in Tenby, Barry, and Porthcawl or in specially-built complexes at Skegness or Rhyl with communal dining and dancing. (The fact that paid holidays were also political, a hard-won break from dangerous drudgery, is suggested by how the press in the late 1800s frequently reported strikes and walk-outs in the coalfield as ‘A Miners’ Holiday’.)
The competing and complimentary cultural impulses of working-class life are evident on the union banners that graced both community days out and protests. Banner art brings together history and myth, bearing portraits of local or international socialist heroes alongside Christian parables or classical mythology whose lessons are invested with socialist resonance: swords turned into ploughshares, strength in unity. The banner of Burradon Colliery, commissioned in 1954, blends political and religious ambitions in its image of a miner ascending through clouds to a heavenly state of socialism, up steps labelled ‘nationalisation’, ‘the five day week’, and ‘social security’.
This elision of spiritual faith with the secular gains of historical political struggle gets to the heart of the powerfully romantic and heartfelt appeal of socialism, but also demonstrates that this apparently utopian ideal was in fact built on existent victories for working people. Following nationalisation of the mining industry, Clement Attlee in his speech at the 1947 Yorkshire Miners’ Gala told attendees that: ‘You have the incentive of your earnings, but you have besides another powerful motive. You are at the forefront of the new society which we are building.’
We now know, of course, how that strand of history ended, with the iconic struggle and defeat of 1984–5. But the potential for socialism remains, and the cultural history of mining communities reminds us that this potential was seen at one point as rooted in both cultural and material conditions, in the possibility of rolling out the mutual support and collectivism that already existed — as Aneurin Bevan developed the Tredegar Medical Aid Society in his own mining town into a model for the NHS. Events like the Durham Miners’ Gala provide a glimpse of past prototypes for socialism and its future possibilities based on a culture of collaboration, cooperation, enjoyment, and equality — socialism as a big day out without end.