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Behind Durham’s Enduring Mining Tradition

The Durham Miners' Gala is an institution of the British labour movement – but behind it, the Redhills building, Pitman's Parliament and long-lasting Association provide a glimpse into the power of workers' self-organisation.

Most visitors to Durham travel by train. Arriving from the South, there’s a collective head turn from the whole carriage as the Cathedral and Castle rush into view. The two landmarks tower over the River Wear and rows of redbrick terraces on the north side of town.

A glimpse of red brick and blue-green dome out of the opposite window is easy to miss. That place is Redhills, the headquarters of the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), a symbol of mining heritage and community resilience for locals. With support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, trade unions, and a legion of individual donors, the Redhills Revealed appeal represents a significant cultural moment for the area, revitalising the building and returning it back to the centre of this proud community.

The Redhills building in Durham, home of the Durham Miners’ Association and planning for the annual Gala.

Redhills has the grandeur of a stately home, but with distinctly more communitarian roots. Similarly grand buildings elsewhere in the region serve as reminders of coal’s inequitable past. The Bowes family built both Gibside in the Derwent Valley and the Bowes Museum near Barnard Castle, while the Vane Tempests oversaw the construction of Seaham Hall and the Wynyard Estate close to Stockton-on-Tees.

Both families owned swathes of the early coalfields and are granted elevated places in the region’s history as a result. A statue of Charles William Vane Stewart (third Marquis of Londonderry) still stands in Durham’s Market Place, disguised in full Hussar uniform. After Edward Colston’s statue was toppled in the summer of 2020, the monument was deemed ‘at threat’, and was subsequently patrolled by a group of thirty or so men almost certainly descended from the miners whose strikes the Marquis broke up, and whose dismal workplaces he owned.

The Market Tavern quietly resists that legacy from across the Market Place. It was there that a group of Primitive Methodists congregated in 1869, determined to improve the lot of the miners in their community. By 1915, the DMA had swelled to 150,000 members, quickly outgrowing their first home on North Road. Commissioned in 1913, the second Miners Hall of the DMA opened two years later.

Redhills is a striking symbol of collective strength, designed in a manner more associated with individual wealth. The interior is decked out in marble and shiny wood panelling and boasts an ornate 298-seat central chamber; the exterior is a domineering double-fronted affair in the Edwardian Baroque style. But, as Programme Director Ross Forbes says, ‘there’s so much more to the building than bricks and mortar.’

The founding members of the Durham Miners’ Association, which still runs the Miners’ Gala to this day.

The 1920s saw Redhills at the centre of an ambitious regional welfare programme. At a time when Lloyd George’s plans for national provisions were in their infancy, the DMA were carrying out local welfare programmes of their own. Building projects stretched from community hospitals and libraries to aged mineworkers’ homes and Welfare Halls, many of which still exist in villages like Easington and Dawdon. Sick pay for miners was negotiated, as were the first pensions, and the region’s literacy rates vastly improved.

At the centre of the Association’s collective endeavour was political agency, with each of the pits around the Durham Coalfields afforded representation in Redhills’ Council Chambers, dubbed the ‘Pitman’s Parliament’. ‘It wasn’t just the Durham miners who shaped what a welfare state would look like by the time Attlee was elected,’ says Forbes. ‘But it never happened on the same scale in any other coalfield. Once the [national] welfare state kicked in, that level of control, democracy and power was weakened – you then became dependent on somebody else to make your decisions.’

As community resolve was tested through the 1980s, Redhills became a different kind of hub. The 1984-’85 strike saw workers down tools across the coalfield, and Redhills’ aim shifted from development to survival, as Programme Manager Nick Maylan attests: ‘I was born in 1984 during the strike. My grandda was on strike, all of our family were involved in the Miners’ Support Groups, and my mam packed food parcels in Redhills while she was pregnant with me.’ The last of the region’s pits closed in 1994, and a suitable replacement for the thousands of jobs lost to de-industrialisation has never properly been found.

Forbes worked as a press officer for the DMA during the worst of those closures, and is saddened that the stories of Durham’s coalfields aren’t better known. ‘It’s a phenomenal history that’s been sidelined at best, if not ignored, but not just by the establishment. It’s a history that is not well enough understood in the Labour and trade union movement either, yet it still manifests itself every second Saturday in July.’

The annual Durham Miners’ Gala brings thousands of trade unionists to the former pits region.

Redhills and the DMA are indivisible from the Durham Miners’ Gala, the biggest trade union event of its kind in the world. Up to 200,000 people descend on the city every July for the ‘Big Meeting’. Brass bands blow, banners billow, and pit villages parade their history in the theatrical surroundings of Durham’s city centre. It’s a thrilling event, but for those outside the North East, media coverage tends to fixate on individuals within the Labour Party (Corbyn was a fixture during his leadership, but 2012 saw Ed Miliband become the first Labour leader to address the Gala since 1989).

Will Starmer come in 2021? Forbes isn’t bothered. ‘To be honest, who cares? 200,000 people still come, you don’t have to sell tickets and you don’t have to advertise it. It’s a fabulous manifestation of a culture that should, for all intents and purposes be wiped off the face of the earth, because there are no coal mines to sustain any more. But the characteristic of collective endeavour keeps it going – what it says is ‘you might have taken our industry and livelihoods away from us, but you’re not taking our identity. In fact, we’ll ramp it up’.’

As the Gala rallied through the 1990s, the once-wealthy Association faced personal decline, continuing to support its community but with few funds coming in without an industrial base. Redhills’ slow structural decline was only itself made public when the building was returned to the community in 2018. ‘You need only visit the toilets to recognise Redhills’ need for refurbishment,’ the Sunderland Echo reported at one of the Hall’s early fundraising events.

But footfall from early events was promising. Director Ken Loach held a Q&A and screening of his North East-based drama Sorry We Missed You. Durham Jazz Festival turned the Parliament into a concert venue, hosting Mercury-nominated Moses Boyd and acclaimed clarinettist Arun Ghosh. ‘All of [the programming] will be decided by the communities, because we believe that if we stick with our people, the building will behave in the same way as the Gala, and people will come,’ says Forbes defiantly.

For the Redhills Revealed team, it’s vital that the community-conscious spirit of the Gala extends past the single weekend in July. ‘One of our real commitments is to show that this is a year-round culture, and that there are different stories to be told and celebrated throughout the year,’ says Maylan. ‘Coalfield culture is living and breathing – who would have guessed that, 25 years after the last pits closed, you’d still have 27 brass bands in County Durham, and nearing sixty banner groups?’

The Pitman’s Parliament in Redhills has been a site of organisation and debate in the labour movement for decades.

Principles came before funding bids. ‘We started with what it couldn’t be,’ Forbes explains. ‘This place is not a museum, and it’s not an art gallery – it’s a centre of living culture and a beacon for collective endeavour.’ The cultural plan is threefold: one, fix the building’s structural problems; two, build a multi-purpose community space for the region’s musicians and creatives; and three, devise a programme of events spotlighting the historic Parliament chamber. The re-opening is set for 2023, conditional on a series of grants that unlock more funding from Durham County Council and others.

Events so far have proven Redhills can reach beyond the former mining communities the building has traditionally represented. ‘New audiences create their own connections because of the power of the stories we tell. When [saxophonist and rapper] Soweto Kinch played at Redhills in 2019, he said ‘I would have never thought growing up as a black kid in Handsworth that I would have anything in common with a Durham collier.’ The history of solidarity allows us to reach new audiences, and when we can’t do that, we can step back to allow other people to tell their own stories.’

‘Redhills being a beacon for the future is absolutely critical, and sometimes that can get amongst the history,’ admits Maylan. ‘We’re future-facing and absolutely committed to the communities that need Redhills to offer them a bit of light at the end of a pretty dark tunnel.’ For Forbes, this future-orientated ideal harks back to where the DMA began. ‘The motto of the Durham Miners’ Association is ‘The past we inherit, the future we build.’ If that was a corporate slogan, people would laugh, but because it was painted onto a banner, people believe in it. It has an authenticity and a moral power, and that’s strong enough to guide us in everything we do.’