The Durham Miners Gala history is a story unique to County Durham and its long mining heritage - but how did the Miners Gala actually start?
On Saturday July 13 2019 the Durham Miners Gala will celebrate its 135th anniversary, while the Durham Miners Association will celebrate its 150th anniversary, which takes place on November 20 2019. Through good times and bad, the Big Meeting has managed to continue, bringing the people of County Durham and beyond together in a celebration of unity. Here's a potted version of the Durham Miners Gala history.
How did the Durham Miners Gala begin?
The first proper Durham Miners Gala was held in 1871, but there was actually a 'big meeting' 40 years earlier. In 1831 an attempted miners union held a rally where miners and their families created banners and got together at Black Fell in Washington.
There was another attempt in 1869 - only hundreds this time compared to the thousands who attended the 1831 rally - but it was more successful. The Durham Miners Association had just been formed and its members and associates gathered near the Halfway House pub in Thornley, near Wheatley Hill. Later on in the year, the Durham Miners Association held its first meeting in Durham Marketplace.
The Durham Miners Gala history properly began two years later, in 1871. Unlike the Big Meeting of today, the Durham Miners Gala 1871 venue was Wharton Park, which you can find located behind Durham railway station. There was an admission fee, but once you were in there was a band and some sports and games. About 2-3,000 people went to that first gathering.
The next year, the venue changed to the Racecourse, where it has stayed ever since. As the Big Meeting developed in those early years, the size and sophistication rapidly increased, with miners arriving by train from surrounding areas and militia lining the streets to protect the city.
Durham Miners Gala history during the war
The only time the Durham Miners Gala did not take place since its first successful gathering back in 1871 has been during the two world wars. During the First World War there was no Big Meeting from 1915-1918. When it restarted in 1919 the attendees included economic theorist Sir Leo Chiozza Money.
The Durham Miners Gala was again not held from 1940-45 during the Second World War, and the Prime Minister Clement Attlee addressed the crowds - the first time a Prime Minister had done so - when it restarted in July 20 1946, accompanied by a large portion of his cabinet.
The decline of Durham Miners Gala
Durham Miners Gala history took a difficult turn as the Durham coalfield mines began to close. By the early 1980s a handful of mines remained open and only 15,000 people went to the Big Meeting.
Inevitably, funding the Durham Miners Gala became an issue; the union had many financial obligations already but its main source of income - from miners' subscriptions - had disappeared.
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Revival of Durham Miners Gala
The history of Durham Miners Gala hit a happier note in 1993 when New Zealand businessman Michael Watt - who had previously worked in Durham - gave a grant which funded the Big Meeting from 1993-99. When that ran out, a combination of community contributions from individuals and businesses through fundraising campaigns, as well as union associated membership, has kept the Durham Miners Gala history alive. These days, about 200,000 head into Durham for the Big Meeting.
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