A short-lived North-East miners’ union held a rally, attended by thousands of people, many bearing banners with words like “Unity” on them, on Black Fell Washington and Gateshead. The union collapsed.


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On September 23, several hundred people connected to the newly-formed Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) met in a field beside the Halfway House pub in Thornley, near Wheatley Hill. This could be regarded as the first gala. The pub, latterly known as Crossways Hotel, was demolished in 2008.

On November 20, the DMA held its inaugural meeting in the Market Hotel in Durham Market Place.


On August 12, the first true gala – or “big meeting” – was held in Wharton Park, Durham City. “The day was exceedingly favourable for an outdoor gathering, and between two and three thousand persons paid for admission to the grounds, in which a band contest and various athletic sports were held,” said The Northern Echo.

The Northern Echo: FIRST ONE: How The Northern Echo reported on the first gala in 1871

FIRST ONE: How The Northern Echo reported on the first gala in 1871

Before the sports, the speakers included William Crawford, a crucial figure in the formation of the DMA, and William Patterson, of Roddymoor Colliery, Crook.


The rumoured gathering of thousands of working class miners on June 15 had frightened the city of Durham, and so the streets were lined with militia men in red uniforms and police constables. “Any fears which may have for a moment found place in the minds of the peaceable inhabitants of the city must have been speedily expelled as they witnessed the miners assemble, for the greatest order and regularity were displayed,” said the Echo.

This was the first modern gala, with miners arriving by train, marching with bands and banners to the County Hotel for the procession to the Racecourse for speeches. Up to 60,000 were present, said the Echo, accompanied by 70 bands.


The North Eastern Railway said it could no longer transport such vast numbers on a Saturday, so for two years the gala was held on a Monday.


Annie Besant, from London, became the first woman to address the gala. A pioneer female socialist, she’d been sentenced to six years in prison for publishing a book advocating birth control. A popular figure among the miners, she had made an impromptu speech from the County balcony when called upon in 1876.


Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease, baronet, banker, coalowner and head of the Darlington family which dominated the south Durham coalfield, marched behind the Stanley lodge banner.


Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, the Labour MP for Barnard Castle, addressed the gala. In 1906, Hardie became the first leader of the Labour Party; in 1908, Henderson became the second.


Militant miners from Chopwell, or “Little Moscow” as it was nicknamed, threw a cleric into the river, believing him to be the Bishop of Durham, Herbert Hensley Henson, who had controversially urged the miners not to go on strike. They had, in fact, thrown in the Dean of Durham, J Weldon, who was rescued by one of Brown’s boatmen.


Due to the lock-out in the coalfield, the gala was not held in Durham (there were no galas during the wars, or, due to industrial conditions in 1921, 1922 and 1984). However, miners from Burnhope near Lanchester held their own gathering, addressed by seminal miners’ leader AJ Cook. This gala was attended by 40,000 miners from across the county, but it is not counted as an official gala.


Oswald Mosley, then a Labour MP, addressed the gala, along with Ellen Wilkinson. Within a few years, Mosley was leading the fascists.


Gresford, “the Miners’ Hymn”, was played by the Brancepeth Colliery Band at the gala for the first time. It was written by Robert Saint, a miner and trombonist from Hebburn, after the 1934 pit disaster in Wales in which 265 men and boys were killed. In 1938, 13 massed bands played it on Palace Green and in 1939, it began the proceedings on the Racecourse for the first time.


Clement Attlee became the first Prime Minister to address the gala, and he was backed by several members of his Labour Cabinet, including the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, the MP for Bishop Auckland, who announced the introduction of family allowances. At this first post-war gala, great change was in the air as Attlee’s government was nationalising the mines.

This was the start of the gala’s heyday. Attendance was put at 250,000, rising to 300,000, with some sources suggesting 500,000 attended in the late 1940s. For a while, the whole Labour movement nationally revolved around the gala.


The most memorable gala for a generation: a thunderstorm broke over the Racecourse, drowning out the speakers and forcing the abandonment of the meeting. It was so wet, Labour leader Harold Wilson had to put his pipe in his raincoat pocket, which was soon seen to be billowing smoke. However, the coalfield was beginning its terminal decline.


The coalfield was fading away, and so was the gala. With only 15 working mines in Durham, only 20 banners attended the gala with only 15,000 people.


Post-miners’ strike, as Labour leader Neil Kinnock started speaking, the Murton banner was raised and a band struck up The Internationale sparking a walk-out. The link between the traditionally-minded gala and the modernising Labour leadership was broken – in 1988, the Northern TUC helped organise a Northern Gala at Beamish museum which appeared to be designed to replace the miners’ gala. It lasted for three years.


With the last mine in Durham, Wearmouth, closing, the poorly-attended gala was saved through the sponsorship of New Zealand oilman/entrepreneur/musician/philanthropist Michael Watt. His involvement for six years, along with that of Dave Hopper and David Guy of the DMA, saved the gala.


John Prescott, deputy Labour leader, was the first Labour Cabinet member for 18 years to address the gala, but he got a rough ride which reinforced the feeling that Tony Blair’s “New Labour” was not welcome. Perhaps as a reaction to the Blair years and due to a millennial love of heritage, the gala began regaining its popularity.


Ed Miliband, having stayed away the previous year due to the presence of left-wing union leaders, became the first Labour leader to address the gala since Neil Kinnock in 1989. More than 100,000 people attended.


The 132nd big meeting drew a crowd of 160,000. The main speaker was leader Jeremy Corbyn, although the majority of his MPs who wanted him to quit were not invited onto the platform. The 133rd meeting is today, with a bigger crowd expected to give Mr Corbyn, the star of Glastonbury, a warmer welcome.

  • The best book about the history of the gala is The Big Meeting by David Temple, published in 2011 by the Durham Miners’ Association