Today could be crucial in the 105-year history of one of County Durham’s most irreplaceable buildings at the heart of the coalfield. Chris Lloyd tells its story.

OCTOBER 23, 1915, was, according to The Northern Echo, “a historic day” but the Durham Chronicle went further, proclaiming it to be “an epoch-making day”.

The Echo said the new miners’ hall was a “monument of a great movement” but Thomas Burt MP went further, telling those gathered for the opening of Redhills: “In Durham, you have the largest county miners’ union in the world, and one of the very best. Long may it flourish and do good work for the miners and for humankind generally.”

And everyone agreed that the new headquarters of the Durham Miners’ Association were nothing short of palatial.

The Northern Echo: William House, of West Auckland, the president of the DMAWilliam House, of West Auckland, the president of the DMA

William House, of West Auckland, the president of the DMA, used that word and then tried to top it. “The council chamber is the most magnificent to be found in the trade union world,” he said. “I am quite sure that Durham miners will live to be proud of this day and of the magnificent buildings erected all on their own.”

It must have given the miners an extraordinary feeling that they had arrived. Mr House recalled how in 1872 when they’d held their first gala on Durham Racecourse, many of the city’s residents had barricaded their windows and doors “expecting an invasion of barbarians”.

Now the barbarians had their own palace.

Today, Redhills is regarded as one of the most important political buildings in Britain. A survey by Historic England a couple of years ago declared it to be one of the 100 most irreplaceable buildings in the country – one of just eight in the North-East and North Yorkshire to merit inclusion.

The Northern Echo: The council chamber in the Miners’ Hall at Redhills was designed to be like a Methodist chapel, which was the culture most miners came fromThe council chamber in the Miners’ Hall at Redhills was designed to be like a Methodist chapel, which was the culture most miners came from

Its grandeur was to put the miners on a par with the wealthy coalowners who lived in plush places like Wynyard Hall but the fact, to which Alderman House alluded, that they had paid for it democratically, through the subscriptions of the DMA’s 150,000 members, gave them the moral high ground.

It had been designed by HT Gradon, whose father had been a well known builder who had worked on Durham cathedral, although the architect had fallen ill during the construction and so it was finished by his assistant, Edwin Rutherford, who was present on opening day.

The Northern Echo: The Muniments Room at RedhillsThe Muniments Room at Redhills

Gradon had tried to make the most of the awkwardly sloping site and had designed the exterior for maximum dramatic impact, the baroque style bashes the visitor with surprise as they find this powerful and imposing building in a hidden dell in the shadow of the railway viaduct.

The grand, columned entrance is topped by a copper dome which mirrors an even bigger green dome in the treeline on the roof.

The Northern Echo: The Committee RoomThe Committee Room

Through the columns, through the sturdy wooden doors and into the marbled corridors, and up the marbled staircase. How magnificently a miner’s hob-nailed boots must have echoed in such surroundings – even the green and white tiled toilets have a smack of class to them.

The front of Redhills were the offices from which the DMA ran what was effectively a welfare state. Union subs went to fund homes, hospitals, libraries, sick pay and, of course, strikes. Subs supported communities and families. In our fortunate days of the NHS and state pension, it is difficult to understand how central this building was to so many working class lives in Durham.

The Northern Echo: The 300 seats in the pitman’s parliament are individually numbered: one seat for each colliery in the countyThe 300 seats in the pitman’s parliament are individually numbered: one seat for each colliery in the county

The jewel in the Redhills crown is the 300-seat debating chamber which is behind the offices. Gradon designed it to be reminiscent of a large, Methodist chapel as many of the miners came from nonconformist backgrounds.

With members of the press and the wider community watching from the balcony, every numbered seat was occupied by a delegate from every pit in the county, whose voice was heard as democratic decisions were made about the management of the Durham welfare state.

The Northern Echo: RedhillsRedhills

So it is not just the fabric of the building that makes Redhills important, it is the decisions that were made within its walls – like in 1943, in the heat of the Second World War, the DMA donated £1,500 to buy an X-ray machine for Russia – and the moments of history that it hosted.

In May 1943, the Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk spoke at Redhills about the village of Lidice in his homeland which had been destroyed by the Nazis in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust. All 173 adult males in Lidice had been executed, and 203 women and 105 children had been taken to concentration camps. In 1949, the survivors returned and rebuilt their village, assisted by money from the DMA.

The Northern Echo:

The grounds are also significant, as not only did Gradon built two villas beneath Red Hill Villa for miners’ leaders to live in, but landscaping in the style of a stately home was carried out in 1952 as a memorial to miners who had lost their lives. It was specifically for the 83 men who’d died in the Easington disaster the year before – a tree was planted for each victim with a weeping willow as the central feature.

But, of course, times change. In fact, Redhills probably represents the high watermark of the Durham coalfield. In 1913, the year in which the palace was granted planning permission, coal production peaked: there were 165,246 men and boys employed in 304 pits in the county. Combined with the smaller Northumberland coalfield, that year it produced 56m tons – a quarter of England’s coal.

The Northern Echo:

As times have changed, so has the role of Redhills, particularly after the Second World War with the nationalisation of the mines and the creation of the welfare state. The closure of the coalfield – the last deep mine went in 1994 – and the loss of miners to fund it has obviously had a profound impact.

But now, although the building’s condition puts it in “severe jeopardy” there is a plan to turn it into a working heritage centre, a living archive, so that it can remain at the heart of the county that was built on coal. Plans, of course, need money, and next week the National Lottery Heritage Fund decides if it will grant £4m to the scheme, a decision that would trigger a further £1.1m from the county council.

The Northern Echo:

Back on opening day, October 23, 1915, Alderman House urged the miners to stay together so that the victories that Redhills represented did not fade away.

He said: “For heaven’s sake, don’t let us whittle away those powers by following will o’ the wisps or calling to the moon.”

To re-write Mr House, surely for heaven’s sake, the pitman’s parliament and all that it represents cannot now be allowed to be whittled away by a lack of funds.

The entry for Redhills in English Heritage’s Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places concludes: “The hope is that this place which embodies so much of the mining history in Durham will be given a new lease of life.”

That new lease could begin today…

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