REDHILLS is the pitman’s parliament which is at the heart of County Durham.

It was built in 1915 as a statement of the power and prestige of the coalminer – it was deliberately designed to have the style and setting of a stately home so that it put the miners’ representatives on a equal footing with the coalowners whose opulent mansions they visited to conduct negotiations.

But 105 years later, it is in “severe jeopardy”, and today the National Lottery Heritage Fund will decide if a bid for £4m to rescue Redhills should be granted.

The story of Redhills really goes back to the 1830s when the Durham miners first tried to organise themselves, initially to try and get the hours worked by boys reduced from 18-a-day to 12.

Over the ensuing decades there was great struggle, strife and indeed strikes, but as the 1860s wore on, miners from across the North-East coalfield came close to uniting.

On October 11, 1869, a Northumberland leader, William Crawford, wrote a stirring letter to the Durham Chronicle newspaper: “The present condition of the Durham miners calls aloud for a change, and the power to effect that change is with themselves.

“Let them bestir, set to work in right earnest, and if that work be characterised by prudence and determination, I doubt not but that ultimate and entire success will crown their efforts.”

A month later, there was a meeting in the Market Tavern in Durham Market Place when delegates representing about 4,328 miners from across the coalfield agreed to form the Durham Miners’ Mutual Association – it was not the first union, but it was the one that would last.

Crawford became the DMA’s first agent and its president in 1870, and he organised the first gala for Wharton Park on August 12, 1871. The Northern Echo reported how about 3,000 people were present, and after hearing the speeches there was a band contest.

For the second gala in 1871, the venue was Durham Racecourse, and up to 70,000 people marched along Elvet “much to the discomfort of the genteel residents of Durham City”.

The growth of the DMA was such that it needed a headquarters, and in 1873 work began to the designs of Newcastle architect Thomas Oliver in North Road, on top of Monk’s Buildings. The £6,000 Miners’ Hall opened on June 3, 1876, and featured a council chamber that could seat 238 delegates who represented the 50,000 members.

The first debate on opening day was the union’s response to the masters’ proposed 15 per cent cut in underground wages. There was, said the Echo, “a long discussion, the tone of which was decidedly against any further reduction”.

The exterior of the hall had niches for four statues. How they came to choose who would be the subjects of those statues is unclear, but the first was unveiled on November 17, 1883. It was of Alexander MacDonald, a Scottish mining leader and one of the first working class MPs who had founded the first national mining union in the early 1860s. He was a good friend of the Durham miners, and they turned out in their hundreds for the unveiling – even though it was at 8.30am, so that the crowd didn’t affect the shoppers, on a wintry Saturday.

“Many of them had tramped many miles, but as they filed down the North Road their banners flaunted as gaily, their bands played as lustily, as though the morning had been one of cheerful sunshine and Arcadian skies,” said the Echo.

The statue was unveiled by Thomas Burt, the Northumberland mining leader who was MP for Morpeth from 1874 until 1918. He said that the statue would remind generations to come of life “devoted without thought of self to the advancement of the working classes of the country (cheers)”.

He said: “Let us hope the beholders will resolved that in the great battle of life they would play their part, whatever that part may be, with the same courage, the same resolution, the same devotion to the cause of humanity which characterised the memorable career of the man whose statue I now have the honour to unveil (loud cheers).”

The early birds further cheered as Mr Burt dropped the sheet and exposed the marble statue to view, and then they marched to the racecourse where thousands more people joined them for a day of more speeches and cheering and band music.

Mr MacDonald was joined in stone by William Crawford, who died in 1890, and William Patterson, a founder of the DMA, after his death in 1896. The fourth plinth remained vacant until 1906 when John Forman, president of the DMA from 1874 until his death in 1900, was hoisted up. All four statues appear to have been created in marble on a granite plinth by Westminster sculptor, J Whitehead, and all four statues now line the driveway to Redhills.

Because although North Road was a good looking Gothic building, it was quickly too small in terms of size and ambition – it looks like the branch of a building society whereas the DMA, with a membership booming towards 150,000, wanted a palace.

In 1913, the DMA began negotiation with the owners of land called Redhills, sandwiched between the thrilling viaduct of the East Coast Main Line on one side and the deep drop of Flass Vale on the other.

Redhills reputedly gets its name because its hills ran red with Scottish blood after the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, or it could just have been a reedy hill – at its lowest point is Flass Well, once one of seven medieval wells in the city, although now it is dry and overgrown.

On the highest point of the land was Red Hill Villa, built around 1862 for leather merchant George Blagdon. At the start of the 20th Century, his family had sold it to nuns connected to St Thomas’ Convent. They planned to build a teacher training college on the site, and instructed local architect HT Gradon, whose father had been mayor of the city in 1874, to design one taking into account the steep slopes.

He came up with a four storey institution, but the sisters only ever had enough money to build an entrance lodge, in 1905, at the top of Flass Street.

They sold the site to the DMA on August 30, 1913, and, because of his knowledge of the awkward topography, the miners asked Gradon to design them a palace that would put them on a par with the mineowners in their mansions…


THE four supersize statues in the façade of the North Road Miners’ Hall were taken to grace the grounds of Redhills. They commemorate:

Alexander MacDonald (1821-1881)

HE started down a Lanarkshire pit at the age of eight, but rose to become the first national miners leader and was elected in 1874 as the Lib-Lab MP for Stafford. He spoke at the first Durham gala in 1871 of the 1,000 miners killed each year in Britain and the 10,000 who were injured, included 5,000 who were so badly hurt they couldn’t work again.

William Crawford (1833-1890)

HE started down a pit near Cullercoats at the age of 10. One of the most important figures in the founding of the DMA and the creation of the gala, he was general secretary from 1871 to 1890. At the time of his death, he was the Liberal MP for Mid Durham.

William Hammond Patterson (1847-1896)

HE was quarrying in Newcastle by the age of 11 and down Heworth Colliery when he was 12. He was present at the DMA’s formation meeting in the Market Tavern, and became financial secretary. He replaced Crawford as general secretary and introduced a more democratic style of leadership.

John Forman (1823-1900)

A NORTHUMBRIAN, he became a miner at Roddymoor, near Crook, in the 1850s and was elected checkweighman at Grahamsley Colliery. He was president of the DMA in 1870, and opened the North Road HQ in 1876. He was personally involved in most of the rescue operations in the coalfield in the last quarter of the 19th Century and so was very involved in mine safety, pioneering a theory about the explosive potential of coal dust.