Of all the dark matters on our planet coal is arguably the most iconic, symbolic and productive (for better or worse). Various European countries have had major coal industries but in term of a culture of coal, perhaps no country is as representative as England. This section of the DARK MATTERS website uses England and, specifically, County Durham, as an example of coal as a dark matter – used in this sentence with the pun intended.

On coal mining maps of England, the northeast is appropriately colored pitch black, indicating the density and richness of the underground resource. Within that patch is County Durham ( Archaeological and documentary evidence attest to coal mining in County Durham for almost a thousand years. But it was the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution that permitted exploitation of deep lying veins and greatly expanded coal mining. The peak of coal production was 1913 when County Durham alone produced 41 million tons from the region’s 304 pits; 164,256 men were employed.

Coal mining was a horrific occupation, rife with physical danger because of mine accidents (disaster records are at least as early as 1785), occupational disease (pneumoconiosis, bronchitis, emphysema, hand-arm vibration syndrome, etc.) and heartless labor exploitation by the mine owners. Yet for the miners this was a profession that generated close-knit communities, tremendous male camaraderie and pride in work, strong families, deep faith, and perseverance and political action in the face of harsh conditions.

The Durham Miners Association (henceforth, DMA) was formed in 1869 out of this mix and two years later (1871) it celebrated its birth with a “Big Meeting”, organized by delegates of the recently formed union, with the intent that it be an annual general meeting of miners. All of the pit villages were invited to Wharton Park, overlooking the dramatic peninsula where the elite of the region had their ecclesiastical, political, social and economic base. The Sunderland Times stated at the time that the miners used the day “to bond themselves more closely … and to show the country at large that the Durham Miners’ Association was not a myth or a creation of the imagination, but a stupendous fact” (20 July 1871). The “Big Meeting” also was recreational, a day of food, relaxation and conversation with people from beyond one’s colliery village, which in itself supported the goal of making miners aware of their shared problems and thus facilitated political solidarity.

The 1871 event was so successful that the next year it moved onto the racecourse inside the peninsula itself. The pit villages paraded into town carrying beautiful, large, inspirational, painted silk banners, representing their local union lodges for a day of fun and political speeches. That 1872 Big Meeting sealed the establishment of the DMA and the Gala – as the Big Meeting came to known. The Gala has taken place almost uninterruptedly, on the second Saturday of July since then, withstanding two world wars, strikes, successive pit closures over the course of the twentieth century (and as early as the late nineteenth century) and, ultimately, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s final elimination of the coal industry in 1993 following her government’s brutal response to the 1984-85 miners strike.

The long death of Britain’s coal mining industry severely impacted County Durham. Only 127 collieries remained in 1947 when nationalization was enacted. Almost half (54) of the remaining mines were closed between 1958 and 1967. 25,000 mining jobs in Durham were lost between 1958-1963. By 1960 only 87,200 miners had jobs and by the end of the 1960s there were only 34 working pits in Durham. 60% of the Durham coalfield had been closed by 1970. In 1975-76 only 25,500 miners were employed. Indeed, whereas coal accounted for 66.2% of U.K. fuel consumption in 1964, it was only 37.1% in 1976 because Britain was developing oil and nuclear power for energy.

Understandably, then, the Gala’s survival was seriously threatened in mid-century as many mines already had closed and were closing. Participation in the Gala plunged in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. With the final closing of the mines, wasn’t the Gala irrelevant on a pit-less landscape? With the miners so utterly defeated after the great strike, wasn’t their enthusiasm for it gone? How could the Gala continue in the face of obvious cognitive dissonance since the logic of the union lodge, featured on every banner, was inconsistent with the new reality? Indeed, Gorman observed that after the 1951 defeat of the Labour Party many mining lodge banners – themselves the maximal expression of and in the Gala – “lay neglected in damp basements, beneath the stages of dusty Labour halls, crumpled beneath cardboard fileboxes of ancient minutes in cramped cupboards. The colourful pride of generations left to crumble”  And how could the cost of Gala participation – notably the expense of the banners, without which there is no Gala – be borne by the displaced miners in economically devastated villages?

But the Gala did not die. By 1998, the Gala was the biggest in 20 years. In 2006 there were 50,000 participants. And in 2016 and 2017, there were 150,000 and 200,000 participants respectively (Durham Times, 22 July 2016; Durham Times, 14 July 2017). 

What changed? What made pit villagers recall and revive their banners and their Gala? What made the banners become, in essence, sacred heirlooms and now objects and animators of heritage? 

Why didn’t the Gala disappear? Politics not passivity. Community not place. Object not industry.

The Gala is the largest, single-day trade union festival in Europe, attracting tens of thousands of participants from the former coal mining villages of County Durham to the city. The Gala was saved by the interaction of several factors.

First, the “mourning period” for the unsuccessful 1984-85 strike and the final loss of coal mining has come to an end. Whereas the previous hundred years of political discourse at the racecourse had focused on amelioration of miners’ unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and their labour rights, post-strike/post-pit closure political discourse under then DMA General Secretary David Hopper and then DMA President David Guy was imbued with an expansive socialist rhetoric encompassing causes relevant to all members of the labour class: social justice, economic equity, affordable housing, guaranteed health care, pension protection, government investment in the region, and so forth.

In the absence of their industry the former miners were exhorted to stay with the union as a political action group and to oppose the Tories. The relevance of the political speeches on the racecourse at each Gala became a rallying cry, drawing more and more pit villages back to the Gala, encouraging the care and display of historic banners and, if necessary, production of new banners, and motivating County Durham to be a people’s opposition. The popularity of the Gala’s political message has been a major contributor to its survival and its subsequent growth, aided by Hopper and Guy’s opening of the Gala to participation by all trade unions (carrying their own banners).

The near bankruptcy of the National Union of Mineworkers (within which the DMA is a major branch) at the end of the 1984-85 strike had negative repercussions for the perpetuation of the Gala for it is a very expensive event to produce and coordinate. Police must be hired for security. Streets must be closed and traffic diverted. In the villages the banners may need to be restored and/or remade and brass bands must be hired if there is no local one. Transportation into Durham must be contracted. So the second factor that saved the Gala was a fortuitous six-year financial contribution to the DMA from a New Zealand entrepreneur and philanthropist, Michael Watt, combined with a creative new financing scheme for the NUM. This enabled the DMA to assist pit villages to participate along with the creation of the Marra (“buddy”) campaign whose subscription is a contribution to the DMA. Also, over the past decade banner groups have been successful in obtaining funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources for the costly manufacture of new banners.

While no amount of pride and revelry alone would have been able to remediate the social and economic devastation wrought on the pit villages by the mine closings, the heritagization of mining is the third factor in the resurgence of the Gala. This heritagization has promoted community well-being by affirming mining culture and renewing a sense of identity and belonging. The very act of a community coming together to repair or replace a banner and to parade it is an act of social healing and social (re)production of the community, for each banner has its own history which is consonant with the narrative of the mining lodge and community to which it belongs. Banners are painted on both sides and carry elaborate iconography. These images and their texts communicate a range of messages about social progress, the power of union, education, equality, human rights, working conditions, solidarity, liberty, and so forth; some present Christian themes of love and compassion. The messages on banners indicate what a mining community has selected to prioritize from their past so as to focus on the present and future.

In addition to the banners that are paraded in the Gala, there are curated old banners and other mining memorabilia displayed in miners halls/clubs/institutes and in schools. These work against the loss of memory in the absence of mining’s landscape, against the loss of employment and against the loss of attendant social life. In addition, children and grandchildren of miners have become local activists in their communities, creating banner groups and respecting and remembering their relatives and the mining past as a totalizing community experience of great social value: when a village was a self-contained socially healthy community of mutual support and respect. A strong male narrative of marras – the word used by miners for their buddy in the mine, the person on whom they could depend for their lives – continues, reinforced by the DMA’s choice of “Marra” as the name of its funding campaign. And, at long last, the vital, multi-faceted role that women played on the home front through that terrible year of the great strike – and had always played in the pit villages – is recognized. In 2018 a group of former miners’ wives formed to celebrate and recall their heritage. In July 2018 they became part of the script of the Gala by carrying their homemade banner in the parade through Durham and having it blessed in Durham Cathedral along with the new banners of three pit villages. The DMA also hosted the women’s group for a series of educational events in their building in Durham.

Together, these three factors have generated a widespread commitment to the continuation of the Gala.

The landscape

Cultural landscapes are created over time by human activities and have broad cultural contexts and particular ideologies and iconographies. Landscape is one of the domains generating, influencing and maintaining a person’s/community’s sense of identity and belonging. Memory inheres in landscape. This is why even voluntary migration (let alone refuge-seeking diasporas) can be so unsettling (sensu strictu) to their enactors. But movement on a landscape also can be an act of resistance. It can be argued that the Gala from its very beginning was a thumbing of the labour nose at the elite class of Durham and the British establishment. The Gala was and is a stage of resistance to the marginalization of their performers. And when the Gala is over the groups of these social and geographic peripheries of their society return to that margin.

The landscape of the formerly productive mines has disappeared. Upon closing, all of the collieries were demolished and the sites quickly cleared of the debris. The impact of this erasure had a deep psychological as well as economic and social impact on the coal mining towns for a long time. Today, there is no trace of the coal mining industry on the Durham landscape except for memorials to mining disasters in some of the towns.

In the absence of the occupation itself on the landscape, objects such as banners come to be the expression of the community – they re-establish the place of the community and reaffirm the pit village’s and villagers’ identity. 

The banners play a critical role in visualizing the memory of a community, in creating a community of memory that is then performed at the Gala, which is especially important in “socializing” the younger post-industrial generation. But mining families are not relying solely on the Gala and exhibitions to perpetuate the memory of mining, respect for it, and commitment to bettering the economically devastated pit villages through identification with their heritage. In Easington, for instance, virtually all students are the grandchildren of miners and have heard stories of the mines around the family table. They also have been taken by the school and their families to the memorial honoring the 83 miners who lost their lives in the 1951 Easington Colliery disaster, the victims still known personally in Easington. Moreover, all know that Easington is the town in which the most memorable scene of the 2000 movie, Billy Elliott, was filmed: Billy dancing on the roof and in the alleyway between the backs of the miners’ homes. In the movie, Billy Elliott is the son of a miner during the great strike of 1984-85, which is vividly portrayed. The real Easington was brutally occupied by the police for an entire year.

Recent school programs are educating young children about mining history in learning modules. The education program is also literally crafted as embodied performances of heritage whose goal is to generate a socially, politically and historically aware new generation. In Easington, primary school teachers enlisted the renowned banner maker, Emma Shankland, to help the children create their own banner. Then they held a mini Gala in town in which the children paraded their new banner. Mothers dressed up their children in miners’ overalls, covered their faces in soot and put mining helmets and miners lamps on them. Children pushed little tubs of papier-maché coal and carried protest placards with slogans of the 1984-85 strike, such as “Support the Miners,” “Coal Not Dole,” and “Stop the Scabs.” A song was created for the children, “I want to be a miner,” which they sang at intervals as they paraded through the town. However, the teaching module did not address the physical dangers of mining caused by this industry, even though various children told us about dead and injured mining relatives. Rather, the children’s Gala presents a romantic and idealized vision of a time past. No longer expected by their fathers to work in the mines (the drama depicted in Billy Elliott) and with the mines no longer controlling pit village life, mining is now a safe past on which to draw.


The one-day participation in the Gala by members of the pit villages is the embodied, substitutive memory of a life once lived around mining. Participation generates intense feelings of community solidarity, village identity, personal identification with one’s family history, and collective memory of the pit village past. The banner is the incarnation of those sentiments and a significant epistemic resource that conveys values that sustained mining communities over many decades. Each banner is now a heritage object with its own distinct biography, cherished by its community, whether old and repaired or newly fabricated at significant expense and with community-selected iconography. The banners are the representation of the pit village’s past as well as its aspirations for the future. The banners are the moving element that animates the celebration. The Gala has no meaning or appeal without the banners, which represent the history and are the heritage of the mining communities. They are the axis around which political discourse and epistemic resistance are grounded. Their illustrated values have sustained the pit villages in the past against terrible difficulties and oppressive structures. These values have led them to the present and will help them to move to the future.