The QT

Friday 19 July 2024

Harold Wilson, Tony Benn and… that’s my dad!

It’s the Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday. Chris Stewart reflects on the lasting bond between miners long after the industry closed down — embodied by the Gala and his own personal memories
Durham Big Meeting by Tom McGuinness, 1968. Credit: The House of Hues from an exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland

The pits became redundant. The men who went down those pits became redundant. But the comradeship that industry engendered could never be made redundant, and it lives on in the Durham Miners’ Gala.

My dad was one of those men who lost their jobs and their livelihood. The Gala was the highlight of his year, and the highlight of mine, too. As a child, had I been forced to give up Christmas Day or Gala day, I would have chosen to forego Christmas. Most of my mates from mining families would probably have done the same.

First things first: the Miners’ Gala is pronounced “gay-ler”, not “gar-ler”. That is the way generations of Durham miners and their families said it. Nobody knows why. It just is.

Just like Christmas, the Gala had a run-up for children which would start as much as a month before the event itself.

My weekly purchase of the Victor comic would be suspended, my consumption of gobstoppers and Bazooka Joes put on hold, and every penny would be put aside to be spent at the Gala.

In the week leading to the big day, aunts and uncles would slip you a few pennies — or two bob if it was my Aunty Cath — “so you’ve got something to spend at the Big Meet.”

On Gala eve, I would still be awake when my dad arrived home from the club. He would come into the bedroom I shared with my sister, and he would give us both a nice little sum “so ye dinnat gan short the ‘morra. And if ye dee gan short, remember to run to yer mother, not me.”

My dad was a face worker at Castletown, or Hylton Colliery to give it its proper name, and the buses would leave from the colliery welfare ground early on Saturday morning.

With pockets full of coins and bellies full of butterflies, all the kids would be dressed in their best summer gladrags. All the dads would be booted and suited in their best binge-drinking chic. All the mams would be in flowery frocks and would be laden with flasks of tea, bottles of Villa pop and packets of sandwiches. Our sandwiches were always chopped pork, which is what my dad would take down the pit each day for his bait. When I was eighteen, I asked him if he had ever fancied any other sandwich filling. “That’d be daft”, he said. “Yer mother’s got the hang of these now.” Of course. How silly of me.

The buses would disgorge us all on the outskirts of Durham city. The little girls (sensible, well-behaved) would be ready to go, the little boys (bonkers, badly-behaved) would be ushered towards the hedges to relieve themselves of their, er, excitement.

Durham Miners Gala, July 2022

And then out would come the colliery banner. It was a riot of red and gold and socialist sentiment, and it was a great honour for miners to be asked to be one of the two pole-bearers. 

In front of the banner would be the colliery brass band. The band would be made up of miners and their families, and the musicianship was part of an astonishingly wide social and sporting education afforded to these communities. Mostly gone now, just like the pits.

Always played by these bands would be Gresford, known as the miners’ hymn. It was actually written by a Durham miner to commemorate a disaster at Gresford pit in Wales in 1934. When you’ve finished reading this, please go to YouTube to listen to Gresford (or click here). It really is beautiful.

And then came the march down the hill; band first, and then the banners and families. Pavements would be filled with people clapping and cheering, and eventually, you would pass beneath the balcony of the County Hotel. There, every year, would be the Labour leader and, inevitably, Tony Benn. Benn was loved and lionised by the miners, and I was told not to miss his speeches. I remember him firing me with a pride and a desire to go out into the world and, um, do something or other. Well, I was still in short trousers, after all.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Tony Benn watch the 1975 Durham Miners’ Gala… with Chris’ dad

Here, however, we have a mystery. Look at the photograph from 1975 of the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the then Industry Secretary Tony Benn, standing on the County Hotel balcony as the Langley Park Lodge banner passes beneath.

Now look at the man directly behind Harold Wilson — the chap in the doorway. That is my dad. How on earth Colin Stewart blagged his way into this kind of company has never been explained. Whenever he was asked, he would always reply: “Aye, well. It’s who ye knaa, not what ye knaa.”

If you look carefully at the balcony photograph as the Boldon Lodge is passing (below), there he is again, this time just in front of the window to the left of the door. As I say, a mystery.

Anyway, parade over, you would be told by your dad : “If ye run out o’ money, dinnat come lookin’ for me, mind.” Reinforced by your mam : “Remember where I’m sitting, and for heaven’s sake, don’t pester your dad, whatever you do.”

Chris’ dad in the frame again watching the 1975 Durham Miners’ Gala

Briefing thus complete, my mates and I would then charge off to tumble from one fairground ride to another, and always into what was cheerfully known back then as a freak show. It was a tent with exhibits such as a sheep with six legs, a man covered in tattoos (this genre has reappeared in modern times and can be seen on the pitch at professional football matches), and the obligatory bearded lady. 

And then we move to the tent which housed a stripper. I think I was about 10 or 11, perhaps 12, when I sneaked into this one. The lady in question was not in the first flush of youth, it is fair to say, nor had she a finesse of presentation which would have earned her a spot in Las Vegas. She did, however, possess the two things I had hoped to see, so that was all right.

Eventually, sunburnt and full of ice cream and sherbet dib-dabs, it would be time to return to your mam. The blanket and what remained of the sandwiches would be packed up, your dad and what remained of his consciousness would be picked up, and it was back to the bus for a journey home which would involve at least ten minutes of strenuous pelvic floor control. The end of the greatest day. 

We’ll finish with my dad’s favourite joke. Two old pitmen, Harry and Billy, win the lottery and go on a round-the-world cruise. Their ship sinks and they are washed up onto a desert island. After a few months, Billy says to Harry : “Guess what day it is.” Harry says he has no idea. “It’s Saturday”, says Billy. “And guess what Saturday it is.” Harry again says he has no idea. “It’s Durham Miners’ Gala Saturday”, says Billy. Harry looks up at the cloudless blue sky, and says : “They’ve got a lovely day for it.”

And, do you know what? We always did.

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