12 September 2018
The development of pit banners and trade unions in the mining industry, by Anne Bradley, Curator of Social and Oral History at the National Coal Mining Museum.
There was some relief when a good number of our members found their way to our new venue, the Elizabethan Gallery, for the first meeting of the season. A new departure for us was the offer of a warm drink on arrival.
Our speaker, Anne Bradley, the Curator of Social and Oral History at the Mining Museum of Great Britain, began by outlining the Museum’s history. Based at the former Caphouse Colliery at Overton the Museum stands within an area of five miles radius which contains over 1,500 shafts and bell pits. In the nineteenth century the Lister Kaye family of Denby Grange ran the pit and it was Emma Lister Kaye who installed the twin-cylinder steam winding engine in 1876 which remained in use until 1974. In 1942 the pit was acquired by Lockwood and Elliott but was nationalised in 1947, closing in 1985. In 1988 it opened as the Yorkshire Mining Museum and ten years later it became the National Coal Mining Museum with a remit to collect, preserve, display, and interpret the history of the coal mining industry of England. The historic collections at the Museum include mining equipment, artefacts and memorabilia, oral histories, photographs and paintings. These remain quite Yorkshire heavy and the Museum is actively acquiring material from other areas.
Mining banners have been used as a symbol to express the pride and solidarity amongst miners in many different situations, for example when the men went back to work after the strike of 2004 or at funerals when they were draped over the coffin. Most commonly they have been used to head processions of miners from union or lodge at miners’ galas. The greatest of these is the Durham Miners’ Gala which has been held every year from 1871 to the present, and is the largest unofficial miners’ and trade union event. Other more local galas will be remembered, such as those at Wakefield or at Dodworth Lock Park near Barnsley. Recently interest in banners has increased and some communities are creating or recreate them. Former collieries now often group together to make a banner. Anne described a recent primary school heritage project in which the children designed their own banner. At the Durham Gala it was the first modern banner to be blessed there.
Historically the popularisation of banners was closely tied to the growth of trade unions which followed the repeal of the Combination Act in 1824, allowing unions a legal existence. At demonstrations or strikes, as in the dock strike of 1889, union members marched behind their banners. Conditions of work under different coal owners and in different parts of the country varied greatly and miners’ unions saw that working together could bring better conditions for all. Regional miners’ associations were founded in South Yorkshire in 1858, and in Durham in 1870. By the late 1880s local associations of mining unions across England, Wales and Scotland joined forces in order to represent and co-ordinate the affairs of all miners' unions. This was known as the Miner’s Federation of Great Britain, the forerunner of the NUM.
The first references to miners’ banners are from Jarrow and Merthyr in 1831. In the early days banners were homemade but from the 1830s banner-making companies expanded. As banners became more colourful demand grew. In 1837 George Tutill began his career in banner-making. He had begun his working life as as a fairground showman where he had acquired skills in large- scale, eye-catching decoration. His company was to manufacture three quarters of the trade union banners ever commercially made: other banner-makers in Leeds and Manchester worked on a smaller scale. In the 1850s Tutill set up a purpose-built workshop in London, employing silk weavers from the East End and many painters. His products were expensive but used pure silk or silk damask and he sold a complete package including fire insurance, and poles or frames on wheels. Anne showed images of the workshop where silk was stretched out on wooden frames under a roof of glass to maximise light. Tutill supplied banners to many other organisations too, such as Methodist Sunday schools, and temperance and friendly societies.
It was common to have a banner with a standard design on one side often depicting biblical scenes. On the other side a more expensive bespoke image would be created. The central panels used special paint patented by Tutill which was made with a solution of India rubber to give flexibility and durability. However this made the banners heavy and therefore more liable to tearing, especially when exposed to windy conditions on marches. At the Museum they have a specialist conservator and a banner store where the banners are repaired and kept rolled up in large tubes with temperature, humidity and pests carefully monitored. Often replicas are now made for marches.
Many of the Overton Museum’s banners are from the Yorkshire NUM which often used the symbol of a bundle of sticks to indicate union strength in numbers. The main images varied: Grimethorpe used an image of scales, and Barnsley Main showed an injured man in bed with an NUM official helping the family, Gascoigne Wood chose machines, and Wentworth Silkstone a beehive, a symbol of cooperative working. Kellingley, the largest pit in Europe, recently closed, had a banner showing the grim reaper. Colours too had meanings: blue signified loyalty, red courage and honour, black aggression, green hope new life, pink peace and prosperity, and white purity. Anne showed many images of banners in procession which provided a magnificent spectacle of these iconic pieces of visual art in their context.
Anne’s talk had stirred memories among those listeners who had worked in the industry or attended galas. There was a comment that in Derbyshire banners were not so prevalent as in Yorkshire, the North-East and Wales. The impact of the banners was described as like that of a standard in a battle ground - a rallying symbol for the men. We were reminded that banners and brass bands always went together at galas. There was discussion about banners which are in private hands and several which are held at Northern College near Barnsley. Anne pointed out that today it is the Friends of Durham Gala who organise this popular event.