Building a future for the Durham Miners Hall and the Pitman’s Parliament

The Durham Miners Hall is a unique and historically important building. But if it is to survive, it needs financial support, as Dave Anderson, Ambassador for the Redhills Appeal and Chair of the Marras – the Friends of Durham Miners Gala, explains.

Logo of Marras - the Friends of Durham Miners' Gala

The Durham Miners Association was formed in 1869 after more than half a century of attempts to organise in the North East of England, with varying degrees of success.

The key battle in 1869 was the determination to rid themselves of “The Bond”, a system that contracted miners to their employer for a year at a time. It meant that they were in perpetual servitude to employers who controlled all aspects of their lives. The key to winning a release from this pernicious system of semi slavery was the use by union-engaged lawyers to challenge a contract that a majority of miners had signed without being able to read it. An original contract from 1776 is held by the union in its building in Durham to this day.

To celebrate the victory the miners organised a huge rally in the City of Durham in 1871 which became the first of what became the Durham Miners Gala – still going strong today.

The union went from strength to strength to the point where by 1913 they had decided to build a building that showed their employer and the world that the DMA was a serious body to be reckoned with. The same year saw the biggest-ever production figures, with more than 120 million tons of coal coming out of the Durham coalfield. The building would be funded from the subscriptions of the miners in the coalfield.

The employers were still the backbone of the British Empire –Londonderrys, Lambtons, Joiceys and Bowes Lyons – and the miners were determined to match them at every move, even though many local representatives didn’t have the right to vote and some were at best semi-literate.

They built a Miners Hall that provided the administrative centre for a union with more than 150,000 members, and a purpose-built debating chamber which could seat some 360 delegates.

View of the debating chamber of the Miner's Hall
The debating chamber of the Miners Hall – known as the Pitman’s Parliament.

From within this building, known as Redhills, decisions were taken that created a welfare state in Durham while Beveridge was still thinking about it. They saw the building of thousands of homes for retired miners who would, previously, been turfed out of their homes on the day they finished working. They built sports facilities, supported brass bands, bought convalescent homes social clubs and reading rooms. Because of the nature of the industry, most communities were entirely reliant on the mines so decisions taken reflected hugely on the villages and small towns that made up the county.

The DMA also played a huge part in the development of the Labour Party especially in the lead up to the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947. Miners became key players in local and national politics after cutting their teeth in what has become known as “The Pitmans Parliament”.

The Hall was so well built that it dodged the bullet of 1960s redevelopment and it continued to be the hub of the movement until the sad demise of the industry in 1994. Since then, despite having no working members, the union has continued to deliver services to former members and their communities by the use of assets and receipts from successful legal challenges on behalf of tens of thousands of miners suffering from industrial diseases.

However, the assets have gone and the reality is that time has caught up with the building, which needs serious renovation . To assist the DMA has gifted the building – which has now been recognised by Historic England as one of the 100 irreplaceable buildings in our country – to come under the ownership of a new charitable body committed not just to save but to refurbish the original building and to develop new structures to both sides of the existing footprint which will see a project which will be fit for the next century after serving so well over the last one.

The project will be completely DDA compliant, delivering a facility that will still allow the business of the union to continue but also provide educational, performance and conference space that is sorely missing in the city. The intention is to utilise the building in innovative ways with the only limitation being the imagination of those wishing to use it.

The team has secured the first stage of National Lottery funding as part of a total bid worth £4.8m, and has received a grant of £1.1m from Durham County Council. However, this funding will only be released if the team raises a further £1.5m in matched funding – so any help in reaching the target would be greatly appreciated.

The DMA are determined to return this building back to the communities from where it came and to keep faith with the wording on many of their banners: “The past we inherit – The future we build”.

With your help we can achieve that goal.

Find out how to support the Redhills Appeal.

DMA Programme Director Ross Forbes provides an overview of the meaning of Redhills and plans for the future of the historic Durham Miners Hall.