I recently had opportunity to visit Red Hills – The Pitman’s Parliament in the city of Durham. The home of the Durham Miner’s Association, the venue is usually closed to the public, open otherwise by appointment. I managed to attend during Heritage Week.
So what is Pitman’s Parliament? It is the name given to the building in Durham that represented the mining population in the County. For those with mining ancestors, it is an opportunity to gain some context to the backbreaking work that was undertaken by thousands of men, and in some cases children, in the north east of England. That said, if you are reading this from outside of the UK, there were other areas of the UK that had a mining workforce, but more on them another day.
The Durham Mining Association was a formal Trade Union, founded in 1869. It was though more than that to the workforce and it established itself as a powerful force with the mining community, indeed, the union of Durham mines formed a welfare system to support the workforce long before the Labour party did in 1945. Miners and their families benefited from accommodation for elderly or infirm miners, education for the younger generation, hospital provisions, a sick pay and unemployment benefit. The welfare halls were the centre of the communities and they provided a venue for events.
The building itself was opened in 1915 and is now not in the best of shape. That said, it is the home of what was a fascinating period of north east history and how this occupation was perceived in the County (and other areas) and how the community embraced the harshness of the work and times. When the venue opened in 1915 there was 120,000 members of the Durham Mining Association and they were organised into what are referred to as lodges, and there were 200 of them.
Inside there are a number of rooms that could be viewed and there were volunteers on hand to answer any questions or to point out things of particular interest.
The Committee Room was a space where the meetings of the Executive were held. This room was closed to the public from its inception until the 1970’s when the it was opened by a wave of forward thinking, embracing a democratic principle.
Located in this room was two genealogical gems, the maps representing the mines across the County as a whole and the mines into their established geographical groups. Voting for the union officials, the people who sit in this room was not allowed until the 1960’s and the only voting undertaken by the members was for the agents. It was in this room that the discussions and decision took place for the Durham miners to participate in the National Miners Strike of 1984 and 1985.
Below are other photographs from this room:
The Muniment Room was the room where the records and documents were kept. The room has a series of photographs of the former leaders, men loss in the various mining disasters and the only photograph of women – those who ventured to Russia in the early 1920’s.
The Pitman’s Parliament This the most impressive room in the building and it is here that you get a true sense of the context and layers of administration in looking after the welfare of the average and regular miner.
This room is where the debating occurred between the men that represented each lodge. The men at the mines would appoint someone who would represent them. That person would sit in this room and would sit in the exact same seat each time they attended. There are about 200 seats in the lower level and higher level were for the public and press, although both groups were not always allowed, it depended on what was being debated.
Also on the lower level were the seats for the associated members, such as boiler men and engineers. As I walked about the room I spotted underneath the seats (which are like the folding ones that you find in cinema’s) a metal disc. The discs represent those commemorated at a specific mine or lodge. The date that was chosen was the 1951 record of lodges as there would be people who would recall those folk within living memory. If you had a family member who worked at a specific pit you could pay the donated amount of £100 and you would be presented with a disc in a presentation box and a copy of the disc which is for placing on the underside of the seat. The wording on the disc is chosen by the person making the donation, so it can be personalised.
On talking with the volunteer in this room there was a true and genuine sense of togetherness and community. The information provided and shared with me gave me a real sense of context. My husband has mining ancestors, the majority in Durham and some in Derbyshire. I know that they were represented by the man who sat in the relevant seats for Usworth and Washington. That man, did the best he could for the men and their families.
A story was relayed to me of a miner whose wife had died. He had no money to bury her with and was full of despair. The man who represented his pit went to a meeting the following day and shared the details with the men who sat in the Parliament room. That man left later that day with £400 by way of support. The man who shared that story with me did so to demonstrate the way of life and as he did so, his eyes fill with tears. It is very different to the scenes on the news that I recall from the time of the strike and suddenly I realise that it was not just news, it was something that certainly affected the lives of my husband’s ancestors and relatives, some of whom were still working in the mines during that time.