For at least a year I have known that I wanted to pursue a project about the legacy of mining in my local area. It is a subject I have become increasingly interested in and something that is personal to me. Where I live in County Durham was almost entirely built on the coal industry, and yet, there are few direct indicators of this. The pits are long gone – the colliery most local to me, and the place my Grandfather worked, closed in 1973. The last mine in a ten mile radius closed in 1980 and 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the closure of the last pit on the Durham coalfield.
My interest in mining heritage started to increase when my children began playing in a local brass band. There is a strong connection between brass bands and mining with most pits having a band affiliated to them. Indeed, like many others, the band my children play with still bears the name of the local pit, Craghead Colliery. The highlight of the banding calendar is the Durham Miners Gala – a traditional celebration that despite the closure of the pits goes from strength to strength each year. 2018 was the 134th Gala – the day traditionally goes like this: bands march in the local villages accompanied by the banners representing there respective lodges – these are often political in nature featuring portraits of union leaders that the miners admired. The bands and banners are then taken into Durham city and marched from the market square to the racecourse on the edge of town where they are displayed on the fencing around the field. Political speeches take place in the afternoon before the return trip is made to the market square and then home. The banners are a significant and important part of the day and something that each village has a great deal of pride about. Traditionally they would have been displayed in the local communities, most likely in Miners welfare halls, but as these have disappeared there are less on show. I remember the banner for my local pit being on show in the local Methodist church. Unfortunately, this banner was destroyed in an arson attack in 1993, and while there are other banners still in existence, these are too old and fragile to be on permanent display or to be marched. New banners continue to be commissioned each year and marching with a new banner for South Moor in 2017 led me to set up a group to do the same. The new Morrison/Morrison Busty lodge banner was completed just before the 2018 Gala and taken in to Durham that year accompanied by my children’s band.
I decided to use the Gala in July as the jumping off point for the project and the potential subject itself. Unfortunately, being part of the banner group there was not as much time to photograph as I would have liked and although I made a number of images of the day that I liked I felt there was not enough of them to build into a full project – the scope was also not far reaching enough. Reassessing where I was, I arrived at the following possibilities:
Miners portraits and testimony:
Seeing Sirkka Liisa-Konttinen’s ‘Coal Coast’ exhibition at the side gallery in 2017 was a particular influence on me. This is a body of work from 1999-2002 and something that I have been aware of since then and have seen exhibited before. A significant addition to this exhibition is a new audio visual work ‘Song for Billy’, a 20 minute film collaboration between Konttinen, New York musicians ‘So Percussion’ and Easington ex-miner Freddie Welsh. The testimony from Freddie Welsh is the most significant and moving aspect of the presentation and I was struck by the fact that stories like those he shared could soon be lost as the miners become older.
One of the most moving aspects of the banner project I am involved with is that every time we take the banner to an event we meet someone who was involved with the pits in some way and their reactions are often quite moving. For example, at the event where the banner was unveiled, I met ex-Morrison Busty miner Jimmy Goodwin and spoke to him at length about his experiences working in the pit. Subsequently, I have spoken to other ex-miners and have felt that capturing their testimony is an important thing to do. A project could consist of portraits alongside written testimony/memories, perhaps in a similar form to Survival Programmes. Another approach could be an audio/visual slideshow similar to Song for Billy – hearing the voice of Freddie Welsh is particularly moving.
The Durham Miners Gala:
As mentioned above, I intended photographing the 2018 Durham Miners Gala to be the catalyst for this project. The images I selected from this have a Martin Parr quality to them – perhaps I am instinctually inclined to record the quirky and offbeat in the everyday. This could be a project in itself, perhaps something longer form and resulting from my archive of images from over the years, I am not sure if the images I took this year are right to be included in my intentions for this project however.
I am inspired by both the history and the aesthetic of the miners banners. Grayson Perry, who visited the Durham Gala as part of his documentary on masculinity, described the procession of banners in eloquent terms, likening the parade to renaissance Florence when artworks would be carried through the streets. He describes the gala as a unique demonstration of tradition, heritage and solidarity.
Researching designs for the new banner led me discover two historic banners, both held on storage, one at Beamish Museum and one at Redhills, the home of the Durham Miners Association. While I am grateful that both of these establishments are preserving these banners, the point of them is that they should be held in the communities of where the mines were. Some banners are still displayed like this and part of the project could perhaps be about photographing them in the place where they are now kept.
The sites of my local pits – Morrison and Morrison Busty:
The Morrison and Morrison Busty pits were the closest to where I grew up and also the pits chosen to commemorate on our replica banner. The site of the Morrison is now an industrial estate and the Morrison Busty is predominately council offices and a household waste recycling centre. There are a few buildings that appear to be from the pit on the Morrison Busty site and nothing from on the Morrison site. How these areas look now is something that interests me and I wonder if there is a way I can incorporate this into the project.
Memorials to the pits:
There are a number of memorials in the local area that could be of interest to photograph and form part of the project. Some take the form of memorials to miners who died in various disasters, others are less direct reminders of the areas mining heritage such as pits wheels and coal tubs at the side of the road.
During my research I have come across a number of archive images from the past and have been surprised by the powerful effect they have had on me. Despite being quite different to how the area looks today, these photographs showing the mines when they were in full operation resonated because I could recognise them immediately. Perhaps I could try to rephotograph these images to show how the area has changed and display these new pictures alongside the archive photographs.