This summer, Durham Cathedral is proud to present a new temporary exhibition celebrating the mining history and communities of County Durham, Miners: Pitmen, Pride and Prayer. The exhibition, in the collections gallery of Open Treasure, will explore how centuries of coal mining have shaped the North East and how mining heritage is still felt to this day in local communities.
We’ve picked a few stand-out items from the exhibition, which opens on Tuesday 19 June. Read more below, and let us know what your favourite object is!
Nineteenth-century struggles: Thomas ‘Tommy’ Ramsay, a sacrificed man
Tommy Ramsay was thrown out of work during an 1844 strike because he came out in support of the formation of a miner’s union, calls for which increased during the 1830s/1840s. Workers who supported calls for a union were known as ‘sacrificed men’, as, blacklisted from working at local collieries, they were forced to leave the county to find work. Yet, Tommy stayed in the area, and journeyed between villages to speak to villagers about trade unionism. In 1869, his dreams were realised, and the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) was formed.
Ramsay’s crake, a hand rattle, has been loaned by the DMA for the exhibition; Ramsay used it to attract attention and draw a crowd to his speeches.
Twentieth-century sacrifice: the Bevin Boys
The Bevin Boys were a group of conscripts formed during the Second World War to ensure the country was supplied with coal. The Minister of Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, solved the coal shortage by sending one in ten young conscripted men to work in mines. They took on low-skilled, manual jobs, and freed more experienced miners to work on coal production.
Known as the ‘forgotten conscripts’, the Bevin Boys now have a Veteran Badge, issued by the British Government in 2007 to honour their efforts – you can see a badge in the exhibition.
A persistent problem for early miners was finding a safe way to light mines. Using candles or oil lamps posed a risk of igniting gases and causing explosions. After several of the latter, the ‘Davy Lamp’ was created by Humphry Davy in 1816. Several different mining lamps are on display in the exhibition, including a Laidler miners’ safety lamp, manufactured by James Laider, a Durham engineer. Also on display are the Colliery Deputy’s charge tools, and the Colliery Official’s Handbook to the Mines and Quarries Act, 1954. This handbook followed the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947, and detailed new health and safety legislation brought in by the government.
‘The Pride of Pelton Fell’ – Durham Miners’ Gala, July 2017
Deryck Simpson created this painting in 2018, and has kindly loaned it to the Cathedral for the exhibition. The artist’s father worked in Pelton Fell Colliery, located just outside of Chester-le-Street, north of Durham City. The painting depicts a familiar scene from the Miners Gala, when banners are paraded through the City to the Cathedral. The previous banner had become worn out with time, and rumour has it that, before the pit closed in 1964, the banner was ‘thrown into the Wear in anger and frustration’.
The Mainsforth Colliery Banner
For mining communities, banners were used as a means of representation at celebrations, protests, and various other events. On the banner, the name of the colliery and lodge is displayed, alongside other images of religious or political origin. The Mainsforth Colliery Banner displays Conishead Priory Convalescent Home for Durham Mine Workers on the one side, and the Peace Haven Aged Miners’ Homes at Ferryhill on the other. Both images represent places where union members were cared for beyond their lives down in the mines. In a true feat of perpetuity and celebration, the banner is still used today, and is paraded through the streets of Durham on Gala day each July.
Visitors to Miners: Pitmen, Pride and Prayer can also enjoy access to the Open Treasure exhibition spaces, including the Treasures of St. Cuthbert in the Great Kitchen. Open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am – 5.00pm (last entry 4.00pm), and Sundays, 12.30pm – 5.00pm (last entry 4.00pm).
Tickets: £2.50 – £7.50 (under 5s free, Family ticket £17.50) available from the Visitor Desk in the Cathedral, and in advance from www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/visit/what-to-visit/open-treasure/book.