IN the summer of 1871, William Crawford, president of the fledgling Durham Miners’ Association, formally opened the union’s inaugural gala.

He told the assembled crowd of about 5000 miners and their families: “This is our first great gala day. I pray that it will not be the last.”

As it turned out, Crawford had nothing to worry about. The following year, an even larger turnout of DMA members necessitated a change of venue to the former Durham racecourse and so the legendary Big Meeting was up and running.

Since then, the Gala has become a keenly anticipated annual event, derailed only by world wars, strikes and Covid, with the 150th anniversary gathering in 2021 having to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

The largest Big Meeting crowds were recorded in the 1950s when anything up to 500,000 people attended, in the days when mining communities were still experiencing the feelgood factor of nationalisation and foreign holidays were a distant dream for working people.

However, organisers still expect a crowd of around 200,000 at the 137th gala on Saturday, July 8. What the DMA reasonably describes as “the world’s greatest celebration of community, international solidarity and working class culture … and a unique and inspiring spectacle” has morphed in recent years into a much more colourful, vibrant, diverse and exhilarating event than ever.

Where once the gala resembled an impressive but staid and vaguely militaristic parade of men, colliery brass bands and banners, the DMA’s historic decision in the 1980s, when the Durham coalfield was in terminal decline, to open the event up to the trade union movement and all left campaign groups stopped the Big Meeting following other miners’ galas around Britain into extinction.

Part of the gala’s enduring and growing appeal nowadays is its glorious unpredictability. As the DMA’s general Secretary Alan Mardghum cheerfully admitted, the organisers have no exact idea which unions, campaign groups and organisations will turn up on the day.

Based on the two most recent galas, it seems certain that lots of spectators and participants will make their way down from Scotland in July.

At the 2019 and 2022 Big Meetings, I observed massive contingents from Unison and Unite’s Scottish branches; groups representing the Fife People’s Assembly, Edinburgh Communist Party, WASPI women from Ayrshire and Arran, International Brigade Trust Scots and at least one brass band and one pipe band from north of the Border.

Mardghum said: “All the major trades unions will be represented at this year’s gala, hopefully including some new ones. We are also expecting some representatives from the former Lanarkshire and Lothians coalfields.

“But it’s impossible to predict who exactly will be there as people turn up on the day from far and wide, from all parts of the UK and beyond.”

It would be good to see some pro-indy groups – such as the Scottish Socialist Party, Common Weal, Radical Independence Campaign and the SNP Trade Union Group in Durham this year.

The gala is all about friendship, solidarity and fraternity with like-minded working people south of the Border so it shouldn’t be a mini-Yes rally … particularly as, apart from the massive fairground and the odd burger stall, there won’t be a Union Jack or St George’s flag in sight!

At the time of writing, it is not known who this year’s speakers will be. In days past, every Labour leader from Keir Hardie to Neil Kinnock made it a priority to address the Big Meeting but that bond was broken by Tony Blair who, despite representing the nearby former mining constituency of Sedgefield, studiously avoided attending the event and, on occasions, did not even reply to the DMA’s invitation.

Gordon Brown also turned down invitations to appear as did Sir Keir Starmer last year, citing a pre-arranged alternative engagement. Despite the DMA executive taking a pro-Jeremy Corbyn stance in recent years, gala protocol suggests the current leader of UK Labour will be invited. Whether he attends or not is another matter.

But the Big Meeting is about a lot more than speeches from the platform even though many famous Scots have addressed the Gala crowds including, over the years, Keir Hardie, who still features on many Durham miners’ banners; Labour’s first PM Ramsay MacDonald – who was removed from all banners after forming a national unity government with the Tories in 1931 – and a certain Jimmy Reid.

That was in 1979, long before the legendary Clydeside socialist and trade unionist joined the SNP and signalled his support for independence.

Listening to the speeches isn’t compulsory of course. The gala parade is so big nowadays that the inward leg can take more than four hours, with the outward parade lasting perhaps three hours depending on the weather.

All of which means there is plenty of opportunity for impromptu street theatre and music, chat, social drinking and a chance to sing along to songs such as I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), Sweet Caroline, Don’t Look Back In Anger and Dancing Queen.

What William Crawford would have made of it is anybody’s guess. But his prayers were answered and, on current trends, the Big Meeting could still be around in another 100 years.

Dave Bowman has been a regular visitor to the Durham Miners’ Gala since his family moved to north-east England from Midlothian in the mid 1950s. He now lives in Manchester.