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Socialist women raise a new banner at the Durham Miners’ Gala

Five years ago the Durham Women’s Banner Group came together to make sure the role of women was fully appreciated and celebrated not just on the coalfields, but across the whole of the labour movement, writes PETER LAZENBY

IT WOULD be hard to be more steeped in the history and culture of coal mining than Lynn Gibson, a founder member of the Durham Women’s Banner Group.

“I’m the daughter of a miner, the grand-daughter of two miners and the great-grand-daughter of four miners,” she told the Morning Star at Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday.

“I’ve been coming to the Gala all my life. My dad brought me to the Big Meeting when I was this high,” she said, placing her hand at the level of the knee-high table at which we were sitting.

“He always made us kids listen to the speeches first. Then we could go on the rides and have the candy floss.”

That was a foundation of her political education.

It’s a story which could be repeated by the other 10 or so women who decided to launch the Durham Women’s Banner Group five years ago.

“In 2017 Laura Daley had the idea to have a women’s official presence at the Big Meeting in 2018 because it was International Year of Women,” she said. “So we had an initial meeting and about 10 socialist women came along.

“We agreed we wanted to put together a women’s banner from community groups in the coalfield and for each group to create a panel for a patchwork banner. So the banner has 12 panels from women’s organisations.

“It was created by over 50 women who were involved in creating the panels and it was raised in 2018.

“We agreed the name of the group would be the Women’s Banner Group. We are the first women's banner group to be affiliated to the Durham Miners' Association County Durham Banner Groups.”

“That was in 2018. In 2019 we decided to fundraise for a second banner, a silk banner the same standard as the miners’ banners.

“We also raised money to run a school programme to teach kids about democracy, the region’s history, women’s history that might be forgotten — women who might be forgotten. We agreed on the women we wanted on the new banner. It was painted by Durham Bannerworks.

“The banner was unfurled in 2020 — two weeks before Covid hit — so it has not been marched in the Big Meeting.

“But we are more than a banner group. Obviously there’s the schools’ project, but we lobby MPs on misogyny and hate crime, we do anti-racism campaigning as well, we support Syrian and Afghan women refugees.

“It was socialist women who created it — you’ve got to say that, socialist,” she said, pointing to my notebook.

“At the first gala we had over 100 women marching with us including Durham teaching assistants who had been shit on by the council, and the Waspi women (Women Against State Pension Inequality).

“But just going back to the beginning of the new banner, we wanted to give recognition to the incredible work of women during the miners’ strike.

“Heather Wood, a founding member, organised women’s support groups in the whole of the east of Durham during the strike — 17 I think it was. I met her for the first time at the founding of the group. I’d always wanted to meet her to thank her for the Christmas present I got in 1984 during the strike as a kid.

“Mary Turner is a Durham quilter who put all the panels together for the first banner, so the first banner is called Mary. The second banner is called Myrtle, after Myrtle Macpherson who was a staunch socialist from Easington.

“She was a GMB shop steward who was involved in the miners’ strike. She was retired. She cooked 500 dinners a day during the strike, and it went up to 800 when the schools came out in summer.”

The Gala has affected Ms Gibson in ways other than her childhood political education and the founding of the Women’s Banner Group.

“It was at the Big Meeting that I first heard a Labour Party politician on that stage speaking with my voice,” she said. “It was Jeremy Corbyn, when he’d been elected leader. I joined the Labour Party.”

She is secretary of Bishop Aukland Constituency Labour Party.

Another founding member of the Women’s Banner Group, Samantha Townsend, has been shortlisted to be Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Bishop Aukland.

Gibson’s professional life is equally dominated by the Durham miners’ history. She is director of the Durham Mining Museum.

She was also on the advisory board which mounted a successful bid for a multimillion-pound lottery grant to restore Redhills, the DMA’s historic headquarters.

The work of the Women’s Banner Group follows a proud, historic and continuing tradition surrounding the banners of the Durham coalfield.

After the closure of the last Durham pit in 1994, the DMA and its then secretary, Davy Hopper, believed that one of the ways of preserving the knowledge, traditions and culture of the coalfield communities was through the pit union branches’ banners.

Since then dozens have been restored. Some banners which went missing when their pit was closed have been found. Some which disappeared forever have been recreated from old photographs.

Every year the rediscovered, restored or recreated banners are raised for the first time at the Big Meeting.

They are then marched with pride from the Gala field to Durham Cathedral for a “banner blessing” ceremony usually involving the Bishop of Durham. This year the blessing was carried out by the Dean of Ripon, the Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett.

There were five new banners this year. The new banner of the Women’s Banner Group was one of them.

Visit www.womensbannergroup.org.uk for more information.

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