Among the banners at the Durham Gala today one stands out. PETER FROST holds it high.
“The People’s flag is deepest red”. The words of that proud Labour anthem come alive when the multitude of banners flutter in the Breeze over the Gala in Durham.
The many union banners all have their own individual stories to tell. They are stories of struggle, of heroism, of suffering and of outstanding victories.
The banners all have one thing in common. They have inspired generations of working people lifting the hearts and heads of those involved in working class struggle.
Each one could inspire an article like this but I’m concentrating on just one today.
It’s a relatively new banner painted only a year or so ago, but it’s one that opens the door on a proud and fascinating aspect of Britain’s working class history here in County Durham.
Here it comes now, Red and glistening gold. Who are those men looking down from the banner? Yes that right Marx, Lenin and Kier Hardy.
The wording is clear:
National Union of Mineworkers,
And another message too. Quoted not from Marx or Lenin but from American poet Walt Whitman,
“We take up the task eternal,
The burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! Oh! Pioneers!”.
On the back the message reads
Gain the Co-operative commonwealth
He who would be free
Himself must strike the first blow
The World for the Workers.
Chopwell was once well known as one of Britain’s Little Moscows.
The term first appeared between the two Wars. The Tory press coined it as an insult but proud working class communities that had seen through capitalism’s confidence trick and who had embraced socialist and communist thinking, adopted it proudly as a badge of honour.
Scotland’s Vale of Leven was reliant on the dyeing industry until the Depression of the 1920s and 1930s bought mass unemployment. Leven dye workers turned to socialist and communist ideas.
The Vale of Leven District Council was the first local council in Britain to see Communists becoming the single largest party.
Maerdy was named Little Moscow by the South Wales Daily News in 1930. The miners of Maerdy loved the tag and adopted it with pride.
Chopwell became a Little Moscow in the 1920s as a result of its strong support for the Communist Party. Local housing terraces were named after Marx and Lenin. In the 1926 General Strike the hammer and sickle flew over the council offices.
There have been several Chopwell miner’s lodge banners over the years. The first was made in 1907.
In 1924 that original banner was replaced with a new one showing the village’s three heroes, Marx, Lenin and Labour leader Keir Hardie.
That 1924 banner is now in Moscow. It hangs proudly in the Moscow Trades Hall.
It was presented to Soviet miners in 1955 as thanks for food parcels and other aid sent by Soviet miners during the 1926 General Strike.
A new replacement banner was made the same year.
The Cropwell banner still has a proud international history.
When France won the World Cup in 1998, the French Miners Federation borrowed it to parade behind the French team in Paris.
Another proud outing for the Chopwell Banner was in London’s Theatreland. It was the backdrop to the play Maggie’s End – about the death of Margaret Thatcher.
In 2011 the original 1955 banner had its last-ever outing before being securely preserved at Red Hills, the National Union of Mineworkers’ headquarters in Durham.
By then the ageing banner was starting to look the worse for wear. It was patched and fading. A skilled seamstress from the village did her best but the old banner was in a terrible state.
The former pit village decided it was time to once again replace the proud symbol of working class solidarity. Chopwell raised £9,000 and commissioned a brand new banner.
The new banner followed closely the design of the old one. It was manufactured in Norfolk and painted by an artist from Spain well known for portraits of Marx and Lenin.
It is now kept in the village, at Chopwell Primary School, inspiring a new generation and providing a living history lesson.
Today the newest version, replacing the battered and tattered 1955 banner will be paraded through the streets of Durham. The proud history of Chopwell, County Durham’s very own Little Moscow lives on.
Give it a cheer as it passes by. It is part of your proud history too.
This article appeared in the Miner’s Gala Morning Star Special