The National Coal Mining Museum is probably not the first place most quilters would consider visiting for a day out. However, you might be pleasantly surprised! The Museum is the venue for a fascinating exhibition of Trade Union Banners from now until the end of September. This exhibition offers a glimpse into a recent past where working class ideals and artistic expression met each other head on! These banners are an amazing amalgamation of colour, texture, politics, iconography and commemoration, and were mainly inspired by men working in terrible conditions underground in Yorkshire coalmines.

Askern Main Banner hanging at Hope Store, ©NCMME 2008
Askern Main Banner hanging at Hope Store, ©NCMME 2008

Many people may have seen Trade Union Banners on modern day occasions such as rallies, strikes, and the odd gala in the north of England. In the late 1800s and early 1900s in the working class towns and cities of the north, these banners were of huge importance, illustrating pride in industry and the championing of worker's rights. Banners were first introduced after the Combination Act was repealed in 1824, an act which allowed Trade Unions to operate under a limited remit once more. They became more popular later in the nineteenth century, as the strength of the Unions increased. The first banners were homemade and tended to disintegrate, few examples survive today. After all, these banners were not only displayed on walls inside, they were also carried on marches in all weather conditions. How many of our wall hangings would withstand high winds and rain? Additionally many banners were put into storage without being dried properly and suffered damage from mould, bloom and rot as a result. It is commonly thought that the worker's wives made these early pieces, but I'd love to know if any miners or factory workers joined in. Both the earliest and most modern banners feature the largest amount of appliqué work, and are the most closely related to our modern wall hangings. The majority of the commercially manufactured banners made during the height of the banner's popularity are painted on silk and double sided.

Commercially made banners appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century. George Tutill was the most well known manufacturer, but there was such demand that several specialist firms existed. In Leeds you could commission a banner from Riley, Edwards and Co. Adams and Co. supplied many Manchester factories and unions, whilst Turtle and Pearce operated in London. Even city department stores were involved. The soft furnishing department of Bainbridge's in Newcastle, now a John Lewis store, supplied banners to the coalfields of the north east.

Thoresby Banner, Front, ©NCMME 2008
Thoresby Banner, Front ©NCMME 2008

George Tutill was the son of a Yorkshire miner, who moved to London and set up his banner factory at 83 City Road. Tutill's firm made approximately three quarters of all Trade Union banners in the nineteenth century. The 1896 catalogue shows all manner of sizes, shapes and stock designs based on labour movement or religious subjects. It was common for those commissioning banners to choose a stock design for one side and commission a more expensive unique design for the other. Tutill's banners were made from silk, and decorated on both sides with his unique rubberised paint, made with linseed oil and india rubber. Tutill employed specialist weavers, and a range of artists to paint different sections of each banner. There were corner men, who painted scrolls, leaves and edge decoration, landscape artists, signwriters, technical drawing men who painted machinery and industrial scenes as well as portraiture specialists. As you would imagine, a banner was a huge expense, in 1895 the cost of one banner was equivalent to nine months pay for a coal miner. Accordingly, Tutill offered two different types of basic banner, one with Jacquard woven silk damask borders, and another cheaper version with plain silk borders painted with foliage and scrolls. Either way, both types were exceedingly sumptuous and came complete with carrying poles, storage box, side tapes and a year's free insurance. Tutill only expected his banners to last for twenty years; it is testament to the makers that so many have survived to be shown today.

Simple home-made banner for NUM Babbington Branch, ©NCMME 2008
Simple home-made banner for NUM Babbington Branch, ©NCMME 2008

The banners themselves tell some interesting stories. There are many recurring symbols and themes used with surprisingly little variation between regions or even industries. It was common to use Masonic symbols in early banners, especially when the unions were repressed and met in secret. Birds symbolise peace, the Sun represents optimism, Bees indicate co-operation, Hands stand for friendship and solidarity, whilst the Snake indicates evil and a simple bundles of sticks represents Unity.

There were many popular slogans, "By Industry we flourish, united in Truth and Justice", "Unity is Strength", "Help and Sympathy in times of Sickness". You can almost hear the stirring speeches for worker's rights that these banners must have inspired. Even the colours are loaded with meaning, red stands for socialism, labour and courage, blue for loyalty. Pictures of death scenes, invalidity and family suffering were common, indicating the Union's social and pastoral responsibility to the workers and their dependants.

New Hucknall banner, original professional silk banner later re-made, ©NCMME 2008
New Hucknall banner, original professional silk
banner later re-made, ©NCMME 2008

Pride in industry was also evident; there are banners with accurate representations of complex machinery. Of course, politics also played a part. The Houses of Parliament were often used as illustrations on banners for coal mines in the north. Politicians also featured, it was a great honour to be depicted in this way. I'm sure many faces must have been painted out over the years, as fashions changed and politicians fell out of favour.

There are even classical subjects, I noticed a couple of banners with the same group of ladies, including a one rather glamorous nude! These are most likely the Graces and Virtues and were obviously one of Tutillís stock images. Some of the more recent banners feature quite shocking scenes of rioting and picket lines. Many of the banners are provocative, they are often extremely emotionally charged. These banners really evoke the tensions of the time, and the serious hardship and danger experienced by the mineworkers.

The exhibition at Hope Store is well worth a visit. There are many beautiful pieces on display, and the banners are hung in a fantastic space in the rafters and from the walkways above the vehicle and machinery exhibits. The National Coal Mining Museum has lots to offer husbands and children, from trips underground to pit ponies, and is free and thoroughly recommended. Details can be found on our Events pages or by visiting www.ncm.org.uk. You can see some great examples of these banners at www.num.org.uk.

Special thanks to the National Coal Mining Museum for England for source material and all photographic material accompanying this piece. All images are copyright NCMME.