Object In Focus: International Women’s Day (IWD) Women’s Labour Bedlington Section Banner
Banner of the Bedlington Labour Party Women’s section. The banner features two Bedlington Terriers, embroidered in silver thread, a symbol of local identity and pride. This banner was used in a procession at the Bedlington Miner’s Picnic in 1972 though it was created sometime earlier.
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day of global recognition celebrate annually on March 8th as a focal point in the women’s rights movement, raising awareness of issues faced by women both historically and in the present day. The day enables us to reflect on the continuous struggle for women’s equality across the world. To mark this day, we are sharing with you the story and history behind one of most eye-catching banners in the collection here at Woodhorn – our small but mighty Women’s Labour Bedlington Section banner.
Museums Northumberland has many objects in its care and although we can search for wider information about objects in our care sometimes, nothing compares to first-hand stories about the objects told by those who have spent years caring for them. This information is often irretrievable by any museums professional, even with the aid of call outs for information through social media.
However, sometimes, something very special can happen.
The banner was given to Woodhorn Museum in 2018 by a former member of the Labour Party who had fond memories of its use and had cared for it right up until the point of donation. It was suspected to have been made some years earlier by a late member of the party, but the exact identity of the maker remained unknown to them for all the years they cared for it.
This all changed when in late 2022 Woodhorn Museum was contacted by a relative of the individual who made the banner. The family had seen a picture of the item on our social media page and were thrilled to hear that the banner had survived and was on display for the year July 2022-July 2023. In early December the family visited the banner for a very special birthday gathering of the daughter who remembers it from her childhood. We invited them all to get up close to the banner and tell us more about its creation and how it was made. Finally, a missing link could be added to story of this locally important banner.
About the banner
The banner is an important piece of social history and is associated with Northumberland and its rich coal mining history. It came to us in 2018 complete with pole harnesses, ropes, and poles. It features two Bedlington terriers, embroidered in silver thread; a symbol of local identity and pride. The banner is two sided in design and features green, white, and red; Labour party colours.
In the Northeast of England, Northumberland and Tyneside are known to have preferred the green as it had strong links with Chartist movements and Irish Catholic communities who had emigrated to the northeast. Prior to the 1970s it was common practice for the Northeast Labour movement to use the green, but in more recent times the colour is understandably more associated with the Green Party.
The banner was made by Winnie Silverton between 1962-64, from left over bridesmaid dresses. It was very much a joint effort in production with Winnie’s husband, Ernie Silverton, a miner born and brought up in Cambois. Ernie himself came up with the design for the Bedlington terrier and torch motif. The embroidery and border crochet were completed by Winnie. She was a noted seamstress locally, and did all crafts including sewing, embroidery, tatting, and making hooky and proggy mats. Winnie was also well known to be a first class cook and baker, and a dab hand at wallpapering for family, friends and neighbours. It seems there was no craft that Winnie could not turn her hand to!
Even in later life, when Ernie was Ill and struggled to leave the house, Winnie taught him to knit and crochet too. “The whole family had blankets for our beds and knitted jumpers by both Ernie and Winnie”.
Image taken by Eleanor Silverton, article appeared in the Ashington and Bedlington courier on 1st March 1984. Original photography by Margaret Eagle of Tynephoto, Bedlington
The banner was used in procession at the Bedlington Miner’s Picnic in 1972.
Traditionally each banner had a band, and this changed every year. People took turns marching the banner. There were six people responsible for it: 2 on poles, 2 on the front and 2 on the back. All Women’s Section marchers for Bedlington wore white dresses and green rosettes, a green scarf and sash. The rest of the members marched behind in line. It was possible to win a trophy for the best presentation on your march. The Picnic Queen always marched with the Women’s Banner.
The Women’s Labour Section met once a week in different venues – usually a marketplace, club or the council offices, and often above shops in the location of the Labour Rooms. The whole family got involved doing leaflet drops through doors and helping on election days.
The donor of this banner, known as Freda, was introduced to the Labour party by a friend whose husband was active in the party. When Freda lost her husband due to a tragic accident at a reclamation yard aged 33, she joined for social reasons.
During Freda’s membership of the Women’s Section in the 1970s she witnessed major changes within the party. The Labour Party colours changed to red, and Freda added this colour to the banner. After the Women’s Section was disbanded and absorbed into the men’s section, Freda’s political activism declined. She believes the move had had an overall negative effect on women’s political activism in the area.
Freda was present when the Prime Minister Harold Wilson attended the Miner’s Picnic.
About the Women’s Labour Party Movement
The Labour Party created a Women’s Department, with a Chief Women’s Officer in 1919. Propertied women had been given the vote in 1918 and a women’s section had been put on to the party’s National Executive Committee as part of their new constitution, which had been drafted by Sidney Webb in 1917.
The party’s first Chief Woman Officer was Marion Phillips (1881-1932) who was appointed in 1919. She was succeeded on her death by Mary Sutherland (1895-1972), who held the post until 1960.
The Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Committee was set up in 1916. This became an integral part of the Labour Party’s organisation, with the Chief Woman Officer as its Secretary. Its work was superseded in the 1950s by the National Labour Women’s Advisory Committee. The first National Conference of Labour Women was held in 1927.
In 1923 it had been decided at a national level that the month of June should be women’s month in the Labour Party calendar. It was proposed to help develop the growing number of women’s organisations within across the county, such as the Northumberland Labour Women group and the Cleveland Labour Women group. Durham County Council, The Federation of Labour Parties and The Durham Miners also had groups to encourage female participation in politics at this time.
To support the proposal, a rally was held in Wharton Park, Durham City with backing from Durham County Labour Women’s Advisory Council. Sections of the group covered the whole county, and they were all asked to make a small banner for the procession. The banner had a white background, with section names in green.
The Women’s Labour group played a huge role in supporting the miners’ strike of 1984-85. For some this was the first time they had become involved in any kind of politics. During the year-long strike, many women found themselves on picket lines, marches, fundraising events in support of the miners and ferociously fighting for the voices of their families to be heard. Its long-lasting effect on families and industrial towns can be seen and felt to this day.
Overview of Political Banners throughout History
Woodhorn Museum cares for many of the remaining Northumberland colliery banners which are displayed on rotation in the Cutter Building every July.
Northumberland and Durham first miners’ union was formed by Thomas Hepburn in 1831. The earliest banners are a response to how miners supported their unions. Some parades were jubilant, such as the miners picnic and others. However, there was also more serious events, such as protests against mine owners, and pay disputes. Some were shrouded in black during times of mourning when a miner had lost his life in a colliery accident.
Traditionally, colliery branch banners were marched on picnic day in a parade. It took six people to march a banner: two pole bearers and four rope bearers. Banners were manufactured at great cost using expensive materials and craftsmanship. Many of the examples that survive have been recycled and repainted over the years due to the high costs of commissioning a new banner.
You can see examples of objects associated with the Women’s Labour movement in the Coal Town display at Woodhorn Museum. This includes six silver plated trophies presented by Bedlingtonshire District Council to winners of the Labour Women’s Guilds.
The original text label for the Bedlington banner has changed today to celebrate IWD, It now bears the name of its maker. You can see the banner at Woodhorn Museum until the end of June 2023 before it is rested.