The Ashover lead miners who made history – 190 years ago

Ashover can hardly be described as a hot-bed of trade unionism, so it may come as a surprise to most that this picturesque village can lay claim to a piece of radical history.  Here, Lynda Straker unravels its 190-year journey. 

IT STANDS in the Amber Valley and, with its steeple church, cricket field and annual agricultural show, is seen by many to be the quintessential English village. Yet few realise its historical significance to the wider trade union movement.

For, along with its Domesday book entry, 14th century church and Civil War skirmish, Ashover also lays claim to having the oldest surviving miners’ banner in the UK.

Standing at just over five feet tall and almost as wide, the silk and painted banner proudly proclaims ‘Success to Miners’ and has been painstakingly conserved by experts based at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, where it is now on permanent display.

What you see, though, is a far cry from the item initially loaned and then permanently transferred to them by the Derbyshire Museum Service back in the 1990s.  According to Jenny van Enckevort at the museum, it was extremely crumpled, creased and fragile. 

“Various splits and tears ran through the unpainted silk and there was considerable loss of paint from the fly edge of the banner. The fabric and paint were heavily soiled, and there were stitched repairs through the painted areas and silk parts.”

The banner is believed to date around 1830, with the main image on the front showing a total of six miners in an oval frame beneath a white lion.  At the top is the head and upper body of a miner, holding a dial-in one hand and a steel-yard (measuring stick) in the other.  

Beneath him is a decorated shield, part of which depicts life below ground, with one miner wielding a pick and another two shovelling.  Either side of the shield are two miners standing, with the figure on the left holding a long hammer and the one on the right wearing an apron and holding a long bar or stemming rod, used to push explosive cartridges into position in man-made cracks and holes.  

Unusually, the back of the banner is different from the front, with an image which the museum has on its records as Christ.  But local mining historians believe it is more likely to be Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners.

It was made for the miners’ White Lion Friendly Society at Ashover, which met at the White Lion Inn, now White Lion House, a Grade II-listed building in private residence on Butts Road.  

Evidence of the property’s past, though, can clearly still be seen in the carved, seated lion above its front door and the metal bracket where the inn sign used to hang.

Back in the mid to late-1700s, Ashover had one of the largest and most productive lead mines in the country, producing more than 1,500 tons a year and employing around 300 people. 

The Loyal White Lion Lodge Ashover was instituted on June 13, 1792 and met in the club room (which still stands) at the side of the Inn, with a list of articles to be observed by ‘gentlemen, tradesmen, miners and others.’  

Then the 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts made trade unions illegal, and many believe the Lodge may have called itself a ‘friendly society’ to avoid persecution as a trade union. 

Later, in 1832, it became affiliated to the Nottinghamshire Ancient Imperial United Order of Oddfellows, often referred to as a ‘death and divide’ club as its purpose was to pay sickness and death benefits to members and their dependents. 

Not long after, lead mining became uneconomical in the face of Spanish competition.  But it enjoyed a revival during the war years when, according to JE Williams’ book The Derbyshire Miner, the men at Ashover and Darley Dale were allowed to join the Derbyshire Mining Association  –  a precursor to the Derbyshire Area of the National Union of Miners  –  and soon became involved in disputes with their employers.

In Ashover, this centred on the employers being opposed to their men joining the Association, arguing that instead they should be members of the National Union of General Workers.  According to Williams, there was much unrest among the lead miners for the remainder of World War One and in the years immediately following the Armistice in 1918.

But back to the banner: in 2002, the People’s History Museum, supported by Arts Council monies, started conservation work on this fragile, 170-year old piece of material in its textile studio.

This involved cleaning the silk and painted areas, adhering the loose paint fragments, and supporting the banner with a fine transparent layer cast with a conservation grade adhesive.  Missing sections were filled by laying coloured silk on the backing board before stitching the banner to the board.

The end result is a single layer of fine plain weave silk with images hand painted on each side in oil-based paints bordered by a silver metal thread fringe.

It is hardly surprising, then, that it took a total of 350 hours of painstaking work, the equivalent of 50 working days patiently carried out over a number of years by museum conservator, Susanne Kristiansen, whose legacy lives on through this and other banners she has spent a lifetime preserving for posterity.

Ashover is just one of 400 radical banners housed in the museum, which holds the world’s largest collection.  In 1999, staff carried out a national banner survey to create a detailed inventory not only of those in its care but of more than 2,000 others scattered around museums throughout the UK. 

Many provide powerful visual messages and were created to mark a specific event, promote a cause or to demonstrate pride in their trade, being carried  in huge demonstrations, galas or marches.  

Chesterfield was among the first to stage such an event when, according to Williams, on Monday, August 11, 1873 around 30,000 miners and their families began arriving in the town by foot and in special trains for “one of the most extraordinary spectacles ever witnessed in Chesterfield.” 

The huge procession, where all the Derbyshire Lodges were represented  –  so we can surmise it included Ashover  –  set off from the new recreation ground and headed for the Drill Field, holding their banners high and marching to the sounds of one of 30 brass bands.

It is a scene that has been repeated in the town many times over the following 147 years – and although it is unlikely to happen this year because of the coronavirus outbreak – Chesterfield’s People’s May Day Gala remains one of the largest celebrations of its kind in the country.

And if the banners are not unfurled this year, we can at least remember our proud mining heritage and, in particular, the pioneering lead miners of Ashover.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Katy at the PHM and to local residents Stuart Band and Richard Felton for their invaluable help. 

Editor’s Note:  When it reopens after the coronavirus outbreak, The People’s History Museum (www.phm.org.uk) in Manchester offers free entry but asks for donations. The Ashover banner is in Main Gallery Two, which also houses the textile conservation studio, complete with viewing window, so visitors can see skilled conservators at work. 

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