Mining and rugby – it’s not an obvious combination like fish and chips, but it’s one that a Northumberland-based sportswear manufacturer has made work and has turned into a thriving business. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey reports.
Graham Murdie’s relationship with mining runs as deep as the coal pits that used to be found in abundance across the north east. His love for the profession dates back to when he was a young boy and would listen for hours to his granddad John Gillespie tell tales of his time down the pit.
“He was a proud coal miner and would have my undivided attention for hours as he told me his stories as I sat on his knee. I want others to grow up and be aware of these stories,” explains Graham.
Sadly, Graham’s granddad passed away several years ago, but his own passion for mining has not dwindled over time. In 2012, in homage to Northumberland’s rich mining history, Graham founded an amateur rugby league team in Ashington called Miners Rugby League. Ashington was once one of the largest pit villages in the world, and the team was at the time the most northerly rugby league team in England.
As Graham wanted the team to have a connection with the place in which it was formed, he set about designing a mining inspired kit. The original design featured the names of the 70 collieries incorporated into The National Coal Board on Vesting Day in 1947 in the hoops of the navy blue and white shirt.
The creation of the team and the story behind the design of the kit caught the interest of the rugby world and Tony Hannan, the editor of Forty20 (a rugby league magazine), came along for the strip launch. It was an off the cuff comment made by Tony about the quality of the kit that got Graham believing he could design and manufacture sportswear as a living. And so Miner Wear was born.
In the beginning
To begin with Graham started saving money from his job as an engineer to buy the best quality equipment he could afford. He started researching on the internet and taught himself everything he needed to know about life as a garment decorator. From there Graham located a factory in Cheshire that could manufacture the sportswear that he designed. However, he says: “It was always the dream to be able to manufacture the sportswear ourselves.”
This dream was realised in June 2016 when Miner Wear opened its own factory on the grounds of an old coal heap in Pegswood, yet another connection to mining for the company.
Graham has since designed numerous other kits for the club. “The Miners Rugby League shirts are what we are known for. The next shirt I designed centred on the 1984 miners’ strike to mark the 30th anniversary. Instead of featuring the Northumberland collieries, it featured the 85 collieries that closed that year from Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire. This shirt got a lot of interest. The next shirt was designed to commemorate the Battle of Orgreave in 1984. 95 miners got arrested for rioting during the confrontation and to this day are still trying to clear their name.”
For every Battle of Orgreave shirt sold, Miner Wear donates £5 to the Orgreave Truth & Justice campaign, showing true devotion to the cause.
Next on the list was the Kellingley Commemorative Playing Shirt. This featured the names of all the collieries that closed after 1984 in England, Scotland and Wales to mark the closure of the UK’s last deep mine in 2015. “When we designed this shirt, we approached the National Coal Mining museum and asked if they would mind us using their logo on the shirt to give it a bit of backbone. Because they loved the idea of the shirt so much they agreed and now sell our shirts in their shop. This is now one of our best-selling shirts.”
Graham adds that there is always a demand for all of the Miner Wear rugby shirts because they represent different eras of coal mining history.
Graham’s latest mining related project is working in conjunction with the Friends of the Durham Miners Gala to produce a range of official merchandise for the annual gala. Approximately 250,000 people attend the annual event, which is more than the number of festival-goers who attended Glastonbury earlier this year. “Even if we only sell to 10% of those who attend, it will revolutionise our business,” says Graham. Graham aims to produce a range of ties, rugby shirts, hoggers and polo shirts.
Rugby and mining
The link between mining and rugby may not be immediately obvious, but Graham says it dates back to when working-class players in the north of England weren’t getting paid to play rugby and the northern clubs wanted to compensate their hardworking players for time away from their jobs. This caused a split across the country and the formation of the Northern Union in 1895. The rugby league was the first to start paying its players, who predominately worked down the pits or in the flour mills.
As well as producing rugby shirts inspired by his miner granddad, Graham is also adept at producing other forms of sportswear, such as football kits, cycling jerseys and various types of leisurewear. Contracts that Graham has worked hard to get include working with charities Forward Assist, a charity that helps to engage veterans in community projects to utilise their skill base, and Foundation of Light, Sunderland FC’s official charity. Over the years Graham has designed and manufactured various football kits and cycle jerseys for several fundraising events.
Graham is clearly passionate about what he does, and this extends from the subject matter to the make-up of the garments themselves. Miner Wear can proudly claim that 100% of each garment is made in Britain. Everything from the elastic used to the zips are sourced from UK suppliers and then the garments are hand stitched by members of Graham’s family. His mum Carol used to work at Dewhirst and so has experience in sewing and stitching, while his dad Trevor manages the accounts. “When I started the business it was always the dream that my mum would be the first to be employed, because she knows what I want. All credit to her, the stitching is spot on and if she’s not happy with her work she will unpick it and start over,” says Graham.
At the moment Graham says he is working with a local equestrian company, which is interested in a bespoke range of leggings and T shirts. “They have moved from having their garments produced in Pakistan, to having them produced down the road with us. What they really love is that they are getting a 100% truly British product.”
Although Graham was not alive at the peak of coal mining in the north east (he is affectionately known as a strike baby by older members of the community as he was born in 1984), the effect of the closures was rife throughout his childhood and is still present to some extent today.
Graham explains: “The closures of the collieries not only affected the miners, but the surrounding communities. Each colliery represented a community and the closure would cause a split.
“I get asked all the time where my passion comes from and how I do what I do when I haven’t lived through it. My answer is, if you throw a stone in a lake and watch the ripple effect, it’s the same with my family and the community.
“Everybody is caught up in the ripple effect of that stone thrown in 1984. The community lost everything and it is slowly, but surely coming back. We have turned from a country that manufactures and exports out, to a country that relies on services and imports goods. That’s the ripple effect.
“Miner Wear is for the next generation. I think the kits I have designed will get the children of tomorrow talking about the past. This is my park bench and I hope to immortalise the memory of my granddad and the history of mining forever.”