‘Community Embers’ is the work of Patrick Lewis Dowse, a documentary photographer from the North East of England.

Colliery bands were, and in some places continue to be, an important part of ex-mining communities. Their music served as the soundtrack to pit closures in the 1970s and 80s; their existence was an exhibition of spirited resistance to their brutal treatment by Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Their performances were an expression of working-class culture, where civic pride in the local community could be nurtured.

'Community Embers' by Patrick Lewis Dowse

These brass bands date back to the early 1800s. Participation in them was an opportunity for respite from the gruelling and dangerous conditions faced by miners. The bands were sponsored, with the miners-cum-musicians acting as musical ambassadors for their mine. They faced their greatest challenges during the 1980s. The miners’ strike led to dwindling finances, with bands kept afloat through mandatory contributions from their struggling colleagues. 

Pit closures, inevitably, led to the demise of many colliery bands. The likes of Grimethorpe have battled to preserve their existence, with local businesses keen to bolster a civic pride that was once so present in their community. Additional support was granted by the Arts Council of England in 2021, but a feeling that the heritage of the brass colliery band is at risk pervades. As with many resources, support for the arts is not exempt from the inadequate dispersal of finances. MP for Grimethorpe, Michael Dugher, is one of the few politicians highlighting the sustained importance of the brass bands, as he asks for an increase in funding before other groups disband.

'Community Embers' by Patrick Lewis Dowse

Patrick Lewis Dowse has spent several years documenting the colliery bands of the North East, engaging in the history of his local community by sharing the stories of those maintaining tradition. He explains the work in detail below.

"After the last pits closed and the de-industrialisation of the North East of England began, money started to disappear as well as the livelihood of thousands in the once thriving villages and towns in the North-East of England...

...These towns and villages built off the back of the industrial machine slowly became forgotten about, their main source of income dwindling and so did their identity.

The collieries of the North East of England each had their own brass band. Each represented their colliery, funded by the men and women who worked there.

After the collieries ended so did their bands due to a hole being punched in their main source of income, the collieries. Now in the 21st century, some bands still carry on, being funded by the band members from their own pocket, but many bands collapsed due to financial issues.

This is the story of those still holding the banners of the North-East; keeping their rich heritage and identity alive.”

'Community Embers' by Patrick Lewis Dowse

WT: The work is an important documentation of a pastime at threat of being lost, in addition to analysing the demise of industry in the coalfields. What drew you to documenting the communities of the de-industrialised North East?

PLD: Moving to London in 2014, to study at the London College of Communication, was the first time I’d been able to look at the North East of England with fresh eyes and from a distance (literally and metaphorically). Moving away allowed me to have time to reflect on where I am from and who I am. In a city as huge and anonymous as London I tried to work out who I am and where I have come from - this was the catalyst for my exploration into my own identity, using photography as a medium to do so.

This self-exploration led me to my work photographing and documenting the communities living in the North-East. Although the work is documenting working-class heritage I used the colliery bands as a focal point because when documenting working-class heritage there are many stories to tell so I had to choose one area for the body of work to revolve around.

Another reason for focusing on the colliery bands is that I wanted to challenge the usual tropes of the North of England within documentary photography. Images that come to mind are the black and white photographs of cobbled streets, children playing outside, dustbin fires on street corners etc. Whilst the work of photographers such as John Bulmer, and Chris Killip, for example, is outstanding and is a vital document of Britain, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of work taken in the North of England post-de-industrialisation. Sirkka-Lissa Kontinen was and still is a huge influence on me, she is a photographer from Finland who moved to Baker, Newcastle in the seventies and still documents the region today.

WT: There is an evident civic pride communicated in the smiles of those photographed. Within these 'overlooked' landscapes you've extracted moments of profound joy. Why has this been important for you?

PLD: When making a body of work that is extremely personal it can be difficult to separate your thoughts with the thoughts of those that may view the work. If I created a body of work that only those from the North of England could relate to then that would be great, however, I am aiming to allow those from outside the North of England and further to be able to relate to it to allow them to understand the story I am trying to tell - one of human resilience in the face of huge socio-economic change.

Showing candid moments, and human relationships is an important part of allowing the viewer the relate to the images and hopefully walk away remembering the story.

'Community Embers' by Patrick Lewis Dowse

WT: Why is it important that the colliery bands of the area continue to practice and perform?

PLD: When the colliery bands started they were funded directly by the colliery, each village/ town had their own brass band that represented the colliery - it was almost a form of extracurricular activity outside of their manual work, something to bring the workers together.

As more and more collieries opened there were more brass bands, then bands that would locally compete or perform together in a celebration of their heritage. When the collieries closed fewer and fewer bands remained. They are now fined by the band members as well as local and national funding bodies. Although the origin of the bands no longer exists, the bands serve a purpose in not only keeping alive the identity of the region but are a very real (and loud!) contemporary reminder of industrial heritage, camaraderie and resilience in the face of adversity (Thatcher's government!).

WT: Has there been a moment, during your time documenting these communities, that lives in the memory? 

PLD: The most poignant memory for me would be attending the Durham Miners Gala or “Durham Big Meeting’ as it’s locally known - Durham Big Meeting is a celebration of all UK industrial towns (shipbuilding, steel works, colliery towns). Durham City has a population of about 23,000, during the miners' gala the number of people swells to about 250,000, and thousands of people descend onto Durham with their local banners and brass bands to parade through Durham City Centre. Hearing the brass bands for the first time and feeling the community spirit gave me goosebumps. This feeling will always stick with me.

'Community Embers' by Patrick Lewis Dowse

WT: How has your practice developed during this time? With the addition of other personal and professional projects, and a move away from the area, has this series been influenced by that?

PLD: This project has taught me the responsibility that photographers have in not abusing their position as someone who can represent an area of people any way they like. It would have been easy for me to go to an old mining town, close my eyes and shoot away but this would perpetuate the tropes and stereotypes I mentioned earlier. As this is a personal project I felt the weight of creating a positive and honest representation of my home area that challenges the classic narrative within the media. 

As I used portraiture a lot in this project I’d say my ability to connect with people and photograph them has developed to allow me to genuinely connect with them. I also find shooting medium format with a top-down viewfinder means I don’t have a big camera in front of my face when photographing people. The gap between photographer and ‘subject’ is often quite hard to bridge, I find using a top-down viewfinder the most successful way to connect with someone, rather than being hidden behind a camera.

WT: What are the long-term goals for the work?

PLD: My long-term plan is to continue this project, I have taken a small break as I’ve had other projects/ work in London. I’d love to first exhibit this in the North East then hopefully in London. Eventually, it would be great to culminate this body of work into a book, but I’ve got A LOT more work to do!


With thanks to Patrick Lewis Dowse for his contributions to this article. To see more of his work, please visit his website and follow him on Instagram.


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