A Miners’ Wife’s Struggle in 1984/85
By June Walker
June Walker is now in her eighties and has lived in the Elsecar area for most of her life. Born in Enfield, she was evacuated to South Yorkshire during the war and here she stayed, marrying a miner working at Elsecar Main and raising a family of five children.
June’s quiet, outwardly ordinary life masks the extraordinary person that she is. She is a bottomless well of strength and compassion who at the same time as raising her family, also devoted herself to community work.
June’s eldest daughter Susan says, “my Mum worked in shops, worked as a cleaner, worked at Bassett’s Sweets in Sheffield and was a Magistrate for twenty years. In between all of this, she did her community work and brought five children up. If I am half of the women that my Mum is, I’ll be proud.”
Like thousands of women in the villages clustered around the pit heads of South Yorkshire, June found herself caught up in the events of 1984-85, “the wives ran a soup kitchen every day at the Miners’ Welfare Hall in Elsecar. Lots of local people and companies used to make donations. My eldest daughter got married during the strike and I remember that it was the only wedding I’ve ever been to, where everything got eaten. Not a thing was left!
“People from all around had heard about the wedding and a swarm of children came knocking on the door, ‘Mrs Walker, can we have a sandwich?’ It ended up being a community wedding. They knew I wouldn’t say no to them.”
June wrote about the experiences of women in the strike in the small booklet below, “the wives aren’t often spoken about, but they were the ones who stood behind their husbands and supported them.”
Much mythologising has been made of the story of the strike in the intervening decades. This however is the story of real people, who experienced the day to day reality of the strike, from all points of view. It is important that these stories are told and that the voices of ordinary people are remembered.
A Miners’ Wife’s Struggle in 1984/85
Let me take you on a journey. I want you to close your eyes, use your imagination and let your mind wonder. All set?
You are at the pit top waiting to get into a cage, which will plummet you down into the bowels of the earth. When you alight from the cage it is pitch black. You have a small light on your helmet and you get accustomed to the dark. You may have to crawl on your belly as sometimes the height of the passage is only eighteen inches. When you arrive at the face, you start your shift cutting coal.
You need the toilet but there isn’t one, so you make a hole in the ground and your mates hope you didn’t have a bad curry on Sunday night. There is no washroom in which to wash your hands. It is time for your fifteen minutes break, but there is not canteen so you sit on the floor to eat your sandwich. You throw away the last piece as it is covered in coal dust and the mice come to eat it.
You drank your water and now need a smoke, but it is instant dismissal if you are caught with a cigarette. The reason is METHANE GAS. You cannot smell it but it could be all around you. You cannot escape, there is no place to run.
Now take a minute, open your eyes and remember as you come home from work and relax in front of the fire, remember the miner’s shift starts all over again, so he can keep you and your family warm.
The strike begins
I am a miner’s wife and my children are miner’s children. A typical day starts with my husband getting up at 4.30am and going out to work. I get up at 7.00am, put the kettle on and get the children up. I set off at 8.30am to go to work at a local grocer’s store. Come the weekend, my eldest daughter and I continue planning her wedding, to take place in June. I also work as a barmaid at the local working men’s club in Elsecar.
Twelve months before the strike began, the NCB had closed twenty three pits and destroyed 21,000 jobs. Then they closed Cortonwood, they said it was good for another five years, but closed it after five weeks. The pithead baths had only just been refurbished, as they took miners from other pits. The closure of one pit was neither through exhaustion nor even economics, but at the whim of an area director.
Then suddenly it was no rumour, on 4thMarch 1984 the strike began. No one had expected that it would last a year. It was the darkest time of my life and for thousands of other miners’ wives too.
For the first two weeks the younger women were subdued, not knowing what to expect. The older women had been there before and started helping the young ones the best way to go about things. Another two weeks went by and the women were no longer subdued but angry. They spoke at the school gates and went to friend’s houses and talked about things they could do. Everyone was having difficulties with a lack of money, especially as the school holidays were coming up and there would be no free school dinners to rely on.
The anger turned to moans, but some women said, “to hell with Margaret Thatcher, she isn’t telling me and my hubby what to do.” They got together at church halls and local working men’s clubs, the motto was ‘Stand by Your Man’ and the men were proud of their women folk. They set up stalls in the local market square selling bric-a-brac, with a discreetly placed tin for donations. Very soon people were leaving tinned goods and packets of dried foods.
Some women worked in groups in their homes making banners and leaflets, some did nothing. They were the ones who grumbled the most, saying that nobody had it as bad as them. We ignored them and started organising soup kitchens, some of us collected clothing and gave it to mothers with children. Some women joined their husbands on the picket lines, many were arrested and taken to the local police station.
The hardest battle
Thatcher was determined that the miners would not win this strike and began to concentrate on the Nottinghamshire miners. We heard through the grapevine that she was offering them the moon and no pit closures. Some were eager to go back to work and said that Scargill should have had a vote. Other miners followed suit and slowly more drifted back thinking that Thatcher would keep her word. These miners were called ‘scabs’.
Children who had been friends before now got into fights because their Dad was called a scab, even though they didn’t know what it meant. My next-door neighbour had his windows smashed; afterwards I thought that if the pickets had got the door number wrong, it could have been my house. My son’s father-in-law was thrown into the local canal, he wasn’t a scab but was a pit deputy in the NACODS union and he worked to keep the pit from flooding, making sure that all of the safety work was carried out. Long standing friends became enemies and new friendships were formed due to the situation we were all in.
Christmas was coming up and the wives had no money. The gas, electric and rent were put on hold, but money was still tight. The older children understood a bit, but still resented their father and blamed him for a bad Christmas. The younger children soon got over it.
My sympathies went to the families who like my husband and two single sons, were told by the DSS that they had put themselves out of work and were not entitled to any benefits at all. I cashed in my insurance policies, losing a lot of money into the bargain. I was told later that I could have frozen my accounts, but it would have cost the insurance company, so even they took advantage of the miners.
Numbers at the Ladies Night held on a Tuesday were dwindling and some wives whose husbands were called scabs did not come at all. But with four or five children to feed, who am I to judge. I thought this was the hardest battle to fight, shunned by life-long friends, family and society, a lot of miners left the district, leaving their families behind and have never returned to their roots.
Miners Wives’ Experiences
Now let me tell you about some women who wrote about their experiences.
Note left inside a book called Women Against Pit Closures, author unknown.
I enclose a fiver towards your strike fund. Don’t lose heart, don’t give up the fight and while you’re at it, smash the Tories.
Ann of Worsboro
A miner’s wife was holding a banner; she was knocked to the ground, I was stunned when the police laid into the lass. She was the fox, they were the hounds. They said they were doing their duty, but to me they went far beyond the call of duty. That same day four women were arrested at Silver Hill Pit, all because the men wanted coal not dole.
Lisa and Anne, Monk Bretton
This is a true story written by my daughter Lisa.
One night before my dad was gong picketing as he was taking me to bed, he said, “when I get back tomorrow, I will take you and our Neil for a nice bike ride.” But I didn’t get to go on one because my dad got arrested. I waited all day and he did not come. It was half past four when a police car came and told my mum he had been arrested, she asked why and the police said he was walking on the causeway. I did not understand and my mum did not either. By the time my dad got home I was in bed. By Lisa Tones (9yrs).
It goes to show that when a dad doesn’t come home when expected it is really upsetting, because she didn’t understand why her dad was arrested for walking on the causeway and doing nothing. I told her he was a miner and that was enough.
Christine and Glyns, Hoyland (from Women Against Pit Closures, 1984)
If someone had said six months ago that we could do something like this, we would have laughed in their faces. But it is marvellous what mutual hardship can bring out in people, we have emerged stronger and more determined as a group and strengthened as a community.
The Great Strike
The miners were defeated. It was not their fault, the Coal Board’s Industrial Relations Director Ned Smith, told Channel 4 News on 4thFebruary 1985. It was not the failure to bring out the Nottingham miners, but the failure of the TUC to stop what the miners called ‘blacklegs’. They were the men who delivered coal and coke to the coking ovens. Men like Norman Willis of the TUC and David Basnett of the General and Municipal Boilermakers Union didn’t stand behind the miners and Labour leader Neil Kinnock dillied and dallied and seemed to sit on the fence. It was a shattering blow to the miners that their own Labour candidate was not one hundred percent behind them. It was a tragedy and a repeat of the crime which happened in the 1926 strike, when the unions of that era betrayed the miners and other industries.
Margaret Thatcher and the Tory government exploited the situation and mobilised all the forces of the state to crush the miners. Villages were invaded and occupied by the Metropolitan Police, nicknamed ‘White Shirts’ by the miners. When they came up from the south, they closed Brampton Junior School so that the police could use it as a place to live and sleep. They used to torment the miners by flashing their money about, letting them know how the overtime hours were doubling their wages and more.
The trouble at Orgreave was getting out of hand. The police were now using their riot gear, which consisted of truncheons, helmets with visors and shields. They were also using mounted police. On the 18thJuly pickets trying to stop the lorries taking the coal out clashed with the police. The command was given to start the horses at a trot, but everything became a shambles and a horrendous fight broke out. The miners were defenceless, so ran from the horses in all directions. The carnage was unbelievable and was broadcast on both the BBC and Channel 4, so they could not argue with the cameras.
The following poem was written about events at Orgreave and is a true tale.
The One in Red
Are you ready lads? All in line?
My, how your plastic shields do shine!
Ready for the signal?
Get as many as you can.
The weathers really lovely,
it’s brought them out today.
Truncheons at the ready to keep Arthur’s thugs at bay.
So the day at Orgreave started, everyone alert,
but they didn’t bargain for the one in the red shirt.
Stuck out like sore thumb, he did,
they jumped on him, he flinched,
down he went still fighting,
but they chucked him in the van with the others,
now they’d got their load,
and he went to the hospital down the road.
They sent for his wife, they usually do,
she came running. She looked worried,
She couldn’t see him anywhere,
“Look beside you” the nurse said, “he’s there.”
Standing in the ward,
surrounded by beds,
The nurse pointed to one, his body in shreds.
The wife gasped, she screamed,
she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“How could they do it? It’s lies, all lies,
you’re not alright, they said you were!”
His face was bloated like a balloon,
his arms in plaster, his legs black and blue,
he couldn’t speak; she’d nothing to say,
the shock was so hurtful, she could only pray,
she went every day, his swellings decreased.
He came home finally, to everyone’s delight,
he was all too willing to go on,
but he couldn’t fight.
He could only shuffle about,
no more picket lines for him,
he could only watch and wait,
What could he do? What was his fate?
His mates came to see him,
and kept him up to date,
of the fighting and the riots.
Then it was all over,
everyone back to work,
but not he, he couldn’t think straight,
his leg wouldn’t heal,
his back still hurt,
and all because he wore a red shirt.
This is a questionnaire I asked two ex-miners’ wives. The first candidate was 23 years old at the time of the strike.
What was your highest point?
It was when my husband first came out on strike, I had just found out I was pregnant and suffering with morning sickness, which lasted all day. He helped with our other son and having him around was a bonus. Never in my wildest dreams did I realise that it would last for 12 months.
What was your lowest point?
That was when my second son was born on November 4th1984, because most of our friends and family were in the coal industry. Knowing that Christmas was around the corner, people did not have the spare money to buy gifts for friends. I had more disposable nappies that would last me a lifetime, but it still took the shine off his birth and I feel that we can never get that back.
Who do you think was to blame?
A lot of people, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock did nothing for us, he seemed to sit on the fence. Other unions, Margaret Thatcher and her cronies, plus Ian Macgregor, even some miners for not sticking together and seeing it through. Newspapers for not telling the whole truth, television even for distorting the truth and let people think it was all the miners. Even the police made it worse.
Would you do it again?
No, I don’t think so. Towards the end of the strike my husband became quieter, withdrawn a little, we never seemed to have a conversation. The only time he let off steam was when he saw other miners, talking about who was to blame and when it was going to end.
If not why?
I think at the beginning, everything was new and I had never been involved in a strike before. We the miners wives used to go to the WMC where our husbands were members, we played bingo, put our money into our savings account to organise days out, Christmas parties, a trip to the pantomime for the children, but it took money. As the year went on and the members dwindled, no one had any money to spare. Some members kept away as their husbands were scabs and I lost a lot of friends, because your husband fell out with them big time. There was a lot of tension, my husband began to think he was useless for not being able to provide. Some miners left the district. Would I do it again? Never, ever, ever!
How do you feel about the strike now after 23 years?
I still feel betrayed, let down by the government and unions. I don’t vote anymore, I go to the polling stations but no one gets my vote. I now work full time, my husband works for the Royal Mail, but he would like to know how much of the miners’ pension is still left, now that the government has taken it over. It was worth a billion pounds. Now I could not care less about what it happening today, my worries are my family, husband and children and nobody else. The government broke the mining industry as we knew it.
The second ex-miner’s wife was 44 years old when the strike began.
What was your highest point?
My highest point was when I came home from work and my husband had cleaned and polished, and also cooked dinner. It was lovely!
What was your lowest point?
It was when I was laid off work at the beginning of December 1984. I worked at the local butchers but his business was not doing well. So we had no money at all, because we had no children the DSS were long winded at seeing to my claim. They made me feel like I was begging, just because we didn’t have any dependents.
Who do you think was to blame?
Margaret Thatcher was to blame. She didn’t want the union to defeat her like they did Edward Heath, so she fetched in that Scots man Ian Macgregor, who had sorted out the steel works. Also the Nottingham Miners who went back to work on promises that were never kept. Tough!
Would you do it again?
No I wouldn’t. I had my life turned upside down like thousands of others, just because my husband wanted to keep his job and not go on the dole. He never went back to work, even though we had no money. It was very hard.
If not why?
I lost a lot of so called friends, but not because of the usual things. I had no children, so a lot of women thought I had no money worries, especially at the beginning when I was working. That is why I couldn’t go through it again. Apparently my friends didn’t think as much about me as I did about them. It was heart breaking.
How do you feel about the strike now after 23 years?
The years after the strike have made me a lonely woman. I do not have any friends at all. New people have moved into the district, I do not know them very well, nor do I wish to do so. The strike has still affected me as regards making new friends. My husband has a new job, but cannot wait until next year when he retires.
On closing my essay, I am in the Michael Barratt Brown Seminar Room. I am thinking about the Scottish miners who came down to help the Yorkshire lads (I hope that Longshanks doesn’t turn over in his grave), I stayed in the library and slept on the floor. Looking at the wall in front of me are photographs depicting scenes from the miners’ strike. Also in the crush hall, decorating the walls are the banners from nine pits given to the college to keep alive their memories, even the NUM cannot claim them.
On entering the building Owen 1, looking around the room were photographs of local mines and straight away I spotted the pit where my husband had worked for 36 years. Elsecar Main Colliery and it brought back bitter sweet memories.
One was before they set off to go to the pit top, they had to stop at the lamp room and collect their helmet and lamp, that had been left there the night before to be charged up. They handed over a disc with their name and number which was returned at the end of their shift when they handed back their helmet. This procedure was first and foremost because if there was an accident down the mine, they would know who was still down there by reading the names on the discs. It worked 100%! They would also take a Davy Lamp (named after the man who invented it), designed to detect gasses. It also worked 100%!
The miners go back to work and the strike has ended in more ways than one. It is the end of friendships; break up of families and communities in the surrounding areas. After all they had been to one another, the men who were called scabs left the district and never returned. Even now after 23 years, there is no camaraderie left, the women do not trust each other like they did before. The government has tried to help the communities they destroyed by opening projects such as Sure Start, but the people who attend are not miners’ wives, they are a new generation of wives and children who have only read about the Miners’ Strike. There are grandparents out there who could tell a lot of stories, how they were in the thick of things, sharing with their husbands, first-hand about picket lines, being arrested and women writing about their experiences to prove to the government and the rest of society how they were 100% behind their men.
On visiting an older peoples’ community centre, some ex-miners’ wives and mothers told me their tales about the strike. Some good, some bad.
First lady:the strike finished my husband, he was on the picket line with his mates but he was arrested, taken to court and fined. He then had a record and afterwards no one would give him a job. He died about ten years ago of a heart attack, brought on early by stress and worry. Where are his mates now? Nobody wants to know.
Second lady:my son and grandson were both miners, but to me it was wonderful to see the changes after the strike that made my grandson change for the better. He has gone down a different path that has given him a new lease of life. So in a way I was glad of the strike, it has got him out of that black hole for good. My son got a job in a plastic factory, the pay is nothing to write home about, but with his redundancy, he makes out alright.
Third lady:the strike has ruined my life. My husband and son fell out because he has three sons to care for and could not bear to see them suffer. So he went back to work and was called a scab, but to me that was the hardest thing to do. He and his father had a huge row and he left with his family to start a new life in Australia. We have had no contact since, so I lost a son, daughter-in-law and three grandsons.
These interviews were many and varied. The chosen three were completely different, but all tied up to the same cause, which was the miners’ wives struggle in 1984/85.
Although the miners were outnumbered and lost the battle, also losing close friends, their trust in the government, unions and especially politicians, in the eyes of the miners’ wives, they did not lose their dignity. Even though they have erased the pits as though they did not exist, they cannot erase memories, they will be passed down for years to come.