The women of the coalfields have been described as a sleeping giant, roused to action by the threat to their communities and their children's future. Singing, shouting, rattling tins and waving banners, they threw their weight behind the strike.
Their role was crucial in sustaining the strike, in feeding and clothing their people, in keeping up morale and building a sense of community. At the same time, almost without realising it, they found themselves writing a new chapter in the history of women's struggle.
From about three or four weeks into the strike, people started to realise that it was going to be a long one. Women in the villages – relatives, neighbours and friends – started talking among themselves. In some areas, women had already come together over local issues – in Derbyshire women had campaigned for Tony Benn's election, while in Durham women were already involved in the SEAM campaign – so the basis of support groups was already there. Soon miners' wives' support groups were starting up throughout the length and breadth of Britain. There was no centralized directive or overall plan – just groups of women meeting in each others' front rooms with a common purpose: 'We must do something to help our community survive.'
Often it was the plight of the single miners which first prompted the women into action. After just two or three weeks with no income whatsoever, many of them were in a sorry state. There were tales of lads surviving on a diet of bar snacks and fainting on picket lines. Families were little better off; a married couple with two children were entitled to just £11.74 a week benefit to live on (a similar couple not on strike would be getting £48.25 a week – the official government 'poverty line').
The government having prepared its ground by passing a law whereby £15 was deducted from any benefit paid to a striker's family – the amount of pay he was 'deemed' to be getting, even though everyone knew full well that the miners got nothing, and indeed the union's funds were soon to be sequestrated anyway. The saddest cases were the families where both husband and wife worked for the NCB. The hard-heartedness of a government that would see children starve in pursuit of its policies only made the women all the more determined.
There is no doubt that without their magnificent effort, and the generosity and hard work of miners' support groups throughout Britain and overseas, the miners would have been starved back within a few weeks. Trades unions both at home and abroad, the Labour Party and other socialist organisations, community and ethnic groups, lesbian and gay groups, and millions of individuals rallied to the miners' cause. Little groups of people plastered with bright yellow stickers rattling collecting tins became a regular feature in almost every town, (as were the men in blue moving them on or arresting them, with an astonishing grasp of legal complexity "you can hold that tin, but not shake it", "you must seal it with sellotape, not a rubber band", "you can't put your toes over that line".
Street collections were never a popular activity. There was always someone who would give you an earful of abuse – but they were the essential lifeline of the support groups. And people's generosity often brought tears to the eyes – from the old age pensioner who pulled out a crumpled pound from her purse, which everyone could see was all she had, to the one of the young woman who wrote a cheque for £100. As well as street collections, the support groups organised a constant programme of fundraising activities, from concerts and socials to jumble sales and coffee mornings. Everything that could be was auctioned, sold or raffled, everything that moved was sponsored – walks, bed-pushes, swims, crawls, strips. Somebody even had a sponsored wedding.
The women of the mining communities took on the task of turning the money into food and getting it through to those who needed it. Some groups set up food kitchens and cooked regularly, hot meals for hundreds of people. Other groups bulk-bought essential foods and distributed them in a weekly food parcel to miners in their area. The reasons why a group would do one or the other where largely a matter of chance – geography, transport, the existence of a convenient church hall and a friendly vicar could make all the difference.
There were advantages and disadvantages to both. Some people felt the kitchens would be too like the 'soup kitchens' of the '30s, with their dreadful stigma of poverty; and they thought people would be too proud to use them, and would prefer to prepare their own food at home. Also, a food parcel service was less demanding in terms of time, and left people free for other activities. However, the kitchens had the added advantage of acting as a focus for the community, and providing warmth, comradeship and information as well as food. But they were very hard work – often catering for hundreds with facilities more primitive than those of an ordinary domestic kitchen – and they left the women exhausted.
Dot Whitworth, a miner's wife, worked at the Kellingley kitchen, one of the largest in Yorkshire producing around 400 meals a day, and she describes the punishing daily routine:
"The women work the kitchen in two shifts. I come down with the other girls for the morning shift, at about 7.20 am. Then the pickets start coming in for their breakfasts – we give them a fry-up with eggs, or sausages, beans or tomato, depending on what we've got.
When they've gone, we get cleaned up, and about 9 am I go down to the shops for bread and milk. The others start preparing the veg for the dinners.
About 11 am the lads come in to get their flasks filled up and have a hot drink before they go on local pickets.
Soon after that, people start coming in for their dinners -families with kids as well as pickets. We never turn anybody away. It's all a mad rush until about 1.30. Then the women sit down and have their lunches before they go off, and the afternoon shift arrives.
The six women on the afternoon shift come in about 1 o'clock. They help with the clearing up, and start preparing for teas.
The children often come in straight from school – sometimes they meet their parents down here – and we give them potatoes, fish or meat burger – something like that. We only have one large cooker so we can't go in for anything elaborate. In fact the kitchen is just a portakabin tacked onto the back of the club hall. We try to do meals that are cheap but nourishing – we don't have the cash or the kitchen-staff to do puddings for example.
From about 5 pm the pickets come in if we are still serving they'll have a dinner, and they'll have a hot drink and get their flasks filled. At 6.30 the women go home, and then the men take over. They wash up and clean and mop the tables, floor and stairs. It's quiet then until about 11 PM when the night pickets come in, and round about 12 the evening pickets come back.
As you can see, it's very hard work, but I must say, we do get a lot of help from the men. They help with the cleaning and washing up, with preparing the veg, and with all the carrying. My husband's always been quite good around the house, but there are other men who've done things in this strike they'd never done before. I don't know if they'll carry on after the strike, though. One of the men always says, 'If I see another sausage after this strike's over, I shall throw it at my wife.'
I work on the tea counter, and that's nice because I get to talk to all the lads when they come in. They laugh and joke, and it's wonderful to see their morale so high. They really make us feel they appreciate what we're doing, and that makes it all worth while. I'd do it over again."
It is impossible to generalise about the miners' support groups – each one was unique. There were groups like the one at Kellingley, serving 400 meals a day, and there were tiny groups of two or three women giving out a weekly food parcel in little remote villages. In South Wales, the groups organised down a valley, bringing together all the pits and villages in that valley in a co-operative effort. Here, as in other parts of the country, the union men were strongly involved in the local support work. But in other places where pits had closed and men had been transferred people were travelling long distances to picket and there was therefore no link between a single pit union branch and the local community.
The women of the village thus had to organise independently of the union on behalf of all the miners in the villages wherever they worked. The village of Upton in Yorkshire was a typical example of this. It was called the 'village with thirteen pits' because after the local pit was closed the miners were transferred to no fewer than thirteen other Yorkshire pits. Their food kitchen, organised by the women in the welfare club, once more brought together the men who had been separated from each other after their pit had closed.
The support groups also played a very important role in the villages of the new Selby coalfield, bringing people together and creating a sense of community in an area where few of the mining families had been settled for long enough to feel at home. The fact that all Women Against Pit Closures groups were able to develop according to the local needs of their area was one of the great strengths of the movement. This was helped by the fact that it soon became clear that all the groups also had a lot of common experiences, and much they could share.
The first time all the groups came together was at the Barnsley rally on May 12th 1984, and for those who were there it is still remembered as one of the high points of the strike. Some 10,000 women marched through Barnsley on a crisp, sunny day, to congregate at the Civic Hall. Sheila Capstick and Jean Blackburn, two miners' wives wrote:
'Crowds lined the street corners, people waving and applauding. Behind our group the women from South Wales kept bursting into song, making some of us feel alternately elated and tearful – familiar tunes sung in unfamiliar language but recognisable as songs of working people.
As we filed up the stairs into the Civic Hall all you could see were thousands of heads and above them banners waving from side to side. The colours were magnificent. Many of the T-shirts carried slogans which mentioned specific pits. It was as if the women were saying 'this is the pit I'm from and I'm proud of it'.
As people started to file onto the platform the hail filled with women chanting 'We will win, we will win, we will win.'
Each speaker had to wait for the audience to recover and the women's voices rang round and round the hall. It is not often that the National President of the NUM is unable to make himself heard – but Arthur Scargill had to wait a full ten minutes before the crescendo of singing and chanting began to subside. As he was speaking spontaneous singing broke out from the floor a few time and he had to pause and wait.
At about three thirty the rally ended and I made my way back to the car. There was a lot to remember. I knew that I had seen something remarkable and it had given me more strength than I knew I had. Things would never be the same again.'
In July, the NUM allowed the women from the Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures group to use a room at the NUM's Sheffield headquarters to answer queries and develop national and international contacts. On 22nd July the first National Conference of Women Against Pit Closures was held at Northern College, near Barnsley. Women came to the conference from each coalfield area, to hammer out a programme for the future.
The conference drew up plans for a national WAPC rally in London in August, and for a petition from the women of the mining communities to be handed in to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
On August 11th, some 20,000 women and children descended on London in fleets of coaches plastered with posters and stickers. It was an exciting occasion especially for the women who had never been to London before, but also a very tiring one, as the march turned out to be much longer than expected. We marched through the centre of London past Downing Street – where everybody walked in silence and some scattered black flowers in the road – and the House of Commons, down to the Elephant and Castle where a giant 'cheque' was presented at the DHSS office, then on to a rally at Burgess Park, Camberwell.
Just as successful in their own way were the many local marches and rallies that took place in the coalfield areas, and the women's support groups were always there, with their own homemade banners and their collecting tins
The national conference
On November 10th and 11th, a special delegate conference met at Chesterfield to draw up the aims of the National Women Against Pit Closures:
(1) to ensure victory to the NUM in their present struggle to prevent pit closures and protect mining communities for the future;
(2) to further strengthen the organisation of women's groups which has been built up during the 1984 miners' strike;
(3) to establish a national women's organisation in all areas;
(4) to develop a relationship between the NUM and the women's organisation at all levels;
(5) to campaign on issues that affect mining communities, particularly peace, jobs, health and education;
(6) to promote working class education for women;
(7) to publicise all the activities of the National Women's Organisation at all levels.
With autumn came the first scabs in several areas which had been solid up to then, and pickets started to concentrate on their own pits, while also keeping up a presence in Notts. Women in Notts and the Derbyshire and Yorkshire areas closest to the Notts coalfield already had considerable experience of picketing. But for the majority of women, their first experience was of standing on picket lines outside their own local pit, and shouting at men who had been receiving food from them only a week ago. It was a bitter experience. With the strike breakers came their police escorts, thousands of them, bringing fear and violence in their wake.
Winter came early in 1984. By November it was already bitterly cold, and while people welcomed the cold dark nights for the pressure they put on the coal stocks, it was no fun going back to a freezing house, especially if you didn't even have 50 pence for the electricity meter. Summer clothes were outworn, and there was no money for new ones. All the pickets had holes in their shoes. Children's clothes and shoes were a particular problem, for, in spite of everything, the children had carried on growing! Whereas in the past, jumble had been collected and sold to buy food, now it was laid out for people to help themselves, and men's shoes were always the first to go. The jumble which was shipped in from overseas was especially prized, being of a very high quality – in fact there are still many fancy coats and boots being worn around the coalfields which their owners will tell you, with a smile, came from supporters in West Germany.
The Labour-controlled councils in the coalfield areas deserve a special word of praise for their discreet and often unrecognised help to the strikers and their families. Rules were stretched to the limit and sometimes were broken to provide free school meals during holidays as well as school days, 'Section One' help to families with children, clothing grants, and even Christmas toys. It made a great difference, as those unfortunate to live in Tory-controlled areas found to their cost. An example of this can be seen by the fact that one little girl was sent home from school by her headmaster because she did not have a regulation pair of brown shoes – despite the fact that all her mother could afford was plastic jelly-bean shoes, and they didn't make them in brown. Her local council said it was not their policy to give grants for school clothes, and suggested she tell her husband to go back to work. The little girl had to stay off school until a pair of brown shoes the right size turned up in a bag of jumble.
As Christmas approached, with no sign of an end to the dispute, people began to feel nervous, especially about how they would explain to the children that they would not be getting so much that year. A special word of praise is due to the children of the mining communities – they went without such a lot, and complained so little. In the event, we need not have worried. Lorry loads of toys started to arrive, from France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and from support groups all over Britain.
More important than toys and parties, though, were the warmth and togetherness of the community at Christmas.
The miners' support groups, who had already done a magnificent job of financial and moral support all through the strike, really went to town at Christmas. As well as toys and seasonal foods, they were able to provide for Christmas parties in most communities. The national Women Against Pit Closures appeal brought in almost £½million and other individuals and unions made outstandingly generous donations. In fact many of the miners' families involved will say without hesitation: "We had the best Christmas of our lives."
After Christmas, with the weather still cold, many women spent more and more time alongside their menfolk on picket lines, trying to stem the steady flow of miners who were giving up the fight and returning to work. It was not a very happy time for them but the women played an important role in keeping morale up, with their singing and chanting, and organising social events.
With many miners' families now having no source of heating at home, the kitchens became more than ever a place where people came not just for a meal but to get warm, and to escape isolation. Inevitably in those close communities, many of the scabs were neighbours, relatives or former friends, and added to the general material hardship which people suffered was the hardship of losing people to whom one had been close, and who could never be close again.
As history now records, on March 5th the miners who had stayed loyal to the NUM marched back to work behind their banners. With them were the women who had sustained them through the strike. Heads were held high, but many had tears in their eyes. As one miner's wife said: "I feel as through someone close to me has died."
After the strike
However, underlying all the sadness was a new confidence on the part of the coalfield women. They saw so much still to do. They realised the knowledge, experience and strength gained through the strike had to be consolidated and carried forward.
First of all, the miners who had been victimized as a result of their activities during the strike had to be looked after. Many women's support groups carried on fundraising and campaigning on behalf of sacked and jailed miners and their families. In Scotland, for example, over 200 men had been sacked, and the Coal Board managers refused even to listen to any appeals.
Despite the setback of the NUM's June '85 decision not to offer miners' wives Associate Membership of the NUM, the union in Scotland has recognised this role in the strike and agreed to recognise women locally into Associate Membership, and women in other areas are hoping that their local NUM officials will follow suit. It must be said, however, that there are mixed feelings among the women on the question of Associate Membership; this is very much a reflection of the relationship built up between the women and their local NUM during the strike, as well as wider questions about the direction Women Against Pit Closures should take.
There can be no question, however, about the women's continuing commitment to defending their pits and their communities. When the EEC Energy Commission drew up plans to remove coal subsidies and increase coal imports, the women responded with a petition. When the NCB launched its divisive campaign in Notts and South Derbyshire, the women organised meetings and leaflets, and stood outside collieries to sign up men for the NUM. When the Coal Board announces pit closures, women in those communities are at the heart of the new closure campaign groups which are springing up all over the country.
Women were also finding more time to explore other political avenues. The strike brought home to many of them for the first time how much they have in common with other people fighting for peace and justice, both at home and abroad. Miners' wives have visited Greenham Common and other peace camps, have stood on picket lines with hospital workers, have helped wives of strikers at the Silentnight factories who organised food kitchens, have contacted women in South Africa, Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Many women and children from mining communities have travelled overseas as guests of workers' organisations in other countries. There was also been more time for reflection and developing some of the new ideas culled from the experiences of the past year. Women also started to write – histories, stories, poetry – and to join education classes and read and discuss, to argue more confidently, and to get involved in party politics.
Nationally, Women Against Pit Closures had a delegate structure with a National Committee that meet monthly. It was based at the NUM headquarters in Sheffield, and had a regular newsletter, 'Coalfield Women'. They held their first national conference in August 1986.
Further, in their own towns and villages, women who were active during the strike put their campaigning and organising skill to good use for the benefit of the whole community. Women joined fights against hospital closures, and for better local medical facilities. They had fund-raised for local charities, and for other groups in need.
In Llanhillieth, Gwent, the women's support group campaigned for a new Community Centre, to incorporate a day-centre, training workshops to help create new jobs in the area, and, last but not least, a crèche. In Castleford, Yorks, women were in the process of setting up a Women's Centre with the help of a County Council grant. In the North East, women's support groups linked up with peace groups and environmental groups to fight pit closures – and their replacement with a nuclear power plant. In Sherburn, North Yorks, women leafleted and campaigned during the local elections, and managed to win a previously safe Tory seat for Labour. These are just a few examples of the new directions the women's movement took.
Not all the women who were active during the strike are still involved. Hardship and demoralisation have taken their toll. Some families have had to sell their homes, and those women who had been able to find jobs were working to pay off massive debts. Many marriages went through a rough patch, and the relentless pressure by management on men in the collieries affected the whole family. But as people got their finances straightened out the old fighting spirit returned. For hundreds of women, the strike opened new doors, and there will be no going back.
This song which the women of the coalfields adopted as their own, and which was heard at marches, rallies, and concerts up and down the country says it all:
We are women, we are strong,
We are fighting for our lives
Side by side with our men
Who work the nation's mines,
United by the struggle,
United by the past,
And it's – Here we go! Here we go!
For the women of the working class.