Call for women’s stories from the Miners’ Strike

Easington miners return to work in March 1985.
Easington miners return to work in March 1985.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the bitterest political battle of modern times. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner remembers the Miners’ Strike.

THE 30th anniversary of the end of the Miners’ Strike has sparked an appeal for help by an East Durham playwright - whose latest work is inspired by the conflict.

Rachael Black, an actress and writer from Peterlee, plans to document the contribution of wives and mothers during the 1984/5 struggle in her new play - The Ironing Ladies.

The 25-year-old, who is currently rehearsing for a show at London’s Tricycle Theatre, is also hoping to study the legacy of the strike on later generations in ex-mining communities.

But first she is appealing to Wearside Echoes readers to come forward and share their strike stories - from running soup kitchens, to talking at rallies and taking part on the picket lines.

“I became sick of seeing so many plays, films and articles on Margaret Thatcher, so I decided to write about the lives of the women on the other side of the strike,” she said.

RETURN: Easington miners return to work in March 1985.

RETURN: Easington miners return to work in March 1985.

“I come from a mining background; both my grandfathers were miners. I don’t want to glamourise the strike, I want to tell it how it was - which is why I need people’s memories.”

Father was set against son, neighbour against neighbour and child against classmate as miners downed tools nationwide in March 1984 to fight for their futures - and their pits.

Today, a full three decades on, all of the collieries of old County Durham have gone. Parks, houses and even SAFC’s Stadium of Light now stand where men once toiled underground.

“The strike was all about fighting for jobs and communities,” said Rachael. “The collieries were at the hearts and souls of villages across the North East, but now they have all gone.

I don’t want to glamourise the strike, I want to tell it how it was - which is why I need people’s memories.

“I was born four years after the strike ended, but my grandad - who worked at Horden pit - told me all about it. He spent the year on strike, and then his colliery closed two years later.”

It was a statement by National Coal Board head Ian MacGregor which sparked the first unrest in 1984 – when he announced plans to close 20 pits, with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

The move, it was claimed, had been made to “rationalise government subsidisation of the industry,” but it left the North East’s mining communities facing savage cuts.

Indeed, the hardest hit pits included Horden - where Rachael’s grandfather Tom Russell worked - which stood to lose 500 jobs. Other facing cuts included Murton and Eppleton.

WORKMEN: Easington miners return to work in March 1985.

WORKMEN: Easington miners return to work in March 1985.

Action was immediate. As the news sparked widespread fears, so men downed tools. A national strike was called on March 12, with most collieries grinding to an immediate halt.

“The Durham Coalfield was at a standstill today, as mass picketings brought the only pit still trying to work - Dawdon Colliery - to a halt,” reported the Echo on March 13, 1984.

But, although the miners had high hopes of success at the start of the strike, the days and weeks without pay soon stretched to months. Bills piled up, and mortages went unpaid.

Soup kitchens sprang up across the North East and, as colliery wives rallied to help out their friends and families, so hardship funds were launched and protests held across Britain.

“I was originally from Horden, although my family moved to Peterlee when I was seven. Even though it was several years on, people still talked about the strike,” said Rachael. “I don’t always write about the North East, but just felt I wanted to write about the strike - especially the women involved and the legacy - if any - they left to my generation.

“Mining is very much in my blood. I want to write a play that is not romanticised, but is very true to what happened - an honest portrayal of the hardships faced by women that year. And for that. I need people’s help.”

MARCHING ON: Members of Eppleton Miners Wives Support Group display their banner in a parade in April 1985.

MARCHING ON: Members of Eppleton Miners Wives Support Group display their banner in a parade in April 1985.

As the strike dragged, so poverty became rife. The majority of North East pitmen – 95.5 per cent – opted to remain out on strike, but there was far less enthusiastic support elsewhere.

Indeed, as 1985 dawned, more and more miners returned to work. The official end to the strike came on March 3, but many pits - including three local ones - were already working.

“Today nothing remains of the pits our miners and their families fought to keep, but at least we can remember them through this play,” said Rachael.

“That is why I’d like to hear from as many people as possible.”

l Rachael can be contacted via email at: theironingladies@yahoo.co.uk

Timeline of the dispute:

Mar 12: Miners across UK downed tools after cuts announced by National Coal Board.

Mar 13: Miners attempting to start shifts at Dawdon Colliery were forced back by pickets. Mar 14: Seaham Colliery “fell to the strike call”.

Mar 14: Violent picketing in Nottinghamshire left one man dead.

Mar 15: Every colliery in the North East was at a standstill.

Mar 20: Flying pickets from Easington Colliery targeted Haig Colliery in Cumbria.

Mar 21: Dawdon miners voted by a “massive majority” to join the strike.

Mar 23: A police watch was mounted on the NUM’s headquarters in Durham.

Apr 9: 100 pickets arrested during clashes at pits in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Apr 10: Margaret Thatcher rejected claims of heavy-handed police handling of pickets.

Apr 11: Senior North East churchmen backed the miners in their fight.

Apr 12: Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill ruled out a national ballot on continuing the strike.

Apr 19: Calls for a national ballot rejected by NUM delegates.

May 7: Easington MP Jack Dormand appealed to non-striking miners to join the action.

May 9: Miners from Durham travelled to Scotland to picket Ravenscraig steel plan.

Jun 6: Sunderland Borough Council was asked to set up a £100,000 hardship fund.

Jul 14: A “cut price” Miners’ Gala was held in Durham, featuring Arthur Scargill.

Jul 19: Margaret Thatcher referred to striking miners as “the enemy within.”

Aug: The NCB offered to withdraw immediate closure plans for the collieries.

Sept 28: The strike was ruled as unlawful – because a union ballot was never held.

Mar 3, 1985: The official end of the strike – although many pits were already working.