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The Women, Men, and Children of the 1984–85 UK Miners’ Strike

Robert Gildea

[T]here was something of a gender revolution. Miners’ wives had been transformed by the strike. They had been involved in setting up local support groups, which came together in Women Against Pit Closures. They learned to organise soup kitchens and the distribution of food parcels to striking families on a large scale. They stood on picket lines when their men had been arrested or were in danger of arrest. They became involved in fundraising, travelling to make speeches in support of the strike, meeting other trade unionists and left-wing groups that were hoping to promote it. They came into contact with middle-class feminists, learned a good deal from them, but developed a working-class feminism and broke with them when they felt patronised. The Welsh miners who met the London gays may not have been much affected, but their wives learned a great deal about sexuality and intimacy. It is often said that where the women wanted the men to stay out, they stayed out; where the women wanted them to go back to work, they went back. Women gained in experience and confidence and began to take a long, hard look at their marriages. Marriages had to evolve to take the strain, with the men happy to do child care if their wives had a public engagement. If the marriage could not bear it—and many did not—the women would move on and go back to education and better-qualified work without the men. The marriages that survived became more equal, and the men had to develop a new form of masculinity that was less macho and more caring. Very significant is the number of ex-miners who found work caring for old people, or children, or those with problems of mental health, alcoholism or drugs.

This brings us to the question of former mining communities. Given that there was so little government attempt at regeneration, and that what regeneration there was was so poor, communities had to be saved from the bottom up. It is significant that so many former miners and their wives went into professions that had a direct impact on their communities, weaving back together the social ties that had been pulled apart. In County Durham, for example, Mary Stratford became a probation officer, while Dorothy Wray, Peter Byrne and Kath Savory all became social workers. In Fife, meanwhile, a good batch of men—Sean Lee, Terry Ratcliffe, Peter McCutcheon—became carers of one sort or another. Expertise in welfare rights was developed by Pat Egan in Glenrothes, Anna Lawson in Consett and Darren Moore in Leicester, where his partner, Simone Dawes, worked with Rape Crisis.

Following a parallel line, many former miners and their families became involved in preserving the heritage of their communities. We have seen that there was a revival of banner making in the former pit villages of County Durham, which was part of what Dave Wray and Carol Stephenson called rebuilding them as ‘emotional communities’. Organisations such as Education 4 Action in Durham and Mine 2 Minds in Nottingham were set up to pass on the mining heritage to children who may well never have encountered a lump of coal. Finally, a small but significant number of miners and miners’ wives went into local politics—in Lochgelly, Cardenden and Benarty, Easington, Doncaster, Worksop and Neath—in order to deal with the challenge of redeeming their lost communities, while Siân James and Hywel Francis became MPs.

Generationally, we have seen that while some children in mining families were casualties or survivors of the strike and pit closures, others were their parents’ heirs and redeemers. Some went into teaching and either—like Dafydd Francis—returned to work in the former mining community or—even if they did not return, like Jude Bevan—encouraged thinking about it. In County Durham, Helen Stratford, a strike baby, trained as a GP and worked in former mining communities, dealing with both old miners’ lung diseases and the newer issues of alcoholism, drugs and obesity that haunted devastated former mining villages. In Benarty, Fife, a group of miners’ children set up local fundraising and events organisations in order to help struggling local families; organise galas and concerts; and celebrate the history and culture of the local community.

Politically, former mining families, particularly in Fife, County Durham and South Wales, were by no means typical examples of a ‘Red Wall’ that crumbled into Brexit and voted for the Conservatives in the 2019 election. Kath Savory in County Durham voted Leave ‘because it would be wonderful if we could have our country back again and have all those things’. She thought of voting in Boris Johnson ‘because he seemed to offer more’, but then she heard the voice of her dead miner father and ‘at the last minute I changed my mind and voted Labour. Because I could hear my dad, “You better vote Labour. You cannot vote anything else.” So I voted Labour.’1 Meanwhile, Yorkshire miner Paul Winter, who had been at Orgreave, concluded that the British public had been taken in by the lies and illusion spun around Brexit:

Brexit fetched all them people out who don’t vote and were pillocked by a narrative, ‘Let’s get rid of all immigrants, let’s put Britain first,’ and then three words that Boris said, ‘Get Brexit done,’ and it won him an election. He hadn’t a policy, he hadn’t a manifesto, he hadn’t got a fucking clue, hadn’t Boris Johnson, but he said, ‘Get Brexit done,’ and he won an election and Corbyn lost. I can’t believe that the public got pillocked like that, but they did.2

The Miners’ Strike of 1984–85 still matters, forty years on. Admittedly, the coal industry does not have a good press in an era of climate crisis generated by fossil fuels. The authorisation of a new coal mine in Cumbria by the Conservative government in December 2022 met with widespread criticism on account of its effect on climate change targets. It may have been a challenge to the question of levelling up communities that were hollowed out by pit closures decades ago and that remain devastated; but a much more ambitious programme of levelling up post-industrial areas of the country is needed more urgently than ever. The question of the state’s brutal suppression of the strike has been answered in part by Scotland, thanks to its devolved administration, and a pardon has been issued to miners who were unjustly convicted. In England and Wales, however, where an independent inquiry into what happened at Orgreave was refused by the Home Office in 2016, this question remains to be dealt with, and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is still live. Lastly, the breakdown of the neo-liberal project based on globalisation, privatisation, casualisation and immiseration has come up against the cost-of-living crisis and has provoked a series of strikes in 2022–23 not seen since the last century. The Miners’ Strike and the voices of the men and women who sustained it for a year can offer guidance and hope.

1. Interview with Kath Savory, Chester-le-Street, 13 Sept. 2020.

2. Interview with Paul and Adam Winter, Huddersfield, 23 Oct. 2021.

From Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85 by Robert Gildea. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Robert Gildea is professor emeritus of modern history at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Fighters in the ShadowsEmpires of the Mind, and the Wolfson Prize–winning Marianne in Chains.

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