women-graphicEpisode about the crucial role played by women in the great miners strike in Britain, 1984-5, in conversation with Heather Wood, chair of the Easington women’s strike support group.

Our patreon supporters enable us to make this podcast. You too can support us and get access to bonus audio and more here: patreon.com/workingclasshistory
This is our short video history of the miners’ strike: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOucUVz4AYw
This is a short history of Women Against Pit Closures, an umbrella group of miners’ wives and women supporting the strike: libcom.org/history/women-again…pit-closures-1984-5

FOOTNOTES
– Neil Kinnock – leader of the Labour Party at the time
– Tony Benn – a long-term left-wing Labour MP
– Greenham Common – a legendary women’s peace camp
– The book by local women was called The Last Coals of Spring and is currently out of print
– The 1926 general strike – this is a short history: libcom.org/history/articles/british-general-strike
– Battle of Orgreave – a mass picket of the Orgreave coking plant by miners was viciously attacked by huge numbers of police. Large numbers of miners were then arrested and charged with bogus crimes as a result, while the BBC was complicit by faking the sequence of events. There is a campaign for enquiry into the events here: otjc.org.uk/
– Arthur Scargill – the left-wing leader of the NUM
– Play in Manchester: Queens of the Coal Age, about a women’s occupation of a pit in 1993: www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jul/…t-for-the-mines
– Women’s banner group at the Durham Miners Gala article here: www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/local/n…iners__Gala/
– Keith Patterson’s photographs – see some referred to in this podcast here: www.theguardian.com/politics/galler…-85-david-peace
– Jack Dormand was the local Labour MP
– Peterloo – this was a massacre of protesting workers by British security forces in 1819, this is our episode about Peterloo: https://workingclasshistory.com/2018/11/07/e15-the-peterloo-massacre-with-mike-leigh/

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
– Speech recording courtesy of Amber Films and Can’t Beat it Alone. The full film in multiple parts can be seen at www.amber-online.com
– Intro music, and music during the podcast from the Kellingley Colliery Brass Band from www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnt1JqOJQqE
– Outro music is the Banwen miners marching band in Wales, playing during the march back to work after the end of the strike from www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGQtyj9t5BA
Edited by Jesse French

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Transcript

WCH:

In March 1984, coal miners in Britain walked out on strike against the pit closure plan of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. Miners’ wives and other women started support groups up and down the country which were instrumental in helping the workers hold out for nearly a year in an iconic dispute which changed Britain forever. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

WCH:

In today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about the crucial role women played in the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 and we are very pleased to be joined by Heather Wood, who was Chair of the Easington Women’s Support Group in County Durham, Northeast England. We are going to be doing other episodes about the strike, so I’ll just give a very brief historical background here. At the time, coal miners in the National Union of Mineworkers were the best organised and most militant section of the working class in Britain. Miners held successful nationwide strikes in 1972 and 1974 when they brought down the Conservative Government of Edward Heath. With the election of Thatcher in 1979, her Conservative Party were determined to reshape the UK from a more social democratic state, with high levels of state ownership and where working people were organised and had some economic power, to a more neo-liberal one where there was more widespread private ownership and there was a more atomised working class. Her strategy was to isolate different groups of workers and defeat them one by one. The most important fight was against the miners. The government had prepared for the strike and then provoked it by announcing pit closures and job losses at a time which would be favourable for them, shortly after their election and when coal stocks were high. The government’s hope was that they’d then be able to sit out the strike until the miners and their families were basically starved back to work but around the country, thousands of miners’ wives and other women set up support groups which raised money, collected food, cooked for tens or even hundreds of thousands of people every day and confronted police and scabs on picket lines. Many of these groups came together in an umbrella organisation called Women Against Pit Closures. They played an absolutely key role in the dispute in enabling the 200,000 odd strikers to hold out for nearly a year. What women did in Easington is a microcosm of what happened all over Britain. Over the course of the interview, Heather references some people and events which won’t be known by everyone but we didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the interview and so instead, we have put in short explanations of these people and things, and who they were, in the show notes.

[Colliery band music]

WCH:

To start off with, can you introduce yourself and let us know where you’re from?

Heather:

I’m Heather Wood from Easington Colliery, County Durham, an ex-mining village.

WCH:

Hello and welcome. Can you let us know what your life situation was at the beginning of 1984?

Heather:

I was a member of the Labour Party and quite active in politics and I was working at the local council offices in the housing department. My husband was a plumber who worked full-time and we had two children. In 1983, I was Chair of the Constituency Labour Party and we had heard rumours that pits were going to close in our district. We decided that we needed to inform people. The constituency had an open public meeting and we established how many people were interested in helping to fight for the community and fight to save jobs. We set up an organisation called Save Easington Area Mines and we called it SEAM for short. It was that same year of 1983 when we had the biggest rally of miners’ banners, outside of Durham Big Meeting, and it was in Easington. Neil Kinnock was there and he was one of the speakers. I chaired that meeting and from there, we just went on giving out public information as to what the cost to our villages would be if the mines closed. Of course, then in early 1984 came the strike and in my own village, the pit voted to come out on strike. My husband and I said two things. We wanted somebody to fight the government and the second one, and the main one, was we wanted our community to remain as it was as a close-knit community that helped each other. So we decided that we’d give £5 a week to the fund but, as with everything in my life, it was like topsy. It grew, and grew, and grew. A couple of weeks into the strike, I mentioned at the SEAM meeting that we needed to get at the women in the mining communities because without the women, the men would not stay out on strike because, contrary to public belief, miners’ wives were not held down. They ruled. If their wives had said, ‘You go back,’ they would have had to go back. What I said was that all the literature that was coming out of the villages then to the houses of miners was from the union and so it was more than likely to be read by the men and not the women of the house. Dave Temple, Brian Blanchard and myself got together in our house and we put together a letter for every woman in the Easington district. We had to do that because nobody had a list of where each miner lived in the district, so we just decided to leaflet every house. We had a meeting of women in the council offices at Easington village and the council chamber was absolutely full with women. It was wonderful to see that so many wanted to be part of it and wanted to support and stand beside their husbands or their brothers, or their fathers. From there, we formed the first support group which was in Easington Colliery. I went to the miners’ lodge at Easington just to let them know what we were doing. Just as an aside, two of us women had to sit outside of the meeting while the men decided whether a woman could come into the lodge meeting. After about half an hour, the debate had gone on and they came out and said we could enter. I remember saying to Alan Cummings, the Secretary of the lodge, ‘Once I’m in, I’m not going back you know,’ and he laughed. It was true because we went from strength to strength. We set up from there and we went to all the different communities in the Easington district and some beyond and helped set up support groups there. I attended lodge meetings to let the miners know what each of those groups were doing. We ended up setting up 14 support groups in Easington district which either provided food, by way of a meal each day, or food parcels where they couldn’t provide a meal but they would raise funds for food parcels. I’m pleased to say that I can now speak of my own community that we had our free cafe within Easington Colliery Workmen’s Club and for a year, we fed people one meal a day for five days a week. During the school holidays, I wrote to the County Council to ask if we could use the school kitchens and I’m pleased to say they said yes, so that made life so much easier. For instance, my mother was an ex-cook for school meals, so she knew the school kitchens well and for the six weeks, we were able to provide a really good meal for those children. My mam and dad used to pay for it and my mam would make a dessert for the children. The adults didn’t get a dessert for that six weeks but the children got looked after. We raised funds from all over the world and, in fact, in Beamish Museum, there is a section that’s called the Heather Wood Collection and that has every photograph, every press cutting, and every notice that we sent out to people about the strike and giving them information on where they could go to get this, that and the other, especially for school uniforms after the summer holidays. It was a busy year. At Christmas, we did all sorts of Christmas things and we kept going for a year and I’m proud to say I was part of it.

WCH:

At your peak, when you were doing this, do you know how many local women were helping you in these groups?

Heather:

When I was actively working in the groups, there were no more than a dozen women in each of the 14 groups but the important thing to remember is it wasn’t just the women who came out and did something in the support groups that kept the strike going. It was the women in the houses where they had to keep the household going on very, very little money and that wasn’t an easy task. You’re talking about every miner’s wife being involved and was active in the sense that they motivated their husbands to stay on strike. They may have gone and stood to wave the pickets’ buses off on a morning or to welcome them back on a night. They were active, even though they weren’t out making meals or being organised as far as fundraising was concerned. I have to say that a lot of the women in the support groups weren’t politically motivated when they started. It was to save their communities and save their futures for their children and their grandchildren. It was very difficult to talk to them about the political side of the strike but as the weeks went on and they were sort of drip-fed about what was happening, they started to ask questions and they started to want to go to places where there was political discussion and to want to be on the picket lines. Some of them actually spoke in public meetings which they’d never ever done before or went on television and were interviewed. They helped to put together a book, The Last Coals of Spring which was a book of poems, songs and short stories written by the women of Easington. They were approached by Northern Arts to have a writer in residence and Margaret Pine came and she wrote a play, Not by Bread Alone, about the miners’ strike and that was performed around the Northeast, then it went to London. It then went to the Lamplish Theatre in Germany and Oldenburg University. These were big things from women who came out to make a meal for a few hundred people and ended up organising all this themselves. Fantastic!

WCH:

Do you think that had a transformative effect on some of the women that were involved?

Heather:

It definitely did. As I say, at the beginning, they wanted to make meals which was very important but as time went on, they wanted to know more of what was going on with the strike and the political side of the strike. They wanted to go and stand on the picket line and fight for the jobs in the community that way. They didn’t necessarily want to go and speak on television at all or in meetings but they did it in the end because I was doing it all and I said, ‘It’s just too much. You’re going to have to have your names in the hat and when it’s your turn, you do it.’ Thank god, they did. One woman, who was one of the quietest people you could wish to meet, ended up at one of the biggest rallies in Middlesbrough with Tony Benn on the platform with her. All she said was, ‘I work for British Coal. I’m a cleaner and I’m on strike. My husband is a miner and he’s on strike. We have two children. Can you help us?’ The crowd erupted because it was obvious that woman wasn’t used to being where she was but after that, that woman went to Greenham Common, she came on rallies with us, she was always on the picket line and she wasn’t frightened to speak up. That made all the difference there. Instead of coming out and doing a job and then going home quietly… it was a bit like they changed the world but they hadn’t realised, so they just went back to what they were doing. However, in the strike, it continued on and it grew. Some of them went on further like Juliana Heron who has been mayor twice. She was from the South Hetton Support Group and she hadn’t really been involved in politics before the strike and she’s still involved. There are people like her who have continued on the fight. Some women went on to parish councils or who just became more active in the community doing voluntary work, like fundraising or organising. I think that’s important to know that those women, although they were doing it before, they did things very quietly and now they shout more and say, ‘Look, this is what we do and you better write it all down. It needs to be written for history.’

WCH:

You’ve spoken about the kind of transformative effect that the strike had on a number of women who became more vocal in what they were doing and more confident. How did husbands react to that? Was there any anxiety about that from them?

Heather:

I think it was strange at first. Nobody ever really said anything but it was strange for some of them because it was out of the ordinary for them to do. In our house, it was just something that happened and I was always out doing something politically but it was something that changed and I’ve got no doubt that it would have been difficult. This is where masculinity comes in… not even masculinity but just the fact that they would normally be at work but now they had time on their hands and so they were taking the children to school. They were standing at the school gates to pick the bairns up. They were housekeeping because a lot of the women went and got part-time jobs in factories and in shops. They were now looking after the household, so there was bound to have been some reaction. If it was in our house, I’d be saying that John couldn’t do it as well as I could, so there would be aggro there [laughter], apart from having no money. There was bound to have been a reaction. I know, as we went into the strike and as the months went by, the women in the Easington Support Group were getting quite despondent and money was getting really short. Bills were coming in and so tempers were getting fraught. I remember there were a few barneys amongst the women. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. When we meet every Thursday (which we did to organise the following week), when you’re at home, write down how you’re feeling about something or just come and speak on it at our next meeting.’ They did that and there were some really humdinger arguments but what I said was, ‘You do that in the meeting and then you walk out. The cause is bigger than you and your argument with whoever. We’re united when we walk out of that door.’ It worked. It actually worked and from there, they did write songs, stories, poems and they were published. So out of all that aggro came something that was really good. The women were stronger, they were better together and they put together a book which they would never have done, probably. I think there were arguments. I’ve got no doubt about that because it must have been strange. You’re changing roles completely. There were divorces but, in the main, everybody was united and all stood together.

WCH:

Before the strike happened, would it be accurate to say that these were quite traditional, male-dominated communities?

Heather:

I think that’s a fallacy because when you look back in the history of the mining communities, it’s always been the women who’ve come out to get things done. For instance, when I was a little girl, I can remember there were no indoor toilets and bathrooms. It was the women who took to the streets and blockaded the main road to the pit with pushchairs, prams and whatever to fight for the Coal Board to fit bathrooms and indoor toilets to the colliery properties and they won. The 1926 strike was mainly women. The 1974 strike was mainly women who were out at the front doing it. I think miners come across as very strong men but just because the women don’t necessarily come out and say, ‘Oh, we do this. We do that,’ it doesn’t mean they weren’t doing it. They were doing it in the home. They looked after the money. The husband tipped the money up and the women looked after all the bills. They were very few who didn’t do that.

WCH:

You mentioned that you and other women in the community also joined picket lines with the strikers. How did that go?

Heather:

I used to go down every morning and take my children down. Here’s a for instance for you. On August 24th, 1984, Easington was taken over by police and that was because on the evening of August 23rd, Piers Merchant, Tory MP, was on the news saying, ‘Why is it Durham Constabulary can’t get one man in at Easington Pit?’ They had been bringing them to the village and more or less saying, ‘You’ve tried, lad. Just go home.’ However, the next morning after Piers Merchant said that, I went to take my children to school and our village green, which is enormous, was black. It was full of police. We got further down the road and there was a police cordon, so I had to stop and tell them where we were going. I said, ‘I’m going to my mam’s to drop the children off.’ He said, ‘Okay, you can go.’ Just as we were passing, before I got the window wound up, my youngest son shouted, ‘But Mam, you didn’t tell him we were going to the picket line first!’ I could have killed him [laughter]. That was me going to the picket lines but there were other women who went a lot more than me because I was working. They went and stood and jeered. They would arrest women because they were shouting, ‘Scab!’ So we put half the women at one side of the road and half at the other. One half shouted, ‘Sca!’ and the other shouted, ‘Ab!’ [Laughter] We got it [19:40 – unclear] eventually and we couldn’t be arrested [laughter]. My mam was on the picket line the day the first man went back at Easington Colliery, who lived in Easington, so the women were telling me because I wasn’t there. She said, ‘I can’t shout scab,’ so she shouted, ‘Come on bonny lad, don’t go back in.’ As it happened, he didn’t go and my mam always says it’s because she just shouted, ‘Come on bonny lad, don’t go in.’ [Laughter] Yeah, it was life-changing, I think. People saw another side of life and started to want to organise the pickets, organise the men and get as much activity as they could along by the pit.

WCH:

How did the police react to women on the picket line because prior to that point, I think they were quite used to wading in and attacking all the miners with baton charges? Were they any different with the women?

Heather:

It was name-calling. That was the biggest thing. I can’t think. I know there were women in different parts of the country and there were a couple of women from Hetton, Florence Anderson being one, who were arrested. However, in Easington, it was name-calling. It was trying to put you down as a woman. It was waving £10 notes in your face or in van windows as they were passing you. You were made to feel like dirt and very frightened. I was frightened. I have no shame in saying that. I was frightened because I’d seen what they could do and I’m still frightened because I’ve seen what the state can do. They were an arm of the state and if the state can do that to people who weren’t at risk to the state, what else can they do? It was so, so frightening.

WCH:

What sorts of things were they doing?

Heather:

They used to stand at the pit yard, outside the pit wall, and they would be linked arm in arm. Every now and again, they would open up and just take one lad through. They would then arrest him and he would be charged with god knows what. He’d been in court and then he’d be in prison but he’d never done anything in his life. People keep saying, ‘That can’t have happened,’ but I saw it with my own eyes. Somebody last week said to me, ‘The reason the police didn’t have numbers on their jackets was because they were torn off by the miners.’ Well, on August 24th, I watched them come into my village and they came in with no numbers on their jackets. Also, there was no fighting and there were no problems, like hand-to-hand fighting, at that point in Easington. There was not. It’s a lie. It’s a fallacy. It’s a misinterpretation of what went on to say that they came in with those numbers on their jackets because they didn’t.

WCH:

As the strike progressed, did violence then break out in Easington?

Heather:

At one point, a police car was turned over and there were some windows put out at the colliery offices but there wasn’t anything on the lines of Orgreave. I mean, my god, Orgreave was just horrendous. After those cars had been turned over, people were picked up on the streets and taken to court. Even if they just happened to be passing, they were arrested. I know one young lad, who’d been taking his girlfriend home, and they picked him up as somebody involved in that. He was taken to court and the judge just said, ‘I’m not listening to individual stories. I’m treating you all the same. You’re going to prison.’ It happens that he was a relative of mine and he went to prison. He was still at home with his parents and while his parents were on holiday, the governor of the prison rang my mother and said, ‘It’s quite clear that this lad shouldn’t be here. If you are prepared to accept responsibility and make sure he gets back, I’m prepared to release him to sit his exams at college.’ That happened. That was the enemy within. It was just incredible what the state could do.

WCH:

You’ve mentioned that, at some point, police started trying to get scabs back to work. Were they successful in that in your area?

Heather:

I’m proud to say that, in Easington Colliery, we had the least scabs. We had the least go back to work before the official day of returning. I can’t remember the numbers but it was a handful rather than a lot, as the government would have it by saying that they were returning to work in droves before the vote. They certainly weren’t here.

WCH:

How was that then in the community because, presumably, you will have known who the scabs were and who their families were?

Heather:

Yes. For me and for a lot of other people, it’s still the same. When you talk about certain people, you always end the conversation with, ‘Well, you know he was a scab.’ There’s a photograph taken by Keith Pattison inside the colliery club when the meals were being served. One of the women, whose husband went back to work, has that plate in her hand getting a meal. I remember she told the press that he was going back to work because they’d received no help from anybody. Well, there she was in the colliery club getting a meal and her children were getting meals. What other help did she want? It was just a blatant lie. It was an excuse for going back but they’ll not be forgotten. No. We might even speak now and we might say, ‘Hello,’ but it’ll never be forgotten.

WCH:

Outside of your area, around the rest of the country, do you know what other women’s groups were doing to support the strike?

Heather:

Similar sorts of things. I mean we actually went to Ollerton in Nottinghamshire because Nottingham, of course, had very few people who were on strike. Most scabbed and that’s where they formed the breakaway union. However, we knew that the people in Ollerton who were on strike had very little because they didn’t have the support of the local shops that we had. We actually got a minibus and took food down for them at Ollerton. We stayed with them and it was just so hard for them. They were worse off than we were because the numbers were totally different. There were more scabs going in than there were people on strike, so it must have been really, really hard for them. They were getting the treatment that the scabs were saying that they were the ones putting the windows in. It was the Nottingham strikers that had their windows put in and had their people threatened. Like I say, Florence Anderson, Betty Cook and Scargill were arrested. They were in the Yorkshire area but we were all doing very similar things and working round the clock, seven days a week for a year. While you weren’t making meals, you were trying to organise, or you were trying to fundraise, or you were trying to picket, or you were trying to write stories. There was something all the time every day.

WCH:

We’ve spoken a lot about the crucial role that women played in this dispute. Do you feel that that role has been written out or forgotten from history somewhat?

Heather:

I would say in the last ten years, people have started to look at and to record more about what the women did. There were women in that strike. Every year since the strike, I’ve had at least two students from universities all over the country, who were doing dissertations on the women’s groups in the strike. In more recent years, Maxine Peake has just written a play about the women’s support groups in the strike and I think that’s on in Manchester now. Lucy Brown is doing a piece for the Durham Book Festival on me, my mother and my two grandmothers. It’s about strong women in mining communities leading up to the strike. It’s what I was saying earlier; over the years, women have just got on and gone out and did the soup kitchens in ’26 and went back. They came out when they wanted bathrooms, protested and went back. They just did it. This time, we’re saying, ‘We want recognising in history. What women have done needs to be there.’ I don’t know whether you saw the work that the Women’s Banner Group did in Durham over this last nine months but a group was formed to get a women’s banner ready for the Durham Big Meeting. We asked women throughout the county to depict what they did in patchwork. We put a patchwork banner together with the help of Mary Turner, who’s a Durham quilter. That was paraded at Durham Big Meeting and it was the first women’s banner to be blessed in Durham Cathedral on Big Meeting Day with the other banners. It’s the first women’s banner to be accepted into the Durham Miners’ Banner group. All this is going on. There’s so much happening at the minute with people wanting to know about women and the work that women have done in our communities. It’s amazing. I try to talk to everybody because it needs to be recorded. It needs to be written down because otherwise, the Tories and the capitalists will write it their way and history will be changed.

WCH:

It’s great that women’s role in the dispute is being better recognised and researched now. So if anyone wants to work with us on that, please get in touch. Going back to the strike, another thing you had to contend with was the media. Would you agree that media coverage was biased against the strike?

Heather:

Yes, it was very much so. As I say, there was always something like, ‘The pickets have been and smashed this place up,’ and in lots of cases, it wasn’t true. Look at Orgreave. They discovered, how many years later, that the film had been screened the wrong way around. It actually was the police going at the miners and yet now, we’re asking for an inquiry, the government is refusing it. It’s disgusting the way they treated us and we need justice. The capitalist press was against us and, at one point, the Mirror went but, in general, the Mirror was with us. The headline was always ‘The Enemy Within’. At the end, we got to be quite proud that we were the enemy within. Like I say, behind the scenes, the journalists’ unions raised a lot of money to help us. They were doing their job and they were frightened for their job. If we could all just stick together, it would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? An all-out strike [laughter].

WCH:

Too right. You said you were a member and activist in the Labour Party in a local branch. What did you think about the role of the national Labour Party in supporting the strike? Do you feel that they sufficiently supported the strike?

Heather:

They let us down. They let us down badly… very badly. I mentioned at the beginning of the interview that Neil Kinnock came to our village just the year before the strike and he was all in support. His grandfather was a miner and all this. All of a sudden, there was nothing. We were just left. We were the enemy within and the likes of Kinnock were frightened off because the press was against us. Again, the reporters weren’t against us because we were getting loads of money from their unions. It was the owners of the newspapers that were against us but Kinnock and his ilk slotted in with that because they were frightened for their own future. It wasn’t about the strike. It was about their future and they were looking after themselves, very much the same as they are today.

WCH:

Do you have any particular moments that happened that stand out in your memory, or were particularly inspiring, that we haven’t gone over?

Heather:

Have you seen Keith Pattison’s photographs? They’re called No Redemption. If you haven’t, you need to see those photographs because they should be archived somewhere. Keith was the photographer-in-residence during the strike and he got some absolutely magnificent shots. However, one day, when the first Easington scab was going back, the whole of Easington turned out and I mean all of Easington. The police were there. Josie Smith, who lived just near the pit, had just been in hospital for a stomach operation. Him and his wife had heard the commotion at the top of the street and they went up to see what was going on. Before he even got there, he was picked up by a policeman. There’s photographic evidence of it. He was manhandled and taken to a van by the police. His wife was shouting, ‘I want my man! I want my man! What are you doing to him?’ They picked her up and took her to the van. The crowd erupted at that, so the police took Josie and his wife back home and told them if they came out again, they would definitely be arrested. It’s things like that that stick in my mind. Not half an hour later, the police came back to Josie and asked him if he would go and quieten the crowd down. These are such amazing things that you think can’t happen in your village. Poor Josie was arrested like that. Somebody rang me that night and said, ‘Can you go down and see Josie and his wife because they’re in such a state?’ The other family that we were called to go to, their son was up and there was some rumpus about him having a counterfeit £50 note. It turned out that it wasn’t counterfeit but they’d searched and ransacked his parents’ house. They contacted his employer in London, where he was a chef, and raided his flat in London. They had all seen the £50 note and knew it was okay. That’s the lad that I had to get Jack Dormund to go and get released from the police station. I went down to that lad’s parents’ house the night it happened. His mother was riddled with arthritis. I always remember because I’m a very visual person. I remember her hands were all crooked and wizened with the arthritis and she was only very thin. She was sat crying and the house was lost. I said to the husband, ‘Did they have a search warrant?’ He said, ‘No Heather but I asked them and they said, “We can go and get one but it will be worse when we come back,” so they just let them ransack the house. They didn’t even tidy up afterwards. The lad had done nothing wrong. All those things stick forever in your head.

WCH:

It’s a good lesson about not letting the police into your house. That anecdote about the arrest of that man and everyone coming together, I think is a really good anecdote. I think when you’ve experienced something like that, where a huge number of people come together around a singular thing that unites them, it does show you how the world can be a different place.

Heather:

Oh yes, if we all stick together, we could do it but we fall in the Tory trap and we’re fighting each other rather than fighting the real enemy.

WCH:

That’s so far but we still have time.

Heather:

One day. I always say I’m a utopian socialist [laughter] but I do hope we get it. It’s like I always said to my children, ‘Aim high and if you get halfway, you’re alright.’

WCH:

As the strike dragged on, especially through the winter and when it was getting towards being a year old, was there a point when you started to think it looked like, essentially, that the workers were going to be starved back?

Heather:

In all of our hearts of hearts, I think we knew. I really do. We never talked about it out loud and certainly, when I was talking to the women, it was always, ‘We can still do it! We can still win! We can do it!’ I remember one day, we’d been to Middlesbrough to a rally and Huw Beynon was there. He was a lecturer at Durham University at that time and he raised a lot of money for us. Easington women were walking up ahead after the rally and we’d just been saying, ‘We can still do it!’ I think that was around January. Huw and I just looked at each other and we both had tears in our eyes because we knew we weren’t going to do it. However, you have to have faith. You have to. You never know, it might have worked but at the end of the day, I always say, ‘We didn’t lose. Okay, they’ve taken our communities but they didn’t take our self-respect because we stood and we fought.’

WCH:

How did it feel when it came round, the strike was lost and people voted to go back to work?

Heather:

It was absolutely horrendous. I don’t remember the date but I remember the day. There was a big meeting in Easington Welfare Hall and the hall was packed. Alan Cummings had spoken, Billy Stubbs had spoken and there were union officials. I’d been asked to speak. I can picture it now. I had my speech in my pocket which I’d written and I went to get it out of my pocket and I put it back. I just spoke. It was quite heartbreaking. You’re looking around at a sea of faces of people who fought for a year and it was just sad. They felt defeated and it took a long time for people. Still, some people haven’t realised we were brave in what we did. We didn’t win the end game but we were brave in what we did.

WCH:

As you say, the strike was lost about the immediate issue, unfortunately, but you said a lot of the participants in it were transformed by those sorts of events. Looking back, do you feel like there’s a legacy of the strike or something good that’s come out it?

Heather:

Something good? That’s very difficult. I think one of the good things was that women recognised that politics was for them; that they could get involved; that they did have a voice; that they could organise; that they could do things outside the home or work. That was the biggest thing. One of the biggest learning curves for all of us was how the state can operate against you and what they can do, like the constraints they can put on you or that people can be locked up for no reason. I think it taught a lot of women about capitalism. They hadn’t thought about it and they hadn’t thought how politics affected their lives. That went for some men as well because I can remember saying to one man, ‘Have you looked at the political aspects?’ He said, ‘Oh, politics. I’m not involved in politics.’ I said, ‘You see that pint of beer?’ He said, ‘Yeah, what about it?’ I said, ‘The tax that’s on that goes to the government, so that pint of beer is political. You are committing a political act.’ He said, ‘Oh, I never thought about that, Heather.’ It was opening people’s eyes, so I think that was one of the good things. I just hope we don’t forget about the state because we were all surprised when the police landed in Easington the way they did but we shouldn’t have been because look at Peterloo and look at the 1926 strike. The government have always gone out against us, so we shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s important that things like this are done and recordings like this are made so that people do remember what’s gone on.

[Colliery band music]

WCH:

We’re going to end today’s episode with a recording of a speech made by Heather at a rally in Easington at the end of the strike which features in the film Can’t Beat It Alone by Amber Films, which you can check out through a link the show notes. Before that, we’d like to thank you for listening and thank our Patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. You too can support this podcast at patreon.com/workingclasshistory where you can also get early access to episodes, bonus audio and other benefits. This episode was edited by Jesse French. Catch you next time.

Heather:

Well, I think over the last 12 months, I’ve made some speeches but I think this is the most nerve-racking one of the lot because really, I don’t know what to say to you all. I’m choked up because words can’t say what I feel. You’ve been the greatest people, I think, that could ever exist and I think people that this country, contrary to what Mrs. Thatcher says, we should be proud of because I’m certainly proud to be part of this community. I think there’s been a hell of a lot of suffering over the last few months, the last 12 months anyway, but what we’ve got to remember is we’ve gained a lot from that suffering. All sections of our community, we’ve all come together. We weren’t like that before the strike. I know we were to a certain extent but we never worked together like we have the last 12 months. We’ve got to continue it. Don’t be downhearted because I’m not. There was a young lad asked me in the Welfare Hall, just as the strike was over, ‘Heather, do you think it was worth it what we’ve done?’ I answered him sharp. He might have thought I was a bit too sharp but I certainly don’t think it’s over. It won’t be over until we get Margaret Thatcher out, and until we win the case for coal, and until we win a good working-class society for us all. Again, from the bottom of my heart, all of you, thanks very much for showing what good people you are. I only wish the press had put it over.

[Outro music]

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