A quarter of a century since the Miners’ strike, Tony Kearney looks at how an overtime ban spiralled into the bitterest dispute the North-East has ever seen.
WHEN miners voted for an overtime ban in October 1983, Tom Callan, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in Durham, warned his members: “It’s going to be a rough ride.”
Eighteen months later, after countless families and communities had been torn apart by the bitterest industrial dispute in a generation, the general secretary’s warning looked like a masterpiece of understatement.
The tinderbox mood in the coalfield was evident when newly-appointed National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor was jostled to the ground during a visit to Ellington Colliery, in Northumberland, in February.
But that hostility boiled over on March 5, 1984, when miners at Cortonwood, in South Yorkshire, voted to strike over National Coal Board (NCB) plans to close their colliery.
The following day, the NCB announced that it was looking to slash annual capacity by four million tonnes, equivalent to the closure of 20 pits and 20,000 jobs, and that five pits, including Herrington, near Sunderland, would go within weeks under an accelerated closure programme.
Using the obscure Rule 41, individual areas of the fairly federal National Union of Mineworkers called out local strikes without a ballot.
On March 9, the executive of Durham NUM passed a resolution calling for strike action and, the following day, a mass meeting of 1,000 union members at Easington Colliery became the first in the North-East to vote for a walkout from the 12th.
The subsequent solidarity shown during the early months of the strike masks the divisions within the coalfield. On the Monday after the executive vote, 13,500 men in Northumberland and Durham were out on strike, but 9,500 continued to work.
With Tom Callan warning that working pits would be “picketed out”, union men from Easington persuaded Vane Tempest and Dawdon to join the strike.
The battle lines were being drawn in the North-East and across the country. On March 10, NUM leader Arthur Scargill told a rally at the Barbary Coast Club, near Wearmouth pit, in Sunderland: “In five years’ time, you will be able to say we not only saved our pit, we not only saved our job, but we restored our dignity and our faith as human beings.”
But, during a visit to Gateshead on March 12, the day the NUM declared the dispute to be a national strike without a ballot, Mr MacGregor warned: “Prolonged strike action could probably accelerate the programme of pit closures.”
By March 14, not a single miner was working in the 12 pits in the Durham coalfield or the six in Northumberland.
Across the country, the picture was far less clear cut.
Two weeks into the dispute, 123 of the country’s 174 pits were idle, while most miners in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire defied the pickets.
Striking miners flooded into Nottinghamshire, where, amid escalating violence, the police drafted in officers from around the country and set up blockades to halt the pickets. Recentlyelected Sedgefield MP Tony Blair complained after he was prevented from entering Nottinghamshire at a police roadblock, while coaches carrying 200 Durham miners were stopped on the borders of Staffordshire.
Strikers from County Durham bolstered picket lines at Ravenscraig steel plant, in Scotland, at Orgreave coke works, in Yorkshire, while in August, Superintendent Bill Longmore, of Staffordshire Police, claimed that hit squads of Durham pickets were bringing “terror and intimidation” to working miners.
Back at home, pickets attempted to halt the movements of coal in and out of key sites, such as Redcar steelworks and Fishburn Coke Works; a Kelloe miner suffered a fractured skull outside Steetley Quarry, in West Cornforth; twice in ten days up to 700 strikers forced the closure of the NCB workshops and stores at Philidephia, near Houghtonle- Spring; while 32 pickets were arrested on July 26 during what police described as “running battles” after miners padlocked the NCB’s administration offices at Whitburn, Sunderland.
But the bitterest scenes came at a privately-owned coal screening site at Tow Law, where up to 800 pickets a day tried to prevent the lorries getting in and out. In the first month alone, of what became known as The Siege of Inkerman, 77 pickets were arrested during the daily push and shove and at least nine police officers were injured.
The worst of the violence was, however, centred on Yorkshire. Two striking miners died on the picket lines and images of stonethrowing strikers taking on mounted police at Orgreave were flashed around the world, after which Arthur Scargill said: “There have been scenes of almost unbelievable brutality reminiscent of a Latin American police state,” while Margaret Thatcher referred to those who would: “substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law.”
In July, the Prime Minister went further, telling Conservative backbenchers: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. Now we are fighting the enemy within.”
Two Nottinghamshire miners took the union to court to have the absence of a strike ballot declared unlawful. The action eventually led to a High Court fine, the union’s assets being seized and Scargill being found in contempt.
Twice – once in April and again in October – pit deputies union Nacods came within a whisker of going on strike, industrial action that would have brought every pit in the country to a standstill – but twice it pulled back from the brink after the offer of concessions.
In July, Labour leader Neil Kinnock told a 15,000 crowd at a rally in Durham that replaced the traditional Gala: “Mrs Thatcher can break families and she can break hearts, but there is one thing she should understand, and that is she will never break the mining people.”
But for all the words of support and goodwill, the harsh realities were beginning to bite. Soup kitchens were organised by the growing network of women’s support groups, while Durham witnessed the extraordinary sight of food aid for miners’ families being brought in from the Soviet Union.
Through the first six months of the strike, there had been comparative calm in the North-East. Everything changed on August 20 when Paul Wilkinson, from Bowburn, turned up for work at Easington colliery – the symbolic heart of the NUM in the Durham coalfield. He later told The Northern Echo: “There was a principle at stake. There should have been a ballot – it’s as simple as that.”
Pickets mounted a barricade at the gates of the pit and the coach was turned back. Over the next four days, there was a tense stand-off until finally, on Friday, August 24, the 28- year-old became the first working miner in County Durham.
Easington erupted into violence – bricks were thrown, cars overturned and police in full riot gear were seen on the streets of the North-East for the first time in history and for three days, Easington was under a state of siege. Paul Wilkinson’s return to work did not open the floodgates, but it was a symbolically important turning point in the dispute.
Increasingly, those branded “scabs” by the strikers were targeted both at work and at home as it became clear that the dispute was to be a war of attrition, with mounting debts and the prospect of a poverty-stricken Christmas testing the loyalty of even the most ardent union supporters.
On October 30, Scargill released leaked documents, which appeared to show that, by 1995, the NCB expected only four pits to be open in the North-East – Easington, Wearmouth, Westoe and Ellington.
Tom Callan told the media: “We know now that this is a fight to the finish and a battle we cannot afford to lose. If we do, it will mean the destruction of our industry and our communities.”
The tipping point came only days later. As late as November 1, only 89 miners out of 22,800 in the North- East were at work and not a single miner had crossed the picket lines at Herrington, Bearpark, Dawdon, Horden, Sacriston or Ellington. Across the country, 114 pits were still at a complete standstill.
The following day, the NCB announced a £650 Christmas bonus for anyone returning to work and hundreds took up the offer. By the month end, there were still only 300 miners working in the North-East, but the momentum was now with the NCB. At the start of November, 52,000 miners were at work across the country, by the end of December it was 70,000.
The change led to desperation and criminal recklessness in the coalfield. On the day David Wilkie was killed in South Wales when a concrete block was dropped onto his taxi as he drove two men to work, a concrete slab was dropped onto a minibus in Whitburn, Sunderland, taking 12 men to work, one of whom was knocked unconscious.
Two weeks earlier, Ashington miner Frederick Taylor died when he was hit by a fall of stone as he dug for coal on a cliff face. On December 10, a 19-year-old from Seaham had a lucky escape after tunnelling for coal under the Hawthorn rail line in East Durham.
During January, the trickle became a flood and on February 27 the board was able to declare that, for the first time in nearly a year, the majority of miners were now at work. On Sunday, March 3, the national executive of the NUM was meeting at TUC headquarters, in London.
Hardliners, led by Yorkshire, wanted to continue until they had won amnesties for the 700 men sacked during the dispute.
Others wanted an immediate return. The executive was deadlocked at 11-11 and the decision went to a card vote which voted by a narrow majority, 98-91, to return to work, carried by the 20 votes of Northumberland and Durham.
The Times quoted Durham executive member Billy Stobbs as saying: “It is unreasonable, on humanitarian grounds, to call upon the membership to endure still further personal pain and sacrifice to themselves and their families in their loyalty to the union.”
On Tuesday, March 5, 1985, the miners marched back into work behind their banners. Less than a decade later, coal mining in County Durham was at an end. At his retirement six months after the end of the strike, Tom Callan blamed the NCB and Government for the bitter dispute. He said: “Their determination to get rid of 25 pits and 25,000 jobs had to be faced. “We had to fight.”
■ In tomorrow’s Northern Echo, controversial former Bishop of Durham the Right Reverend David Jenkins reflects on a year of “absolute tragedy”.