Women throughout the Durham coalfield played a key role in the 1984 miners’ strike. They tell Marjorie McIntyre of the events which transformed their lives for ever.

AFTER a year of mounting debts and making do during the long miners’ strike, Marilyn Johnson bought a bottle of champagne on the day the dispute ended.

Twenty five years on, the bubbly still lies in the fridge of her South Hetton home.

“I will pop that cork on the day Margaret Thatcher dies,” she says. “We will never forget what the Tories did while she was at the helm.”

Despite the passage of time, such depth of feeling is not uncommon among the women of the former Durham coalfield, who bore much of the pain of that year-long dispute.

For as long as anyone could remember, trouble at the pit had been men’s business. Women were content to stay at home looking after the children and having meals ready for their husbands when they returned from work.

But all that changed when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor to head the National Coal Board. The late NCB chief, who had already wielded his axe on the steel industry, lit the spark which ignited the fury of the nation’s coal miners.

There had been conflicts before, but this time, in an act of solidarity, the women left the kitchen sink – and life for them would never be the same as they stood alongside their men.

Nowhere more so than at Easington Colliery where miner’s daughter Heather Wood was chairwoman of the general management committee of the district Labour Party and was one of the few who predicted a lengthy battle ahead.

When the Easington miners walked out, she and her mother, Myrtle Macpherson, and a dozen pitmen’s wives got together to organise a free cafe for the families whose pay packets would be e m p t y throughout the strike.

For the first few days of the strike Heather and her helpers laid on sandwiches in Easington Colliery Workingmen’s Club. It was an instant success and Myrtle, who had worked at the school meals unit for County Durham, was quickly drafted in to advise the new cooks on mass catering.

“I initially went for a week and stayed for the full year of the strike,’’ says Myrtle.

The women canvassed businesses in the village and quickly enlisted help. Chippy owner Harry Evans provided fishcakes and chips once a week, while stores gave groceries and allotment holders brought in fruit and vegetables.

One of the other stalwarts was mother-of-two Marilyn Johnson, whose husband, Jimmy, was manning picket lines all over the country.

Marilyn says: “The response from the community was overwhelming and we drew up menus each day and worked long hours preparing food for sometimes up to 500 at a time.’’ Word spread and women in other villages began to follow Easington’s lead.

In Seaham, miners’ wives provided free meals in the Christ Church Hall. One of the helpers was Margaret Nugent, who, inspired by her new role in the dispute, went on to be a parish and town councillor, and mayor of Seaham.

At Easington, Heather, Myrtle and Marilyn were also in the forefront of campaigning for the miners’ cause. Their efforts resulted in containers of food arriving from Russia, East Germany and France.

As well as providing meals five days a week, the women also organised regular food parcels for every miner, wrote two books of poems on the strike, and presented their own play.

Although the strike ended in defeat, Marilyn says it succeeded in unifying the community and giving a voice to the women.

Not long after the men returned to work, Myrtle travelled to Cuba to help distribute containers of goods to impoverished miners. She also accompanied miners’ children on holiday to East Germany and was invited to both Number 10 and 11 Downing Street. Now 80, she is still a parish councillor for Easington Colliery Margaret Nugent became mayor of her home town, and Marilyn and Jimmy moved to South Hetton, where Marilyn recently founded her estate’s own Neighbourhood Watch scheme.

Like thousands of others, Jimmy Johnson continued to work at the colliery after the strike, but lost his job when the pit closed in 1993.

Marilyn says: “We knew this wasn’t any ordinary industrial conflict – this was a political battle and Margaret Thatcher was determined to win. Smashing the union and closing the coalfield were her objectives, but we helped give her a run for her money.’’ Myrtle still lives in Easington and although the village has changed dramatically since it lost its pit, she says: “The strike made us realise what the real values in life are, and if I was to win the Lottery I still wouldn’t move from here.’’ Marilyn, 62, is proud of what the women achieved and unrepentant over their stand. “I have no regrets and if I had to I would do it all over again. We stepped up to the challenge, helped see the men through and made life-long friends at home and abroad.’’ Did the women’s actions have a significant impact on the dispute?

Easington Colliery’s then National Union of Mineworkers’ secretary, Alan Cummings, whose late wife Lynne stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him throughout the strike, summed up the esteem in which the women are still held.

He says: “Theirs was a phenomenal achievement – without them we could not have sustained the action for so long. They did a brilliant job, and their efforts will go down in the annals of our trade union’s rich history.’’

■ In Monday’s Northern Echo, The Siege of Easington

■ The Northern Echo’s website is carrying extended articles, video and picture galleries of the strike. You can leave your memories and comments on the dispute at northernecho.co.uk/minersstrike