The steelworkers were beaten, the inner-city riots were quelled, the Argentinians were defeated. As 1984 loomed, Margaret Thatcher stepped up her anti-union and economic strategies to wage what was deemed to be an inevitable war. She took on the miners

THEIR names march out of the past like ghosts from a forgotten battlefield: Sacriston, Dawdon, Murton, Easington, Horden, Wearmouth, Vane Tempest – and as many more again.

They were the last outposts of an industry that had fuelled the industrial revolution and created Britain’s wealth and greatness.

They were the scattering of collieries left in a region that was born out of coal, that lived on coal, and whose culture, roots and traditions were embedded in coal.

In the mid-1940s there were 134 working pits in County Durham. By 1984 – a year synonymous with struggle, strife, Scargill, Thatcher, MacGregor and George Orwell – there were a dozen left in the county, with the Northumberland pits taking the region’s total to 17, employing 21,900 men.

Soon, very soon, there would be fewer still. By the turn of the century, only the solitary Ellington pit would survive, with its workforce of 400 carrying on their shoulders the traditions of the hundreds of thousands who went before them.

The coal industry had been in decline for generations.

But in the Eighties, three people who would hasten its decline – two of them intentionally, one of them unintentionally – were thrown together in a sequence of events that brought Britain to its knees.

The Northern Echo: Pickets
Pickets huddle behind a wall outside a Tow Law opencast site, left, as a late spring snow blows down the Durham dales.

Margaret Thatcher was swept to power on a tide of anti-union sentiment. In 1979 there was a mood for change in the country, and she harnessed its energy to legislate against union might and give employers the means to break strikes.

Diametrically opposed to her, and to everything she stood for, was the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, who had succeeded the presidency from Joe Gormley in 1981.

The nation knew that sooner or later their paths would cross and a crippling strike would ensue. Margaret Thatcher, still seething from the indignity of Edward Heath’s election defeat during the pit strikes of the early Seventies, would either stand or fall – and most supposed it would probably be the latter.

The third member of the triumvirate was Ian MacGregor, the British Steel chairman who had so ruthlessly brought despair to the North-East with the closure of Consett and the shedding of other steel jobs in the region.

MacGregor was an American of Scottish decent.

In 1977 he was brought to Britain as chairman of British Leyland, a company racked by industrial unrest.

The Northern Echo: a picketer is
led away
from the
opencast site
near Tow
A picketer is led away from the Inkerman opencast site near Tow Law

He was transferred to the British Steel Corporation during the first months of Margaret Thatcher’s administration.

Then, in 1982, he was transferred to the National Coal Board, a move that – after the Consett experience – sent a shockwave through the coalfields of County Durham and Northumberland.

The miners viewed him as a “hatchet man”, or Mac the Knife. MacGregor’s instructions were to make mining profitable by cutting back on excess production, and to do this he was given the go-ahead to dismember the industry through a pit closure plan that would hit three areas hardest – South Wales, Scotland and the North-East.

The touchpaper was the announcement that the first two of 20 pits were to close – Cortonwood, in Yorkshire, and Polmaise, in Scotland.

On March 8, 1984, strikes were called in the Yorkshire and Scottish coalfields. Four days later, the Durham miners walked out through the colliery gates – and so began one of the most bitter chapters in the region’s history.

As the nation’s press rushed to blame the miners for not changing with the times, describing the mining industry as “a clapped-out, steam-age relic”, The Northern Echo pointed the finger of blame for the escalating dispute in another direction.

The Northern Echo: Ian MacGreagor
Margaret Thatcher appointed steel boss Ian MacGregor, to take on Arthur Scargill and the miners’ union

In its leader column it stated: “Mrs Thatcher’s first mistake – as far as coal is concerned – was to bring in Mr MacGregor as a militant match for Mr Scargill.

Whatever the intention behind the appointment, Mr MacGregor is seen in the pits as a rich American who has been hired at great public expense to butcher an industry for which he appears to have little affection and who will go home to New York when his three-year contract is up.

“He is the Prime Minister’s apostle in the coalfields, but Mrs Thatcher appears to have no notion of the pulses that beat in pit communities nor of the realities she expects miners, and their children, to face.

“Coal will not be king again if the industry’s best resources – the human kind – are snuffed out now. From where does Mrs Thatcher expect to recruit miners in the year 2000? Finchley?”

The Northern Echo: Dawdon
Miners on the picket line at Dawdon Colliery in July 1984

THE strike started violently. On March 13, The Northern Echo reported: “Miner fought miner yesterday in the first violence over the national strike call.

“Fists and feet lashed out at one picket line as men arrived to clock on, and elsewhere pit wives claimed they were spat on by flying pickets as they supported their menfolk, who were among half the industry’s 183,000 miners still working.

“The only coalfield working completely normally was Northumberland, but they and all the other 80,000 men working normally are due to vote later this week.

“In Durham, 13,500 miners obeyed the union call for strike action, but 3,500 men at three pits – Dawdon, Seaham and Vane Tempest – reported for work. Pickets were out at most pits but the day passed without any serious incidents.”

The Northern Echo: Wearmouth Colliery
Wearmouth Colliery

Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor was in the region, visiting NCB offices in Gateshead, where he was confronted by Durham pitmen.

He told them: “Prolonged strike action could probably accelerate the programme of pit closures.” He wasn’t wrong. Mrs Thatcher, and later Michael Heseltine, would see to that.

The following day the strike intensified. The Echo reported: “Striking miners tightened their grip on the Durham coalfield. Only Dawdon Colliery was left working normally last night, and it is believed miners from other pits will make a determined effort to close it today.”

The Northern Echo: Murton Pit
Not much doing at Murton Pit, July 1984

Next day, the Durham coalfield was brought to a standstill, with Northumberland a day later, as the dispute, which would set brother against brother, and neighbour against neighbour, began in earnest.