If he was lucky enough to avoid an accident: Emphysema, Pneumoconiosis, deafness and Vibration White Finger were all common side effects of being a miner and large amounts of money were paid out in compensation in the years after the strike. The one side effect that was, to my knowledge, never documented and certainly never compensated, was that retiring miners often didn’t live long enough to enjoy it. It was not uncommon for newly retired miners to fade away once the impetus of working down the pit was no longer a part of their lives, which could have been as long as fifty years. My enduring evidence of this is the related account of miner who, a few days after retiring, got up as he would for his day shift and was found dead at the kitchen table with no obvious cause of death.
Still, such difficulties and dangers were accepted as a part of generations’ old daily life and unemployment was seen as something absolutely nobody wanted, me included.
When it was announced that 20 uneconomic pits in Yorkshire were scheduled to close on 5 March 1984, Arthur Scargill pushed for militant action and ballots were held pit by pit to vote for yet another strike. I have yet to discover why he didn’t push for a national ballot as he did in the 1970’s. Maybe he thought that the support for potential closures and the threat to the NUM was so strong that he could prove it by allowing a visibly democratic vote. Whatever his thinking was, he had not factored in the Nottinghamshire mining communities and their unilateral views. On the fateful day I waited with bated breath, terrified of the thought of job losses, while unable to avoid the feeling that it was both justified and entirely reasonable and the NUM had seriously overestimated its power.
In the end the vote, in Nottinghamshire particularly and perhaps predictably, was split, some pits went on strike, some didn’t. Even disregarding unilateral views, times were hard and the 1972 and 1974 strikes lingered as a memory of something not to be repeated. The mining communities were genuinely weary of disputes and Margaret Thatcher had made it obvious that she was not Ted Heath; she was not going to be blindsided by industrial action.
The results came in. My father’s pit stayed open and my husband’s pit was split 50/50 so the NUM made the deciding call to bring them out on strike. I was not best pleased.
The carnage began
Nobody could have envisaged how long the strike would last or were prepared for the thousands of police that would be seconded to keep the peace, much less the militaristic methods they would use.
In the strikes in the 1972 and 1974, the miners had picketed the power stations and coke depots over pay across the industry. In 1984, the strike was to make a stand against pit closures in Yorkshire and the rumour that ‘you’ll be next’. Picketing was targeted at the pits who voted not to make the stand and to stay working. It rapidly became a fight that was uncomfortably close to home.
The village I lived in sat close to the Nottinghamshire /Derbyshire county boundary and my house sat at a convenient location for a police cordon. I was woken in the early hours by blue flashing lights and unnecessary noise too often for me not to storm down in my dressing gown and point out that some of us had to work. From my viewpoint it all seemed way too intense and more likely to add fuel to the fire rather than put it out. Children could not walk to school without running the gamut of police and any car not obviously transporting the wife and kids was stopped as a matter of course to try and stop illegal flying pickets. As women became more active, some joining the picket lines, I considered sticking a paper in the car window saying ‘I’m a miner’s wife, but I don’t necessarily support strike action’. As time passed and events unfolded I was glad I didn’t.
In the beginning there was kind of bemused bitterness about the whole affair and we all honestly believed that after a month or two and it would be over. Well, we crossed our fingers and hoped it would; a couple of months was about as far in the future as we dared look. The divided ballot results had exposed divisions in the community. The radical elements postured loud and long about the power of the unions and the female Fachist Mrs Thatcher with her evil sidekicks, while the moderates kept their heads down, muttering disconsolately into a pint of best bitter that it would all end in tears and family comes first. Unlike most miners wives I had a job, but still, the loss of my husband’s wage packet scared me. I was an accounts clerk earning around £100 per week, I understood money and I understood the consequences of not having it. I was with the moderates; I could not really understand how anyone could take such a masochistic stance, even disregarding my view that it was a pointless exercise.