The dispute that tore a nation apart
PUBLISHED: 17:22 04 March 2009 | UPDATED: 16:15 25 August 2010
IT was 25 years ago today that an announcement to close a coal mine in Yorkshire sparked the most bitter industrial dispute this country has ever seen.
IT was 25 years ago today that an announcement to close a coal mine in Yorkshire sparked the most bitter industrial dispute this country has ever seen. The miners' strike rocked Britain in the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher's quest to close 'uneconomic' pits led to walk outs, violent 'flying pickets' and stark poverty in mining towns. While much of the unrest occurred in the north of England, thousands of miners in the country's newest collieries in Kent were caught up in the strike that changed the face of England's industry forever. Kate Mead reports...
THEY were among the first to down tools and some of the last to return to the pits.
Some 2,000 miners at the Kent collieries at Betteshanger, Snowdown and Tilmanstone stood in solidarity with their Northern co-workers and were propelled into the middle of the biggest dispute between union and state this country has ever seen.
On March 5, 1984, miners all over the country walked out when it was announced that Cortonwood pit near Barnsley was to shut down as part of a programme of closures that would see 20 sites shut and 20,000 miners lose their jobs.
In just under a fortnight, 187,000 miners downed tools but little did they know that the ferocious dispute between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Coal Board and Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) would last for nearly a year.
Some of the most militant of miners came from Kent, as descendants of 'refugee' miners who were blacklisted during the General Strike of 1926.
Assistant Curator of Dover Museum Mark Frost, where they ran the Coalfield Heritage Initative Kent, said: "They were the first ones to strike and the last back to work in 1985. Betteshanger was the last to close in 1989, 99 years after they discovered coal - they didn't quite make it to a century."
Despite being one of the smallest coalfields in the country, their strength of feeling made them some of the most influential activists in the country.
Former Betteshanger branch NUM secretary, Terry Harrison, said: "It was the emotion felt between them more than anything. So they joined the strikes early.
"Kent miners were from small coal fields like Wales and Scotland and it was time to protect their own employment and communities. Although we were small our influence compared to our size was incredible."
Previously joining pickets in Nottingham, Ipswich, Gravesend and Colchester, Kent miners were also a strong force behind the London movement prominently taking part in marches through the capital.
It was not until some miners started returning to work as the strike movement continued into autumn that they were involved in pickets and 'sit ins' at the Kent collieries.
It was perhaps their militant force that sparked a police tactic to stop miners from travelling North at roadblocks at Dartford tunnel on March 18, 1984 - an incident slammed for 'injuring civil liberties'.
Mr Harrison, who described it as a "flagrant abuse" of civil rights, added: "When we were stopped I suppose we made the mistake in thinking this was something the police was doing at the time, rather than realising it would be the policy of police to stop pickets at Dartford tunnel.
"They just stopped people in cars that looked like they could be miners and stopped them from travelling north."
Complaining that the tactics were an assault on civil liberties, Kent miners, led by Birmingham Five QC Mike Mansfield, took a case to the High Court in 1986.
The case, heard in private, ruled that the Chief Constable of Kent's reasoning that the miners' activity "might lead to a breach of the peace" was valid and that they had no right to claim damages.
But it was not just miners who complained of heavy-handed police tactics when some supporters found themselves arrested for the same charges of 'obstruction' as the miners purely for collecting for charity.
Some 10 people collecting money in Bromley High Street were arrested in early 1985 while collecting for mining families and charged with obstruction at the Magistrates Court.
The arrest of the supporters, later known as 'The Bromley 10', sparked a protest through the High Street organised by the TUC branch secretary George Wilson. Mr Wilson, who visited the Kent collieries with donations of food and other sundries donated by residents, said that following the "quite illegal" road blocks at Dartford, Bromley residents were moved to protest that their arrest went against civil liberties.
He added: "Activists and miners were arrested for going to a picket peacefully, they had no reason to be violent, it was usually the other way round."
A Bromley Times article dated September 5, 1985 reported on accusations that the police were "menacing and well organised", adding: "Police evidence was described... as malicious, false and a complete fabrication.
"[Giving evidence, the defendant] said he believed the police were looking for trouble when they arrived... and was not cautioned on being arrested.
"Members of the public protested about the arrests... but were told by the police to get lost or they would be in the same position."
Former Orpington College student Tess Garrett, 40, now living in Brighton, was one of the Bromley 10.
As she was aged just 16 at the time, charges against her were dropped as she was 'bound over' to Bromley Magistrates.
She said: "At college we devised a play about the miners' strike and had to research it in great detail. It really influenced my thinking about the strike.
"When I heard about the collections going on, I thought it was really important to go. I got a sense of a bigger picture going on and that people needed money and support groups for the families.
"I was really shocked when I was arrested because I thought in my naivety that everyone supported the cause. It was strange to be such a young girl propelled into becoming one of the 'Bromley 10'."
But Bromley Inspector Ian Johnson, 53, who was drafted to various pits in the north of England while stationed at Bexleyheath, said that many officers sympathised with the miners despite being accused of siding with the government.
He said: "The hostility was staggering, we were in the middle of it but we had a lot of sympathy with the guys up there.
"But we were just doing our job, we had to get the guys that wanted to work into the mines and maintain public order.
"It was quite hard to have sympathy for people who would clearly like to kill us but on reflection you would think 'you poor so-and-so'.
"There was an upside for us, we were getting double pay for working our rest days. It was quite ironic that we got paid so much when these guys were losing their jobs - I guess that's the rules of engagement."
Despite accusations that the police and government were working alongside each other, there were pockets of local government who opposed Thatcher's methods. Greenwich council were vocal in their opposition to the government's closure programme fearing a collapse in workers' rights and mass unemployment.
Former Greenwich Mayor, Jim Gillman, founded a miners' support group in the borough in support of their twin town Easington in County Durham.
He said: "The economic period at the time was very damaging. We saw it as the last industrial business and wanted to fight to save what was left of it. Unemployment in Woolwich had hit 18 per cent so people there felt just as much under attack as the mining communities."
Many supporters in Charlton and other parts of the borough opened up their homes to miners and donated food and funds to help poverty-stricken families affected by the strikes.
Mr Gillman added: "It was always going to be difficult, they were standing up against the state and leader with a strong allegiance in the police force who were extricated to do all they could to break up the strikes."
But it soon became clear that Thatcher was going to win the year-long struggle, refusing to let the strikes cost her the election as it had her Conservative predecessor Ted Heath in 1974.
Betteshanger's Mr Harrison concluded: "The longer it went on the less obvious it was that we were going to win. When you strike, you hope it would bring the other side to your way of thinking. But Margaret Thatcher could see that they could win.
"I don't think we ever had a Plan B, but we were hoping for a soft landing."
But there was no soft landing for many of the Kent miners whose forefathers had built up their villages of Aylesham and Elvington providing their own schools, churches and shops.
As earnings in the pits dried up, whole villages would suffer the effects of mass unemployment with facilities falling into disrepair and poverty hitting the once tight-knit and thriving communities.
Mr Harrison added: "For some in Betteshanger, men and women that wanted to find work found it on the railways and at Pfizer chemical factories. But for other villages in smaller industrial sites, and the experiences of those in the Northern coalfields, some of the tales are too awful to contemplate."
And despite a quarter of a century having passed since the industrial dispute, the fall out is still felt by many mining towns as if it happened yesterday.
Some still hold grudges that have survived for decades, Mr Frost of the Dover Museum claimed.
He added: "Some people still don't speak to neighbours because they went back to work too early, it's still a political hot potato.
"Some people are still ostracised, it carried on to the next generation. They lost the fight to keep the pits open so they lost everything: their community, their jobs, everything. So it is still felt very much today."
SPIRIT, GRIT AND DETERMINATION
I was escorted to Sandwich Magistrates court, there were television crews outside. My family was at home watching the news.
"When my four-year-old boy saw me being led into the courthouse it broke his heart, he cried his eyes out. My six-year-old daughter thought it was funny and laughed.
"I was charged with 'watching and besetting' - some ancient law that means hanging around with intent. I think Dick Turpin was probably the last person to get it, the judge had to ask a barrister what it was.
"For campaigning they sent me to Canterbury prison for four months."
As a 16-year-old Dave Hemmings joined Betteshanger colliery in 1974, Kent's biggest pit near Deal with mine shafts 24ft wide. Since 1984 he has been steward of Deal Welfare Club, off Mill Hill, where the majority of Betteshanger's 2,500 miners lived. Picketing was round the clock," he said. "We went to Tilbury, Brightlingsea, any private docks to stop deliveries of coal. Very little came through Tilbury.
"We went as far as Yorkshire and most went by peacefully, but there were many confrontations with police at Betteshanger.
"Some of the men went back to work and were bussed in. There were hundreds of police manhandling us out the way so they could get through the picket line. About 80 workers betrayed over 2,500 other miners who held out."
The Club laid on three meals a day for striking miners and their families as the strike continued for nearly a year.
Eddie Pickford worked at Tilmanstone and was 26 when the strike bit down hard.
"The lowest point came when winter crept in," he said. "We didn't have a coal allowance anymore, but the local farmers let us cut down some of their trees for fuel.
"Men showed real solidarity and comradeship, the welfare club helped us and families pulled together to get through it. A hardship fund saw that no family went without."
The crucial role of women at the club saw an end to the 'men only' section in 1984 as the miners ditched one of their traditions, happy to embrace a tighter family and community spirit born out of extreme hardship.
Young miner Jimmy Brannan was 19 at the time, he recalled: "The worst thing was watching my mother and father struggle. I could look after myself, but my parents had my three sisters and a brother to bring up. I put my faith in the union, we were right to strike and Arthur Scargill was right.
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