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‘They didn’t break our spirit. They still haven’t’

The former mining community of Easington in County Durham was brutalised by police in the miners’ strike of ’84. But the locals haven’t lost their resolve – or their hope. PETER LAZENBY reports

IT WAS Miners’ Picnic Day in Easington in Co Durham on Saturday. Hundreds gathered for a celebration with music, speakers, craft stalls, a mobile bar and face-painting for kids. Miners’ union banners were displayed proudly.

But there was another side to the celebration. Saturday was the 35th anniversary, to the day, of what could be aptly called “The Invasion of Easington.”

On August 24 1984, during the miners’ strike against pit closures, 2,500 armoured police invaded this peaceful coastal community to subdue it.

The invasion provoked a riot, because Easington isn’t just any community. It’s a place outsiders might describe as “militant.” 

But the word is irrelevant here. To the people of Easington, “normal” would be the word for their way of life. 

“Militancy” and “solidarity” aren’t there as a result of any scientific political analysis. It’s just the way it is.

Easington Colliery was one of a string of coalmines on the North Sea coast in northern England.

The seams they mined were deep under the seabed. Easington’s roadways stretched six miles out beneath the sea.

At its peak it employed around 3,000 miners. They worked up to their knees in a sludge comprised of seawater and coaldust.

During the strike the pit was solid. Heather Wood, 68, was a leading activist throughout, establishing the miners’ first food kitchen two weeks into the strike and helping to mobilise hundreds of women to support what they recognised would be a long, hard struggle.

She has an almost photographic recollection of what happened on August 24 1984.

She said there was no question that any Easington miners would scab. But in August one solitary miner, who lived outside the community, decided to return to work at the pit.

The symbolism of the very words “return to work” was hugely important to the Thatcher government and the National Coal Board. 

“Return to work” — scabbing, in other words — was a propaganda weapon used throughout the strike to fragment the solidarity of the miners and to break the strike. 

Daily “return to work” figures were fed to the media, which published and broadcast them unquestioningly, parrot-fashion.

To have a man scab at Easington would be a major propaganda coup.

To the Easington miners and their families such an act of treachery would not be permitted.

The sole scab was repeatedly taken to the pit by police, only to be faced by hundreds of pickets.

Wood said: “The police would just say ‘there’s no point’ and they’d go back.”

Then came an intervention which prompted the police invasion. Piers Merchant was a Tory MP in the north-east.

Wood said: “Piers Merchant did this broadcast. He said: ‘Why is it that the whole of the Durham constabulary can’t get one man into Easington?’ That was why the police decided to come in.”

August 24 started like any other strike day.

“I got up as normal to take my kids to school. We went down the street and my son went round the corner then he comes running back shouting ‘Mam! Mam! The green’s turned black’!”

The community had a village green. The “black” her son saw was the combined mass of the uniforms of 2,500 police officers gathered on it.

Wood walked on towards the pit with her son.

“A bit farther down the road was a police blockade. I was stopped and they asked where I was going. I told the police I was taking my son to see my mother.

“But then my son said: ‘But Mam, you didn’t to tell him we’re going to the picket line first.’ So they stopped me.

“The main road was full of police on horseback, on foot, you couldn’t move. I shouted at a copper on horseback: ‘What are you doing in my village!?’

“There were TV cameras there but they weren’t filming.

“I went back up to the colliery club. All the telephones had been cut off. We couldn’t ring anyone outside.

“The police were threatening us. I was scared. I was shocked. I’m good at arguing and debating, but I don’t like physical violence. From that day on I’ve been terrified of violence.

“The police line would open up and they’d get one lad through. They got hold of one lad, Davy Gillin, and took him. I could hear him screaming. They beat him up with lumps of hosepipe. His mam could hear him screaming. Then they sent him to prison.

“The names they were calling women, in front of their kids … it was disgusting.

“They were even offering the kids Mars bars, dangling them in front of the children, then not letting them have them. They were frog-marching the lads off.

“The lads wanted to kick off. I told them not to, that the police wanted them to do that, that they wanted a fight. If it hadn’t been for the women there would have been a fight. One poor lad was just delivering papers. He was arrested.

“There was one ex-miner, Jossie Smith, who’d just come out of hospital after an operation. They pulled him into a van. 

“His wife was shouting that he hadn’t done anything so they put her in the van as well. They went into houses, no excuse needed.”

Wood’s friend Maureen James joins in. “It was barbaric what they did. And when I think … not one of them has been found guilty of anything, to this day.”

A few days later there was a riot in Easington.

“The police played football and cricket in the pit yard. They’d got one man in. The pickets went crazy. Police cars went over, windows went in. We could do with a bit more of that now!

“But they got their own back. They were bastards! Bastards!

“But the police didn’t get what they wanted. They made us stronger. I’m proud to say that Easington had the lowest number of scabs in the whole coalfield. Maybe half a dozen.

“They didn’t break our spirit. They still haven’t. The village acted like a socialist republic.”

Wood told her story of police violence and intimidation in the most incongruous of settings. She was sitting on a camping stool, sipping a glass of white wine, in the sunshine, at the Easington Miners’ Picnic.

The parkland on which the picnic took place used to be the pithead. There’s another social area, the “welfare park.” It’s called that because it was created using money from the local union’s welfare fund.

The park isn’t the only thing the union branch created. “The union paid for the community’s ambulance station,” said Wood. 

“The union paid for the kids to go on day trips to Whitley Bay and Redcar. And people ask: ‘Why do you need unions?’”

Easington was the last pit in the Durham coalfield to be closed, costing 1,400 jobs. That was in May 1993. The closure’s after-effects are still being felt, and daily life is far from a picnic in Easington.

“The biggest problem is that British Coal owned most of the houses,” said Wood. “They sold them off, some to sitting tenants, others to private landlords. Anybody the landlords didn’t want, people with problems, they moved them.

“They wanted to knock down a block of flats. They said that anyone who didn’t agree to be moved would be deemed to have made themselves homeless.”

James joined in again. “They’ve created drugs, knife crime. There are burnt-out houses here where the landlords have claimed the insurance money and done nothing with the houses.”

Wood said: “They’ve created ghettos for the unemployed, ghettos where people don’t know each other.”

One person not short of employment is the council rat catcher.

“Rats are rife because they used to live down the pit,” she said. “All the old colliery houses are rat infested. He gets called out at £60 a time.”

The community is still fighting back though. Wood’s husband was sitting with her at the picnic, wearing a T-shirt declaring support for strikers from the rail union RMT who are fighting to defend their industry. 

The solidarity and activism which once maintained Easington’s coalmining existence is today channelled into other struggles.

“The RMT are the new miners,” said Wood. “The Tories want to smash them as well.”

There’s another battle going on locally as well. James points out to sea, where a mile or so away is an anchored ship.

The ship is drilling down into unmined coalseams in advance of a planned coal gasification project. Gasification involves setting fire to underground coalseams and collecting the gas the burning coal gives off.

The environmental implications are horrific — the process could even cause a tsunami, says James.

“It’s even worse than fracking. We’re resisting it,” she said.

Wood said: “For a long time I was despondent after the strike. My mother — she died in June — said to me: ‘Have hope.’

“Now we’ve got a beautiful beach, a nature reserve. They’ve not killed our spirit. They’ll never knock the spirit out of us. What we need is a government that will put money into the community.

“The people here are having a little day out, but they’re also remembering what those Tory bastards did to us 35 years ago. I can’t forget. I’ll never forget, or forgive.”

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