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Women Against Pit Closures: you can't kill the spirit

Women who fought to save a Yorkshire coal mine have produced a book recording their experiences. PETER LAZENBY reports

A QUARTER of a century ago the Tory government under prime minister John Major launched its final attack on Britain’s publicly owned deep coalmining industry with a huge round of pit closures in preparation for the industry’s privatisation.

The challenge did not go unanswered. Women in coalmining communities established protest camps at seven threatened pits.

The occupants of one of the camps, at Houghton Main Colliery in Yorkshire, have now told their story, not just as a piece of labour movement history, but as an inspiration to new and forthcoming generations of women.

You Can’t Kill the Spirit has been written by Sheffield and Houghton Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) group.

The WAPC movement came into being during the 1984-5 miners’ strike against pit closures.

When it became clear in the early months of the strike that the Tory government was intent on fighting to the finish in its determination to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers, Women Against Pit Closures groups were established in more than 100 striking mining communities by miners’ wives, daughters, partners, mothers and other relatives.

Food kitchens were set up to feed families — the Tories had prepared their ground long before the strike, introducing legislation which denied state benefits to strikers, a blatant attempt to starve miners back to work.

But the women of WAPC did not merely fill traditional roles running the kitchens. They became a mobile, militant force supporting the strike. They picketed alongside the striking miners.

One senior police officer was famously quoted as saying: “I’d rather face a hundred striking miners than half a dozen of those bloody women.”

The women organised rallies and marches, spoke at public meetings, universities and labour movement conferences. They raised funds. They travelled abroad — to the United States, Russia, to European countries, raising international support.

Common wisdom has it that without the active support of the women the strike, which lasted from March 6 1984, to March 3 1985, would likely have ended five months earlier than it did — such was the women’s determination to defend their families and their communities, which faced economic ruin if the government had its way.

When the strike ended the Tories launched a programme of pit closures which saw 125 coalmines closed with the loss of around 125,000 mineworkers’ jobs in the seven years from 1985 to 1992.

In a display of economic insanity, the Tories abandoned millions of tons of accessible coal reserves, and instead imported coal from abroad to fuel Britain’s power stations — a practice which continues today.

In 1992 came the Tories’ coup de grace against the miners. The government announced the closure of another 31 collieries, and the privatisation of what was left of the industry — just 19 pits, where there had previously been 200.

The Tories’ chief executioner at the time was Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, who gleefully announced the closures and privatisation plan at the Tories’ annual conference, winning cheers from an audience whose blood-lust for the miners knew no bounds.

The women of WAPC responded with the pit camps. The WAPC groups had not disappeared after the 1985 return to work. Their experiences during the strike had changed the lives of thousands of women.

Women who had previously filled traditional roles as “miners’ wives,” looking after their husbands, raising children, had become radicalised and politically active.

Some opted for education, attending university — previously a rarity among most of the women of Britain’s mining communities. It has to be said that the change destroyed some marriages, with women not prepared to revert to their previous roles solely as housewives and mothers.

Protest camps were established outside the gates of three threatened collieries in Yorkshire — Houghton Main, Grimethorpe, and Markham Main (Armthorpe), and at four others, Vane Tempest in Durham, Parkside, which was Lancashire’s last surviving coalmine, Trentham in Staffordshire, and Rufford in Nottinghamshire.

For months the camps were occupied by women 24 hours a day, hugely raising the public profile of the government’s final vengeful onslaught on the miners, their families, their industry and their communities.

You Can’t Kill the Spirit is the story of the women of Houghton Main pit camp, which was established in January 1993.

In a foreword to the beautifully illustrated book, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady writes: “Women Against Pit Closures was at the heart of the 1984-5 miners’ strike and subsequent campaigns.

“When another Conservative government announced plans to close more pits in the autumn of 1992, once again women galvanised opposition. And they did so with dignity, determination and imagination.

“Drawing inspiration from the women’s peace camps at Greenham Common, the pit camps they set up at the most threatened collieries became a focal point for resistance.

“A quarter of a century on, ‘You can’t kill the spirit’ brings their incredible story to life, charting how working-class women organised and fought back.

“Women Against Pit Closures was a life-changing experience for thousands of women who found a voice and strength they never knew existed. Sharing hardship made it easier to bear. Solidarity spread hope far and wide.

“We all know women who would never have dreamed of speaking publicly, organising kitchens, staging protests, joining picket lines and marching on 10 Downing Street, but they found the courage to do so. And in the process they discovered they were not just wives and supporters, but powerful leaders too.

“As Women Against Pit Closures rightly said, working-class women would never be the same again.

“That collective power inspired the pit camp at Houghton Main pit, as well as six others. Twenty five years on, we owe it to the next generation to rediscover that same spirit and collective ambition.

“After a decade of austerity cuts, stagnant living standards and attacks on unions, it’s time for radical change. And for inspiration, we need look no further than the brave, pioneering sisters who made Women Against Pit Closures such a powerful force for economic justice.”

In their own introduction to the book, the women of Houghton Main pit camp say: “Many of us had been active in 1984-85, but the story of our determination to continue to fight the destruction of mining communities in 1992-93 is largely untold.

“We remember and celebrate the brave women who campaigned for the vote 100 years ago, and the many other struggles in which women were central, at Grunwicks, Burnsalls, Timex, Middlewood Mushrooms and the Women’s Peace Camp at RAF Greenham Common, to name but a few. Just as we were inspired by them, we hope our story will provide inspiration for current and future struggles against injustice, inequality and discrimination.”

You Can’t Kill the Spirit can be ordered by emailing [email protected] or by writing to SWAPC, c/o 6 Burnside Avenue Sheffield S8 9FR. The book costs £12 including post and packaging, though a solidarity price of £20 is suggested. Cheques should be made out to SWAPC Pit Camp Project.

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