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Women militants of the great strike reunite

As hundreds of women gather in Durham today to celebrate their role in fighting pit closures 40 years ago, HEATHER WOOD reflects on experiences in her own mining community, Easington in County Durham

SITTING here thinking, my mind goes back to 1984. What was I doing, what was going on?

I have always been involved in my community, a close-knit mining village on the north-east coast, Easington.

My mam and dad, good colliery folk, were not afraid of hard work, in fact, there weren’t many in our village who didn’t work.

The men were young and old pitmen for the most part.

It seems I’ve always been out on the streets shouting for one cause or another, whether it was voting for Manny Shinwell, saving our hospital or some such battle.

My dad was a miner, as were most men in our community. In fact, I was the first in my family to marry a man who didn’t work at the pit.

Mining communities had it all: the union sorted it, the men paid their dues and the union saw to it that we had recreational facilities, a doctor well before the NHS, rest homes for men and women, and trips away for us kids.

We had it all — but we never forgot the dangers, the fear of the buzzer going to tell us there had been an accident, the men lamed, breathless, walking our streets. We saw the true price of coal.

In 1983, when I was chair of our Constituency Labour Party, we could see what was coming. We knew what Thatcher would do to us. She hated us because we were strong, we were brave and we were fearless — but most of all she hated us for beating Ted Heath in the 1970s.

We decided we needed to alert folk, so called a meeting of all in our area. They came in their droves and they packed the council chamber: men, women, young and old, that’s when we formed Seam — Save Easington Area Mines.

We leafleted, we held meetings — anything to bring folk’s attention to Maggie and her plans.

Neil Kinnock, the then-Labour Party leader in 1984, came and spouted off about his connection to mining. That was soon forgotten when he betrayed us and hung us out to dry.

NUM president Arthur Scargill came and we had what was said to be the biggest gathering of miners’ banners outside the Durham Miners’ Gala.

In March 1984 our pit voted to strike. I suggested we contact all the women in our area, and so we leafleted every house, and boy — was it amazing! Women from all over the district came, and the Easington district council chamber was full of women instead of old men as it had been for years.

I helped organise some 14 free cafes in my area and some beyond.

The first opened in Easington itself around March 17 when we set up in the colliery club. All we had to cook with was one domestic cooker but we managed. It was not a soup kitchen but a free cafe with a different meal every day.

My mam Myrtle had been a school cook so she was used to cooking good stuff on a small budget. She ensured everyone ate a proper, nutritious meal.

As the days went by, more and more folk came not just for food but for advice, information and support.

Some days we fed thousands — no, I’m not exaggerating — in the school holidays. Luckily I’d negotiated with our county council so we could use the school kitchen for six weeks but then we were back to my mam making pies on huge trays and the local baker cooking them — or Harry Evans cooking fish and chips for the colliery.

Yes, we had support from the whole community except one shop and it closed after the strike — no-one shopped there.

Soon groups were organised throughout the county, with Ann Suddick at the helm. Women and men worked hand in hand in some of the groups, especially in areas where miners who had to travel to work lived.

Eventually, not long after the Barnsley rally, National Women Against Pit Closures was formed with Anne Scargill and Betty Heathfield as its leaders.

Women who had started out wanting to provide food for families were by now going to rallies, speaking in public, writing poems, acting in plays and picketing. As the strike went on their confidence grew: they could do anything.

There were many amazing women involved, too many to mention but a few I want to mention.

One who deserves recognition is Betty Cook in Yorkshire. Betty was a stalwart, a strong woman, who had her knee smashed by a copper’s truncheon, arrested for picketing outside Michael Heseltine — Tory MP and Cabinet minister’s — office.

Florence Anderson was arrested and charged, found guilty of throwing eggs, as if she would. Myrtle, my mam, who everyone knows, the woman who was out there fighting anywhere she saw injustice.

Back to today, back to 2024. Forty years later, many of our mining women have sadly gone, many are elderly and infirm, but they have got together after I decided I needed to organise something for the 40th anniversary. My man, my best mate, my husband of over 50 years, says: “Heather, make it small, we are getting on, remember.”

I say of course just a small event in Durham but just as the support groups of 1984 had grown so has our 40th anniversary celebration.

I spoke to Cook, who was over the moon I wanted to do something, we got a few women together and then a few more until it grew into a national event. It didn’t stop there: it took wings, and our sisters in the US, some of them coalminers, decided to come. Then a call from our comrades in the Ruhr Valley in Germany said: “We are coming to celebrate with you.” Then the Netherlands and France. Sisters united in the struggle.

We’ve had a shop in Durham all week displaying banners and memorabilia, and we’ve had folk from all over the world popping in, students, tourists and of course locals. It’s been amazing.

A couple called in. He had been a striking miner, he was an Orgreave veteran. They came back today with £100 — a donation to our cause. Never forgive, never forget.

Saturday will be a historic event: so many women and so many women’s banners from the struggle of 1984-85. So many sisters together to show the world we are still here ready to answer the call, ready to fight for a socialist alternative.

We never gave in and we never will. The fight goes on, there are battles to fight — and we women will be there at the forefront, as we were in 1984-85.

Heather Wood is the secretary of National Women Against Pit Closures.


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