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International Women's Day The women who stood up for their pit community

Bernadette Hyland talks to DEBBIE MATHEWS, who was one of the women involved in campaigning to save Houghton Main coalmine in South Yorkshire, about a new book documenting their experiences

AS Debbie Mathews walked up the steps of Sheffield Town Hall recently and saw crowds of children campaigning for action on climate change she was inspired by their confidence. 

Children were central to the women’s pit camps that Debbie and many other women set up in 1992 after the Tory government announced the closure of 31 of the remaining coalmines.

Debbie — together with three other women, Caroline, Flis, and Marilyn — has co-edited and published a book, You Can’t Kill the Spirit, telling the story of the Houghton Main Women’s Pit Camp (1992-3). 

Opposing the closure of coalmines may seem a contradiction in 2019 when the issue of climate change has such a high profile. 

But, as Debbie says: “Mining was not a good industry to work in. But it was all that people had. Our campaign, and the miners’ strike of 1984-85, was about defending communities. Particularly as there was no alternative plan put forward by the government to sustain those communities.”

Debbie is from a politically active family: “My dad was active in his trade union and the Labour Party. My mum was active in the disability rights campaign and also a member of the Labour Party.” 

She joined the Young Socialists at 16 and went on to become the first member of her family to go to university. 

By the early ’80s Debbie was working in the voluntary sector doing challenging work with girls and in multicultural communities. After having her daughter in 1984 she became the second-youngest Labour councillor on Sheffield Council. 

In 1992 she was working at Sheffield Co-ordinating Centre against Unemployment (SCCAU). 

After Women Against Pit Closures responded to the threatened closure of more coalmines by organising a national demonstration against the closures and set up seven women’s pit camps outside the most threatened collieries, Debbie became involved with the Houghton Main Colliery in the Dearne Valley in the South Yorkshire coalfields. 

“The injustice of saying this was a worthless pit made me more cross than anything because they lied. My boss at the time basically gave me permission to spend my working time on co-ordinating the pit camp, so we were able to use the facilities of SCCAU,” she says.

The pit camps were set up and run by the women, Debbie remembers: “They were very much about how women do things. Bringing together families, children and the community. It was not all about banners and marches.” 

The women were influenced by their experiences in the ’84-85 miners’ strike and also by their involvement in the peace movement such as Greenham Common, weaving together ideas and actions around non-violent protest, creativity and encouraging sharing skills, information and decision-making. 

Because they were still responsible for children and the home, the women at the pit camp had to organise differently from the men. 

“We had to find ways of juggling our other responsibilities with running the pit camps and organising the campaign — locally and nationally — but we knew we could do it. We were women, we were strong!”

The first thing they did was to acquire a brazier. As Debbie recalls: “It was very symbolic — coal and keeping the fire going. We acquired a portacabin from Barnsley Council and a caravan.” 

They involved lots of women, covering a rota for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Communication was a key part of the campaign and the women made sure they controlled the message. 

“The campaign was not about pay, but about people’s livelihoods and communities, and our children’s future, just as it was in the 1984-85 strike.”

In You Can’t Kill the Spirit the women have produced not only the story of the campaign against pit closures but also an inspiring manual on how to run a community-based campaign. 

There are lots of photographs of children on the marches, parents and children at the pit camp, drawings by the women’s children documenting the camp, diaries, news cuttings, excerpts from the women’s personal diaries as well as tickets from socials.

It took the four women 25 years to find time to get together to create the book. They had bags of leaflets and photos to drawn on and also began to collect the stories of the other women involved. 

Training from the WEA and support from Gary Rivett at Sheffield University helped to create an oral history project.

To publish the book they needed funding, and while contributing their own money, they also got financial support from trade unions and the Labour Party as well as individuals. Out of a print run of 750 copies they have already sold 500. 

Looking back over 25 years, Debbie is still angry about the way in which Houghton Main and the other coalmines were closed for purely political reasons. 

“There was no recognition of the consequences for the communities and today people are still angry about it, and it’s taken a long, long time to recover.” 

Debbie is still active. “I am privileged to work in a community in Sheffield that felt the effect of the political attack on working-class communities, the trade unions and ideological obsession with privatisation. 

“They may have destroyed the mining industry but they really haven’t killed the spirit of the communities — I see that day in, day out — people supporting each other, getting ready for the next challenge.”

Debbie is one of the speakers at the Mary Quaile Club International Women’s Day event tomorrow at 2.30pm at the Friend’s Meeting House, 6 Mount Street, Manchester. Places can be booked at maryquaileclub@gmail.com. You Can’t Kill the Spirit can be ordered by emailing SWAPCPitCamp1993@gmail.com 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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