Forgotten heroism

Dave Douglass reviews Jonathan Symcox, 'The 1984-1985 miners strike in Nottingham: if spirits alone won battles - the diary of John Lowe' Pen and Sword Books, 2011, pp176,

Another chapter is here added to the ever-expanding canon of literature on the British miners, and specifically the Great Strike of 1984-85 and its consequences for the industry. This highly readable book takes the familiar form of a diary, following in the footsteps of Arthur Wakefield’s The miners’ strike day by day (2002) and Yorkshire’s flying pickets, based on the diary of Bruce Wilson (2004). While each of these works adds a little more colour and reveals the impressions, aspirations and understanding of the strikers, with this book we have something so far unique - the day-by-day struggles of a rank-and-file striking Nottinghamshire miner - that is to take nothing away from Keith Stanley’s Nottingham miners do strike (2011).

John Lowe was a coalface worker at Clipstone colliery. A full-blooded union miner, in a coalfield whose conviction and commitment to that code had been steadily bleeding away. John was neither a branch official nor a member of the branch committee; he was one of those who ‘have greatness thrust upon them’. His role was leader, organiser, coordinator, picket - and often tattie-peeler in the absence of anyone else.

His story reveals one of the many heart-wrenching dilemmas which occurred in the Nottingham coalfield above all others, where loyalty to his class, his union and the strike is at the expense of coal mining members of his own family who chose the other side: “My position is this. My wife is 101% behind my stand. Two sons are scabs, as is a son-in-law at Mansfield colliery. A row developed in which a daughter-in-law decided that her view was totally right, hence a split. The rest of the family then isolates both of us for a while … For many weeks [my wife] cried herself to sleep nightly, and awoke each morning in the same state … [It] was like a knife twisting inside me. The hardest part was not seeing our grandchildren - the worse scenario [which] I could not have envisaged ...”

His grandson, Jonathan Symcox, has no problem honouring his granddad’s principles and has been the driving force in ensuring this work is published and made available for future generations to read - hopefully they will understand the truly monumental sacrifices made by folk like John. As Jonathan says, “In these times of job losses, pension cuts and protests, the 1984-85 strike resonates with the little man or women as potently as ever before. John Lowe’s diary is a priceless record of the most important of all industrial disputes, one that shaped the country we know today, from the very heart of the Notts battleground, upon which the miners were ultimately impaled. But it is also the tale of a man, flesh and blood, who stood up for what he believed in: I hope the reader will see this man lost to us these last few years within the pages and recognise a true working class hero.”

The book reveals the confusion of the first weeks of the strike, with mixed messages and lacklustre resolve from the area leadership. Perhaps an overenthusiastic and premature response from over the Yorkshire border added to the problem - getting people’s backs up and strengthening the anti-strike core propaganda among the Nottingham miners. Disagreements over how this vexed situation should have been handled persisted throughout the strike.

John and the Notts striking minority plead for tangible, visible support; they pray for better tactics, but are continually frustrated:

Saturday August 11 1984: “The NEC did not give me the boost I was looking for. National need to realise the desperate need at grassroots level in Notts for an offensive. The media battle is wearing down even the staunchest of hearts. For god’s sake, Arthur, come to the picket lines, soup kitchens - let the lads and their families talk to you and the rest of the leadership. Listen to their thoughts and needs. Heed their complaints. Help us take the initiative again.”

I confess I thought I knew most things about the 84-85 strike, and was at the centre of its Yorkshire hub. But I had no idea that we as a union had failed the Notts strikers so badly. The women’s group, desperate for premises to set up a food kitchen for the kids and strikers, found themselves shunned and isolated, turned away by their own miners’ welfare and working men’s clubs, as well as council premises. Not until the strikers staged a sit-in at a youth centre, resisting all the threats of scabs and police, did they manage to win the use of the St John’s Ambulance hall, from which to mount a much needed welfare operation.

So it was with funding too. I had no idea until reading this book how poor and desperately short they were of funds for pickets’ petrol and other expenses, as well as to buy food for the kids and relief of hardship. Although we had pulled out all the stops and money was no object to get our Yorkshire pickets into Nottingham, it seems we failed to provide anything like the financial aid which would have kept their own pickets in place, maintain the strikers’ families and help Notts be a full and equal part of the strike. It becomes clear from reading this book that a great many striking miners were driven back to work for want of a few quid to save their houses, or keep their cars on the road. I am frankly ashamed we did not plug such an obvious gap.

Thursday July 12 1984: “Jim Dowen phoned later to tell me the £300 we were expecting from National is no longer on. We have £130 this week and the financial situation is becoming difficult again.”

Such tiny amounts, against such urgent and strategically vital need, and still we expected men to stick it out.

Tuesday February 5 1985: “There is much dissatisfaction with the seeming lack of concern by our national leaders over our position in Notts and the lack of information given us; we only found out by phoning HQ at Sheffield that the national executive committee meeting has been put back to next Tuesday.”

However, the book is also very illuminating in showing that the strike in Nottingham was far from ineffective - something which the National Coal Board and government went to great lengths to disguise.

Tuesday June 5 1984: “Two cars were sent to Rufford; reports later of a large picket. As there was no through flow of traffic to complicate the situation, the lads were hit from the front and when many tried to get out of the way were hit from behind with the horses. A whisper from ‘over the wall’ states that, even with the drift back to work, production is still down by almost two thirds; have not been able to verify this.

“… during September, tonnage figures were circulated, we at Clipstone pit were having a far greater effect on production there than was the case at many of the Notts pits. A comparison of tonnages for the weeks ending October 29 1983 and September 27 1984 showed that production was down by 59% from 20,526 to 8,400 tonnes.”

The impression being peddled by the NCB and government was that Notts was virtually working normally, but here we have first-hand evidence that nine months into the strike production was seriously affected:

Tuesday November 13 1984: “Some figures of the board’s losses in South Notts so far show this must be the most expensive coal ever mined; the amount lost at five pits ranges from £6.5 million to £24.5 million.”

As the strike wears on and the bitterness in the close and tight-knit villages increases, a veritable war is unleashed on the strikers and their families: abusive letters, phone calls and graffiti, escalating to smashed windows, wrecked cars and physical attacks; arrests and intimidation by police; blanket bail restrictions and hefty penal sentencing by the courts; victimisation and sackings by the Coal Board; stonewall indifference from the benefits agencies. On top of all this, the lack of financial back-up and tangible solidarity which those of us in the solid areas came to take almost for granted.

Call me naive, but I, along with everyone else, assumed that the needs of Notts were covered by our area and national officials. They weren’t. And, with half of the Notts leadership scabbing and the others - according to this book anyway - afraid to get fully into the water, it is little wonder good hearts were broken and good men were turned into scabs. On top of this were the personal letters from colliery managers to the strikers, headed “Your job is in danger” - implying, ‘If you don’t want your job, even though all your mates are back at work, we will have to replace you.’ Despite all this, a heroic minority led by rank-and-file men like John Lowe stood firm.

John had been a striker in the 70s when Notts was as solid as every other coalfield and we were winning. He reflects on the different police attitudes between 74 and 84. Denied the right to build a picket shelter in the midst of a bitter, sleet-filled winter, pickets were forced to stand in the open, unprotected from the gales. They were stopped from using the traditional brazier to keep warm and cook food. The screws were turned as tight as can be imagined. The union demanded they stay at their post, freezing in the open, and risk arrest for talking to drivers or attempting to stop them. And - god love them - a minority of iron men and often women did that day after day, from dawn till dusk, for 12 months.

Friday July 27 1984: “Arrived home about 2pm from the centre to find the phone ringing. It was a lad calling from the hospital to ask if I could get down there immediately. Our old friend, Sid Richmond, was in trouble there. What an appalling story! … he was stopped by police at the traffic lights and told he had to turn back. Being alone in the car and an obvious pensioner, it should have been quite plain he couldn’t be a threat to anyone, despite the fact he was wearing one of our stickers.

“He insisted he was going forward about his legal business. This was when the police, the London Metropolitan Y division, became nasty and abusive. They opened his car door and attempted to pull him out. He resisted and was told, ‘Get out, you old bastard’ again and again ... five of the brave Met boys set about dealing with him at once. Eyewitnesses … stated that one of them struck Sid three times in an effort to dislodge him. He was taken to the roadside with handcuffs on one hand and there was detained for a time; because he was showing his manacled hand to passing motorists a constable put his helmet over it and held the arm, hiding it from view. The handcuffs were so tight that the marks were plainly visible late tonight.

“… when he was allowed finally to go it was minus his car and with his arm and wrist badly bruised ... On their way back to Mansfield they were stopped by more police; his son dragged out of the van, arrested and put in a police van. Sid was taken with them to Mansfield police station, where his request for a doctor was finally granted; he was taken to Mansfield General Hospital …”

Tuesday October 16 1984: “An alarming story: the Creswell food kitchen was burned down yesterday. It seems arson is claimed by the strikers, while the police just don’t seem interested. It took them 45 minutes to get there, while a scab complaining can get them out in minutes. Later reports said that chairs, paper and tablecloths were piled in the centre and fired: entry had to be gained by breaking a window. Only the bravery of one of the ladies who rushed inside and turned off the gas heating which was due to come on prevented a disaster. As it was, downstairs was gutted.”

With the collapse of the strike, with the birth of the demon child known as the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, with the whip hand (and jackboots) now with the managers and a nest of snakes in the union office, the Notts strikers could breathe no sign of relief. They were forced to fight a battle every much as hard and uncompromising as they had faced in the 12 months of the strike.

“We in Notts … had to return without the fanfares and publicity. There were no bands to lead our lads through the villages and into the pit yards; there were no cameras to show our defiance in the face of defeat; people did not line the streets of our pit villages. This was Nottinghamshire; we were a minority and surrounded by hostility. The spirit of our lads on their return was nothing short of heroic.”

Clipstone was closed as an NCB colliery in 1993 and was taken over by the private company, RJB Mining, which bought up the bulk of the pits surviving the closure programmes of Thatcher and Major. Clipstone was closed for good in 2003. Its headstocks - the highest in Europe - are preserved as an industrial heritage. But the real industrial heritage is to be found in the pages of this book, and in the hearts of the men and women depicted in it.