On March 6, 1984, Britain’s coal miners began a strike against mass pit closures. Their yearlong struggle with Margaret Thatcher’s government was a defining moment in working-class history — and the miners’ eventual defeat left lasting scars.

Four hundred miners blockading National Coal Board boss Ian McGregor inside a colliery office at Ellinton Colliery 22 on February 1984. (NCJ Archive / Mirrorpix / Getty Images)

When Britain’s miners went on strike in March 1984, there were three pits in Kent, with Tilmanstone, Betteshanger, and Snowdon collieries all huddled together near England’s southeast coast. This was a small, remote corner of the coalfield, far from both the old mining heartlands of South Wales, Durham, and Scotland, and the new center of the industry in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. According to market logic, Kent was “peripheral,” and its collieries were easy targets for closure. Conditions were tough. Betteshanger miner Gary Cox described how the coal seams were “about 3 foot thick. In Nottingham they were 14 foot thick. You could sneeze in Nottingham and get their coal off because it was crap. They actually had to mix our coal with Nottinghamshire coal just to make it any good to sell.”

Kent, known as the “Garden of England,” lies far from what’s popularly considered the core of Britain’s working class. Malcolm Pitt — a ripper at Tilmanstone, a Communist, and Kent area National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president in 1984 — described the pits as “an industrial intrusion into the agricultural and holiday resort economy of East Kent.” That miners were cut off, a “breed apart,” was always part of their mythology.

But Kent offered its own version of isolation. The workers, often migrants from more established mining areas, figured as outsiders imposed on a hostile population. Some within the local coalfield communities recalled that in the early days of settlement, in the 1920s and ‘30s, housing notices would read “no miners, no dogs, no children.” Social ostracism was experienced most acutely by miners’ wives; the men at least had the camaraderie of the workplace.

This seemed an anomalous place to find militant proletarians. In one version of the story, the strength of trade unionism in the Kent coalfield can be explained by the origins of those incomers, who traveled predominantly from South Wales and the northeast of England. It was said that many had been purged for their involvement in the 1926 general strike and lockout. In 1973, when the oral historian Gina Harkell spoke to local miner Mr McEwan, who had moved to Kent from Lancashire as a young man in 1930, he offered a different perspective: “There was fellas on the road for debt . . . and there was fellas on the run from kids and wives. Some of the real best come down ‘ere and some of the worst.”

The stories told about the coalfields throughout the twentieth century shaped how miners understood their lives and their communities. But they also powerfully influenced broader perceptions of an industry that had an almost unique place in public consciousness, especially on the British left. The industrial relations academic Peter Ackers reflected in the mid-1990s that, as most of the remaining pits closed, historians would be freed “from the uncomfortable but compelling commitment to the day-to-day battles of the living.” He looked forward to accounts of the coal industry that had an appropriate sense of “proportion, perspective, and objectivity.” Yet, the way in which the 1984–85 miners’ strike is remembered, in particular, has remained saturated by partisan loyalties. How the story of this iconic dispute is narrated tells us a lot about the uses of history, the politics of memory, and the relationship between activist minorities and the broader working class.

The Best and the Worst

Terry French worked at Betteshanger Colliery, which had the reputation of being the most militant pit in Kent. His distinctive tartan flat cap made him an easily identifiable figure. Terry was prominent among the active miners in the area during the 1984–85 strike, helping lead a ten-day march to the — mostly strikebreaking — Nottinghamshire coalfield. He also took part in extensive picketing. In May 1984, Terry joined other miners in trying to block vehicles taking imported coal out of Wivenhoe wharf, about fifty miles north of the Kent coalfield across the Thames Estuary. He was arrested and accused of attacking a police officer. The following January, Terry was convicted of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to five years in jail. Only two Welsh miners who killed a taxi driver transporting strikebreakers to work received more severe punishment for events during the dispute.

How the story of this dispute is narrated tells us a lot about the uses of history, the politics of memory, and the relationship between activist minorities and the broader working class.

Terry served a little over two years, during which he was shunted between Maidstone, Wandsworth, Northeye, and Ford prisons. His experience inside was disillusioning. In a letter written from Maidstone in February 1986, Terry explained that he had sought to bring the communal ethics of the coalfields into prison. But “people inside are not the same as us and don’t have the same outlook on life.” He found out that to survive he “had to become selfish and deceitful . . . I hate myself for it.” Once out, however, he at least initially returned to the collectivist, confrontational ideals that had motivated him during 1984–85. Later in the decade, Terry could be found organizing supporters to picket P&O ferries in nearby Dover during the National Union of Seamen’s strike. His life subsequently took a different path, though, and he seems to have been murdered near Amsterdam in the late 1990s.

In 2014, Liz French told the Guardian that “outside the house, Terry was a hard nut, very political, always fighting for something. But inside the house, we were equal.” Liz married Terry relatively young, just five years after she had left school to work in a local factory at the age of fifteen. She was a trade union shop steward. This background presumably helped as she became active in the local women’s support group during the strike, set up primarily to provide practical aid to coalfield families. It was an exceptional time. Liz traveled across Britain, and even to the United States, to drum up support. Standing on a platform near the White House, she introduced herself as a “working mother” and a “working wife,” who wanted to explain the miners’ predicament. She was heckled as a “Communist.”

Along with thirty-three other workers at Betteshanger, Terry was sacked during the strike. None were reinstated when the dispute finished. Most of the dismissals, including Terry’s, were triggered when the pit was occupied as two miners tried to return to work in June 1984. This was Robert McGibbon and Alec Smart’s second attempt at strikebreaking, after a first effort in April, and it wouldn’t be their last.

Although originally from Kent, McGibbon was an outsider: one miners’ wife observed in a letter to a local newspaper that he didn’t “come from mining stock.” He had worked at Betteshanger since 1976, having moved from British Leyland’s car factory in Cowley, Oxford, where he had campaigned to remove the socialist shop steward Alan Thornett from his position. Thornett wrote a letter of warning about McGibbon to his Kent NUM contacts in 1984. Among other things, he highlighted McGibbon’s links to the hard-right anti-union National Association for Freedom, best-known for their role in undermining the famous Grunwick photo processing factory strike of 1976–78.

The story of the miners’ strike can easily be told in dramatic mode. It contains both exceptional levels of solidarity and brutal division.

In terms of national profile, however, McGibbon was significantly outshone by his wife, Irene. In August 1984, she helped establish a local “Moderate Miners’ Democratic Group” and the following month met with Margaret Thatcher under the banner of the “Miners’ Wives Back to Work Campaign.” She was invited to address the Conservative Party conference in October and was received rapturously as she described the harassment and abuse she and her family received for standing up to the strike.

There is no doubt that Irene and her husband were targeted for significant attention by strikers and their supporters. In September 1984, an anonymous leaflet circulated through the villages of East Kent that purported to unmask the McGibbons: they weren’t an ordinary mining family concerned with upholding trade union democracy, but ideologically committed opponents of the labor movement. Consciously echoing Thatcher’s notorious anti-strike rhetoric, the leaflet declared the McGibbons “the enemy within.”

The story of the miners’ strike can easily be told in dramatic mode. It contains both exceptional levels of solidarity and brutal division. The Frenchs and McGibbons could feature as heroes or villains, perpetrators or victims, ordinary people or politically motivated enemies of the community, depending on who narrates this history. There are, however, more ambivalent stories from 1984–85.

Ann Robertson’s husband Rob was also a Kent miner. Neither Ann nor Rob supported the strike, but they stuck it out. They didn’t involve themselves in picketing, support groups, or indeed anti-strike organizations. Ann was “incensed” to be offered food parcels by the union to help sustain her family through the dispute, hostile to the implication that they might require what she considered to be charity. Ann and Rob didn’t discuss the strike once it was over: there were no fond memories, no bonding in the struggle, just “the wretchedness of a strike that achieved nothing.”

Heroic Narrative

The Frenchs and McGibbons both feature in Women and the Miners’ Strike: 1984–1985, a new book by the British historians Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Natalie Thomlinson. Yet, Ann Robertson’s story is in many ways more important for them. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson want to give space in narratives of the strike to the women who had complex and sometimes contradictory feelings about that year.

Their book explores the history of women’s relationship to the strike with a depth, geographical coverage, and level of insight that is unmatched. It’s an avowedly revisionist work, concerned with how the story of the strike has been told, by whom, and to what purpose. In a sense, it returns to socialist historian Raphael Samuel’s critique of the accounts written by miners’ support groups in the immediate aftermath of the dispute. “These books,” Samuel claimed, “correspond to what supporters of the strike would have liked it to be — a new page in a heroic history.” It is the “heroic narrative” of the strike, at least as it relates to women’s role in the dispute, that Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson set themselves against.

One sociological study in Yorkshire estimated that 4.7 percent of miners’ wives and partners were involved in collective action.

The heroic narrative, as they see it, has three central elements: the involvement of women in the strike was widespread; the support groups arose spontaneously; and this activism transformed gender relations in the coalfields. All these strands are challenged directly. Women and the Miners’ Strike repeatedly makes the case that the number of coalfield women involved in strike-related activism was actually very small. One sociological study in Yorkshire estimated that 4.7 percent of miners’ wives and partners were involved in collective action.

The vast majority did not actively participate in the support movement: Ann Robertson was considerably more typical than Liz French (or, conversely, Irene McGibbon). Nor did the support groups appear entirely out of the blue. At least early on, they were often initiated by women with some form of existing political or trade union background. The NUM itself had a hand in the formation of National Women Against Pit Closures, which sought to play a coordinating role for the movement. Nevertheless, as the word spread about how to establish support groups, more women got involved with little or no comparable prior experience of collective organizing.

The final element of the “heroic narrative” has been given enthusiastic backing in another recent, major work on the strike by historian of modern Europe Robert Gildea. “There was something of a gender revolution,” Gildea declares in Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85. “Miners’ wives had been transformed by the strike.” On the British left, among strike activists, and increasingly in popular media portrayals of 1984–85, such claims are relatively commonplace. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson profoundly disagree. Gender relations in the coalfields did indeed change in the twentieth century, they argue, but the strike — and more specifically, strike activism — was not the primary catalyst for this.

In the first instance, they believe such narratives are rooted in a simplistic and patronizing view of coalfield communities as patriarchal backwaters on the eve of the strike. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the increasing employment of coalfield women outside of the home; the weakening of the “pit village” version of community due to mine closures and the greater ability to commute; and a growing emphasis on partnership in marriage, meant that gender relations had already changed significantly.

This didn’t mean, of course, an egalitarian utopia. It did mean that the coalfields were much closer to the norm in British working-class society for the time. Things continued to change after the strike. But for Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson, the most obvious factor, here, was that pit closures upended the economic structure of the coalfields. Even many of the women involved in activism during 1984–85 wished to return to “normal”: the dispute, after all, was about protecting an existing way of life, not upending it.

In many ways, this is all convincing. However, there is more than one way to narrate the facts. The figure of 4.7 percent carries significant weight here as the best attempt at quantifying how many coalfield women were active in the support movement. Although it’s certainly a rough estimate, given the study was limited to a particular area, I don’t see any reason to question its broad truth. But is 4.7 percent a lot or a little?

It’s clearly damning evidence if you want to say that most women in mining areas were support group activists during the strike. Yet, I suspect you’d find very few forms of activism that weren’t largely a minority pursuit. Malcolm Pitt observed of the NUM — a much more engaged union than any I’ve been a member of — that “the mass of men never turn up to ‘mass’ meetings.” Given the ongoing, difficult, time-consuming work it involved, the level of participation in the women’s support groups was impressive.

Given the ongoing, difficult, time-consuming work it involved, the level of participation in the women’s support groups was impressive.

The same could be said of how important a role these groups played in the strike. A significant strength of Women and the Miners’ Strike is the detail in which it shows how people got by during that year. The collective organization of the support movement was only one strand in the web of family, communal, political, and debt relationships sustaining miners without income. But I find the comment on a survey of mining families in Yorkshire that “only 63 per cent of mining households received help from support groups” surprising. If this was representative of the coalfields more broadly, then perhaps a hundred thousand households were reached. That seems to me an extraordinary achievement.

What about the narrative of a transformation in gender roles? I’ve often, like Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson, thought that the more enthusiastic claims in this regard need to be significantly tempered. It’s hard to believe that a single strike, even an exceptional one like the miners’ dispute, could upend such deeply rooted social relations.

There’s an important discussion here about how change happens and the role of activism, broadly conceived, within that. But again, the data used to provide ballast to the study can be read in contrasting ways. A post-strike survey in West Yorkshire found that 29 percent of women believed there had been a change during and after the dispute in how household work was distributed, with 46 percent of those attributing this to the strike. If that was representative of mining households more generally, then probably over twenty thousand women thought that the gendered division of their domestic labor had been affected. Perhaps my perspective is twisted by wasting too much time on ineffectual activism, but if that was really accurate (and I have my doubts) it would be deeply impressive.

Telling Stories

At times, Women and the Miners’ Strike operates in myth-busting mode. At others, it is more concerned with questions that oral historians typically ask about memory and the creation of stories. Who is responsible for the perpetuation of this “heroic narrative”? There is a tension in the argument, here, that isn’t entirely resolved.

On one telling, it was instigated by the activist women themselves who almost immediately started narrating and mythologizing the movement. Their version of the story was then repeated by left-wing academics, filmmakers, journalists, and others. But sometimes the coalfield women seem to be more the objects of a narrative created by outsiders. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson lament “the power of middle-class activists and intellectuals to create the paradigms through which the dispute is understood.” In this account, many coalfield women active in the support movement came to tell their own life story within this “culturally dominant” narrative for which they weren’t responsible.

Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson aren’t arguing against an imagined opponent. The views they challenge have been expressed in the past, and continue to be, although I think there’s greater complexity in previous historical work than they sometimes allow for. More important than traducing Britain’s historians, though, is how we understand what is “culturally dominant.” This question expands beyond the women’s movement, as Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson suggest that there is a “dominant cultural paradigm that tends to valorize the strike.”

There are competing stories about the strike, not a single hegemonic romantic one — and much wider attitudes about society play out within these stories.

I suspect that depends on where you look. It might be true in your local trade union branch, but it definitely won’t be in the nearest Conservative association. Perhaps it describes the pages of the Guardian, but certainly not the Telegraph or the Sun. There are competing stories about the strike, not a single hegemonic romantic one — and much wider attitudes about society play out within these stories.

Women and the Miners’ Strike and Gildea’s Backbone of the Nation are radically different in how they view the historian’s role in engaging with the stories people tell about their lives. While Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Thomlinson attempt to deconstruct the narratives they’re given, Gildea appears reluctant to do so. Backbone of the Nation, which tells an impressively broad history of the strike, is largely a patchwork of excerpts from oral history interviews with only light commentary and contextualization to stitch them together. Sometimes contradictory views are presented with little attempt to adjudicate between them or explain where they come from.

There’s a democratic impulse here, rooted in the traditions of oral history — even if Gildea is ultimately the person responsible both for conducting most of the interviews and of choosing what to include in the book. This approach has its upsides but can also be frustrating. It’s difficult not to want to know what Gildea thinks all these stories tell us. But then, maybe we should, after all, be wary of the desire and power of professional academics to impose meaning onto other people’s lives.

The Lost World of British Trade Unions

Mel Elcock was a fitter at Bagworth Colliery in Leicestershire, one among a very small number in the area that joined the strike. “There’s an old saying,” he told Gildea: “Miners will not cross picket lines.” The strikebreakers that surrounded him “had no history at all. . . . I don’t think they actually grasped what it meant to be a miner.” The stories recounted about what a miner was, about the values and history of the coalfields, were powerful. They helped shape the moral and cultural norms through which individuals and communities understood and lived their lives.

The NUM sponsored miners to take higher education courses in subjects like industrial relations, economics, and politics.

These narratives could be simultaneously true, self-fulfilling, and overly simplistic. It wasn’t, of course, the case that miners never crossed picket lines. Elcock was surrounded by evidence of that in 1984–85, in an area where the majority continued to work. There are implied words in his statement: real miners don’t cross picket lines. To be a miner wasn’t just to work at a pit, but to feel part of that tradition and uphold a set of collective values. Yet, it was clear that the picket line did carry an unusually strong meaning through much of the coalfields, testament to the embeddedness of these social norms.

One of the important elements of Backbone of the Nation is how it illuminates the inculcation of trade union values among an activist minority. The NUM sponsored miners to take higher education courses in subjects like industrial relations, economics, and politics. This was not so they could leave and enter a middle-class profession; it was to make them effective trade unionists in their industry. The goal was collective self-advancement, not individual social mobility.

At Ruskin College, an adult education institute in Oxford with strong ties to the labor movement, miners would meet and learn with trade unionists from across Britain. In parts of the coalfields, the Communist Party played a key role in the exchange of knowledge across generations. As historian E. P. Thompson once wrote, there was “no comparable organization in which a young miner could enlarge his horizons both nationally and internationally, advance his political knowledge, effect contacts with intellectuals and with workers in other industries, while exerting a growing influence within his own community.”

The recuperation of this lost world of British trade unionism is crucial for understanding how collectivist ideals were transmitted. Kent miner Malcolm Pitt may have observed that most miners didn’t attend union meetings, but he also argued that those who did “formed a ‘vanguard’ of activists back at work, a task force of agitators.” Pitt was writing primarily about the early 1970s, when miners undertook two highly successful national strikes that probably marked the peak of their postwar industrial strength. Paul Chilton, who began his mechanical apprenticeship at Littleton Colliery after the 1972 and 1974 disputes, recalled being told that the people who had been active in those strikes “were the people who you look up to. These are the people who got us double the money, treble, you know. . . . And it was ingrained into you that you didn’t get anything unless you fought for it.”

What remains extraordinary, almost heroic, about the miners’ strike is that it lasted as long as it did, with as many people as it did.

There were limits to this influence. It was easier to win the majority over to collective action when it was successful. As the 1984–85 strike stretched across several months, in many parts of the coalfield this discipline started to crumble, even if strikebreakers remained a minority. In South Wales, where the dispute remained remarkably solid, some figures within the NUM sought to end the strike before the union’s authority evaporated entirely.

The Activist Minority

Women and the Miners’ Strike and Backbone of the Nation both do an impressive job of reaching beyond the activist vanguard to understand 1984–85. It would surely have been much easier to find an NUM representative or a support group member to interview than someone who sat at home throughout the dispute or who went back to work as the situation deteriorated after Christmas. There is a significant weakness in histories when an activist minority is mobilized to speak for the whole. But it’s important to think about what questions we are asking of the past when we consider the stories that we choose to tell, and how we go about telling them.

For me, what remains extraordinary, almost heroic, about the miners’ strike is that it lasted as long as it did, with as many people as it did. What I wonder about Rob Robertson, struggling to get by without a wage for an entire year for a cause he didn’t believe in, is why he didn’t decide with his wife Ann to break the strike.

Perhaps they felt, to some extent, that even if you thought a dispute was doomed it was still important to follow the collective will. Maybe they feared the consequences — the social ostracism and sometimes worse — of crossing the picket line. One reason to be interested in people like Terry and Liz French was that they were not only formed by this context, but they were also crucial in building and maintaining such cultures of solidarity. The interaction between the activist minority and the majority, where their stories differ and where they overlap, is essential in understanding the possibilities and limits of activism.

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