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Solidarity and Support in Lancaster during the Miners Strike of 1984-85

Eric Jones, Margaret Jones, John King

Introduction

This is very much a provisional account. It is deeply coloured by the authors’ personal experiences, and severely constrained by space limitations and copy deadlines. The description of picketing in the early months of the strike is particularly inadequate, as two of the authors moved to Lancaster in late August 1984, and the third was involved only very indirectly, as a host to men from Blyth. The Lancaster Labour History Group hopes in due course to produce a much longer and more thorough work, which will be better documented and will draw on the memories of many more of those involved (including some of the miners themselves, whom we have not been able to contact within the time at our disposal.

The Pickets Arrive — and Depart

The tiny port of Glasson Dock is located in a picturesque setting at the end of a spur of the Lancaster Canal, five miles south of the city. It is a popular hount for weekend yachtsmen, and its three pubs do a good summer trade. In normal times the port has a low-key commercial traffic, specialising in animal feeds. But Glasson Dock is non-union, and has scabbed in every dock strike of recent years, no cargo ever being blacked in a dispute. In 1972 and 1974 it was a minor but irritating thorn in the flesh of the N.U.M.

In 1984 it was rather more prominent. Like Wivenhoe, similarly situated near the university town of Colchester, Glasson built up a thriving business in imported coal very early in the strike. By the second week in April coal from East Germany was being unloaded; later ships were to come from Poland and the United States, giving a rate of several thousand tons of coal per week. At first the handful of pickets were heavily outnumbered by police, but in the middle of the month 300 men from Ferrymore Riddings had arrived.

Local Socialist Workers Party members and students responded quickly to the arrival of the first Yorkshire pickets, organising accommodation where necessary. In a couple of days the slightly more ponderous wheels of the Trades Council had turned into motion, and the Trades Hall was used to feed and - with additional help from many of the left in the area - to accommodate the growing numbers. The S.W.P. had also taken the initiative in arranging for the pickets to collect money (at least £200) at Heysham nuclear power station, much to the chagrin of a leading Trades Council official. One source reports that a miner’s response to being informed that the Trades Council was organising collections through normal (i.e. “official”) channels was rather colourful in tone and language, because the S.W.P. students had already got it “sorted” for them.

The police denied Trades Council claims that they were turning a blind eye to overladen lorries speeding along the narrow lanes. This was a lie. The road from Glasson into Lancaster passes a large mental hospital just inside the 30 m.p.h. speed limit, where two patients had been killed in separate accidents on a zebra crossing only months before. Everyone who used that road became accustomed to huge lorries racing past the hospi­ tal gates at 40-45 m.p. h., often shedding lumps of coal as large as a policeman’s fist from their bulging loads.

Early in May the first pickets from Bates pit in Blyth arrived in Lancaster. Soon there were over one hundred of them, based at the Trades Hall and accommodated by dozens of local families. There was an element of mutual culture shock, few of the academic and student hosts (for example) being used to visitors who regularly got up at five in the morning. At one point the miners offered their services as tunnelling experts to aid in the rescue operations at nearby Abbeystead, where fifteen people had been killed in an underground explosion at a waterworks. The offer was not taken up, nor did it receive much publicity.

Despite the pickets’ enthusiasm and the promise of support from the Transport and General Workers Union in Preston, the coal continued to pour through under police escort, with the scab drivers trying to provoke the miners by waving £20 notes as they sped past. Inevitably tempers frayed. There was a fight one night in Lancaster outside a chip shop between a number of miners and several drivers. Then, at the end of May, one picket stoned the windscreen of a lorry, fracturing the driver’s skull and causing the partial demolition of a caravan which the lorry crashed into. This gave the police the opportunity they had been looking for. Their presence became still heavier, the prospect of successful picketing receded even further, and the pickets’ morale collapsed. A spokesman from Bates told the Trades Council later that week that the picketing was to be wound down, and therafter the miners maintained no more than a token presence at Glasson. The police had spent £1.6 millions to break the picket, excluding generous overtime payments. (The Blyth miner convicted of the attack on the lorry escaped with a suspended sentence; it seems that the judge’s grandfather had once worked down a pit!.)

The Summer Camp

I suppose almost everyone even remotely connected with the Lancaster left was roped in to help feed and accommodate the Glasson pickets on those long cloudless days in May. When picketing ceased soon after the stoning incident already described, and the miners went away, there was a strong feeling of anti-climax. It was obvious that the dispute would be a long and bitter one, but much less clear what we in Lancaster could do about it. In retrospect I’m sure we should have set up a formal Miners Support Group at that point. Instead we sat in pubs and got progressively more miserable, until one comrade had a bright idea. Why not put on a summer camp for miners’ kids? It would provide a welcome boost to the morale of both miners and their supporters in Lancaster, and could also attract the backing of many well-meaning liberals who would otherwise recoil at the prospect of endorsing “violent picketing” and “illegal secondary action”. Looking back, as I say, we should probably have established a proper M.S.G. with a primarily collecting and campaigning role. At the time this seemed to be much too ambitious, and the Lancaster Social Education Summer Project (as we camouflaged its more subversive purpose) turned out to be a pretty good second best.

At first news of the camp was spread by word of mouth. A handful of people met in the pub and invited their friends, until the numbers turning up on a Friday night grew so large that a room had to be hired at the Gregson Institute in Moor Lane (whose owners, the Freehold Community Association, became sponsors of the Project). A strange collection of misfits and oddballs became involved: University lecturers and teachers of the ineducable; S.W.P. members and Lloyd George liberals; students of outdoor pursuits and dedicated barflies. Somehow a semi-formal structure and a conscious strategy emerged. The kids would come from Blyth in Northumberland, which had sent over the most militant pickets and where we still had contacts. There would be 75 of them (fifteen a week for five weeks in late July and August), and we’d need at least £2,000 to feed and entertain them. (In practice we raised over £2,500, and needed every penny). We’d take them to Silverdale, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the northern shore of Morecambe Bay, where someone knew a good cheap campsite at Gibraltar Farm (“went to Gibraltar for my holidays last year. . . ”). They’d get lots of healthy out­ door activities, with the odd evening at Morecambe funfair if funds permitted, and we’d supply a good balanced diet to make up for months of poor feeding.

There was no shortage of organisers; nor, as we soon discovered, were adult volunteers lacking. One of the few positive consequences of four million unemployed is the availability of many people with their own tents and a lot of time on their hands. Money was more of a problem. We started strongly with large donations from the Students Union at St. Martin’s College and several University junior common rooms, and built on this base with begging letters to local political parties, the Coop, trade unions and churches, as well as a very lucrative circular to every member of the academic staff at the University. In June and July 1984 there was virtually no public activity in Lancaster in support of the miners, apart from limited workplace levies at Heysham Power Station and the University. We were exploring virgin territory, and it proved very rewarding. Busking by Paramount Islanders and a concert by the local group Sound Investment raised almost £300. The University Community Action Group helped us contact volunteers, and the District Education Office arranged the loan of cagoules, boots, rucksacks and cooking equipment. The University hiking club lent us four large and quite invaluable tents.

On a very sunny Sunday afternoon the first fifteen kids arrived. The campsite was at a particularly beautiful and secluded area only a few hundred yards from the beach. We kept rules to a minimum, making the safety of the kids the paramount reason for having a rule. They took part in activities they had never before experienced - rock climbing, abseiling, canoeing, sailing, pot-holing - and it is to the credit of the volunteers who supervised them that there was not a single accident in the five weeks of the camp. Every day saw a variety of different experiences for the kids. One of the most popular was the swimming and water games session held every morning at Camforth Pool. The pool staff volunteered to come in an hour early so that we could have the pool to ourselves. We found that this positive, helpful attitude was widespread. Marineland in Morecambe gave free tickets every week for the dolphin show, Morecambe funfair and Spaceskate in Lancaster gave big reductions for the kids, youth workers at Scotch Quarry organized games, the Georgian Club provided crisps and lemonade whenever the kids visited Lancaster, and when we needed a refuge in wet weather and freezer space for food the sisters at St. John of God Hospice were glad to oblige. The Heysham dockers donated their tuck shop and women members of Morecambe Labour Party provided high tea every week. And there were the people who would just turn up at the camp with homemade cakes, biscuits and jams, boxes of books and games, sweets and crisps.

Every week finished with a two-day stay at an old miners’ cottage at Kentmere in the Lake District, where outdoor pursuits specialists ensured that the kids had a busy but enjoyable time. We were very lucky in having exceptionally good weather for most of the time, so that outdoor activities could be enjoyed to the full. The second week saw the worst weather of the summer and showed up some deficiencies in our planning for rainy days. These were corrected and we made sure that we were not caught out again. There were the usual problems arising from clashes of temperament and differences of opinion with both adults and kids, but these were rare and were resolved through discussion and compromise. The general atmosphere was relaxed and good-humoured. New friends were made and strong bonds of mutual respect and affection were formed between adults and kids alike.

The wider implications of the Project were less obvious and indeed less discussed. We met every Friday for some weeks after the camp ended to tidy up the loose ends - three missing cagoules, half a dozen karabiners gone walkabout - and arrange ways of meeting our debts, without ever confronting the political question: where from here? Several of us began to participate in the Saturday morning food collections outside the Coop supermarket organised (but woefully under-staffed) by Lancaster Trades Council. It was the end of October, though, before we realised that this was not enough. The same comrade whose brainchild the summer camp had been was again the catalyst, this time in the establishment, eight months into the strike, of the Lancaster Miners Support Group.

The University Miners Support Group

The University M.S.G. resulted from an initiative by one of the summer camp organisers, who arranged with a sympathetic member of the Student Union executive for there to be a miners stall at the Societies Bazaar at the start of the new academic year in early October. Run by members of the University branches of A.S.T.M.S. and N.A.L.G.O., the stall raised a lot of money and aroused enough interest for a campus support group to be set up. The University M.S.G. brought together students, technicians, clerical staff and lecturers. Its main activity was the regular collection of money (and some food) outside the Spar supermarket on the campus every Thursday and Friday lunchtime. Initial opposition from the University management was overcome after the intervention of a supporter on Council, though there was continuing sporadic harassment by an obnoxious individual with the Dickensian title of “University Beadle”. The collections were kept up throughout the winter, and established a regular “clientele” of contributors. Two of the group’s members came from Accrington and had already built up connections with the Burnley strikers, who worked at Agecroft where they were greatly out numbered by scabs. The bulk of the money collected (some £2,000 in total) went to Burnley, and about once a month several Burnley miners joined their University supporters in a mass collection in Alexandra Square. At Christmas a Burnley miner’s wife undertook a sponsored swim at the University pool. Her 100 lengths brought in a total of £290, which was spent on record tokens for the children of the Burnley strikers. Donations were also made to Bates Pit, Blyth.

Miners from the Glasson picket lines had joined members of A.S.T.M.S. and N.A.L.G.O. on their day of action, 31 May 1984, in support of their annual pay claim. Miners also appeared on campus to speak at a number of public meetings organised by the University M.S.G., which were reasonably well-attended. Also a minibus took supporters from the University to the strike committee rooms at Burnley, where discussions with the miners revealed the extent of political awareness gained by many of them during the dispute. After their visit the University party travelled to the picket line at Huncoat power station.

On the whole we were disappointed by the level of support for the miners on campus. Probably hundreds of people put their hands into their pockets at some point during the two academic terms in which the group was active, and no-one who was there will forget the £50 cheque dropped into our bucket by one woman student just before Christmas (“1 had more left over from my grant than I expected”, she explained). Physical support at meetings or on collections, however, never involved more than twenty or so people. Only four or five of the 450 academic staff took any active part, for example, with most Labour Party and Communist Party members conspicuous by their absence. Technicians and students were slightly better represented and both A.S.T.M.S. and the Labour Club levied their members; the technicians raised £520 in this way. On balance it was well worth doing. We promoted the miners’ cause twice a week in a way which could not be ignored, and annoyed the campus Tories enough for one academic’s office door, festooned with miners’ posters, to be splattered with egg yolk one weekend. And there are still envelopes with “Coal Not Dole” stickers going the rounds of the internal post. (Thanks to Joy Greenwood for additional material).

Formation of Lancaster M.S.G.

There was a dual significance in the formation of the Lancaster Miners Support Group. Firstly the fact that much of the political sectarianism, char\acteristic of support activity in previous months, was overcome by the groups’ inauguration. Secondly, the united front in support of the miners was not only made up of political activists, but was able to draw in workers, trade unionists, shop stewards, students and the unemployed, many of whom had had little or no previous political involvement.

About eighty people attended a public meeting in the Trades Hall, Fenton Street, Lancaster on Thursday 15th November 1984. The meeting was addressed by two striking miners from Burnley, who were from the Agecroft Colliery where the branch officials and the majority of miners were scabbing; an activist from a Liverpool support group; and one of the organisers of the Summer Camp.

Opposition to the formation of a support group came mainly from a leading officer of Lancaster Trades Council who argued that the organised labour movement, through the Trades Council, was capable, and had proved itself so, of organising support in Lancaster for the miners. Opposition also came from the chairperson of a Labour Party branch which had been actively involved in support work. There were others in the meeting, however, who argued that the Trades Council had been ponderous and bureaucratic in its support work and, consequently, had done less than may otherwise have been possible. They further argued that a separate campaigning group, acting as a sort of “umbrella” organisation, would be more flexible, draw in wider support, be able to respond quicker by meeting more regularly and be much more effective because it was a single-issue campaign/support organisation.

After lengthy discussion the meeting almost unanimously agreed (there were two abstentions and one against) to form a miners support group and a chairperson, secretary, treasurer and press officer were elected. The group was to meet on Monday evening of each week, the venue to be decided on the basis of availability of a room. In the event it turned out that the Gregson Institute, Moor Lane, was the meeting place of the group throughout its existence. At a subsequent meeting a Bulletin editorial group was elected and industrial co-ordinators, to organise factory visits etc., were appointed.

The formation of the group had drawn together members of various political organisations on the left, many non-aligned socialists, active trade unionists and unemployed but had not completely overcome the sectarianism and sectionalism of the local labour movement. A section of the Trades Council and some Labour Party members regarded the M.S.G. as a “front” organisation for the Socialist Workers Party. It is clear that this allegation was totally unfounded, a fact verified by both Labour Party and Communist Party members who did get involved in the M.S.G.’s meetings and activities. Although some joint work and support did occur, the Trades Council was never fully committed to involvement in the M.S.G. It was only after several weeks that the Trades Council voted to participate in the M.S.G. and send delegates to its mettings; even then the two Trades Councillors who were delegated had been very active in the M.S.G. since its for­ mation. The Labour Party never became fully involved in the M.S.G. and it was only through individual members and the Labour Party Miners Liaison Committee that they had any significant presence.

Lancaster M.S.G. Activities

Workers, the unemployed, students, squadies* and pensioners were amongst those who showed their solidarity with the miners by contributing to the food collection. One pensioner in particular whom M.S.G. members will long remember, as well as donating a generous quantity of food, bought clothes for the miners children (£75 worth) from the Co-op clothing department.

At Christmas the M.S.G. organised additional food collections on Friday evenings which were also combined with an appeal for “toys for miners’ children”.

*Two “squadies” put food in the collection, with the telling remark “Don’t tell our C.O. we’ve done this!”

Money-raising events were an important aspect of M.S.G. activity - jumble sales, fold evenings, a ‘“ome-brew” evening, Indian meals and discos were organised with many local and national musicians giving their services free. Also one local musician involved in the M.S.G. did a spot of busking in the city centre to boost the funds.

At Christmas M.S.G. members spent some memorable Friday evenings touring the pubs of Lancaster in fancy dress with collecting tins, an event which often raised between £40 and £100.

Although food and money collections were a vital aspect of sustaining the strike the M.S.G. saw solidarity action with the miners on the picket lines as a crucial area of work. When the Burnley Strike Committee called for a mass picket of Padiham Power Station on February 11th the group, despite the fact that the City Transport Department refused to hire buses to “These type of people”, organised transport from another source to the picket line, total of forty-five people from Lancaster making the journey to Padiham on a bitterly cold morning. The bus, as became usual during the strike when freedom of movement from one area to another was restricted, was stopped by the police who, after establishing where the coach was going enquired as to whether or not the participants of the coach worked at Padiham Power Station!

The M.S.G. also supported demonstrations called by various N.U.M. branches, sup­ port groups and Trades Councils and took part in demonstrations at Atherton, Preston, St. Helens, Burnley and Birmingham.

In the light of a hostile media, which continually supported the Government’s case, communication with the public was an important area of work for the M.S.G. Therefore, public meetings, with miners and their wives speaking on the platforms and the production of a regular bulletin, were vital for information purposes.

The Bulletin was distributed from the food collection point and also through a distribution system to M.S.G. contacts. It also played an important part in workplace and school visits which were high on the list of support group priorities. Blyth miners assisted by M.S.G. members visited several workplaces and schools in the Lancaster district to put their case and make an appeal to trade unionists to take the levy sheets produced by the M.S.G. or to make workplace collections. Such visits met with a mixed response on the issue of financial assistance. However, positive features were evident as some shop stewards responded to the visits by attending support group meetings. Money collections outside workplaces in the Lancaster district also met with a mixed response, whilst some collections amounted to only £2.00, others reached £70. A major contribution came from the workers at Heysham Nuclear Power Station who gave hundreds of pounds to M.S.G. collections in addition to their weekly levies which raised thousands for the miners’ strike funds.

As the strike ended, the M.S.G. were in the process of organising a N.U.M. mass picket of Heysham power station. The proposed picket had already gained support from the Lancashire and Northumberland miners and shop stewards at the power station indicated that T.G.W.U. members would respect the N.U.M. picket line. Unfortunately, the “organised return to work” prevented the picket from taking place. Nevertheless, it was significant that at the end of the twelve month strike support for the miners by many workers at the power station was still enthusiastic.

Lancaster M.S.G. after the Strike

The “organised return to work” brought the inevitable discussion about the future of the M.S.G. It was unanimously agreed that the group should continue with weekly meetings and carry out its commitments to fund-raising and support activity, although the food collections ceased after two weeks. A contingent went on the N.U.M. St. Helens demonstration on March 9th, which should have been a celebration of twelve months on strike. Close links were maintained with the Blyth miners and their families with social visits continuing. The Lancaster M.S.G. was presented with a miners lamp on one such occasion, and it is presently cased and mounted on the wall in the Gregson Institute bar. The Blyth connection was further cemented with the announcement of the pending closure of Bates Colliery.

During the strike a Prisoners Aid Committee of the M.S.G. was established to monitor the whereabouts of prisoners in the north-west, in conjunction with the Bold N.U.M.- sponsored North-West Prisoners Aid Group (later called the North-West Area Miners Defence Campaign). Financial aid was sent to individual miners families and to the N.W.P.A.G. This, and the propagandising of the re-instatement and amnesty issued, along with the “Summer Project ’85” (established at the request of the Blyth Womens Support Group) became the central focus of the M.S.G.

A M.S.G. delegate attended some of the National Organisation of Miners, Prisoners and Supporters (N.O.M.P.A.S.) meetings and the group also followed events in that organisation through the N.W.A.M.D.C. The M.S.G. also organised a half-day conference in Lancaster for north-west support groups on 31st March about amnesty and reinstatement, with speakers from N.W.A.M.D.C. and the N.C.C.L., and Joyce Keller. Unfortunately this meeting was poorly attended. A public meeting was also organised with sacked and former striking miners speaking. The M.S.G. continued to produce its Bulletin and took its banners (an L.M.S.G. banner and a Save Bates Colliery banner) on demonstrations including, in Lancaster, a C.N.D. march and rally and Trades Council-organised International Labour Day celebration. The latter march was led by the Blyth Womens Support Group and miners with the Bates N.U.M. banner.

Attendance at M.S.G. meetings fluctuated quite a lot but certainly averaged well over thirty during the strike. It remained at approaching thirty until April when the average fell to under twenty. Attendances at the weekly Monday meetings subsequently never rose above this figure and when the M.S.G. was wound up on 12th August there were eleven present out of a nucleus of about fifteen to twenty activists.

One organised faction of the M.S.G. had argued on previous occasions that the role of the group should be questioned in the light of the level of activity by miners and the N.U.M. in the continuing dispute after the collapse of the strike. At what was to be the final meeting to discuss the future of the M. S. G. this argument was used to suggest that a continuation of activities would be to put the group in the place of the miners. This point of view was countered by others present who believed that it ignored the key role of N.U.M. members in the N.W.A.M.D.C. and the need for continuing support from those Lancaster comrades who had participated in that organisation’s activities. That section of the M.S.G. who believed that the group had no further role to play also insisted that the group be wound up, rather than just withdrawing their own support and presence. Their arguments convinced a majority of those present and a vote of 6:4 with one abstension brought an end to the Lancaster Miners Support Group.

Comrades who were opposed to that decision (including several not present at the final meeting) decided to set up a Lancaster group of the N.W.A.M.D.C. and twelve former Lancaster M.S.G. supporters attended the first meeting of the group on 28th August.