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The 1984-1985 Miners' Strike 40 years on

Date

Written by
Alison Gage

The 1984-5 miners’ strike began on 6 March 1984. 40 years on, Alison Gage (Senate House Library) explains why it remains a key date in British history.

6 March 2024 marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the coal miners' strike (1984-1985), one of the defining events of Margaret Thatcher’s government and Eighties’ Britain. The dispute attracted widespread attention both in Britain and abroad. Its continuing impact can be judged by the number of documentaries and articles marking the anniversary. 

Miners' strike leaflets
Political and practical leaflets proliferated during the increasingly acrimonious miners' strike

The miners’ strike had a profound effect on the country, especially on the miners and their families who suffered financial hardship, a harsh police presence in their communities, violence, arrest and imprisonment. The pamphlets held in the Heisler Collection at Senate House Library contain many items documenting the strike and the effect it had on miners and their lives: from flyers to promote the miners’ cause, to memoirs written by miners themselves, and the experiences of their wives, some of which are expressed in poetry. 

The flyers in the Heisler collection were intended to reach a larger audience, to highlight injustices that evolved during the strike and raise support for jailed miners. However, they were also important to attract support for rallies and demonstrations. For the miners to have more of an impact they needed the support of other related industries, such as rail and power stations, as a flyer for a mass demonstration at Tilbury power station demonstrates.

That flyer was produced by Kent National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) - a reminder that coal mining wasn’t confined to the traditional industrial heartlands of the North, Midlands and Wales. There was a small mining community in Kent which was strongly supportive of the strike, meaning that support for the strike ran the length of the country. Kent’s proximity to London increased awareness in the capital, where support committees were formed to provide political and then financial support for the miners. A flyer from Hounslow Miners Support committee asking for toys and food under the banner ‘Help Us Give a Miners’ Child a Good Christmas’ highlights peoples’ compassion and sympathy for the suffering miners and their families.

The Heisler collection also holds memoirs from those involved. They reflect different perspectives on the strike, and it is clear the participants thought there was much more at stake than the future of the coal industry.

Railworkers and Miners is the story of Coalville, a small railway freight depot in Leicestershire which supported the miners’ strike when the area in general did not. The author saw the strike as part of the working-class struggle at home and abroad and blamed the eventual failure of the strike on the trade union movement and the Labour Party for providing inadequate support. 

‘Silver Birch’ was the alias of the Nottinghamshire miner who led and encouraged the back to work movement. In his story The Link-Up of Friendship he recounts the violence and intimidation to which he, his family and friends were subjected. For him the cause was about democracy: he did not disagree with the premise of the strike, but with the lack of a national ballot. Like the striking railway man, solidarity and friendship were also important.

A preoccupation as to where democracy might be heading was a feature of two pamphlets written by David Douglass, a striking miner. The first, ‘Tell Us Lies About the Miners’ deals with the biased way the strike was reported in the media and the demonisation of the miners. The second, ‘Come and Wet This Truncheon’ concerns policing of the strike. Both pamphlets powerfully convey the sense of betrayal that the mining communities felt about two institutions that had previously been trusted. Douglass saw police actions during the strike as part of a pattern of violence that also included Northern Ireland, and against minorities, and concluded that civil liberties were at risk for everyone.

One of the most commented upon aspects of the strike was the involvement of women, who grouped together to set up ‘Women Against Pit Closures.’ Their support was vital in sustaining the strike. In Strike 84-85, the North Yorkshire Women Against Pit Closures recall their activities during the strike: from setting up food kitchens to feed hungry miners and their families, to going on national rallies in London or fundraising as far away as Canada. At the heart of their actions was a sense of solidarity with their menfolk, and a real sense of the mining community. Many of the women found the experience liberating, uplifting, and enriching: meeting and talking to people or travelling without their husbands. Others reported how their mental health improved. Many vowed to carry on being politically active after the strike was over. Some women found an outlet in writing poetry such as Ey Up Mi Duck from the Derbyshire Miners Wives: a witty, sometimes amusing look at the strike.

To end, here are a few lines from a poem in Ey Up Mi Duck:

“The Month it was March

The year ‘84

The start of a strike 

Which was just like a war."

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