Queens of the Coal Age, telling the story of the occupation, plays at the Royal Exchange 28 June - 28 July
Elaine: Because it was obvious that communities were just going to be destroyed totally, it was just so patently obvious I felt I’ve got to try and do something, and naively I thought occupying a coal mine would put paid to that. I went to the pit camp, and then we just worked together to see what we could do, in the honest belief - because our cause was right - that we’d win. It never occurred to me that… because it was just so wrong what was being done and we’d just got to fight back, we’d just got to do something, we couldn’t just roll over and let it happen. And I honestly thought we’d make a difference.
Betty: During the 1972–4 strike, my exhusband was a flying picket and I was left at home with the children. We were cold and hungry and I cried throughout ‘72 to ‘74. So when ‘84 came along, I realised it was going to be a hard one, it was going to be a long one, so I moved from full-time work to part-time and determined that I wasn’t going to sit at home and cry during this one - I was going to take some action. I rooted around
the local communities and found out that there was a very small group in Barnsley that was just forming a support group, so Iimmediately joined that and we went from strength to strength from there - if somebody had’ve told me six months before what I would’ve done during ‘84–’85, I would have been horrified, I would have said, “No, not me.” My mum told me I wasn’t fit to be a mother or a wife because I was all on picket
lines and doing soup kitchens and picketing, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I would do it all over again, provided I could run as fast now as I did then.
Lesley: It’s a caravan on a piece of grass!
Dot: What we did at Lancashire, some of the lads said, “Right we’ll put a pit camp on.” So me and my husband went and found a caravan. We had a portacabin, a caravan and a fire. And that was your pit camp.
Elaine: We were a bit posher than you though - we had a toilet that was provided by Barnsley Council.
Anne: The popularity of the strike was just going a bit flat so we had a meeting and said, “What can we do?” so I said, “I know, we’ll try and get down pit.”
Dot: What happened was, Anne rang us up and said, “We’re going down Grimethorpe.” So we go. Of course we got caught, so we all went our different ways, and I don’t know it happened, how Bill did it, but he was driving along the bloody railway lines! We got to Anne’s and we just said, “Well we definitely can’t do that one.” So I said, “What about Parkside? They have visitors down there.”
Anne: We thought, “Well, we failed here.” So I asked Elaine and she said, “I’ll go if you don’t tell a soul.” We’d already been caught once so we didn’t tell anyone we were going to go down mine, we were scared, we didn’t want catching again. So it was Thursday morning and I met Elaine in Barnsley.
Elaine: I nearly walked past you because she’d had her hair tinted and tinted glasses and I didn’t recognise you at all!
Anne: We set off and it was raining, terrible morning.
Lesley: It was, I was frightened of my hair dye running!
Anne: We daren’t come in a car with any of the men that they knew - it was well planned! We’d had one failure -
Elaine: We weren’t having another!
Anne: There were about eight people besides us - they were taking a party of 12 down the mine.
Anne: Then we went for us lamps, and us pit helmets, and us belt to put lamp on, and I thought, “Christ, I bet he’s recognised me here.”
Dot: He did.
Elaine: This one young lad - that could’ve just blown it all. He was issuing this stuff and he just looked at Anne and I thought, “He’s clocked her,” and then bless him he just carried on giving them out. He could’ve blown it all and you just knew he’d recognised Anne for a second. What a star.
Anne: I put my pit gear on and then we got to the cage, and as soon as it set off down I got hold of your hand and I said, “Elaine, we’ve cracked it.”
Elaine: We actually did an official tour. To be honest, once we got down, we had no idea what to do next. And oh we were tired. I’d not slept at all the night before.
Anne: So all the men were there, “Stand back, stand back, let the visitors come out.” Anyway, I says to him, “Where’s warmest place? We’re not coming back up, we’re occupying your pit.” They didn’t know what to do with us, so they took everybody back up. Oh it were cold. It were freezing. Then
this little smart-arse came down. They couldn’t have done any worse than send anybody only him down. I were that cold and that tired, I got on the floor. He says, “You can’t go to sleep and you can’t go to the toilet.” I were lying down on the floor and he just come and kicked me. Well, I got up. And I’m running after him and screaming, “Come on, we’ll run amok in this pit!” I run around and he’s shouting, “Send reinforcements! Send reinforcements!” Anyway we run round a corner - and we found a little house!
Dot: And a toilet!
Anne: So actually he did us a good turn.
Elaine: We started making house.
Anne: We got some cardboard and we swept floor with cardboard, and then…
Dot: We made a little table out of something.
Anne: We found that cardboard box didn’t we? We put a table, we made some roses with tissues and put a little -
Elaine: We cut a water bottle in half and made a vase.
Anne: We got some sacks and made blankets.
Elaine: They’re thinking we’re all rough and that - we’ve got this little house and electricity and flowers!
Anne: The morale and the pit closure programme was dying a death so here we were - well, there were television here everyday, they stopped at pit - so it raised the profile of the pit closure programme and how the women were still fighting.
Dot: They portrayed us as someone at the kitchen sink all the time - I mean, I went through three strikes, ‘72, ‘74 and ‘84. Even if there weren’t a strike, that was me; if something was wrong, I was there, and hopefully I’ve taught my kids the same thing - if there’s something wrong, you try to fix it. It changed a lot of women - there were writers come out of it, poems, songs, there were all sorts come out of that strike - so we achieved something, even if we didn’t stop them closing the pits. Something was evolving, women were changing. I mean you had the roaring 60s didn’t you, well this was like the roaring 80s - women were not being tied to the kitchen sink. Like I say, if it happened again we’d be there, we’d do it again if we had to.
Betty: A lot of women did, but prior to the strike if the news came on or a documentary, they’d go in the kitchen and make supper or do the ironing or something, but then during the strike they’d sit down with their kids and watch the news and talk about it; so although they went back after the strike, they’d still educated those kids and hopefully that would continue. But it totally changed my life. My ex had always told me that I was thick, and I was stupid, and it were no use explaining things to me because I wouldn’t understand. All of a sudden because of the strike - and we’d gone speaking all over - I suddenly realised I know as much as some of these people at university; in fact, I know a bit more I’m sure. So I was determined that I was going to get me some education and I went to college, and after two years I was going to go back and work in the community, but then I got in the system and I went to uni and I got my degree for my mum, because her ambition had always been for me to get my cap and gown and I’d rebelled against that; but I did it for my mum on one hand and the Women Against Pit Closures in the other, because there’s no way I would’ve done what I did without that strike, no way at all.
Anne: When we woke up next morning, there was a bit of activity going on outside, so we opened the door…
Elaine: Can I just say, I was totally paranoid, I thought they’d send snatch squads, so I’d only allow one person to go at a time so that if they snatched one…
Anne: I went out and had a look and they were all talking, so I said, “What’s up?” and they said, “Mr Ramsay’s coming down,” that’s the manager, so I ran back in.
Elaine: He actually knocked on the door! He shook my hand, can you imagine? And he says, “Hello, I am Mr Ramsay, the pit manager, and I am pleased to meet you.” And I says, “No you’re not!” And he says, “Yes I am, I’m pleased to meet you.” And I says, “We’re occupying your pit, you’re not pleased to meet us.” And then he acknowledged that no, he wasn’t really pleased to meet us. And he said that we’d achieved what we wanted, that we were on the front page of all the newspapers, we’d been on television, the world press was outside, warm shower waiting for us upstairs, we could go now. And I says, “You don’t realise what we’re about.” He says, “What do you mean?” and I says, “Terry Waite’s our hero!” He didn’t laugh, and his face just fell. Then he said that we’d get neither food nor water and Anne said, “Well it’s cheaper than a health farm.” He was adamant we wouldn’t even get water. Then we threatened him with the Court of Human Rights. Half an hour later, we received eight bottles of mineral water.
Anne: He said, “I’ll be calling again” so I said to him, “When you go to somebody who’s got a new house you’ve got to bring a plant. But you’ll have to make it a cactus because we haven’t got any water.”
Elaine: We used to play I-Spy didn’t we? She used to sing to them every morning, get on the Tannoy.
Lesley: They used to shout us as they were going past on the rider.
Anne: They were going past in cage. “Ey up lasses, are you alright this morning? My wife says at club I’ve got to look after your lasses!”
Dot: They ended up coming down and playing cards with us.
Lesley: And they showed us where they kept the mucky books. They called ‘em mucky books. Normally, I’d’ve been quite offended but under the circumstances…
Dot: They were even sending, believe it or not, big pots of tea down.
Lesley: One of them, he opened his jacket and says, “Our lasses sent you these.” We got talcum powder, chocolates, a hairbrush and some tissues. And then one opened his coat and he’d got one of those big metal teapots!
Dot: Monday morning. But it were a joint decision. If they’d have said, “No we’re not going up,” I’d have gone with it.
Anne: Dot said to me, “I’m tired, Anne, I’ve had enough.” And she says, “I’ll go out on my own,” and I says, “No you’re not. We’ve come down as four, we’re all going out as four.”
Lesley: We started cleaning, didn’t we?
Elaine: Oh it were Anne made us clean bloody house! It were funny because not long after, Jo Brand were doing something on television and she mentioned us and she actually said, “And I bet they left it tidy,” so I wrote to her and said, “I’m Elaine, one of the Women Against Pit Closures, and I’m ashamed to say, yes we did!”
Anne: This man came - he were really a nice chap and his wife used to send us all sorts.
Elaine: We hadn’t said that we were going out right until the shift change and then I think he sensed something, and we told him we were coming out and his eyes filled up and he just said, “You’ve done really well.”
Anne: We got to the top and we come out of the cage. We walked off there with miner’s hat, belt, battery, everything. We walked off as we’d been down pit. Then they took us down pit lane, and when we got to the end, there was a rally going on!
Maxine: What happened when you got to the rally?
Elaine: One of Royston women - she’d got a cup of tea in one hand and a lit fag in the other for me. And she gave me a big hug.
Anne: I tell you something. I went home, got a bath and went to bed. Then next morning, I went back to work.
Anne: I look around here when I come home and I see what legacy Thatcher’s left us and it’s still here after all this time she’s gone, and I just think, “Well at least I did something to try and prevent this.” I work with the homeless now, and I make them breakfast on a Monday morning, and I look at them and there’s some of them lads - they’re mainly 18–26 - their parents probably never had a job, they’re never going to have a job, there’s no jobs round here only for low-paid women… them kids - what chance have they got? And I just think to myself, “Well Anne, you couldn’t have done any more.” I tried. That’s what I think, love.
Elaine: This policeman said to me, “You lost.” And I said, “Yeah, but we went down fighting. And that matters. That matters."