By Janet Elliott.
It was 1984 and I was 18 years old. I’d grown up, gone to school and was now working in a shoe shop in Maltby, a pit village in South Yorkshire. Most of my friends worked down the pit or came from mining families. I had some great friends and we worked hard and played hard. I went out every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, working my way around the local pubs and working men’s clubs, including the ‘stute’ (Institute), Catholic Club, Miners Welfare Club, Leg Iron (Legion) and the Cally (Caledonian). Back then, I thought everywhere was like Maltby, but now I realise it wasn’t.
I found a way to survive in what was a judgemental and nosey community by appearing to fit in, but trying not to get too involved. I’d always felt different, but I didn’t realise how different I really was until the miners’ strike started.
I was right in the middle of it. From the start there was a lot of talk in the pubs (everything was centred around the pubs). Men and women firmly believed they were right and it was right to strike; they believed in Arthur Scargill and everything he said. They hated Maggie, but I quite liked her. I didn’t dare say that to them because I would have been lynched – I kept my gob shut and tried to carry on fitting in.
1984 was the first time I really thought about politics – I didn’t agree with everything Maggie did or said, but what I liked about her was that she made me believe I could do anything I wanted. What she was saying made sense to me: it was all about working hard, making your own future, not expecting anything from anyone, and achieving what you wanted for yourself.
I hated the Labour Party. They were chauvinistic and just seemed to want to whip up unrest and create problems rather take a sensible approach to resolving the issues that existed.
I hated the union leaders who as far as I could see were out for themselves, and if the chips were down I knew they wouldn’t be loyal to ‘the workers’ – despite all their rhetoric – it was just about securing their own positions. I didn’t believe in them and I didn’t trust them.
I remember feeling gobsmacked that all of the people I knew believed what they were being told by the unions, the Labour Party and Arthur Scargill.
I didn’t like Scargill. I thought he was insincere, slimy and nasty – but also incredibly charismatic. His main purpose seemed to be to make people hate the establishment, which in his world was the same as ‘the Tories’.
I couldn’t understand how my mates could be taken in by him. It was obvious that the coal industry was losing money and couldn’t be propped up by the government – and other taxpayers – forever. I knew very little about politics and business back then, but even I knew they were on a hiding to nowhere.
The strike intensifies
The strike progressed and so did the activity by the miners. They would sit in pubs and houses and plan pickets. They organised gangs. These weren’t just ordinary picket groups with placards and chanting. These were organised gangs who were willing to – and often did – carry out violent and other criminal acts.
They would sit and talk openly in the pub about what they were going to do or what they’d done, confident that everyone else thought as they did and supported what they were doing. They supported and justified each other in thinking it was OK to do really awful things to other people. It was like a shared delusion, but worse because it was so violent.
The victims were not just the police on the picket lines: the greatest anger was reserved for miners who went back to work – the scabs – and their families.
One man, married with three children and a mortgage, went back to work. The violence and intimidation got so bad that he boarded up the windows of his house, but things continued to escalate until striking miners set fire to the house, while he and his family were inside.
I heard many conversations by men in pubs planning what/who they were going to attack and when/where. It was like they were fighting a war and they were making their battle plans. They wanted to punish the police, stop them from upholding the law, and take every opportunity to spit on (literally), squash and ridicule Maggie and the Tories. It was a dangerous time for anyone who dared to show any hint of disagreeing with the miners.
I remember going into a pub once and one bloke saying to his mate “she’s got a pig in her family” (my brother in law was a police officer). After that some people were ‘polite’ to me, others ignored me, and some made it clear I wasn’t welcome. I changed who I went out with and where I went and one day, instead of wanting to fit in I realised I didn’t want or need to be part of this group of people.
Later on, a brick was thrown through the window of my sister and her husband’s house. It went into my baby nephew’s room, landing in his cot. Thank goodness he wasn’t in it – he would have been killed or seriously injured.
Begging in the street
I worked on Maltby High Street, where miners’ wives and children set up camp on the pavements. They had fires in oil drums which they would cook over and spent all day begging for money from passersby.
Where were the men? They were on picket lines or in the pub plotting. I was amazed at how they could afford to drink. They always had money for beer. But then, stealing had massively increased and the miners would openly brag about the burglaries and other thefts they had carried out.
Most of the women didn’t work. I still don’t know why for sure, but my best guess is that they were either not allowed by their husbands to work, too idle to work, or expected the state and those of us who worked to take care of them.
I had many mothers coming into the shoe shop where I worked asking for free shoes for their children. Some of them begged. I couldn’t have given away shoes even if I’d have wanted to, which I didn’t because I believed that we all should take care of ourselves and are responsible for our choices. One time, when a woman begged me for shoes and I’d told her I was very sorry but I couldn’t give her some, she swore at me and told me I was cruel. I told her if she was that desperate she should either get a job or tell her husband to go back to work. She spat at me.
The community was in tatters. It is said that the closure of the pits decimated whole communities, but my experience is that the miners killed their own communities. We lived in a culture of hatred, bitterness and expectation. People thought that they should be given what they asked for – that they had a right to taxpayers’ money for their dying industry, and a right to be given the things they begged for. Reasoning, humanity and care for others was almost non-existent. It was heart-breaking. It felt like my community had been brain-washed and people had become, by choice, inhumane creatures that were totally selfish and self-entitled.
More recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about how the police behaved. They were not squeaky clean. They used unnecessary violence. They goaded the miners and their families. They were arrogant and uncaring. They would brag about how much they were earning in overtime, thanks to the strike.
But the thing that the people calling for an inquiry into the so called ‘battle’ of Orgreave forget is what the police were up against. I don’t forget it. I knew about the plotting and the battle plans, the way groups of miners organised crime and violence. The police were not innocent, but my experience was that they had a tough, thankless and almost impossible job of upholding the law and trying to maintain order.
The police lied about what went on at the picket lines and covered up the wrong things they did. They concocted stories and events. They changed pocket books and accounts of what really happened. I knew all this and although I do not agree with everything the police did, I still believe that without them and their hard stance the violence by the miners would have escalated and resulted in far worse.
When the strike ended, the bitterness did not. People continued to expect sympathy, and were convinced that everything they believed and had done was right. The miners’ strikes changed me. It made me see what I wanted from life: I left Maltby and never went back. Now I don’t expect anything from anyone. I care about people, but I expect them to help themselves first.
Eventually Maltby pit was privatised, and closed in 2013.
The name Janet Elliott is a pseudonym.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty