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Monday 11 December

Wales

South Wales - Mardy

Jim and Mary Line in `984 (photographer Lucy Munby)The South Wales Miners’ Federation had a proud history of trade union loyalty, solidarity, and discipline extending back to the heydays of Victorian and Edwardian industrial expansion when the Rhondda valley, a strip of land some sixteen miles long, had boasted over fifty coal mines, and its brass bands and choirs had made the valleys famous throughout the world. By the summer of 1984 Welsh miners had made their presence felt by picketing power stations and steel works as far apart as Port Talbot, Tilbury and Didcot.

In April, miners from Maerdy were welcomed in Cambridge making the city their base from Monday to Friday each week while they picketing the coal-fired Barrington Cement Works. Mardy, the last working pit in the Rhondda, was known as ‘Little Moscow’ because of its long Communist traditions: the pit is spelled Mardy). The miners were given food, pillows and blankets donated by supporters, thirty pound a week to cover basic expenses, and slept on the floor of the Alex Wood Hall. Peter Aldridge arranged for them to take showers in the municipal facilities. In July the legality of miners from the South Wales Miners’ Federation picketing outside their own geographical area was contested and a  £50000 fine was imposed which they refused to pay in accordance with a policy  agreed by the TUC Conference and in August their funds amounting to  £770,000 were sequestrated by the courts.

Welsh miners became a familiar presence in the city, lobbying trade union branches and workplaces including Marshalls, Pye, and Addenbrookes Hospital, where the cleaners were also on strike, and holding meetings with trade unionists and their supporters in some of the Cambridge colleges. The Mayor of Cambridge, Eddie Cowell, Head Porter at New Hall, invited the miners into his parlour. The Maerdy miners eventually stopped coming and were replaced by others from Merthyr and then finally by miners from the Six Bells pit in Abertillery who remained in Cambridge until the very end. 

Public support for the strike in Nottinghamshire and in Wales could not have been more different. Picketing in the valleys was notional for much of the strike. Since loyalty to the pit, lodge, community and the NUM had been deeply embedded in the mining areas for so long that this was hardly necessary. So broadly based was the Welsh Congress in support of the Mining Communities set up in Cardiff in October, and so representative of all shades of opinion and civic society, from Plaid Cymru and hill farmers in the Welsh speaking north to entire council estates in Labour’s industrial heartlands that the Congress was able to adopt the slogan, ‘The NUM fights for Wales.’

When on February 26th 600 miners from Mardy came out of their lodge  meeting having voted with  heavy hearts  that the ‘best way to stop the NUM being smashed was an orderly return to work’ they did so having demonstrated a record of solidarity second to none. Not one of its 753-strong labour force had broken the strike. 

The procession of the Maerdy miners walking back to their pit behind their banner and brass band with all the pride and dignity they had intended the world to see provided the labour movement with one of the great historic moment in its iconography. But the NUM’s demands for reinstatement of sacked and victimised miners were not conceded and the men who had been sacked during the dispute, often for trivial offences, did not go back. The National Coal Board was able to continue with their closure programme virtually unimpeded. Coal production at Mardy finished in 1990 bringing an end to an era in Welsh history.


AbertilleryMartin Rogers, Emrys Deacon, Jim Lines and Tony Williams sight-seeing round the Cambridge Colleges

The four miners from the Six Bells Pit in Abertillery who came regularly to Cambridge; Martin Rogers, Emrys Deacon, Jim Line and Tony Williams, had all been friends from childhood and all came from families where generations of men had worked down the pit. They generally travelled together weekly in Jim Lines car returning to their families at the weekend and collecting for the Gwent Food Fund the rest of the time. A miners lamp that they brought with them was raffled for 150.

Speaking at meetings generally fell to Jim who loved talking about the strike to anyone and everyone, from visiting dignitaries to local school children and quickly became adept at impassioned appeals for support in venues from Enfield in Middlesex to Bideford in Devon and Warboys in Huntingdonshire. These were usually laced with his infectious sense of humour and often finished with the recital of a poem to enthusiastic applause.

There was never a shortage of invitations to meals at supporters homes although they set themselves up a makeshift kitchen for a brew or a stew in the Alex Wood Hall. The Abertillery miners became especially popular with the Cambridge students. A farewell card from the Cambridge University Miners Support Group in the Anglia Ruskin University library archive signed by students including Scott McCracken, David Lea, Gary Kelly and Morag Shiach at the end of the strike reads the cobbles will never be the same and they were also presented with a framed picture of Kings College which still takes pride of place on the wall of Jim and Marys home.

Because the coal mining provided by far the most full-time jobs in the area many families in Abertillery found themselves in severe financial difficulties during the strike. Tony, a face worker at the Six Bells Pit which employed 480 men, and Diane Williams were luckier than most. But as the contents of their fortnightly food parcel from the NUM consisted of a small packet of tea, a jar of jam, a tin of rice pudding, a tin of soup, a tin of tomatoes, a tin of corned beef and two pounds of sugar, their two children, Mark and Carolanne did not have fresh fruit for weeks.

Gwent Food Fund postcard by Peter McCormack

Things like biscuits, which are a pretty normal buy in most households were virtually unheard of during the strike, recollected Diane who had happy memories of a carefree childhood growing up as one of eight brothers and sisters in a two bedroomed house owned by the Coal Board. Her father had worked in the old Cwmtillery pit in Abertillery and later the Rose Heyworth pit with which it was integrated in 1959.

In contrast to Nottinghamshire where the strikers were met with hostility at every turn, the Labour controlled local authority, the utility boards, and even many of the local shop keepers in Abertillery were often sympathetic with the council issuing food vouchers to striking miners and taking an understanding position about rents. The exception were the television hire shops. TV sets had to be returned when money ran out and cars acquired on hire purchase also had to go back.

The Abertillery Council also made over office space on council owned premises to the Gwent Food Fund where volunteer workers, largely women, were responsible for the bulk purchases of food with money donated by the public amounting to over 10, 000 a week and the packing and distribution of food parcels to striking miners and their families over fourteen NUM areas.

In Cambridge, as throughout the country, appeals for money for the Gwent Food Fund, advertised through its strikingly designed mock Grecian logo, met with an excellent response often because members of the public who would not support the strike directly did not wish women and children to go hungry, particularly in the period before Christmas. 660,000 had been raised for the fund by the end of the strike.

Welsh women had a long history of political activity going back to the General Strike of 1926 and Dora Cox from a village near Pontypool had marched with the women from Tonypandy in the Hunger March of 1934. The personal testimonies of women involved with The Abertillery Womens Action Group were collected by Jill Miller in You Cant Kill the Spirit: Women in a Welsh Mining Valley (1986). Pearl Williams described how women had ventured into the Mens Institute for the first time during the strike (the Institute was and is, men only, but it wasnt going to take us ladies long to alter that one). Soon after Pearl (no relation of Tony or Diane Williams) and her friends had established a kitchen in the Stute, which provided a cooked meal for between 120 and 150 people every day and also earned plaudits from the men for setting up a welfare centre.

Diane volunteered in the food centre and also in the welfare centre which gave advice on rent arrears, hire purchase and debt. The women became accomplished letter-writers. Beryl Fury from the food centre was the most adventurous and travelled on her own in Italy, Holland and France selling merchandise for the strike and raising money.

The Abertillery women organised a concert and a rally addressed by Barking MP, Jo Richardson and Brenda Dean of SOGAT 82, the first woman elected to head a major trade union. The Abertillery women attended the TUC Conference in Brighton and a stormy meeting addressed by TUC General Secretary, Norman Willis in Aberavon. They also joined the All Wales Womens Picket at Port Talbot trying to turn away the lorries that kept the Llanwen power station open. The women took 48 children to Holland for Christmas. The Rose Heyworth pit in Abertillery closed in 1985 and the Marine at Cwm, the last deep mine left in the Ebbw valley, in 1989. The Six Bells mine shut adding to very high levels of local unemployment in 1988 when the Rhondda Heritage Park was built on the site of the Lewis Merthyr Colliery.

The 20 metre statue called the Guardian is a beautifully landscaped monument by the artist Sabastien Boyesen constructed from over 20,000 strips of steel that filter the light and towers over the site of the former Six Bells Colliery to commemorate the tragic mining accident in 1960 in which forty-eight men lost their lives. Tony Williams had just started working in the pit and remembers being down the mine that day.

On December 2014 Jim Line, who took this photograph, wrote: 'I am sending a photo of the monument of a miner to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the explosion at the Six Bells Colliery on 28/6/1960. It was erected in 2011. The youngest boy was Dennis Lane aged 18. It happened a day after my twenty-first birthday. It is a beautiful monument even bigger than the angel of the North. You can keep the photo.'

The Six Bells Colliery Guardian Tony Williams, Mary Joannou and Jim Line in Abertillery on the site of what was once the Six Bells pit in August, 2015. The statue of The Guardian is in the background (photograph Shona Hoey) Pearl Williams Abertillary women's support group

Images:

(i) Jim and Mary Lines on a visit to Cambridge

(ii) Martin Rogers, Emrys Deacon, Jim Lines and Tony Williams sight-seeing round the Cambridge Colleges

(iii) Gwent Food Fund postcard by Peter McCormack

(iv) The Guardian statue at the former Six Bells Colliery

(v) Tony Williams, Mary Joannou and Jim Line in Abertillery on the site of what was once the Six Bells pit in August, 2015. (Photograph: Shona Hoey)

(vi) Pearl Williams, who organised the food centre in 1984 photographed in Abertillery, August 2015 (Photograph: Mary Joannou)

(vii) Abertillery Women's Support Group. Photograph owned by Diane Williams, photographer unknown.