The dispute that tore a nation apart

PUBLISHED: 15:12 04 March 2009 | UPDATED: 10:30 23 August 2010

ICONIC: Miners hard at work in Betteshanger

ICONIC: Miners hard at work in Betteshanger

LOYALTY, betrayal, heartache and compassion: the miners strike of 1984 pitted the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) against then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, creating one of the most turbulent periods in Britain s post-war history.

STRUGGLE: Former miners Eddie Pickford and Dave Hemmings.

LOYALTY, betrayal, heartache and compassion: the miners' strike of 1984 pitted the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) against then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, creating one of the most turbulent periods in Britain's post-war history.

The miners' strike rocked Britain in the 1980s as the Iron Lady's quest to close 'uneconomic' pits led to walk outs, violent 'flying pickets' and stark poverty in mining towns.

While much of the unrest occurred in the North of England, thousands of miners in the country's newest collieries in Kent were caught up in the strike that changed the face of England's industry forever

To mark 25 years this month since the strike began, the Dartford and Swanley Times speaks to ex-miners and to one man who was prepared to go to prison for what he believed in.

"I WAS escorted to Sandwich Magistrates court, there were television crews outside. My family was at home watching the news.

"When my four-year-old boy saw me being led into the courthouse it broke his heart, he cried his eyes out. My six-year-old daughter thought it was funny and laughed.

"I was charged with 'watching and besetting' - some ancient law that means hanging around with intent.

I think Dick Turpin was probably the last person to get it, the judge had to ask a barrister what it was.

"For campaigning they sent me to Canterbury prison for four months."

As a 16-year-old Dave Hemmings joined Betteshanger colliery in 1974, Kent's biggest pit near Deal with mine shafts 24ft wide. Since 1984 he has been steward of Deal Welfare Club, off Mill Hill, where the majority of Betteshanger's 1,500 miners lived.

It was the last pit in the country to re-open after 12 months of nationwide strikes that ended in disaster for scores of communities. All the family would work there, fathers, uncles, brothers.

"It all started in 1981, we supported the steelworkers who went on strike for a week, Thatcher wasn't ready for us then. She waited three years, then she could call it on her terms.

"We thought if NACAS - National Association of Colliery Overmen and Shopfirers - backed us it would be a short-lived thing.

"But they didn't. We felt let down because a lot of them came from the working ranks, they were friends and family, including my brother who was an overman.

"But without the backing of his union he was on his own.

"Picketing was round the clock, we went to Tilbury, Brightlingsea, any private docks to stop deliveries of coal. Very little came through Tilbury.

"We went as far as Yorkshire and most went by peacefully, but there were many confrontations with police at Betteshanger. Some of the men went back to work and were bussed in, there were hundreds of police manhandling us out the way so they could get through the picket line. About 80 workers betrayed over 2,500 other miners who held out."

The Deal Welfare Club is decorated with a handful of mining pictures, a reminder of the Kent mining industry that included Tilmanstone, Snowdown and Chislet. During the strike it laid on three meals a day, a life-saver for many miners and their families as the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill dug in for a long fight. Eddie Pickford worked at Tilmanstone and was 26 when the strike bit down hard.

"The lowest point came when winter crept in," he said. "We didn't have a coal allowance anymore, but the local farmers let us cut down some of their trees for fuel.

"Parcels of food and clothing came in from unions, not just in this country, but all across the world. At the time we didn't think about foreign workers but they backed us then. The Bulgarian Miners Union paid for me to go skiing, bizarre as it sounds.

"Men showed real solidarity and comradeship, the welfare club helped us and families pulled together to get through it. A hardship fund saw that no family went without."

The crucial role of women at the club saw an end to the men-only section in 1984 as the miners ditched one of their traditions, happy to embrace a tighter family and community spirit born out of extreme hardship. Young miner Jimmy Brannan was 19 at the time. He said: "The worst thing was watching my mother and father struggle. I could look after myself, but my parents had my three sisters and a brother to bring up.

"As a young lad I put my faith in the union, we were right to strike and Arthur Scargill was right: he predicted the government wanted to destroy the mining industry."

Arthur Evans went from school aged 14 to work in Tilmanstone colliery in 1946 for 40 years. He said: "The pits made money at the start when we used pick axes and filled the carts up by hand. But by the end some of them simply weren't paying."

Betteshanger workers along with other Kent collieries voted at Winter Gardens, Margate, to continue striking after the national strike was called off, but it lasted only a week. Workers continued public campaigning in the mistaken belief they would get their jobs back.

Betteshanger was the last to close in 1989, just four years after strike action ended, taking job losses to 3,000 including Snowdown and Tilmanstone pits.

In Great Britain in March 1984 there were 180,000 mining jobs, by 1993 the figure was just 31,000. Coal in Kent was originally discovered in Dover in the 1890s with many mines springing up only to fail.

Miners from Wales, the Midlands and the North East came to live at purpose-built villages including Mill Hill, Aylesham, Elvington and Hersden.

Evidence of mining has all but vanished at Tilmanstone and the loss of the region's coal mining heritage prompted Dover Council in 2001 to launch the Coalfields Heritage Initiative Kent (CHIK) project.

Militant miners

SOME of the most militant of miners came from Kent, as descendants of 'refugee' miners who were blacklisted during the General Strike of 1926.

Assistant Curator of Dover Museum Mark Frost, where they ran the Coalfield Heritage Initative Kent, said: "They were the first ones to strike and the last back to work in 1985.

"Betteshanger was the last to close in 1989, 99 years after they discovered coal - they didn't quite make it to a century."

Despite being one of the smallest coalfields in the country, the strength of feeling made them some of the most influential pits in the country.

Former Betteshanger branch National Union of Mineworkers secretary, Terry Harrison, said: "It was the emotion felt between them more than anything. So they joined the strikes early.

"Kent miners were from small coal fields like Wales and Scotland and it was time to protect their own employment and communities.

"Although we were small our influence compared to our size was incredible."

Previously joining pickets in Nottingham, Ipswich, Gravesend and Colchester, Kent miners were also a strong force behind the London movement prominently taking part in marches through the capital.

It was not until some workers started returning to work as the strike movement continued into autumn that they were involved in pickets and 'sit ins' at the Kent collieries.

It was perhaps their militant force that sparked a police tactic to stop miners from travelling north at roadblocks at Dartford tunnel on March 18, 1984 - an incident slammed for 'injuring civil liberties'.

Mr Harrison, who described it as a "flagrant abuse" of civil rights, added: "When we were stopped I suppose we made the mistake of thinking this was something the police were doing at the time rather than realising it would be the policy of police to stop pickets at Dartford tunnel.

"They just stopped people in cars that looked like they could be miners and prevented them from travelling north."

Complaining that the tactics were an assault on civil liberties, Kent miners, led by Birmingham Five QC Mike Mansfield, took a case to the High Court in 1986.

The case, heard in private, ruled that the Chief Constable of Kent's reasoning that the miners' activity "might lead to a breach of the peace" was valid and that they had no right to claim damages.

But it was not just miners who complained of heavy-handed police tactics when some supporters found themselves arrested for the same charges of 'obstruction' as the miners purely for collecting for charity.

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