Grimethorpe Now

Sam Miller

For a few days last October the Yorkshire mining village of Grimethorpe appeared to lose its composure. News of Grimethorpe colonised the front pages of the tabloids. It was a strange affair. On 17 October 1984 we were told the story of Coal Board property set on fire by ‘rampaging hooded mobs’, and of a woman police sergeant attacked and injured after the same mob had besieged the police station. The following day the Deputy Chief Constable of South Yorkshire was to be seen on the main news broadcast of the day giving the villagers an ‘unreserved apology’ for instances of police wrong-doing.

Grimethorpe is not the kind of place where an outsider blends into the landscape. When I went there the other day I was modestly dressed, almost demure. Not, I thought, a sore thumb. I got down from the bus. Two small boys cycled up to me. One of them asked: ‘Art thou poooof?’ ‘Art thou gay?’ clarified his friend. I was about to treat with them when the first boy offered to fight me. I made off up the hill. Everyone knows everyone else, at least by sight, in this village of six thousand people. One old man in the ‘Bullet’, the ex-servicemen’s club, sat with a friend born in the same street ten days after him. They had gone to school together, been miners at Grimethorpe pit, joined the same regiment, returned to ‘Grimey’, retired together, and were now, in their late sixties, supping half-pints and teasing the man at the next table because he was an outsider: he had come from the nearby village of South Kirkby over sixty years ago.

The pit is the reason the village exists. Eight hundred of Grimethorpe mine’s 1500 workers live in the village. Perhaps another eight hundred work in the brickyards and the Coalite and Pulverite factories adjoining the colliery yard and in the Coal Board’s Shafton Workshops. Other villagers are miners at neighbouring pits. Those small industries and businesses in Grimethorpe which do not depend directly on coal depend directly on the custom of miners and their families. ‘Grimethorpe is not called Grimethorpe because it’s dirty, though it is,’ one man told me. A Viking called Grima settled here. There has been commercial coal-mining within the parish boundary since the 16th century. The shaft of the present pit was sunk in 1894, and according to the locals, the area has been covered in coal-dust ever since. They claim to have to redecorate their houses twice as often as people living in Sheffield. Although Grimethorpe stretches across a small valley and reaches up two hills to form ‘the red city’ and the ‘white’, so-called after the colour of the houses, nevertheless the pit and its surrounding industrial complex dominate the village, giving the area a harsh, dramatic appearance. Beyond the winding-gear of Grimethorpe colliery lie the slag-heaps, and in between is the New Park Spring coal stockyard, scene of the 22 arrests of 14 October 1984, after which some rioting did indeed take place.

Not a single Grimethorpe miner who lived in the village returned to work before the mass walk-back last March. Two villagers working at other pits returned earlier. They were not from mining families and have been totally ostracised. They will probably move soon, for shops will not serve them or their families. The village is bedrock Labour (‘except for the old lady who lives in the big house up on the hill – she is independent Labour’), and was solid behind Scargill and the strike. It might be seen, then, as bizarre that some of the most serious off-the-picket-line violence of the entire strike should have occurred in such a united village. Indeed, the local vicar, Colin Patey, suggests that ‘because of the solidarity of the strike here, there’s probably been less bother, apart from that one notorious week, than in a lot of other places.’ The strike was discussed heatedly at the time, but the general belief that it was justified was rarely questioned. Arguments were about tactics, about the ballot and about mass picketing, and these arguments were private. Grimethorpe did not allow the press to split the village into factions.

Grimethorpe miners deny that they are particularly radical. But when they go on strike there are no half-measures. The 1947 Grimethorpe ‘stint strike’ brought most of the Yorkshire coalfield out, because the newly-created National Coal Board ordered increased production on one coalface at Grimethorpe. The ‘stint strike’ has become part of the folklore of the area. It is said that the ‘flying picket’ was first used in this strike. Will Lawther, President of the NUM, was, they say in Grimethorpe, in league with Shinwell, Minister of Fuel and Power, and the Labour Government. Grimethorpe lost: something the miners did not realise until after the victorious return to work. Lawther was not forgiven. Until the Seventies the words ‘Burn Will Lawther’ were still clear on the pit-yard wall; above that slogan was drawn a gallows. Grimethorpe became symbolic of grass-roots resistance to the right-wing leadership of the miners in the Yorkshire coalfield, which lasted through the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties. There were few collieries where the left-wing takeover was more popular than in aggrieved Grimethorpe. The village hit the headlines again in the 1972 mining dispute. It was at Grimethorpe that miners’ committees registered and issued permits to lorry-drivers delivering Coalite fuel to old people and hospitals. Miners were policing their own dispute in a way which won public support and contributed to the ‘Battle’ of Saltley Gate and the miners’ victory.

In 1947, half of Grimethorpe’s striking miners went south fruit-picking, while the rest were on the picket lines. This was to prevent the miners being starved back to work. In 1984, most miners took coal to feed their own fires and the fires of the elderly, some took coal to sell. They sold it as far a field as Selby and Lincolnshire, mainly to farmers, at about half the market price. This was their way of getting food on the table. The black-marketeers were mainly single men who received no strike pay, no supplementary benefit: they might receive a few pounds a week for picket duty and that was all. A lot of the coal was distributed in neighbouring villages and in Barnsley at a nominal price. This was very important as a way of maintaining solidarity in the hinterland of the pit communities. Thousands of tonnes of coal were distributed in this way (Grimethorpe pit produces more than a million tonnes every year). For the Police to arrest 22 men for ‘picking’ coal represented a severe threat to the continuance of the strike at a time when the weather was getting worse and winter was setting in. The Police were discharging their duties – that coal belonged to the National Coal Board. Some of those arrested possessed as little as £1.50 worth of coal, and none of the large-scale ‘riddlers’ were caught. As many as two hundred Police, none from the Yorkshire Constabulary, occupied and patrolled the coal stockyard and its driveways. The rioting began. It lasted from Sunday, the day of the arrests, until Tuesday. After the police-station siege Grimethorpe became a no-go area for the Police.

On the Wednesday a public meeting was held in Grimethorpe, parts of which were later televised. The mood of the villagers was very angry: they listed scores of individual complaints against the Police and the way the dispute had been managed. Some of the complaints were directed against the continuing presence of ‘foreign’ police, police drafted in from all over the country, but the majority were directed against individually-named local policemen and women. Singled out was Police Sergeant Janet Smith, who had appeared with a cut face and her right arm in a bandage on the front of most of Wednesday morning’s national newspapers. She was accused of repeatedly insulting and goading miners. Her conduct was likened by one miner to that of ‘Irma Gretch, the Nazi camp guard’ who walked around ‘showing no compunction’. This miner was Harold Hancock, who emerged as the village’s most powerful spokesman at the meeting. He accused the Coal Board of changing its ‘blind eye’ policy towards the picking of coal from storage sites in an attempt to try to break the community. Pointing up the hill towards the cemetery, he said: ‘Legally it isn’t ours and we know that, but morally we think it is. There are men in that cemetery who died in explosions, their legs blown off or gassed. They paid for that coal.’ In what the Times called an impassioned plea to the Police, Hancock said: ‘We are moral, hard-working, principled people in this village and we want treating like that.’ The chairman of the South Yorkshire Police Committee, Councillor George Moores, then spoke. Youngsters ‘come into the force as decent chaps and we send them away to training centres and they come back like Nazi storm-troopers.’ After listening to over an hour of complaints against the Police, the Deputy Chief Constable rose and said: ‘We are not on the side of the Government or the NUM. We are in the middle and we don’t wish to be there.’ He asked the villagers whether they would not admit that there were wrongdoers among them. He then gave an apology and promised to investigate individual complaints.

The riots ended; the villagers had got the apology they wanted. Feeling against the Police still ran high, though most of Grimethorpe felt things had got out of hand during the riots. Throughout the end of October and into November police guarded the stockyard, and the villagers say they even began to feel sorry for them as they sat freezing in their transit vans for ten-hour shifts. The villagers got up early and picked the coal they needed while the police were on picket duty. When the police abandoned the site in December and snow had covered the coal, the people of Grimethorpe could return to their old ways. Two months after the strike one unemployed man still runs a few sacks out to a Lincolnshire farmer every week.

A local policeman in Grimethorpe patrolling in his car said that everything was back to normal. ‘Those who talked to us before the strike still talk to us, those who didn’t don’t.’ Normality, then, is not a happy state of affairs. Harold Hancock observes: ‘There’s never been an affinity to the Police in mining areas, and that’s going back to when the General Strike was on. They remember all that. There are miners’ sons in the police force – they’re still regarded as outcasts. There are men in this village whose sons are in the police force now who are totally ignored.’ But the precise state of relations between the police and the village is hard to ascertain. A villager warned me: ‘I don’t think the village blames local police, not as much as they want people to think they do.’ It is the one subject that the village does not speak about with a single voice.

One recent incident suggests that all is still not well between the village and its policemen. The most detailed of several versions I was given goes like this: ‘An ambulance was called out because a man had had a heart attack and the police decided to come too. They came racing in, drove straight up onto the kerb and it was so high that they knocked off the sump and dinted both front wheels. They went running in, pushing and shoving people out of the way. As they came out, they dived on one and arrested him, or tried to, but he turned round and gave the police a hammering. They still haven’t found who did it. Everybody in the village knows. When the police hit the deck, everybody in the vicinity put a boot in. It was anger at being outnumbered on the picket line by ten to one, with the police saying: “Come on, if you dare. Come on, if you dare.” But when they’re one-to-one they’re just the same as anybody else, and he’s a big lad, 18 stone, the one that cracked him. The policeman jumped on his back – he’d have been better-off jumping on a tiger. He swung him round like a doll, gave him two beautiful cracks and bumped him with his head. He got his head under his arm and threw his helmet right over the top of the Working Men’s Club, and then he smashed his head through a police car window. He broke every window with the policeman’s head. It’s a wonder he didn’t fracture his bloody skull. He kicked the car doors in and took off. When the sergeant came from Cudworth he wouldn’t believe that a man had done that to a police car. He was playing hell up. He said to the policeman: “You’ve been in a smash.” And they took the policeman to hospital for treatment. They picked up no end of people for that. But they haven’t a clue. I could virtually go out in this village and pick six men exactly the same and they’ve all got alibis – even the one who did it has an alibi, a cast-iron alibi.’ The Police were unable to comment to me about this matter. But they did say that ‘the new community policeman has been working in and around Grimethorpe, on his own, and he seems to be getting a good response from the residents.’ The residents I spoke to do not agree – they also claim that he is always accompanied and leaves his patrol car only very occasionally. The mayor, Norman Whittaker, has publicly asked that the community policeman be given a chance. The Police are on parole.

Much of the public debate during the miners’ strike concentrated on the problems of law and violence on and off the picket line. For the people of Grimethorpe this matter was insignificant compared with the issue over which the strike was called. The announcement of the closure of Cortonwood pit sparked off the strike before the NUM leadership was fully prepared. Cortonwood is about ten miles from Grimethorpe. This was the first time the villagers began seriously to consider the possibility that their own pit might close. Considering the scale of recent Coal Board investment in the pit, including the development of a new drift mine and a coal preparation plant, this seems unlikely. A Coal Board spokesman says that ‘Grimethorpe is a million-tonnes-a-year pit and will continue to be so for many years.’ Nevertheless, the villagers are frightened. The rumour is that Grimethorpe is on a list of pits to be axed, with September 1988 as the provisional closing date. Miners told me that a £2m NCB investment scheme had been either temporarily stopped or abandoned. The pit has not been taking on new workers for two years, and it seems likely that a fifth of the work-force will take redundancy within the next year. All these factors, together with the taciturnity and hostility of the NCB, carrying out their national closures policy, have bred a sense of foreboding. What would happen to Grimethorpe without its pit? Colin Patey says: ‘It’s been a time of rumour and counter-rumour. The fear is there. The issues have been raised. The miners certainly haven’t been told things.’

It is not as if fear of unemployment is the only problem. Unemployment, at present, in Grimethorpe is above the national average. The miners, during their year-long strike, were undertaking to defend the survival of jobs in the mining industry, jobs which many detested. Hancock says: ‘If I could get a house and a different job elsewhere, I’d leave tomorrow. And it wouldn’t have to be a £200-a-week job, marvellous money. As for the rest, they hate mining. They hate the job but they like the comradeship.’ Mines, said someone else, are sewers. For Colin Patey the high unemployment in the area had hardened the wish of miners to save as many jobs as possible. ‘One of the things that was said a lot during the strike was “It’s not just for us, it’s so that our families after us have a chance of a community and a village and a work-place.” At one time, the aspirations for your children were that they should escape the pit and go somewhere else. But that was when there was a chance, when there was somewhere else to go: but now with the overall unemployment situation it’s the pit or nothing.’

Grimethorpe is a village which suffers from urban decay. It is a small place surrounded by fields and farms and other villages, yet it suffers from vandalism and glue-sniffing – activities associated more often with blighted inner-cities. Glue-sniffers, all children from the village, were discovered in the condemned remains of the Grimethorpe Empire. This discovery was made only six weeks ago and has clearly stunned the village. Vandalism is on the increase, though it has always been bad. During the strike young unemployed men looted the Co-op, and young children stoned their headmaster when he turned them away from a school disco. People in the village see many different causes. The very high unemployment among school-leavers is clearly an important factor, but some people also cite the brutalising effects of both the strike and the environment. The vandalism, Hancock thinks, is a consequence of the NCB’s ‘coming here and ripping pathways and hedges up. They’ve ripped into the countryside, and people more or less say: “Why should we bloody bother?” ’ Coal created this village and now, in a number of ways, it is destroying it.

The strike is over. The miners were beaten and Grimethorpe admits this. Some vaguely talk about the next battle, of how they will be better organised, of how tactics can be improved. It may sound like bravado, but you believe them when they say they were prepared to stay out another year. Just as countries at war adapt their economies to special production and consumption needs, Grimethorpe developed a successful strike economy. The black-market selling of coal is an example of this. Shops cut prices and gave credit. A barter system evolved, using allotment-grown fruit and vegetables. Radio hams or car fanatics, who possessed specialist skills, gave their services free. Certain villagers would have their fund-raising trips paid for by the village (not by the union). A distribution centre for food parcels, which came from Britain and abroad, was set up in the church. Many meals were eaten communally to save on food and heating costs.

This pit community proved itself adaptable in these and other ways. Disappointed by the failure of many traditional working-class organisations, such as the TUC and the Labour Party, to come to their aid, they describe themselves as incredulous at the amount of support they got from individuals and groups, working-class and middle-class, and from abroad. Support groups from Hendon and from Malvern were ‘twinned’ with Grimethorpe. People came from these support groups with vans full of useful goods, brown rice and Southern beer. The villagers put them up, heard them say ‘how beautiful it must be to live in the countryside,’ and remained delighted. Fifty Dutch socialists appeared and encamped themselves in various spruce miners’ cottages. I was told that at first ‘it was like making friends with Martians,’ but that afterwards they were writing to each other. Hancock told me that ‘we’ve learnt that there are people who care.’ Since the end of the strike groups of villagers have visited Holland and Russia.

The male chauvinism of miners is legendary. Betty Hancock, who was an organiser of the women’s support committee and a contributor to Women against Pit Closures,[*] observes that Grimethorpe has been ‘a male stronghold. Women did as they were told. The attitude was “It’s my wife and she’ll do as I tell her.” Not every woman will accept that.’ There are ways in which the women’s involvement with the strike was traditional. Betty Hancock says that at the beginning ‘many of them got involved out of sheer loyalty to their husbands.’ But their commitment developed into something far greater. Their role in the strike economy became crucial. Many women were the sole breadwinners in their families, others became managers of the strike economy. For those women who were already politically committed it was a relief not to be expected to knit jerseys for jumble sales. They raised the money themselves. They were the wage-earners, and the miners were dependent on them. They got to travel on strike business, they got to address public meetings and run committees – all inconceivable before the strike or in previous strikes. The most important factor this time was the length of the strike: the women did not begin organising properly until the third month. The Grimethorpe women’s support committee came into existence both because it was needed and because it was wanted. Many women have been politicised, and there is seen to be no question of a return to ‘normality’.

During the strike and since, Grimethorpe has shown itself to be versatile and adaptable in the face of extreme adversity. This is surprising when one considers just how close-knit and conservative the community can be. Grimethorpe is not sentimental about itself. It has never been a pretty place; its miners have never been angels. But it has proved its desire to survive and its ability to adapt.

[*] Published by Barnsley Women against Pit Closures (£1.50, 0 9509828 06).