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.

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