Coal not Dole

It’s 30 years since the Miners’ Strike. What a privilege to hear from the great May Redfern and to be involved in writing the text for Coal not Dole, an exhibition marking the role of the women who campaigned against the mass pit closures and redundancies announced in March 1984.

May and the team at Experience Barnsley have been working with former members of groups such as Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC), who rose up to support miners when they first went out on strike at Cortonwood Pit in Barnsley. For more than a year these women wrote and spoke widely, raised money, ran kitchens, picketed and spread the word about the threat to their families’ livelihoods.

In the exhibition text I drew on the women’s vivid stories, as told to the Barnsley team. Jean Miller reported being amazed by the numbers who came to the first meeting of Barnsley WAPC: “There were women in the sitting room, kitchen, on the stairs and in the hallway, we never dreamt so many would turn up.” May’s team has collected the handwritten sign that marked WAPC meetings in Barnsley throughout the strike, as well as the minute book and the letters of support that flooded in.

The WAPC became a national movement and gained international recognition. Some women went on speaking tours and wrote books about their experiences. In the text, campaigners talk about the first time they cooked dishes like curry, from ingredients sent by supporters from abroad.

Banners and sashes on display bring to mind the struggle of the suffragettes more than a century before, and the text seeks to explore how traditional lives and roles changed during the months of the strike. A quote from Anne Scargill gives a flavour of the times:

“One day on the picket line this police inspector said to me, “Oh my God, how many’s here?” I said, “about 30”. He says, “I’d rather 100 men than 30 women.” I said “That’s your problem, not mine.”

Although the strike was a failure and the miners eventually marched back to work, campaigners like Jean (on the right in the photo above, with Sandra) are proud of the achievements of the WAPC. The dimensions of many women’s lives were changed forever.