Retro: Cortonwood strikers on the march to save pits

Cortonwood Colliery striking miners leave for the TUC conference in Brighton

Cortonwood Colliery striking miners leave for the TUC conference in Brighton

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Thirty years ago this month, 19 striking miners from Cortonwood pit at Brampton Bierlow were proudly marching, with two banners, the 300 miles to Brighton for the TUC conference.

They were hoping to reach there by September 3 when the conference began. The men, led by NUM branch official Mick Carter, intended to put their grievances at meetings on their way south and were aiming to stimulate support from the TUC for the Miners’ Strike.

“We are doing this to show we are honest men fighting for our jobs. We are not the thugs and vagabonds we have been made out to be,” said Mr Carter.

The men on the peaceful protest were travelling light staying with other sympathetic trade union groups along the trek.

Pit union president Roy Hart said: “It is a march for jobs – not just mining jobs but everyone’s.

“The strike has hit us hard in Brampton but people are determined to keep fighting. The march is to help boost morale and to show our solidarity with other trade unions.’

The men left Brampton Bierlow to the sound of blaring sirens and cheers from local firemen who gathered to see them off.

When they passed through the Nottinghamshire village of Hucknall dozens of locals turned out to cheer and march alongside them.

And later that day striking miners from Rufford, nicknamed ‘the Real men of Rufford’, marched with them part of the way.

Further along the route they passed through Ashy-de-la-Zouch, Walsall, Birmingham, Coventry, Brent, Purley and Crawley.

Of course this was not the first time Cortonwood colliery had made the news during 1984.

At the beginning of the year the 850-strong workforce believed their pit had five years life left. That belief was in tatters by March 1.

The National Coal Board announced it planned to shut the pit “as soon as possible in the next financial year”, which started in April.

Instead of five years, the men reckoned their pit’s death warrant would be signed for April 6 – when the 111-year-old colliery would shut for good.

Defiantly, the Cortonwood miners resolved not to lie back and see their pit die with a million tonnes of workable reserves sealed underground.

Their stance led to Yorkshire’s 56,000 miners being called out on strike following a Yorkshire area council NUM meeting on March 5.

Yorkshire president Jack Taylor said that the council were using the power to call the strike given to them by a members’ ballot in 1981.

This was a move that ultimately led to the 1984/85 national Miners’ Strike.

During June 1984, the Ladies’ Action Group of the strike centre at Cortonwood Miner’s Welfare Club organised dinners for miners, their wives and children under five on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Food parcels were also distributed from the club.

Additional help to provide food came from Cortonwood businesses and shopkeepers who rallied round, donating goods to an auction.

Food, jewellery, toys, furniture, fancy goods, household goods and gifts of all descriptions were auctioned at Cortonwood Miners’ Welfare on July 26.

Ugly scenes were witnessed on numerous South Yorkshire picket lines throughout 1984 when strike-breakers returned to work. But it was November 9 before any one clocked on at Cortonwood.

This incited around 150 pickets and police to clash for nearly three hours in one of the worst incidents of violence since the start of the strike.

Molotov cocktails and iron bolts were hurled, road signs and lamp-posts were torn down and cars set alight, leaving a scene of wreckage.

Over Christmas 1984, despite the strike being in its 42nd week, a festive spirit prevailed on the Cortonwood picket line.

Throughout Boxing Day well-wishers called in to a roadside hut, christened the Alamo, which the pickets had made their headquarters.

A passing motorist dropped off a half bottle of whisky, an elderly couple brought a fiver and others simply called to pass on their best wishes.

Life was certainly not lonely for the four-man picket which kept up a 24-hour vigil over Christmas, warmed by the heat of a coke stove.

Anne Scargill surprised Cortonwood’s pickets at the Alamo hut on March 4, 1985 with a big red birthday cake. The 5lb cake, baked by a woman belonging to the Barnsley Support Group, was to mark the first anniversary of the strike.

Its one candle, flickering in the night, lit up the inscription which read: ‘One year old and not yet defeated.’

On March 5, 1985, the sad day when all striking miners decided to return to work after a bitter struggle, the Cortonwood men were met by flying pickets from the Kent coalfield.

They were continuing their strike to demand an amnesty for sacked colleagues.

Cortonwood strikers, along with hundreds of women, had gathered in the pit village for an orderly march back to work behind banners but they refused to cross the Kent men’s picket line.

One of the Kent pickets, David Hemmings from Bettshanger pit, said all except two NUM branch officials in the Kent area – a small coalfield – had been sacked by the Coal Board.

When Cortonwood miners did return to work it was for only a matter of months. An announcement in June stated that the pit would be axed.

The Coal Board claimed there was no inland market for Cortonwood’s coal.

Early in October 1985 the Cortonwood men took a heartbreaking decision to abandon their fight to save their colliery.

Faced with the prospect of depriving redundancy volunteers of up to £30,000 each if they prolonged the closure battle into the new year, the Cortonwood NUM branch withdrew its objections to closure.

Miners’ leaders at the NUM’s Sheffield headquarters, the Yorkshire NUM’s Barnsley headquarters and at Cortonwood were silent about the votes to give up the fight, won with a three to one majority at the doomed pit.

On October 25, 1985 the last cage-load of miners on a production shift at Cortonwood came up at lunchtime, to be met by a posse of journalists.

Many miners, still bitter about defeat in the strike, refused to speak, but those who did made it clear they believed the fight had been worthwhile.

Of the 690-strong workforce at Cortonwood almost half – 320 – had opted for redundancy.

The other 370 would be transferred to either Barnburgh, Treeton, Silverwood or Maltby collieries. All of which have since closed.

Cortonwood colliery will always be remembered as the cradle of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike.

And let’s not forget the 19 Cortonwood men who marched to Brighton to further the cause.

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