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How Women-Run Free Cafes Helped Sustain the 1984 UK Miners’ Strike

“You have to remember that there were children starving. We knew Thatcher was trying to break us, so we had to galvanise as a community.”

by James McMahon
08 March 2019, 3:45pm

Women from Easington Colliery in County Durham march against pit closures during the 1984 miners' strike. Photo courtesy Heather Wood. 

Heather Wood remembers much about the 1984 miners’ strike. The desperation. The anger. The rising debts of families striking. It changed her life and the lives of those she cares for. Some of the memories are difficult to draw upon but if she allows herself to remember, there are kinder memories too.

“Oh, the pies!” she says, her soft Durham accent rising with excitement. “You should have seen the pies. Mash and peas—it was really something. My mother, Myrtle Macpherson, is famous for making her pies. Her recipe has gone all over the globe. She made fantastic things on an absolute shoestring, and on a domestic cooker with four rings and one little oven.”

Wood smiles. “Mince and dumplings, that was a favourite.”

There are many stories of strength and heroism that emerged from the miners’ strike of 1984. Many of them come from the former Durham coalfield. Wood lived in Easington Colliery, a pit village since 1899. You might recognise it from the 2000 film Billy Elliot—the village doubled as the fictitious Everington—or from the sleeve of The Who’s 1971 album Who’s Next, which was shot on one of the pits colossal slag heaps. The pit eventually closed on May 7 1993, with the loss of 1,400 jobs. The following year, the pit shaft headgear was demolished. And yet while the infrastructure is gone, the memories remain.

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Women of Save Easington Area Mines serving members of their community at one of the 14 free cafes they ran during the year of industrial action. Photo courtesy Heather Wood.

“You have to remember that there were children starving,” says Wood, who, when the Easington miners went on strike, decided something must be done to help families who were now without a wage and so now without the means to feed themselves. “We knew Thatcher was trying to break us, so we had to galvanise as a community and band together.”

Wood and the women of Save Easington Area Mines (SEAM) opened and ran 14 free cafes, where anyone in the community who needed feeding could get a meal. They served 500 people a day, “often much more than that during the school holidays when the children came down.”

“The problem was that my mam could make the pies and get them onto trays,” continues Wood, laughing at the mayhem of the memory, “but we couldn’t get them cooked. So we started asking around the community. My mam knew the local baker, he was a nice man, and he told her that if she came around at a certain time, his ovens would be turned off, but it’d still be hot enough to cook the pies.”

She adds: “Once a month, Harry Evans, who owned the local fish and chip shop, would do fish and chips for everyone.”

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A memorial to miners who died in the pit explosion at Easington Colliery in 1951. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Wood is keen to point out that there was little love for the mines themselves within the local community. Her father died from emphysema caused by working below ground. An accident within the pit itself took the life of her grandfather. Today Easington Colliery’s pit explosion of 1951, which took the lives of 83 men—including two rescue workers—is commemorated with a triangular rock, painted white, bearing a tablet of stone removed from the scene of the explosion.

“But without the mines there were no jobs,” she says. “Without the mines there wasn’t hope.” Her husband wasn’t a miner himself. “He was a plumber, though his family went way back within mining.” But to Wood’s mind, the strike wasn’t just about saving the pits. It was about saving the community.

“We were terrified of the community going,” she explains. “There’s nothing like a mining community. You’ll never be able to replicate it unless there’s an industry in an area with everyone doing the same job in exactly the same circumstances. The danger and the hazards associated with mining brought us all together. Like we feared, the community did change when the pit closed. Young people moved away because there was no work. Now we’ve got an ageing population and not enough social care to look after them.”

And yet Wood believes that for anyone who was involved in the strike, and the free cafes, the fire still remains. “I think one of the great legacies of the strike was that it was politicised a great number of women,” she says.

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Easington Colliery women at a meeting during the strike. Photo courtesy Heather Wood.

Wood had been politicised before the strike, serving as a chairwoman of the general management committee of the district Labour Party. And yet the majority of her friends weren’t.

“Politics wasn’t seen as women’s business, but as time went on, you could see an awakening in the women involved. If you look back over time, it’s always been women within mining communities that have instigated change.” She laughs. “If women hadn’t been involved with the strike, nothing would have got done.”

“Politics wasn’t seen as women’s business, but as time went on, you could see an awakening in the women involved. If you look back over time, it’s always been women within mining communities that have instigated change.”

Food was central to everything; the lack of it, the fear of a future without it, as a reason to come together. Wood remembers the cafes as being “good and bad, happy and sad—every emotion you can imagine could happen within five minutes.” She recalls serving someone’s meal, being overwhelmed with happiness upon hearing stories of a successful day on the picket lines, then being floored upon someone entering hungry, and distraught at the poverty their family were facing cut off from a wage.

“That happened often,” she says. “And then someone would come in saying Ian MacGregor [Thatcher-appointed National Coal Board hatchet man] was hiding with a plastic bag on his head, and we’d all be laughing again.”

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A pit cage, restored today as a monument to the former site of Easington Colliery. The shaft was 483 metres deep and functioned as the main entrance for miners to reach the pit. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Wood describes the day the cafes’ closed—the strike over, the miners back at work, the future uncertain.

“We were sad, so sad, but we were so proud of everything we’d done too. We could have just sat back and let Thatcher do what she wanted to do, but we didn’t, and in doing that we kept our dignity. We kept our community. And we demonstrated the very best that a community could be.”

She laughs.

“We really didn’t miss cooking so much though … ”

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miners strike
miners' strike 1984
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