This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the 1984 miners’ strike. It was an event that affected the daily lives of the people in the mining communities in the North East. The events that unfolded brought together communities and ultimately ripped them apart, bringing high levels of unemployment as the mines eventually closed down. This is a well-known story in the tale of the decline of North East industry, but what is less well-known is the story of the women behind the men working in the mines, the women that supported the miners, started their own initiatives, joined the men on the picket lines and very like the war, it changed their lives forever.
In a small church hall in Easington, across the road from the Mining Institute, five women bring the story to life using music, poetry, the occasional appearance of Margaret Thatcher, and the real life experiences taken from the interviews of twenty three women from across the coalfields of the North East. What makes this play special is that it was created by, set in and ultimately performed in the hearts of the communities that it is about. We are introduced to the women one by one as they step forward to say ‘I remember’. Brass band music plays in the background. The mood is sombre, poignant and contemplative.
One by one we hear their stories. We see how the strike affected the everyday lives of children and their families. This is interwoven with stories about young girls who worked down the mines before the 1842 Royal Commission. We learn about Heather Wood from Easington, who sets up a kitchen to feed affected workers and families. At the height of the strike the kitchen fed up to five hundred people for five days a week. The community came together to help, to work in the kitchen, to make food parcels and support each other. Children were given shoe vouchers to help them buy shoes. Support came in from all over the world, the Chancellor of Germany, Billy Bragg and Lindisfarne.
As the year of the strike progresses we are given glimpses into the lives of key women such as Juliana Heron and Heather Wood. We hear about the threatening phone calls and the hostility towards the strikers as the year progresses. We learn about the picket lines, the men and women shouting ‘sc-ab’ to avoid arrest for shouting ‘scab’, a term shouted at the men crossing the picket line.Christmas comes and many have to eat tinned chicken instead of turkey, but there are donations of Christmas presents, one new toy for each child.
After the strike the men went back to work, but the pits ultimately closed and jobs were lost. In many ways the strike was in vain, its purpose was to save jobs and the community. High unemployment meant that children grew up and moved away to find work, a community was lost. For the women involved it changed their lives in different ways, some went back to being housewives but others found they couldn’t just return to being at home. Juliana Heron became interested in politics and became town councillor, then city councillor, then mayor. Heather Wood also stayed interested in politics and has worked in the probation service since.
84 was brought to life by five very talented actresses. We shared their solidarity, their pain and loss as we watched. It is an important lesson in our social history, one that should be seen by the younger generations of the communities involved and beyond.