‘I am a Director of the Museum. I have a background in Sales and I play an important role in fundraising for the Museum, generating ideas, and organising selling events at coalmining heritage and history events; I organise auction room events, raffles and tombolas. I also organise hospitality at the opening and closing of our exhibitions.’
((Interview conduced via zoom))
Your name features in the Hearts and Minds book by Joan Witham. You are down as a member of the Welbeck Women’s Action Group. Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement in the group and how that came to be?
Well, I was a member of the Welbeck Women’s Action Group – that’s what we were called. And how I came to be involved was… there was a meeting called at one o’clock, I can’t remember the date, but it was a Tuesday afternoon… It was snowing. I remember that. It was in the village hall, so I went up just to see what was going off and I ended up being on the committee. So that was how it got started. The initial talk was about how to get food in to make food parcels, because we knew these men – you know, it was very early days in the strike and it was about getting families fed. So, I don’t know how it came about that I was nominated to go, this was a few weeks in. But I was nominated to go to London to speak and then I started to do that on a regular basis… I would go into lectures and speak about the challenges that the miners faced and to raise money that way. So that’s how I got started and that was my main involvement really. To go out and get money in. I didn’t really spend that much time in soup kitchens and stuff, because I was out fundraising. I became a spokesperson for the Welbeck Women’s Action Group.
What was it like being a Striking Miners’ Wife at the time? In what ways did the strike impact your everyday life?
The impact was massive because we had no money. I’d got two children, one five and a new born baby. Our roles then, when I was away – was a role reverse… Alan [husband] was left holding the baby and I was away fundraising. I learnt very quickly how to make meals out of very little cash… We had a pound a day, because it was fifty pence a picket, so if they went on the morning shift and the afternoon shift, they earnt a quid a day. And what I did, I used to – and I’d got my family allowance but I can’t remember how much that was and I think that could have well been five pound per child a week and what I used to do is, I used to buy a sack of potatoes, tray of eggs, corn beef and tins of stewed steak… with that, we had a different meal every day using that ingredients… In August – September time, after the strike had been on a while we did get food support from Poland…
The other challenge was that I’d got two small children, well one was a baby and of course how quicky they grow so clothing was an issue. But we were supported well in the community. As children grew out of stuff, they were passed on to other women that were having babies. We just swapped and it did work. We did get donations come in, we teamed up with Tower Hamlets in London and that’s where I used to stop, with a guy called Terry and his family. And they organised clothing and Christmas presents when it came to Christmas. Yeah so, out of that bit of money we used to have to pay our gas, our electric… Feed and clothe us all. So, it [the impact] was massive. Also, the coal board stopped your coal allowance – so that was our heating gone as well. So the impact from Alan earning a decent wage to having hardly anything coming in was huge. But it made you more determined to fight for your job. In the beginning most miners were on strike and to start, Notts was more or less solid.
It is clear that women have played a huge role within the Mining Community, but what do you feel that women brought specifically to the community during the strike of 1984-85?
It was the support.
I don’t think that the strike would have gone on for a year if it weren’t for the support of the women.
You know… we had to feed these miners. These families. They had to be fed and it was the women that did that. It was us that went out, fundraised, brought the money back for food parcels to be sent out. During the school holidays in that year, we did get the kitchens at Eastlands school. So when you think now, it would never be allowed but we had all that equipment in that kitchen and had no idea what we were doing, but the women did put a cooked meal on every day. Dinner and a pudding every day. It was full every day… Obviously you’ve got the little chairs at the table and great big miners sat on these little chairs, sat up to these little tables… Community spirit was absolutely fantastic. We obviously had no money but we were out and about all the time. In the Three Lions [pub in Meden Vale]… we used to brew our own beer and wine, and they let us sit in their car park and we all just used to gather and the kids used to have a great time. And that’s how we socialised on a weekend.
Harry and Ann Heaton had a caravette and that was Alan’s picket centre but it doubled up at the weekend where every body took their beer and wine, and we used to make pie and peas… How Welbeck came together is very much like how people have come together due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Then if somebody had something and somebody else was in desperate need, you shared. Everybody shared whatever they’d got. Times were very different then… In that time [84-85], in that village – you never used to lock your doors or your windows when you went out. Just nobody in that village locked their doors or windows… The community was just everything… Yeah so, the women were at the helm of this strike. Absolutely.
Just to add about the community as well… we had a massive community bonfire come bonfire night. Tower Hamlets donated fireworks, so we had a bonfire party. It was the best firework display I’ve ever seen – what the men put together. We had jacket potatoes and mushy peas and everything donated of course. All cooked in the caravette. It was absolutely ready for the scrap yard by the end of the year weren’t it Al… [Alan: Yeah *Laughs*] There was nowt left of it. And then Christmas again, the Tower Hamlets supported Welbeck… The schools in the Tower Hamlets adopted a family and they bought presents for those children in that family. We also had turkeys and potatoes and everything donated from them.
*As I make notes, Alan and Jan can be heard, reminiscing over the Christmas in which they received donations and recall a teddy bear their daughter was fond of, that had been donated. They both talk fondly of a Lorry that came and delivered presents, with ages and genders on toys for the children of striking miners. Both remember the smiles on the children’s faces and the tears in the eyes of miners, overwhelmed by the support they had received. By this time, many men had started returning back to work, to provide for their families over Christmas – so, for those that remained on strike, this level of support certainly lifted spirits and brought forth solidarity to their struggles.*
Do you have any memorable stories about your involvement during the strike that you would like to share?
There is one that sticks in my head. It’s from a neighbour who lived next door but one… She was due to give birth, it was round about November time… there was a knock on the door at two or three o’clock in the morning and it was Johnny Nicholson and his missus. And he’s got no petrol for his car and he were stressed as to get her to hospital, so we just gave them our car and said here use our car. And the sheer panic in that man’s face about his wife being in labour and he was panicking about how he was going to get her to hospital, because unless your waters had broke in them days, you had to get yourself there. So, that is one story that sticks in my mind.
The other story I remember is Anne Scargill and Betty Heathfield, and to get this school for the soup kitchen, we did a sit in. *Laughs* I think it lasted about two days. But we did have the support of Anne Scargill and Betty Heathfield, and Ida Hackett joined us. She snored terrible. Of course, we stayed there all day and all night… The outcome of that was that we were able to use the school kitchens as soup kitchens.
People remember different things that stick in their mind. When I look back, it’s like… why did I leave my baby? You know what I mean. She was born in November and here I am in April going to bloody London… I don’t even know how I got that job but I did and I went.
Can you give us a run down of a day on the picket lines?
Well as you know, I was arrested a couple of times. Never charged, they just used to whip you off the picket lines and lock you up for a couple of hours. I never got taken to the station – they just used to lock you in the police van. But the first time it ever happened I were frightened to death, it was early morning at Sherwood Pit. When I got put in the van. This was early days, first or second week of the strike. And I was still breastfeeding, so I was panicking because I had no idea if I were going to be taken to the station and charged. [Alan chimes in: you were panicking?]
So I had my baby ready to feed… and I was like I’ve got a baby to feed… But they did just use to whip women [some of the men were taken to the station and charged] off the picket lines and lock them up for a bit. It happened a couple of times. I nearly got squashed to death at a picket in Ollerton and that was scary, because they would squeeze us into a pen so I was quite happy when they whipped me out, because it did feel at some point that I had no room to move.
So, yeah. On the picket lines there was so much banter. You used to lift everybody and you used to sing and shout… [I’m sure you can imagine what songs were sung at the time]. With regards to our Kristy, she was five at the time and kids used to fight in the playground… The strike conflicts did spill over into the playground, you know if your dad were working, kids were really clued up on it. They did used to have fights in the playground and our Kristy said their friendships were never the same again… The kids knew about terms like scab and the divide. It ripped families and communities apart, it was never the same again… When the men all went back, they had to watch each other’s backs, so that must have been challenging… Given everything that had happened.
Anything else that you would like to add/contribute?
I was one of the younger women of the generation. For example, Anne Scargill and Betty Cook came from an older generation. They speak of having their husbands dinner on the table for a certain time, whereas my generation in many ways was different. Women started to have careers and men became more involved with the upbringing of their children. Men were also allowed in the delivery room. Women in those days, well for me anyway, went to work for luxuries. I wanted a career and to own my own home, I wanted a car of my own and to keep my independence. My Dad said I needed reigning in. I had my first baby in 1979 and then I returned to work when Kristy was 8 weeks old. I was looked down upon at the time. How things have changed.
If you want to share your story like Jan, please do get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org as we are hoping to archive these stories for future projects and exhibitions, regarding Women’s Action Groups.