“The Miners united … will never be defeated” was the battle cry from striking miners – but they weren’t united, and even though the South Wales miners were more united than anywhere else in the country, there were still those that went back to work before the strike ended, and that was bound to make life difficult when they had to start working together again.
There must have been other misgivings too, because although there was a wage packet being picked up again at the end of the week, they must have wondered for how long, and in the case of Bedwas Colliery, they knew straight away because it never even re-opened. By the end of 1985 another seven South Wales pits were either amalgamated or closed down, and it was the same story throughout the country.
Fortunately, Tower wasn’t one of them, and if you’ve read my previous post, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2, you’ll already know why I’m pleased to say that. These people may have had a lot to contend with, but they hadn’t forgotten our support either, and they invited us to a special evening at the Fernhill Social Club to thank us for that support.
The evening promised to be a memorable one. NUM officials would be there, and so would the Mayor of the Rhondda. The Treorchy Male Voice Choir would be singing a special song written for the occasion, and of course this time there would be no shortage of food on offer. All we had to do was turn up.
The evening was indeed a memorable one, but for all the wrong reasons. Purnell Gravure got hold of a vintage coach and all the wives bought new frocks and got their hair done. I’m afraid it all gets a bit hazy after this. All I remember was that it was a Friday night and it started off perfectly. Everyone picked the coach up on time and we were soon heading for the Severn Bridge, but it then all started to go horribly wrong. We left at 5pm for the 8pm start, but heavy traffic on the M4 approaching the bridge meant that we were in danger of not making it on time.
Things went from bad to worse. It was dark and wet by the time we reached the Rhondda and it wasn’t easy to see the turning off for Blaenrhondda, and we went past it. When things go wrong, sometimes I’ll take the responsibility but not the blame, and sometimes I’ll take the blame but not the responsibility. On this occasion, I had to take the blame and the responsibility. It was all my fault. I was the one directing the driver, and he wasn’t the happiest person I’ve ever met when we found ourselves at the top of the valley heading for the Brecon Beacons.
We pulled in and onto a patch of industrial waste ground to try and turn around, and the next thing we knew there was a great big thump. When we jumped out to see what had happened, the front of the beautiful vintage coach didn’t look quite so beautiful now. The bumper was hanging off for a start, and not only that, we were stuck in a wet morass of mud and slag.
It was all hands to the pump, even the ladies in their new frocks were giving it a go, and it didn’t help that it was chucking it down with rain either. I won’t tell you what everyone looked like in their finery trying to push the coach out of the mud with the wheels spinning.
The miners sent a search party out to look for us and it was around 10pm when they found us. A few cars took some of us down to the club while the others stayed with the coach. When we arrived, the food had nearly all gone, and the mayor most certainly had. I think it’s fair to say that what should have been one of the proudest moments of my working life, wasn’t. I did receive some awards including a statue of a collier made from coal, some badges, and a couple of NUM ties as well as being made an honorary member of the NUM, but somehow, I didn’t feel quite as proud as I should have done.
I can’t really remember much else because it all became a bit of a blur. I think I just wanted one of those pits to swallow me up. From what I can remember, some of the miners helped get the coach moving again and the rest of the coach party turned up when nearly everybody else had gone home.
The Treorchy Male Voice Choir never got to sing that song either, which was a great shame, because they did a rehearsal of it, in both English and Welsh when I was in the club one time, and it was really very moving. It would have been a fitting end to the evening. As it is, the best I can come up with is them singing a rendition of ‘Cwm Rhondda with the Morriston Orpheus Choir instead. This is my attempt at an apology to that wonderful group of singers.
Our journey back home to Somerset was a lot quieter than I was hoping for, and instead of making a whole new load of friends for life, I think I had less than when we started out.
Back at the coal face, 1986 saw more pit closures, and when Maerdy amalgamated with Tower, it effectively brought coal mining in the Rhondda Valley to an end (see picture at the start of this post).
Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of the miners encouraged her to take on the rest of the union movement, and with the legislation behind her, it wasn’t long before she accomplished that aim as well, but unfortunately for her, she wasn’t able to control members of her own party, and in 1990 she resigned. Her reign as the unofficial queen of England lasted 11 years, in which time 115 pits were closed, considerably more than the 70 Arthur Scargill was ridiculed for suggesting would happen.
She was succeeded by another conservative prime minister, John Major, who privatised British Coal in 1994 after announcing the closure of another 55 pits, one of which was Tower. The mine was closed on 22nd April 1994 but was back open again on 2nd January 1995 after being bought by the miners who worked at the pit. It carried on producing coal right up until 2008, even though John Major said pits like Tower were uneconomical.
The NUM’s lack of influence enabled the coal dependent industries to import cheaper coal from around the world, even though there were still vast reserves in the UK, and by 2001 coal production was exceeded by imports for the first time. Since the early days of Thatcherism, the country was fast becoming a post-industrial nation, with steelworks, shipbuilding and manufacturing joining the collieries into the dustbin of industrial history.
Service industries stepped into the breach and ‘Privatisation’ and ‘Market Forces’ were the new buzz words. The financial sector was benefitting the most, and there was no better example than Canary Wharf in London, which had become a desolate wasteland after the docks were closed down and the East End dockers’ families cleared out of the way for the powerful multi-national financial institutions that were to take their place. In contrast, in 2006, I came back to the Rhondda to see how things had changed since that last inauspicious evening back in 1985.
We decided to have an overnight stay at the Heritage Park Hotel, which was located right next door to the Rhondda Heritage Centre in Trehafod. Since then, it’s been re-named the Welsh Mining Experience for some reason, but whatever they want to call it, this was the site of the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery which closed in 1983.
The attraction was officially opened on 11th September 1989 by Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, which seems an odd choice after what the conservative government had done to the industry, but at least there was some recognition of what coal mining meant to the area.
I’m not going into the history of the pit or the tour around the attraction here, but I can’t pass by the opportunity to speak about what I thought was a chance encounter with somebody from Blaenrhondda. It was in fact, a put-up job, which on reflection, I thought was a wonderful gesture. Thanks to the staff, and in particular, Peter Arundell, the tour guide, my wife and I were to meet Teifi and his wife from Blaenrhondda. To be honest, I can’t really be sure if that was his name or not, but that’s what it sounded like (and before you ask, I’m sure it wasn’t Taffy).
This grand old boy of 81, and his wife of 80, were able to remember our visits with the food parcels. They not only knew Dai and Rae Lewis, but were also related to them. I may have been hearing things, but it sounded like Dai was one of 24 children, one of his sisters had 26, and someone else (I’d lost track by now) had another 22. I can see now why men were called names like Dai the Butcher, Bryn the Baker, and Gareth the Candle-Sick Maker. For somebody like me who gets the next-door neighbour’s name wrong for nearly a year, it all gets a bit confusing. Anyway, I digress. These two were a mine of information (excuse the pun), and we spent a long time mulling over the events of the strike. I’m sorry I can’t remember Teifi’s wife’s name, but she made me smile when she said she would have liked to have invited Maggie Thatcher round for a cup of tea – “just the one mind you”.
They also invited us back to their home, not just for a cup of tea, but to spend the night. I felt really guilty that we had to tell them we were booked into the hotel next door. Our journey from the M4 up to Trehafod had already shown us that the area was changing – but one thing that didn’t appear to be, was the generosity of the people themselves.
Yesterday’s journey up to Trehafod from junction 32 of the M4 showed changes which some people would say were not a bad thing. The road to Pontypridd had been vastly improved, and the Nantgarw coking plant was no longer here. I don’t think anyone could put hand on heart and honestly say that working underground is a good way of earning a living, but I suspect that many miners would want those days back again if they could, no matter what I think.
After our overnight stop at Trehafod, we headed back up the Rhondda Fawr to see how things were up here, and to be honest it all looked a bit forlorn to say the least. The miners, as I’ve said before, were not just fighting for their jobs, but their communities too – and here was the living proof. Driving through Ystrad, Ton Pentre, Treorchy, Ynyswen, and Treherbert, there seemed to be a general air of gloom and despondency about the place, and this was a picture that was taking place throughout Britain. There was a saying that “Maggie knew the cost of everything, but the value of nothing”, and that’s how it seemed to many people. While the money men were adding zeros to their accounts in Canary Wharf, communities in post-industrial Britain were left to wait in dole queues where, what jobs there were, paid the least amount they could get away with now that trade unions had been left impotent. It was this sort of mentality that brought people to form unions in the first place.
As we approached Blaenrhondda I couldn’t help but think that the valley has had the lifeblood sucked out of it, and yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that it needn’t have been quite like this. I know it’s easy to say with hindsight, but I’ve always gone by the philosophy that “It’s better not to fight, than to fight and lose”.
Arthur Scargill’s prediction about wholesale pit closures were proved to be correct, but he was up against a formidable opponent, as well as the added problem of power stations changing from fossil fuels to a cleaner alternative. I’ve already mentioned that I think he should have called a national ballot when the majority would have supported it, but he had a get out of jail card in November 1984 when the arbitration service, ACAS, got involved. If Scargill had put forward a recommendation to his NUM members to accept the compromise on offer, and they had accepted it, not only would the miners have not been defeated, but they would have been seen to come off best in the deal as well. Any good card player will you that you that you need to ‘know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em’. If only Arthur Scargill would have realised that.
All that is history now of course, and to be fair, not all of the news on my visit in 2006 was bad. I could see some positive changes too. The hillsides were starting to turn green and the Rhondda River, if not sparkling, was looking cleaner than ever: Even if life was still hard for many, nature can be very resilient too, and it was beginning to show us humans how we can make our lives better in other ways. When the threat from this Co-vid 19 virus allows us to safely move around again, I intend to come back up to South Wales and finish The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys with the final part of the story. I’m just hoping I haven’t got to wait too long.