The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 – The Effects of the Strike

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 - The Effects of the Strike

“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.

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28 thoughts on “The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 – The Effects of the Strike

  1. toonsarah

    Taken together your three (so far) pieces provide an excellent perspective on the history of this area. I say ‘perspective’ advisedly, because you have given us a very personalised account, but one which certainly resonates with me. I am no fan of Thatcher (quite the opposite) but I do agree that Scargill misjudged the situation and also the strength of her response, and the miners weren’t well served by either of them. It’s rarely good to be caught up in the middle of a power struggle, and that’s what this became for both Thatcher and Scargill.

    I do hope you get back soon to complete the series. Until COVID struck my perception was that the parts of the north east that suffered badly from the closure of the mines were picking themselves up, collectively, but who knows what the economic fallout of the current crisis will bring?

    Btw, I love your last photo with the sheep, and I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking that handled sympathetically your account of getting the coach stuck in the mud etc. would make a good scene for a sitcom 🙂

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thank you so much Sarah. I always try (perhaps not always successfully) to give a balanced view of things, regardless of my own personal views. Inevitably of course on a subject such as this my personal views are bound to come into play and I make no apologies for that. I kept an open mind to begin with when I first went over there, but I quickly formed an opinion – an opinion that has never changed, even with hindsight. Remember, this is a cut-down version of what I would really like to say, but I’m sure you got the gist.

      It seems that Wales is now starting to open up for business again, but I’m still reluctant to put my toe too far into the water just yet. Hopefully though, I’ll pay a visit before the end of the year. I think we may still be in for a rough ride but I sincerely hope not,

      As regards that disastrous evening, it might make a good sitcom, but I think I’ll let somebody else play my part next time 🙂

      Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          Please don’t say John Cleese. You’ll need to see my next blog to understand why 🙂

          Reply
  2. Alli Templeton

    Great follow-on from Parts 1 & 2, Malc. That really does sound the night from hell, poor you. At least you got there in the end, and they sound such generous people I’m sure they’d have realised that these that things happen, and that these awful incidents are never intentional. It’s pretty brave of you to be so open about it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the concluding part, and I too hope it won’t be long before you can get back there to complete it. We’re all hoping we’re on the last leg of this marathon crisis now.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for following this series of blogs Alli. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s not a subject that everybody wants to read about, but it’s a part of our social history, and history is a part of our heritage. My wanderings have sometimes taken me to places and situations which might be better to forget about, but it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry isn’t it? if we don’t have times that are a bit low, how are we going to know when times are good? We can’t live on a high all the time. When it’s safe to come out of this virus bubble and start to live a relatively normal life again we’ll be be back on a high again hopefully 🙂

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        That’s right, Malc, we do have to have the low times to appreciate the highs. Perhaps that’s more true at the moment than ever – I could do with this particular low time ending now. I think we’ve all had enough. 🙂

        And you’re right again that the miners’ story is a part of our social history and heritage, and it’ll no doubt be studied by future historians in the centuries to come, as will this year! I often wonder how history will judge it all. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          I hope things aren’t getting you down too much, but maybe when you get your results through things will start looking up.

          As you say, this year has been another one for historians to take stock of in years to come. I think my biggest disappointment has been that I was hoping that the virus would help bring people together. Although it has in some cases, I think the world has become more divided than ever.

          Remember that saying – Every cloud….. 🙂

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            I agree, Malc. This episode has been very divisive, not helped by it dragging on for so long. I for one am craving a dose of normality, and the worst thing for me has been seeing what it’s done to my kids.

            With all the interruptions I had and working in such an unsettling time, I can’t say I’m looking forward to my results this year, but as you say, every cloud… Let’s hope that silver lining starts shining soon. We could all do with it. 🙂

            Reply
            1. Easymalc Post author

              Even if the results don’t go the way you want them to Alli, just remember The Bruce and the spider story 🙂

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                Oh the history itself was fantastic. It’s a good job it wasn’t me in that cave though. That spider wouldn’t have been any help because I’d have run away screaming! 😀

                Reply
                    1. Alli Templeton

                      Ah yes, those wonderful banquets. So true. I’ve been experimenting with medieval recipes in the garden again recently, and if the spread it yielded was anything like how it really was, it must have been sensational. 🙂

                    2. Easymalc Post author

                      You’re making me feel hungry now. I’m actually in the throws of writing some stuff for my next blog which is also a banquet (of sorts). It’s only going to be a short one and a lot more upbeat than the previous three. I hope it’ll make you smile a bit 🙂

                    3. Easymalc Post author

                      I’m sure they’ll be quite different 🙂 It’s always good to have a chat with you Alli. Make sure that you stay sane, safe, and strong. I need more Medieval Wanderings to escape to, so I’ll be looking forward to your next one as well 🙂

                    4. Alli Templeton

                      Thanks, Malc, you too. I’ll do my best to post again soon. In the meantime, I look forward to your post. 🙂

  3. bitaboutbritain

    Interesting, very thought-provoking, so well-written and from the heart, Malc. Huge topic. Obviously, mines can’t last forever though of course viability will have varied. I may be wrong, but recall reading somewhere that coal production was in general decline across the UK long before WW2 and long before Maggie’s day. Prior to nationalisation, the pit-owners do not come out of the story well. It was, arguably, the miners’ misfortune to have folk like Scargill at the helm, who seemed driven by ideology and a desire to take on the elected government. Frankly, from the little I know, I’m full of awe for the men that went down pits. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the debate, they and their communities deserved better.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks for your honest appraisal Mike of my attempt to be as even-handed as I posssibly could about a subject that polarised so many people at the time (and still do). It’s a subject that many people wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, but having seen things first-hand I felt I needed to recount the events from a side that not everyone would have seen.. You’re right of course about Arthur Scargill, but without getting too deeply into the politics here, I don’t think the Prime Minister’s ideology was much better – and it became a battle of two people whose ideologies were totally opposite.

      Just like you, I feel strongly that an elected government should be allowed to govern without interference from unelected adversaries, but there are times when those in power can bend and twist the rules while in office to suit their own agenda after they’ve been voted in. I think it’s obvious what I thought of the Prime Minister of the day.

      Coal mining in South Wales hit its peak around 1913 and has been in decline ever since (did you read all three parts Mike?), but even now there are vast reserves of coal here.The government, if you remember, imported coal from places like communist Poland to help beat the miners (irony or what)?. Obviously, it was more important for the government to beat the ‘Enemy Within’ rather than the Enemy Without.

      In my view, the people of South Wales deserved better – much better.

      Reply
      1. bitaboutbritain

        I need to go back and read the whole set, Malc. I started one, then got interrupted. Yes – irony over Polish coal (and Poland is still heavily dependent on coal?), and it was in no one’s interest for a viable mine to fail. Of course, now we are meant to eschew fossil fuels anyway – and another irony is the opening of Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven. Not sure if that’s happened or not.

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          Try and follow the videos as well as the pics Mike if you can. My argument at the time even was not what was done, but the way it was done. There were faults with Scargill and Thatcher, and the miners, their communities, and the working man and woman in general, were caught in the middle.

          Reply
  4. Fergy.

    Great continuation of the series, Malc, I am so glad you got to meet your old friends, put up job or no. Like Don, I o hope we can all get out and about soon but I don’t see ti happening this year certainly.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’ll be chomping at the bit to get back over to South Wales to put the final chapter together, but as frustrating as it is, we need to go careful if we don’t want to get struck down with this dreadful virus at the final hurdle. We’re definitely not out of the woods yet, and if we don’t have to take any risks, then I for one won’t be.Thanks again for reading this blog which probably won’t appeal to everyone.

      Reply
  5. Nemorino

    Looking forward to reading the ‘final part of the story’ — I hope it doesn’t take too long before the virus subsides enough to allow safe travel again.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Wales still only allows travel within the locality which is about 5 miles, so as an Englishman it’ll be a while yet – and that’s if I feel comfortable with it.

      Reply

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