Margaret Thatcher’s war on the mining industry was a concerted attack on the trade union movement. It was a successful class war waged from above — and its ill effects are still felt in every corner of Britain.
Britain’s mining industry occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of many, especially on the Left. The strikes of the 1970s and 1980s have achieved totemic status, representing the entwined phenomena of deindustrialization and the defeat of the organized labor movement. When many think of this history, they’ll envisage flat-capped miners from the North, the Midlands, or Wales out on the picket lines facing down the police. Less well-known is mining history of the leafy, southeastern county of Kent.
Villages such as Aylesham, Snowdown, Tilmanstone, and Elvington are almost picture-perfect stereotypes of conservative countryside Britain: they all fall in Tory-held constituencies, are relatively small settlements with nice houses, surrounded by fields, farms, and occasional bits of forest. While the colliery buildings may be dilapidated, overgrown, demolished, or repurposed, many who still live in these villages have had their lives shaped by the mining industry.
With the defeat of the 1984–85 strike and the dismantling of the industry, these communities, too, have been scarred by the destruction of class solidarity. Yet they still bear signs of the solidarity of decades past — and give some sense of how it could be rebuilt in the future.
In Betteshanger, a free mining museum has recently opened, after some years in the works. It recounts the history of mining in Kent, which began in the 1890s when coal was found during the first attempt to dig a tunnel under the English Channel to France. For the next decade or so, speculator Arthur Burr helped establish numerous companies and mineshafts.
This also gave the industry an inauspicious start. Many of these early mineshafts were opened with poor quality or secondhand equipment, or — for instance at Snowdown — blighted by flooding which delayed production. Since Burr had talked up his extractive exploits to investors, but had difficulty actually getting any coal out of the ground, he undertook an experiment in proto-outsourcing, founding several companies to perform different functions at each prospective mine: one for digging the tunnel, another for constructing buildings and machinery, and so on. This allowed him to make each of his companies into a customer of the next, to give investors the impression of progress being made.
After Burr’s death, which left unhappy investors and legal troubles behind him, the mining industry in Kent continued to develop. Importantly, other companies which acquired mines started to build houses and infrastructure near the collieries, to house the workforce and their families. Entire communities were established because of the mining industry, and they continued to expand up until the nationalization of the industry by the Labour government in 1946 and the decades afterward, the most well-known period of mining history.
Many such former miners helped found the Aylesham Heritage Centre, with support from the parish council, in 2006. The center is dedicated to preserving and documenting the general history of the village, but much of that is impossible to separate from mining. Philip Sutcliffe was one of the founders of the Centre, serving as its treasurer, and a former miner himself, who’s dedicated himself to keeping the history alive. Surprisingly, especially given that he was born and raised in Kent, Philip speaks with a very noticeable Yorkshire accent, as do many of the other miners in the center.
He explained to me that when the colliery at Snowdown was opened, the workforce came from all over the UK, with many from the North. His father, who was also a miner from Barnsley, first visited Kent on holiday and the National Coal Board facilitated his reemployment at Snowdown. The “Aylesham dialect” is so distinctive from the rest of the county, largely due to the diversity of the mining workforce, that it’s been studied by sociolinguist David Hornsby at the University of Kent.
The Heritage Centre is a gold mine of local history, filled with birth, death, and marriage registration documents, old school registers, newspaper clippings, photographic history books compiled by volunteers, and so on. Most eye-catching, however, is their extensive collection of propaganda and memorabilia from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the miners’ strikes, and pins from socialist and labor organizations from around the world. As well as a spectacle for appreciators of political iconography, the Heritage Centre performs a valuable service for the local community. While I spoke with Philip, a local woman came in looking for pictures of her brothers who had worked in the mines. Philip studiously rifled through old school records to aid in the woman’s search.
Philip started working in the coal industry at fifteen, working in above-ground haulage until he turned eighteen, when he went underground. Mine work lent itself to tightly knit communities and camaraderie among colleagues, even when some of the workforce were so young. Once he turned eighteen and was allowed to work in the mine itself with his father and others, he was also allowed to join the other workers in the pub after a shift. “Mining and drinking go together” he thinks. So too did mining and radical politics.
“Kent was always quite a militant area” Philip told me. Many of the miners who formed the first wave of cross-country migration to the Kent coalfield were veterans of the general strike of 1926. Blacklisted as radicals in the pits where they originally worked in Wales, the North, and the Midlands, many left for the southeast — “they brought their radicalism with them.” The shared experience of moving across the country to work in a fledgling area of the coal industry seemed to facilitate the strong community to which many attest, not just for the miners themselves but for their families too.
The Aylesham Heritage Centre’s books extensively document local initiatives and organizations run by miners for each other and for community events: pit football and baseball teams who would play against teams from other mines and American soldiers from the nearby US Air Force base at Manston, and the Colliery Welfare Band of musically inclined miners. Self-organized community events growing out of solidarity between workers seems almost alien to twenty-first-century Britain.
As a nationalized industry after 1946, coal mining was a “closed shop” — to work in any part of it you had to join the NUM, which was recognized by the state as the representative of mine workers, and was an integral part of wage agreements and other matters of workplace policy. Philip joined the union in order to work straight out of school at fifteen: “I didn’t understand what was going on, but it felt good to be a part of it.” His understanding of industrial disputes was quickly sharpened by the strike of January-February 1972.
Between 1972 and the famed major strike of 1984–85, Philip went on quite the political journey. He was a member of the Communist Party for a while before eventually joining Labour. But regardless of party affiliation, the NUM and its members were highly politicized, and political education formed a large part of the union’s non-workplace activities.
In the summer of 1979, Philip and representatives of the other Kent mines gave up a week of holiday to learn about the Soviet Union at Ruskin College in Oxford. With a tutor from Canterbury College and other Kent coal mine representatives they then traveled to the USSR, went on a choreographed trip around Moscow, then to the mines at Voroshilovgrad (now Luhansk), and ended at the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. As happened to many Western leftists who traveled to the supposed workers’ state, the Soviet Union left a bad taste in Philip’s mouth. He recalls their tour bus stopping in Moscow to allow a motorcade of party officials to pass to get to the ballet or opera faster, and the shops with Western goods such as washing machines priced in dollars, which few but the party elite could frequent.
Disillusioned with pro-Soviet communism, Philip was still very much a socialist by the time of the 1984–85 strike against the Margaret Thatcher government’s mine closures. He spent time traveling around the county and the country with the famed “flying pickets,” being arrested in Colchester. “The village was 100 percent in support” of the striking miners, Philip told me; faced with the closure of the industry which employed thousands and had fostered the growth and spirit of their community, even those who didn’t work in the mines had family who did, and supported the miners however they could.
Philip proudly told me that not a single worker from Aylesham broke the strike to go to the pit, unlike in much of the country, where the lack of a national ballot for the strike by the NUM led to deep divisions in the workforce. Philip’s wife, Kay, whose father was a Welsh miner, was active in organizing support from local women for the striking workers. “It wasn’t just miners’ wives, it was just women in the village who wanted to support what was going on” she told me.
The 1984–85 strike also prompted outpourings of support from trade unions around Europe — miners in Kent and around Britain regularly received food packages and donations from unions in other countries. But the popular support of mining communities and solidarity from unions abroad didn’t lead the NUM to victory, and eventually the pits were prepared for closure. As Philip was the chairman of the Snowdown branch of the NUM, he was one of the last people working there when it closed in 1987.
The closure of mines in much of the rest of Britain ravaged communities, leaving many without permanent or secure employment for the rest of their lives, and contributing to the deprivation still seen in many former mining towns in the North and the Midlands. However, Philip thinks “we were quite lucky when the mines shut because there was other work.” Kent has factories dotted about the county, and the Channel Tunnel to France in its modern incarnation began construction only the year after Snowdown Colliery closed.
Philip says he “tried three times to get into the Channel Tunnel [to work on building it]. There was a blacklist and I must’ve been on that.” He eventually went on to work in factory in Aylesham, but even that was difficult: “they had a period where they wouldn’t employ ex-miners.” Union officials and radicals were easy enough to identify after the miners’ strike, especially in small communities like those of the Kent Coalfield. Philip tried to organize union activity at his factory through the GMB, but eventually it fizzled out, the desire for industrial militancy seemed to be fading.
“Apart from us fighting to save our jobs, we knew if the miners’ union was beat there wouldn’t be much hope for the rest of the movement,” Philip told me. Looking at the state of the British economy and trade union movement now, it’s hard to dispute this. Union density is low in Britain, with just under a quarter of workers unionized, and the remains of Britain’s manufacturing industry isn’t exactly a hotbed of radicalism. The UK still has some of the most restrictive anti–trade union laws and practices in Europe, and anyone who attempts to extoll the benefits of union membership will no doubt have heard lamentations of when they used to “hold the country to ransom” and so on. With real-terms wages effectively stagnant for more than a decade now, one would hope that the cultural ghost of Thatcher’s breaking of the unions can be exorcised, and workers begin to exert their power to demand better.
Kent isn’t the stereotypical “left behind” postindustrial region like much of the North and Midlands. It isn’t even the sort of place that many imagine once had a militant trade union movement to begin with. Many of the miners to whom I spoke are nonetheless surprised that their areas are considered “true blue” Conservative strongholds; most of them still hold the Tories in utter contempt.
But with ex-miners a “dying breed” as Philip put it, the cultural memory of the industrial strife of the twentieth century is fading fast. The future of labor radicalism will probably look nothing like the struggles of the miners, and it’s not like there’s even much heavy industry left to facilitate such a thing. But wherever the industrial struggles of the future take place, the solidarity and defense of human dignity which animated the miners still matter.