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The end of coal mining - with banners held high

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Posted by Granville Williams

This blog first appeared in Tribune, February 8, 2016. Reproduced with thanks.

There's a direct link between the last pit to close in France on 20 December, 1990, and With Banners Held High, an event to be held in Unity+Works, Wakefield on March 5 marking, with the closure of Kellingley Colliery on December 18, 2015, the end of coal mining in the United Kingdom.

The head gear of 9-9bis in Oignies, Nord Pas-de-Calais has been lovingly maintained by former miners, and around the area is evidence of the industry which once sustained the region. The "terrils" or "pyramides" (we call them slag heaps) have been preserved as monuments to coalmining.But close to the headgear of 9-9bis is a stunning new building, a music, drama and performance centre, Le Métaphone, which was the setting last year for Rock'n'Coal from March 27-29, an imaginative programme of exhibitions, films, debates and music.

It was organised by a group of young French people called La Berline Collectiv (la berline is the French term for the tubs used to bring the coal on steel tracks from the coal face) and I was there to speak on behalf of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. It was a great weekend and it inspired us to re-run last year's With Banners Held High. That event celebrated the courage and resistance of the miners, their families and communities 30 years after the return to work at the end of the year-long strike.

This year's With Banners Held High takes two of the themes from Rock'n'Coal. One is the amazing, and largely untold story, of the sheer scale of international solidarity in support of the miners in 1984-85. At the French event, I took part in a session with Daniel Dernancourt, who was the leader of the French miners at the time of the UK miners' strike, and he gave a moving account of the way French miners opened their homes for the children of UK striking miners to have holidays, and how the miners, a section of the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), mobilised to send a stream of money, food, toiletries and toys across to the UK, reaching its peak in the run-up to Christmas 1984.

What I heard Daniel describe that day launched me on a journey of discovery to piece together the story of international support for the miners ’ strike. It took me to the People ’s History Museum in Manchester, the TUC Resources Centre at the London Metropolitan University and the NUM archives in Barnsley.

The material unearthed is truly remarkable. One small example: at the time of the strike, the New Zealand Seamen ’s Union had 1,300 members but by August 1984 had donated $83,737 (£32,582)—equivalent to more than £25 per member. The following month, the NUM took delivery of 18,100lb of New Zealand lamb from the union.

Money came into the Miners' Solidarity Fund from all over the world, often in small amounts. One from Helsinki, Finland after deductions was for £20.71 with the message: "You are Brave, Go On Fighting To Win". And sometimes not money. On one occasion, a parcel of walnuts arrived from Indian miners who had nothing else to give.

The NUM archives are organised meticulously, documenting, country by country, correspondence, bank transfer payment slips, photographs, press cuttings all punched and collected in ring-bind folders.

I am pretty certain that, in terms of trade union struggles, nothing as momentous as the year-long strike is likely to happen again, but as I read through the NUM files it prompted the thought: in the age of the internet, emails, tweets and other perishable forms of communication, how will it be possible to reconstruct in the future, in the way I was able to from the treasure trove of documents stored in the NUM archives and elsewhere, such a complete picture of the support the NUM received from pretty much every country in the world, except Albania?

The result of this research is a section in a new book, ‘Pit Props: Music, International Solidarity and the 1984-85 Miners' Strike', which will be launched at With Banners Held High. Nick Jones, BBC labour correspondent during the strike, raided his impressive archives to assemble a diary of international solidarity news reports throughout that year, and the transcript of the programme he did for the International Assignment strand on BBC Radio 4 on the same theme in January 1985.

My chapters document the global flow of support into the UK and the way across Europe, between 1984 and summer 1985, 10,000 children from striking miners' families went on holidays abroad.

I am really pleased that Daniel Dernancourt will be speaking, along with representatives from Denmark and other countries, in a session on International Solidarity at the March 5 event.

The other theme from Rock'n'Coal is ‘Music and the Miners' Strike'. Assembled among the headgear rooms of 9-9bis was a stunning exhibition of the record covers of the bands and singers who had lent their support to the miners. This theme also features in the book ‘Pit Props', with chapters by writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton, Jeremy Tranmer from the University of Lorraine, and Julian Petley writing about Test department.

The original French exhibition on music and the strike will be on display at Unity+Works, Wakefield, from February 19 along with three other exhibitions: the TUC Resources Library's ‘Solidarity and the UK Miners ’ Strike'; photos by Report Digital ’s John Sturrock and Stefano Cagnoni, and the late Martin Jenkinson, on the theme of International Solidarity; and Pete Dunwell ’s photos of musicians such as Billy Bragg, Paul Heaton and The Hurriers.

With Banners Held High will run from 10.30am through to 5pm with a packed programme of poetry, films, music and debates. In the evening a fundraising benefit has the headline act The Farm, supported by Joe Solo and The Hurriers, with compere Attila the Stockbroker. Proceeds will go to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, Justice for Mineworkers and the Oaks Memorial Trust. The Oaks Pit disaster on December 12, 1866, claimed the lives of 361 men and boys and 150 years later a group of ex-miners are raising funds for a suitable memorial.

We hope the day will also be a fitting tribute to the demise of an industry which once played such a central and powerful role in the UK ’s economy, political life, trade unionism, art and culture.

Details of tickets for the day event can be found at the website:

For the evening event, see the website:

For information about the exhibition at 9-9bis, see:

DATELINE: 10 February, 2016


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