27 March 1985: Marlene Newman: Miners’ Wives Support Group

One of the features of the miners’ strike of 1984 was the appearance of a strong support group formed by the partners of the miners. It became an example for the dockers’ wives on Merseyside during the dockers’ struggle over a decade later. Here are interviews with a leader of the Lancashire Miners’ Women Support group and interviews with women from the Women of the Waterfront who campaigned with the dockers.

These interviews are a contribution to the understanding of unofficial leaders and their partners who were a remarkable body of men and women, responding to, and developing as organisers, speakers, and writers in a period of hardship and struggle, and, above all, fighting with the strength of class principles.

Marlene: There were miners’ support groups in the St Helens area. The role I had was at St Helens food centre ensuring the distribution of the food that was coming in. We eventually covered the three pits at Parkside, Sutton Manor and Bold, but initially we were covering 2,000-3,500 families – not just Merseyside at the beginning. But every miner on strike from the Lancashire coalfield.
After about six months the donations dropped, and at that time, Merseyside County Council stepped in - they decided they would spend approx £5,000 per week through the duration of the strike to feed the miners who lived in Merseyside. That initially caused a problem as it meant those miners we looked after from outside Merseyside area had to be catered for in another way.
Support groups had been set up – Warrington, Skelmersdale, Wigan, Chorley, and so they took over distribution amongst the lads who lived outside Merseyside. That meant we were doing approx 1,700 on Merseyside. Then at the beginning of November when there was a drift back to work in the area, the numbers began to drop. They levelled out for about three months with 1,500 men out until after Christmas; then there was an enormous drop to just over 1,000, the last week we did 784, so you can see over the 12 month period how the food distribution changed.
The problem initially was having 3,500. We did need a lot of donated food but it also meant you were taking about four to five items in a food parcel to give to 3,500 men. That was all they had until September when the county council stepped in. Even when the county council stepped in, all it did was replace the normally donated food. So the items in the food parcel were approximately six or seven.
The NUM in the first six months did contribute £1 per parcel to the food centre, but their funds ran down. At a meeting we had at the end of August they informed us they could no longer maintain that, so it meant that the support group had to look elsewhere for funding.
The obvious place was the Hardman Street collections (the Unemployed Centre in Liverpool) which would normally have been turned over to the NUM. They were now turned over to the food centre. But that only gave us the guaranteed £1 per parcel for a few weeks. Then it dropped – one week I can remember we picked up just over £600 from Hardman St., so you were talking about 60p per parcel.
The only way we then could get money was physically going out. I was being asked at that time to go to Speke over the situation of the food centre. I did find that my time spent became longer. I worked at the food centre and then went out of a night. It brought results, because it meant that at least we were bringing in approx £1,500-£2,000 in a good week to the food centre. It was the only way we could maintain the food parcels plus what the county council was providing.

Bill Hunter: So what do you reckon all together did you have, what did you distribute over the whole period? How much?
Marlene: In cash terms we probably collected £5,000-£5,500 - the money that we collected and we spent on food. If you want an overall picture of the total feeding cost of the strike, if you want to add in the money that other local authorities put in and the county council put in then I think you’re looking at something like £400,000 - £500,000. That would be a fair answer for the Lancashire miners.

BH: How did the groups work, I mean what did they do, what was their work during the week?
Marlene: The Miners Family Support Group was initiated by the three NUM branches and our main role was to receive the donations and distribute it to the miners on a fair share basis. We did discuss about some families for instance, where you had 4 or 5 children in a family and when you’ve got a single miner. But with 3,000+ we couldn’t administrate those families, so we had to make a decision then that the food parcel was the same for everybody. So whether the chap came for his food parcel but he was a single miner and that food parcel was for himself, and the same day the chap behind him came along for the food parcel but he had 4 or 5 children at home, we could not cater for the size of families, we could only give them the same minimum amount of food.

BH: How many involved were there, in the three groups, how many were involved.
Marlene: Initially in our group there were 64 women.
One of the problems we had was some of the women with babies. We had no facility at all to cater for the toddlers and babies while the women were occupied. And that in itself caused us problems. We tried to keep the women active yet on the other hand with toddlers running round the building it did become rather dangerous and there were a couple of incidents with the toddlers and that barred the women from coming.
We didn’t tell them not to come but they decided themselves that it was dangerous for the toddlers and they stopped coming but that was a great pity at that time because those were the sort of women that needed to get involved. They were young women, girls in their early 20s who had never been in a strike before and what they could have learned was lost because of the fact that we couldn’t cater for the babies. Personally I tried a couple of outlets to find somewhere for the children but I’m sorry to say that there was just so much to do that I found the task impossible to sort out all the other things. I wish other people would have done it.

BH: What sort of traditions were there?
Marlene: I think if you had talked to quite a lot of the non-miners’ wives that were supporting the strike in this area they have some history of uncles or fathers or grandfathers who worked in the mines in this area because there where 10 pits in this area years ago, so that was a lot of employment.
If you think about it, as the pits were closed and those jobs were lost their sons have gone into different industry such as Pilkingtons glass factories.
I mean I could tell you my own little bit which is that my family was from South Wales. My grandfather was victimised after the 1920s strike so he couldn’t get a job in the pits in South Wales and he came up to work in the Lancashire coal fields. He married a girl from the area.

BH: Have you had a number of women who were in the support group whose families had been miners but whose husbands at that time were not miners?
Marlene: Yes, as I say when the jobs were lost in the 50s and 60s when pits were closed in Lancashire, their sons couldn’t get jobs in the mines, so had to go into other industries but a lot of women who helped had a relative connection with the mining industry.

BH: Were any collections made around the streets here? What was the support like here?
Marlene: Yes, originally the support from the street collections was excellent. I think the team were averaging 50 sacks of food per week.
When we started, we didn’t start to collect money, we started to collect food, so after the second or third week of collections, the girls were saying that people were offering them money and we were refusing it, but if they were going to give us money instead of food then we could buy food. That was when we got the permit, so the girls would carry one bag for food and a tin for money.
This lasted for about three months. The energy of the girls was drained, when you’re talking about going out day after day, it’s a lot of energy. We could maybe have done with two teams.

BH: Did that go on for three months or did you continue to collect in the pubs.
Marlene: The house to house finished because they had covered every house in St Helens and they felt they couldn’t go out a second time. Also the number of collectors had dropped to 6 from the original 30.

BH: People continued in the pubs did they?
Marlene: Yes, what happened at that time was there was a break-away from the main support group. It was at the same time as there was a little bit of hassle within the NUM about girls having separate accounts, for instance, and collecting money. Sutton Manor group split up completely, but Bold and Parkside group stayed together.
It was a shame that - again it was gossip, malicious gossip; people began accusing each other with no foundation whatsoever. It was snowballing, so people who were quite genuine couldn’t take the hassle and it split it up.

BH: Did you get much hostility when collecting?
Marlene: The hostility only started about July as the strike had gone on that long. The hostility was people not understanding, I think. And by that time the media had done a good job and the violence on the picket lines was on the television night after night.

BH: Were you still getting good collections near the end?
Marlene: No, not towards the summer holiday. It wasn’t that the support dropped off, it was with people going on holiday - the houses were empty.
The old age pensioners were marvellous. It wasn’t food they gave you, it was pound notes. Because they had been through two world wars, general strikes, and everything, they knew what it was all about, so they were more than generous in their support.
In St Helens you must remember there isn’t a lot of industry, the industry is a lot of small places which employ say 15-20; there are a lot of non-union places here. The only big employer is Pilkingtons.
That’s why they know a lot about the mining industry here because if you lose the mining industry you haven’t got much left, you’ve got the gas but that’s on the decline.

BH: You came over to Liverpool, during the strike; you got anything to say about Liverpool?
Marlene: I initially came to the Tuesday night meetings with the NUM to discuss the Liverpool support groups. The first meeting we went to wasn’t just to divide the money, they were meetings to discuss what was happening in the North West, and what rallies were on. After a while, I don’t know who was at fault, whether it was us or Hardman Street, but the meetings gradually became literally a ‘divvy out’. I remember us saying at one meeting this is only a ‘divvy out’ meeting.

BH: What about the North West Coordinating Committee?
Marlene: But we didn’t know about that originally. Those meetings we went to, when they first started we would be told how much money was in the pot, then that would be shared. Then it would carry on with news between the five pits - an update of what was happening in each pit, what rallies had been organised. Then the whole meeting changed. It was only after a few months when we found out about these support groups in Liverpool. I don’t know how many there were.