Miners' strike at 40: 'They were equal' - The North East women at the coalface of action

The women of Easington march during the miners' strike which began in March 1984. Credit: Keith Pattison

"The women weren't behind the men, they were beside the men. They stood together. They were equal." - Heather Wood.

For every one of the 23,000 men on strike from the North East coalfields, there was likely a mother, aunt, wife, child or children who would have have felt its effect.

No work meant no pay, but houses still needed heating and mouths still needed feeding.

Heather Wood lived in Easington, a pit village in East Durham, where life was built around the mine.

She experienced first-hand the full force of the strike between the Marches of 1984 and 1985, and the challenges it brought.

Speaking to ITV Tyne Tees now, Heather said she "knew what was happening in every house" and it broke her heart.

Heather Wood then, left, and now, right (far left). Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

"It broke my heart because these were good people, strong people," she continued.

"They weren't asking for money, they were asking to fight to keep a job, to keep a job for future generations."

Heather had an idea to support hard-up families and at Easington Colliery Club she set up the region's first miners' food kitchen.

"The first thing on people's minds is 'what about the children? How are we going to feed the bairns?'"

She set about ringing her mother and her friends and put notices up in the shop.

Initiatives like Heather's soon grew into women-led support groups across the North East.

Heather Wood's mother Myrtle MacPherson working in the kitchen during the strike. Credit: Keith Pattison
Women in the soup kitchen in Easington during the strike. Credit: Keith Pattison

In Seaham, the group there was a lifeline for Mary Stratford, whose husband was a miner on strike, and for whom, with a toddler in tow, every day was a struggle.

"Life was difficult," she told ITV Tyne Tees. "Fuel was the problem all through the strike.

"Trying to keep the house warm, trying to be warm, when you've got a little one was a daily nightmare.

"It (the support group) sustained me. I think that's the best word I can think of [for] that group....I would go to those meetings and I would feel this sense of belonging and solidarity."

In March 1985, the men went back to work. They, and the women, may not have won their fight against the pit closures, but it instilled something in the women that has never been lost.

One of those women for whose life was changed by her own course of action during the strike was Ann Lilburn, from Northumberland, who became the chair of the National Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC).

Until miners walked out she had never spoken at a village hall. But by the summer of 1984, she was leading a rally of 23,000 women through London.

Ann Lilburn had never spoken at a village hall at the start of the strike but went on to chair the National Women Against Pit Closures. Credit: Family handout

Gina Lilburn, Ann's daughter, said: "She was a miner's wife, and a miner's mother and a miner's daughter. That was what drove my mum. The men would never have been able to stay out.

"They wouldn't have been able to manage without the support of the women. They would have starved. The women kept it going. I'm just so proud. She came into her own."

Gina and Ann's granddaughter Kiki Lye is now in talks with Woodhorn Museum, near Ashington, about incorporating a memorial to her.

"She's a local hero - a national hero," said Kiki. "Everybody needs to know how powerful the WAPC were, what they did, the efforts they went to, just so you can see what you can achieve when you don't agree with the government.

"Sometimes you don't just sit back, you've got to make a noise, you've got to shout out - don't be frightened to stand up for what you believe in and what you think is right."

Women march through the streets of Durham to celebrate the role they played during the miners' strike. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Forty years on and women with roots in the region's mining heritage are still making a noise.

On Saturday 1 March, Heather and many other members of the National Women Against Pit Closures staged a rally through Durham to celebrate the role women played during the long months of the miners' strike.

Heather continued: "Whatever those women went on to do, or not to do, their views, their opinions changed.

"They know what they're capable of doing and that's the thing for me that lives on, I hope that if we work together we 'can do'."

Heather and her contemporaries hope the part they played, and continue to play, will inspire the future generations to make a stand.

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