John Connell’s child Nicola died suddenly at just over three years old. She’d developed a brain tumour and there was nothing that could be done. The family were devastated, and it fell to John to make the necessary arrangements for her funeral. He went to the local funeral home in Castleford and met with the funeral director, Graham Thornton. All the family wanted was a simple funeral for Nicola, nothing fancy. But mid-way through the conversation, the funeral director stopped writing and glanced up from his notes with a look of dismay.
“John,” he said, “are you on strike?” When John nodded, the funeral director said, “Just pay me when you can”.
A job centre adviser later told them that the government had stopped all benefits for the families of striking miners. It was 1984. Like most of his colleagues, John had been on strike for about 13 weeks, over the government’s decision to close mines across the country, despite them being still safe and viable.
This is his story.
Mining: a job for life
John left school at 16 to start work as a miner. His was the first school year that had had to stay in school to 16; previously teenagers had been allowed to leave at 15 and this was what most of his peers had always done. In fact, this was what his family had done for generations – his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him had all been miners in West Yorkshire.
The change in school-leaving age meant that when John signed up in August 1974, there had been a full year with very few new apprentices to the industry and his intake were welcomed with open arms. Conditions at that time were good, even if the work was hard and dangerous. His father’s generation had taken industrial action in 1972 and 1974 over pay and conditions and this meant that for the first time, miners were earning a better wage with a good pension. And becoming a miner was a “job for life” – it was advertised as such on the sides of local buses and a National Coal Board (NCB) recruitment advert, promising “lots of money and security” as well as a jet-setting lifestyle, ends with the confident assertion that “people will always need coal”.
Back then, coal was heralded as the saviour of the UK’s energy needs. The 1974 ‘plan for coal’ promised that there was enough coal to power the UK for 300 years, meaning that the country would no longer be reliant on oil from overseas. Work was also underway to make this sustainable from an environmental perspective, with Grimethorpe Colliery – made famous by the 1996 film Brassed Off – submitting a proposal for a £10k government grant to investigate using a fluidised bed combustion system for carbon capture. It was declined.
Conservative action to break the power of the unions
The industrial action of the 1970s – in particular the Battle of Saltley Gate in1972 – had forced the Conservative government of the time to bring in the three-day week over electricity shortages. It had resulted in the defeat of the Heath government, meaning the Labour Party had had a brief spell of power for five years. The Conservatives used that time to plan how to break the unions when they returned to power. This plan was revealed in a leaked report that caused a stir at the time but wasn’t widely publicised – certainly not to the miners.
The Ridley plan, as it was known – the report of the nationalised industries policy group – was leaked in 1977 and published in The Economist. It was drawn up by Nicholas Ridley, a Tory MP to the right of the party who was one of a group of free-market Conservatives called the Selsdon Group. The document looked at the challenges of having union monopoly over nationalised industries. It considered options for making strike action illegal in certain circumstances, and outlined a long-term plan for the privatisation of certain sectors, beginning with ‘fragmentation’, specifically for coal, electricity, post office, steel and buses.
Essentially, it was a plan for how to fight and defeat any future strikes within nationalised industries – and in so doing, to neuter the power of the unions.
Putting the plan into action via the National Coal Board
The main part of the strategy was three-pronged:
- Stockpile coal and bring in supplies and alternative energy sources from elsewhere
- Mobilise the police – “Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing” (a tactic developed in Northern Ireland)
- Cut off funds to those on strike and make the unions finance them.
So, when Margaret Thatcher won the general election in 1979, she already had a plan for what to do, and she was quick to put it in action. Under her leadership, the Tories quickly passed the necessary legislation to deprive striking miners – and their families – of any financial support, including additional payments such as funeral expenses. Of note is the fact that the rules governing the deduction of benefits for claimants involved in trade disputes are still in place, though this no longer includes funeral payments.
In 1984, the NCB announced the intention to close Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire. The pit was safe, and there was still plenty of coal to be mined. The National Union of Mineworkers had already balloted its members on whether they would support strike action in these circumstances and there was overwhelming national support. A strike was called. And the government’s plan was put into action.
Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire
For John, this meant he soon got into a new routine, joining the ‘flying pickets’ at other mines to support those on strike. On 29 May, he and his friend Brendan travelled down to Nottingham to support the picket there, but were met with a well-coordinated police operation and were turned away before they even got close to the pit. Rather than return home, they decided to join the picket at Orgreave, on the outskirts of Sheffield. The situation there was very different.
Orgreave was a coking plant, supplying the local steel industry with vital coke supplies. It was strategically an important site for the miners to blockade, as it was critical if they were to force the government to back down. And it was just as important for the government to keep it open. John and Brendan arrived shortly before 1pm, the scheduled time for the trucks to arrive, and in contrast to the Nottingham pit, they were directed to a carpark along with all the other picketers.
The approach to the frontline at Orgreave was downhill from the car park. As John and Brendan walked down, the first thing they noticed was the police riot formations below, all in groups reminiscent of Roman legions, but in full riot gear. John noted that from the quality of the marching, it was easy to see which serials were formed of police and which of soldiers in police uniform!
Picket lines: the battle between miners and police
As John reached the frontline, tensions were already high. The previous day the police had used aggressive tactics on many of the pickets, using their long truncheons over the riot shields to attack. So that day, bricks were already being thrown towards the police from the back of the picket line, with most of them hitting the pickets rather than their intended target. On his arrival, John shouted and urged them to stop, receiving a round of applause from the police. But it soon turned nasty.
The police charged with their riot shields and the pickets charged forward in response. John was caught between both lines surging forward in a crush, and almost immediately felt a blinding pain in his jaw. As he turned round to face his attacker, he could see a fist withdrawing into the police line. He charged after the officer, but within seconds he felt someone grab him round the neck and he was under arrest.
As he was walked back through the police lines, John felt a searing pain in his arm. A sergeant had put him in an arm lock, and he was forced to tip forward to prevent his arm breaking. At this point, an inspector shouted, “Don’t hit ‘im here Sarge, they’re filming”. As he was marched away from behind police lines, he was hit repeatedly by more officers as they rushed past.
Anti-union media propaganda
In the holding area, the sergeant threw him against a wall and kicked him repeatedly to the head and body until the constable urged, “He’s had enough sarge”. John was told he was being charged with ‘assaulting a police officer’ and he remembers asking, “What did I do, I scuff his boot with my face?” The countable said “Well, breach of the peace then” In the cell bus, the other prisoners were all asking if he was OK, having witnessed the brutal assault he’d been subjected to. Over the police radios they heard reports of the pickets having taken a telegraph pole and used it to push back the police.
Later that evening John watched the BBC news in amazement, as the entire sequence of events had been edited and reconstructed. The BBC had deliberately reversed the order of events. From a peaceful starting point, the first that viewers saw was the pickets charging the police line with the telegraph poll, then all surging forward to attack the police. After this, the police naturally responded and started making arrests. The scenes were horrifying, and bore little resemblance to how the day had played out.
John was later released on bail, having been charged with breach of the peace and given conditions not to return to Orgreave. He wasn’t at the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, which took place on 18 June 1984. Over the years, countless witnesses have described the aggressive police tactics used and the media propaganda, in particular the strategy of reversing the news footage. While there was a Thames TV report raising questions about police tactics, in homes up and down the country, biased propaganda was overwhelmingly what they saw and it was the ‘truth’. It gave Thatcher the support she needed to break the strikes.
In memory of Nicola
On 13 June, just two weeks after his arrest, and five days before the Battle of Orgreave, John’s daughter Nicola died.
It’s believed that Nicola was the first child of a striking miner to die, and therefore the first child whose funeral costs would not be met by the state, due to Thatcher’s legislative changes. The new rules hit the headlines and were met with public outcry. In the European parliament in Brussels, the Labour MEP for Leeds Michael McGowan later stood up and appealed to the UK government to show mercy, saying “Even in times of war we took time to bury our dead”.
In the UK parliament, Michael Meacher, Labour MP for Oldham West MP, challenged the government on the legislation, pointing out that the Act was, “yet another weapon … to starve the miners back to work through intensified financial hardship”. Meacher, who had served in the Wilson government, condemned the policy “because it means victimising families and starving children in order to weaken trade unions and force their members back to work by sheer privation”.
In West Yorkshire, the mining community rallied round and gave their £1 picketing money to help with initial costs and the local area NUM paid for a small funeral for Nicola. But on that day with the funeral director, John could see no hope and no options.
“Just pay me when you can.”
To see more of this story, see this video, part funded by John in memory of Nicola:
More information on Orgreave can be found via the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.
* The garden sculpture is in lieu of a gravestone for Nicola, and in recognition of the many birthdays and Christmases she didn’t get to enjoy. The purple butterfly was for the butterfly that followed John and Nicola’s mum on a long walk, shortly after she passed ?