“If Spirits Alone Won Battles: The Diary of John Lowe” is part of the familiar genre of a day by day diary, following in the footsteps of The Miners Strike Day by Day (2002) and Yorkshire’s Flying Pickets (2004). It adds a bit more colour to what would otherwise become dry dates in some future history, and reveals impressions, aspirations, and understanding of the striker as they occurred. Keith Stanley’s ‘Nottingham Miners Do Strike’ (2011) (written in retrospect on the edge of early retirement after having risen to General Secretary of the Nottingham miners’ union from the position of coal face charge-man before the onset of the strike) does not compare to the day by day trials and struggles of a rank and file striking Nottinghamshire miner that are described in this book.
John was a coal face worker at Clipstone Colliery – a committed union miner in a coalfield whose union dedication had been steadily fading away. John was neither a branch official nor a member of the branch committee; he was one of those who ‘have greatness thrust upon them’. His role as a leader, an organiser, a co-coordinator, picketer and ‘tattie peeler’ often fell to him in absence of anyone else to take over the role.
His story reveals one of the many heart wrenching dilemmas which occurred in the Nottingham coalfield above all others, where loyalty to his class, his union, and the strike is at the expense of coal mining members of his own family who chose the other side.
“My position is this; my wife is 101 per cent behind my stand. Two sons are scabs as is a son in law at Mansfield Colliery. A row developed in which a daughter-in-law decided that her view was totally right, hence a split. The rest of the family then isolates both of us for a while. …For many weeks she [his wife] cried herself to sleep nightly, and awoke each morning in the same state. In quiet periods during the day, the same thing occurred. Each time was like a knife twisting inside me. The hardest part was not seeing our grandchildren – [a] worse scenario I could not have envisaged and [it was] most definitely heartbreaking.”
His grandson, Jonathan Symcox, honoured his granddad’s principle and was the driving force in ensuring this work was published – with the hope that people could understand the truly monumental sacrifices made by people like John. As he says:
“In these times of job losses, pension cuts and protests, the 1984/5 strike resonates with the little men or women as potently as ever before. John Lowe’s diary is a priceless record of the most important of all industrial disputes, one that shaped the country we know today, from the very heart of the Nott’s battleground upon which the miners were ultimately impaled. But it is also the tale of a man, flesh and blood, who stood up for what he believed in: I hope the reader will see this man lost to us these last few years within the pages and recognise a true working class hero.” (Jonathan Symcox)
The book reveals the confusion of the first weeks of the strike, with mixed messages and lacklustre resolve from the area leadership, added to perhaps an overenthusiastic and premature response from over the Yorkshire border pushing backs up and adding to the anti-strike core propaganda among the Nottingham miners. Disagreements of how to handle the vexed situation persists, throughout the strike. They plead for tangible, visible support; they pray for tactics with impacts but are continually frustrated.
Sat 11 Aug
“The NEC did not give me the boost I was looking for. National need to realise the desperate need at grassroots level in Nott’s for an offensive. The media battle is wearing down even the staunchest of hearts. For God’s sake, Arthur, come to the picket lines [and] soup kitchens. Let the lads and their families talk to you and the rest of the leadership. Listen to their thoughts and needs. Heed their complaints. Help us take the initiative again.”
The Yorkshire miners and NUM failed the Nott’s strikers so badly. The women’s group, desperate for premises to set up a food kitchen for the kids and strikers, found themselves shunned and isolated by their own Miners’ Welfare and Working Men’s Clubs, as well as Council Premises. Not until the strikers staged a sit in at a Youth Centre, resisting all threats of scabs and police, did they manage to win the use of the St John’s Ambulance Hall from which to mount a much needed welfare operation.
This book shows how desperately short of funds the Nott’s strikers were, in terms of picket petrol, and money for food for kids and to relieve the hardship of striking families. The Yorkshire NUM made massive efforts to go into Nottingham, but failed to provide anything like the financial aid which would have kept their own pickets in place and treated the strikers’ families like they were an equal part of the strike. A great many striking Nott’s miners were driven back to work in order to save their houses or keep their cars on the road.
Thursday 12 July
“Jim Dowen phoned later to tell me the £300 we were expecting from National is no longer on. We have £130 this week and the financial situation is becoming difficult again… Such tiny amounts, against such urgent and strategically vital need, and still we expected men to stick it out.”
Tues 5th Feb (1985)
“There is much dissatisfaction with the seeming lack of concern by our National leaders over our position in Nott’s and the lack of information given us; we only found out by phoning HQ at Sheffield that the National Executive Committee meeting has been put back to next Tuesday. They don’t seem to place importance on the expulsion issue and we suspect that suspension is in some minds as an alternative. If this is to happen, our lads would leave us in double quick time.”
The book is also very illuminating in illustrating how far from ineffective the strike was in Nottingham, something which the NCB and Government went to great lengths to disguise.
Tues 5th June, Rufford Colliery
“Two cars were sent to Rufford, reports later of a large picket. As there was no through flow of traffic to complicate the situation, the lads were hit from the front and when many tried to get out of the way were hit from behind with the horses. A whisper ‘from over the wall’ states that even with the drift back to work, production is still down by almost two thirds; have not been able to verify this.”
“..during September, tonnage figures were circulated, we at Clipstone pit were having a far greater effect on production there than was the case at many of the Nott’s pits. A comparison of tonnages for the weeks ending 29 Oct 1983 and 27 Sept 1984 showed that production was down by 59 percent from 20,526 to 8,400 tonnes….for the weeks in question only Linby Colliery had better figures, showing a reduction of over 62 per cent.”
Tues 13 November
“Some figures of the Board’s losses in South Nott’s so far show this must be the most expensive coal ever mined; the amount lost at five pits ranges from £6.5 million to £24.5 million.”
The impression being peddled by the NCB and government was that Nott’s was virtually working as normal. Here, we have first-hand evidence nine months into the strike that production at collieries was seriously affected.
As the strike wears on, and the bitterness in the close and tight knit villages increases, a veritable war is unleashed on the strikers and their families, including: abusive letters and phone calls, graffiti, smashed house windows and cars, physical attacks, arrests and intimidation by police, victimisation and sackings by the Coal Board, stone wall indifference from the Benefits Agencies, blanket bail restrictions and hefty penal sentencing by the courts. On top of all this, there was a lack of financial backup and solidarity which was not fully understood by miners in “solid areas”. The NUM wasn’t giving any support, half the Nott’s Area leadership broke the strike, and the others according were afraid to get too far involved. It is little wonder that, suffering from economic hardships, good, committed union men felt forced to return to work.
Colliery Managers, meanwhile, sent personal letters saying “Your Job Is In Danger” – suggesting those still striking would be replaced. A heroic minority led by rank and file men like John Lowe stood firm. John had been a striker in the 70s when the Nott’s was as solid as every other coalfield. He reflects on the different police attitudes between 74 and 84. Strikers were denied the right to build a picket shelter amidst the winter’s driving sleet. Picketers were forced to stand out in the gales unprotected. Refused the right to build the traditional picket brazier to keep warm and cook food. With men freezing in the open, arrested for talking to drivers or attempting to stop them. Nonetheless, the union demanded they stayed put, and a minority of iron men and often women did that day after day, from dawn till dusk for twelve months.
Fri 27th July
“[I] arrived home about 2pm from the Centre to find the phone ringing. It was a lad calling from the hospital to ask if I could get down there immediately. Our old friend Sid Richmond was in trouble there. What an appalling story! It seems he set out this morning to visit his daughter who lives in Long Eaton: when he reached Annesley Woodhouse he was stopped by police at the traffic lights and told he had to turn back. Being alone in the car and an obvious pensioner, it should have been quite plain he couldn’t be a threat to anyone, despite the fact he was wearing one of our stickers. He insisted he was going forward about his legal business. This was when the police, the London Metropolitan Y Division, became nasty and abusive: they opened his car door and attempted to pull him out. He resisted and [was] told ‘get out you old bastard’ again and again. His passenger door was opened and five of the brave Met boys set about dealing with him at once: eyewitnesses, Annesley lads stated that one of them struck Sid three times in an effort to dislodge him. He was taken to the roadside with handcuffs on one hand and there was detained for a time; because he was showing his manacled hand to passing motorists a constable put his helmet over it and held the arm, hiding it from view. The handcuffs were so tight that the marks were plainly visible late tonight. The rotor arm was removed from his car and when he was allowed finally to go; it was minus his car and with his arm and wrist badly bruised. The Annesley lad took him inside his welfare where he called Sid’s son N to come and fetch him. On their way back to Mansfield they were stopped by more police; his son dragged out of the van, arrested and put in a police van. Sid was taken with them to Mansfield police station where his request for a doctor was finally granted; he was taken to Mansfield General Hospital …”
Tues 16th Oct
“An alarming story: the Creswell food kitchen was burned down yesterday. It seems arson is claimed by the strikers while the police just seem interested. It took them 45 minutes to get there, while a scab complaining can get them out in minutes. Later reports said that chairs, paper, and tablecloths were piled in the centre and fired: entry had to be gained by breaking a window. Only the bravery of one of the ladies who rushed inside and turned off the gas heating, which was due to come on, prevented a disaster. As it was, downstairs was gutted. The scab workers’ committee had been holding one of their traitorous meetings the night before… coincidence?”
With the collapse of the strike, and the birth of the UDM – allegedly under the control of the managers – the Nott’s strikers went back to work a battle just as hard as during the strike.
“We in Nott’s on the other hand, had to return without the fanfares and publicity, there were no bands to lead our lads through the villages and into the pit yards; there were no cameras to show our defiance in the face of defeat; people did not line the streets of our pit villages. This was Nottinghamshire; we were a minority and surrounded by hostility. The spirit of our lads on their return was nothing short of heroic. Not for over half a century had we seen a situation like this in the mining industry- and that had been the era of the Spencer union in Nottinghamshire. .”
Clipstone Colliery closed as an NCB Colliery in 1993 and was bought by RJB Mining – who bought up the majority of the pits not previously closed. They closed it for good in 2003. Clipstone headstocks are the highest in Europe, and are preserved as an industrial heritage. But the real industrial heritage is to be found in the pages of this book, and in the hearts of the men and women depicted in it.
Adapted from a text written by David Douglass at http://www.minersadvice.co.uk/reviews_diary_of_john_lowe.html