by Ray Lawrence, NUM Lodge Secretary
Driving to the Area Delegate Conference of the South Wales Area of the NUM at Porthcawl on Friday 9th March 1984 the Celynen South Lodge Chairman and Secretary speculated that as the Yorkshire Area was already out on strike, today’s conference would call for an area ballot to support them. The representatives of 46 lodges consisting of 21,500 men gathered in the hall and heard Emlyn Williams the Area President report that a few hours earlier the Area Executive Council had considered the situation in the other coalfields, had deliberated on Ian Macgregor’s statement on pit closures, had listened to the President’s report of the National Executive Committee’s recommendations, and decided to support the NEC’s resolution to permit areas to take individual strike action under Rule 43, and furthermore to recommend to this conference that there will be no work in South Wales from Monday 12th of March 1984. This took a moment to sink in with the first lodges to the rostrum generally expressing concern over the lack of consultation with their members. Penallta, Bedwas, Blaenserchan, Garw and the Celynen South give this view, with the Celynen South also expressing concern over the timing of the strike, stating that the overtime ban should continue until the winter and then national strike action should be taken. Then George Rees, Area General Secretary, and executive council members rallied support and most lodges who spoke then supported immediate action, these included Celynen North, Tower, St. Johns, Lady Windsor, Mardy, Blaenserchan, Taff Merthyr, Cwm, Oakdale, Betws, Nantgarw, Merthyr Vale, Markham, Bargoed, Penrhiwceiber and Treforgan.
When the vote was taken only five lodges voted against the resolution including the Celynen South. The Area was out on strike without consulting its members. The Lodge Officers then reported to a general meeting of the Lodge held at the Celynen Collieries Institute in Newbridge at 11am on the following morning, Saturday the 10th of March 1984. Due to the Lodge’s stand at yesterday’s area conference, they asked Gary Woolf, acting miners agent, to attend to give the executive council’s version of events. The meeting can be best described as follows: Most of the 350 men were unhappy, to put it mildly, they had already heard the result of yesterday’s conference through the media; there were obscenities, noise and hostility. The top table (Lodge Officers) was nervous, a whispered decision, get it over with and get out. The Chairman called the meeting to order, silence. Carl Browning cleared his throat, placed his two hands on the table for support, looked for a friendly face in the crowd and asked the meeting for permission for the miners agent to address the meeting. Uproar, more obscenities, flying ashtrays, communist bastard.
The Secretary apologises to the agent, he smiles softly, a hard man from a hard school. The Chairman feels anger, screams for order, silence. He calls for a vote. The vote allows the agent to speak later. The first battle is won. Now for the procedures, the Chairman to give an unbiased report of the conference, the Secretary to account for their actions in the conference, the Chairman checked his notes and made his report, or tried to, disorder and interruptions ignored his report took ten minutes. The Secretary’s turn, silence, he explained why they had voted against the conference decision. Applause. He then tried to explain why they should now abide by the conference decision. Chaos. The miner’s agent’s turn, intense barracking, angry retorts, sit down. Time for the discussion; the Sun newspaper had done its job well, heated exchanges, violent confrontations.
The lodge officers confer, the Secretary says no vote and closes the meeting, and the Compensation Secretary agrees, the Vice-Chairman and the Treasurer say vote. The Chairman calls the vote. Only seven vote against work on Monday morning. The second battle lost. By the Sunday evening it was reported by the media that only 11 of the 46 South Wales Lodges had voted for strike action at their general meetings surely there would now be a recall conference, a return to work and a properly conducted ballot. At 05.30 am on Monday morning the Secretary honoured the area conference decision and stood alone on the picket line as the men trooped to work. Later he was joined by the Compensation Secretary and two others. By the afternoon shift, a grand total of five were out on strike at Celynen South. The uncertainty of this first day of the strike can be best illustrated by this caustic comment on the situation in the Miners Office at Crumlin when the five strikers called in at 7am that morning:
The Miners Office, nerve centre and GCHQ of the Gwent Miners’ Strike Army, electrified atmosphere? Hive of activity? No. As someone said the only one working here is the bloody kettle. A different miner’s agent this time, perplexed, unsure, embarrassed – his own pit had gone to work. “How’s it going Bill?” the Secretary asked the Agent, meaning the strike, “All right mun, a bit of a headache mind.” replied the agent “Whose out then”” the telephone rings “Bugger off.” says the agent on the ‘phone, “Bloody reporters.” “How’s your pit then?” he asks of Celynen South, “working” the reply. The telephone rings, pause, “Bugger off” says the agent. “What happening about, who’s out then?” asks the Secretary, “Dunno” replied the Agent. The telephone rings “No comment” says the Agent, lady reporter this time. Loud banter, banging doors, enter the lodge officers of the Celynen North, “Kettle on then?” the arrogance of victors in this lot. “You out?” asks the Agent, “Naturally” the reply. “They’ve gone to work” pointing at the Secretary. “We know, a bunch of ‘airy arsed boys down there.” The telephone rings, Six Bells working. The telephone rings “Bugger off.” The telephone rings, Blaenserchan working. The door opens and in comes Oakdale Lodge. Sympathise with the ‘South asks the Agent what is happening “Dunno.” “What’s the order from Central Office?” The telephone rings, Marine working, then again “Bugger off.” then again “No comment.” “For Christ’s sake, Bill forget the bloody ‘phone and tell us what Central Office is doing.” “Dunno, they don’t start work until 9am.” The telephone ring, “Time for us to bugger off.” says the Secretary.
In fact, it was past 10am before the Area Executive Council met that morning. A delegation of Mardy and Tower Lodges help persuade them to continue the fight. The Yorkshire Area was out. They decided that there was no turning back. At 6am the following morning about 60 pickets arrived at the pit, some noisy, most milling around like lost sheep unsure of their reception, they were hopelessly outnumbered. The mighty arm of the Law also arrived in the shape of two policemen who discreetly positioned themselves around 200 yards away and out of sight. The Secretary called a meeting in the canteen, the South Celynen men troop in. a good sign only a dozen out of the crowded room had changed into their working clothes. Whether they had proved their point by working yesterday, or it was the pickets or that strange and wonderful thing called a conscience, the Secretary knew that they wouldn’t work. A commitment was made to call for an area conference for a ballot on the strike and the convening of a general meeting for the following Sunday. The men refused to accept that they were on strike until a ballot was held but did agree not to cross picket lines. It was to be a long, long time before they tasted canteen tea again.
At a Lodge Committee Meeting held on Wednesday the 14th of March the Committee agreed for the Lodge to carry out picketing but at the Lodge General Meeting the following day the membership refused to allow picketing and passed “We accept that we are not working and to call for a recall conference”. Most of the Gwent and Rhymney Valley Lodges were now of the opinion that a recall conference should take place and in that conference, a call for a ballot should be made but they hadn’t reckoned with the oratorical powers of George Rees the Area General Secretary. On that Thursday evening, a meeting of all the lodges in Gwent and the Rhymney valley was called and George Rees made a rallying call to what was viewed as the weak link in the solidarity of the strike. George is a belligerent speaker normally but that evening he was at his best, forceful and virtually defying anyone present to betray the crusade for jobs.
Caustic towards the faint-hearted and derisive of the NCB, it was made clear to all present that a failure to support the strike was nothing short of collaboration The muted pleas for a ballot met with stony silence, the sheer personality of George Rees, and that alone, had kept the miners of Gwent from returning to work. On Saturday 17th of March, another General Meeting of the Lodge was held but with this one it was obvious that the men were beginning to accept the strike situation, only 180 bothered to attend. There were two items on the agenda; one was the supplementary benefit position in which Keith Langley, the Compensation Secretary had to tell men who had worked, and paid National Insurance, all their lives that if they were married then they would perhaps receive £15 per week, and if they were single, not a penny. If the Government thought that this would blackmail men back to work then they badly miscalculated, it only strengthened the men’s resolve. The second item was a notice of motion that the Lodge carry out picketing duties. This was defeated by 100 votes to 50 votes. On Friday 23rd of March 1984, the Lodge agreed to carry out picketing duties by 120 votes to 80 votes. The strike at Celynen South now began in earnest.
The months rolled on, the lodge sent pickets all over the country, to Hinckley Point Power Station in Somerset, to the midlands to picket the working pits, locally to Margam and Llanwern Steelworks and to wharves all over the coast. One of the most striking incidents occurred when along with other lodges they ‘captured’ the transporter bridge in Newport. Food parcels were introduced as members sent all over the country to arrange food collections or try to win the support of other unions or the public. Picketing expenses were set at the grand sum of £4 outside the area, £2 within the area, and nothing to picket the ‘bosses’ union still working at the pit.
In the Lodge General Meeting held on the 28th of April 1984 the lodge committee tried to impose a levy of £5 on the safety men who were working but were defeated. It was however decided to picket the COSA Union out. This matter of the safety men paying a levy arose again in September when they refused to pay an area instruction to pay £3. When forced by the Lodge Officers to pay this levy they walked out and left the pit to flood, a general meeting of the lodge decided that this payment should be voluntary and by the end of the month all the safety men were paying it.
By August 1984 the men were beginning to question the conduct of the strike and at a general meeting held on the 21st of August the President of South Wales NUM “appealed to the men to remain loyal and not to have a bloodbath in this area.” In the first week of November, some ‘scabs’ returned to work at Cynheidre Colliery in west Wales, this prompted the Area Executive to instruct the withdrawal of all safety men in the area. This was done, but severe flooding in the pit bottom area of the colliery caused the AEC to give special dispensation to Celynen South and the safety men returned to work. This partial resumption to work started a chain reaction throughout the Coalfield and through the coming months, men started to return to work throughout the area. In dribs and drabs at first but then in large amounts at collieries such as Marine and Six Bells, in saying this the return to work in South Wales was still a tiny minority of men, but in the other coalfields whole pits were returning at a time.
The first major challenge to the strike at Celynen South came at the General Meeting held on the 12th of November when a petition was received signed by 40 members that stated; “We the undersigned would like to agenda a return to work.” In a volatile and rowdy meeting, the chairman refused to put the petition to the vote. He did allow a vote to test the member’s feelings on the strike (a technical difference) which resulted in 144 votes to 65 votes decision to stay out. This position was not accepted by 19 members who returned to work on the following Monday. At a hurriedly convened general meeting it was unanimously agreed to condemn this action, and not to work with these ‘scabs’ in future and to withdraw our safety men on the shifts that these people work. If work was the term, they only had to arrive at the pit to satisfy the NCB. It was also reported that the Celynen North and Marine Lodges were now supporting our call for a re-call conference. The following morning mass picketing was arranged at the pit and the most violent scenes since the non-unionism fights of the 1930s occurred. About five hundred pickets faced around two-hundred police armed with riot shields, dogs and batons. The pit top was occupied and violent fights erupted until the police managed to clear the way around four hours later. It was the first time in its history that the Gwent police had used riot gear. The Lodge Chairman and Secretary were then permitted to see the strike-breakers and appealed to them to return home, they had made their point, now for the sake of avoiding injury or death it was time to return to the fold. The strike-breakers refused, one threatening to fetch his shotgun and blast the Secretary, and this in front of police officers who just smirked. From that day on the picketing at the Celynen South Colliery was carried out by their own members only, and the violence never reached those levels again.
Mass picketing continued with a heavy police presence preventing them from stopping the ‘scabs’ from working. There was much pushing and shoving but the whole situation became just a masquerade as January turned to February. It was around this time that I, and the many law-abiding citizens on the picket line became aware of the true style of modern policing. We would be taunted by such remarks about how much wages they were earning, they would point out someone and taunt him by saying they would lock him up and then go to his house and xxxx his wife, a particular PC we nicknamed no-neck would deliberately kick a picket and then arrest him when he retaliated. Arrests were common for no reason but to reduce the numbers on the picket line, not one member arrested at the Celynen South picket line was convicted by a Court. As Lodge Secretary, I came in for particular attention from the police, although I am sure that they will deny this. I was arbitrarily arrested for throwing nails under a van. Of course, no nails were thrown and even the police on the line refused to support the Inspectors allegations. The case was thrown out of Court. On another occasion, I was asked by another police inspector to show him the ‘right of way’ leading across the colliery. I duly obliged and was arrested for trespassing. The case didn’t even reach Court. On another occasion, just a half-hour before an important general meeting where a return to work had been predicted by the television the police arrested me for supposedly driving an overweight van. I was detained for two hours while the van was checked and found to be OK and then released. The meeting was adjourned to wait for me amongst much amusement. Whilst driving I would be stopped a couple of times a day and the vehicle checked. On the first occasion, I didn’t have my documents with me and duly took them to Blackwood police station later on in the day. Sometime later I was arrested for not producing these documents. Again I was held for a while and not charged. On the nail throwing incident when I was charged, legal aid was refused for me, although it had been granted to every other striking miner in trouble. After a while, it was then granted. I have just illustrated some of my own problems, this can be multiplied many times as the men from the Celynen South were arrested throughout the country.
Much has been said about the intimidation of those who returned to work early. I must stress that the Celynen South Lodge did not condone any form of violence or intimidation or any contact away from the colliery with the strike-breakers or their families. I am sorry to say that the opposite wasn’t true. All the lodge officers and the leading activists received abusive and threatening phone calls and letters, and the slashing of car tyres and general damage to cars did occur.
A brief episode brought some humour to the picket lines. Just before Christmas, the strikers offered the police toy plastic pigs as gifts, naturally, they were refused and the pushing and shoving re-commenced. In its report on the incident, The Times remarked that the Celynen South picket lines were the “scene of the worst picket line clashes in the coalfield.” On another occasion the police were on their best behaviour, no taunting, kicking or fists flying – Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party was there.
By the 8th of January 36 men had returned to work at the Celynen South, still, less than 10% of the workforce, and the Lodge wrote a letter to Area calling for their expulsion from the Union. Towards the end of January the financial position of the Lodge, and indeed the Union was pretty grim, and it was decided to reduce the picketing fee from £2 to £1.50. The Lodge Committee now realised that the strike was not going anywhere and that further action was futile, they still refused to go it alone and decided to try and persuade the Area to return to work united.
At the Lodge Committee Meeting held on Tuesday, 12th of February” The Committee recognised that the majority of our members now wished to return to work, and agreed to mandate our delegate to the next area conference to move for a return to work. Without agreement.” This was raised at the next Area Conference but received no support. Two general meetings were then held in quick succession over the rapidly deteriorating situation at neighbouring pits and at the national level. At both meetings (held on the 14th and 18th of February respectively) the men remained loyal to the leadership and refused to return to work unless every lodge did. This was carried by 104 votes to 24 votes in the first meeting and overwhelmingly in the second. At the National Delegate Conference held on the 3rd of March 1985 it was agreed that we return to work without making a settlement. The strike was over.
The Lodge General Meeting held on the same night overwhelmingly supported this and agreed to start back to work on Tuesday the 5th of March 1985. Perhaps the sacrifices of the members of the Celynen South Lodge NUM were greater than at other Lodges, they knew that the pit was closing, and if it wasn’t for the strike would have probably received their redundancy payments long ago, yet after the initial furore the vast majority stuck it out to the bitter end with no advantage to be gained for themselves. The men returned to work quietly and with no fuss, just a desire to get on with it and to earn a couple of bob to pay off the debts incurred during the strike. There was friction between the ‘scabs’ and the ‘strikers’ and the manager had to be careful with manpower deployment, the nightshift on the 2nd of April refusing to work with one. At the ballot for the Lodge Officers held in April 1985, the strike-breakers opposed all the lodge officers except the chairman and compensation secretary and were firmly trounced. Two strike-breakers who tried to get on the lodge committee were bottom of the poll.
THE CLOSURE OF THE COLLIERY
On the 12th of April 1983, the NUM Lodge at the colliery invited Glyn Payne, the colliery manager, to a committee meeting to explain the NCB’s policy towards the pit. Mr. Payne explained to the meeting that there was five and a half years of work left at the colliery “producing 301B coking coal and we were selling all we produce to Llanwern Steel Works who had a better record economically with home-produced coals than other steelworks who imported coal.” The lodge was pleased with the report; after all, in 5½ years there would hopefully be a change of government and a change of political climate with regards to the coal industry, and with our local MP Neil Kinnock being the leader of the Labour Party things must improve. However, it was agreed as a precautionary measure to continue with the high profile campaign against pit closures. Although the manager was genuine in his statement he had only taken into account the situation at the colliery, the wider policy with regards to the mining industry was not in his remit, and no doubt instructions from ‘above’ brought about the change in attitude when he again attended a lodge committee meeting on the 29th of November 1983 and proposed “a re-assessment of the collieries future which would result in redundancies.” This meeting led to the lodge officers meeting with Gordon Robinson production manager for the group. On the 9th of December 1983 where Mr. Robinson informed the Lodge that he intended to double-shift the BL1 Coalface, with it being the last coalface to be worked at the pit, giving life for the colliery of approximately 9 months. The lodge officers refused to negotiate on these terms and proposed to pit-head meetings of all its members “that we single shift on BL1 and M8 Coalfaces with men over 55 years of age to go redundant, which would extend the life of the colliery long enough to prove the Old Coal (Five-Feet/Gellideg) seam.” The pit-head meetings unanimously supported this proposal. Two meetings between the lodge, NUM Area Officials and the Area Director, Phillip Weekes in February of 1984 were held where the lodge proposed to extend the life of the colliery in three ways:
- To work the Old Coal (Five-Feet/Gellideg) and Black Vein (Nine-Feet) seams left sterilised on the closure of Wyllie Colliery, this would mean driving two headings 400 metres from existing workings to the west of the pit and would give 10 to 15 years work. The NCB refused to contemplate this, stating that the seams in this area had high dirt content and could not be sold. After the closure of Celynen South Colliery, this area miraculously reduced its dirt content when it was intended to work it from Oakdale Colliery four times further away than the Celynen South workings. Oakdale Colliery failed to reach this area and it has been left forever.
- To develop the Old Coal seam beneath and towards the south of the current workings. This would have given ten years more work. The NCB refused this due to it being a thin seam in this area, although the seam had been successfully worked before and was much thicker than seams being currently worked in other local pits.
- To drive through a fault ahead of BL1 coalface and develop to the left and right using short coalfaces on the retreat method. The NCB extended the water barrier between the Celynen South Colliery and the Cwmbran Colliery to prevent this, it being impossible to argue against safety matters.
The lodge committee went back to their membership on the 6th of March 1984 urging a continuation of the fight against closure, and to defy the NCB by not double shifting in the BL1 Coalface thereby increasing the life of the pit. The membership although not officially accepting closure, did accept a contract to double shift the BL1 and therefore for all intents and purposes accepted closure. This decision cannot be isolated from the circumstances of the time, although I opposed it, it can be understood against a background of thorough demoralisation of the men i.e. manpower shortages created tension amongst the men who had to cover the shortages, constantly changing workplaces and shifts. Roadways were deteriorating due to the lack of repairs, making it difficult to walk in and out of the colliery, the situation becoming so bad at one time that the NUM Lodge had to call in HM. Inspectorate to get necessary repairs carried out. New machinery was non-existent; one coalface had to be stopped to enable the next one to receive its equipment, causing a delay in the production of several weeks. Add to this the feeling that you were on your own with regards to closures, the other Coalfields had snubbed the South Wales Area and let Lewis Merthyr close, and the South Wales Area had snubbed the Celynen South and it was left to fight its own battles. Then there were the inducements; to the man who had worked 25 years to 40 years in the pits, with after all his efforts very little in the bank and his health failing, the lure of a large redundancy pay was very tempting. For the younger miner, the promise of transfer payments and better working conditions and bonuses at other pits was also a tempting offer. For all the men the signing of a contract for the highly productive BL1 Coalface would mean an increase in wages of up to £100 a week.
Opposing all this was the stubbornness of the men in refusing to accept defeat from either geology or the NCB, and their intense loyalty to their Union, and the social conscience in losing jobs for future generations. A combination of these factors leads to 12 months of bitter strike action that was in a few days to dwarf the situation at the Celynen South Colliery. Even on the eve of this great dispute, the lodge officers were still convinced that they could ‘persuade’ the NCB to probe the Old Coal seam. The strike was only a month old when a serious situation arose at the colliery, conditions had deteriorated on the new M8 Coalface to the point that it was in danger of collapsing. At the lodge committee meeting of the 17th of April 1984, the chairman reported on a visit to the ‘face and reported, “estimates given could mean up to 60 men working for a period of three to five weeks, and continuous work after this if we are to save the ‘face.” The Lodge allowed the M8 Coalface to close.
On the return to work following the 1984/85 strike the Board’s, or now British Coal’s, the attitude had considerably hardened: To the victor the spoils. An almost apologetic colliery manager laid certain demands on the table, acceptance or not by the men being totally irrelevant, they would happen anyway. At a lodge general meeting held on the 10th of March 1985 the NCB proposals on the future of the colliery were put to the men: immediate transfer of 30 men to Oakdale Colliery and fifty redundancies by May, the pit would be gradually run down until the closure of the BL1 Coalface which would signal the end of the pit. The men reluctantly agreed to the proposals. It is ironic to note that the Celynen South Colliery now hit the most productive period in its hundred years plus history. Working the fully mechanised BL1 Coalface and extracting seven feet of the twelve feet seam production ran at over 7,000 tonnes of coal a week with a man-power of around 300. Face output per man shift stood at 23.67 tonnes, and overall output per man shift at 4.04 tonnes, profits to British Coal were almost half a million pounds per month and face-workers bonus running at around £100 per week. Phillip Weekes the NCB’s Area Director stated “I wish we could have found another fifty years of Black Vein reserves because I know that you have worked them effectively.”
It was intended to close the BL1 when it reached a geological fault immediately in front of it and about 240 metres away. Bearing in mind the profitability of the colliery the NUM lodge believed that they had a case for extending the life of the colliery by working the other side of the fault, the NCB soon scuppered this idea by announcing that all redundancies had to be taken before the new scheme came into force which they claimed (later proved to be untrue) would mean a reduction in payments, this was endorsed by the NUM’s miners agent for Gwent and so the last tram of coal was wound up the pit on the 6th of September 1985.
Limited underground salvage operations finished on the 31st of October 1985 and the pits were left to flood. The colliery was handed over for demolishing on the 23rd of November 1985. The shafts that had taken three years of hard toil to sink were filled in the two weeks ending the 26th of November 1985 using 30,000 tonnes of shale, 18,000 tonnes of hardcore and 2,500 tonnes of clay. On closure, the colliery was pumping 877,235 gallons of water up the pit per day, had 10.5 kilometres of roadways in daily use, with the coalface being 3.25 kilometres from the pit. The pit-head price of its coal was £47.30 per tonne with the amount of rubbish on the Hafod tipping site being 11,200,000 tonnes, tipping on this site having started in 1937. The estimated amount of coal extracted at the colliery was 41,760,000 tonnes. 75% of the workmen opted to leave the industry under the redundancy terms; the rest transferred mainly to Oakdale and Marine Collieries but were soon to join their old buddies on the dole.
This information has been provided by Ray Lawrence, from books he has written, which contain much more information, including many photographs, maps and plans. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for availability.Return to previous page