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International Women's Day 2024

We Are Women, We Are Strong: The Stories of Northumberland Miners’ Wives 1984-85
Woodhorn Museum

Brenkley Miners’ Support Group banner, 1984
Woodhorn Museum

On this International Women’s Day, we commemorate the women involved in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, which took place forty years ago.

In 1984, the British colliery was a male space. While some were employed in administration or as cleaners and canteen workers, women had been banned from working underground since the Coal Mines Act of 1842. In the Miners’ Welfare, women were not allowed to buy drinks from the bar. For the most part, the role of women in the pit village was domestic: raising children, cooking, cleaning and running the household.

During the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, everything changed.

The strike would not have been as powerful nor as prolonged had it not been for the unwavering support of women in mining communities. Wives, mothers, daughters and sisters rallied together with the men, travelling around the country on flying pickets, coming out on the streets to protest, and raising their voices at national and international events. They also became active on the home front, running soup kitchens, organising food parcels and knocking on doors to ask for donations. Women’s and wives’ support groups were established across the country, leading to the national political movement, Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC).

Gwen Newton, ed. We Are Women, We Are Strong: The Stories of Northumberland Miners’ Wives 1984-85, Northumberland: The People Themselves, 1985.
ASHMM:2004.85.1

‘We Are Women, We Are Strong’

We Are Women, We Are Strong: The Stories of Northumberland Miners’ Wives 1984-85 is a small book of recollections, poems and photographs by and of women from the Bates, Whittle, Ashington, Brenkley, Lynemouth and Ellington communities, brought together by Gwen Newton, a member of the Ellington Women’s Support Group. Self-published shortly after the strike ended, the book was sold for £2.50 to raise money for sacked miners in Northumberland, and their families.

The book’s title was taken from the song sung by women as they marched against pit closures around the country:

We are women, we are strong,
We are fighting for our lives
Side by side with our men
Who work the nation’s mines,
United by the past,
And it’s – Here we go! Here we go!
For the women of the working class.

Women of Brenkley colliery marching with their banner

HAWAY THE LASSES

On the front cover of the book is a photo of women from the Brenkley Miners’ Support Group holding up their homemade banner, brandished with the words ‘HAWAY THE LASSES’ – a slogan that came to symbolise the miners’ wives’ movement in the North East.

Brenkley Miners’ Support Group banner, 1984
ASHMM:1994.17.1

The banner is made of bright yellow cloth with a simple yet impactful design of appliqued black fabric letters, and on the front, an image of a mining lamp. It was marched at local and national events by Sheila Graham (who donated it to the Museum) and other members of the Brenkley Support Group, as a sign of solidarity with the strike: events such as the women’s rally that took place in May 1984 in Barnsley, attended by more than 5,000 women from coalfields across the country, from Scotland to Kent.

A photograph of the Brenkley miners’ wives making the banner is illustrated in We Are Women, We Are Strong. The young women hold up a collection of mining badges for the camera, which were produced in their hundreds during the strikes, as well as a board with photographs and newspaper clippings documenting their achievements.

Brenkley wives and daughters making their banner

Ann Lilburn and Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC)

All women involved in the strike are to be celebrated for the part they played. However, one Northumberland woman’s story is particularly worthy of retelling. Ann Lilburn (1939–2007), a miner’s wife and mother of two striking miners from Whittle colliery, was an active member of her local support group who went on to become chair of the national organisation, Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC).

Ann Lilburn at Whittle colliery

Ann attended the women’s rally in Barnsley in May, two months after the strike began, followed by a conference in June, which brought together women from across the country. ‘We learned from each other and compared tactics for future campaigns,’ wrote Ann, in We Are Women, We Are Strong.

‘Previously non-political, reserved women emerged as gifted creators, and spoke at meetings in order to raise money to continue the task ahead of them.’

This statement is exemplified by Ann herself, who until the strike had never spoken at a village hall, let alone a major public event. Within a few months, she was speaking regularly to vast crowds and inspiring women across the country to get active and take up the fight.

In her role as chair of WAPC, Ann continued to speak on behalf of working-class women well beyond the end of the strike in 1985, even internationally at events such as the Women of the World conference in Athens.

Ann Lilburn speaking at a rally as Chair of Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC)

‘We are one’

Another, unnamed woman from Ashington, writing in We Are Women, We Are Strong, explained how life was forever changed by her involvement in the miners’ support groups, as it was for so many women up and down the country: ‘at one time I wouldn’t dream of doing or saying half the things that I do now. I’ve got the confidence now to go out and just do whatever I’m thinking of.’

In addition to new-found self-confidence, the strike brought women together. As Gwen Newton notes in her opening statement to the book: ‘We met as strangers but in the end we are more like sisters, we are one.’

Soup kitchen at Bates colliery

As a result of this new autonomy, women became more political in their outlook, increasingly questioning gender hierarchies that had characterised mining families for generations.

A copy of We Are Women, We Are Strong is on display at Woodhorn Museum as part of the permanent exhibition, Coal Town, alongside other objects related to the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. The Brenkley Miners’ Support Group banner will be on display at Woodhorn Museum from July 2024.

 

All photographs from Gwen Newton, ed. We Are Women, We Are Strong: The Stories of Northumberland Miners’ Wives 1984-85, Northumberland: The People Themselves, 1985. While individual photos are not credited, the photographers are listed on the acknowledgements page as: Stan Gamester, Hans P. Jacobson, David Thomas, George Swift, Mike Blenkinsop, Geoffrey Willey, Bill Gale, Peter Moran, Bill ‘Disher’ Harris, and anonymous photographers from the pits.
If you know more about these photographs and the people in them, or the people involved in making these objects, we would love to hear from you collections@museumsnorthumberland.org.uk