On 15 October 1992, Brenda Nixon, a mother-of-two from Doncaster, appeared on the front page of a tabloid newspaper for the first time. Weeks earlier, she had begun drafting a letter to John Major about the dejected state of mining communities across Britain. When it was announced that a further 31 of the nation’s pits would be closed in just two years, she gave the letter to her husband Dave, an NUM branch secretary, to post. When he got to work that day, he opened up the letter and read it, before proceeding to photocopy and pin it up on the wall of the office. It read:
‘I hope you can sleep well at night and don’t toss and turn thinking of the 30,000 miners and their families you have slaughtered… I hope you never fall far enough to feel the hopelessness your people do.’
What unfolded over the next twelve months would be the final battle in the miners’ fight for jobs. Brenda had helped out with food collection and distribution around the local area during the strike – but with a new-born baby and young daughter at home, her involvement within the women’s support group was limited. Now, as her children were older and the campaign to slow pit closures gathered momentum, she was determined to take direct action.
Unlike Brenda, Agnes Currie was a seasoned veteran. She had been the delegate for Doncaster Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) in 1984-5, and was already well-known across the country for her down-to-earth speeches, tireless fundraising efforts and colourful language on the picket.
When Brenda contacted the WAPC looking for a partner to organise with, she was told that Aggie was the woman for the job. After her husband Pete returned to work at Markham Main pit in 1985, however, Aggie was confident that her days as an activist were over.
‘I didn’t want to be involved,’ she says. ‘Because, you see, being involved in the miners’ strike, and then it ends – you’ve got nothing. Nobody bothered with you. I thought, I can’t go through that again.’
Fortunately, Brenda was incredibly persistent. ‘She kept ringing the house up!’ says Aggie.
‘She’d got my number from the WAPC headquarters at Barnsley. She must have rung about ten times, until one day I was in to answer it. She invited me to Grimethorpe, I think it was, and that was it. I was hooked again.’
Building the Movement
The two women hit it off straight away. ‘We were the gruesome twosome from there on in really,’ laughs Brenda. ‘Everything Aggie got up to in ’84, she pretty much had me doing as well in ’92 and ’93!’
This meeting, and others like it, would soon give way to the second act of the WAPC movement. The women who had mobilised support for their local communities eight years earlier picked up the mantle once again: this time, though, they led the charge, with the support of their husbands and male relatives.
Inspired in part by the women’s occupation at Greenham Common, January 1993 saw Brenda, Aggie, and dozens of other women set up camp at the gates of seven of the most threatened pits across the country: Markham Main in Doncaster; Houghton Main and Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire; Rufford in Nottinghamshire; Vane Tempest in County Durham; and Parkside Colliery in St. Helens.
Over the months that followed, the pit camps flourished. In some cases, vital supplies were even provided by the local authority, with both Barnsley and Doncaster Councils donating portacabins and caravans for use by the women at Houghton Main, Markham Main, and Grimethorpe. Supporters from all over the country flocked to the sites, offering donations and gestures of goodwill.
Brenda remembers the hustle and bustle of the camp clearly. ‘People would come from all over,’ she says. ‘They would come from London, anywhere – there would be coaches of people who came to show support, or donate money or anything that we needed.’
She also remembers the kindness of the local community, and how the campers were cheered on from the sidelines by people from Armthorpe and beyond.
‘Everybody pitched in. Like the local fish shop, whatever they had left at the end of their day, they would bring it over and distribute that throughout people at the camp. We even had a phone connected into the portacabin – British Telecom came and fitted us a phone, as daft as you like – a portacabin, sat there at the pit gates with a phone line!’
While the miners’ wives remained at the heart of the pit camps, these occupations would soon grow to include members from across the community. Children were welcome at the camps, whilst activists and trade unionists who were sympathetic to the miner’s cause would also pitch in.
Keeping the Flame Alight
Flicking through the Markham Main guest-books (preserved for the last two decades by Aggie Currie), it’s easy to catch a glimpse of the warm, family atmosphere that persisted on the campsites. ‘Thanks a million. Without the women we’d be nothing!’ writes one visitor, while 12-year-old Thomas adds: ‘Good luck, hope the people keep their houses.’
But perhaps the most enduring symbol of this protest was the brazier. Lit and kept burning from the first day of the occupation to the last, it was a common feature across all pit camps. In Sheffield WAPC’s commemorative book You Can’t Kill the Spirit, Caroline, one of the residents of the Houghton Main pit camp, explains the significance of the brazier:
‘The brazier was symbolic, providing a flame of resistance, resilience and hope that kept going 24/7 for that full period of time. It was where people sat around and talked and kept warm in the winter months – it kept our spirits up.’
Eventually, though, the flames would dampen. After months spent camped in front of the mines, one by one, the camps disbanded. Speaking about it over 26 years later, there is still a note of dejection in Brenda Nixon’s voice.
‘They started just closing the pits anyway,’ she says. ‘During the time we were at Markham Main, they were moving out materials – they were effectively closing it down from within. There was machinery being brought out, and things were being dismantled, so it was all happening, regardless.
‘We knew we weren’t going to be doing any good anymore. It was just unwinnable again. That’s when we called it a day. That campaign was around twelve months, all in all, but it was an intense twelve months.’
Fortunately, the women who led this protest are determined that this chapter of radical history, although obscure, is never truly forgotten. In the aptly-named research project Changing the Record, Heritage Doncaster are shining a light on the Markham Main camp and the WAPC movement that preceded it by creating and archiving material for future generations. Other campers have also kept the camps alive by publishing books, hosting exhibitions and, above all, retelling their stories.