50 Years Since the Battle of Saltley Gate

50 years ago this week, tens of thousands of workers turned out to picket the Nechells gas works in Birmingham, turning the tide of the 1972 strike and securing victory for the miners.

The Battle of Saltley Gate was a turning point in the 1972 miners' strike. (Credit: Getty Images)

At half-past five on Saturday 5 February 1972, Peter Clarney, a striking miner living in Barnsley, heard a knock at his door. He answered and was told to get a bag ready for six PM. When he asked where they were going, the response was vague: ‘I don’t know. But you’ll know where you are when you get there.’

Throughout January 1972, Britain’s news media predicted that the miners’ wage dispute would cause little more than a ‘marginal disruption’ to fuel production and consumption. The Daily Mirror’s Woodrow Wyatt famously stated that ‘Rarely have strikers advanced to the barricades with less hope of success.’

Both statements would be disproved by the second week of February. After collieries across the nation had been forced to close, strikers turned to strategic picketing of depots, dockyards, and power stations to prevent the transportation of fuel.

With its considerable stockpile of coke, Nechells Gas Works (which, contrary to popular belief, was only adjacent to Saltley) began to see dozens of lorries passing through its gates by January of 1972. This made it an ideal target, as Peter recalls in his written account of the strike.

‘We arrived at the Star Club on Essex Street in Birmingham at approximately nine PM [on Saturday 5 February],’ he writes. ‘The Conservative press was bragging that this was the only depot left in the country that had upwards of 100,000 tons of stock, some of which had been there for over ten years.

‘It had been arranged that everyone had to meet at the Gas Works at eight AM the next morning.’

Placing themselves strategically on a small patch of land between three roads, the main goal of the picketers was to prevent the movement of lorries—or ‘wagons’—in and out of Nechells.

A map of the Nechells Gas Works hand-drawn by Peter Clarney, a miner present at the Battle.

‘There were quite a few pickets there when we arrived and a large contingent of police. Wagons from all over the country began to arrive and the pickets converged onto the wagons… Branch officials spoke to the drivers and some turned around—only thirty got through with aid from the police.’

Picketing at Nechells had begun two days before Peter and his workmates had arrived, and was growing rapidly by the day. His notes detail the increasingly hands-on involvement of police from Birmingham and nearby Wolverhampton.

‘The next day, more pickets had arrived from Staffordshire, Yorkshire, and the South Wales Coalfield, but the police had more reinforcements and outnumbered us.

‘Throughout the day, numerous scuffles between police and pickets took place as they did their best to get the wagons into the plant. The police had plain clothes officers among the pickets who would pick individuals out—then uniformed snatch squads would go in for that individual, pull them out and give them a warning not to return or they would be lifted.

‘The gates closed at four PM that day and it was reported there were two arrests.’

After five days, increasing displays of solidarity indicated that the tide was beginning to turn.

‘Tuesday 8 March 1972: West Midlands TGWU [Transport and General Workers Union] sent 600 hot pies, plus other branches of the TGWU sent boxes of apples and cigarettes to be shared out,’ Peter writes. ‘That afternoon we were joined by building workers from McAlpine and for the next three hours regardless of colour or creed, it was becoming a common fight for the working class.’

Pickets were also joined by TGWU drivers from Thorn Electricals, who would later be sacked for their involvement in the strike. Peter and his workmates were informed that the drivers were later reinstated, or else ‘all Birmingham would have been at a standstill’.

The battle, although drawing to a close, was not without casualties. On Wednesday 9 February, it was reported that a lorry drove ‘straight through the picket lines as the picket surged forward, resulting in a police inspector being run over and two pickets injured, all requiring hospital attention.’ The incident took place less than a week after the death of Doncaster miner Fred Matthews, who had been killed by a speeding lorry on a picket at Keadby Power Station near Scunthorpe.

Nethertheless, union official Arthur Scargill would address 800 shop stewards from various unions that evening, calling for every member to join the picket at Saltley the following day.

‘It was a make or break day I think,’ writes Peter. ‘At nine AM, a cheer went up—we went to see what was happening. Coming down the road were factory workers, their banners and placards flying. This is the most satisfying sight any trade unionist could wish to see, and a sight I will always remember.

‘Marching down to Saltley works, from three directions—it is estimated that there were 15,000 at Saltley that day.’

Fifty years on, the Battle of Saltley Gate remains a powerful testament to trade unionism and working class solidarity. The seven-day occupation saw miners were joined by thousands of workers, both male and female, from a huge range of industries—McAlpine, Wimpy, S.U. Carbaretters, Thorn Electrical and Radiators, and many more.

In the words of Arthur Scargill, who himself witnessed the closure of the gates at Netchells:

To the eternal credit of the workers in Birmingham, they joined the miners on 10 February 1972.

These workers were not merely supporting a struggle on their own behalf: they were supporting their brothers and sisters in a struggle, not against an employer, but against the state.

On that day, everything I believed in, as a trade unionist and as a socialist, crystallised.