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How the Miners’ Strike Remade Rugby League

The miners' strike saw rugby league players go from picket lines to games while clubs fundraised to feed their communities — changing both the sport and the coalfield communities forever.

Featherstone Rovers vs Oldham RLFC in the 1984-84 season.

It was the Summer of 1983 and the Featherstone Rovers loose-forward Keith Bell was preparing for his testimonial season.

Back then, rugby league was a part-time game, and a ten-year celebration was the ultimate accolade for loyalty and commitment to the hardest of sports. In an age where players worked around shifts and received £50 to £100 winning and losing bonuses, a fundraiser could set a player up for retirement. And in a tight-knit rugby league community like Featherstone, fans were always eager to dig deep for their heroes.

Coal was, alongside rugby league, central to life in Featherstone, with the railway track in the middle of the town symbolically separating the ground and the colliery. The Featherstone team remained rooted in the coal industry. It was often remarked how players — in the days before showers — would head straight to the training ground covered in coal dust after finishing a shift.

The fortunes of the team were intrinsically linked to the fortunes of the coal industry. During the 1926 General Strike, the club responded to hardship by allowing striking miners into the ground for free. By the 1970s, as the miners enjoyed the best pay and working conditions for a generation, it was little surprise that Featherstone Rovers enjoyed a period of success.

In 1983, Featherstone shocked the world by defeating Hull at Wembley in one of the all-time great cup shocks. When the club had returned home on an open-top bus, almost everyone in the pit village turned out on the streets to cheer them home. The players took the trophy to the colliery and posed for a photograph in full mining gear. But just as Keith Bell was putting together his testimonial plans, the miners in the town started an overtime ban. And rugby league would never be the same again.

The Confrontation

Just weeks after their Wembley success, Margaret Thatcher won the general election with her second consecutive landslide. Throughout the campaign, there had been little discussion about what would happen to the coal industry. In 1981, Thatcher had attempted to instigate a round of pit closures but had been forced to retreat in fear that it would sink her premiership before it had even begun. Instead, there was just one sentence on the subject included in the manifesto: ‘In the next Parliament, the interests of the whole country require Britain’s massive coal industry, on which we depend for the overwhelming bulk of our electricity generation, to return to economic viability.’

By 1984, the miners had developed a unique position within the Labour movement. Buoyed by successful strikes in the 1970s, which brought down the Heath government, they had developed an increasingly political outlook on their work. Their trade union, the NUM, saw themselves as opponents of the government, acting on behalf of other, weaker unions.

The NUM outlined their position in the publication entitled Miners and the Battle for Britain, placing themselves at the forefront of resistance to Conservative economic policies. They argued that ‘the country’s miners are in the frontline trenches’ in ‘a unique position to observe the effects of good Government and bad Government’. The miners believe they could resist their plans to run down the coal industry because ‘history — and especially recent history — is on our side on this’.

A note prepared for Mrs Thatcher by her press secretary Bernard Ingham in February 1981 warned her that any plans to take them on would be a tough battle. He argued that she had taken a ‘relaxed approach’ towards pit closures. As a journalist in the 50s he had covered rugby league in Halifax and was often seen by Mrs Thatcher as someone who understood the motivations of the ‘working man’.

Ingham’s note concluded that the miners were indeed unique compared to other public sector workers, who would accept redundancy. The miners ‘are more resistant’ due to them being ‘the most cohesive industrial force in Britain who are prepared to defend the basis of their livelihood — i.e. pits’. Ingham wrote that miners were not ‘as corruptible as the next man’.

After winning the election in 1983, the government began to prepare for a strike by stockpiling coal across the country. At the same time, the miners had elected a new leader, the Yorkshireman Arthur Scargill, who made no secret of his eagerness for a confrontation too. Scargill was adamant that the National Coal Board (NCB) would begin closing down the coal industry pit by pit over the course of the 1980s. And while the NCB focussed in on the ones that were said to be ‘uneconomic’, he urged the miners to fight to keep each one open.

Scargill’s problem was that earlier attempts to bring miners on board with his strategy for national strike action had failed. He had tried to ballot his members to vote for a national strike, but they voted ‘no’ three times. Then, in March 1984, the NCB announced plans for a new wave of pit closures, and the confrontation that Thatcher and Scargill had been waiting for was a reality. But instead of calling a national ballot, each region was encouraged to strike individually. The Featherstone miners, alongside those in Castleford and Wakefield, immediately came out in support. Others, in Nottinghamshire, did not.

Hardship and Hostility

Keith Bell was unusual amongst the Featherstone Rovers side because he didn’t work down the mines but as a maintenance fitter at the local glassworks. He hosted one of his testimonial events at the club just before the strike began. He had put on a darts night with John Lowe, who had become world champion in 1979. The club was packed, and Bell’s event did well. But as he sat and looked around the room, he understood that it was one last hurrah before people ran out of money.

For the Featherstone Rovers players, the off-season of 1984 was spent picketing and mobilising support for the dispute. Many believed that Thatcher would quickly U-turn and give in to Scargill’s demands. But Bell thought differently. One afternoon he stood on the hill outside his workplace and all he could see was mountains of coal. He thought to himself that this strike would be a lot different than before. As the strike began to hit the local economy, he felt ashamed about asking people for money when he was at work and others were in dispute. His brothers and his team-mates were doing everything they could to survive in Thatcher’s Britain. He was lucky because he had work. But there would be no testimonial windfall to set him up for retirement.

Fundraising for the testimonial was replaced by fundraisers to feed the community. Local traders were ‘forced out of business’ because of a massive slump in takings. The Castleford Chamber of Trade president said, ‘The effect of the miners’ strike on takings is forcing businesses to cut staff or even sell up.’ One of the first things the striking miners started doing was to stop getting haircuts, which hit local salons in the area.

In order to police the strike, southern police officers had moved into mining towns, and their presence caused much friction. Keith Bell continued to work in the power stations throughout the year and would have his car stopped and searched every day to ensure that he was not a flying picket. He had been issued with a document to show that he had the right to travel and the right to work, which he had to show the officers each day.

The attempt to demythologise the striking miners, to turn them into the ‘enemy within’ was central to the reporting of the strike in the newspapers each day. On picket lines, miners would burn copies of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun to keep warm as the coverage of the strike grew ever more hostile. Their reporters descended on rugby league towns from London to generate news stories each day. In January 1985, a journalist for The Sun managed to go undercover in St Helens as a flying picket after befriending an elderly widow, and revealed the ‘secrets’ behind the life of the striking miners. The report, it was argued in the St Helens Reporter, was a complete fabrication.

And the suspicion of ‘flying pickets’ — groups of striking workers that move from one workplace to another to persuade them to not work — was high. When the Featherstone Miners’ Welfare amateur rugby team were on their annual training session in Bridlington, locals believed that they were flying pickets. When they had been confronted, the police reported that a crowd of 49 people had been engaged in a half-hour street battle. ‘The rugby coach was given a police escort while some players spent a night in the cells,’ according to a report in the Pontefract and Castleford Express.

To some people, it felt like Featherstone had been turned into a ‘police state’. Bell and his colleagues would try to get their own back the only way they could. If it rained, they would make the police officers stand and wait outside their car while they tried to find the relevant documents that allowed them to go and do their jobs.

End of an Era

Hope and Glory: Rugby League in Thatcher’s Britain.

Naturally, rugby league was less of a priority in areas such as Featherstone. Attendances reduced as money dried up. In the past, the mines had linked up with clubs to ensure that ticket membership was removed from monthly wages. But without the pay packets, the club found that people no longer had the tickets or the means to attend.

To tempt back the striking miners, the club launched a ‘watch-now-pay-later’ plan in case the dispute continued through the winter. They developed a bottle-bank scheme where fans could return glass bottles, with funds coming back into the club. To raise ‘much-needed cash’, the club appealed for supporters to bring in old newspapers, catalogues and telephone directories for a waste-paper collection.

As the strike continued, the players understood that feeding their families was dependent on whether they could win games and receive bonuses. One youngster who felt the force of the strikers’ desire to win was the current France Rugby Union defence coach, Shaun Edwards. As a seventeen-year-old, he arrived at Post Office Road with a much fancied Wigan side, expectant of victory. But Featherstone pulled off a shock victory, leaving Edwards walking off the pitch battered and bruised. Later, he reflected that it was one of the hardest games he ever played, such was their commitment.

But in reality, the strike proved to be a major turning point for rugby league. The main pit in Featherstone, Ackton Colliery, never opened its doors again. The community was broken up and people took on new jobs as labourers and taxi drivers. The local historian Ian Clayton watched on as a succession of building societies and well-established businesses were boarded up and broken into. Crime, which had never been a factor in the town’s day-to-day life, increased. ‘For the first time to my knowledge, I’ve known Featherstone folk pinching off one another,’ Clayton wrote.

Over the course of the 1980s, clubs like Wigan, Leeds, St Helens and Widnes embraced the emerging commercial opportunities. Players such as Shaun Edwards, Ellery Hanley and Martin Offiah would reap the rewards of the financial boom that the professional age brought.

Clubs would no longer look to the mines for players but instead develop a very different type of athlete. Players such as Jason Robinson and Andy Farrell emerged in the 1990s and would go on to influence both rugby league and rugby union.  At the same time, clubs like Featherstone would be left behind, longing for a return to the glory days before the strike began.