Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/594/8180
The Dirty Thirty - Heroes of the Miners' Strike
by David Bell
Reviewed by Tony Church
The term 'Dirty Thirty' has lived on long after the miners' strike ended in 1985. It was the name given to a small band of Leicestershire NUM members, who joined the year long strike in spite of their right wing branch leaders telling miners in the four pits in the county to work normally.
At the time, I was a CPSA (forerunner of the PCS union) branch secretary and I remember being in awe of these brave men, who were prepared to make enormous sacrifices to stand up for what they believed in.
Their fight against the Tory government was proved ultimately right. The defeat of the national NUM action, caused in no small part by the leaders of other unions failing to organise supportive strike action by their own members, as well as the 'scabbing' activities orchestrated by the right wing in the Leicestershire NUM, led directly to Thatcher's vengeful destruction of the British mining industry. It also severely dented workers' confidence in the ability of trade unions to fight for their interests, a legacy which is still felt by significant numbers to this day.
Twenty five years on and David Bell has made good use of the testimony of a number of the Thirty in his book.
Bell explains why, against all the odds, they joined the strike and recalls the hardships that they had to endure.
It is more of a diary than a political tract. I was a little disappointed by this, especially since Bell quotes one of the main leaders of the Thirty, Malcolm Pinnegar (known as 'Benny' - he always wore a woolly hat like the TV Crossroads character), as saying that: "My talks were always very political. The strike was always a political thing to me..."
Bell accepts that he has only mentioned within the book a few of the names of the many supporters of the Thirty throughout the world. But it is a pity that he fails to mention the contribution made by Militant members (forerunner of the Socialist Party).
Early in the book, Bell writes that a number of the Thirty came out on strike after the Leicestershire pits were picketed by first the Kent NUM and then miners from South Wales. The first group of these Welsh strikers were from Tower Colliery and were under the leadership of Militant members and their supporters.
They had made contact with other Militant members in Leicestershire, who put them up locally and also helped organise the picket that saw Benny, his co-leader Mick Richmond (Richo) and a number of others stick with the dispute for the duration.
Some initially thought that they were the only person who had come out on strike and Bell tells the experience of Johnny Gamble, who was actually the sole striker at the South Leicester Colliery.
Crucial, therefore, was the solidarity that the Thirty were able to build early on, when a number of them attended a meeting in Coalville in support of the national NUM action. This was organised by the Labour Party Young Socialists under the leadership of Militant.
The meeting provided them with a realisation that although they were small in number, Leicestershire had some men who were on strike.
Together with many others in the movement, Militant members gave practical support to the Dirty Thirty. We helped organise tours to other areas, attended pickets, raised money and in my own case gave advice about social security benefits that the men or their families could claim. We were an integral part of the network that was crucial both physically and mentally to maintaining the strikers and their magnificent support group of wives, partners and other family members who tirelessly campaigned with them.
Bell's book is proof of the struggle and sacrifice of this small group who have subsequently passed into folklore, not just in working class history in Britain but also internationally. He dryly comments that even the official history of the Leicestershire NUM records: "Through their level of activity which was out of all proportion to their numbers, the Dirty Thirty came to have considerable symbolic significance".
A work like this is long overdue and although it is easy to say that it misses this or that out, it captures the events and the spirit of a time that is still very much alive in my own memory. This includes the magnificent support that the Thirty were given by the NUR (now RMT) and Aslef members at the Coalville Mantle Lane depot, many of whom refused to let coal trains move during the dispute.
Bell's text might lack a solid political perspective, but I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the history of Thatcher's Britain and its legacy, so warmly embraced by the suits of New Labour.
- Bell, David (2009), The Dirty Thirty: Heroes of the Miners' Strike, Nottingham: Five Leaves (£7.99)
In The Socialist 23 September 2009:
War and occupation
Postal workers strike
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reviews