I realise I’ve seen it before. The large rectangle of grass, flanked by allotments and a row of terraced houses, with garlands of washing hanging under a coal-ash sky. It was in the film ‘Billy Elliot’, the scene where the police begin their occupation of Easington Colliery during the strike in 1984; the green turns to black as horrified residents look on.
I’m here with Heather Wood, Easington born and bred. Just before the Easington miners walked out, Heather, then Chair of the Constituency Labour Party, foresaw that the women would need to pull together if the striking men were to have any chance of lasting the course. Along with the newly-formed group ‘Save Easington Area Mines’, she and her mother, long-time activist Myrtle MacPherson, rallied the pitmen’s wives – the inhabitants of what she calls ‘The World Above’ the pit. The women organised meals, food parcels and Christmas presents for the wageless families throughout the duration of the strike.
Thirty-four years on, and Heather still has her appetite for the fight.
I tell her: “I am here looking for stories. I’ve heard that you might have some good ones.”
“Oh, I’ve got plenty stories,” she replies.
“Which ones do you want to tell?”
Behind her specs, bright, green eyes ignite. “The ones about the women.”
Further down the road is another row of flat-fronted terraces. Like sentries, they mark the route down the hill to the site of the old pit. Heather points to one of the houses.
“That’s where Nana lived. Number 27, Ashton Street. Her name was Gertrude, but she got Gerty. See that window? She sold stuff from it. She could sell anything, from a pin to a motor car.” 2
Back then, colliery women didn’t go out to work. Their domain was the household, managing the children, the food, the books. Hard, unpaid graft. A working wife cast a shadow on her husband’s masculinity. It meant he wasn’t providing for his family. Patriarchal dictums didn’t trouble Gerty, however. From the shop at her window she could earn extra money without leaving the house, while her husband Jack went to work down the mine.
“It’s her hands I remember; her great big hands, stirring pig’s blood in a huge, enamel bowl on the kitchen table.” Heather holds her own hands up in the air, fingers splayed. “She used them bare, like two sieves, pulling out the sinew. Asbestos hands. She’d make black pudding with the blood.”
During the Second World War pigs were rationed like everything else, and slaughtering them was strictly forbidden. But Gerty had a vibrant business going, selling pork to local housewives. She kept her ‘pig money’ rolled up tight in a tin on the mantelpiece. The local bobby knew about it of course – he would turn a blind eye in exchange for a fat leg of pork.
Gerty kept the pig’s body slung on a hook at the top of the stairs, covered in lily-white t-towels while it cured. Her sons, Fred and George, would pinch slices off it when she wasn’t looking and cook them up when she was out. She’d cuff them round the ear if she caught them at it.
“She died forty years ago bless her, and I still remember her great big hands.”
We drive down Ashton Street towards the cliffs, past the old Colliery pay office, where Heather queued as a girl to collect her dad’s wage packet. It is now home to the famous Colliery band and is the last remaining evidence of the landscape of the pit. As her business ventures became more successful, Gerty bought a lock-up near the pit baths and opened a second shop. She would send her sons down onto the beach, and into the Dene, to sell sweets and cigarettes to the holiday makers from trays around their necks. She made ‘clippy mats’ to sell – first as bed covers, then as mats for the floor. One day she told Heather’s mother, ‘Myrtle! Take that coat off – I need the colour for my mat!’ Myrtle knew better than not to hand it over. 3
Running perpendicular to the cliffs is Seaside Lane. It is the Colliery’s main shopping street, and was once its beating heart. We come to the site of the old school. Windows of the once imposing building have long since been smashed, each one bearing a jagged grimace. Heather looks through the railings into the yard in which she used to play. Weeds sprout in thick clumps through cracks in the stone and edge up the brick walls. At one time over a thousand children passed under the stone lintels marked ‘Boys’, ‘Girls’ and ‘Infants.’ The building has been left to rot, but can’t be pulled down because it’s listed.
“Makes me cry when I see it now.”
Heather recalls the time she walked out of school because she didn’t get a part in the play; another because she was made to eat spotted dick. “If I felt an injustice was being done, I’d walk out.” She turns to me and smiles wryly. “I’ve always been outspoken.”
Further up the road, on the opposite side to the old school building, is the Central Club. Gerty used to socialise here with her friend, Mrs Elliott, and Heather’s great aunts Violet and May. They would arrive and Gerty would give ‘the look’ to anyone who had made the mistake of sitting in their seats – the hapless punter soon shifted. One night, Gerty noticed a woman on the opposite side of the Club lip-reading their conversation. She stopped what she was saying and looked directly at the snoop. “Lip-read this,” she said. “Your name is still in my ticky book from years ago, you still owe me money!”
When Jack died in 1946, Gerty was left with eight children. Her brother, Geordie, was a miner like Jack, and he moved in so they wouldn’t lose the house. Her shops became her main source of income. She was entrepreneurial; she had the business, the pigs, she made things out of textiles, metal and wood. She ran her allotment, growing her own food and selling it where she could. In her big coal oven, she baked Christmas cakes. No-one was allowed to speak or move as they cooked, as Gerty said the slightest vibration would make them drop.
Once, on a family holiday at Butlin’s in Filey, Heather recalls sitting with some strangers having breakfast. She started cutting the thick edge of rind off a rasher of bacon, when Gerty leaned over the table. “What you doing? Pass your plate over, I’ll eat that!” 4
Heather was so embarrassed in front of the strangers that she shoved the fat in her mouth and ate it herself.
“Nowt was wasted with Gerty,” she says, laughing. “I’m a vegetarian now, mind…”
On the outskirts of the town, where gently nodding wheat fields roll out to meet the sea, is Raby Avenue. There is no vehicular access to the front door, just a footpath between rows of gardens. I imagine it, back in the day, being watched over by two huge, black, pit-head eyes.
Heather’s paternal grandmother was Sarah MacPherson. Her husband, Hector, was killed in Shotton pit. His dinner was in the oven, and Sarah had just set the table, when there was a knock at the door. It was the thing all miners’ wives feared; a visit from the pit manager with his cap in his hand.
A fall of coal underground had broken Hector’s spine, there was nothing anyone – none of his marras or the pit pony – could have done to save him. Came out of nowhere, as these thing tended to do. He was 27.
His marras had hoisted his body, bloodied and black, into a wheelbarrow, and pushed him out along the side of the pit rail track and back home. Sarah cleared the table she had just laid so they could lay him out and prepare the body for the funeral.
Miners’ lives were cheap. She was left with little money, and the compensation she received went on the funeral and a huge granite headstone for his grave. It was October, 1928, and Heather’s dad, Gordon, was just four months old. Sarah had nothing, so she took Gordon and went to live with the MacPhersons in Easington Village.
Four years later, she married Mathew Teasdale and they moved here, to 33, Raby Avenue. She took in washing to supplement Mat’s miner’s wage. She scrimped and saved, and eventually opened Easington’s first launderette. Little Gordon had to go round the houses before school collecting laundry on the horse and cart. 5
Sarah was fiercely protective of Gordon, never wanting him to follow Hector or Mat into the pits. He went of course, eventually, after she died, but generations of men from the same family were known to have been lost. Sarah didn’t want any more of hers going the same way. One day, when Gordon was eleven years old, German bombers flew over Easington, all the way down Seaside Lane. He and Sarah were returning from the shops when she saw the planes gaining overhead. She whipped the lid off the nearest dustbin and pushed Gordon inside.
“Dad used to laugh,” Heather recalls.” ‘As if a dustbin could protect me from German bombs!’
Sarah died in 1950, aged 45, of complications from diabetes and pneumonia, a few months before Myrtle and Gordon were married. Gordon never got over her death.
As is often the case with life’s warriors, I had expected the physical persona to have been equal to the reputation – prodigious. When I finally meet Myrtle MacPherson, I am struck by how small she is. She is sitting in a corner of Shadforth Village Hall in County Durham, watching a film crew as they interview members of the women’s group to which she belongs. In her hand, a huge cream scone. She has a large, thick scrapbook on the table next to her with Myrtle Macpherson scrawled across the front cover.
“Come and sit down, pet,” she says, patting the chair next to her. “Do you want some scone?”
Myrtle was one of Gerty’s eight children – four boys, four girls. At fourteen she had to go to Armathwaite Hall in Cumbria – at the time, a private girls’ school – to work in service. The pay was good, and all her friends and cousins went along too, in the staunch belief that the sober virtues of hard work were the only way to a better world. She would get up at 5am every day to see to the fires. One morning, one of the girls approached her. “Are you the maid?”
Young Myrtle took the girl’s hand and gently pinched the skin. ‘There see, we are the same,” she told her. “You came in the same way as me, and you’ll leave the same way too. I might work here, but I’m nobody’s maid.’ 6
She opens the scrapbook in front of her and we flick through the photographs: A much younger Myrtle in a turban and overall, standing outside the pit canteen where she worked when she met Gordon. In El Cobre, taking aid to the Cuban miners in 1993. Outside Downing Street holding banners: Vigil for Coal! As Easington Parish Councillor, opening the new Parish Hall. Switzerland, 1966, when she toured Europe with Gordon and the kids. “At that time, not many working class families went abroad. Imagine – from Bassenthwaite Lake to Lake Lucerne!”
As far back as Heather can remember Myrtle would take her out canvassing. They walked the streets, hand in hand, chanting, ‘Vote, vote, vote for Manny Shinwell!’ Political and social engagement was part of life, and what Heather refers to as her ‘social training’. She recalls watching her mother rehearsing a play about the suffragettes:
“They were singing ‘We Are Soldiers in Petticoats!” I was ten years old, and told them, ‘Louder! It needs more oomph!”
It wasn’t the last time Myrtle would take to the stage. In 1985, she travelled with other Colliery women to London and Germany performing a play entitled ‘Not By Bread Alone’ about the North East mining community. The original funders of the play said London audiences wouldn’t understand it. They wouldn’t believe a miner’s dead body would be laid out in the living room to be prepared for the funeral. The women went anyway, paying their own way, buying their own costumes and props. It was a sell-out every night.
We come to photos and newspaper cuttings from the ’84 strike, and of the free café the women set up to sustain the community during its darkest days. By then, Myrtle had retired from mass catering, but she taught the volunteers how to cook for large numbers on a limited budget.
“We served up hundreds of meals a day, five days a week, for a year, for miners and their families.”
At first, the women who helped run the free café weren’t interested in politics. By the end, they were speaking at rallies, appearing on televised political debates, writing their experiences down in short stories and performing them in plays. It galvanised the women, showed them what they were capable of. Such was the liberation in discovering 7
what their collective voices could achieve that many of them described it as the best year of their life.
For Heather, “It was good, bad, happy, sad.”
One night, a man rang her and told her he wanted to kill himself because he couldn’t pay his bills. Another came begging for a food parcel because he couldn’t feed his family. Heather’s eyes fill with tears. “I hated the pit, we all did. But I love the community that was brought about by it.”
Myrtle smooths the pages of the scrapbook and looks at me. “The strike made us all realise what the real values in life are. I wouldn’t move from Easington, even if I won the Lottery.”
Watching her grandmother, then her mother – their resilience, the way they negotiated the politics of class – made Heather who she is today. From a young age, she was taught that if something was wrong for one, it was wrong for them all. But what of the men in the family? Did the women always have their support?
Heather smiles. “There was only one time I can remember any opposition – when I led a protest against the beauty contest Miss Crimdon Dene. My dad told me I’d gone too far…”
Myrtle’s mantra has always been ‘The cause is bigger than you.’
“You’ve just got to get on, and keep fighting.”
Gertrude Welsh (nee Price): 1895 – 1973
Sarah MacPherson (nee Dixon): 1904 – 1950
Myrtle MacPherson (nee Welsh): 1928 –
Heather Wood (nee MacPherson): 1951 –