In March 1985, the miners of Maerdy marched back to work, defeated but defiant. They hoisted high their banners and around them the watchful, emotional crowd sang out: ‘Hungry Miners, Hungry Miners / We’ll Support You Ever More’. Both groups marched together out of the village and through the colliery gates a short distance away. It was a moment captured by journalists, photographers, and a film crew from The Dragon Has Got Two Tongues hastily preparing an epilogue for a programme that had so well captured the zeitgeist and the sense of history blanketing the coalfield. That coal, the miners, and that strike of 1984-5 still resonate despite almost all physical trace having disappeared shows precisely the poignancy and power of that moment, and others like it nearly thirty years ago.
Ben Curtis’s welcome new history, which charts the fortunes of the South Wales miners from 1964 to 1985, bears some of the scars of this legacy. It is, as a result, a very new book endowed with an old, wizened spirit capable of chatting over a pint or two with its forebears as well as its contemporaries. For any historian that takes the South Wales miners as their theme is immediately confronted with the classic studies by Robin Page Arnot, Ness Edwards, Chris Williams, the legion of Llafur contributors, and, of course, the mighty, fiery-red (-covered) The Fed (London, 1980) by Hywel Francis and Dai Smith. Curtis compliments and, to a large extent, vindicates this inherited historiographical legacy, engaging early on with the critics and their revisionism. The book shares, perhaps, more in common with Page Arnot and Edwards, though, with its self-consciously old-fashioned ‘union history’ framework (p. 13) rather than the ‘union in its society’ model so effectively employed in The Fed, even if the latter’s influence is certainly apparent.
Based on doctoral research undertaken at the University of Glamorgan, The South Wales Miners, 1964-1985 rests on the records of the National Union of Mineworkers (South Wales Area) and a fine set of freshly conducted oral history interviews giving voice to rank-and-file and officials alike. This foundation is accompanied by a somewhat more selective reading of the historiography, combining to produce six chapters that, at their best, expose the weaknesses of received wisdom. The pertinent reminder in chapter two that the pit closure programme which began under the Conservatives in the 1950s did not go away under Labour in the 1960s, is amongst the most notable revelations. We are treated, at last, in chapters three, four and five, to an effective, academic narrative of the strikes of the 1970s and the breakdown of union-government relations that followed, somewhat more detached than those of earlier researchers, and those are to be particularly welcomed. Perhaps because so much ink was and has since been spilled over the 1984-5 strike, some by the present reviewer, chapter six feels somewhat less novel; although it is valuably underpinned by oral history giving voice to yet more of those involved.
Facets of the book, however, merit some close consideration as they expose certain weaknesses, not least the poverty of a union-centred mode of analysis. The decision not to conclude with a full treatment of the years after 1985 (leading up, of course, to the final closure of Tower Colliery in 2008) is a curious one since it leaves the endgame, the true dereliction of Penallta, Lady Windsor, Maerdy, and the like, disconnected from the broader period of decline. The book is less comprehensive as a result. This is not to suggest that Curtis ignores the latter stages of the coal industry’s decay, for the epilogue-conclusion certainly touches on them, but what the book provides is too slight to give a full sense of the retreat and the social degradation that ensued. Had it done so, this would have provided an ideal counterpart to Keith Gildart’s history of the North Wales miners (published in 2001) which does, indeed, go to ‘the end’ of the story. More importantly, it would have shown clearly the gaping hole in South Walian society left by the demise of the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the absence of anything meaningful to replace it.
Equally unfortunate is the lack of anything more than fleeting engagement with cultural and social activities. The South Wales Miners’ Gala and the Eisteddfod, both aspects of post-war union activity, were important expressions of community and wider internationalist sentiment. These events prompted a renewal of the Fed’s ‘union in its society’ activism with many of the surviving lodge banners dating from the mid-1950s, put together to be taken to Cardiff or Porthcawl each summer. Consequently, the fiftieth anniversary of the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout in 1976, celebrated, as Curtis notes, by one of the largest miners’ galas of all (p. 130), might have prompted some discussion of historical memory. Families with multi-generational links to the pits were clearly aware of the decline of the industry and the emergence of organisations such as Llafur in the early 1970s had begun to provide a fuller sense of the region’s industrial past. By the time of the 1984-5 strike, that history was apparent as never before. The Fed, for instance, was read and distributed widely, extra-mural classes laid the ground for popular knowledge of and engagement with stay down strikes and other protests, and television documentaries such as Wales! Wales? beamed stories into houses week after week. It was not possible to escape the legacy of an earlier age, as oral testimony, television reports, and diaries illustrate very clearly. Yet the organisational framework of this book leaves much of this off its pages.
Inevitably this detracts from the overall success of the book, ensuring that it will not stand, as it might have done, as the definitive study of the South Wales Miners from the time of Harold Wilson to that of Margaret Thatcher. But it is, nevertheless, an admirable book which fills a clear gap in the historiography of modern Wales, providing firm foundations for the continuing excavation of the nation’s recent past. For that reason it deserves to be read, and read widely, as well as carefully quarried by historians. The decision of the press to buck current trends of exorbitance in academic publication and to issue an affordable paperback is therefore a sensible one. The past, after all, should never be locked away from the people who made it.
[Note: This review was originally published in the Welsh History Review.]