'The main legacy of the dispute is ill: Jonathan Foster reports on an adult education centre that salvaged hope out of the despair of the NUM's defeat

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The Independent Online
HAD THEY heeded Howard Wadsworth in 1984, the Yorkshire miners would not have marched out on strike spontaneously. But had history not endorsed his caution, Mr Wadsworth's men would be out on strike in 1994.

He was the Kellingley colliery NUM official who took a resolution to the area council meeting in Barnsley assembled after the Cortonwood colliery closure announcement lit the fuse. There should be no strike before a ballot, Kellingley said. They were ignored and Kellingley was drawn loyally into a near civil war.

And five Kellingley miners' wives were mobilised into actions which, for the mining communities around Castleford today, salvaged hope from the despair of defeat.

Ten years on, there is one pit working, four shut, and a flourishing adult education centre, Castleford Women's Centre, at which the strikers' wives have enrolled more than 2,000 students. Millinery and Faberge egg-making classes may be meagre compensation for deep-mined coal. But there, and in the computer courses - the pathways to graduate studies - the strike's spirit of resistance is still feisty.

Mr Wadsworth represents only 600 men now, a quarter of the 1984 workforce. In 1994, Kellingley men produce coal at 75 per cent of the market price, and they are in fear of their jobs.

Half the miners had already gone back to work when the strike ended. Comparatively generous redundancy terms were seized on by strike stalwarts, dispirited after their huge financial and emotional investment in the strike. As pits closed, the union's national and area structure became weaker and simultaneously irrelevant. But the NUM office at Kellingley is still busy. For Kellingley miners, the branch is the union.

The younger men are ambiguous. They want a future, they want a decent job, and what else is there around Pontefract and Castleford? There is nothing to deplore in the actions of their fathers. They would have done the same. But there is no choice now - a right to strike, but no freedom to exercise it. 'We could go on strike,' one man said. 'Management would . . . sack us and shut the pit. But the issue is a right one. If it was a case of right and wrong, we'd be out now.'

The issue concerns the night shift. They have been working overtime four nights out of five. Managers want a fifth, and want it on their terms. The union refused, so management has decided to close the pit shop next week.

It is a small building in a corner of the large pit yard. It sells to any colliery employee an extraordinary range of goods, from car spares to Thermos flasks. The NUM runs it and, each year, the profits send about 700 pensioners and widows for a free four-day holiday in Blackpool. British Coal said it had to close because of the union's 'semi-overtime ban . . . their lack of co-operation'.

The men agree they should not be drawn by provocative management decisions. 'In '84, we'd have been out by now . . . but men have to think more carefully now, and the laws have changed. It saddens me. I've never known management to be so vindictive,' Dave Fradgley, a veteran of 1984, said.

Dot Whitworth agrees. A co-founder of the women's centre whose husband still works at Kellingley, she regrets nothing about 1984-85.

'I wouldn't do anything different, but everybody realised as soon as the strike began that it was all to do with the Tories getting revenge for the miners' defeating the Government in 1974.' After the strike, they knew the pits were closing. 'We wanted to do something practical for the community that had supported us,' Barbara Smith, ex-striker's wife, undergraduate and centre co-founder, said.

It began as a fund-raising stall on the market and a pounds 10,000 council grant. In nine years, the centre has become a role- model for EC policy on adult education. It now runs an external degree, and has sent a stream of students to Northern College for residential academic courses.

The women have moved on from the fight for coal, although Dot Whitworth still wears her enamel NUM badges proudly. 'They haven't treated the men at Kellingley as human beings,' she said. 'They have become so spiteful that they would close the shop, take it out on pensioners.'

Mr Wadsworth agreed: 'It might seem a little thing, a pit shop, but it is important to our community. We've been hammered by management. Nothing changes, it's constant trouble. The main legacy of the strike is ill will.'

And the voices of good men unheeded.

(Photograph omitted)