Forty Years After: What’s In A Name? By Granville Williams
Gas works have twice had a powerful impact on me. The first was a school visit in 1954 to the gas works at the east end of Eastbourne, Sussex (the site is now a Tesco supermarket). It was a summer’s day but the experience of being enclosed inside the dark, cavernous coking plant is still fixed in my mind, as are the words of the Gas Board official who, as we toured the other facilities, extolled the scientific wonders of the distillation process which apart from the coke produced a multitude of by-products - coal tar, ammonia, dyes and much more. Back then coal (or town) gas and its varied by-products sustained large sections of industrial activity, lit our streets, warmed our rooms and heated our food. Our society was still, as Orwell observed in his 1937 essay, ‘Down The Mine’, founded on coal.
Eighteen years later the extent to which the British economy was dependent on coal was put to the test when the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike at midnight on 8 January 1972. By then the decade-long project to convert UK homes to North Sea gas, begun in 1967, was well underway and the dominance of coal as an energy source was displaced by the massive expansion of oil imports. The Heath government and the media certainly thought the NUM was in for a hiding, with The Times predicting ‘only marginal disruption to industry and commerce as a whole’. The Daily Mail was also clear: ‘It will hurt them more than it hurts us...Few believe that the miners will stay out long enough to inconvenience the public’.
What happened is now history. Although the vote for a strike was 58.8% - just over the 55% required under the new rules agreed at the annual NUM conference in Aberdeen on 6 July 1971 - all of the 280,000 miners in 289 mines came out in solid support. Instead of passively picketing outside their pits, the miners fanned out over the country to target anywhere coal was distributed or consumed. Power stations, ports and coal depots were blockaded. As Arthur Scargill pointed out, the clear intention was ‘to attack the vulnerable points. They were the points of energy: the power stations, the coke depots, the coal depots, the points of supply.’ The tactic of flying pickets developed by the Yorkshire miners in the unofficial strikes of 1969 and 1970 now transferred onto the national arena. These actions, supported by students, other trades unionists and the general public, were extremely effective. Coal stocks were sharply reduced. After relatively mild weather a cold spell at the end of January revealed the impact the miners were having as they steadily cut off the supply of coal and coke across the country. The Central Electricity Generating Board reduced voltage right across the national grid and three power stations shut down completely. It was clear that the coal-fired economy was beginning to crumble.
And so it came about that, for a second time, events around another gas works played a formative role in my life. Forty years after Saltley Gate these are my eyewitness recollections of the events leading up to the stunning experience of industrial solidarity which occurred there.
In August 1971 I left Exeter to go to Birmingham to work as an industrial organiser for the International Socialists (IS), forerunner to what is now the Socialist Workers Party. My brief was to build the IS industrial membership in Birmingham. I was persuaded to go by Tony Cliff, a key figure in IS who saw me at the time as one of his protégés, and argued that the high level of strikes and strong trade union organisation made it a key city for us to build the organisation in. After the relatively low levels of trade union membership and pockets of industry in the South West it was a steep learning curve to get to grips with the scale, density and diversity of the sprawling industrial panorama of Birmingham and the Black Country.
There was some good work being done by Birmingham IS members - notably a Birmingham Polytechnic lecturer Terry Mandrell who, with Dave Hughes and other IS student members from Birmingham University, sold Socialist Worker outside the sprawling British Leyland Longbridge plant (older workers still called it ‘the Austin’) and produced regular well-informed factory bulletins arguing against the management’s plans to replace piece-work payments with measured day work. There were also a couple of Lucas shop stewards in IS – Vic Collard and Larry Connolly. But we were marginal in terms of our industrial membership and influence compared with the Communist Party. However we had some really good, keen young teachers (Hester Blewitt, Colin Falconer, Margaret George and Mary Pearson) and students who sold Socialist Worker outside North Birmingham factories like Pressed Steel Fisher and SU Carburetters, which had a militant, predominantly female, workforce. We also had a presence in the GKN factories Salisbury Transmissions and Hardy Spicer.
In the first week the 1972 miners’ strike I looked at the map for the nearest pits, and drove up to Rugeley in Staffordshire with a young unemployed IS member, John Brown. We made contact with miners from Lee Hall Colliery who were picketing the Rugeley ‘A’ and ‘B’ power stations,* Two of the younger miners were interested in what we had to say and got involved, coming down to speak at meetings we organised in the Birmingham and the Black country in support of the strike.
The West Midlands Gas Board coke depot between Saltley and Nechells in Birmingham escaped the attention of the Midlands NUM for the first two weeks of the strike. The day before the stoppage, on an inside page of the Birmingham Sunday Mercury among other strike-related stories, there was a report of a Gas Board official confirming that there were coke stocks of at least 100,000 tons at the Board’s Windsor Street depot in Saltley. ‘We would be willing to sell the coke to coal merchants, subject to loading facilities being available,’ he said.
This seemed to breach the guidelines agreed between the government and the NUM to supply only priority customers such as hospitals and the vulnerable, but the Gas Board argued that these did not apply because, unlike other coke depots such as the Coalite plant at Grimethorpe, this one belonged to another industry not involved in the strike. The result was that by the beginning of February several hundred lorries from all over England and Wales were queuing from early morning outside the depot, and on 3 February the Birmingham Evening Mail ran a feature on the queues accompanied by photos of the lines of lorries. The Midlands NUM Secretary, Jack Lally, had tried and failed to negotiate with the Gas Board for over a fortnight. On Friday 4 February he despatched pickets to the coke depot but their efforts to stop lorries was limited. More pickets came to Birmingham in response to calls from the NUM national office, including Arthur Scargill, who on Saturday night drove down to Birmingham and met Frank Watters, the Communist Party organiser at the Star Club, the Communist Party HQ on Essex Street in the city centre.
All sorts of elements within Birmingham’s trade union structures came together to ensure the final victory at Saltley. I want to mention Alan Law, the full-time official of the TGWU road haulage branch 5/35. I remember branch meetings, when important issues came up, taking place not in some poky room in a pub but in a cinema in Newtown, Birmingham. Alan Law had a reputation in the media reminiscent of the former USA leader of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa, because strike action by his members could swiftly disrupt the West Midlands’ economy and beyond. At Saltley members of his branch played a key role, as Frank Watters writes in his memoirs, Being Frank: ‘Alongside organising a round-the-clock rota of pickets, the 5/35 branch of the T&G, with its full time officer, Alan Law, was concerned about the welfare of the hundreds of miners we now had to provide accommodation for. They arranged for 200 beds to be found by their own members. Another gesture, as I have said, was to send a lorry-load of steak and kidney pies. Such an abundance of good food not only brought a lift to morale on the picket line, but I will never forget seeing strike-breaking lorries driving into the coke depot with steak and kidney pies dripping from the drivers' faces’. As TGWU lorry drivers heeded pickets and turned away, non-union firms were used with the drivers paid £50-£60 per day plus a £50 bonus for every load.
From Monday 7 February each day saw an escalation with more miners and supporters on the picket line but also more police with clear instructions to keep the gates open and let the lorries through. Decisive and broader solidarity action was needed.
Andy Beckett’s informative chapter, ‘Close The Gates’ in When The Lights Went Out, covers these momentous events in Birmingham. Beckett keeps referring to Roger Harper. He really means Arthur Harper, convenor of Tractors and Transmissions, a British Leyland plant on Drews Lane in North East Birmingham, which had the distinction in the early seventies of being amongst the highest paid and best organised plants in the sprawling British Leyland group run at the time by Lord Stokes. Arthur was also President of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) Birmingham East District Committee.
I first met Arthur Harper when I was selling Socialist Worker with another IS member, a college lecturer, Chris George, outside one of the entrances to the T&T plant in autumn 1971. He used to walk into the factory with a group of other shop stewards, and my first impression as they walked towards me was that they acted like his bodyguards. He was a small, stocky, barrel-chested, strongly built man who wore a tight-fitting suit, walked with a confident strut and spoke with a strong Black Country accent which, he later told me, was deliberately thickened as a negotiating ploy with management. He also proudly wore his paratrooper wings in his jacket lapel outside work. Inside he wore his blue overalls. His face had all the trade-marks of a pugilist.
I got to know him much better later when we had an IS factory branch in the plant and he joined the International Socialists. It was a factory branch built through the efforts of a young, talented Birmingham engineer, Mick Pedley, and his then wife, Linda, who also worked at T&T and was in the white collar union APEX. Arthur Harper, as the Ryder Plan on the future of British Leyland was being discussed in the mid-70s, also helped establish British Leyland Worker, a paper which had the authentic feel of the factory floor about it.
But back in February 1972 Arthur Harper played a crucial role in the mobilisation of Birmingham engineering workers in support of the beleaguered miners, which culminated in the police closing the gates to the Nechells coke depot on Thursday10 February 1972. By a coincidence of timing, a regular meeting of the AUEW East District Committee on Tuesday 8 February was a key wheel in the cog which drove forward solidarity action. Arthur Harper as Chair ruled that Arthur Scargill be allowed to speak, and he made a 40-minute passionate appeal and won the committee’s support. The next day an emergency district shop stewards’ quarterly was called and 200 stewards endorsed an appeal by Harper to lead demonstrations to Saltley. Two other key unions, the TGWU and National Union of Vehicle Builders, took similar decisions to support solidarity action.
I was at Saltley pretty much continuously from Monday 7 through Thursday 10 February but after all the arrests, ebbs and flows in terms of the battle between pickets, scab lorry drivers and the police, what happened that Thursday morning was out of this world, an experience that you cannot erase. As thousands of engineering workers marched over the hill behind their union banners the Chief Constable of Birmingham, Sir Derrick Capper, bowed to the inevitable and at sometime between 10.42 and 10.45 – accounts vary, and to be honest clock-watching was the furthest thing on my mind at that time - ordered the gates closed.
It was Frank Watters, I think, who described Saltley as ‘the icing on the cake’ of the 1972 miners’ strike. By then the Heath government knew that the game was over and the miners were on their way to winning a great strike which erased the memories of 1926. Saltley was also a defining moment for me. At best, the role the International Socialists played was to ‘oil the wheels’ in terms of our members actively supporting solidarity action but we were not decisive players in the events leading up to Saltley. The lesson for me was that we had to build a solid membership rooted within the factories and trade union movement in Birmingham if we were ever to be a credible socialist organisation. I think by 1975 we were on our way to doing that, but what happened next is another story...
On a trivial personal note, I have only one regret about those momentous days at Saltley. For my eighteenth birthday my mother used her ‘divi’ to go to the Cooperative department store (long since demolished) at the bottom of the Moor in Sheffield and bought me a stylish, light- coloured Crombie coat. I loved it. On Wednesday 9 February amidst the swirling pickets and police I was suddenly pulled from behind as a policeman grabbed hold of my coat. He managed to neatly rip my coat down the seams at the back as I fell to the ground. Foolishly I didn’t think about getting it stitched together again. It went in a bin and I went to a charity shop and purchased a brown suede jacket which didn’t keep me warm selling Socialist Worker for the rest of that winter on those early-morning stints, and certainly wasn’t as stylish, but it was all I could afford.
Arthur Scargill before Saltley had begun to establish a regional reputation as an articulate, militant Yorkshire miner during the unofficial strikes of 1969 and 1970. He was thirty-four when Saltley dramatically projected him on to the national arena both in the trade union movement and the media.
And finally, what is in a name?
Bill Shreeve was a Communist Party member and a gas engineer who worked in the Nechells Gas Works and relayed information to the miners’ strike committee and Frank Watters about how much coke was in the depot. In an interview, now in the Birmingham Oral History archives, he said:
‘I maintain….. it was not Saltley Gate where the confrontation took place. That gate was the entrance to Nechells Gas Works. It wasn’t and couldn’t have been Saltley Gate. The old Saltley works had been amalgamated with the Nechells works and the two works were described as Nechells West. So one could say, quite correctly, that Saltley Gate had gone out of existence yet the press, and the media kept insisting on calling it Saltley Gate, and that’s gone down in the history books, which is a sore point with me.’
*Lee Hall Colliery closed in October 1990; Rugeley ‘A’ power station was demolished in 1995; Rugeley ‘B’, still coal-fired with upgrades to meet environmental legislation, continues to generate electricity.
Granville Williams is the editor of Shafted: The Media, The Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath, published on the 25th anniversary of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. He is on the National Council of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and an activist in the National Union of Journalists.
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