Gary Conley at Sutton Manor
A choice between head and heart
By Paul Coslett
Memories of how the 1984 miners strike tugged at men’s consciences and stretched friendships to breaking point.
Twenty five years on from the 1984 miners strike the dispute still resonates for many ex miners and their families in St Helens.
The town was home to three pits in 1984 - Bold, Sutton Manor and Parkside, a fourth Cronton closed just before the strike began, though many of the workers transferred to the remaining three collierys.
Gary Conley worked at Sutton Manor and recalls the colliery’s close knit atmosphere, "This is what I would call a family pit," he says.
"Sons followed fathers, daughters followed mothers and it kept that progression going and it kept that family atmosphere which we had at the pit.
"It was the sort of place where you’d be fighting with someone one minute and throwing your arms around them the next, just like you would do in any family.
"It was a very family orientated colliery.
A memorial to an ex miner
"I started in 1974 as an apprentice mechanic of the mine, which is a posh word for a fitter.
"I served my apprenticeship underground on the coal face and I then progressed through and ended up just before the colliery closed as Training Manager.
"Very, very extreme hard dire conditions, hotter than the flames of hell in some sections and cold as the Antartic in others.
"You could start your day off wearing a donkey jacket, a series of jumpers and vest, and you’d end up on the coal face in a pair of shorts with just a pair of boots and a helmet, that was the extremities of the heat.
"That’s just the heat, you’d be walking up hills of 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 with just rubble underneath you, rock or railway lines.
"Some places you’d get to and you’d have to bend double just to get underneath them and progress.
"So very stark and harsh working conditions.
"A fantastic cause"
Lancashire miners were split over the strike and in St Helens although the majority of miners originally joined the dispute as the strike wore on many drifted back to work, Gary says he felt split loyalties mainly because of the lack of a national strike ballot, "It was very contentious originally because the hierarchy of the union decided to not hold a ballot.
"The unions wanted everybody out on strike but it was left really to the own individual persons conscience and feelings.
"The cause was a fantastic cause – pit closures.
"Pits were being closed without going in to review which was something that had never happened before.
"It was left up to you whether you wanted to follow the union and go out on strike, I chose initially to go out on strike.
For striking miners the length of the strike meant that conditions for them and their families became incredibly tough, Gary remembers that he had to rely on family and friends for assistance, "My personal situation was that my family had to help me out with money.
"I had two very small children, five and three years old, so I had to stay home with them, my wife who wasn’t working then had to look for jobs, so we had a bit of role reversal at home.
"We had to defer the mortgage payments, the local council provided food parcels which was really helpful at the time, even down to the local paper shop, George Shaw, who’s just passed away, he gave me my papers for free and that’s a gesture I’ll never forget.
"So it was hard times but you also came across some wonderful people."
As the strike continued through 1984 Gary became more disillusioned and eventually took the decision to return to work, “I did nine months of strike and never agreed from the outset about not having a ballot so my heart said one thing and my head said another," he explains.
"In the end I decided enough was enough and I’d follow my head.
"It wasn’t nice going back and I had to endure some verbal abuse and people stopping talking to me, friends I’d known for years and years wouldn’t speak to me.
"That’s what I decided to do and that’s what I did, I followed my head instead of my heart.”
Gary Conley recalls the 1984 strike.
Although returning to work during the strike was a contentious decision Gary says that the family atmosphere at Sutton Manor meant that it was ultimately accepted by his colleagues, "When we all came back we where very lucky at this colliery because it was a family colliery and as you know in families people have the most horrendous arguments with each other and next thing they’re kissing and making up.
"For the first couple of weeks it wasn’t pleasant but then once we got in to the nature of mining again the past was forgotten about.
"It made me realise that mining wasn’t going to be my life.
"I thought it was going to be my life up until the strike but what happened is through not having a ballot I personally think it split the union and it did a lot of harm to the trade union movement and to mining in general.
"Mining is unique and we all know that once you take a nugget of coal from a mine then you’ve condemned it to its death.
"All collieries have got to close at some point.
"Sutton Manor closed in 1991 with 40 years of coal left in it and I think if perhaps the cause had been better executed this colliery might still have been open."
Gary and fellow ex-miners are planning to commemorate St Helen’s mining heritage with a large public sculpture, "This is going to be the new icon of St Helens," says Gary.
The £1.3 million landmark is being created by artist Jaume Plensa and will be placed on the top of a former spoil heap.
"It is going to be called The Dream and will take the form of a nine year old child with its eyes closed dreaming of the future," Gary explains.
"It will be 65 feet tall and hopefully it will be illuminated and will be visible for hundreds of miles.
"As an ex-miner to have such an iconic sculpture by a world renowned artist is for me a wonderful experience because the site hasn’t died.
"Although the coal has gone and we’ll never get another piece of coal from this colliery with this structure its future will live on."
last updated: 23/02/2009 at 13:12