In 1984, the south Wales miners joined a national strike, in support of the National Union of Mineworkers’ fight against pit closures.
Nobody anticipated that the strike would last twelve long months and many of the south Wales miners called for a ballot. The vote never materialised and a small minority of Welsh miners eventually decided to return to work, being branded 'scabs'.
To this day, scabs are black listed, with their former work mates refusing to speak to them. In communities that are warm and friendly, a scab will never be forgotten and remembered only as a traitor.
As a young freelance newspaper photographer, I photographed the men and their families endure this struggle to save their pits, and indeed their communities.
I have fond memories of the time and was always made welcome by the striking miners and their families. They were facing a struggle which was monumental and one that I had read about regarding their predecessors. It was like delving back in time, as the miners fort for their existence and I recorded the battles on the picket line, the care at the soup kitchens and the dedication and support to the miners’ cause, far away from the south Wales coalfield.
I remember being punched in the face by a young policeman, on duty at one of the picket lines. He, like many, was drafted in to south Wales from the London Metropolitan police force. I retaliated, punching him back. He fell to the ground and I ran, being chased by six of his colleagues. They had truncheons drawn, shouting 'get him'. I ran about half a mile and dived into a bush. I lay silent as they ran past; they were closely followed by some pickets, who could see that the police would beat me up; they would not allow that to happen!
The police used to blockade the roads leading to the pits, to stop flying pickets. I used to walk over the mountain during the early hours of the morning to reach some of the picket lines! In dark wet and cold conditions, my hands were num as I reached the picket line. Pressing the shutter release on my camera became an arduous task.
The Celynen South colliery, near the town of Newbridge in Gwent, initially witnessed a small proportion of men returning to work. It was a pit prior to the strike that I photographed extensively. A lot of the miners became my friends, as I documented them at work. I remember them saying to me on numerous occasions that the mine would close. But growing up in the nearby village of Crosskeys, I always remembered the pit being there and thought it would always be there.
As well as photographing picket lines, I documented numerous demonstrations, rallies, soup kitchens and food parcel deliveries.
At the Newbridge Memorial Hall, a soup kitchen was set up for the striking miners of the Celynen South and Celynen North collieries. Miners’ wives worked tirelessly to feed their husbands and sons. NUM lodge meetings were held a mile up the road in Crumlin. The main food distribution centre for Gwent miners was in Abertillery.
The most poignant moment in my career, was witnessing the Maerdy miners march back to work, as the strike came to an unsuccessful conclusion. On a cold March morning in 1985, the miners and their families gathered to march from the village of Maerdy to the pit. They held banners high, whilst the brass band played. The press photographers and media scurried around, trying to get the best pictures. But I was tearful, as I recorded a moment in industrial history I shall never forget.
Maerdy colliery closed in 1990. It was the last pit in the Rhondda valley. The long tradition of coal mining had come to an end. The pit was demolished and to this day, the land lies dormant. Much needed employment was lost at the top of the Rhondda Fach valley and miner’s sons would never follow their fathers and their grandfathers mining coal in the rich Rhondda seems.
In my opinion, the miners won. They held their heads up high and left a legacy to fight in what they believed in. It was an honour to meet all the miners and their families and a privilege to photograph them.
All photographs on this website are strictly copyright ROGER TILEY