Finger Peg & Flying Pickets
Rewind to 1984. I’ll have to tread very carefully here. Many people reading this will have been directly involved or affected by the Miners’ Strike. Many will live in communities that have seen rapid change since that fateful time. If deep wounds still exist, I don’t wish to reopen them; that’s not what this is about. Besides, despite living on the doorstep of the biggest, bitterest industrial dispute in living memory, my dad’s job was at the steelworks and so our family was not directly affected. Although it was close to us all, I’ll try to provide the background without bias and tell the tale through the eyes of a 13 year old boy.
If you drive along the A1 until relatively recently you could have seen two pit-heads around the Maltby turn-off, one either side of the motorway, split by the road and some fields but seemingly just a few short miles apart. Maltby Main was the South Yorkshire Coalfield’s jewel, the area’s superpit, remaining open until 2013. Across the way was Harworth Colliery in the village of Bircotes, inches over the Nottinghamshire border and the last pit to close in the Bassetlaw district in 2006.
Harworth Colliery had a proud history and in 1932 the Flying Scotsman burned Harworth coal on its record-breaking journey between London and Edinburgh. Harworth teams also had a proud history in Crown Green Bowls, dominating the Doncaster Leagues for decades, producing Yorkshire county players and even winning the prestigious Yorkshire Cup on four occasions in the 1940s.
There had been a political fault line in mining trade unionism since the 1920s, running precisely along those fields the Harworth side of the A1, the boundary between the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields. In Yorkshire and beyond the militant Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (the forerunner of Scargill’s NUM) prevailed. Across the border, in Nottinghamshire, in the 1920s and 1930s 80% of miners had joined the moderate union of George Spencer instead, which was anti-strike and anti anything to do with the MFGB. Harworth, slap bang on the boundary, had been a powder keg, a focal point of dispute between militant and moderate trade unionism in the past. In 1936 Harworth members of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain had waged a bitter six month strike in order to see their union recognised alongside the Spencerists, suffering great hardship in the process.
Whereas Harworth Colliery remained in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield, its sports teams looked towards Doncaster across the fields in South Yorkshire. Harworth promised a bit of a bowling resurgence in the early 1980s, nurturing youth talent from the village and able to field a team made entirely of young lads, Harworth Juniors, in the local Maltby Bowls League. These young tykes (if not quite Tykes!) from a tough pit village caused quite a stir as they came up through the local leagues with ease. You can imagine the dread in village clubs across the district as the Harworth Juniors minibus pulled into the car park, driven by coach and mentor, Tom Needham, letting out eight or ten boisterous teenagers to run, stamp and shout the locals ragged. Despite causing a stir and possessing lots of talent, sadly not many of the lads carried on playing the game. The strike and its aftermath probably played a part.
So back to that fateful year,1984. In March the National Union of Mineworkers had begun a strike that would last almost a year to the day. My team, Maltby Progressive WMC, although not a miners’ club, numbered at least four or five striking miners in our first team, alongside a couple of steelworkers, a schoolboy (me), a couple of Maggie’s millions (unemployed) and a local bobby. Harworth Colliery’s side was made up mostly of men who were still spending their time underground, continuing to work having refused to join the NUM’s strike.
The Doncaster Hospital Cup was the association’s premier cup competition, pitting together teams from all divisions. The semi-final threw up a tasty draw, with Maltby taking on neighbours Harworth at the neutral Denaby Miners Welfare club between Doncaster and Rotherham in the heart of the Yorkshire Coalfield. With Maltby a division above Harworth and likely to have too much in our canon on the difficult Denaby hump, it was expected that we would progress.
Friday evening arrived. There was trepidation in the air, more than a touch of adrenaline. Not only was this a cup semi-final, for some of my teammates, who were not earning and struggling to provide for their families, this was much more than a game of bowls. But as dad drove our rickety old car up the drive of Denaby & Cadeby Miners Welfare Club we couldn’t have guessed what would happen next. Hurtling down the drive in the opposite direction was the Harworth team minibus. The driver wound down his window as the two vehicles crossed, with the message “We’re not staying!” What on earth was happening?
When we drove up into the car park it became clear. The local Denaby lads, who were all on strike, were not going to let this game take place on their turf. They had told the Harworth team they were expecting the imminent arrival of 200 pickets. It’s not surprising that they were beating a hasty retreat. To my knowledge this is the only game of bowls ever to be called off by a trade union picket! The only bowls team picketed out of a game!
This chapter ends with something that still hurts personally to this day. The match was eventually tactically rearranged to take place in a residential village without a coal mine, a benign setting between the two pit towns involved. There was a uniformed police officer in attendance to keep the peace, possibly another first at a local game of bowls. The evening arrived. One of our players had put Coal Not Dole stickers on his bowls. The depth of feeling had, if anything, intensified. We were still expected to win. We actually still expected someone to try to picket the game off again by blocking the narrow road up to the Tickhill green, but no such luck.
In this eight man team game we had five winners, which should have been enough for Maltby to progress, had it not been for one bad card. My hapless 5-21 defeat cost us the game. At the age of 13, realising the magnitude of the match for my pals, who just needed a boost, a small victory to help them through the toughest moments of their lives, I climbed into the car and cried all the way home. Those were the only tears I’ve ever shed over a game of bowls. There are numerous much more important things in life. But to my friends, at that time at least, this was more than a game of bowls. Sorry lads.