Monday blog at the Eisteddfod
What's the miners' strike got to do with the National Trust?
If like me you spent a lot of time in pubs in North Wales in 1984, you’ll remember that it was common to be asked for donations for the striking coal miners and their families. North Walians don’t have to look far into their ancestry to find quarrymen and miners, so most of us gave what we could. But the strike didn’t really mean much to me until, after a weekend in Cardiff, I drove through the Rondda valley and happened upon an unforgettable scene: a group of women queuing in the freezing mist for their breakfasts at a working men’s club.
This morning at our Eisteddfod stand I met the working-class hero who was probably responsible for that soup kitchen – and eight other centres, supporting over a thousand miners and their families throughout the South Wales coalfields. The politician, women’s rights campaigner and community activist, Siân James was in conversation with an authority on industry and protest, Dr Tomos Owen of Cardiff University. The audience was visibly spell-bound by Siân’s irrepressible passion as she described vividly the world that she had been bought up in: close-knit communities where the pit touched on every element of family life. As she embarked on the life of wife and mother in her teens, around her society was in turmoil. Battle lines were being drawn for an almighty showdown between a government set to destroy everything they believed in, and the militant Arthur Scargill who as the newly-appointed union leader was going to lead the miners to victory.
“What on earth has all this talk of industrial action got to do with the National Trust in Wales”, I hear you ask. Well, as it happens, quite a lot. Coal, the black gold that made Wales the powerhouse of the world, was the wealth behind Tredegar House and Dyffryn Gardens, and the exploitation of mineral wealth (and the workers who mined and quarried it) made the fortunes that created Penrhyn Castle and the growth of the gentry estates that we now manage for public benefit.
Sian’s heart-felt homily brought it home to us the role that women played in the miners’ strike. They were in the front line of the picket lines, (their husbands could be sacked if seen causing trouble), and they did most of the fundraising and organising that supported the strike.
So, as we prepare for next year’s Challenging Histories programme at our properties, let’s salute the crucial role that women have played in the history of protest and changes to people’s rights in Wales.