It’s February 3rd, 1972, at the Keadby Power Station in Lincolnshire, England.
Outside the station, Freddie Matthews joins a group of miners picketing the building’s gates. Freddie is a coal miner from the nearby town of Doncaster, and, like the other unionized workers protesting today, Freddie is on strike.
Across the country, miners are unhappy with their pay and working conditions. But Britain’s Prime Minister, Ted Heath, has resisted their calls for change. So, the miners have had to turn to new acts of defiance to gain leverage and voice their discontent. Today, Freddie and his peers are here to block the delivery of coal to the power station.
Freddie stares at the local policemen guarding the power station’s gates. As he sizes them up, he hears the rumbling of a nearby vehicle. Freddie watches the police step aside as the gates swing open for a truck carrying coal.
As the vehicle approaches, Freddie and his fellow miners spark to life, shouting and berating the driver. Before the truck can make it to the open gates, a walled defense of angry miners surrounds the vehicle.
But its driver refuses to succumb to the picketers’ will. He’s a non-union member and has no interest in helping the miners, he just wants to deliver the coal. He revs the truck’s engine, threatening to step on the gas if the picketers don’t move.
As the police pull miners from the road, truck driver tries to roll forward. But the miners regroup, and again, obstruct his path. The truck jolts to a stop and the driver shouts in frustration, urging the workers to get out of the way. Then, he presses down on the accelerator.
The truck surges forward, protesters are forced to leap out of the way. Amid the frenzy, Freddie finds himself pushed down onto the sidewalk, and unable to get up. Around him, screams erupt as the truck driver forces his vehicle through the backtracking miners hitting Freddie in the process. Unaware of the collision, the driver continues forward as he makes it through the gates of the power station. But as those gates close, lying in the street is the lifeless body of Freddie Matthews.
Since the 1950s, the increase of imported oil forced the closure of many British coal mines. This caused ongoing pay disputes between the miners and the National Coal Board. The miners felt entitled to pay increases, given the dangers of the job, but the board was running losses.
On January 9th, 1972, the miners called an official strike and the production of coal grounded to a halt. By February 3rd, stockpiles dwindled and the UK faced severe power outages. But, it is the untimely death of Freddie Matthews that will prove the conflict’s real turning point, igniting an uproar against the government. Prime Minister Ted Heath will stand firm against the miners’ demands, but the mining community will rally, setting the stage for a showdown that will force Heath to address their grievances. After a month of picketing, the strike will finally come to an end when the miners secure victory over the British government on February 28th, 1972.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 28th, 1972: Britain’s Working Class Finds Victory in the 1972 UK Miners’ Strike.
Act One: Calling in the Cavalry
It’s February 3rd, 1972 in Worsbrough, South Yorkshire,
Just a few hours after the death of Freddie Matthews, Arthur Scargill walks back home, still reeling from the tragedy. Arthur is a little-known official of the National Union of Mine Workers who are currently in the midst of one of their largest-ever strikes. For five weeks, thousands of workers have gathered around the country to protest their poor pay and working conditions. But, a month in, their calls for change have gone unanswered.
Arthur has been a key leader in the strike action in Yorkshire. But his primary tactic of picketing has garnered little success. He has been transporting workers to fuel depots where they can barricade the exit and prevent fuel transportation. And at first, Arthur thought this would ensure effective strike action. But the government fought back with a heightened police presence that has tonight grown deadly. The strikes don't seem to be working and Prime Minister Ted Heath is still firmly opposed to the miners' demands.
Victory feels far from likely. The National Union of Mineworkers cannot afford to support the miners forever; eventually, they will all have to return to work. But, Arthur hasn't given up hope just yet. As he enters his home, the union leader receives news that could change the strike’s entire trajectory.
Before he can even place his coat on the hook, the phone rings. When Arthur answers, he is immediately given a stream of hurried information by a concerned voice. Arthur is told that the miners have begun to picket Saltley Gas Works in Birmingham. But the protesters have been overwhelmed by a vast police force and the station’s gates remain very much open. The caller says urgent assistance is required.
But immediately thoughts of the recently-deceased Freddie Matthews stream through Arthur's mind. He is stirred by a sudden blend of justice and anger. And he reasons that a showdown in Birmingham could be an unexpected chance to ensure Freddie’s death wasn’t in vain.
Birmingham is the UK’s second-largest city, and Saltley Gas Works holds one of the largest remaining stockpiles of coal in the country. With the frosty weather, people are in dire need of coal for heating and power. Closing the Birmingham stockpile would surely force the government’s hand and steer the union toward victory. But Arthur will have to act fast. So he hangs up the phone, walks back out into the frosty Yorkshire evening, and heads straight for Birmingham.
The next morning, Arthur and his band of Yorkshire miners arrive at Saltley Gas Works. As they approach the depot, Arthur surveys the scene in front of them. Things do not look promising. On the left-hand side of the road is a queue of coal trucks, stretching far beyond the foggy mist of Saltley Viaduct. To the right, a handful of delivery trucks make a clean exit from the gates, thanks to a tunnel of linked-armed policemen. The small pool of nearby miners shout and berate every truck driver that passes. But they can do little to stop them.
The officers clearly outnumber the picketers. And there’s no way the strikers could ever force a closure with their current numbers. The newspaper The Birmingham Mail predicts the queue of coal trucks to be a mile long, with more joining every day. The picketers, even with the addition of the Yorkshire miners, are overwhelmed.
Arthur knows the movement needs more people. So he plans to look for solidarity from outside the mining community. During the day, he stands vigil on a picket line but at night, Arthur begins to attend meetings at non-mining workplaces. He visits the East Birmingham Amalgamated Engineering Union committee. And there, he delivers a famous rally cry: join the miners at Saltley Gate and beat the government. Many in the engineering union anticipate Arthur to ask for financial support. But instead, he simply asks for their presence. Their strength, he believes, lies completely in numbers.
Arthur’s rallying cry will strike a chord with other heavily unionized industries and Birmingham's engineers and others will join those already picketing. The call will go out to workers from the city’s large car manufacturing plants and they soon joined the mass picket. The number of protesters at Saltley will begin to grow, turning the power plant into a pivotal site for working-class solidarity where the miners and their allies will have their final showdown.
Act Two: The ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’
It’s the morning of February 10th, 1972 in Birmingham, England, one week after Freddie Matthews’ death.
Near the gates of Saltley Gas Works, Arthur Scargill stands and looks out at the crowd before him. It’s the largest band of protesters he’s seen yet. Today, the number of workers far outweighs the police force present. Eight hundred officers are stationed at Saltley Gate. But the number of picketers seems somewhere in the tens of thousands.
The workers from Birmingham and beyond have answered Arthur’s call. Their desire to change the status quo is bound by a united sense of injustice, compounded by the lack of government action over the death of Freddie Matthews. To many, it feels like the government has no interest in, or care for the working class. So for the non-miners protesting today, this battle is about more than just pay disputes and working conditions, it is about the way of life, it is a class struggle.
For a moment, Arthur allows a wry smile to etch across his face as he inspects the scene before him. Auto workers, engineers, shop stewards, miners from across the country, men and women, side by side are all marching in unison. As Arthur looks out into the distance, the stream of picketers seems never-ending, stretching all the way to the horizon. This great display of solidarity is exactly what he hoped for. But, the miners’ battle is not yet won. The rise in numbers is just the first phase. Now, they must stand their ground.
Arthur readies to command the picket. He runs over and clambers onto the low, flat roof of a public toilet building outside the gas works. From there, he stands and begins to bellow instructions. And like a general directing his troops into battle, he orders the workers forward to the gates.
In response, the police deploys the same tactic they have used the entirety of the Saltley Gate protest. They stand side by side, arms over and underlapping, forming an intimidating line coined the ‘blue wall’. This tactic has kept past picketers at bay and allowed the trucks to keep rolling. But now, completely outnumbered, the officer's thin blue line looks fragile.
As the protesters march toward the gates, Arthur’s directive remains the same: forward, until they are face to face with the police officers. Impassioned and angered, the miners and their allies are unrelenting. The picketers' shouts and berating increase, and there is real worry within the police ranks that the tension could mount into violence.
Alarmed by the demonstration, Sir Derrick Capper, the chief constable of the Birmingham Police, arrives at the scene. As his driver opens the rear door, and Capper steps into the chilly Birmingham air, the miners direct their attention toward him. Aggressive boos and jeers follow the chief constable as he walks over and calls to Arthur.
The two men speak for a few moments. Then, chief constable Capper hands Arthur a megaphone. A hush falls over the picket as Arthur begins by greeting his comrades.
Then he details who the man he has just spoken with is. The boos louden once more as he says the constable’s name. But Arthur continues, speaking over the jeers. He explains that every one should let the chief constable pass because he is going to shut, and lock, the gates of Saltley Gas Works. Arthur tells the picketers that it’s time for them to disperse; because victory is theirs.
Sir Derrick Capper and the UK government’s decision to close the gates at Saltley Gas Works will become a watershed moment in the Miners Strike of 1972. The government will cite endangering public safety as the reason for the closure. But Arthur and the picketers will maintain that their stand in solidarity was the true cause.
Just over two weeks after the Battle of Saltley Gate, as this showdown will come to be known, the miners’ strike will come to an end on February 28th, 1972, and workers will return to work, successful in earning a wage increase. But the workers’ victory will not only be a turning point for the miners but for prime minister Ted Heath as well, initiating lasting political repercussions that will threaten his power and tarnish his reputation.
Act Three: A State of Emergency to a New State Entirely
It’s February 28th, 1974 in Worsborough, South Yorkshire, exactly two years after the UK Miners Strike of 1972 came to an end.
Arthur Scargill sits on the sofa inside his sitting room, watching TV. As news of the nation’s general election results begins to stream in, Arthur leans forward, staring intently at the screen and praying that Ted Heath’s time as Prime Minister is finally up.
After the Battle of Saltley Gate, the miners received a pay increase. But bad blood remained between prime minister Heath and the working class. The optics of the strike were bad for Heath and led to increasing distrust in his ability to govern, especially amid times of high unemployment and rising inflation.
But still, Heath continues to demonize the miners. Even two years after the strike, he sees them as too powerful - part of an aging industry with an unjust monopoly. This notion formed part of his election campaign which turned out to be a vastly unpopular decision.
Today, the public has voted in a general election to decide whether Heath will remain prime minister or if the Labour candidate, Harold Wilson, will replace him. A victory for Labour would vindicate the collective efforts of the working class over the last few years, toppling an entrenched Conservative government and ushering in a new era of worker-led reform.
So as news filters through that Heath will no longer be in charge, a jubilant Arthur leaps from his sofa and beats his fist into the air. Another victory for the miners, perhaps their biggest yet. But this will not be the end of Arthur’s battle with the Conservative party.
The divisions between the trade unions and the government will only grow deeper as the Labour Party will struggle to make progress. And in just five years, Margaret Thatcher will enter the fray to take on Arthur and the miners. Her stringent policies of deregulation and privatization will try to curb the power of the Trade Unions. And with these uncompromising measures, ‘The Iron Lady’ will become Arthur and the miners’ greatest enemy yet. It will become clear that their fight with the government is far from over, but pushing them forward will be the miners’ memory of their successful strike that ended in victory on February 28th, 1972.
Next onHistory Daily. March 1st, 1872. President Ulysses S. Grant signs the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, making Yellowstone the world’s first national park.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Luke Lonergan.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.