In January 1972, the N.U.M. Declared a national strike, over pay and pit closures. This strike led the way to an entirely new way of picketing. Up until then picketing of other workplaces to get support for a strike had been localised, standing outside the main gates of the nearest Power Station or Colliery asking people entering to support your cause, and hoping to persuade them to not cross a picket line.
But the this strike, saw a new form of this, it was called a ‘Flying picket.’ This meant that strikers from all parts of the country could be sent via mini-buses and coaches to important areas of coal distribution to bolster the local groups in a show of mass support.
One of these distribution centres was the Gas & Coke Depot at Saltley, Birmingham. The first I knew of these ‘flying pickets’ was a knock on the door late at night on the 8 of February, and being asked “Can you be ready for picket duty at 2am next morning, in Birmingham?” At first I thought I had misheard the instruction. I called around to a neighbour and clarified the instruction. I set about putting some cheese sandwiches and a flask of coffee in a duffel-bag, and at the allotted time joined the others at Blaengarw Square to get on a Mansel David’s coach.
At that time of the morning really did not care, whether we were heading to Birmingham or Bettws, the bus was warm and the banter flew back and forth for a while and we eventually all settled down to doze. I remember waking, and wiping the condensation from the window with my sleeve and seeing we were travelling through a built up area, and the streets were deserted except for a few people setting off for work.
We eventually stopped, and our Lodge officials got out and consulted with an N.U.M. Officer who directed them where we were to go. We disembarked and were given our instructions on the rules of picketing. We were not allowed to physically block the public highway, or trespass. Only designated N.U.M. Officials could talk to the drivers, no abusive behaviour, and any direct confrontation with the Police was forbidden! No banners or placards or excessive noise (chanting, swearing, etc.) We then marched off through several streets.
Rounding a corner into Nechells Place, and we were faced with the amazing sight of about a thousand plus other picketers.This was *Nechells Gas Works, Saltley. Which allegedly held over
100,000 tons of coke. There were miners and other trades from all over the country here now, And we mixed in among them and soon got to the front opposite the main gates, once there we could see the massive police presence.
When an empty lorry came up to the gates the official picket (legally made up of only 6 persons) tried to get the driver to turn back, sometimes this was successful and a cheer would go up as he turned his lorry and went away. Other times the drivers refused and just drove on through. Because the lorries were high it was a difficult job to negotiate with a driver and attempting to climb up to his level often caused the police to rush forward and try and make an arrest ‘for obstruction of the highway’, causing the picketer to jump down and vanish into the crowd.
Some drivers took immediate action and leaned out of their cabs swinging pick-axe handles,iron bars, another had a huge Alsatian dog on his lap snarling out of the window. The crowd were constantly chanting “Scab! Scab!” and “Close the gates!”
Occasionally the police would make up a ‘snatch squad’ and charge into the crowd to try and take someone? A friend of mine was ‘snatched’ and taken for questioning, his crime, he had long hair and had ‘borrowed’ his sisters collegescarf against the cold, and the police suspected he was a student, or a ‘Marxist intellectual agitator?’ or ‘Rentamob’.
The ‘official picket’ changed all the time and sometimes a there were people in it from our own areas, I remember Berwyn Howells, and Theo Gough/Goss, in particular. On the whole the crowd were a noisy but happy lot, except when the police tried to drag people away, then there were howls of anger and great surges forward to rescue them. The police had a hard job to control us and linked arms to try and stop us of course, sometimes we broke through and helmets went rolling into the road and were swiftly gathered up deftly drop-kicked into the back of the crowd to a great cheer of approval from the assembly.
There were a few violent incidents between the police and picketers, these were caused in part by the police ‘backheeling’ pickets, and picketers kidney punching police in retaliation. Some lorries seeing the official pickets ahead of them just put their foot down and tried to force their way through inevitably this resulted in ‘accidents’ I believe a high ranking officer was injured in this way on the day we were there, and strikers and the police joined together to attend the fallen man.
During this incident there was no ‘them and us,’ about it just a fellow feeling, a comradeship? A lot of miners in the crowd were First Aid trained and tended to the officer until an ambulance was let through with no bother, and the injured man was taken away and the lorry and its driver removed and then everything went back to ‘normal.’ One of our bus, found us and told me a nearby bakery was doling out free pies to strikers if we were hungry.
Although the Gas & Coke company were swearing that they were neutral in this dispute, they were in fact using their works canteen to feed the police, this was to keep them on-site. Inevitably some of the free pies were used as missiles and I saw many thrown at the lorries windscreens in a vain attempt to try and stop them entering the depot.
More and more buses full of strike supporters were arriving, and in response police reinforcements were called in. I thought at the time that this was the greatest show of solidarity with our strike I had ever seen. Later in the day we men from the Garw started to make our way back to our agreed assembly point to catch the bus home. Going back, we were full of the events of the day :”did you see this? and did you hear that?” Some, proudly rolled up their trouser legs like Freemasons and showed off their ‘war wounds’ from the police? Soon, the bus filled up with the blue haze of cigarette smoke and we dozed our way back home to the Garw.
At 10 a.m on the 10th of February the gates at Saltley were ordered to be locked by the Chief Constable of Birmingham,
** in front of a crowd of 20,000 pickets & workers. The same day there were the very first national power cuts.
** This same officer was already on record as telling the Home Secretary. “That the Saltley pickets will succeed over my dead body.”
G.Jarvis. 2016. G.V.H.S.