UK miners' strike (1972)

The 1972 UK miners' strike was a major strike involving a dispute between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Conservative Edward Heath government over pay. It began on 9 January 1972 and ended on 28 February 1972, when the miners returned to work. The strike was called by the National Executive Committee of the NUM and ended when the miners accepted an improved pay offer in a ballot. It was the first time since 1926 that British miners had been on official strike, but there had been a widespread unofficial strike in 1969.

1972 UK Miners' Strike
Part of UK miners' strikes
Date9 January 1972 - 28 February 1972
GoalsIncreased pay for miners
MethodsStrike action, including flying pickets
Civil disobedience
Resulted in
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
15 injured + 56 arrested (Battle of Saltley Gate)
1 death
17 police officers (Battle of Saltley Gate)


The strike occurred after wage negotiations between the NUM and the National Coal Board had broken down. It was the first time since 1926 that British miners had officially gone on strike (although there had been unofficial strikes).[1] The dispute was caused by the issue of pay. In 1960, according to one study, "miners, of whom there were still half a million in 1960, enjoyed historically unprecedented standards of living."[2] According to another study, while the real net income of an average miner in 1957 with a wife and two children was approximately 22% above that of his male counterpart in manufacturing, that fell to approximately 2% below the manufacturing figure in 1969.[3]

During the 1950s, the wages of miners went up from a prewar position of 84th to near the top in the league table of the wages earned by industrial workers,[4] and by 1960, miners' wages were 7.4% above the average pay of workers in manufacturing industries. During the 1960s, however, pay fell behind other workers, and by 1970 were earning 3.1% less than the average worker in manufacturing.[5]


During a parliamentary debate on the strike in its second week, both Labour and Conservative MPs praised the miners for the forbearance shown during the mass pit closures in the 1960s.[6]

The National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers did not strike. Following some confrontations with NUM pickets, the National Coal Board adopted a policy of giving leave on full pay to any members of NACODS who faced aggressive intimidation on the way to work.[7]

The strike was characterised by the use of flying pickets sent to other industrial sites to persuade other workers to strike in solidarity with the miners, which led to railway workers' refusing to transport coal and power station workers' refusing to handle coal.[8]

Power shortages emerged, and a state of emergency was declared on 9 February, after the weather had turned cold unexpectedly and voltage had been reduced across the entire national grid.[9]

A miner from Hatfield Colliery, near Doncaster, Freddie Matthews, was killed by a lorry while he was picketing on 3 February 1972, which led to a huge crowd at his funeral.[10] The nonunionised lorry driver had mounted the pavement to pass the picket line and struck Matthews in the process.[11] In the aftermath of the death, the picketing in the Doncaster area became more violent, with clashes reported with the NACODS members at Markham Main and Kilnhurst.[11] That led Tom Swain, Labour MP to Derbyshire North East, to remark, "This could be the start of another Ulster in the Yorkshire coalfield."[11] He threatened to "advocate violence" if an immediate statement were not made on Matthews's death.[11]

The strike lasted seven weeks and ended after miners agreed to a pay offer on 19 February.[12] The offer came after the Battle of Saltley Gate, when around 2,000 NUM pickets descended on a coke works in Birmingham and were later joined by thousands of workers from other industries in Birmingham.[13]

The result was characterised as a "victory for violence" by the Conservative Cabinet at the time in reference to some clashes between miners and police and to some throwing of stones and bottles at lorries trying to pass the pickets.[14]

Planned strikebreaking force

A volunteer force was planned in Scotland to break the miners' pickets during the strike. It has emerged, under the thirty-year rule, that civil servants, police, local authorities and other organisations worked on a secret project to gather hundreds of drivers to supply the country's power stations.[15]

A Royal Air Force base was to be used for the unit.[15] They were to have between 400 and 600 trucks and drivers.[15] Fire brigades were also contacted to provide off-duty staff and volunteer groups to cater for the coal convoys.[15] The role of the volunteers was to drive in convoys to break the picketlines blocking the supply of coal to the Scottish power plants.[15] The plans were never put into the place because the dispute was brought to a close.[15]

Wilberforce Inquiry

An inquiry into miners' pay, chaired by Lord Wilberforce, was set up by the government in February 1972, as the strike was drawing to a close, and reported a week later. It recommended pay increases of between £4.50 and £6 per week.[16] Lord Wilberforce defended the increases, which represented a 27% pay rise,[17] by saying that "we know of no other job in which there is such a combination of danger, health hazard, discomfort in working conditions, social inconvenience and community isolation."[16] Mine workers held out for an extra £1 per week, but eventually settled for a package of "fringe benefits" worth a total of £10 million.[17]

Creation of COBR

The inadequacy of the government's response to the strike provoked re-evaluation of emergency planning. The Cabinet Office Briefing Room (known as COBR) was created to coordinate responses to national and regional crises, and is still used in British Government today.[18]

See also


  1. "1972 and 1974 Miners' Strikes". Retrieved 9 July 2018.
  2. Fielding, Steven (9 July 2018). "The Labour Governments 1964-70, Volume 1: Labour and Cultural Change". Manchester University Press. Retrieved 9 July 2018 via Google Books.
  3. Handy, L. J. (26 March 1981). "Wages Policy in the British Coalmining Industry: A Study of National Wage Bargaining". CUP Archive. Retrieved 9 July 2018 via Google Books.
  4. Charlton, John. "John Charlton: The Miners Since Nationalisation (March 1973)". Retrieved 9 July 2018.
  5. Cliff, Tony. "Tony Cliff: Patterns of mass strike (Part 3)". Retrieved 9 July 2018.
  6. Routledge, Paul (1994). Scargill: the unauthorized biography. London: Harper Collins. p. 65. ISBN 0-00-638077-8.
  7. Strike: 358 Days that Shook the Nation. London: Sunday Times. pp. 161–162. ISBN 0-340-38445-X.
  8. Adeney, Martin; Lloyd, John (1988). The Miners' Strike 1984-5: Loss without limit. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-7102-1371-9.
  9. Routledge, Paul (1994). Scargill: the unauthorized biography. London: Harper Collins. p. 66. ISBN 0-00-638077-8.
  10. David Jones. "END OF AN ERA FOR NUM BRANCH". Doncaster Free Press. Retrieved 2014-12-19.
  11. Routledge, Paul (1994). Scargill: the unauthorized biography. London: Harper Collins. pp. 66–67. ISBN 0-00-638077-8.
  12. "1972: Miners strike against government". BBC. Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  13. "The Battle of Saltley Gate recalled". 10 February 2012. Retrieved 9 July 2018 via
  14. Kellaway, Robert (2010). "Re-examining the Battle of Saltley Gate: interpretations of leadership, violence and legacy" (PDF). University of Bristol. p. 20. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
  15. "Striking miners faced 'volunteer force'". BBC Scotland. Retrieved 2015-09-29.
  16. "Obituaries: Lord Wilberforce". The Telegraph. 18 February 2003. Retrieved 21 July 2019.
  17. Travis, Alan (1 January 2003). "Flying pickets paralysed Heath cabinet". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 July 2019.
  18. Winterton, Jonathan; Winterton, Ruth. Coal, Crisis, and Conflict: The 1984–85 Miners' Strike in Yorkshire. Manchester University Press. p. 145. ISBN 9780719025488.

Further reading

  • Ackers, Peter, and Jonathan Payne. "Before the storm: The experience of nationalization and the prospects for industrial relations partnership in the British coal industry, 1947-1972-rethinking the militant narrative." Social History 27#2 (2002): 184-209.
  • Ashworth, William. The History of the British Coal Industry, 1946-1982: The Nationalized Industry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)
  • Ball, Stuart, and Anthony Seldon, eds. The Heath Government 1970-74: A Reappraisal (Longman, 1996) excerpt; pp 177-89
  • Barnes, Denis and Eileen Reid. Governments and Trade Unions: The British Experience, 1964-79 (Heinemann, 1980)
  • Campbell, John. Edward Heath: A Biography (1993)
  • Hughes, Rosaleen Anne. "‘Governing in hard times’: the Heath government and civil emergencies–the 1972 and the 1974 miners’ strikes" (phD dissertation, Queen Mary University of London; 2012.) online; bibliography pp 268-78
  • Phillips, Jim. "The 1972 miners' strike: popular agency and industrial politics in Britain." Contemporary British History 20#2 (2006): 187-207. online
  • Phillips, Jim. "Industrial relations, historical contingencies and political economy: Britain in the 1960s and 1970s." Labour History Review 72#3 (2007): 215-233.
  • Sandbrook, Dominic. State of Emergency The Way We Were Britain 1970-1974 (2010) pp 113-33.
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