Les Kelly's Autobiography

Les Kelly, secretary of the Point of Ayr NUM lodge, wrote an autobiography that focused on the 1984/5 strike.  Below is an extract of that autobiography.

Our Grocery Trade

 

As the National dispute progressed, the lodge committee finally began to get to grips with the logistics of our predicament. It was the lodge officials’ responsibility to look after our members and their families during this dispute and we were determined to do this to the best of our ability. Financially we were already having some assistance from various sources on a regular weekly basis. Because of this regular income it was agreed, by the lodge committee, that I should take responsibility for funds and it's subsequent distribution. I was to be assisted in this task by John Alan Jones. I had known Alan (he preferred to be called : Alan) since I first started at Point of Ayr, he was the first person I worked with at the colliery. We got on well together and were to become close friends. More about Alan later!

 

We also had supporters who were regularly supplying us with food parcels. The plastic carrier bags usually contained tinned meats, vegetables and various none perishables. Most of these, welcome, items were usually deposited at our Rhyl ‘strike’ office, for later distribution. At the outset of the dispute, the food distributed was dealt with in a very haphazard way. If the food had been hundredweight bags of coal we’d have probably known how to handle it much better. But because it was food, and we were striking miners, who were completely absorbed in ‘strike’ issues the food distribution wasn’t given the priority it required.

 

It wasn’t very long before the women amongst our numbers recognised our frailties in such matters. They told us that the first thing we needed  was a proper central storage point for the food, and an organised system for the grocery distribution. It was vitally important that every striker and his dependents were seen to be treated equally. It was on this crucial point, that Maurice Whitehead came to our assistance. He offered the officials the use of a spare room at his home in which to store the ever increasing numbers of food parcels that were being donated. Maurices’ home was situated on Marine Road, the main coastal road that lead through Prestatyn. The offer by Maurice and his wife, Evelyn, was gratefully accepted by the committee and plans were quickly put into operation to have all the weekly food donations transferred to the Whitehead's. Our regular weekly food suppliers were quickly notified of our new drop-off point.

 

We were now into the grocery business. Maurice and Evelyn had also volunteered to take full responsibility for the complete allocation and division of the groceries. They soon became organised and took full control and responsibility for the weekly rationing of the available food. My involvement in this worthwhile new venture, was to provide Maurice and Evelyn with a complete up-to-date list of the names and addresses of every individual miner and their dependents that we were aware of. At that particular juncture of the strike there were several miners who were out on strike that we weren’t aware of; for on reason or another. There were at least two other ‘strikers’ we weren’t to know about for some many months into the dispute.

 

At the start of the food catering enterprise several of our strikers volunteered to help out by using their own cars to deliver the food. They would take out provisions to those strikers who didn’t have transport or who couldn’t pick their own rations from Maurice's home. This system wasn't really the ideal way to deal with the distribution of food. It was inconvenient, slow and it became quite costly because of the mileage’s involved. But at least, it was a start.

 

The officials were forced, by our sparse finances to look for any other economic options that might be available to us. After some discussion it was suggested that what we really needed was a larger vehicle to handle all of the food deliveries at one outing. As an outcome of this proposal it was agreed that I should approach the owner of the local garage that was situated a short distance along the coast road from where Maurice lived, to inquire if it was possible to hire a vehicle from him. The garage owner was called Dave and was, coincidentally, a relative of John Morris (the one time friend of the ‘militant’). After a short discussion Dave agreed to hire us a suitably sized transit van. The van, which I was lead to believe was a reliable vehicle, in fact turned out to be a ‘clapped-out, diesel-guzzling monster.’ After only a short time of using the van it became apparent that by hiring such an unreliable contraption we were just throwing away good money after bad. The hire and, escalating, running costs of the van were defeating the whole object of our food delivery enterprise. The increasing running cost of the van was not our only problem. The van was continually breaking down and was to spend quite a lot of valuable time off the road. Usually the van would break down at the most inconvenient of places and times. It was to test the drivers' patience to distraction. It got to such a pitch that the drivers were dreading setting off on a journey, as they never really knew when, or if they would get back to base. Our adventure into the grocery and delivery trade was certainly teaching us some harsh ‘financial’ lessons. Every penny we spent on the 'clapped-out' van, was a penny less available for food distribution to our striking miners and their families. With our continual desperate financial situation, every single penny was to become important.

 

The word went out to our striking members at our regular Thursday registration meeting for them to keep their eyes and ears open for ways in which we could improve our transport and running costs. The Thursday meetings were primarily intended for the strikers to keep in touch with each other and to be kept informed of the ever ‘shifting sands’ of the National strike situation. We kept the strikers’ register updated and were also to utilise the meeting time to divide up any financial donations that had been received from our supporters since the previous registration meeting. Thursdays were not only registration days, they were also our 'pay’ days.

 

The lodge officials considered that it was vitally important to have these Thursday meetings. Loyalty and solidarity of the strikers were to be paramount in this dispute. We needed to ‘feed’ off other’s strength in our joint sacrifices. The very act of our strikers being together at these registration meetings even for one day a week could be seen as our personal 'umbilical cord' to the National union and the strikers in the other coalfields. The local union officials were quick to grasp the importance and advantages to be derived from these meetings. Both the striking members and the trade union representatives, ultimately benefited as a result.

 

Brian Roper, was another one of the several electrician's who were out on strike. Brian was aware of our problems and that we were looking to improve the food delivery system. One afternoon Brian, who lived about two miles away from me in the little village of Gronant, called to tell me that he knew of a 'Ford Transit' van that was for sale. He believed the van was in reasonably good condition. I thought, as I inwardly smiled to myself. “Yes! I’ve heard that one before.” The landlord of his ‘local’ pub called, 'The Bells of Saint Mary's' (known locally as the ‘Bells’), had casually mention to Brian about a van he had for sale. Brian knew the landlord quite well, and regarded him to be a reliable person, and if the landlord said that the vehicle was a fairly 'reasonable buy' he would be speaking the truth. The landlord had indicated he would be prepared to accept £600 for the van. I raised the issue of the 'Transit' van with my colleagues on the lodge committee at our, usual, weekly  meeting. They readily agreed, that if Brian considered that it was a realistic buy then we should have it looked over. But because we’d been ‘bit’ once before, I suggested that I should contact our own, diesel, expert; Tony (Badger) Baggelowski, and ask him if he would look at the van and give his, considered, opinion. 'Badger' quickly agreed to have a look at the van. Like everyone else, he was painfully aware of all the problems we had with the other ‘so-called’ vehicle and he wasn’t about to let the officials make a similar, costly, mistake with this van. The following day, he gave the Transit van the 'once over' and reported that the vehicle was mechanically sound, but needed a little work on it to bring it up to scratch and ready to go on the road. But he confirmed that the van was a good buy at £600.

 

'Badger' also informed us that he was quite capable of carrying out the necessary work on the van, at very little cost. As a result of Badger’s personal endorsement of the van the lodge officials decided to go ahead and make an offer for it. Later in the day I contacted Brian and informed him that we wanted the transit van but could only go up to £500. Brian in turn spoke to the landlord of the ‘The Bells’ (who was aware of our ‘strike’ situation) readily agreed to accept our offer of £500. We were now, hopefully, to be in a more favourable position to run our own 'transport' business and Dave’s ‘clapped out, diesel guzzler’ was to be given the ‘boot.’

 

It wasn't long before ‘Badger’ had the white Transit van up and running. He declared that it was in good ‘nick’ but that he would need time to look it over each week if he was to keep it up to scratch. The meticulous ‘Badger’ said that he wanted to take full responsibility for keeping the vehicle in good working order and carry out his regular checks and services. This was to be ‘Badgers’ primary obligation to our cause for the rest of the dispute. The vehicle was duly registered, taxed and insured. We were now ready to provide a proper food delivery business service to our strikers and their families.

 

We could now seriously concentrate our attention on delivering the weekly food. The white Transit van was to prove to be an excellent investment and an invaluable asset. It was to give us many months of constant use and reliable service. Not only was the van to be used for food distribution, it also became our regular mode of transport for the strikers to the many trade union rallies, supportive meetings and demonstrations. The white van became the standard bearer for our struggle with its many poignant slogans that decorated the sides of its white painted  body-work.

 

The van became a very familiar feature, particularly, around the immediate vicinity of the mining villages and Prestatyn town. The often witty messages and remarks on the side of the van, became its trademark that were renewed and updated, on a near daily basis. We had no intention of letting anyone in the surrounding areas forget that they were in the midst of a major and vitally important industrial strike. The van and its defiant slogans, certainly irritated and riled the working miners, who were literally ‘gobsmacked’ to see that we were, not only, surviving, but able to openly and impudently flaunt our very existence deep within their domain. The white van became our mobile 'billboard.' It was to bring an additional dimension to our dispute activities. It was to become the single most valuable acquisition to our armoury.

 

Every week Maurice and Evelyn would organise the food deliveries. Each member on strike would be allocated a parcel of food, the amount of which was dependent on the number of adults and children in each individual family. Priority was always given to the families with babies or young children. The amount of planning and organisation involved in the weekly operation was an extremely demanding task. A task which Maurice and Evelyn undertook week in and week out with great dedication and patience. Without the social compassion and fortitude displayed by Maurice and Evelyn, the dispute would have borne many 'hardship' casualties on the year long journey.

 

The food and its delivery were a magnificently organised achievement. An achievement (we like to think) that was comparable to any similar sized military operation carried out under similar trying circumstances. Every person involved in the grocery distribution can be rightly proud of their vital contribution during the yearlong struggle. The work and preparation involved in the weekly food deliveries by our catering staff was not only an essential operation, it was also an important system of maintaining a strong lifeline with our striking members. The weekly registration meetings, coupled with the weekly food delivery service, created a solid and long lasting bond between all of those involved in the strike. A bond that was to stand the strikers and families in good stead throughout the coming wearisome months.

 

The van drivers who actually delivered the weekly groceries were able to keep the union officials alerted if any of our number were in any sort of difficulties or needed any extra help. Invariably those who delivered the food would have a ‘courtesy’ conversation with their striking colleague or with members of his family. This wasn't a, compassionate, service that was pre-planned, it was just a natural extension to the food deliveries that gradually evolved out of our joint, social isolation.

 

It was a humanitarian aspect of the food delivery service that was especially helpful and important to those striking members who were living in areas, such as council estates that were in close proximity to the colliery. In these council estates the strikers were, virtually, surrounded by ‘working’ miners. Some of whom were quite hostile to the strikers, for obvious reasons - we, probably, made them feel guilty. The strikers and their families who lived in these areas need to be especially commended. The pressures on all of them were clearly formidable. It would have been so easy for the strikers to have ‘thrown in the towel’ and given up the strike. They could have joined up with the majority of their neighbours and returned to work. But they weren’t looking for the easy way out, or the soft option. This was never an option for our strikers.            

 

The isolation of these particular strikers and their families must have been extremely uncomfortable to cope with under the circumstances. It was an uncomfortable isolation that was apparent to our keen eyed van drivers. The food delivery van with it's sympathetic occupants, must have been indeed a very welcome sight for these beleaguered families. Some of the family members of the strikers, particular the wives and children were treated quite shamefully by a minority of the ‘hostile’ working miners in the community where they lived. Shamefully treated, by people who had previously been their friends, and who should have certainly known better. It was usually the profound loyalty demonstrated by the strikers’ wives, or partners and other members of their families, that was to be the deciding factor that determined whether or not - or for how long, the miners took part in the National strike.

 

In my eyes, the striking miners’ families were the unsung heroes of the yearlong strike. Every single one of them showed true mettle. I am truly convinced that Point of Ayr strikers were only able to put forward such a heroic and magnificent stance during this epic strike, with the knowledge that they had the full backing of their partners and families. This essential family partnership was the foundation and lifeline to our resolve. Unfortunately, not all of the original strikers were able to maintain the same level of family loyalty. Some of the original striking miners felt obliged (for one reason other another) to returned to work before the strike had ended.

 

In several of these instances, miners who decided to go back to work, approached me prior to their return with an apologetic explanation for their decision. The predominant excuse for their decision was because of family reasons. Never once was I told that the miner had given up the strikebecause he had become disillusioned or had a change of heart regarding the basic principles of the strike.

 

The eighty-six striking miners who remained fiercely loyal to the very end of the National strike, can fully appreciate the meaning and passion behind the words of the Country and Western song: 'Stand by your man.'

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