As it emerges South Yorkshire Police won’t be investigated over its role in the Battle of Orgreave, Sarah Freeman looks back at the day which went down in history.
As night fell on June 18, 1984, in the pubs and living rooms of Yorkshire’s mining communities there was only one topic of conversation.
By then, the events of a few hours previous were already being branded as The Battle of Orgreave and as the evening news bulletins replayed footage of police in riot gear, silhouetted against burning barricades, those who had been on the vast picket lines that day knew that they had witnessed the bloodiest and most violent few hours in the coal industry’s history. They also knew that in much of the media a line had been drawn and the striking miners had been cast as the villains of the piece.
Those who chose to return to the Orgreave coking plant that night never forgot what they saw. On the edge of the South Yorkshire village and on the same road where just a few months earlier convoys of lorries had travelled uninterrupted, burned out cars, ripped up lampposts and the smouldering remains of fence posts lay on a carpet of broken bottles, rocks and stones.
The debris was all that remained of the clashes which had pitted 10,000 striking miners and their sympathisers against 5,000 police and which would mark a turning point in the industrial action which had begun on March 6 with a walkout just a few miles away at Cortonwood Colliery in Brampton Bierlow.
“The sky was just thick with pickets,” Chief Inspector Mel White told the Yorkshire Post. “They were just like Red Indians massing in for the attack.”
It was language typical of the time. With the Government desperate to bring order to a country in chaos and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher equally determined to crush the unions who had for so long been a thorn in her side, it helped to portray the miners as an uncivilised mob.
The truth was much less black and white, but on that morning when 80 coachloads of miners arrived at Orgreave from South Wales, the North East and Scotland, the aims of the pickets had been very clear - prevent the twice daily convoy of lorries entering and leaving the coking plant and cause maximum disruption.
“At first there were only 50 of them,” said Superintendent Eric Vallance, recalling the morning’s events. “But then within a matter of minutes they had grown to 1,000 and more and more began to arrive.”
While the police said they had been caught of off-guard, reinforcements were soon mobilised. As the pickets attempted to surround the plant, positioning themselves on the disused railway embankment overlooking the complex, hundreds of officers were shipped in, not just from nearby forces, but from as far away as Avon and Somerset and West Mercia.
Almost immediately there were allegations of police brutality. Yorkshire miners’ leader Jack Taylor said he had been chased by officers and pulled down by his hair, there were reports of miners being trampled by horses and Arthur Scargill insisted he had been hit by a riot shield.
In his American-style baseball cap, the president of the National Union of Miners had been something of a permanent presence at Orgreave and while his claim was refuted by the force, whose alternate story was that he had slipped and hit his head on a railway sleeper taken by pickets from a nearby transport yard to build their barricades, his influence was not in doubt.
“There has been a change of mood since Mr Scargill arrived at this plant,” said South Yorkshire Assistant Chief Constable Tony Clement. “I am sure there are some good miners here fighting for what they believe is a worthy cause, by there is a substantial element, miners or otherwise who are hellbent on causing trouble to this company and what is more to police whose only brief is to keep the peace.”
While June 18 was destined to be forever linked with the Battle of Orgreave, the seeds of that day’s animosity had been sown some weeks earlier. On May 28, Scargill had promised the following day’s picket line was likely to prove interesting. And so it came to pass.
At 7.20am a crowd of 800 miners was seen charging up to the plant overwhelming the thin police lines and leaving just four snarling police dogs, leashed to their handlers to hold them at bay. That day amid the violence there was one strange moment of calm. As the first lorry loads of coke left Orgreave,the picket line stood in silence, not a voice was heard and for a while at least, not one missile was thrown.
There was no such moment of peace on June 18. Scargill had earlier issued a call to arms and whatever the aims of the striking miners, with passions running high, violence seemed inevitable.
“Anyone who has been here has seen he police tactics of a most brutal nature,” said Scargill. “We have seen riot shields and riot gear in action. We have seen truncheons.. we have seen mounted police officers charging… My advice to all our members and to the wider trade union movement is to ensure that they come here in their thousands in order that we can make aware to everyone that we are not prepared to see this kind of brutality enforced against working men and women.”
The Government was similarly incendiary and comments by then Energy Secretary Peter Walker did little to soothe relations.
“The battle we are witnessing is not a battle to improve miners pay and conditions,” he said dismissively. “But a battle enthusiastically supported by Marxists to see whether or not the mob using violence can rule. Only the courage and tenacious actions of the police have stood between people’s rights and freedom and the triumph of the violent mob rule.”
In all, 93 arrests were made at the Battle of Orgreave and 51 pickets and 72 police were injured. Some of the striking miners later sued the police with 39 of them receiving nearly £500,000 in compensation for assault, unlawful arrest and prosecution and when trial of those accused of public order offences collapsed due to unreliable evidence it was clear there was going to be no tidy conclusion.
Writing in her memoirs about the strike which rumbled onto the following February, Thatcher said: “What the strike’s defeat established was that Britain could not be made ungovernable by the Fascist left. Marxist wanted to defy the law of the land in order to defy the law of economic. They failed.”
Today, those calling for an inquiry into the actions of South Yorkshire police have also failed after The Independent Police Complaints Commission announced it would not be conducting an investigation. One of the reasons it said was the passage of time meant allegations of misconduct could not be pursued. Thirty years may have passed since, but for many of those on the frontline time has failed to heal the scars of that bitter battle.