Castleford Community Learning Centre rose from the ashes of the Miners’ Strike to help transform the lives of local people. 30 years on it is still going strong, says Chris Bond.
TODAY, Castleford Community Learning Centre is a bustling hive of activity.
As well as IT and computer courses it runs everything from braille, maths and family history workshops, to helping people improve their CVs. This might sound unremarkable, prosaic even, but the story behind what many local people still affectionately call “Castleford Women’s Centre” is anything but dull.
Rooted in the experience of the Miners’ Strike, this is a story of fortitude in the face of hardship and an inspiring grass-roots tale of how a group of ordinary women rebuilt community spirit by encouraging people to learn.
Since starting out as a soup kitchen to feed hungry mining families in the town 30 years ago, this award-winning centre has blossomed, winning plaudits from politicians and attracting visitors from around the world.
These women, empowered by the Women Against Pit Closures movement, built a learning centre on their own doorstep and the story of how they did it is captured in a new book called Wisdom Of Our Own. It’s told through a series of anecdotes and memories, compiled by the writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton, from some of those who have passed through its doors during the past three decades.
Margaret Handforth, principal of the centre, was there from the start. Her husband was a miner at Kellingley during the strike and she, along with some of the other miners’ wives, ran a soup kitchen and sold mining memorabilia before the local council gave them a grant to set up a community centre.
They started out in a run-down house on Wesley Street in Castleford. “It was derelict and we had a tramp who lived in the outhouse. We had a wardrobe with the door hanging off, an old three-piece suite and a typewriter – and that was it the centre was born,” says Margaret.
What began as one house run by a team of female volunteers expanded to two and then three, as well as a chapel across the road. “We thought maybe we would be around for a couple of years but we never thought we’d still be here 30 years later,” she says.
The strike was the catalyst, as Margaret explains. “One day I read in a newspaper that they were calling miners and their families ‘scum’. I’d never been called that in my life and I didn’t know anyone in my street who might be like that, and it was at that point I decided to do something.”
She became involved with Women Against Pit Closures, which helped galvanise support. “During that year we visited so many colleges and universities collecting money and explaining what was happening in the villages and towns, that the women became very aware that you could do so much more by educating yourself. We weren’t political animals but the strike made us very politically aware.”
By the time the miners returned to work in March 1985, the women had gained a taste for learning and wanted more, as Ian Clayton points out. “At one meeting they said to people to shout out what courses they wanted to do. Some wanted cake decorating and sewing, but the one they wanted the most was psychology.”
Margaret admits it took her by surprise. “I used to think ‘what do people in Castleford want with psychology?’ But later on I actually wished I’d studied it because they were so enthralled by what they were learning.”
The women’s centre teamed up with the University of Leeds and ran a psychology course in Castleford for 17 years. But it didn’t stop there. As more people came forward to sign up for courses support came in from both universities in Leeds, as well as Wakefield College, the local council and the Workers Educational Association, among others.
“The strike was such an emotional journey for a lot of people,” says Ian. “For the miners themselves, but also the women who were really the backbone. If you were a working class wife of a coal miner in a traditional coal mining village or town in the 1980s, you hadn’t necessarily seen a lot of the world. But the strike gave confidence to a lot of these women.”
It inadvertently broadened their horizons. “They wanted the strike to end but they didn’t want the thrill to end. So the community that’s often romanticised in the media as much as anywhere, about working class pit communities, actually came about because of what happened. It’s assumed that it was already there and it was in a geographical sense, but that spirit of resilience comes about in times of strife,” he says.
Although it was originally called a women’s centre, from the outset it was open to men, too, and at its peak it included five centres, 80 tutors and around 2,000 students. “There were women who came here to do cake decorating and sewing courses who ended up with degrees in psychology.”
Over the years the centre has helped thousands of people find jobs and learn new skills. Margaret remembers one particular encounter when she and a colleague were travelling on a train down to London. “A lady sat down next to us. She was reading a book all the way down and when we got off at King’s Cross, she came up to me and said, ‘Margaret, I’ll always be grateful to Castleford Women’s Centre. I started my learning there. I started on computers and went on to do my diploma in IT and I’m now on my way to Oxford Street to train 20 of the top management of the biggest construction company in the country.’ She had obviously recognised me, but I just thought what a wonderful story.”
Visitors have travelled from places like Tokyo, New Zealand and the United States to see the centre for themselves. “We’ve had a lot of people come to see us who want to create something similar, but the thing with this place is it grew organically it didn’t come ready-made.”
Despite such interest keeping the centre going hasn’t been easy and in today’s straitened financial times trying to get funding is an increasingly difficult challenge. But it continues to play a crucial role in the town and Ian has nothing but praise for all those who have worked here over the years.
“I think what Margaret and the others have done is such a useful thing for humanity and for learning. Thousands of people around here might not have put their toes into the water to learn something had it not been for this place.”
There are some who say that Castleford Women’s Centre was the best thing to come out of the strike. It has certainly been a lifeline and a starting point for thousands of local people. It’s perhaps a reminder, too, that from the smallest of acorns mighty oak trees can grow.
Wisdom Of Our Own – Living And Learning Since The Miners’ Strike, is out now priced £15. You can buy the book via www.route-online.com/all-books/wisdom-of-our-own or call the centre on 01977 511 581.