Through the past darkly as candles shed light on the 70s

Miners picketing outside Skelton Power Station at Stourton, Leeds, in 1972
Miners picketing outside Skelton Power Station at Stourton, Leeds, in 1972
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Forty years ago today, the lights went out across Britain due to power cuts during the miners’ strike. Sebastian Oake remembers it well.

THESE candles weren’t the ones that I wanted at my 11th birthday party at all. I looked round at the paraffin wax sticks standing on saucers and in jam jars and went into another sulk. I also didn’t care much for the smelly old hurricane oil lamp that had been retrieved from the shed and plonked unattractively on the sideboard.

It was February 17, 1972, and I was terrified the lights would go out at any moment. The miners’ strike was into its sixth week and coal stocks around the country were dwindling. Back then, coal fired almost everything, from the machinery of industry to the power stations that lit the light bulbs in our living room.

The day before my birthday, the Central Electricity Generating Board had announced that households would be disconnected from the electricity supply for up to nine hours a day. When your turn came, you would be plunged into darkness. I didn’t know when our turn was going to come and and the uncertainty made me really unhappy.

Mum tried to tell me that, in any case, candles and oil lamps were fun and would make my birthday party even more exciting.

But I wasn’t going to be fooled by comfort talk. The thought of any upset to the carefully planned proceedings ahead didn’t sound like fun to me. It wasn’t just the lighting I was worried about, either. A power cut would mean the family record player would remain silent, making pass-the-parcel and musical chairs impossible and preventing me from playing my latest pop singles to impress my friends.

Forty years on, I’ve given up birthday parties and I even quite like candlelight. I also look back and think what a strange, crazy time it must have been. The miners went on strike on January 9, 1972. Coal pits in England and Wales ground to a halt, all 289 of them, with the miners calling for a pay rise of £9 on their wage of £25 a week. If anything puts things into historical context, it is figures like these. Did we really have almost 300 coal mines once upon a time? And how can the value of money have changed so much? I can’t remember how much £9 felt like then, but I know how little it buys now.

A week before my birthday party a national state of emergency had been declared, and a three-day working week introduced. More and more factories were being closed and workers laid off – up to 1.2 million according to newspaper reports.

It wasn’t really the ideal time to have a birthday. Other dramatic events were unfolding, too. Prime Minister Edward Heath was in the final stages of steering us into Europe. On my birthday he won a knife-edge vote in the House of Commons to ratify the treaty that would finally take the United Kingdom in the European Economic Community, as it was known then.

And in Northern Ireland the Troubles were at their height, ripping communities apart and spreading horror and shock right across the country. Just two and a half weeks before my birthday, in early February, Bloody Sunday in Derry had left 14 dead. Three days after that protesters burned down the British Embassy in Dublin.

As for the miners, they won their case and returned to work on February 25 among the country’s highest paid manual workers. But it was not to last. Their relative advantage soon slipped, and in February 1974 they marched out of the pits again, leading for a second time to a state of emergency and a three-day week – but this time bringing down the Conservative Government when Mr Heath called a make-or-break election at the end of the month.

Both these strikes were of course dwarfed by the year-long bitter struggle that began in 1984 and became the worst industrial dispute in Britain since possibly the 19th century. When it was done, it left the union movement in Britain permanently weakened and a coal industry open to decimation. By the end of 2010 there were just six deep coal mines in production in the UK.

Back at the birthday party, things were going surprisingly well. The presents were all safely gathered in and I was carefully searching them for price tags. The lights were thankfully still on, and I was cautiously enjoying myself, albeit with one wary eye still fixed on the candles and the oil lamp. Pass the parcel and musical chairs went off without incident and I treated my friends – and my mother – to Telegram Sam by T Rex and Look Wot You Dun by Slade.

Actually, the lights never did go out at the party. The Central Electricity Generating Board must have been smiling down on me. And the only candles that needed to be lit during the evening were the 11 small ones on the birthday cake – and I hardly need to say that I blew those out very quickly.