miners strike

Tom Palin at Cinderloo by Jean Atkin

cinderlooI’m sure most of you will know Shelley’s poem, the Masque of Anarchy, written in Italy in response to the Peterloo Massacre. It was 1819 in Manchester, and a crowd of up 80,000 people had gathered to listen to the ‘radical orator’ (a term of disparagement by his opponents) Henry Hunt speak about widening the franchise and challenging the corrupt political system. Due to a massive over reaction by local yeomanry, fifteen people were killed and hundreds injured. Hunt ended up in prison for two years. A widening of the franchise has always been fought for, and against. (I personally think, we should rise up to lower the voting age to sixteen).

jean-atkin-wigtownHowever, eighteen months later, a lesser known event – the subject of today’s poem ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ by Jean Atkin – took place in Shropshire, some eighty miles south of Manchester. The miners of Dawley, quite rightly took umbrage at a proposed wage decrease by the colliery owners, who said this was due to a decline in the iron industry, ‘the rain blowing in as we gather/ sixpence a day lopped off a weekly wage/ of fifteen bob.’ An initial strike was violently put down by the yeomanry, but some months later, the miners rose again and marched on the local iron factory halting production. ‘we grip our sticks & walk to Donnington Wood/ & strip the furnace plugs at Old Park Ironworks/ & on to Lightmoor, Dawley, Horsehay/ when down come the Yeomanry & Constables’. Like Peterloo, a call for help saw Colonel Cludde and his Shropshire Yeomanry, open fire on the crowd, killing two miners and arresting nine ‘ringleaders’. One of which was Tom Palin, who was subsequently hung. ‘the executioner lifts the cap he’s put over Tom’s face/ so Tom looks up & sees.  He nods./ They put the cap back on./ And then he swings.

Jean’s poem ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ is part of ‘Understories’, her collaboration with Shropshire-based band Whalebone www.whalebone-music.com ‘Understories’ is a brush with the new folklore of Shropshire, tales just out of living memory, and both urban and rural myths.  Performances start later this year.  Jean and Whalebone are also working with the Cinderloo 1821 Remembered group on Facebook @cinderlooriot.

You can listen to Jean reading the poem to music of Whalebone, here

Jean Atkin has published ‘Not Lost Since Last Time’ (Oversteps Books), five poetry pamphlets and a children’s novel.   Her poetry has been commissioned for Radio 4, and featured on ‘Best Scottish Poets’ by the Scottish Poetry Library.  Her recent work appears in The Interpreter’s House, Magma, Lighthouse, Agenda, Ambit, and Poetry Salzburg. www.jeanatkin.com



Tom Palin at Cinderloo

the rain blowing in as we gather
sixpence a day lopped off a weekly wage
of fifteen bob, a sixpence out the mouths
of our kids & pray for help on Sundays.
So we grip our sticks & walk to Donnington Wood
& strip the furnace plugs at Old Park Ironworks
& on to Lightmoor, Dawley, Horsehay
when down come the Yeomanry & Constables
& hem us in on the cinder hills & back us up
so up we goes slipping & cramming our boots into slag
& the shouting starts We’ll have our wages
If we’re to fight for it, we’re all together

iron is durable

below us the Peace Officers arrest & thrash our boys
so we throw down the slag & stone from off the cinder hills
we rain a rain of iron & rage
a rain of sixpences & hunger
& Tom runs down with some mates & looses our prisoners
& then the Yeomen open fire –
a rain of iron & power
a rain of wealth
their bullets hunt us off the cinder hills
the women tumbled on the trampled children
& William Bird is dead at eighteen
& Thomas Gittins gone
& our Tom will face the rope.

iron is durable

the rain blowing into the crowd by the gibbet
& our lad stands to his end
& someone sings out
Farewell Tom
& the executioner lifts the cap he’s put over Tom’s face
so Tom looks up & sees.  He nods.
They put the cap back on.
And then he swings.

The Battle of Cinderloo took place in 1821, two years after the more famous Peterloo. The iron industry was in stagnation and faced with harsh pay cuts, the Dawley ironworkers went on strike. The site of Cinderloo is now Forge Retail Park in Telford.


And the Dead Shall Rise by Des Mannay

frackingThe 1984 miners’ strike here in the UK, had a huge social and political impact, and was indicative of a wider global shift towards the protection of big business to the detriment of working class people. I knew therefore a number of poems would cover this important moment in history as well as that of mining more generally. However, I have been surprised at the different angles poets have taken.

There was Paul Summer’s satirical North, “we are more than sharply contrasting photographs/of massive ships and staithes for coal, more than/crackling films where grimy faced workers are/dwarfed by shadows or omitted by chimneys.” Jo Bell’s Mute of brass bands: “A ringing out, a clocking on, a moan/of disappointment sure as klezmer;/pit music, factory music, punching out precisely,” and Jane Burns Gala Day, Durham Miners, with “ The Dearne Valley villages – always the backdrop/of pit-heads, men in donkey jackets, orange panels bright among/allotment leeks.” Both looked at the social side of the miners’ lives and their communities. In Seams, Kay Buckley juxtaposed dress making with mining, “those seams that/he picketed and you sewed,” and Paul Batchelor in To a Halver, took a more symbolic angle, “O half brick: your battened-down/century of faithful service in a pit village terrace/forgotten now you’ve broken loose.” Finally, Richard Skinner’s Dark Nook took us further back in time to the working conditions of the lead mines of the Isle of Man, “It takes two hours to descend the ladders,/our tallow candles round our necks/like white asparagus.”

Des MannayThe harshness and anger this gives you when reading these poems, like the mine, lies under the surface. But in Des Mannay’s “And the Dead Shall Rise,” there is no such holding back, when talking about such disasters as Gresford, “And what price did you pay for the silence?/The ultimate price: 266 men sent to the grave… the damps, the gases, suffocated you/You were betrayed – murdered – by your bosses.” These men are no longer able to rest in peace as there is a new threat, with a new search for energy in the ground in which they lie. “They want to desecrate your graves boys/They want to rip the poison gas from your lungs for profit.” This is Fracking and is now being rolled out across a number of countries, especially in the United States where they hope it will reduce their dependence on foreign oil. (more…)

Gala Day, Durham Miners by Jane Burn

In 1984 I was twenty-two and having a nervous breakdown. I had taken an English A Level (which I failed) and I remember the question of whether Hamlet was mad or not really fucking me up. Turns out the madness rubbed off 5921322055_790552265b_mon me for a time. Hospitalised with short-term psychosis (thankfully) the faces in newspapers would be staring at me; there were men in the corner watching me; the doctors seemed extra-terrestrial. One day, when supposedly in recovery, I sat in the TV room trying to catch some kind of normality but happened upon the news and the heightened social realism of men standing in a dusty field being charged at by the riot police. I started hyper-ventilating, feeling like I was going to pass out, then the belief that something worse was about to happen. The fighting continued but no-one would turn the TV off. Finally, a nurse entered the room (which was in fact empty), made the fighting go away and helped me back to bed. The miners’ strike, in this instance the Battle of Orgreave, had induced a panic attack.

Such battles are what remain of the history of the miners’ strike, and in the case of Orgreave, justice has still not been done. However, the lives of people affected by the strike, not just the miners, has taken some time to be told.

10981953_1637363813181663_3445432139024251520_nJane Burn’s beautifully detailed poem, Gala Day, Durham Miners, depicts a day in the near past. “At eight-fifteen, the band stands up in regimented lines. /July, before the schools break – the morning lull broken /by the stray parp of tuning notes, loud and sudden /through nets ghosting open windows.” This is a day of excitement, of defiance; a day of celebration even for the community, to let bygones be bygones. “Dorothy – bitched about me once, with them at thirty-one,/but if I cannot forgive her that, what use as a person am I?/Her Arthur, taken by cancer in less than a year.” (more…)