South Tyneside Mayor relives miners' strike at South Shields Museum exhibition

South Tyneside Mayor Coun Ernest Gibson recalls experiences as a pitman on visit to South Shields Museum miners' strike exhibition

The Mayor of South Tyneside, Councillor Ernest Gibson with ex-mine workers, Ronnie Slater, Jacky Payton and Ronnie Peterson
The Mayor of South Tyneside, Councillor Ernest Gibson with ex-mine workers, Ronnie Slater, Jacky Payton and Ronnie Peterson

Last night the Mayor of South Tyneside carried out an official engagement which transported him back 30 years.

It was not a pleasant trip.

Coun Ernest Gibson attended the preview of an exhibition at South Shields Museum to mark the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike.

As a 19-year-old miner at Westoe Colliery in South Shields, Ernest Gibson watched and experienced the bitter dispute at first hand.

South Shields born and bred, Ernest went straight from school at 16 into mining.

Nine months later, after training, he was working underground at Westoe.

His grandfather and father had worked down the pit and Ernest grew up in a mining community in the Whiteleas area of South Shields.

He has boyhood memories of walking home from church on a Sunday with his grandfather and the friendly greetings and banter they received from mining neighbours on the way home.

“Everyone was friendly. It was the sort of community where, if you were out and it started to rain, somebody would bring your washing in and iron it for you,” says Ernest.

“There were collections for injured miners. People in that community helped each other.”

Then came the strike.

Ernest was lucky in that, as a teenager, he was still living at home, although he had to give up his Cortina car, which was his pride and joy.

“Every miner can tell a different story about the strike,” he says.

“It was a devastating time for miners with families. At Christmas they had nothing to give the children. Marriages were on the line because of money problems.

“The hardship was terrible. Kids went without.”

He believes the miners had no other option but to come out in an effort to save their jobs and communities.

“We were fighting for our communities, for the 2,500 underground jobs at Westoe, and the millions of tonnes of coal which would have lasted well into the future and provided the country with its own energy.

“Arthur Scargill may have made mistakes, but he had to stand up for the rights of the people he represented because Mrs Thatcher was out to break the miners.

“It was a case of break the most powerful union and the rest are easy to get. The miners were on her radar, her personal agenda.

“There was no option but to strike, and the miners at Westoe were totally united.”

They did not want to see the big reserves of coal at their pit sterilised by closure. Although the mayor appreciates that times have moved on and cargoes arriving in the Tyne are good for the port, the sight of coal being imported from abroad into a river which once made its name exporting vast tonnages of the commodity is still difficult to come to terms with.

His strike memories include the food banks, which are nothing new, and the street collections.

“The wider community was generous, and women were the backbone of the strike. They were fantastic, organising collections and soup kitchens,” he says.

What particularly rankles is Mrs Thatcher’s remark about “the enemy within.”

Ernest says: “It was an insult. The miners were working people fighting for the right to work and for their industry.

“Mining communities were family-orientated and had good ethics. They were generous people but they were treated worse than criminals.

“We were fighting to save something important and when the strike ended we marched back with heads held high.

Ernest was elected as a councillor for Whiteleas in 1999, and is a member of the Harton and Westoe Miners Heritage Group.

The group will be taking part in a march, with mining banners, from the museum on Saturday at around 11am with the Westoe Colliery brass band.

The exhibition, which opens today, will run over the weekend.

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