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Obituary: Betty Heathfield (1927-2006)

Betty Heathfield, who died aged 78, will be chiefly remembered for the work she did to organise the miners’ wives movement during the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. As chair of Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC), she helped pull together a mass movement of women, essential to raising money and food for the besieged mining communities, and who stood shoulder to shoulder with their men on the picket lines.

Heathfield was brought up in a typical Chesterfield Labour Party family, excelled at school, but like so many of her pre-war generation – men and woman – had to leave school early to bring money into the household.

At 18 she heard Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt speak at a local meeting, which persuaded her to join the Young Communist League, before becoming a full member of the party.

She married Peter Heathfield in 1953, when he was still a working miner. He became an official for the National Union of Mineworkers in 1966, and they worked closely together for the NUM, crucially through the strike of 1984-85, by which time he was NUM general secretary. They separated in 1989.

Unfortunately, her early political experiences proved decisive during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. She acted as an auxiliary of the NUM bureaucracy, in ensuring that WAPC remained a tightly controlled annex to the NUM.

During the strike hundreds of miners’ wives groups sprang up, involving thousands of women. Many women wanted to do more, much more, than collect food and money, make speeches at solidarity meetings, and support the picket lines; they wanted to be part of a mass democratic movement that could help determine the direction and outcome of the strike.

But Heathfield, together with Ann Scargill, Arthur’s wife, obstructed such attempts. The NUM officials were extremely grateful for the support of the wives, but, at the same time, wary of the dynamic of the uncontrolled character of the movement.

At the second national miners’ wives conference, on 9-11 November 1984, in Chesterfield, Ann Scargill and Betty Heathfield – self-appointed leaders, never elected – ensured that a mere 40 wives were allowed to be present, to represent the hundreds of groups. The energy of the miners’ wives was frittered away, in frivolous exercises, like petitioning the Queen.

None of this detracts from the fact that Betty was widely admired and loved by the miners’ wives, precisely because she was one of them. She could have done so much more with the movement she inspired.

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