Winter of Discontent and the Nottingham Shire Hall


In the bowels of the old Shire hall worked the unseen unsung servants that kept the ancient complex clean and who would break their backs shovelling coke into the great boilers deep in the cellars that warmed the courts and offices and public spaces of the busy crowded and noble building.  Low paid and of low status they never feature in the history books and memories, they clean and sweep as they have done for centuries, as they cleaned the urine from the shire hall steps when public hangings enthralled the masses, so they now cleaned and swept the cells, the judges rooms the courts, till the last days of the Shire Hall,  they cleaned and swept and shovelled coke, unseen and unsung.


In 1979 they were unionised.  Each and every one of the cleaners and caretakers and stokers was in the union.  And they knew they were of the lowest paid and of the lowest status.  It was to be these people, these ordinary humble people, from their corporation houses, their rented rooms, their council estates, these who were to carry the  union fight for a minimum wage, who were to make their stand against low pay.


In October of that year of 1979 the National Union of Public Employees was about to launch their great minimum wage campaign which developed, somewhat painfully into the national strike, popularly known as the winter of discontent.  Yes the cleaners and sweepers and shovellers of coal were discontented. Who wouldn’t be on less than 40 quid a week?


 As it happened, the launching of  national strike and the opening of the legal term neatly coincided.  It was decided, somewhere deep in the union, that the juxtaposition of the well heeled judges and counsel with the heretofore invisible cleaners and shovellers would be iconic of whole argument against low pay.   The cleaners and shovellers were persuaded to picket the shire hall on the very day that the legal term began.  Oh how they were so pleased to be asked!


On the appointed day the great and the good of the entireNottinghamestablishment would attend upon St Mary’s church for a service of thanksgiving.  They would then process along the High Pavement to the court, firstly the judges in their scarlet robes and long bottomed wigs, led by their tipstaff bearing maces, escorted by a military guard and followed by the Mayor and the Sheriff and the Lord Lieutenant and the all the Queen’s Counsel, and all the junior counsel in their wigs and their gowns, all in order of precedence and followed still, by the wives in fine new hats, costing several times more than a shovellers weekly wage.  And so they would process, down the High Pavement displaying their wealth and prestige and status to the all the world.


On the Shire Hall steps stood the cleaners and shovellers, picket formed, placards raised, declaring their strike, striking at last, against low pay.


Seen at last, heard at last, noticed at last, they shouted their wage rates at the £600 a day Q.C.’s, the well pensioned judges, and the ladies hats.  Policemen moved upon the cleaners and shovellers, pushed them back.  But you are strong when you navy for work, strong when your blood is up, and back they shoved, shouting for decent wages.  Their was a crowed, there were television cameras, there were policemen, a great melee ensued for the cleaners and shovellers held the main door to the Shire hall and the judges were approaching with their military escort, with drawn swords.   At the last moment the policemen, obviously working to a pre planned arrangement, opened one of the minor doors of the building and the great and noble procession passed into the ancient building, many amongst them bearing that very English slightly embarrassed and shameful grin so common to the confused middle classes.


It had been planned as an iconic opening to the Nottingham strike.  Afterwards they were to return to work and the campaign would move on to other targets, schools, hospitals and yes cemeteries.   But the shire hall cleaners and shovellers would have none of it.  They had struck a blow.  Their blood was up and no matter how hard the union’s officers tried to get them back to work, and in truth they didn’t try very hard, the cleaners and shovellers refused.  They stayed out. They kept the picket going.  They were out for the whole of the winter, the winter of discontent.


And so it was that the boilers remained unlit.  The public spaces, the offices of the court and the judge’s rooms remained unclean and un-swept.  The toilets stank.  Without heat the ancient building became as a great fridge with shivering judges and stamping barristers.  The courtrooms and public spaces became ankle deep in crisp packets, fag ends, old newspapers, discarded sandwiches and picketer’s leaflets.   Still the picket stood.  Many passed through the picket for they had pressing legal business to conduct within, but money was pressed upon the cleaners and shovellers as they passed. And sympathy expressed.  All through the winter.


Finally the great strike ended, not terribly successfully in terms of money; But for these unseen unsung heroes the moral value of what they had done would never leave them.  Nor would it ever leave the labour movement for it is the likes of those forgotten few, those humble few, that the eventual adoption of a national minimum wage was achieved. Perhaps the minimum wage is not as good and not as strong as those cleaners and shovellers would have wanted.  But without that fight there would be nothing.


A small forgotten story.  Not a story of the left but perhaps a story for the left.

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