There’s this school in Bingham. The Toot Hill comprehensive school. Popular with the children of a large number of Nottingham commuters that have chosen to settle in this dormitory village, more of a town these days, set halfway between Nottingham and Newark, just off the old Roman Road known as the Fosse way, or now, the A46.
It’s not a very attractive town with most of the buildings being quite new and constructed with all the imagination of a dull municipal architect, although there is a very handsome and ancient buttercross set in the market square.
In 1979 the manual and ancillary workers employed by the Nottinghamshire County Council at the Toot Hill comprehensive became caught up in the Low pay campaign of the National Union of Public Employees and joined the strike action, popularly known to history as the great winter of discontent. Thus, the caretakers and the cleaning staff together with the school meals staff came out. And it was bitter and controversial.
It was a bad winter and without the caretaking staff to stoke the boilers that kept the school warm then the Toot Hill school faced closure. In addition, there was to be no cleaning. Not of the classrooms, not of the corridors , not of the toilets. But Nottinghamshire County Council, under hard-line Tory control, was determined to keep the school open and face down the manual workers. They hired dozens of Calor gas heaters and the school buildings became encased in a ring of large Calor gas cylinders placed outside the windows of classrooms and corridors. The teachers decided not to support the strike and kept working and the council managed to find enough strike breaking cleaners to keep emergency cover.
Early each morning in the bitter winter cold, the striking caretakers and cleaners would mount a picket at the entrance drive, at the top of the hill where incoming teachers would drive up to the school carpark. Their instructions were not to try and stop them entering the school but to hand out strike leaflets and to try and persuade them to support the low pay campaign. For the teachers It was a fairly friendly “information picket” although there were real attempts to stop the regular deliveries of replacement Calor gas cylinders.
On and on went the strike through that dreadful winter and it was my task as the regional organiser to visit this picket line, and many others throughout the county, to keep support going, pay strike pay and generally keep an eye on things.
It was a bleak, cold and frosty Monday morning, horribly early, 5 am or thereabouts. Five or six pickets, school caretakers and cleaning staff, well wrapped up, stamping to keep warm in the freezing temperatures, waiting for the gas cylinder delivery trucks to try and stop them entering, ready for the teachers to arrive to try and persuade them not to enter; a few posters, official strike notices, armbands, stickers.
A white saloon car appeared at the bottom of the drive. It was too early for the teachers. The saloon stopped and it was clear we were being watched by the driver. He started to move up the drive and suddenly, without the slightest warning, he accelerated. At high speed he sped towards the picket, causing them and me to leap out of the way, for had we not done so he would have hit at least one of us. The car had swerved deliberately towards the picket and now sped off up the drive at high speed into the school carpark. We were in a bit of shock. I ran up to the car park to accost the driver, He had spun round in the car park and was now facing the exit. I ran to the driver’s window which was down. Grabbed him by the throat of his white shirt and called him an unprintable type of person, accused him of deliberately trying to ram us and punched him in the chest. Hard.
He resisted and grabbed my wrists and we struggled for a minute or so. He shouted out he was a police officer and then produced a pair of epaulets saying he was Inspector Smith. And that I was nicked. My aggression subsided, and he roughly handcuffed me and was bundling me into the car. By now the other caretakers had reached the car park, equally angry, I shouted to them that I was being arrested and they should call the regional office.
He took me, Inspector Smith, to Bingham Police Station where I was formally charged with obstruction and assaulting a police officer. I was photographed and fingerprinted and an inventory of my possessions was made. In the pocket of my Barbour jacket was £15,000. Money I was distributing as strike pay to various locations around the county. Russian gold, Inspector Smith called it as I was banged up in a Bingham cell.
It was not long before the Union solicitor arrived and I was duly bailed to appear before Bingham magistrates to answer to the charges. I can’t now recall the name of the solicitor. She had offices up on Derby Road and a large black dog and had been commissioned by the Unions regular solicitors, Thompsons, to deal with the arrest. The arrest attracted a fair amount of press coverage. Not that arrests on the picket lines were uncommon, they were not, but the arrest of a full-time union officer was a little unusual.
A problem arose in that the chairperson of the Bingham magistrates turned out to be the Chair of Nottinghamshire County Council Education Committee. Notts County Council were the employers against whom the strike was directed. I was advised to make an application to a High Court Judge at the Nottingham Shire Hall for an alternative venue for the trial because of the possibility of bias in Bingham. A barrister was appointed and thus it was I appeared before Mr. Justice Savage, in his chambers, at the Shire Hall Courts. The Shire Hall was in very poor condition as the cleaner’s caretakers and boilermen employed therein were all out on strike in the same low pay campaign. Thus, the place was freezing cold, it stank, the toilets were blocked, the ancient stone floors filthy with litter, uncleaned for many weeks. Mr. Justice savage wore a red robe, but no wig. I think he only wore the robe because it was so cold with just a two bar electric heater. There was a military officer in the room in dress uniform with a sword across his knees.
“Are you the chap responsible for the strike here?” asked the judge.
Despite my lengthy political explanation of the low wages that the Shire Hall manual staff earned, in comparison with that of judges for exapple, and the deep political necessity for the strike and the need to establish a mimimum wage, during which my barrister was desperately trying to shut me up, the application to change venue was denied.
And so, to the Bingham magistrates court. Councillor Minkley, she who was the chairperson of the Education Committee decided not to sit and I do not now recall who it was who heard the case.
As luck would have it we had found an elderly German piano teacher who had been out walking her dog on the relevant morning. She had witnessed the white saloon car, driving at high speed and swerving towards the picket. She had not seen what happened in the car park but was a first rate independant witness as to the behavior which prompted the subsequent confrontation and she completely corroborated the narrative and evidence of the other picketers.
My own evidence was that as the responsible union officer I felt it necessary to advise the driver that I would have to report him to the police for dangerous driving. When I told him this, in a polite but firm manner, He replied by saying “ I am the fucking police and you, you communist bastard, are nicked”
I somewhat doubt that the magistrates believed this was the truth of what occurred in the carpark, but the evidence of the German piano teacher was so strong that it was sufficient to have the charges struck out.
There was quite a lot of press coverage of the trial. It was the days before social media and I am sure if it happened today the local twitter feeds would be full of negative comments. To express your hatred in those days required that you find a notepad, a pen, an envelope, a stamp and then search for an address and go to the trouble of visiting a post box. Even so, there were one or two rather horrible letters. The one that most pleased me was from the British National Party who sent a letter addressed to the “communist bastard” Nottingham. No name no address. The local post office kindly filled in the details and delivered it safely to my home in Snienton!
The story of the strike at the Shirehall is told here: Winter of Discontent and the Nottingham Shire Hall
We never really reconcilled with Councillor Minkly, even though we sent her a valentine card: