The Battle of Orgreave is the name given to a confrontation between police and picketing miners at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, in June 1984. It had been ten years since the previous miners’ strike, which had brought down the conservative government of the day. But in 1984, when the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) staged 5,000 to 6,000 pickets across the UK, the government was ready to confront back.
Orgreave strike started out like most others, with stone and coal throwing from the miners. Then, arguments got more and more heated.
An iconic photo was made that day of a woman narrowly missing a baton strike. The photograph was by John Harris who had spent a year on the picket lines photographing key moments of the Miners Strikes. The subject of the photograph was Lesley Boulton, also a photographer and member of Women Against Pit Closures. Boulton remembered:
I was attending to a man who was on the ground and seemed to have some chest injuries. I was standing trying to attract the attention of a police officer in the road to get him an ambulance. Because I thought, I don’t know how serious it was, but it warranted some medical attention. As I stood up to attract this policeman’s attention, this officer on a police horse just bore down on me.
This was the very moment the picture was taken. Fortunately for me there was someone standing behind me who was also with the injured miner, who just yanked me out of the way. John Harris, who was taking the pictures, was using a motor drive and I’ve seen not just the famous photograph but the subsequent picture which shows the baton going down very close to me. I felt it go past me. I was just missed by the skin of my teeth really.
“That part was very, very disturbing. Because the police were actually having a very good time, they were enjoying this huge exercise of brutal authority, so I found that very disturbing.
Despite the photo being widely disseminated via pamphlets, it would only appear in one of seventeen national newspapers, leading to allegations of bias against the miners. The exception was the Observer which on 24 June 1984 printed it next to an article by Nick Davies titled, “‘Police make their own law’ in pit war” and another photo of an injured policeman. That reflected the prevailing mood of the public: on June 30, the Economist reported that only 35 percent of the British public supported the miners, and a Gallup poll the following month showed 79 percent disapporved of the NUM, its leadership, and its methods.
At Orgreave, ninety-three arrests were made, with 51 picketers and 72 policemen injured. At the Labour Party conference on 3 October 1984, the Labour MP Jo Richardson would use a copy of the photo to denounce the policing of the strikes. A Police Federation spokesman shrugged it off, noting: “A picture is two-dimensional and should be treated with great care. If the police officer was as near to her as the photograph suggests, it’s hard to see how he missed her”.
This debate caused the British Journal of Photography to weigh in via an editorial on its November 1984 issue: the photo “alleged to show a mounted policeman swinging his truncheon towards a woman demonstrator. The picture was widely circulated as anti-police propaganda and examination of it brings no suspicion of the manipulation which has been suggested. Whether or not the apparent proximity of policeman and demonstrator is an illusion resulting from the foreshortening produced by a long lens is difficult to ascertain and we understand the photographer has denied this.”
Ninety-five picketers were charged and tried in 1987, but the trials collapsed. In 1991, South Yorkshire police were forced to pay out half a million pounds to 39 miners who were arrested in the events at the Battle of Orgreave.
See: BBC report