When 'Tubthumping' stars Chumbawamba took part in the miner's strike, and wrote a song about Fitzwilliam, near Hemsworth

Back in 1997, the song Tubthumping became an instant and unforgettable chart hit, and its creators fleetingly became global superstars.

Monday, 23rd August 2021, 12:30 pm
Chumbawamba's 1997 song 'Tubthumping' became an international hit.

But 12 years previously, when Chumbawamba were a penny-counting punk band not long out of uni, they wrote a song about the miner’s strike, centred around the pit village of Fitzwilliam, near Hemsworth.

Among all but Chumbawamba’s closest followers, the song has remained an unknown quantity. Here is the story of that song, the events that inspired it and why the group treasures it.

“We were influenced by other political bands, but at the same time we knew we weren’t anything like them,” says Boff Whalley, the Chumbawamba guitarist who wrote the lyrics to ‘Fitzwilliam’.

The miner's strike lasted for a year between 1984 and 1985.

The band was formed by 10 politically charged Leeds Uni students, who lived together in an old Victorian house in Armley.

After their Tubthumping success, the band would notoriously encourage fans to steal their record if they couldn’t afford it, and threw a bucket of water over deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. More on that later.

But the roots of their anarchic approach to the world lay in their formative years in the early 1980s.

“We were different kinds of people but we shared ideas about things like the miners’ strike, war and the government,” Whalley, now 60, recalls.

Chumbawamba guitarist Boff Whalley looks back at the song's creation with fondness.

“Some were more active than others, but that was a good thing really.”

The band’s members came from working class backgrounds in, among other places, Billingham, Barnsley, or in Whalley’s case, Burnley.

As a result, he says that when the year-long strike started, as it did in the spring of 1984, it became a natural movement for the band to involve themselves in.

Meanwhile, at Kinsley Drift Mine, a little to the south of Fitzwilliam, a then 17 year-old Pete Wordsworth is among the youngest pit workers to be caught up in the industrial action.

Whalley was a guitarist in the band for 30 years, until the group amicably went their separate ways in 2012.

He’s been in the job less than a year after joining straight out of school. His dad Graham, known as Greg to his mates, works there too.

Pete, who is now the deputy mine manager at the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, recalls: “After I started, I was feeling pretty well established.

“I was earning money, which I obviously wasn’t before and I was working with my dad. So I was in a comfort zone.”

But then everything changed when the strike was called.

The National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield

“My mum didn’t work so there was no income all of a sudden," Pete adds. "So for 12 months it was just a case of getting by.

“Without friends and family I dread to think what would have happened.”

As Pete admits, the nationwide strike which started in 1984 and lasted a year “wasn’t a total surprise”.

Relations between miners and Margaret Thatcher’s government had been in freefall over proposed pit closures since the start of the decade. Things came to a head as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) claimed there were secret plans to close 70 pits, as opposed to the 20 publicly announced.

Ministers strongly denied any such plans, but Cabinet papers from the time, released for the first time in 2014, proved the claim was accurate.

Eager to show solidarity, members of Chumbawamba joined the picket lines in Frickley, South Elmsall, and spent time with mining families and support groups for the wives.

Wakefield Express newspaper coverage from the time of the strike.

In an effort to offer practical as well as moral support, the band linked up with another punk group to play a UK-wide benefit tour to raise cash.

But a “knackered old tour bus”, which Whalley says “broke down all over the country”, cost them dearly.

“Because of the bus, we ended up making about £60 from a 10 day tour,” he recalls.

“Around the same time we’d stand outside shopping centres with buckets for the Frickley Miners Support Group and we’d make £60 in a day. At that point, we realised we’re doing this wrong.”

Back on the picket lines, Whalley admits he was surprised to find that the atmosphere was not all doom and gloom.

“Before I went down you think of these blokes who’ve got no money, and you think they’re always stood round fires and it’s awful," he explains.

“But then you get there and they’re all just having a laugh and taking the p***. "And then you realise, of course they are, because they’re just like everyone else.”

Whalley, who has since written a play about the strike from the point of view of three sisters, says it's important to remember that in troubled times and places, “people still get married and have babies and birthday parties.”

Pete, whose family actually hailed from the Barnsley mining village of Jump, despite working at the Kinsley mine with his dad, agrees that community spirit was a vital source of strength for those involved.

“Everyone rallied round together and supported each other,” he says.

“That was the thing about pit villages, that’s just what they did.

“It was tough but there was never a day where you woke up and thought you wouldn’t get fed. There was too many nice people about to make sure that wouldn’t happen.

“There were the soup kitchens, where my mum helped out and we were donated some chickens, so we had free eggs for a while.”

Three weeks after the notorious Battle of Orgreave in June, where picketers and police were involved in violent clashes, rioting broke out in Fitzwilliam.

Twenty people were arrested, with nine later convicted of public order offences.

Public sympathy in the community however, was staunchly with those who became known as The Fitzwilliam Nine. Footage on YouTube captures the peaceful and noisy demonstration held outside Castleford Magistrates Court on the day they appeared.

Having witnessed the strike first hand, Whalley and the band felt compelled to put pen-to-paper. ‘Fitzwilliam’ was released as an LP in 1985.

For those who only know Chumbawamba for Tubthumping and its upbeat tale about boozing, chaos and defeating adversity, Fitzwilliam couldn’t be more different.

Tune-wise it’s a slow moving, almost hymn-like folk song.

Its message however, with lines such as “Cops in the village to truncheon your bride” and “Come out of your houses - there’s a war on outside”, were anything but as subtle.

Pete recalls how he and his father picketed but were keen to distance themselves from the violent scenes, such as those seen at Orgreave.

“My dad always said if it’s a dispute about the mines it should be sorted out through negotiation and talking round a table,” he remembers.

Whalley offers a different take however, saying that the strike actually prompted some Chumbawamba members to renounce their pacifism.

“Rather than just sitting cross legged and waiting for the police to arrest them, we thought people were entitled to fight back,” he counters.

The song switches from a rallying cry to a more sombre tone, but the line, “Wiser and stronger the people have changed”, does strike a rare and surprising chord of hope.

Whalley says the band wanted to talk about people and the future, “rather than it just being about a place where people got their heads cracked open and sent to prison, or people struggled because they had no money.”

He says that if he was writing a song about the legacy of pit closures now he’d “avoid singing a tale of woe, loss and damage to communities,” as “shocking” as he found the plight of Fitzwilliam after the Kinsley mine shut for good in 1986.

The song remains a collector’s item - in 10 years on YouTube it’s had a relatively meagre 13,000 views, compared with the 9.3million who've watched Tubthumping.

But for Whalley, the track and the era in which it was written marked an “absolute turning point” for the versatile band, as he believes it proved they could be anti-establishment without being overly noisy.

“We all think protest music is Rage Against the Machine and blokes with guitars shouting,” he says.

“That stuff is brilliant, but what we were saying was, “There’s another way to do it as well.”

Despite ‘Tubthumping’ introducing Chumbawamba to a whole new audience in the late 90s, the band did anything but mellow.

Whalley recalls how frontman Dunstan Bruce laughed down the phone when asked by record label EMI if they wanted to retract the suggestion that fans should steal from HMV if they couldn’t pay for the record. Vocalist Alice Nutter, who sang on 'Fitzwilliam' had made the remark on US television.

Soaking Prescott at the 1998 Brit Awards, shortly after Bruce proclaimed that New Labour had “sold out the dockers, just like they’ll sell out the rest of us”, remains an enduring memory too.

“EMI Germany (who the band were actually signed to) thought that was really funny, Whalley recalls, with a smile.

“But EMI Britain were livid. One of their heads sent us a personal note, saying they were friends with Tony Blair and they took it as a personal slight.”

Back in Fitzwilliam, after Kinsley mine shut, Pete’s father retired and Pete himself went onto work at a coalfield in Selby.

As part of his work with mining museum now, Pete says it’s “imperative” that the stories of those who worked down the pits are told, and that people are educated about the crucial role coal played in helping post-war Britain back to its feet.

Last year, he returned to Fitzwilliam for the first time since the strike.

"I remembered how it all looked," he says. "As you drove down the lane, you had the offices on the left-hand side and the pit on the right.

"It all looks a bit overgrown now. I'm surprised they haven't really done anything with the area because it was a big piece of land.

“I realised it was probably nearly 40 years since I’d been and I just stood there recalling those good memories,” he says.

“This was where I got my first employment. And it's where I made a lot of friends.”

Local Democracy Reporting Service

NUM president Arthur Scargill led the industrial action.