Pic: Betty Heathfield (centre) in 1984
Born in Chesterfield into a working class family, on March 30th 1927, both her grandfathers had been miners and her father, Billy Vardy, was also a miner. He was in the army during the First World War, serving in the Lincolnshire Regiment. He later became a gas worker, switching jobs because his wife was fearful for his safety in the mines.
Their daughter, Betty Vardy was an exceptionally gifted school student and was able to win a county scholarship that should have taken her to university but her family did not have the material wherewithal to sustain her and she left school in 1943 to take a secretarial job to help boost the family’s finances.
She joined the auxiliary fire service during the war, a move that ensured she met politically left wing people. Towards the end of the war she attended a local rally to hear Harry Pollitt and joined the Young Communist League on the spot and later the Communist Party.
A participant in those days recalls her as “inexhaustible”, whether in YCL campaigns, dancing, hiking and camping. She would become a pioneer in women’s health through dance and exercise, eventually becoming a trainer of fitness professionals and a choreographer of fashion shows. To raise funds for involvement in the World Youth Festivals in the 1950s, she led her sisters, and the local YCL, in learning East European folk dances, which they performed in Chesterfield’s market place.
It was through her sporting activities that she met and later married Peter Heathfield in 1953, a keen racing cyclist and a miner, who became a leftwing Labour Party activist in the NUM. Her life for the next three decades was submerged by domesticity – she was the mother of four children with Pete. In this period, with Kath Westacott, she founded Chesterfield’s Woodcraft Folk and was later also active in assisting with North East Derbyshire Youth Theatre.
Undoubtedly, Betty was overshadowed in this period by his role as a full time official, later as General Secretary of first the Derbyshire NUM and then the national NUM. But Betty never lost her intellect nor her commitment and, when the cataclysmic miners’ strike of 1984-5 broke out, she burst onto the scene with energy, insight and true leadership.
She chaired and led the Women Against Pit Closures with fortitude and inspiration. WAPC grew from her example from the start, after she gathered some women together in her Chesterfield home. Together with Anne Scargill, they mobilised thousands of miners’ wives, partners and relatives into a fighting force that virtually sustained the strike for the whole year. WAPC continued to play a significant role in workers’ solidarity movements for some time to come.
Sadly, the fall out from the intense pressure of these events led to the separation and divorce of the Heathfields after 36 years of marriage. Betty began a politics degree at Lancaster University but fell ill in her last years, dying on February 16th 2006 at the age of 78.
Sources: Joe Clarke tribute; Guardian 22.2.06; GS personal knowledge; Max Levenson.