The Silver Fox

From left to right: Jane McClintock, Andrew Hobday, Tony Elworthy, Terry Weil, David, Peter Bialsky, the Hoffmeister Peter Alderson-Smith, Jonathon, Dave Gravelle. Outside the Magdala Tavern circa 1983

It is sometimes said that ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’. In 1984, the hour was the Miners’ Strike and the man was Dave Gravelle, aka ‘the Silver Fox’. Although home to every possible shade of political opinion from the Nazis to Stalin (usually proclaimed at full volume) the Magdala by and large remained true to the left wing traditions of Hampstead. Arguably the Miners’ Strike was the most important event in post-war British history. It decided the century-old battle over whether organised labour or global capitalism would control the country. It was a tumultuous time with passions raised to fever pitch and nowhere more so than in South End Green.

Invitation to Miners money-raising event: Heidi Lee and Brian Loughrin 1984

Although far from the main coalfields, there was a small but significant mining district in East Kent around the town of Deal. Their workers were among the most determined of the strikers and were the last people to surrender in 1985. Given its known political stance, they naturally gravitated to the Mag and chose it as their London headquarters for the duration. From here they organised street bucket collections and various fund raising schemes. Dave Gravelle, although a local, had come from a mining family and became committed to the cause. If the Mag customers flagged in their efforts, Dave was there to rouse and enthuse. Dave was a tough heavily-built Londoner who had spent a short period at Her Majesty’s pleasure; his time doing porridge had stirred a deep-rooted morality and he emerged from the nick with something of a born-again idealism for social justice. (This could on occasion veer towards the incongruous with a Cockney hard nut grimly enforcing liberal values: “If they want to ‘ave their origami class in ‘ere, they’re bleedin’ gonna GET their origami class in ‘ere!!! ROIGHT????????”)

Kenwood Lakeside concert – before closure

Dave’s main efforts concerned arranging home and away cricket matches between the Magdala team and the Betteshangar Colliery team to raise cash for the miners’ charities. The away match was quite successful as the Magdala managed to borrow some decent cricketers from other hostelries and the result of the match was a draw. By agreement the match had only lasted three hours and ended before 5pm to allow the teams and their supporters to adjourn to the Magnet pub in Deal for a necessary five hours of recuperative drinking before returning by coach to London.

The second match (at home on Parliament Hill Fields) was even shorter. Numerous absences, (especially of the experienced cricketers), led to Dave Gravelle having to recruit his team directly from the saloon bar. One of the Magdala openers was an Irishman who had never played the game before. Dave’s only coaching consisted of telling the man that all he had to do was to go out and hit the ball with the bat: “It’s roughly the same as hurling.”

The Betteshangar team on the other hand now included a bowler who occasionally played for the prestigious Kent County Cricket team. The players and spectators were back in the pub by 4pm as the aggregate score by the Magdala amounted to fourteen runs including five extras.

Tony Elworthy about to take strike at the Miners Cricket Match in Parliament Hill Fields, 1984

During the Strike in 1984, in a tragic accident the Mag regular John Todd fell from a ladder while fixing a roof on Constantine Road. His injuries were so severe that he ended as a quadriplegic being treated in Stoke Mandiville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. While there he shared a two man ward with a young Libyan in a similar condition. One day a group of Special Branch men arrived to tell them that they were about to be honoured by a visit from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on one of her ‘comforting the afflicted’ photo opportunities. She would be accompanied by her friend and supporter the celebrity Sir Jimmy Saville. The volume of abuse with which this news was received by John (a Geordie whose brother was a striking miner) and the Libyan (whose home town had just been bombed by the US Air Force in collusion with Thatcher) was such that the Special Branch hastily re-routed the tour to a less hazardous part of the hospital.

The Royal Free Hospital of the future perhaps? Thanks to the anon who created this montage.

One other reference to the Miners’ Strike concerned a lady who, to the best of knowledge, probably only made one visit to the Magdala, presumably as a guest. Whenever the topic arises of whether female stand-up comedians can be as funny as males, one can only point to the brilliant and hugely missed Linda Smith. She died aged 48 in 2006 and to many remains irreplaceable. She was also sympathetic to the miners and related one of the most memorable anecdotes of the conflict.

One of the common sights of the time was that of pickets standing around all day outside the colliery gates warming themselves beside a burning brazier. One day after a heavy snowstorm, some of the pickets at a County Durham colliery decided to entertain themselves by building a snowman. A passing police car saw the completed figure, backed up the road, then drove at full speed into the snowman knocking it to pieces. They drove away laughing and jeering at the pickets. The next day the miners defiantly rebuilt their snowman. The police returned, spotted it, again backed up the street, and again drove their police car full tilt into the figure. What they did not realise was that the pickets had built their second snowman around a concrete bollard.

 Dave Gravelle’s brother John was a less frequent visitor to the Magdala as he spent a considerable amount of his time running a small private ‘cramming’ school. In this venture he was assisted by another regular called ‘The Hoffmeister’. Both of them were graduates of the 1960s and its attitudes, and the school staffroom was rarely without its dustbin full of chilling lagers while dope was always on tap. This inevitably led to trouble as on the occasion when some prospective parents met John in his role as headmaster but decided to remove their children as he had fallen over during the interview. Not long afterwards, the pair promised one student that he would gain a scholarship to Oxford University. He was duly hidden away while Gravelle and the Hoffmeister took the exam in his place. Unfortunately, they failed.

The Fountain at Xmas, SEG

To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the small heading ‘Under Ken Wood’


Feb 28:           1 South End Green – Prologue

Mar 7:             2 Where Eagles Dared

Mar 7:             3 Murder and the Magdala

Mar 14:           4 The Hepburns

Mar 14:           5 Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho

Mar 21:           6 Garland and Mercer

Mar 21:           7 Laureates and Spies

Mar 21:           8 The Silver Fox

Mar 28:           9 The Hoffmeister and Kelly

April 4:           10 The Harvey Brothers

April 4:           11 The Journos

April 11:          12 Five Funerals and a Resurrection

April 18:          13 Scallawag

April 25:         14 Crime and Punishment

May 2:            15 Good Companions

May 9:            16 Sasthi Brata

May 9:            17 Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat

May 16:           18 Eddie Linden

May 16:           19 The Branch Offices

May 23:          20 The Mulls Kid

May 30:          21 The Musos

May 30:          22 Closing Time