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Billy (W H) Stokes

William Henry – or Billy - Stokes was born in Earlsdon, Coventry on November 18th 1894, one of ten brothers and sisters. The son of a watchmaker, he left Earlsdon Council School at the age of 13 to work in a Coventry cycle factory, painting wheel rims. During his fifteenth and sixteenth years, he continued his education at night classes at Coventry Co-op Commercial Evening School in book keeping, commercial English, and maths.

In January 1913, he had had his first spat at work in a quarrel with a foreman over the speed of work. Having served his apprenticeship as a fitter, he joined the Steam Engine Makers Society in 1914. Stokes worked at the Daimler Coventry plant during World War One, which produced engines for tanks.  This seems to have given him the ability to claim exemption from military service, but he nonetheless joined the RAF in 1918 and married Francis Beckett in the same year.

His union was one of several which merged to form the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and he became a shop steward for it at the Daimler plant, where he developed his left wing views with another young steward, George Hodgkinson. The two men were key figures in the development of Coventry as a Labour city. (Although a staunch Labour man, Hodgkinson was decidedly on the left, being a long term supporter of the Soviet Union. He later became Labour Lord Mayor of Coventry in the immediate post-war years.)

Stokes actually did not join the Communist Party until about eighteen months after its formation, in early 1922. In that year, he was elected secretary of the local engineers' Lockout Committee. (Almost certainly, the foundation of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in 1920 led to a pre-emptive national lock out by the employers, who demanded massive wage reductions.)

 He was also a prominent figure in the local branch of the Minority Movement, being Secretary for most of the MM's existence in the city, delegate to the Midland Bureau of the MM and a member of its National Committee.

In 1925 Stokes stood for the Coventry AEU Presidency but came last of three candidates in the election. However, his role during the 1926 general strike did bring him more prominence. He successfully proposed a motion to the Coventry District Committee that: "the manufacture of Motor Vehicles cannot be separated from the question of Transport and. therefore we recommend our members to cease work at a time to be fixed". The TUC had simply called out various waves of workers but it was not thought that engineering workers counted. Nonetheless, as a result of this DC motion, a significant number of Coventry AEU members came out the following day, which turned out to be the last one of the strike.

Stokes stood as "The Trade Union Candidate" for Hearsall Ward in Coventry in late 1926 and was later a Communist candidate for St Paul's ward in 1932 in Hillfields ward.

He had a hand in the 1929 Austin workers’ strike and subsequent election of an Austin worker to a Friends of Soviet Russia delegation.

Stokes had been standing for office in the AEU at district level every year without much success, when, in 1931, he managed for the first time to come top of the poll for District President on the first ballot, but there was clearly a strong feeling against him, for the supporters of most other candidates united he was decisively beaten in the second ballot run off.

The personality of Stokes and his demeanour on broad committees was beginning to be seen as something of a negative force but the individuality of this was perhaps cloaked by the sectarian-sounding political language used by the Party in the early 1930s. In 1931, in a tirade against the perceived weakness of the AEU leadership on pay negotiations, Stokes proposed a motion of condemnation at the Coventry DC. This was defeated by a casting vote of the President but the AEU’s local officials now determined to deal with him. When Stokes signed a MM circular attacking the EC he was promptly suspended from all office in the union and did not have the firm support of the Coventry DC, which prevaricated.

Officials now queried Stokes’ entire role within the AEU, mainly due to his MM activities, and put a successful recommendation in 1932 for his expulsion to the EC. But the union appeals procedure prevented this when the Final Appeal Court met on and off during July and August 1932 and reinstated him to membership with full rights. [In November 1932, possibly his son, or certainly another W Stokes, was a teacher at Red Lane School in Coventry, who was sacked for refusing to take part in Empire Day celebrations.]

After some months, the DC eventually passed a motion regretting the outcome of all his actions, but took no further steps to support him. A Coventry shop stewards’ aggregate meeting then passed a motion protesting at his treatment. Stokes continued to campaign to get back into office but was declared ineligible to contest the District Presidency elections in 1933. He was also defeated in an election for DC membership.

By February 1934, Billy was working at Riley Motors. (Riley, which began as a cycle manufacturer, would soon merge with Morris’ Nuffield organisation, which in turn later merged into British Leyland.) The modern image of car plants as highly unionised establishments is not a picture of how things were in the early days, by any means. In this period just after the worst of the Depression, unionisation was poor and management were very strong.

Even so, a new management team made the mistake of introducing a number of changes heavy-handedly, and some workers were sacked while others were moved around. Co-incidentally, another leading Communist,Harbourne, also worked there and both he and Stokes saw the opportunity in July to organise a meeting inside the works at lunch time. Some two hundred workers braved the bosses to attend what was seen as the best attended union meeting at the plant for years. Eleven shop stewards were elected, including Stokes and. Harbourne.

Within a fortnight both had been elected to the Coventry AEU District Committee – at this point the only Communists on that body. Recognition of the union along with improvements in wages rates and other on-the-job matters soon followed and within a couple of years, Billy Stokes became overall convener of shop stewards at the Riley motor works. Riley’s - and his role in its unionisation – seemed to exonerate Stokes and, in 1934 he was allowed to stand, and finally won the post of District President. By 1935 he had been elected to the AEU National Committee, an important lay control mechanism over the EC.  Also that year,  Stokes was easily elected Chairman of the Coventry District Committee with the following voting:

  • W. H. Stokes 621
  • A. Maddison 177
  • J . W. Austin 102

This result defied an attempt to introduce new rules which, if adopted, would have excluded from office all militants.

Stokes was a speaker at the Internal Women’s Day rally in Market Square, Coventry, on 10th March 1935. The Chair was taken by his wife Mrs F Stokes (Lockhurst Lane Co-operative Guild) and other speakers included Alice Merthyr (Birmingham TGWU) and G  Kingston Secretary of Coventry NAFTA.

Election to the non-full time post of Coventry District President of the AEU followed in 1936 (extraordinarily even without being a member of the District Committee). Later that year, the Divisional Organiser, the main AEU official for the Midlands, based in Birmingham, retired, and the Communist Party, now anxious to build left unity, decided to back a left Labour man. But this did not suit Stokes, whose sense of careerism now got the better of him. His own new-found popularity arguably gave a good reason for him to go for the post. But much of this had been based on his work as a Communist. A life-changing decision now stood before him.

Having been formally advised in September 1936 that, should he break Party discipline and stand for the vacant post, he would be suspended for a short definite period, he promptly appealed against it. Having met with leading Communist J R Campbell (see separate entry) in December over the case, who probably sought assurances for the future, Stokes did nothing, prompting the Party to write seeking an “understanding". This had not been given by the time the election took place in January 1937.

Stokes won the election on the first ballot, getting a majority over all of the other nine candidates. Once he had been confirmed in his election as Divisional Organiser by the union, in March 1937, Stokes finally replied to the Communist Party over his act of disloyalty. Although Stokes was only suspended from membership for a short period as a result of ignoring Party discipline, he took this rap on the knuckles to make it a resigning issue and left the Communist Party for good. But he remained friendly towards it and its members for some time. He even had extensive talks in February 1940 with Harry Pollitt on the latter’s suggestion that Stokes consider standing for the AEU EC, with the Party’s full support.

Then, when the Daily Worker was banned in January 1941 and, for a time, even the Party looked like being banned, Stokes suddenly put distance between himself and all Communists. His political shift, from then onwards, became steadily ever more right-wing. By November 1941, he was discussing with the AEU President what he saw as a dangerous tendency for the influence of the Communist Party to be massively rising in the  "unofficial shop stewards movement". It was a complete 180 degree turn for Stokes to have arrived at this juncture. 

A probable coherent explanation for the breach with the Party was that the AEU had nominated Stokes during 1940 as a member of the wartime Midland Regional Board, established by the Ministry of Supply.  It was the start of a long process of absorption and incorporation into the British State for Billy Stokes and very many of trades unionists. His anti-communism now assumed huge proportion, especially after his involvement in an AEU delegation to the USA in 1949, to the United Auto Workers, during the course of which he made speeches arguing for the role of NATO as a peacemaker!

In 1950, he was appointed a Justice of the Peace in Coventry and then became, successively, Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Ministry of Supply Board. Although he had soon left this role, when he was appointed to the government’s Iron and Steel Corporation on which he sat for the next three years, having left the service of his union as a result. Although this now rendered him technically unemployed, Stokes was able to widely travel in the United States and Canada with his wife and on returning it was as if he had never been a militant trades unionist.

By the time of the Cold War, he was known as a vociferous opponent of Communists and, in 1954, he was appointed Personnel Manager of Armstrong Siddeley, a post from which he retired in 1959. From 1959 to 1964 he served as a part-time member of the East Midlands Electricity Board. From the early 1960s he was increasingly engaged in lecturing to pre-retirement courses and to retired people's organisations. He became a JP in 1950 and was Chairman of the Coventry bench in 1966. He died in 1977, having been made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire).

Source: Daily Worker 31st October 1932; “Communist Politics and Shop Stewards in Engineering 1935-46”, Richard Croucher, University of Warwick thesis - April 1977; W H Stokes papers, Warwick University Modern Records Department. Daily Worker miscellaneous references too numerous to mention.