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Born in 1897, Tommy Degnan began work in the pit at Wigan at the age of 13, he immediately joined the Lancashire Miners Federation of which he remained a member until 1922. He served for a period, with distinction, on the executive of the county federation. When the First World War broke out, and volunteers were asked for at the pit, Tommy and some of his mates volunteered. He wasn’t in France long before he was made a prisoner of war and, with other former miners, deported to spend the rest of the war digging coal in Poland, in forced labour.
Back from the war, he joined the ranks of the Wigan miners once again, joining the Labour Party there in 1919. Tommy took a leading part in the national miners’ strike of 1921 but he and most of his family found themselves out of work after it. In 1922, Tommy’s brother, Ted, started work at Barrow Colliery in Yorkshire, and Tommy joined him at the same pit for a time. But soon moved to Main, where he worked up until the General Strike. Tommy joined the Barnsley Labour Party in 1922 but the same year also took out a Communist Party card, it then still being permissible to be in the two parties at once, but remained a member of the Communist Party until his death.
Ted and Tommy were not long in the Worsborough area when the 1926 General Strike and miners’ lockout broke out. In the course of this, Tommy acquired a reputation as a fearless and incorruptible militant that would stand him in good stead from then on. His own pit being solid, he engaged in travelling around with a number of miners in the West Riding – Bradford, Huddersfield and so on – collecting solidarity money for the miners and their families. When he came back to WorsboroughBridge one day, he was to find that a number of scabs from Sheffield had stopped their bus to harass some miners’ wives who had shaken their fists at them. Tommy organised a group of strikers to waylay the scab bus the next day and coolly led the men in beating the miscreants up. In the melee, the bus was turned over and Tommy was confined by legal injunction to his home village of Worsborough Bridge as a result.
He got a start back at BarnsleyMain in 1927 and was elected pit delegate on the first attempt to the Barnsley miners’ council. But this was short-lived because of a strike the next year when the employer demanded a cut in the shift rate from 7/9d to 6/- and Tommy ended up getting sacked. For some years after, victimisation, unemployment and even imprisonment were features of Tommy’s life as he became a key figure in the struggle of unemployed miners in the Barnsley area. At one point, he tried returning to Wigan to see if he could get work there, to no avail. He felt obliged to walk the 50 miles back to Worsborough to attend the wedding of the daughter of the family he had lodged with.
In 1930, he was a participant on the Hunger March, always remembering George Fletcher (see separate entry) with sympathy and affection for the bad time he had with his feet. A founder of the Barnsley National Unemployed Workers Movement, Tommy, along with Dick Roberts and `Fatty’ Barraclough held the organisation together providing support for the unemployed and their families during these difficult years. When George Orwell engaged in his `tour of the north’, in order to write his journalistic essay `The Road to Wigan Pier’, it was Tommy Degnan he turned to for advice on the conditions of the working class in Barnsley. Tommy and he did not see eye to eye and the writer had many a powerful argument from the Communist.
Later in 1930 and into the next year, he went to the LeninSchool in Moscow and on his return, he became a member of the North Midlands District Committee of the Communist Party, which used to meet in Sheffield. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, although he had now got a start at Carlton colliery, when the District Committee called for volunteers from its own ranks to provide leadership by going to fight, Tommy and fellow Yorkshire-based Brigadista, Tommy James (see separate entry) immediately came forward. Tommy Degnan was wounded and carried for the rest of his life a piece of shrapnel from one of Franco’s mortar shells.
Being laid up for some time with the wound when he was invalided from returned from Spain’ he took some time to get back into a pit but this was eventually achieved and his reputation and acceptance by Yorkshire miners as a mass leader soared from then on. At one point in the 1930s, when Oswald Mosley, held a rally in BarnsleyTown Hall, Tommy challenged and heckled the fascist leader. The result was a near riot, at the end of which Tommy was beaten up and thrown out of the hall.
Bill Moore (see separate entry) has described Tommy Degnan as “an absolute rock, solid – whether in a meeting, or selling `Workers’ … his work gave us all an example to follow: you never gave in, never, no matter what the pressure. We used to think of the hammering he got in the Union in the Council (during the Cold War) and he used to shrug it off. A real giant of a man … My first memory is of him laughing his head off, coming out of the District Committee room in Sheffield. He always had a crack ready.”
In 1944, he received a directive from the Ministry of Labour telling him to go to work at Warncliffe Woodmoor, which would not have previously had him cross the gates alive! He was to become branch secretary and then obtain the even more significant position of delegate to the Area Council. As a person of enormous talent and charisma, during the rest of his long working life as an active Communist miners, Tommy Degnan received repeated offers for self-advancement in the union or in the industry if he would only leave the Party but refused them all.
Frank Watters recalled that, in the early 1950s, when he began work as the South Yorkshire Coalfield Organiser for the Communist Party, Bert Ramelson, then the Yorkshire District Secretary advised him that the Party’s Yorkshire miners were collectively a “bunch of hard bastards but the hardest of them all is Tommy Degnan”! Ramelson said that if Watters got Degnan to accept him, the rest would follow. For a long period, he was a member of the Communist Party’s national Executive Committee.
Arthur Scargill met Tommy when he was himself only 15 years of age in 1953, when he started work at Woolley. Tommy was an official of the Wharncliffe Woodmoor NUM branch and became one of Scargill’s mentors. Degnan played a particularly significant part in the leadership of the 1955 unofficial strike in Yorkshire. (For full details - see memoirs of Frank Watters.) Although retired by 1970, Tommy remained very much on the scene amongst Yorkshire miners; for one thing he was the official Morning Star seller outside the Area Council ever time it met in the 1970s and his advice and tips were always eagerly sought by many a delegate. He claimed his proudest moment was 1972, when the miners took official national strike action for the first time for almost half a century an, as a highly respected delegate to the Yorkshire Area Council in this period, Tommy Degnan played a key role in assisting the left turn that now visited the Yorkshire Area of the NUM and set the scene for dramatic events of 1984-5. He died, aged 81, in 1979.
Sources: Orations by Frank Watters and Arthur Scargill at Tommy Degnan’s funeral 29th March 1979; Bill Moore letter to Frank Watters 26th March 1979; GS personal knowledge.
Below: a poem by Frances Moore, believed to be unpublished, about Tommy Degnan