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Underwood Brian

Brian Underwood

by Marie Pride, Brian's partner of 35 years.

Brian was born in 1930 into a working class family in Bedminster, then an industrial area to the South of Bristol. His father was a docker and a shop steward in the Transport & General Workers Union. His mother, before having to give up work when she married; was one of the first women shop stewards in W D & H O Wills tobacco factory.  Brian’s mother’s family were founder members of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and knew Earnest Bevin and Ben Tillett. With this family background it was not surprising Brian grew up with Socialist ideas.

Brian’s parents were Christian Socialists; his father was Church of England and his mother was Chapel. Brian and his elder brother were sent to Sunday School and took an active part in the local church. Brian often told the story of his first encounter with class solidarity. He said the Choir boys at St Mary Redcliffe Church had discovered other Choir boys at other churches were given more money for expenses and so they went on strike. Brian was a small boy and agreed not to go into the church – his first picket line. Later the Choir boys received a small increase. He understood then that if people stood together they may be able to achieve more than by acting as individuals.

Brian spent his childhood in a road now demolished called Whitehouse Lane; on one side of the street the houses were dockers’ homes and the other side were where railway workers lived. Practically everyone was in a union and May Day each year was a colourful event with Trades Union banners and a procession. To stand and hear all the speakers was an entertainment in the days before television; and oratory was a skill that many trade unionists had.

The Second World War was also a formative time; he often said that as a young boy the war seemed quite exciting. He had a map of the world on his bedroom wall and would track the Allied armies and follow every news report on the radio. Bristol suffered badly in the bombing raids and Brian saw the night sky with a red glow when the Bristol Aerospace factory was blitzed, even though the factory was on the other side of the city.

Brian often joked that Hitler did not want him to have a good education because one night his school was bombed and he had to attend another school in Southville. Although not very far away, the residents felt themselves to be better than people from Bedminster. Some of the pupils were shopkeepers’ children who could afford better uniforms, books and other essentials for education. Brian said the only thing he learned from this school was an appreciation for classical music.   The music teacher was unusual for those days and wanted to instill a joy of music and singing – he certainly succeeded with Brian.

With the Soviet Union as our ally in the Second World War; even our newspapers supported the Red Army. There were concerts and other large fund raising events in Bristol sponsored by the local paper and local dignitaries. Brian became aware at the age of 11 that Russia had tried to do something radically different in the way they ran the country.

When Brian was 17 he unfortunately contracted Rheumatic Fever and was in hospital for over a year. This was before the NHS and his mother had to work cleaning to raise the extra money needed towards the cost of the charity hospital. Many people died from Rheumatic Fever but the American airbase locally had supplies of the new penicillin so his life was saved. However, he thereafter had a weakened heart from the pericarditis that followed and was advised not to work in heavy industry.

Of course, being Brian he ignored this advice. He once said he did everything against Doctor’s Orders; he smoked too much, drank too much and worked in heavy industry in all weather conditions.

Brian had joined the Labour League of Youth but attended Speakers Corner on the Downs in Bristol. The speakers were from the Communist Party and one in particular, Jane Gilchrist, impressed him. He joined the Young Communist League at the age of 16 and remained an active member in the Communist Party until the dissolution of the Party in 1991.  (Jane taught Brian the art of public speaking to help him with a slight speech impediment.) He was able to use this skill to great effect for the rest of his life; he was never happier than speaking at a public meeting or to a small group of friends and neighbours in his living room. Even when he was retired and had long given up speaking in public, people would come up to him in the street and remember him from Speakers Corner.

Brian thought you should not bore an audience and would interlace his speeches with lively anecdotes and jokes. He said he was scared, something like stage fright, each time he stood on a platform but with the first laugh from the crowd his nerves would disappear. But behind the humour Brian would always make a serious political point.

He was also a very active Trades Unionist, as an apprentice in the AEU, then as an electrician in the ETU. After the court case involving prominent Communists in the ETU in 1961 Brian was banned from holding office, along with other Communist Party members. See:

http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1520&Itemid=136

He could no longer hold office in the union, meaning he lost his position as Branch Chair, and could not even be a member of his local branch. To continue his membership he had to go to London Head Office yearly to pay his dues. Brian always insisted that they did not rig any votes in Bristol. He said they did not need to; he and other CP members especially his friend Roy Strickland were able to win most of the members probably in spite of being Communists. He was very upset to be shown photographs of himself going into the CP Head Office and at meetings with CP members. He said he had never made any secret that he was a member of the CP. He looked on the back of the photographs and they were stamped "Top Secret" with a Government stamp. He could not understand how the ETU had these photographs.  

After suffering blacklisting by employers after 1964 he worked anywhere he could find employment. He worked at one time in a tannery, suffering badly with his stomach ulcer. Latterly he worked as a Technician in a Technical College and was trade union representative for TGWU. He served on Bristol Trades Council for many years; he was at various times, Treasurer, Chair, Secretary and President. Before his retirement in 1992 he was given life membership of Bristol Trades Council.

For many years he organized the May Day celebration in Bristol eventually extending the march into a fair with other organizations selling everything from political tracts to houseplants, cakes and cups of tea. In the evening there would be a dance or May Day Ball. Brian’s aim was to extend the May Day celebration from just trade unionist to include their families and members of the public who might have no other contact with trades unions. He encouraged people to be active in the movement by his intelligence and skill at public speaking; his sense of fun and charisma.

Brian was active in the Communist Party and was at one time on the Executive Committee. It may have been more to do with his forthright manner than his political line at the time; but he was removed from this Committee in the early 1970s.  

Throughout his political life Brian was involved in many mass campaigns. He was opposed to nuclear weapons from 1945, before the formation of CND but then became a strong supporter of the movement. He was active in Anti-Apartheid and Chile Solidarity. In the latter he was very helpful in finding jobs and homes for Chilean refugees by his contacts from Trades Council and with the local Labour Council.

In 1963 the local Bristol Bus Company, who only employed white workers; were boycotted by the local West Indian community. Unfortunately, the TGWU supported its workers who felt their jobs were under threat. Brian went against his union and supported the boycott. The boycott was successful and the colour bar on local transport was broken.

Brian stood as the CP candidate for Bristol North West in the 1966 General Election; he gained 595 votes. The following year he stood in the local elections with the usual low votes gained by Communist candidates. However, he made an impact as in later life people he worked with on the left told him they had been impressed by his election address and his speeches.

From the 1970s, with the difficulties of obtaining work as a qualified electrician and also finding work on building sites more difficult, he obtained a job as a Technician in Brunel Technical College. He worked here at various sites, for 23 years, until he took early retirement due to ill health. It was during these years he was most active on the Trades Council. When he applied for a promotion at another college site, The Principal later told Brian that he had received a telephone call advising him not to take Brian in employment. The caller did not say who they were but they advised Brian was a Communist and a trouble maker. The Principal said he would hire Brian on a month’s trial and if his work was satisfactory he would offer him the job. The Principal joked with Brian:

“I did wonder if you were able to muster some Soviet tanks to come up Ashley Down Road.”

Brian replied he knew he was influential but he didn’t think he was that good.

In latter part of the 1970s the National Front came to the forefront and racial relations were under the spotlight. After 1979 Margaret Thatcher stole some of the thunder from the Far Right and so began the era of Neo Liberalism and union bashing. A broad campaign was launched in Bristol with all the Church leaders, cross party support from the local Council and many other parties and trades unions. Brian was the TUC representative on this broad coalition. A full page petition was published in the local paper and a large procession marched through the City centre under the banner of “Racial Harmony”, Brian was one of the speakers on the platform.        

                                                                                                            Right: Brian at a demonstration outside GCHQ

However, a year later with the Thatcher Government policies hitting hard, we had the St Paul’s Riot. In the aftermath an enquiry was set up and Brian was one of the representatives on the committee from the Trades Council. The report was published in 1981 by the Bristol TUC under the title “Slumbering Volcano”. Many good recommendations were made and some were enacted.

In spite of all his activities outside the Communist Party, Brian continued to work within the Party. The struggle against the Euro communist trend caused factions and Brian was often kept off committees in spite of his many connections and influence in the wider movement. With the formation of the NCP in the summer of 1977 Brian was left with fewer allies; he gradually did less within the Party and concentrated on his Union work. He was a delegate to the final congress in 1991 that voted to end the CP; he watched with dismay as the Democratic Left was formed. As he said later they took all the money raised by working class Communists in the past.

He continued to be a reader and supporter of the Morning Star and worked to raise money with Bazaars. He was no longer a member of any political party; but for more than ten years we continued to host a monthly meeting with ex Communists, Labour Party members, and anyone with a left of centre point of view. Although Brian retired in September 1992 due to ill health, he was still a major contributor to these monthly meetings. We would discuss topical stories and from the lively discussions would be able to take a more informed attitude to all the campaigns we were individually connected with.  

Unfortunately, these meetings ceased in 2003 when Brian had a major operation; he never fully recovered and his weakened heart meant that his last 13 years were dogged by ill health. However, he still took a keen interest in politics and still influenced a younger generation.

Brian died of heart failure three days after his 85th birthday in 2015. After his funeral I have met many comrades, friends and neighbours who miss him and his insight. I have been cheered by how many people have been influenced by Brian and how many people are continuing in the struggle.

 

 Brian Underwood

 

 3.12.1930 – 7.12.2015.