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Peter Kerrigan (docker and actor)

 

This Peter Kerrigan is not to be confused with his namesake, more famous in Communist Party circles, who was the Party’s Industrial Organiser.  This Peter Kerrigan was born in 1916 in Bootle, where, he once wrote, “it seemed that you either became a docker, a seafarer or a ship repairer”; he started on the Liverpool docks in 1935. But even getting a job on the docks was something of a struggle.

 

His father was a coal heaver, loading coal into the bunkers of ships going to sea. Kerrigan recalls: “You had to have a pound and fourpence to get on the dock then. That was to pay for your tally which made you eligible for hiring. I didn't have a pound and fourpence and my father didn't have it. So I went on the fairground and boxed, taking men on, and getting a collection out of the crowd. I got about 30 shillings, gave my mother ten shillings and kept a pound and fourpence.”

 

Having got his name down with this - and also because his father was a docker - after a while, Kerrigan was given a start dockside and joined the Transport and General Workers Union. He became the youngest coal heaver on the dock at the age of 19; it is likely that it was not long afterwards that he joined the Communist Party.

 

It was, to say the least, a difficult environment to live and work in. As Kerrigan put it: “They were terribly hard conditions which made hard men. There weren't enough coal heavers to man three shifts, so they would work round the clock, particularly during the war. They would work till they finished the ship and then do the same with the next one. You'd work four or five days without going home to sleep. You'd catch a sleep down in the bunker while your mates worked.”

 

Peter Kerrigan was involved with other dockers in founding the unofficial dockers committee in Birkenhead, known as the Birkenhead Port Workers Defence Committee, with their paper the Portworkers Clarion.

 

No doubt,  the ban on Communists holding office – and probably much else about the TGWU – was too much for Kerrigan and, at some point in the 1950s, he became a stalwart of the National Association of Stevedores and Dockers, usually dubbed `the blue union’, which had no such ban.

 

But it is likely that he was already moving away from the Communist Party by this time, if not before. It is possible that differences about staying within the TGWU to fight from within for change, as well as earlier differences over the nature of strike action during the war time had contributed to Kerrigan’s drift, as much as Hungary did – but that was certainly the catalyst.

 

It is certain that his shift to Trotskyism would have been moulded by events surrounding one of the last acts of the first post-war Labour Governments, during February 1951, which was to smash the unofficial strike by dockers using war time regulations still on the statute book.  Police arrested the leaders and raided a meeting of the unofficial leadership. Seven dockers leaders arrested include Harry Constable, Albert Timothy, Joe Cowley and Ted Dickens from London, along with Bob. Crosby from Liverpool and J. Harrison and Bill Johnson from Birkenhead.

 

These rank and file dockers were charged with conspiracy to incite dockers to take part in strike in contravention of the employment and national arbitration order 1305. Immediately, some seven thousand dockers in London stopped work in London accompanied by eleven thousand on Merseyside. The slogans “release the seven" and “1305 must go” mobilised such a response. On their first day in court 17,000 dock workers struck, after that London dockers came out seven times on 24 hour protest strikes. In the end all acquitted and returned to their respective ports in triumph.

 

Birkenhead, with Peter Kerrigan shoulder to shoulder with Bill Johnson was as strong as Liverpool. But Party influence was weaker there. Criticism from the ultra-left began to focus on the idea that not enough had been done to use the dispute to undermine the grip of the right within the labour movement, with the Communist Party wedded to a view that winning a change in the big unions was critical to this and with Trotskyists prioritising industrial conflict, especially if it weakened the official machines of unions.

 

In some northern ports, the north-east especially but Birkenhead also, dockers began to think the TGWU too biased in favour of a high level of economic activity in London, especially. This perception, aided by a more distinctly right-wing feel in some TGWU regions of the north, prompted support for the rival dockers’ union. 

 

The interface of organised labour with the relatively new Dock Labour Scheme became a contention. All critics pointed to the way the scheme placed full-time officials in a position of great power, acting virtually like an employer and sought to challenge the system. The tactical question was how to begin to democratise the process and, for Communists, the conclusion was clear that the T&G had to be reformed from within.

 

The Communist Party endorsed a move by the National Portworkers Defence Committee to promote a refreshed Dockers’ Charter, first put forward in 1945, with five key economic demands – the 40 hour a week, a daily minimum wage of 25 shillings, a fortnight’s paid holiday, a pension scheme and an  scheme to casual labour. The aim would be to make the union fight for and with dockers to maximise practical benefits.

 

Peter Kerrigan’s 1958 pamphlet, “What next for Britain’s port workers?” is commonly wrongly attributed to the other Kerrigan, the Party’s National Industrial Organiser. It was actually a product of the Socialist Labour League, to which Kerrigan had finally turned in the wake of Hungary

 

In his pamphlet, Kerrigan wrote: "Older men on the docks remember the thirties very well. The humiliation of the stands. The 'muscle feeling'. The scramble for a job. They remember the 'blue eyes' system - the whisper of 'You're staying behind' into the ear of a favoured one. The militant was isolated. The man who refused to overload a sling on the last ship was left standing." But Kerrigan now saw the way forward as to permit the Blue Union to grow in the north.

 

In official retirement Kerrigan became an actor after Jimmy Allen wrote the `Big Flame’ in which he appeared. The play stimulated the formation of a political group of the same name, largely based in Liverpool.

 

Kerrigan later also acted in `A Bag of Yeast and Sponges’ and, most memorably, in the `Boys from the Blackstuff’, as George Malone. The role was that of a fighting dockers’ leader who had been victimised and therefore drifted into the tarmac laying game. The series is best known for the character of “Gis-a-Job” Yosser but Kerrigan plays an older former union official who stands for the dignity of labour, wise and greatly respected he refuses to give up hope even on the remarkable wheelchair ride through the then decaying Albert Dock which immediately precedes his death--a scene which includes an emotional speech based partly on Kerrigan's own experiences as a docker.

 

 

Peter Kerrigan appeared in the following programmes:

 

1969 "The Wednesday Play – the Big Flame" ... as Peter Conner

1971 "ITV Saturday Night Theatre" ... as Uncle John

1971 "Softly Softly"  ... as Tiger Mulholland

1972 "The Liver Birds"  ... as First Labourer

1973 "Z Cars" … as Ferguson

1974 "ITV Playhouse" ... as Det. Sgt. Williams

1975 "Crown Court"  ... as Peter Molloy

1975 "Days of Hope”  ... as Communist Party member

1975 "The Nearly Man" ... as Mr. Bailey

1976 "Red Letter Day"

1978 "The Sweeney"... as Bowyer

1980 "Strumpet City" ... as Sexton

1980 The Black Stuff ... as George Malone

1981 "Play for Today"  ... as Eddie

1982 "Boys from the Blackstuff"  ... as George Malone

1982 "Brookside"  ... as Arthur Commie Clarke

1983 "The Gathering Seed"

 

Sources:

Information supplied by Justine Frost (Kerrigan’s granddaughter);

`They knew why they fought’  - Bill Hunter;

Miscellaneous internet pieces