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Lees Billy

Billy Lees

An active and leading member of the Nottingham Communist Party, which was established as early as August 1920, Lees was also an Executive member of the Nottingham Trades Council and was arrested along with Thomas Kilworth for making seditious speeches during the 1926 General Strike.

The Nottingham Evening Post, 12th May 1926, carried the following about Billy Lees, which police Inspector Castle testified that the Communist activist had been recorded as saying:

`I am a member of the local strike committee. One of our trade union leaders, there is no need to mention his name, says the Chief Constable wants law and order. Well, during the last two or three days he has shown how he wants law and order. He will have among you two or three plain clothes men and if there are groups of people some of whom are expressing their views, one or two are pointed out. Down comes the van full of coppers, you are struck with a lump of wood, thrown into the van and away to the police station. But you wait until our comrades have to take a more active part in holding up transport. It win give the Chief Constable the chance to come amongst you and show how pretty he is.�

The Nottingham Post continues: `After remarks about the British Gazette and the bad position in London he is alleged to have continued: `There is a person  (named)  who comes as a delegate to the Trades Council. Well, he is on duty In the signal box at present, so there you are. Wait till he comes again. I'll do my best to out him'.

Despite the fact that Lees had three witnesses willing to speak for him, testifying to the actual tone and purpose of the speech, Lees was convicted and sent to prison for three months.

The strike in Nottingham was almost unanimously solidly observed; in fact, a 1927 report stated it was �unexpectedly and amazingly fine� (Raymond Postgate, `A workers history of the strike�). Lees was later remembered as one of the few people locally who understood the full potential of the strike.

Later on in 1926, Billy Lees was sent as the Nottingham Trades Council delegate to the National Minority Movement conference and the Trades Council also nominated Lees as a candidate for the municipal elections but this was rejected by the local Labour Party because of his Communist Party membership.

In January 1927 Billy Lees was elected Vice President of Nottingham Trades Council. With the collapse of the miners� lock out, after the self-defeat of the General Strike, the General Secretary of the Nottingham Miners Association George Spencer MP entered into unilateral discussions on a return to work of the Nottinghamshire miners. Denounced by miners leader AJ Cook as `Mr Spencer is a blackleg of the worst order; a conscious blackleg'. With the help of the mine owners' finances Spencer set up his own union, the Nottinghamshire & District Miners Industrial Union.

Foremost of the voices raised in the Trades Council against Spencerism apart from Lees was Ernest Cant who had been elected to the Trades Council political committee in January 1928 and was now Nottingham
Communist Party full time organiser.

In May, Cant was appointed to the Joint Mining Committee which had been set up by the Trades Council, Labour Party, ILP and Co-op to help organise relief to miners victimised for refusing to join the Spencer�s union.

The Trade Union establishment however were more interested in the Communist Party�s involvement, requesting the Trades Council produce a full report on what statements Communists. Ernie Cant and Billy Lees, had been making about the Nottinghamshire coalfield and the TUC�s failure to deal with its problems.

Billy Lees and Ernie Cant were both heavily involved in the decisive battle with Spencerism at Harworth colliery during 1936 and 1937. This was a pit remote from the rest of the coalfield; however, with a growing number of grievances, the men voted 1,175 to 145 to join the MFGB affiliated Nottingham Miners Association on an 88% turnout. However, management refused to recognise any union except Spencer's Industrial Union.

The ensuing campaign led to victimisation and the President of the Harworth branch of the Nottinghamshire Miners Association, Councillor Mick Kane, being arrested and charged with intimidation on the grounds of having himself, entered a bus containing twenty-six men and "terrorised" them. Found guilty of this prodigious feat, he was been sentenced to two months �hard labour�.

The threat of a national coal strike forced the government to finally intervene and secure a compromise. The Communist Party pamphlet, `Notts United', summed up the view of the Communists and most miners: `This agreement, it is true, is a compromise, but if we examine it soberly and refuse to allow ourselves to be led away by talk of `sell outs' and `betrayals', it is obvious that it represents a tremendous step forward'.

Sources: Peter Wyncoll `The Nottingham Labour Movement 1880-1939'; Michael Walker