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Alec `Spike’ Robson

Robson was born in 1895, one of 11 children, to a mining family. He began himself in the Gambois pit, near Blyth, aged only 11 years, He was a trapper boy, regulating the flow of air by opening and closing doors and allowing the pony-pulled tubs of coal came up, much harder work than it sounds especially when doing the then standard ten hour day.

Even at the young age of 15, he was a member of the Northumberland Miners’ Association and was on strike in the successful 1910 national dispute for an eight hour day.    

At the age of 16, he was invited to join a boxing booth at Blyth market and went on to tour county fairs and the boxing for a living. He became known as “Spike Robson of Shields”.  In 1912, he joined the SS Kelvinhead at North Shields as a cabin boy and travelled the world. He began to learn about socialism and working class struggles of the past from an old sailor amongst the crew.

In New York on one sailing he left to once again box professionally and travelled across the USA earning his living this way. He joined the army in 1915, was wounded in battle in France twice and was decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal after three years in the trenches. Demobbed in 1919, he married his childhood sweetheart, settled back in the north-east of England and fathered seven children.

He signed on as a stoker on a White Star liner in 1919, not realising that the cargo was 700 British troops bound for Archangel and Murmansk, an invasion force designed to undermine the young Soviet republic.  Once there, Robson fraternised with Red Guards and they were especially taken with his showing them his seamen’s union membership book.  Once returned to Britain, the first thing he did was to take part in the Hands off Russia movement and, in 1922, he joined the Communist Party, which he was to remain a member of for the rest of his life. He built the first Communist Party branch in North Shields.

Spike was one of seven men who served prison sentences for organising demonstrations of the unemployed in North Shields on October 5th 1932. A lobby of the Public Assistance Committee meeting that followed the national introduction of the Means Test and severe cuts in benefits.

Over the next few decades, he continued as a merchant seaman, organising ship’s committees on whatever vessel he happened to be on. On his many runs to a wide variety of ports in the world, some political action would always ensure. The painting of slogans on ships from Nazi Germany, the smuggling of anti-fascist propaganda and the organisation of a protest march against Italian ships bound for their war against Abyssinia and the boycotting by merchant seamen of ship lying at Blyth bound for Japan with scrap iron, in protest at their war in China.  He was fined £2 – then a considerable sum – for his part in the latter.

Outward bound from Boston in December 1936, he discovered that the ship he was on had a contract to carry nitrate, an essential component of explosives, to Seville, by now General Franco’s headquarters as he propagated the civil war in Spain.  The crew held a sit-down strike and refused to sail for three weeks.  Then the British consul arrived and the crew were deported to Britain. Charges were levelled at them in Liverpool, again a £2 fine was imposed but an appeal was won. The case ended up in the High Court and D N Pritt defended to crew, Robson defended himself. The case was dismissed and all costs awarded against the shipping line.

In 1939, Robson was able to join the “T124x” section of the Royal Navy, a special section for merchant seamen manning mine sweepers and layers, auxiliary ships and landing craft. A notable occasion was when he was on a landing craft dropping supplies to the Yugoslavian partisans in 1943.  For four months, he was based in Malta teaching partisans to use Mills’ bombs. Then active service operations meant that he was engaged in the regular supplying to and relieving the wounded from Tito’s forces along the coastline of Yugoslavia itself.

In 1947, he returned to the Merchant Navy and was elected to the Executive Committee of the National Union of Seamen. He was the first Communist to serve in that capacity and this was a remarkable achievement given that the Cold War had just begun to bite. During a dispute in 1956, when Robson was signed on to a ore carrier on the St Lawrence River, the NUS wouldn’t agree to the demands of the British crew that Canadian rates of pay should apply, an important demand since these were 100% more than British rates. The crew decided to approach the Seafarers’ International Union for membership, so as to better prosecute the claim. In the end, nothing less than a Royal Commission was established to resolve the Anglo-Canadian problem and this involved flying 40 persons from the NUS and the British Shipping Federation, along with a host of legal advisors!          

His seafaring days began to fade in the 1960s and Spike lived to fairly ripe old age, dying in 1979 and remaining a committed member of the Communist Party to the end.

Source: “Spike (Alec `Spike’ Robson 1895-1979) Class Fighter” North Tyneside TUC (1987)