The Memoirs of Frank Watters Part 1
“Being Frank”: The Memoirs of Frank Watters
“Dedicated to my grandchildren
Ben and Joanne Stevenson”
© Estate of Frank Watters 2006
Part One - Chapters 1 to 10 (For Part 2 go to Red Memoirs side bar)
Editor’s note: The text of `Being Frank’ reproduced here is the previously unpublished version of Frank Watters’ intended alterations to the 1992 edition, published by Askew’s of Doncaster, should a reprint have ever occurred. Given the very high sales of the first edition, Frank did not seek a second edition and the 1992 edition is now completely out of print. His family now possesses only a handful of mint copies and has decided to place this electronic version in the public domain, in memory of a great humanitarian and as a contribution to the recording of working class history.
Some minor technical alterations were also necessitated by reproduction in this format. Where significant changes, occasioned by the passage of time, have occurred (e.g. clarifying the denoting in the present tense in 1992 of a certain circumstance), an editorial note has been inserted. Frank Watters died in 2002 and a 5,000 word potted biography on him can be found elsewhere on the site, in the Communist biographies section.
i) Sponsors of the 1992 edition
ii) Forward: by Arthur Scargill, President NUM
iii) Introduction: by Frank Watters
iv) Prologue: by Jack Adams, Deputy General Secretary T&G
v) The NUM’s submission to the TUC nominating Frank Watters for the gold badge
Chapter 1 “We may be poor but you are not going to be a slave”
Chapter 2 Digging for Victory in War and Peace
Chapter 3 “No, Comrade, your turn will come”; building a fighting leadership
Chapter 4 Bushfires to set the coalfield ablaze: Armthorpe strike 1955
Chapter 5 “Show your face to the people”, the Communist Party in the Yorkshire coalfield: 1958-68
Chapter 6 More politics – less debt collecting; taking stock
Chapter 7 Nineteen fifty-five was a memorable year
Chapter 8 From the best blend of Yorkshire coal…
Chapter 9 Close the gates! Close the gates! Saltley 1972
Chapter 10 New territory of class struggle – the diversity of Birmingham
Chapter 11 He hasn’t changed a bit! Mass struggle in the 1970s
Chapter 12 Twisted and unprincipled…
Chapter 13 Recovery or Reversal? The sacking of Derek Robinson
Chapter 14 A bark worse than his bite. Farewell Birmingham
Chapter 15 A healthy political atmosphere – back in Yorkshire
Chapter 16 The Lyons Bakery strike of 1982
Chapter 17 Nurses’ Strike of 1982
Chapter 18 The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5
Chapter 19 The Euros’ Role from 1984
Chapter 20 “Frank, Finish” – the CPGB disciplines me
Chapter 21 Seafarers’ Strike 1988-9
Chapter 22 The Ambulance Workers’ Strike 1989-90
Chapter 23 NUM Presidential and Vice-Presidential Elections
Chapter 24 Jim Parker “pieces of silver… blood money from a crook and a thief”
Chapter 25 Clean Bill of Health - miners need to reverse privatisation
Chapter 26 Life moves on – I marry again; a highly romantic story
Sponsors of the 1992 edition (Ed. Obviously with the passage of time many of these personalities have changed their roles, retired or died.)
Members of Parliament: Mick Clapham, Alice Mahon, Keith Vaz, Bill Etherington, John Smith, Ian McCartney, G. Lofthouse, Derek Fatchett, Gordon Brown, A. Meale, David Hinchcliffe, Jimmy Hood, Malcolm Chisholm, Peter Hain, Helen Jackson, R. Boyes, Denis Skinner, Stuart Bell, John Prescott, Eric Illsley, Richard Caborn, Hugh Bayley, Tony Benn, Bob Cryer, David Blunkett, Terry Patchett, Tom Clarke, Max Madden, Tam Dalyell, Marjorie Mowlam, Dawn Primarolo, Bill Michie, Terry Rooney, James Wray, R. Stott, Frank Dobson, Margaret Herbison, ex-Cabinet Minister for Social Security, Jimmy Boyce.
Members of European Parliament: Norman West, Alf Lomas, Alex Smith, Alex Falconer, Michael McGowan, Ken Stewart, Michael Hindley, Eddy Newman.
National Union of Mineworkers NEC Members: Idwal Morgan, Joe Wills, John Stones, Dave Hopper, Henry Richardson, Dave Murdoch, Bill Pye, Ken Homer, Frank Cave, Mick McGahey, Dave Guy, Eion Watts (former NUM Vice-President), NUM North East COSA.
NUM Yorkshire Area EC Members: K. G. Hancock, T. M. Appleyard, J. Gibson, K. Capstick, J. Church, J. A. Scott, J. Hartley, E. Millward, D. Hadfleld, C. N. Hughes, M Stowe
Professor Vic Allen
Transport & General Workers Union: Bill Morris (Gen. Sec.), Jack Adams (Deputy Gen Sec), Dan Duffy (Chair)
T&G National Trade Group Secretaries and National Officers: Danny Bryan, Peter Booth, Bob Purkiss, Margaret Prosser, Jack Dromey, George Ryde, Jim Mowatt, Victor McGeer, Len McCluskey, Fred Higgs, Chris Kaufman (Editor of T&G journal)
NUPE: Rodney Bickerstaffe, Roger Poole, Sean Hilliard, Ian McLaughin, Paul Dunn, Margaret Dunn
FBU: Ronnie Scott (President), Ken Cameron (Gen Sec), Stuart Charnley, Ray Bryant, Dave Patton
MSF: Barbara Switzer, Jack Carr, Derek Perkin, Jim Thomas, Ken Gill, Tom Sibley, Muff Sourani, Terri Marsland
Legal Profession: John Hendy, QC, John Bowden (Solicitor), Michael Seifert
Musicians: Ronnie Drew (Dubliners), Sean Cannon (Dubliners), Ian Campbell Folk Group, Banner Theatre, Ray Hearne, Mick Hipkiss (Drousie Maggie) Ron Walshe (Central Music Agency)
Members of Barnsley MBC: Terry Bristowe, Jim Andrews, Mick Harper, David Hunter, Bill Denton, Norman Whittaker, Inky Thompson, Clive Cawthrow, Arthur Whittaker, Rob McCormack, Stephen Houghton
Construction & Engineering Union: Greg Douglas, Jeff Garbitt
David Whitfield (Editor NALGO journal)
College Principals: Bob Fryer (Northern College), Stephen Yeo (Ruskin College)
Personal: D. Stables, Keith AlIsopp, Jim Stewart, (Sec. CP of Ireland), Bill Ronksley (Sheffield Trades Council), Joan Brown, Chris Smith, Eric and Dot Browne, Keith & Chris Bishop, John Richardson (NUJ), Hilton Stewart, Irene & Ken Furnell, Bill & Pat Gledhill, Joe Glenholmes and Mary Pearson, Frank Clarke, Ken and Sheila Capstick, Jean Marshall, Brian Lewis, Clive Fowler, Jim and Maureen Kelly, Rodney Marshall, Derek Robinson, John and Sam Vickers, Barry Hellewell, Alan Foster
Foreword by Arthur Scargill
Frank Watters has been my friend for nearly 40 years — ever since the days when as an eager youngster to help change the world I joined the Young Communist League. His optimism and faith in humanity are as fierce today as when I first met him (and everyone who has been taught by Frank or worked with him knows how exhausting that ferocity can be!). His commitment to Socialist ideals has made him a virtual dynamo. He is a truly ruthless campaigner, but he has never asked of anybody what he is not prepared to give himself.
Frank’s life story is inseparable from the history of the British trade union and Labour Movement. Nobody has given more than he to the key industrial struggles of our time. Nobody has worked harder to build the forces which brought real trade union advances and hope for the future in the sixties, the seventies and through the mid eighties.
Our entire movement owes Frank so much — even this book, his own story (thus far!) doesn’t give the full picture. But it is important that he has written it, and put his interpretation of the events in which he has played such a vital role. There may well be disagreement with his view on certain things; that’s fair enough. What matters is that here we have a contribution to the history of the British working class from a key participant in the making of that history.
There is nobody quite like Frank Watters. Long may he continue to agitate, educate and organise amongst us.
Arthur Scargill - 1992
Introduction by Frank Watters
Many of my friends and my daughter Lesley have requested that I write my memoirs. Now that the Communist Party of Great Britain, which I joined in
l938, has left me, and many others, I am at liberty to be frank, informative and constructive. To show how the dissolution of the Party and the creation of the Democratic Left is the final act of the "New Realists" who effectively ended up compromising with capitalism, as they used the Party's theoretical journal "Marxism Today" to reject the Party's programme, the "British Road to Socialism".
I am, maybe, in a better position than most to justify such accusations as the cradle of new realism was built in the Midlands in the l970s when I was District Secretary.
Some friends say they feel sorry for comrades like me who have given all their adult lives to the movement only to see not only the dissolution of the CPGB but also the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the revolutionary Bolshevik party.
Was it all worth it? The answer is yes. It was never just about being a member of any particular political party. It was about being a part of a much wider
movement the aim of which was, and is, to end the heartless, soul-less system of capitalism and replace it with one which cares for human dignity, the main object of which is to provide greater material and cultural satisfaction for those who actually produce its wealth. I am proud to have been associated with such worthy aims and the generation of comrades I have worked with for over 50 years have nothing to be ashamed of.
Many of the early memories are bitter. A childhood spent in poverty, deprivation and victimisation provided the spur which drove many of us on to work to change that system and eradicate its evils. That task is still there. Even as I write these words in the last decade of the twentieth century we are witnessing the revival of pawn shops, and some of the bitterest of those childhood memories come back to haunt me.
Memories of a mother worn down and wasted by a lifetime of constant unrelenting toil, just to scrape a bare existence for herself and her family; of ridicule and punishment at school because there were no proper boots or clothes to wear. Of victimisation at work because of the long memories of employers who exacted their revenge on the children of men who dared to defy them in the l926 strike. Of men and boys bleeding and broken in accidents at work and being refused proper medical treatment because it cost too much.
While ever there are such divisions in society new generations of fighters will emerge to carry the standard on behalf of their class as I have been proud to do. I hope my memories will prove instructive to such fighters by demonstrating what can be achieved.
I hope, too, that they will provide a warning that such advances as we are able to make on behalf of our class must be jealously guarded because the attacks of the ruling class must, by the very nature of the system, grow ever more oppressive.
Frank Watters 1992
“Frank goes for Gold”
By Jack Adams Deputy General Secretary T&G
I am proud to associate myself with the NUM's nomination of Frank Watters, one of a handful of its honorary members, for the TUC's highest award, the Gold Badge.
I don't envy the selection panel its task of choosing from so many worthy candidates for this award. After reading "Being Frank" I can't think of many who have given to the Labour and Trade Union Movement such passionate involvement and commitment in creating a more socially just society. Never mind Frank, history will reward you, with or without the Gold Badge.
The NUM’s submission to the TUC nominating Frank Watters for the gold badge
Frank Watters’ life-long political activity has not been confined to any single union but has embraced many unions and community organisations. He has consistently campaigned against racism and religious sectarianism, and for world disarmament and sexual and racial equality. He has successfully applied this philosophy in all areas of his activities, political, cultural and social.
Working in the Midlands in the 1970s he was Secretary of the Star Social Club which united the diverse communities of Birmingham in cultural and political activities. The Club bridged the gulf between those communities with popular weekly concerts featuring prominent singers and musicians and a reggae disco which united black and white youth. The Club also provided a forum for all forms of political debate and a strike centre which provided vital resources for workers in struggle. Among those who benefited were the steel workers, the Fire Brigades Union, health workers and construction workers.
It also provided an organisational base for a wide range of political campaigns like the ones over the sacking of Longbridge shop steward Derek Robinson, the release of the black American civil rights campaigner Angela Davis, nuclear disarmament, women’s rights, the people’s march for jobs and an ongoing dialogue on Marxism and Christianity.
The Club became particularly renowned for the vital role it played in the now historic “Battle of Saltley Gate” during the 1972 miners’ strike, providing a base, food and accommodation as well as political guidance for the hundreds of disparate groups which were welded together in that famous campaign.
Frank’s ability to unite all these groups and individuals with widely differing political and ideological philosophies and to win them over to a non-sectarian approach was recognised by Canon Bryan Green, Rector of Birmingham’s St Martin’s in the Bull Ring Church, who invited him to share the platform with Bishops and Archbishops when he held a service to celebrate his retirement from the Church.
Left: a brochure in which Frank Watters is advertised as `preaching' at the church
Taxed by the media on why he had allowed a non-believer to desecrate his pulpit, Canon Green replied that Frank had earned his respect for his ability to unite those diverse communities and to find common ground within their different philosophies in the greater causes of peace, non-sectarianism and anti-racism.
Frank was born into the Scottish mining community of Shotts in Lanarkshire. His father, a militant with an Irish rebel background, was victimised after the 1926 strike and was unemployed until 1938. His mother bore the main responsibility of raising seven children of whom Frank was the second youngest.
Poverty and illness were no strangers to the mining communities of the hungry thirties and Frank's father's political and industrial activities played a major part in preventing him from getting a job in the privately owned mines when he left school. Poverty, like racism, can have an isolating effect at school and afterwards and Frank certainly suffered from its effects in the tightly-knit Catholic community of Shotts.
He joined the Scottish Mineworkers' Union in 1935 and was soon involved in the fight for adult rates at the age of 18, day release for apprentices and more health and safety provision for young miners. He was involved in the formation of the Scottish Young Miners' Youth Committee, attended NCLC and other socialist educational facilities and was a regular student at the Scottish miners' annual school, winning places to colleges like Beatrice Webb and Ruskin.
He left Scotland in 1953 and settled in Yorkshire, playing a role in winning a National Power Loading Agreement, helping to unify all British miners engaged in this new type of mining, and in the campaigns for a National Concessionary Coal Agreement and shorter working hours for surface workers. He was also active in the campaign to end low tonnage rates in which `take up' was negotiated with the miners and deputies but where payment was left to the discretion of the management.
In the mainstream political arena he played an important part in the election of Nye Bevan as Labour Party Treasurer and won campaigns for progressive candidates at local and area levels of the Yorkshire Area NUM and as union-sponsored candidates in parliamentary elections.
His innovative style also resulted in a cultural breakthrough when he helped to get the socialist black American singer Paul Robeson to the Yorkshire mining communities.
In 1968 Frank left Yorkshire for the Midlands where he was soon involved in the steel workers' strike, organising accommodation and support groups. Birmingham and the Black Country were decisive with their massive steel warehouses and private steelworks.
Wherever workers were in struggle Frank's organising ability was brought to bear, in the fire brigades, health workers, seafarers and ambulance workers' disputes.
Back in Yorkshire in the 1982 health workers’ dispute, he brought the four unions involved together and won them unlimited support and days of action by Yorkshire miners. He was involved in raising over £36,000 for seafarers’ hardship fund during their dispute. He played an important role in uniting NUPE and COHSE workers, winning a dispute over the sacking of a NUPE steward.
Ambulance workers recognised Frank’s unstinting efforts on their behalf when, at a Barnsley Labour and Trade Union social, they presented him with a brief case inscribed: “Presented to Frank, Watters for his unyielding efforts during the ambulance dispute, 1989/90. From all staff at Barnsley, Hoyland and Penistone Ambulance Stations.”
In 1987 Frank was made an Honorary Member of the National Union of Mineworkers in recognition of his life-long service, but especially for his crucial roles in the 1972 strike and the battle for Saltley Gate, his work in the 1984/85 miners’ strike and his efforts to counter the formation of the UDM which were instrumental in the formation of the loyalist Nottinghamshire and South Derbyshire NUM. The Midlands Area NUM also marked their appreciation of his efforts in 1972 with the presentation to him of an inscribed miner’s lamp.
Pic: Honorary NUM membership card awarded to Frank Watters
In this the 20th anniversary year of the Battle of Saltley Gate it is perhaps an appropriate time to recall how that epic struggle was won, thanks to the organisational abilities of people like Frank Watters, which culminated in Birmingham’s engineering and construction workers leaving their factories and building sites in their thousands to close the coke depot gates for good.
Frank has written and lectured on the efforts that went into winning that struggle with its historic demonstration of solidarity and the power of ordinary working people united in a common cause. He now says he is proud to have been in the right place at the right time with the hard-earned respect of key workers who were able to deliver that crucial support and solidarity.
There are many worthy candidates for the award of the TUC Gold Badge, the highest reward we can offer for services to our class. We are proud to nominate Frank Watters, confident that his record of almost 50 years’ service to that class in the pursuit of greater material and cultural satisfaction for those who produce the wealth of our nation speaks for itself.
“We may be poor, but you are not going to be a slave” — The school of hard knocks and my early days.
Shotts is a former mining town in Lanarkshire, half way along the Glasgow Central-Edinburgh Waverley railway line. In its heyday it was an important power house of the Industrial Revolution with over 20 coal mines, iron works and foundries. Cast iron lamp posts proudly bore the name of Shotts to every corner of the globe as the tentacles of Victorian imperialism reached out to wherever the map was coloured pink. It’s all gone now.
In common with countless other areas throughout Britain, where the old staple industries have been annihilated by the ruthless ascendancy of the accountancy profession in the nation’s boardrooms, Shotts has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Where once the tall chimneys belching their black smoke across the moors were a sign that men were at work making things, towns like Shotts have been reduced to providing dormitory facilities for their bigger neighbours; in the case of Shotts it is Motherwell which dominates the local economy. Shotts still has one industrial plant left — the Cummins diesel engine factory — but far more significant as local employers of those who are able to find work now are the “service industries” of a large mental hospital and a modern prison which boasts a title-winning football team which unfortunately is unable to play away fixtures! The Edinburgh-Glasgow M8 Motorway runs nearby but, perhaps symbolically, it, too, bypasses the town as almost everything else has since the onset of its industrial decline.
Shotts has had its share of famous sons and daughters. Dr Margaret ‘Peggy’ Herbison, a miner’s daughter and a former North Lanark MP, was member of Harold Wilson’s government and served in the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Social Security. On the other side of the political divide, John MacGregor started out from Shotts to rise to the upper ranks of the Tory Party, holding posts in the Thatcher and Major governments. The son of a local doctor, he began his education at Shotts’ Dykehead Primary School, as did Peggy Herbison. Peggy turned down the chance of going to the House of Lords. She occupied the Office of Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland and during the Assembly she resided at Holyrood Palace. Afterwards she gave her Report to the Queen.
In mining areas it is often said that if a football team is short of a player all you have to do is holler down the nearest pit shaft and Shotts was no exception. Amongst others, it produced Alan Morton of Rangers, WilIie Telfer of Motherwell, and the same club's Willie McSeveney and Bobby Hunter. John McSeveney played for Sunderland, Phi! Watson went to Blackpool while many others stayed with the Scottish Leagues. Jimmy Traynor and Freddie Westbrook played for Hibernian, Alex King for Hearts, Celtic and Rangers, Archie Hastie for Partick and John Wood of Clyde, Phil Watson of Airdrie, WilIie Hannah and Willie McClure of Albion Rovers and Preston North End, all came from the town. Jackie McCreary (Bury, Chester and Falkirk) won an Irish FA medal with Derry City and was coach for our own Shotts Bon Accord team. But while these and many others got away to find fame and, sometimes, fortune for those they left behind the spectre of hardship and poverty was never far beneath the surface.
Even when Shotts enjoyed its boom years when the world could not get enough of its coal' and iron there was a heavy price to be paid in pollution, the industrial ravaging of the landscape, poor health and mortality rates, exploitation and poverty, and, as ever, it was the working class who had to pay that price. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that Shotts threw up its share of political leaders and trade union activists.
The Shotts and Blantyre miners were always in the forefront of the defence of the Scottish mining communities and among the legendary miners' leaders who graced platforms at political meetings in the town were people like Abe Moffat, Bill Pearson and Arthur Horner. Shotts-born Mick McGahey was President of the Scottish Miners' Union, Vice President of the National Union of Mineworkers and a former Chairman of the Communist Party.
In the Depression years and especially after the 1926 strike, the miners who packed the halls and miners' Welfares to hear them speak knew they could expect nothing from the avaricious coal owners so they supported their own welfare schemes with penny-a-week funds, and they subscribed to the town's five bands. The Shotts and Dykehead Caledonian Pipe Band one year won the World, European, British, Scottish and Scottish miners championships.
Though they were obliged to depend on each other for mutual support, the community was fundamentally divided on religious grounds. The railway bridge at Shotts Station was the demarcation line with the Catholics dominating the Stane area of the town and the Protestants forming their own enclave in Dykehead. It was into this divided and dispossessed community that I was born in a miners' row on Christmas Day 1920. The sixth of seven children, a younger sister was born four years later, I was to know little but grinding poverty and injustice for the first 30 years of my life. My grandparents, of whom I knew very little, had fled starvation poverty levels in Ireland only to find a different version of the same injustice working for a pittance in the Shotts Iron and Coal Company.
The young Frank with his mother
My Mother, known by her maiden name, Kate Doyle, knew nothing but toil and struggle keeping the family together all her life. Father, Patrick “Paddy” Watters was a miner, but his political awareness was already stirring long before I was born. He had been greatly influenced by the Irish leader James Connolly and John McLean, the Marxist, anti-war schoolmaster, who was appointed by Lenin as the first diplomatic representative of revolutionary Russia to Britain. His political awareness led him inevitably to play a major role in the 1926 strike for which he was victimised, unable to find work again until 1938 on the back of the industrial expansion fired by the armaments build up to the Second World War.
The house I was born into had two rooms. The front room had a wash up sink, an iron oven and coal fire, a set-in bed where my Father and Mother slept; attached was a small “hole in the wall” bed and in the back room two large iron beds that occupied the entire floor space. Accommodation was, to say the least, basic. Domestic plumbing did not exist and there was no water flush lavatory, the families in the row sharing the use of a midden at the back. What lighting there was came from by paraffin lamps and of course there was a coal fire, which was used for cooking as well as warmth but the problem was there was rarely any coal for those who actually dug it out of the ground.
The main fuel we used was 'mud' - a sulphurous mixture of coal slurry and dust and my first brush with the law came when I was twelve years old, appearing in Court after being caught by the Colliery bobby picking coal from a slag wagon used for making bricks. In such circumstances of grinding poverty and deprivation, it is perhaps not surprising that youngsters learned quickly to survive on their wits and to keep a wary eye open for the main chance whenever an opportunity presented itself to turn the odd copper or two.
I was no exception and enjoyed one advantage over many of my contemporaries in that I had a mentor, Davey Gilfillin, pumpman at the pit and a neighbour of the family. I had been seriously ill as an infant and Davey took me under his wing. Davey kept greyhounds and we spent many an hour with them on their regular exercise walks, he often carrying me on his back. This relationship provided another benefit. I could always depend on Davey for a square meal on a Sunday. He would stew up a sheep's head and, after he scraped the grey scum off it, we would feast on what we picked from the bones. It was hardly Haute Cuisine but it was nourishment of a sort-when there was precious little of it to be had. It had to be eaten in Davey’s house, though, because it turned the stomachs of the rest of the family, but I enjoyed the sensation of a full belly unknown to most of my mates.
Pic: Frank's father, Paddy, his elder brother, John, as a baby and his Uncle Mick.
Another advantage of this partnership was that we enjoyed each other’s confidence, to the extent that by the time I was about twelve years old I was entrusted with the task of taking the dogs down to the track to race. Of course there were ways and means of ensuring that the dogs tried a hit harder in some races than they did in others and I was on my honour to tell no-one, not even my own father, when one of the dogs was due to perform. The first sign most of the punters had that one of them was trying was when they heard me shouting it home from the track rails. But Davey and I knew and, even if Davey did not dare back it, the ten shillings prize money provided a welcome boost since a bob or two of it usually went to me.
I also learned early on that pride could often stand in the way of a good opportunity. Some of the old ladies in the row enjoyed a surreptitious dram of whisky for medicinal purposes and it was my job to protect their reputations by collecting it for them from the pub. The coppers in the change were my reward for the performance of this valuable social service, just as they were when I ran regular errands to the pawnshop - a task that was beneath the dignity of many of the other lads. I swallowed my pride and built up a little nest egg. But the success was also to provide me with my first harsh lesson in the realities of commerce.
One year I had managed to save twenty-nine shillings in the corner shop Christmas Club - and this was at a time when a married man would get thirty bob dole money and two shillings a week for each child. I spent months planning how I would spend the money on unheard of Christmas gifts for the family, a new red sweatband for Davey and a football for myself. But when I went to draw the money on Christmas Eve the shopkeeper said: "I'm sorry, but your mother owes us so much on her grocery slate we are keeping your money to pay it off'. I was nearly in tears with frustration as I finished up on Christmas morning with the usual apple and orange in a silk stocking. I was bitter and angry too as I knew that my mother had never spent a penny of that money on herself but had had to run up debts just to keep the family fed.
Davey Gillfillin and the greyhounds
I often felt the same 'bitterness, too, when the Priest made me confess in front of the whole school class that I had not attended Mass on Sunday. My mother was a devout Catholic but she often had to keep me at home on Sunday because I had no 'best' clothes to wear to Mass. Often my miserable school days were made worse, too, because I would be punished for arriving late. It made no difference to the teachers and the priests, who ran a tyrannical regime in the Catholic schools that the reason I was late was that I had to wait for a bus because I had no watertight shoes to wear when it was raining.
Tommy, my elder brother, often told the story of how he carried me on his back through heavy snow when I had just started going to school. The bus driver refused to take us because we had only one penny between us. That's all my mother had that morning and the fare was one penny each. Both of us were in trouble when we arrived a good hour late.
But if I gained little from my attempts at scholarship, I was learning fast in other ways. A cold hearth at home, with uncomfortable beds and inadequate breakfasts, was not conducive to fruitful study but my father was a great reader and like others before I would collect his books for him from the library. I was also good at maths and put that aptitude to use helping my mother with her weekly budget, ensuring that Friday's dole would see the family through until the pawnshop opened on Monday morning.
Then there was the school of hard knocks that, like the corner shop Christmas club incident, had a profound effect on me and my understanding of the world and its injustices. I did not leave school at 14 with the rest of my mates but stayed on for another six months because my father got an extra two shillings a week dole allowance. I eventually had to leave school to enable me to have more time to seek work.
Pic: Frank’s younger sister, Katy, his mentor Davie, Frank as a boy, friend James McCannon and cousin, Elizabeth Watters
Most of my schoolmates got past the vetting system operated by the Chief Clerk of the Shotts Iron and Coal Company and they were rewarded with jobs on the pit top. But the coal owners had long memories and a vengeful malice. To them the name of Watters was associated with the 1926 strike and the sins of the fathers were visited on their sons and there was no job for me.
I finally got a job working for a slave driver at a crushing plant where stone was prepared for road making. The job paid half a crown a day for a six a.m. start, until 4.00 p.m. working out in the open in the rain and the snow. I lasted two days before my mother refused to let me go again. “We may be poor, but you are not going to be a slave,” she said.
Eventually I did get a job at the pit where my elder brothers had managed partly to exorcise the curse of the Watters name by establishing a reputation for sheer hard work. They also managed to win the respect of their workmates through trade union activities and it was not long before I was following in their footsteps. Some of the older colliers had a slightly ambivalent attitude to my activities. While they felt obliged to acknowledge some grudging respect for my ability to work they were also sometimes resentful of my political activities and achievements.
This was a trait that I was to notice recurring throughout my life and on which I was often later to remark. When I had become recognised as a known figure in the Communist Party, there were many who would not have had anything to do with me because they were afraid of being tainted by my political allegiance; but most of them were to admit that I got the work done when it was most needed.
Left: a report in the Daily Worker, January 4th 1936, featuring the pits in Shotts. His brothers would certainly have been on strike.
Within a few months of starting at the pit I had my first accident. Working on a tramway underground, my job was to hook the coal tubs on to the haulage ropes and I got my foot trapped between the tub and a sleeper, badly injuring my ankle. I was off work for three weeks before I was hauled before the Compensation Tribunal, a panel of what the men called 'quacks'; whose sole function was to determine how long an injured person should be allowed to have off work. They decided I had been off long enough and sent me back to work with a payment of £3.00. I took the cash because I realised my mother needed it but she called it 'blood money'. Fourteen years later I had to have a major operation partially to repair the damage done by the initial neglect of my mutilating injury and I have had to wear surgical boots ever since.
At the age of 18 I joined the Young Communist League (YCL), later following my two elder brothers, John and Mick, into the Communist Party. A third brother, Tommy, never joined the Party but was a good supporter. Mention must be made here of John's role in the local community. He was a 'People's Lawyer', specialising in the cursed miners' disease pneumoconiosis. When it was eventually accepted that it was an industrial disease thousands who had already left the pits totally incapacitated by it were denied compensation because they were classified as bronchial or emphysema cases, neither of which were attributed to working in the pits.
John took up their cases and fought for them through to medical tribunals where they were represented by the Union. He also tackled another problem which had its roots in the superstitions fostered by religious beliefs, especially among the Catholic community. They were told by the Priests that their bodies would rise up to rejoin their souls on the day of redemption and they were reluctant to allow what they saw as the physical mutilation of post mortem examinations. The Priests never faced up to this dilemma of their own making and many of their flock were thus denied their just compensation for, without an autopsy, the pneumoconiosis panel of doctors were unable to confirm the cause of death as an industrial disease.
John and Mick played a crucial role, convincing widows that there was no alternative to this expensive and traumatic procedure if they were to win any compensation. John the ‘Lawyer’ and Mick, the Union Branch Secretary, won thousands of pounds for new and old cases alike. John also held office as a parish councillor for a few years but the Cold War put an end to that. Everyone in Shotts said that if only the Watters were not Communists they would have gone places. We may not have reached high office in national or local government but, even if we were not accepted at the ballot box, we earned the respect and gratitude of the only constituency that really mattered to us — that of our peers in this mining community. John remained in the village until his death at the age of 72 in 1982.The whole village turned out, led by St Patrick’s Silver Band, for his funeral. It was a simple, heart-felt gesture, Shottsonians saying ‘Thanks, John’. It was the only reward he ever sought. He was one of Shotts greatest sons!
Two other brothers were NUM stalwarts; Mick became Branch Secretary of the Calder Head NUM branch and, when he married, left Shotts to live in Blantyre where he was welcomed and respected as much as he was in his hometown. He was elected Secretary of Blantyre Miners’ Welfare, where he had a reputation for being ruthless with any money defaulters. Tommy was known as ‘Big Tam’ and was regarded as a ‘brute’ worker; he never missed a shift even if he had had a good ‘skin full’ the night before, so prodigious was his strength. He was Secretary of the local quoiting club and, like brother Mick, was universally trusted, earning the affectionate nickname of ‘Big Honest Tam’. He died in 1987, two years after his wife, Susan and four years after my sister Chris. Mick, who remained a Party member all his life, died in 1994.
pic: Frank's siblings: Tommy, Katy and Mick
Sadly, elder sister, Sal (who `mothered’ us all!) and my youngest sister, Katie, also both died in 1995. When we were all able to, the increasingly smaller Watters’ tribe enjoyed periodic ‘Meetings of the Waters’ - always warm and convivial gatherings. None of us ever lost touch with our shared heritage, our get-togethers always had an element of political discussion, as well as family matters. As I prepare this revised edition, I am the last of the dinosaurs, but I still keep in touch with my many nephews and nieces when I can. For, I have a strong sense that my background gave me no choice but to opt for the political life that I did.
Digging for Victory in war and peace.
At the height of the war the pits were working full out to fuel the allied effort and the miners made sure nothing impeded the fight against fascism. Every tub was filled for victory and we were campaigning for the second front to relieve the pressure on the Russians who were under siege. I was warned to watch my political activity as the manager and some right-wing union officials had noted I was beginning to have some effect on the men.
I ignored the warning and the management silenced me by simply closing the section of the mine on which I was working. All the men except four, including me, were redeployed. I won an appeal against my dismissal, but the management refused to reinstate me and the men were ready to come out on strike in my defence. But I persuaded them to stay at work, as I felt the coal was needed for the war effort and that was more important than my own job. Blacklisted by the local management, I set off in search of work elsewhere and finished up at Benhar Colliery, eight miles from Shotts.
It was there that, at the end of an exhausting shift, I was feeling the strain of my previously injured ankle and missed a stopper on the track that would have slowed the coal tub down. The tubs were normally fitted with rings to act as handles by which to hold them, but they often dropped off. Because of the war effort they were seldom replaced as the iron and steel was being poured into armaments and this tub had none, so I tried to slow it down by grabbing the top. But the tub accelerated away, reared up and struck a notch. My hands were smashed between the top of the tub and the roof.
I was sent home with a bandage wrapped round my smashed fingers and at four o'clock the doctor came and redressed my wounds. The dressing was inadequate and my mother had to wrap towels round my hands to stop my bedding being soaked in blood. The doctor gave me a note to go to the hospital and the following day I had to travel to Edinburgh by train. My old Uncle Mick accompanied me.
On arrival I was kept waiting for another four hours, because the hospital was understaffed. But I was eventually taken to a ward and then to an operating theatre, where I became a guinea pig for students who were treated to an object lesson in how not to deal with such injuries. Dirt had been left in the wounds and I was allergic to penicillin, which might have been used to fight the resulting infection. Added to that the delay in providing proper treatment meant there was nothing the surgeon could do beyond cleaning up the wounds and redressing them.
The local doctor was asked by my father why I had not been sent to the hospital earlier and he said he was under instructions from the pit ambulance committee, which was run by the wives of the colliery managers, to cut down on the number of ambulance trips to hospital because they cost thirty shillings each.
I was to pay the price of their parsimony for the rest of my life, as, after six months off work, I had to return to hospital to have my finger amputated. The coal company salved their conscience with a one-off lump sum payment of £50 and sent me packing, because my hands were no longer any use for getting coal for a considerable time.
It was 1944 and the wartime employment boom provided a boost for the construction industry. I found a job working as a timekeeper on a building site, later travelling to work on construction sites in various parts of Scotland and England but I missed home and the pit community and, after the Labour victory in the 1945 election, I went back to Shotts and volunteered to work again in the pits.
The euphoria of victory was short-lived. After their wartime alliance, which had been necessary to beat fascism, East and West were once again on opposite sides of the political fence with the Iron Curtain descending across Europe and the West cranking up the Cold War, which was to bedevil the world for the next 40 years.
The winter of 1947 saw a big freeze of a different kind with the worst weather on record. I had found a job at Calder Head pit in Shotts and the men were again breaking records in a productivity drive, this time fired by their enthusiasm for the Labour government's pledge to nationalise the industry.
But their efforts were paralysed by several days of non-stop snow, during which nothing could move and the pits ground to a halt. The snow had stopped by Friday morning and the Union saw the pit manager to argue that the men should be allowed in to get their shovels and start to clear the drifts from the rail tracks, so that the pit could reopen.
The management were reluctant, because it meant paying time-and-a-half for Saturday and double-time for Sunday. But the Union argued that the coal needed to keep British industry working was more important than the pittance earned by the miners working at weekends. They prevailed in their argument and the colliery was working again by Sunday.
The alliance of the Labour government, with its promise of nationalisation, and the workforce who wanted only to see the back of the hated coal-owners then began to come under external pressure. The Daily Mail, which had shown a generation before that there were few depths to which it would not stoop with its scandalous Zinoviev telegram fiction, demonstrated that little had changed when it began a scurrilous campaign against Shinwell, the Labour Minister of Fuel and Power.
There was pressure, too, from the Americans, who made their Marshall Aid, on which the post-war reconstruction programme depended, conditional on the retention of six-day working in British pits. Western paranoia over the 'Red Menace' was cranked up another notch or two with massive Communist votes in Italy and France.
The miners won their five-day week but the victory was short-lived. Shinwell was moved from the Ministry of Fuel and Power and shortly afterwards the pits were back on an eleven-day fortnight. Stafford Cripps was another victim of Labour's drift to the political right. That shift was accentuated with the election of Hugh Gaitskell as Labour leader after a meteoric rise, which saw him move from being a lecturer at Nottingham University in 1945, to the government front bench three years later. Two years after that saw the first massive wave of pit closures on economic grounds, a now familiar story which has been repeated with ever-increasing ferocity ever since.
Calder Head was one of those that closed and I moved to Greenrigg pit with two other brothers where I stayed until 1953, when I was requested by the Scottish Communist Party to become the Area Secretary for West Lothian. By then wages for underground workers were about £12 per week, a good deal better than the Party paid. But I had no hesitation and have never regretted opting for the job of full time revolutionary one bit.
“No, comrade — your turn will come.” Building up a fighting leadership amongst the miners.
February 1953 saw the commencement of my long political career when I was asked to bury my pick and shovel and take on the post as Communist Party Area Secretary, in West Lothian, Scotland. This was not an easy decision for me because, like most industrial workers, I was then normally very reluctant to put pen to paper. The thought of having to draft leaflets, election addresses, membership bulletins, learning to type, to keep accounts, speak at pithead and other public places, presented a nightmare. Also it meant at least 50% reduction in my income, if you were lucky enough to get the pittance a full-time worker was supposed to receive.
This didn’t worry me as I always put the Party first, but I was initially concerned in case becoming a professional revolutionary was maybe beyond my capabilities. All I can say is that this short apprenticeship of six months in West Lothian confirmed my belief in myself and the style of work I have always tried to carry out with honesty, conscious of one’s shortcomings, prepared to listen and take advice. Workers will forgive you for a multitude of mistakes. This was my experience in West Lothian and it helped me again reluctantly to accept that I leave Scotland and become Area Secretary in the South Yorkshire coalfield. This meant leaving home and my family. My Mother, who never objected to anything I did for the Party, was very upset and did everything to get the Party to reconsider its proposition.
The Party nationally and the Yorkshire District, especially the District Secretary Bert Ramelson, understood the political significance of the National Union of Mineworkers being won, or at least insulated, from the right-wing triple alliance of the Transport Workers, The Miners and the General & Municipal Workers. The Transport & General imposed bans on Communists holding office in the period from 1949 to 1968. The NUM dare not go as far because of the strong position the Party had in coalfields like Scotland, Wales, North Derbyshire and Northumberland. But anti-communist intolerance was demonstrated when Arthur Homer, the General Secretary of the NUM, was formally rebuked by his Union’s President, Will Lawther, for a speech in Paris in October 1948 which encouraged and supported French miners in the Communist-led CGT national strike against redundancies in their coal industry. From here on Homer was barred from making political pronouncements and at the ‘Big Meeting’ at the Durham Miners’ Gala separate platforms were erected when Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, and Arthur Homer were the guest speakers.
The anti-communist crusade of this triple alliance had to be broken before any thaw in the cold war could even be contemplated. This was the task the Yorkshire District Communist Party set itself in February 1953. This was their first priority, and what was needed was someone who understood how to communicate with miners and how to bring together a group of outstanding mining comrades scattered all over the vast coalfield of 150,000 miners in 130 pits. I estimate we had less than 100 miners in the Party membership with some influence in less than twelve pits out of a total Party of approximately 300 members covering the Doncaster, Worksop, Rotherham and Barnsley Areas. On the Area Council we had only three party members out of 136 delegates and only Tommy Degnan had the courage to challenge the right-wing leaders, Ernest Jones and Fred Collinridge. Tommy, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, was in constant conflict with the policies of the Yorkshire Area
leadership as it then was.
There can never be any question that it was the Communist Party that mainly made the challenge to the right-wing machine in Yorkshire and nationally. I moved to Yorkshire in October 1953 and by February 1954 we had the election for the President of the NUM, with Abe Moffatt challenging Ernest Jones. Moffatt polled 162,396 to Jones' 348,391 nationally.
The Party had to carry out an independent campaign because there was no cohesive left organisation. We sold 6,000 of Abe's pamphlets and over 2,000 copies of the Daily Worker special article by Abe on wages. Three hundred people attended a public meeting with Abe as speaker and we made 25 recruits to the Party during the campaign.
Following Jones' election as National President there was a vacancy for Yorkshire Area General Secretary. The left candidate was Eddie Collins, a very close friend and ally of the Party, who was Compensation Agent; Eddie challenged Fred Collinridge who was Vice President, polling over 18,000 in a three cornered contest. This was 1,000 more votes than he had previously won as Compensation Agent, but Collinridge won.
This created a vacancy for Yorkshire Vice President. We had a long and serious discussion within the mining leadership to decide who should be supported for this position. There was a strong feeling expressed that a Party candidate would stand as good a chance as any of the lefts. Unanimously, we decided that Sam Taylor, always a great campaigner, should be the candidate. Forty-five candidates were nominated from 130 branches, but only eight were short-listed. By this time we were concentrating on selective localities with large branch memberships to ensure our candidate would be short-listed. Sammy got 13,000 against Bullough, the right-wing candidate, who polled 27,000.
The next time the position of Yorkshire Vice President became vacant was in 1961 when Sam Bullough was elected as President. This time our candidate was Jock Kane who polled over 23,000 votes, losing to Jack Leigh by 6,000. These two elections for Vice President in 1954 and 1961 highlighted the significance of the NUM's transferable vote system. Sammy Taylor got 8,000 first preferences while Jock Kane got over 16,000 and led in the first round by nearly 1,500 votes. One of the problems we had was the division in the left, whereby we couldn't get agreement on a single candidate, whereas the right wing with a strong grip in the West Yorkshire Coalfield supported only one candidate. Even so, this was a drop of 5,000 on Jock's previous contest against Sam Bullough for Area President in the same year.
In my opinion the reason for this was that the election followed a disastrous strike on the issue of an increase in tonnage rates. Doncaster Panel, the joint committee of local branch officials, had discussed a resolution from Edlington for a substantial increase. Before Edlington was able to process their claim and get the backing of other pits within the Panel, Woodlesford, where Bob Wilkinson, a Communist, was delegate, "shot the gun" and decided to come out on strike over the same issue. The flying pickets arrived in Doncaster, where they knew no miners would cross the picket line. Unlike the later 1955 Armthorpe strike, which I shall come to in the next chapter, these events were not planned or properly organised.
In fact I was furious with Bob, and told him that he should have been consolidating his own area and then appealing for the support of others, especially Doncaster where the Panel supported the Edlington resolution. Instead, Woodlesford opted for the easy pickings, but, in the process, undid the years of work devoted to getting clarity along with the necessary preparation for an all-out coalfield strike. The outcome was disastrous. Pickets from Doncaster had to go into West Yorkshire, and then they were evicted by police, leaving Doncaster isolated and the Panel officials had to sign a settlement document. The whole thing resulted in more divisions between South and West Yorkshire miners.
Following his defeat by Jack Leigh in the election for Vice President, Jock said in a very angry tone, "Now forget about me, I am finished". My reaction was, "No, comrade, your turn will come". One year later the Area Agent for Doncaster died and Jock was elected. Then in 1966 he was elected as Financial Secretary and by this time he was a member of the NEC. So we had two leading Communists on the NEC and as Area Officials.
Sammy Taylor made the first major breakthrough for the Party by becoming the first Communist from Yorkshire to win a seat on the NUM National Executive in 1959. Also, by that time we had made big advances in our contacts, and with 30 pits we could now win nominations for our candidates. The election of Sammy to the NEC was a masterpiece of detailed organisation. Even Bert Ramelson, whom I am sure never wrote many congratulatory letters, expressed this in a personal letter to me.
Sammy had to win in the first round, for Sam Bullough was Vice President and one of the four candidates. If we did not win at the start the preference system would have worked in his favour. Thankfully, Sammy polled 1,319 votes in the first round against 1,279 for the other three candidates, winning by a majority of 40 votes.
The Party had grown from just around 300 in the South Yorkshire Coalfield in 1954 to 440 by 1960 in spite of the revelations of the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the Hungarian uprising and the ballot rigging in the ETU. Sammy's election was but one magnificent repercussion from a style of work that placed Communists at the centre of things in the Yorkshire Coalfield.
The election of Sammy Taylor was not accidental. It was the result of years of work by the Party in the Coalfield, the union branches, sales of the Daily Worker at the pithead and above all, the growth of the membership over the period of 1954 to 1960.
South Yorkshire Coalfield Communist Party pit membership
Area Members No of pits covered
Doncaster 76 9
Worksop 20 5
Rotherham 20 5
Barnsley 15 4
West Yorkshire 6 1
By this time the Party had become an influential force. Also, we had developed many good non-Party contacts. We were now in a position to get nearly one-third of the branches to nominate any left candidate. That's what won Sammy's election to the NEC.
One feature I remember well about this election was the detailed monitoring of those Branches where we had a chance of winning the vote. On the Monday before the Tuesday noon voting deadline, I discovered that the Denaby vote had not been posted. They had 36 votes; without that vote we might well be required to go to a second round against Sam Bullough who was in a strong position to win as the sitting Vice President and with a very powerful right-wing machine behind him. The problem was two-fold. I asked myself: "Can I get the secretary of Denaby to agree to fill in the ballot paper for Sammy?"
The Committee had expressed support, but that was not yet endorsed by the general meeting. I spent over two hours, eventually convincing the Branch Secretary, Tommy Ryan, a Labour Councillor in Rawmarsh and a strong Catholic, to fill in the ballot paper with the branch stamp.
Now the problem was that all branch votes had to be in Barnsley by 12 noon the following day. In no way could I deliver it, or be seen putting it through the letterbox. Questions would be asked as to who delivered it, because Tommy had a meeting with the manager that morning. He had no transport, so it was impossible for him or another member of the Committee to deliver the vote. I phoned Eddie Collins' brother Abe, whom we had supported when he was elected Area Agent. Abe was an ex-official of this branch, so he could find some excuse to visit Barnsley and hand in the vote.
Arrangements were made to meet him at a roundabout in Brampton, near Rotherham, at 8.00 a.m. and deliver the envelope. The votes were counted that day and Sammy got a telephone call to say that he had won by 40 votes. This meant Sammy was now in a position to sit on the platform at Area Council and give NEC reports. The Party had increased its representation on the Area Council from three to nine with many additional left delegates. Alwyn Machin by this time was exercising his authority as President and playing a very helpful and progressive role. He encouraged weekend schools and day release courses in Sheffield and Leeds. Many up and coming young branch officials, and, in fact, many current branch and Area Officials, benefited from this progressive venture. Machin was elected National President of the NUM with the highest vote in the history of the union but tragically he died on the day the result was announced.
There are very interesting lessons to be drawn. Before being elected, Machin was playing a much more progressive role, both on the NEC along with Sammy Taylor and in Yorkshire. Progressive resolutions were now appearing from Yorkshire on the Agenda of the NUM Annual Conference. For example, on the issues of periodic election of all officials, peace resolutions, support for Nye Bevan as Labour Party Treasurer, delegations to the Soviet Union, China and the GDR, and a delegation to France as guests of the French Miners in the CGT, which was affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions.
The most significant demonstration of international unity was on the issue of a reciprocal delegation from the Soviet Union. The Area E.C. recommended that this delegation be postponed because of the Hungarian issue. After a lengthy discussion on the Area Council, the E.C. Minute was rescinded by nearly a 2-1 vote. The Council then went on to invite the Soviet miners to attend their Gala.
Paul Robeson, the famous black singer, previously refused an invitation by Ernest Jones, was brought to Yorkshire. On a whole host of issues, such as Suez for example, Yorkshire under Machin was playing a much more progressive role. All I can say is, while we had not made a complete break from the past, at least the right-wing couldn't automatically rely on the Yorkshire Miners' vote any longer and the Party was a force to be reckoned with.
In such circumstances one would have thought the left would have given Machin a clear field over the right-wing candidate J.M. Southall, who later joined the National Coal Board. The other contenders: Bert Wynn from North Derbyshire, Jim Hammond from Lancashire and Willie Allan, originally from Scotland, but now Secretary for Northumberland all were ex-members of the Communist Party. Wynn was the first to be eliminated, but he had nearly 32,000 transferable votes to be distributed: over 13,000 went to Southall and less than 11,000 to Machin. Similarly when Hammond was eliminated, an anti-Machin factor in transfer votes emerged. Allan was still in the race for the final count, polling nearly 159,000 votes. Nonetheless, Machin was elected with 254,675 votes. What must be answered is why the so-called left never supported Machin. This I discovered later.
These three NUM Officials, who left the Party following the Hungarian issue, had been secretly meeting with other, Communist, Officials from South Wales, drafting policy documents, organising weekend schools and formulating left policies for the coalfield, without reference to the Party, the wider left or even the mass of the miners.
Involved in drafting these documents were members of the Communist Party who, nonetheless, accepted a written formulation that the CP in Yorkshire represented the "negative left". That was the background to why Yorkshire CP members were excluded and not invited to weekend schools at Wortley Hall organised by the "Chesterfield Keep Left".
This group mainly consisted of Bert Wynn, Jim Hammond, Willie Allan, and two Communist NUM Officials from Wales. Also involved were four university lecturers responsible for the extra-mural day-release students, a select few of whom were invited to join this elitist group. These students included Eric Varley, ex Labour Minister of State and now Director of Coalite. The main contact in Yorkshire was Barry Yates, a delegate from Rossington, a constant contender against Jock Kane. He never held any leading position in the Yorkshire NUM, because he was very impatient and in the end he opted out of the Union and joined the Coal Board as an industrial relations officer, never on the miners' side! He and others were known as 'The Goldthorpe Keep Left'.
The reason I am making reference to all this is to show that it was anti-communism that held back the development of a genuine left committed to change in the NUM. The left in the NUM and the broader labour movement paid a heavy penalty. If this group were so anxious to demonstrate that they could formulate left policies and win leading positions within the NUM, especially in Yorkshire, why put three of their candidates against Alwyn Machin, who had no connection with the Yorkshire CP? He represented nearly one-third of the NUM membership and was playing a progressive role both nationally and within Yorkshire.
Alwyn Machin's untimely death was a serious set-back, but the field was still wide open for the left to build on the magnificent vote of Machin, provided they got their act together, selecting a candidate who would win the Yorkshire nomination.
Following Machin's funeral a group of comrades met in Barnsley for a formal review of the situation. It was thought that Bert Wynn, Jim Hammond and Willie Allan were likely candidates. Alec Moffatt from Scotland and Les Ellis from Nottinghamshire, both members of the Communist Party, expressed their interest.
Now we had three ex-Communists, Wynn, Hammond and Allan, and two others, members of the Communist Party putting themselves forward. I was present at this discussion and I can honestly say there was no hostility to the three candidates that stood against Machin. The criterion we had to adopt was who among these five left candidates could win the Yorkshire nomination? Without it the left did not stand a chance.
The candidate who stood the best chance of winning the Yorkshire nomination was Alec Moffatt; the brother of Abe who was too old to be a candidate himself but who was well known in the Yorkshire coalfield. There was also the fact that a big contingent of Scots and Durham miners had been transferred to Yorkshire and they would campaign for Moffatt.
Sam Bullough, who was Yorkshire Vice President, was the natural candidate for the right wing to replace Machin. But, Sam was already in the contest for a more important position, President of Yorkshire Area NUM, especially with such a strong challenger as Jock Kane. So the right wing settled for Sid Ford from the clerical section of the NUM.
There were eight candidates nominated in Yorkshire, including Alec Moffatt and Sid Ford. Only Moffatt and Ford reached the final, resulting in Moffatt winning 1,293 votes against Ford's 857 votes. Moffatt won nearly 50% of all Yorkshire branch votes.
Following this magnificent vote, Moffatt was a clear favourite if he had the backing of Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales and Northumberland. Approaches were made to the other left candidates to withdraw but with the exception of Willie Allen, they refused. So the election to replace Machin took place in mid-1960 with seven candidates.
The outcome staggered us all. Sammy Taylor was present at the count on behalf of the NEC. I spoke to Sammy that weekend and the coded version of the way the count was proceeding was: "The sun is shining and getting brighter". Yes, it looked like a landslide with Moffatt leading by 23,000 votes over Ford in the first round, then going up to 24,603. But, there is an old adage: "Never count your chickens until they are hatched". Yes, the chicken had come home to roost and what a shock.
The votes of the last candidate to be transferred were those of Les Ellis, with an accumulated total of 102,000 to be divided between Moffatt and Ford. Before this, Moffatt had a lead of 24,603, home and dry; but Ford got 62,219 as against Moffatts 27,635 votes from Les Ellis. Ford was elected with a 10,000 majority.
What a tragedy for the miners and the Labour Movement. A massive pit closure programme followed, carried out ruthlessly by two future Labour Lords, Robens and Mason. Paynter, like Horner before, became a prisoner identified with the butchering of the industry.
Ford's victory also paved the way for Joe Gormley, who remained in office right up to the last day before retirement giving the right wing a 20 years stint. I often wonder what Joe must feel about his stubbornness and anti-communism, deciding to hold on to the end to prevent Mick McGahey getting another crack at the Presidency because of the age limit.
This cleared the way for Arthur Scargill to break the right wing mould and with an even larger majority than Machin - 138,800 votes against 58,496 votes for the other three candidates. I wonder if Joe regretted this, especially in later years when Mick's relationship with Scargill showed some strain?
What happened in this election was unforgivable and the main culprits were the so-called "New Thinkers" around "Chesterfield Keep Left", who were blind to the radical changes that were taking place in the Yorkshire Coalfield, with the CP in the forefront. At no time could we be labelled as a "Negative Left".
There is another lesson to be drawn from this election and the 1971 Presidential election with McGahey and Gormley. On both occasions the left candidate came from the Scottish Area that was one of the smaller areas and losing members, where the Yorkshire Area was approximately one-third of the national membership and growing. The criterion we adopted in Yorkshire was support for the left candidate who could win the Yorkshire vote. Without that they were an also-ran.
The significant thing was that both Moffatt and McGahey got nearly 50% of branch nominations. In the 1971 Presidential election there were seven candidates contesting Yorkshire's nomination, including Jack Leigh, Yorkshire Vice President, and Joe Gormley. Mick beat Leigh and earned the Yorkshire nomination.
By this time I had left Yorkshire to become Birmingham City Party Secretary. I was asked to come back and spend one month on this campaign. I was responsible for Doncaster, Worksop, Rotherham and West Yorkshire. Arthur Scargill, who gave Mick all possible support, covered the Barnsley area and delivered the votes. What upset me was I could not find the Party. Dave Priscott, District Secretary, I saw once when I arrived in Leeds. Vic Allen was in charge of the overall campaign and Mick, who visited Yorkshire during the campaign, never even made a phone call to see how the campaign was going. Maybe they all thought I didn't need any consultation, but what was obvious to me was that not only had the Party in the coalfield disappeared but many of the "left" didn't even want to be publicly identified with such a leading Communist. A well-financed Gormley bandwagon invaded the Yorkshire Coalfield with mainly anti-Communist material. Mick was defeated. Gormley polled 117,663 votes against 92,883 votes for McGahey.
The Party in Yorkshire not only played a major role in getting Alec Moffatt's nomination in the earlier election, but this put us in a very strong position for the next crucial battle, the Yorkshire Presidency, which ended up as a straight fight between Jock Kane and Sam Bullough who had the advantage of being the Vice President and Acting President.
This was a great campaign: this was a test for the left to unite around one candidate. The result; Kane polled 27,862 votes (40%); Bullough 43,928 votes (60%). Again we had recorded a substantial increase for a Party candidate, from 11,000 in 1954 for Sammy to 15,753 for Jock as Vice President. Then there was a vote for the Yorkshire Presidency of nearly 28,000. In all an increase of 17,000 in 6 years - not bad! Not bad at all.
Before I leave this question of NUM elections in this period, there are other points I must record. One is positive and one negative. This may upset some of my friends, but the book is called "Being Frank" and that's me; history must be true and mustn't wait 50 years to be recorded.
Following the 1955 Armthorpe strike, to which I will come shortly now, a resolution was passed that, in addition to the five Area Officials, five Area Agents should be appointed embracing the eight Panels. The Party contested three seats and supported two lefts. Abe Collins was elected, representing Rotherham and Worksop Area.
In the Doncaster Area, Jock Kane on first preferences got 2,049, beating Harry Huckerby by 125 votes. In the final vote, Jock polled 4,109, being defeated by 155 votes. Armthorpe, which had a membership of over 2,500, returned only a 55% vote. If we had got 10% more Jock would have won and this would have put him in a much stronger position to win Area office before he eventually did in 1966 as Area Finance Officer.
In the Barnsley Area, (better known then in NUM circles as Carlton Area), Sammy Taylor in the first round polled 2,255, being neck and neck with J. Stone from the strong Frickley (South Elmsall) Area, who eventually beat Sammy by 186 votes. Again a lost opportunity! But Sammy was elected as Compensation Agent in 1961. Tommy Degnan, in a more difficult area overlapping Wakefield, polled 2,147. We had a total of 11,004, in a very difficult period. The Daily Express carried a story headed "The Reds step up pit drive" and "Three line up". Comrade "Citizen" Jock Kane, Comrade Taylor and Comrade Degnan were all mentioned, with the usual quote. But there was no identifying the Miners' Union leader who said that, "It is obvious the Communists are using their usual tactics of putting up only one candidate in an area to avoid splitting the vote".
There were, in this period, two other elections in Yorkshire in which I was not directly involved as I had left Yorkshire by this time to become the Birmingham Party Secretary, subsequently becoming the Midlands District Secretary and a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party.
Even though I was in the Midlands, I was well informed about these developments and it is worth describing them. Jock Kane retired as Financial Secretary in 1966 and Owen Briscoe took over his role as the leader of the Doncaster Panel. Along with Percy Riley, he played a major role in preventing the Coal Board from using Government legislation on "Standardised Rents" which would have meant a substantial increase in the rents for Coal Board houses, especially the ones built in the 1950s for transferred miners. There was no doubt that Owen was a popular leader and thus warranted serious consideration for an Area official's position.
I understand that the Yorkshire Party staked a claim that as Jock was elected as a well-known Communist, the Party had a right to replace him. I couldn't understand the logic in this thinking, for it was not generally the way the Party worked in the Labour Movement. Admittedly, if a member of the Party was the most likely to defeat the right-wing, then we fought for our corner, as we did with Jock and Sammy. When Sammy died in 1971 he was replaced by Arthur Scargill, a former member of the Young Communist League, but again the argument was about whom was the best placed to succeed. For me, it was never about narrow Party advantage.
I was aware of the eruption that was being caused among the comrades in Yorkshire. I got a long telephone call from Eric Browne, a key activist and life-long friend in Armthorpe, asking me to intervene. This was impossible, as the comrade in charge of industrial work in Yorkshire, Howard Hill, would not take my interference lightly, as we weren't the closest of friends. What I couldn't understand was why the opinion of people like Jock Kane was not the Party's guiding light. The feeling against this arrogant stand of Howard Hill was very strong indeed. Howard insisted that Peter Tait from Barnsley, a Scot whom I had recruited to the Party, must be the successor to Jock. I am told that Dave Priscott (the Yorkshire District Secretary after Bert Ramelson) tried to be the mediator between Jock and Howard. He visited Jock to explain that the decision to support Peter Tait had his backing also. I don't think Dave Priscott had a clue about Jock's temperament. I understand Jock's reply was short: "So we have two stupid bastards!", meaning Hill and Priscott. That should have made Dave re-think.
I have always operated a golden rule: consult the comrades who have to argue for the Party's line. It wasn't Howard Hill or Dave Priscott that faced a barrage of abuse, knowing well what could and did happen. Neither Peter Tait nor Owen Briscoe was short-listed in the end and a member of the staff, Raymond Horbury, who was head of the Finance Department, was elected in a three-cornered contest.
This was the first time in Yorkshire since 1954 that a left candidate was not short-listed. This was disastrous and certainly wouldn't have happened if I had still been in the Coalfield. I got a phone call from the Yorkshire District asking if I would call in to see Peter when visiting my wife Freda's family in Leeds. This I did, but the more I heard what was happening the more I became convinced that it was a wrong decision and that there was no need for it. Coming up was the position of Yorkshire Area Secretary, as Schofield was due to retire. Unity around Owen Briscoe was absolutely vital. Peter would have been a natural candidate for either Yorkshire Secretary, or the Area Financial Secretary if Owen decided later to go for General Secretary. As it worked out Owen became General Secretary and Peter Tait never won office. Peter then left the Party to take up a position in the International Miners' Federation, offered to him by Joe Gormley, following another disastrous defeat in the election for Vice President of the Yorkshire Area which was won by Jack Taylor, an outsider, who went on to play a vital role in the 1980s whilst Peter faded away. The Party had displayed a shortsighted view of what was possible in the best interests of left unity. Not for the first time.
I left Yorkshire in 1968 not for any political difference, but there was a school of thought that the Party was well established in the Yorkshire Coalfield and I needed a change after 15 years struggling to get my pittance of a wage, often not in receipt of it, and I was married with two children by that time.
Maybe if some of the Soviet money which we are now being told about had been channelled into the South Yorkshire Coalfield, guaranteeing at least my pittance of a salary, my leaving could have been delayed. I am confident that the divisions between Owen Briscoe and Peter Tait wouldn't have happened and Mick McGahey would have had a Party campaigning for him in 1971, instead of empty promises from the Yorkshire District of the Communist Party about the importance of retaining influence in the coalfield.
All I can say is that my conscience is clear. I was never in receipt of any help from the Party Centre and certainly not one penny came our way in the Midlands when we were struggling to build a Social Club, imaginatively bringing the Party's image into the 20th Century.
On and off I kept up connections with the coalfield as when I helped out in Arthur Scargill's various elections; Compensation Agent, Yorkshire President, National President twice, so no one can say that Scargill never tested the water. I can't think of any Area or National Official that has such a record. He was a smashing campaigning candidate, but the agony I had to go through waiting for the result. It was a good job I was a super-optimist or I would not have been able to write these memoirs.
The other time I returned during my period in the Midlands was after a large delegation of Communist and left NEC miners invaded King Street (the headquarters of the Communist Party) requesting Johnny Gollan, the General Secretary, to release me from the Midlands to work on Owen Briscoe's election for General Secretary. Johnny was shortly after to pay a visit to Harry Bourne, Midlands District Secretary who was seriously ill and in fact died later, and so met me in the Midlands.
Johnny wanted my opinion. I said that I was always prepared to help out, but I thought Owen could win with the team he had in Yorkshire. Johnny posed a key question to me - what if we have divisions in the Party, such as we have had since you left and Briscoe is defeated? Gollan answered himself that the Party would be held responsible. Therefore, in these circumstances, if my wife areed, I should go to Yorkshire to help out.
All I can say is that we won easily, but the most heartening factor was the warmth and welcome I got from the mining lads then and any time I was involved. The same applies since 1981, when I came back to Yorkshire for good and helped record a proud history that has enriched the Labour Movement, irrespective of what some say about the 1984/85 strike.
There are many other aspects of my work in South Yorkshire that put the Party on the map, especially our work winning two seats on the Thorne Rural District Council. This I will deal with later to put an end to the myth that my period in the Yorkshire Coalfield from 1953 to 1968 was mainly trying to win positions in the National Union of Mineworkers and that other aspects of Party activities were neglected.
“Bushfires to set the coalfield ablaze – the Armthorpe strike of May 1955
I have made passing reference to the Armthorpe pit strike, which took place in May 1955, and this campaign warrants a little more detailed examination. When I arrived in Yorkshire in 1953, I discovered that the Coalfield was rife with rank and file militancy. This revolved around a system where pieceworkers' wages weren't fully related to the amount of coal produced. Nearly half was made up in a multitude of allowances. These were negotiated at the point of production.
Progressive deputies, wanting to get the face cleared off, would agree with pool leaders on what these allowances should be. Other deputies, who were not so progressive, and, afraid of management, were in constant battle with the lads. On top of that the management could all too often easily over-ride these local agreements and withdraw special payments.
In 1954, the Yorkshire Coalfield had more stoppages than the rest of the country and the highest number in the post-war period. I can only describe them like "bushfires", flaming up in every part of the coalfield. There were no Area Agents only Area Officials, who were incapable of dealing with the volume of disputes and, in some cases, so discredited they did not dare to show their faces at the collieries, it was left to Branch Officials to negotiate with local management.
I attended many of these meetings, reporting news stories based on them to the Daily Worker and generally testing the atmosphere. I was convinced that some day we would get the right pit, with leadership and rank and file support, which would end the "bushfires" and set the entire coalfield ablaze.
By this time Alwyn Machin had taken over from Ernest Jones. It was obvious Machin had direct contact with the Coal Board and was able to get some satisfactory settlements. I always remember him saying. "If I don't get a satisfactory settlement, I promise you that I will resign". I knew the magnitude of the strikes was growing and some day he would regret those words. That day came in May 1955 when the Armthorpe branch decided to call a halt. A special Doncaster Panel was called that weekend which decided to support any action undertaken by the Armthorpe miners.
pic: Eric Browne, Betty Kane, Arthur Scargill and the Armthorpe banner, proudly featuring Jock Kane
Machin was given a very rough ride when he attended a mass meeting in a field behind the Taddy pub one Sunday morning. He was the only Area Official present and pleaded that he knew all about the men's problems because he had first-hand information from his son who was a face worker at Thorne pit. The men shouted him down, saying he should be ashamed of himself allowing his own son to work under such conditions for terrible wages. The following day another mass meeting was held in Armthorpe. All the Doncaster pits were represented to carry out the Panel's decision. I have never witnessed such a mass gathering of men determined to end once and for all the uncertainty of what wages they would receive. I managed to get into the meeting, while hundreds had to wait outside. Jock Kane was President of Armthorpe and he introduced the platform, including the Panel representatives. He gave a brief report of the dispute and highlighted the Panel's support for action, but made the point that of course that would depend on the outcome of the meeting. Area and Panel officials who had turned up to speak against the strike changed their minds when they gauged the mood of the meeting.
Representing Yorkshire NUM was Fred Collinridge, who was the most hated and vicious right wing leader; not only incompetent, but lazy and never available when needed. Along with him was Alwyn Machin. Alwyn, who came from the Doncaster Area, of course had a reputation as a militant – a new type of leader, with a fair intellectual capacity. He started in his usual way. "I can understand the frustration. Working so hard, sometimes in wet conditions, dangerous roofing, breakdowns etc., expecting to receive the amount of allowance agreed between your representative and the deputy, and only to discover either the manager or the under-manager has pencilled it out. I can assure you, if I don't get these reductions restored, I will resign".
Well, only a Hampden roar could be compared with this spontaneous reply, "Resign now because you have had since last week to rectify this problem!!" That's what the lads roared out. Then Jock Kane called for order and said, "Mr Collinridge, our General Secretary, has a brilliant idea to get a proper consensus of this meeting. He has brought ballot papers for you to declare support or no support for strike". Can you imagine the reaction towards this hated and discredited official? Again Kane had to appeal for order and then went on to put the boot into Collinridge. In his usual sarcastic and laconic way Jock said: "Now lads, get your pencil out of your pocket - get your jacket over your head to ensure no-one sees how you vote." He then turned to Collinridge and said: "Fred, there is only one way we vote at Armthorpe - show of hands and you know what to do with your ballot paper." A massive cloud of hands for action went up. The coalfield was waiting for this. Doncaster pits had met that weekend and all endorsed the Panel decision to support Armthorpe. But the problem was West Yorkshire.
Here the idea of the "Flying Pickets" was tried out. Fortunately enough, the Branch Committee was united in support of the flying pickets. So there was no shortage of money for breakfast in the pit canteens, or petrol allowance. A prosperous home coal scheme of which Kane was the Secretary delivered the goods. The invasion of the West Yorkshire pits by the Doncaster lads did lead to one minor setback, however. The flying pickets took their payslips with them to show to the West Yorkshire lads but the tactic backfired when they discovered that the West Yorkshire pits were getting paid even less than they were themselves! It did not deter them, though, and picketing proceeded but the Doncaster lads stopped waving their payslips about!
Within days the Coalfield was at a standstill. A special Council meeting was called on the following Monday, but Armthorpe was not included. Arthur Horner, a life-long Communist, was the national General Secretary and had a good relationship with Bill Sales who was National Industrial Relations Officer for the NCB. (Sales was one of the few Coal Board personnel committed to the industry and the success of nationalisation.) Horner was invited to address this Council, but it became clear the delegates did not dare to vote to return to work without the agreement of Armthorpe who were excluded from the meeting.
Now the behind the scenes diplomacy was to be tried. The Armthorpe Branch Committee was in the Royal Hotel in Barnsley, a few hundred yards from the Miners Offices. Horner sent one of the staff down to invite Kane to meet him privately. Both Kane and Horner were old buddies and both members of the Communist Party. Kane's reaction was however supremely principled: - "I have no objection to meeting the General Secretary, but not unless he is prepared to meet all members of the Branch Committee." This Horner could not do, because by this time the strategy of the right wing was to isolate the Armthorpe branch and take disciplinary action against a group of the strike leaders, including Jock Kane.
Both Bert Ramelson and myself were daily involved. The Daily Worker sent George Sinfield to cover the strike. George resented the fact that Bert and I would call at his hotel about 7.00 a.m. to meet Kane and review what was needed. Here is when the Party was so vital. By this time we had grown in numbers and contacts in Yorkshire, and the Party nationally was following the dispute with great interest. A defeat, with the prospects of Kane and others expelled out of the Union and out of the industry, would be disastrous.
When Horner returned to London he made it clear to Bill Sales, NCB National Industrial Officer, that the NCB would never have peace in that coalfield as long as a large percentage of piece workers' wages were made up with allowances; and that management should not have the right to reject allowances without knowing the real nature of working conditions as agreed by the Deputy and the men's representatives. I understand that a meeting between Horner and Sales took place where all the three issues were settled: i.e. a) The right to negotiate allowances on the job without senior management interference; b) A substantial increase in tonnage rate c) An Area Water Agreement, when required to work in wet conditions.
By Wednesday, Horner couldn't understand why the coalfield was still stood when all demands were agreed upon and he asked the Industrial Department of the Communist Party to find out why Armthorpe was still on strike. What he did not realise was that the Area Officials did not want a settlement, but revenge for their humiliating experience at that meeting in Armthorpe.
On the following Wednesday, when the strike was in its second week and still solid, I picked up a small news item in the Doncaster Post which said that Horner and Sales had met and agreed to meet the demands of the strike. This appeared only in the early edition that was rarely read except by punters looking for the day's race cards. The problem was how to confirm this report. Another special Council was called on the Thursday. Before the Council meeting, I visited Allen Beaney, the delegate from Hickleton, and looked upon as the father of the Council; Beaney was a very capable orator. Again Armthorpe was not invited. When Machin opened the meeting, Beaney moved a point of order that he had a press cutting on which he wanted some clarification. This was agreed; Beaney read it out and asked Machin if he had received any correspondence from Horner confirming a meeting that had taken place with an agreed settlement. Machin said there was some correspondence regarding a discussion with Horner and Sales. He was then asked to read the correspondence out. Beaney then moved that a copy of this letter be delivered immediately by hand to all Branch Secretaries and that all Panels meet over the weekend to consider returning to work based on this agreed settlement.
Machin, I understand, was livid. Eddie Collins, who was Compensation Agent and one of the five Officials, was not informed. Once we had an official copy it was all over bar the shouting. But wait. The purpose of the Special Council was not only to isolate Armthorpe, but to discipline the strike leaders. The following morning a meeting of all the five officials took place and, with the exception of Eddie Collins, they agreed to discipline five leaders including Jock Kane. Eddie always left his office dead on 12 noon for his lunch and we had a special rendezvous where we would meet. Eddie was nearly in tears at the thought of these lads being victimised by his Union.
Now here was a real problem. The strike had lasted two weeks and the signs of financial strains were appearing among the lads. We had won a resounding victory against the Coal Board and now we had to fight our own Union. All the Panels were meeting that night. How could I deliver this news without disclosing its source? The answer was a simple resolution: "that all pits resume work on Monday, provided there was no victimisation either by the Board or the Union."
The problem was both time and distance of travel. I was in Barnsley. To get to Armthorpe meant I would require two buses. I also had to get to Thurcroft and Worksop, for their Panels were meeting that night, and we wanted as many of the Panels as possible passing a similar resolution. I was in digs at the home of Norman Greenfield, who always had a big car. I had passed my driving test but had no car. I went into Norman's, took his car keys, knowing he wouldn't be home until 6 o'clock. I phoned Bert Ramelson and asked him to ask Bob Wilkinson to cover the West Yorkshire Panel. I also asked him to be at Norman's house before 6 p.m. to defend me. Norman didn't object, but what an experience! I hadn't driven a big car. Norman was a very big man and I couldn't adjust the driving seat. I drove that car over 60 miles with my legs fully stretched out. There are those comrades who have since remarked that driving with me when my feet were touching the floor could be an even more terrifying experience!
Then I had another problem, when I arrived at Jock's house there was no one in. I dare not go to the pub, where the strike committee had its headquarters. By the way, Jock had a golden rule ... you never drank even a pint of beer when you were leading a dispute. I phoned the pub hoping Jock or someone friendly would answer. But no such luck, it was Joe Cole, the Branch Secretary, who never had the guts for a struggle. Even so, Joe had developed a liking for George Sinfield, who was one of the best industrial correspondents. This is how the conversation went:
F.W. "Can I speak to Mr Kane."
J. Cole. "Mr Kane is busy."
F.W. "I know, but it's important."
J. Cole. "Is that you George, I will get him."
Kane came to the phone, by this time I had a lather of sweat with the car problems and worry as to whether Cole would detect it was me. Don't ask me how I did it, but it worked. When Kane answered he said: "What do you want George?" I said: "It's me." He said: "Jesus Christ! What are you playing at, trying to imitate George Sinfield?" My normal accent was and is distinctly Scottish. George was obviously a Londoner when you heard him talk. The sweat by this time was dropping off my nose - when I told him the problem he readily agreed to try to get the resolution carried at the Panel. Then I was off to Thurcroft and Worksop, another 20 miles each way with my legs fully stretched.
In the evening I got Norman to take me into Doncaster to meet Jock and George in the Danum Hotel. There is no one I have ever known who can put on a poker face better than Jock Kane. I hadn't got over my earlier experience and was wondering if Cole had spilled the beans that I had had a special message for Kane and wouldn't divulge it to him.
Both of them walked in - George Sinfield and Jock. I said, "How did it go?" Kane replied, "How did it go? We have worked our bollocks off, our lads have been kicked from pillar to post and you had to put your stupid foot in it!!" He kept on and on, George claims he could see my red face turning green. At that he burst out laughing and told Kane to stop it then ordered me a large Drambuie. Kane then unravelled the story. After he returned to the other side of the bar, where Joe Cole was standing, Cole said: "Did you get George"? Kane said: "Yes, it was nothing" and Cole then said: "There is one thing about George you can always tell. It's sure to be him by his cockney accent."
All’s well that ends well. Sales then decided to come into Yorkshire as NCB Chairman. The coalfield was never the same, but as long as you have a piecework system you will always have "rag-ups". Hence, we saw the need to step up the fight in all coalfields for the campaign for a National Power Loading Agreement where miners had a common wage-rate that also unified all face workers. That was the corner stone that led to the 1972 strike, and it became one of our major tasks.
The next campaign was to build on our success and make sure the branch elections in June reflected the new mood of confidence. This we did and we increased our representation on the Council from three to nine. We also got a decision that each Area would have a full-time Agent. Now was the chance to test the support we had in the coalfield.
Chapter 5 “Show your face to the people” - Campaigning for the Party in the Yorkshire Coalfield: 1958-68
The reader would up to now be forgiven for getting the impression that the only field of activity the CP in South Yorkshire concentrated upon was in bringing about a radical change in the balance of forces within the NUM, especially in the Yorkshire Area.
This was of course was our immediate objective, but building the Party was vital. Even so we couldn't work in isolation from the many international events, which occurred during this period. All of which posed the most difficult problems for the British CP since it was formed in 1920.
In the early months of 1956 the revelations of Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CP of the Soviet Union shocked the world's Communist Parties. He revealed, in a secret session, many of the crimes of Stalin in the years immediately before the 2nd World War and the years that followed. Then, in the summer of 1956, the Soviet Army invaded Hungary; and Britain, France and Israel embroiled themselves in the Suez disaster. During these three years the British Communist Party lost nearly 8,000 members; many were intellectuals and Jewish comrades who joined the Party during the war years, especially after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.
These revelations not only affected this group of Communists, but many blue and white-collar workers. Many Trade Union leaders, such as John Horner, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades' Union, left, as did Alec Moffatt of the Scottish NUM, although he re-joined later. Bert Wynn (Derbyshire), Jim Hammond (Lancashire), Willie Allan (Northumberland) and Lawrence Daly (Scotland), were all Communist Party members from the NUM who resigned.
In Yorkshire, we had maybe the most difficult and toughest internal struggles in all the areas of the British Communist Party. We had a powerful group of intellectuals, E.P. Thompson, John Saville, and John Hughes, along with other academics. Some of these were well known as Communists, others who had kept their heads very low because of the anti-Communist atmosphere of the McCarthy years, suddenly allowed their names to appear publicly.
The launching pad for a new theoretical journal, called "The Reasoner", was in Yorkshire. This was to provide an in-depth analysis of what went wrong in the Soviet Union. They challenged the concept of democratic centralism primarily to acquire facilities within the Party to distribute the journal, with no Party control over the content and editorial policy.
The final outcome was that the journal did appear, but it was short-lived because it had no common political or ideological base. It was a pity these comrades left the Party, because by this time the British Communist Party was taking a more critical view of events in the Soviet Union and agreed to publish a monthly journal, "Marxism Today", a discussion and theoretical journal edited by James Klugmann. He, along with other intellectuals in Yorkshire, such as Arnold Kettle, Ron and Joan Bellamy, Tom Driver, Bill Moore, and District Secretary and District Organiser Bert and Marian Ramelson, were no mean students of Marxism. Industrial workers such as Jock Kane, Sammy Taylor, Bill Carr from the NUM and engineers' rank and file leaders George Caborn and Herbert Howarth, Hymie Besser and other comrades in the Leeds area, joined in defending the unity of the Party. These together may have been able for a time to fill the major gap in the Communist Party’s intellectual leadership, following the death of key theorist James Klugmann, after which Marxism Today, the journal he had edited, was high jacked from the Party and then played a major role in the diminution of the Marxism in the CPGB and its programme, "The British Road to Socialism".
There were big divisions among the full-time staff in the Yorkshire Communist Party. In Leeds, where we had a large Jewish membership, especially in the clothing industry and our comrades had a rough time. What made matters worse for them was that the Leeds Secretary of the Party, Jim Roche, could not come to terms with the revelations and later left the Party.
In Sheffield, where the leadership was also weak, it needed industrial workers like George Caborn, Herbert Howarth and others who had a massive industrial influence in the city, finally had to intervene to hold the Party together and to get on with the task of defending workers' conditions and fighting the run-down in engineering and steel.
In South Yorkshire we had our problems. An up-and-coming young writer from Thurcroft, near Rotherham, Len Doherty, resigned. He featured me as a character, thinly disguised as "Frank Wells" in one of his books. Len at this time was under the influence of other Communist writers, like the now famous Doris Lessing. Len was enjoying the social snobbery of his regular weekends in London with the literary elite. Looking back, and especially on the other tragic issue of Soviet intervention - in Czechoslovakia - this experience helped me to reject the notion of the infallibility of Marxist leaders, just as I had previously rejected the notion of Papal infallibility which the priests had tried to instil in me.
In spite of all these internal problems, the Party in South Yorkshire was making big advances in our public campaigning. The main breakthrough came in 1958 when Bill Carr was elected to the Thorne Rural District Council. This encouraged others to have a go. In the early 60s, Jock McKenna polled over 1,200 votes in Rossington, near Doncaster, nearly defeating a strong right-wing candidate who was the NUM branch delegate. As late as 1992, capitalising on all these years of work, Terry Wilde stood under the name "Democratic Left", (the CPGB having been dissolved). He polled 560 votes, the lowest vote in that village since the 60s. The change of name didn't do much good for Terry. I estimate that, by the 1960s, we were contesting in at least 14 local authority elections across the area. Percy Riley was the first Communist in Yorkshire to be elected but along with several other Labour councillors in Dearne was removed from office for sending an official council delegation to the Warsaw Peace Conference. Apparently they should have kept their attention fixed on dustbins! This conference should have been held in Sheffield, but the Labour Government forced Picasso, along with Percy and many others to go to Poland instead.
The other interesting contest was when young Arthur Scargill at the age of 22 challenged a key figure of the Worsbrough Urban District Council. Arthur won on the first count by a majority of one in the postal ballot returns. We tried to get that accepted by the Returning Officer as the final vote, but consistent with his usual lack of humour we got the reply "no". Arthur polled 138 votes out of a total of nearly 2,000. This proves he has always been in favour of postal votes! It was not a bad result for a first time contest, but the issues raised in the campaign were interesting.
Alongside general issues of Housing, Education, etc. we highlighted the problems of the young people in Worsbrough. "If you want more than a pint and a game of darts, you have to hop on a bus to Barnsley or Sheffield ... No cinema, no swimming baths, no dance hall, no skating." Olympic sprint champions like Dorothy Hyman and Gloria Goldsborough of Barnsley had to travel 12 miles to Sheffield for their practices. Now we have a first class stadium named after Dorothy Hyman at Cudworth and a Leisure Centre at Hoyland. This, we said, was what Socialism is all about, providing facilities for the old, young, disabled and disadvantaged.
Pic: Yorkshire Young Communist League activists in the early 1950s
Of course, we targeted the areas in the coalfield where we could make a breakthrough. We did likewise in local election contests especially in Moorends, Doncaster. Bill Carr, (following the 1955 Armthorpe strike), had been elected Thorne Branch NUM delegate, defeating George Kenny, a right-winger and West Yorkshire County Councillor. He now found himself in a stronger position to win a seat on the Thorne Rural District Council and was elected second from top of the poll with 934 votes. Then, the following March, a by-election took place. Sam Cairns, the Communist candidate, received a magnificent vote of 623 to Labour's 1093 in a straight fight when the poll was even higher than in May.
Bill Carr later contested the local seat for the West Yorkshire County Council. All this required months of canvassing before the May election. We had only a handful of Party members, so we had to rely on comrades coming in at the weekend from other areas.
In the present circumstances it is difficult to grasp the atmosphere in the Thorne Area leading up to all elections; there was the Thorne RDC, West Yorkshire County Council and the Goole Parliamentary Constituency. Bill Carr polled over 1000 votes out of an electorate of just over 3,000 in a straight fight with Labour for the Thorne RDC. Then there was the vote of over 1,200 for West Yorkshire County Council in a much larger area than Moorends. And he polled nearly 1,000 in the Parliamentary contest in 1964 when the Tories had ruled for 13 years and Harold Wilson promised the "White heat of the Technological Revolution" and a halt to pit closures.
The election of Bill Carr in 1958 as a Councillor, with such a magnificent vote was no accident; it was the result of years of hard work, particularly by Bill in the pit, the union branch and regular sales of the Daily Worker, both in the pit and in the village.
The main problem we faced in these elections was that we had far too small a Party to do all the things we had to do. Here is where many non-Party sympathizers helped out and became natural contacts for joining the Party. The right-wing area officials in the Yorkshire NUM got worried that a Communist might join the elite club of sponsored NUM branch secretaries and delegates on the County Council where election expenses and an attendance allowance were paid.
They were so worried when, in 1963, Bill Carr contested the County Council election against the rejected NUM sponsored Labour candidate, George Kenny, who never attended a branch meeting following his defeat as delegate in 1955. The Area EC, which Jock Kane and Sammy Taylor were theoretically obliged to support, issued a leaflet to every voter in the area calling on them to support the official Labour and NUM candidate, George Kenny. This was at a time when Independents and Ratepayers were sweeping the boards in strong Labour areas, and yet only in the Thorne Area was such an appeal made.
The Yorkshire right-wing thought that they would be able to silence people like Jock Kane and Sammy Taylor on polling day. All it meant was we rallied more help and Jock and Sammy toured the area calling for support for Bill Carr and exposing the so-called NUM sponsored candidate who never attended a union branch meeting for over eight years.
Many miners' MPs were drafted into the area, including George Jaeger MP for Goole, whose stay was shortened when he was challenged by Jock Kane to "come out of your big car, remove that microphone and show your face to the people". I have never heard anything like it; windows and doors opened and the street was packed. Jaeger couldn't face this challenge, he took the microphone from his face but it was to accelerate his departure and many more decided they had had enough.
It was a political treat to be in this area on Election Day when Party posters were stuck on walls everywhere - or in windows of hundreds of houses; sixteen sheet posters were displayed as you entered the area. A well decorated shop, with a large window right on the main road, showed the Party meant business and what was needed was another Communist on the Council, to ensure issues like increased rents and cuts in social services would be debated. You had the usual situation, a massive Labour majority; the group would meet and decide, resulting in Carr not being able to get a seconder. That we soon remedied by Sam Cairns joining Bill, but what an experience!
This time it was a very high turnout; Bill had topped the poll but there was a concerted effort to defeat Sam. There were three counts to decide between Sam Cairns and Johnny Weaver, a very good left-winger. On the first count Weaver won by six. We called for a re-count and Sam Cairns had a majority of three. By this time we were all looking at our watches wondering if we would get a pint after such a long day during which we operated a rule, "no beers during period of canvassing." There was a common understanding that we were entitled to at least the last half hour before the pub closed, so we agreed that the third count would be final, and Sam held his lead of three, and that was it.
The pub was chock-a-block awaiting the result. When I walked in, our supporters knew the result by the big smile on my face. It had been hard going and by the time the polling stations closed I had made a few enemies by insisting, even in the rain, that we had a list of promises with no record of how they had voted. The usual cry was "Christ, I've visited that person and they claim to have voted." My records said no, therefore try again, I insisted. The comrades who had travelled from all over Yorkshire respected the discipline, because we knew we were fighting for every vote for Sam, Bill was home and dry, but Sam had to struggle. I phoned Freda, my wife, to explain that in no way could I get back home until the following morning. As usual, she understood and was pleased with the result. I had spent nearly two weeks in Moorends.
Pic: Sammy Taylor, as the Communist candidate for DonValley, hands his deposit in, watched by (L to R) Reuben Beuffman, Johnny Mason, Percy Riley, John Parks and Tony Gilbert
The victory for Sam and Bill was a combination of splendid candidates, a vigorous campaign and the thrashing out, on the doorsteps and in street meetings, of the basic political issues that convinced the people of Moorends that Carr needed a running mate, if their grievances were to be aired.
There was one incident in these election contests when the Labour supporters got a good laugh at our expense. It was the Parliamentary Election in 1964. Sam Cairns had a big posh car and there was a large family in Moorends who were, as they say, a copper or two short of a full shilling! Sam crushed them all into his car to vote. The regulations prevent any unauthorised person in the polling booth. Sam had to wait in the corridor, along with many of his personal friends in the Labour Party. When the mother of this large family came out, followed by her chickens, Sam said: "Well, did you all vote?" They replied: "Yes, we voted, Mr Cairns. We voted for Mr Jaeger" (the Labour candidate). The Labour supporters were in stitches, and the penalty for voting Labour was they had to walk home. There is an old saying: "You can take a horse to the well, but you can't make it drink."
With Sam now on the Council with Bill, soon the meetings, which normally lasted one hour, were having to be adjourned many times. Council house rent increases were an annual battleground and alongside Sam and Bill battling it out in the Council Chambers, petitions were being signed, councillors lobbied and the most right wing harassed.
There was one from Stainforth, called Councillor Riddle, who liked a few beverages before the Council meetings and found his beer money somehow other than by working. Sam Cairns really upset him, when it was obvious that it was the beer that was talking; Sam would say: "Aye-hey diddle diddle, Riddle is on the fiddle."
Alongside the many things won for the people of Moorends and Thorne, the one promise our councillors made and achieved was the building of a swimming bath in that area. That is what is meant by putting Socialist thinking into practice.
Now the task was to build a Party and not always to rely on outside help. This we did, in spite of internal and international problems.
Chapter 6 “More Politics - less debt collecting”; taking stock on leaving Yorkshire.
The influence of the Communist Party far exceeds its numerical strength." How often have we heard that said? Nowhere is this more true than among the mining communities, shown in the election of National, Area and Local Officials of the NUM. In Scotland and Wales, scores of Communists were elected to all levels of local government authorities and Willie Gallacher to Parliament for West Fife. Shotts was no exception where a well known Communist, John Ferguson, an able orator, speaking every week at the Labour Exchange, leading
deputations to the Parish Chambers for extra food allowances, bedding, boots and some warm underwear to survive the harsh winters of which Shotts had more than a fair share, was elected in a straight fight with Labour.
It was this activity that won the respect and acceptance that Communists cared for the people, whereas the Labour Party, especially following the betrayal of Ramsay McDonald, went into oblivion during those hard years. This should not surprise anyone, as a vital ingredient has always been missing from Labour's recipe book - that is participating in mass struggle, and maybe all those engaged in the post-mortem into why Labour lost the 1992 election should start
rectifying this. They have a ready-made issue to start with - put unemployment at the top of this agenda. The Labour and Trade Union Movement can't say "wait for a return of a Labour Government".
The "People's Marches" in the 80s mainly came from the initiative of the Communist Party backed up by progressive local Labour Parties, trades unions, trades councils and many church organisations. Here we have a problem. Irrespective of our numerical strength, distinguished by its organisational capacity as well as analytical powers and strategic vision, this is no longer possible since the "New Thinkers" who have
dissolved the Communist Party of Great Britain have also ditched the word "struggle", let alone "class struggle", from their recipe and inserted "consensus" politics and the confusion of tactical voting. What must be understood is that you will never defeat right-wing governments or right-wing control in the Trade Union Movement by empty slogans - "Time for Change, Time for Labour." What we need is a change in society that puts people's need before the satisfaction of the greedy few. This is what we tried to do, with some success, in the Yorkshire Coalfield in the Fifties and Sixties. Especially in the direction of changing the NUM despite the hostility of those like the Yorkshire Miners' leader George Rhodes who promised to "cut out Communist influence like a surgeon cuts out a cancer".
Also, to our credit in our public work, especially in our local election campaigns, we raised the questions of lack of facilities for the young; the need for health centres; more senior citizens' homes; more meals on wheels and home helps; we opposed annual increases in rents and where we had influence, such as in Thorne, both Sam Cairns and Bill Carr fought and won the right to sit on all committees in the Council, to make sure the controlling group carried out their promises. We were in the forefront against pit closures. We were always in the forefront fighting for a decent wage for the miners. Jock Kane often remarked, "We couldn't get up off our knees for the medals Lord Robens pinned on us instead of decent wages".
Yes, this generation of Communists in the Yorkshire Coalfield had a proud record of service and I am proud to be associated with it. It was a very rewarding 15 years I spent in the Yorkshire Coalfield. Especially, as the next chapter recounts, because I met and married my late wife Freda whilst in Yorkshire and my daughter Lesley was born and mainly schooled there. The kindness and friendship I enjoyed then was typical of Yorkshire folk and I am lucky to be enjoying this goodwill all over again now.
But, I must make some comment on the real financial problems both Freda and I had to face in Yorkshire in the early days. Without her political understanding and our mutual love for each other I wouldn't have been able to do what I did. Not only were there big financial sacrifices, but I was not always about at vital times when needed. On numerous occasions I would try to justify such absences. My daughter Lesley then and now would say "where were you on the day I was born - in Moorends selling Daily Workers". That's true; she was born in March 1959, just before we won both seats on the Thorne RDC.
Anyone who has spent any time working in any coalfield in Britain will confirm it is a difficult task not only to build Communist Party branches, but to retain them. Hard work and shift problems in the mining industry leaves little leisure time, especially after working in the bowels of the earth all week, on nights and afternoons. A social drink or two naturally took priority at the weekend. The task we had to overcome was to organise events that took this into consideration, coupled with trying to ensure that miners' wives could fit into such events. In short, how to mix politics with pleasure.
We took a gamble on Saturday evening socials-cum-meetings in a clean and attractive pub or hotel. We were fortunate that we had a number of good speakers who wanted to come into the coalfield, to share our successes and to help. John Williamson was a victim of the McCarthy anti-communist period in the USA. John was a Scotsman who had emigrated to America during the depression and joined the Communist Party there. A massive campaign was conducted throughout Scotland, especially in the Scottish NUM, when John was finally deported back to his native Scotland. His experience was sought all over the country. We got a date from John and organised a meeting in Darton, a mining village near Barnsley where an outstanding Communist, Harry Hyde, a highly respected pit deputy, would ensure a good audience. I was living in
Barnsley and helped out. Forty turned up to hear John and eight joined the Party. Moorends branch, which is at the other end of the coalfield, 30 miles away, sent a deputation to see how this event went. They were very impressed and, with their successes in the local elections, decided anything Darton could do they could do better. In other words, we got the spirit of Socialist emulation going.
The challenge was taken up. On the Saturday before Christmas a social-cum-meeting was arranged with Les Ellis, a Nottinghamshire miners' leader, as the speaker. Eighty attended and eleven joined the Party. This was followed by another event in Darton with Johnny Campbell, a well-known Party leader, and ten joined the Party. Moorends said to me, "We will double Darton's recruitment if you get us a national speaker. George Matthews, then Editor of the Daily Worker, agreed to come. This followed a by-election where Sam Cairns polled 623 votes.
Amazingly, there was a note of disappointment when 'only' 90 turned up to the meeting! Yet, out of this, we made 14 recruits, including three YCLers. But the target of 20 recruits was achieved, because those friends of the Party in Moorends who had promised to come along as possible recruits, had, for a variety of reasons, been prevented on the night. They were visited and the target of 20 for the Party and three for the YCL was achieved before the week was out. We also tried out this style of work, unfortunately with less success, in other villages. Even so, the overall results were good. By the end of January, we had increased our membership by 80 over the previous year, and had the biggest membership in the coalfield for many years.
Success breeds success, but there was one field of our work where this was not true. This was in raising sufficient donations to pay my pittance of a weekly wage and also to keep the organisation financially viable. This single failure played a major part in the decision of comrades, especially the miners, both in Yorkshire and nationally, that it was time I had a change of District with a bit more security and a regular wage.
Let me make it clear, it was not entirely the fault of the comrades in South Yorkshire that we had to endure the often humiliating experience of being like the weekly 'debt collector', whose knock on the door was not the most welcome sound. The real problem of course was that the Party never had sufficient money to pay even the average wage of an industrial worker. But to crown it all, Communist Party full timers who were in an area with a small number, and like South Yorkshire a massive area to cover, were much worse off than in cities like Leeds with a large professional membership. Or, as in the case of Sheffield, well established factory branches where it was relatively easier to arrange weekly collections. Sheffield also had the benefit of the philanthropic bakers, "Fletchers". The owner was the son of George Fletcher, (who was one of the twelve Communists imprisoned during the 1926 miners' strike and charged with 'sedition' for supporting the miners). His son, also called George, could always be relied upon when the going was tough - a vehicle with free repairs meant the full-time organiser and his staff never needed to spend their weekends collecting wages.
It is a known fact there is no better fundraiser than myself! In my adulthood, as in my boyhood, I have never let my pride stand in the way of collecting money for the Party and the wider movement of the working class. Of that I have a proud record. But both Freda and I knew the fault lay more at the door of the District and the Party Centre, who claimed the winning of the Yorkshire miners, and the NUM, was a vital ingredientto any progress. Therefore, much more help should have been given.
Instead, I was under constant pressure over my area not meeting its financial obligations to the District and constant harassment from the Centre that South Yorkshire was among those areas with the lowest dues paying membership in the country. There was a weekly stamp to be bought by members, the proceeds from which were divided between the Centre, District and Branch, but because Area Committees were not formally part of the constitution, they didn't qualify for any share of this monthly payment.
Bert Ramelson, then the Yorkshire District Secretary, did show some compassion, but he hadn't a clue how to solve this problem. One Saturday, he called at our house to have a discussion about some issues that were coming up at the District Committee the following Sunday. When he enquired where I was, Freda's reply was "the usual - chasing money". He finally found me at a Gala, not for the beer or entertainment, but because I knew there would be a number of comrades whom I could tap. I think this experience upset Bert, for he came forward with what he thought was the answer. The Party in Leeds had many good contacts in the clothing trade. Terylene had just come onto the market; difficult to get, but in great demand. Now if I could, along with other comrades, get orders for ready-mades the margin of profit was good and this might help to fill the gap between the partial wages I was actually receiving and the pittance I was supposed to receive.
Hymie Besser, a Jewish comrade who was a market trader and had plenty of contacts in clothing, could get ready made suits, some with a slight fault, selling for less than £5.00. Bill Carr had a contact in Hemel Hempstead who had a shirt factory, some perfect and some not so perfect. What they all forgot was that you also needed a large cash float, because no matter how cheap or desirous it was to get a pair of Terylene trousers, the custom and practice was to pay so much down and the rest when you could catch me. So instead of knocking at comrades' doors at the weekend, when at least I could do some political business as well, I was chasing debtors so as to pay my creditors, who were breathing down my neck at the end of each month.
Bert and Marian Ramelson went to the Soviet Union for a month and when they got back their bank balance had gone. The creditors had threatened to take legal action and as it was Bert's idea, and it was the District that would have faced the consequence, the comrade in charge, Connie Sheehan, agreed to pay. I will not repeat the verbal battle between Bert and myself when I was ordered to appear before him when he returned. This ended the venture of selling trousers, suits and shirts, and the rhyming slogan coined by Sammy Taylor, if voiced in the Yorkshire way, "Don't go round in rags and tatters, get your shirts and suits from Frankie Watters", was no longer valid.
Then Bert had another bright idea. Sammy Cairns was a very good and hard-working businessman, with a track record of success second to none Bert explained to Sammy the vital role I was playing, but that I couldn't continue much longer on intermittent wages with a wife and two children. Bert's idea was that Sammy would put up a cash float of £50 that was to balance any weekly deficit and Sam would pay me my weekly salary. Very good intentions, but what Bert failed to realise, and Sam soon realised, was that unless I continued to spend a large part of my time raising money, I would end up with part weekly wages. The £50 disappeared in less than three weeks and Sam, a successful businessman, failed to resolve this problem.
I will never forget when, on the third week, I appeared in Sam's coal yard, expecting my pay slip to be along with the other coal drivers he employed. Sam was a hard man, but I never have seen anyone so upset, because the money was not coming in and my style of work had changed. "More politics, less debt collecting" were my instructions, but where were my wages? I told Sam not to worry, that I had survived for all these years and we would find another way out. Sammy did find me a way out; the least said the better, because you could have been reading, "Watters' Prison Notes" instead of "Gramsci's Prison Notes"!
The next scheme involved friends across the Pennines, where a Party supporter had many warehouses stacked with soft toys and Christmas goods, offering them at reasonable prices. By this time, Sam's other tricky venture had given us a nice nest egg so we were able to pay by cash. I applied for a market stall in the Rossington market on a Friday. So, instead of selling Daily Workers at the pithead, I was manning a stall. This had a financial reward and especially around Christmas comrades bought many things. The other advantage was that I was now in a position to join a trade union. When I left the pits in 1953, I could no longer remain within the NUM, I applied to the T & G - they rejected me because they had no trade group for my profession. ASTMS rejected me on the grounds that I couldn't prove I was a full salaried paid employee. The clerical union, later APEX, had a ban by which the EC could veto Communist organisers from joining. But as a retailer I was now able to join the shop workers' union, USDAW.
There is one success story, but unfortunately it was a one-off. I had visited a friend in hospital who had suffered a mental breakdown. It was a very warm afternoon and I was very upset. There were some major road alterations on the outskirts of Sheffield with Police controlling the traffic. I don't know what happened, maybe I dozed off and my foot came off the clutch, but, suddenly, I saw this policeman on top of my van and his helmet across the road. Of course they made it look worse than it really was. The ambulance arrived, he was carried off and I was in trouble.
When I told Tom Driver of the incident, he advised me to get a solicitor. Tom was brought up in the South Yorkshire coalfield in the hungry 30s and the gritty resilience he learned there stood him in good stead when he found himself, in 1961, President of the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutes.
He had earned the respect of staff and schools management alike with his steerage of the implementation of the 1944 Education Act in its most difficult area, the "Cinderella" department of state-administered post-school education. His encouragement and stimulation was appreciated by students and staff alike. With the rationalisation of the many and varied trade unions representing teachers in further education, a task which Tom handled with tact and flair, he eventually ended up as President of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, a post from which he retired in 1977. While there he not only succeeded in uniting the many different factions inherited from the old unions which made up NATFHE, but he also played a key role in a number of international teachers' organisations. Both Tom and his wife, Thora, were very good friends to me and my wife.
Pic: Ian Walters with his splendid sculpture of Tom Driver
Bert Ramelson was very friendly with a progressive solicitor in Leeds, Ron Sedler; he took up my case and argued against disqualification since my occupation (without going into any detail) required the use of a van, because I had a serious injury to my foot and wore surgical boots. The outcome was that I was fined £25.00. Ron charged me £25.00; a lot of money when you haven't any. Lo and behold! "It's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good", said Robbie Burns. A trainload of Yorkshire miners, mainly branch secretaries and delegates, were going to London on a Peace demonstration. The Union always looked after them well financially speaking, so when Bill Carr and others got to know of my plight, they organised a collection: "Watters had knocked a policeman down and we need money for his fine and solicitor's fee". There was no question about the response; in fact I think I got nearly one month's salary over and above the costs.
But this couldn't be repeated every month. Although if it had happened after the 1984/85 miners' strike, I am sure I would have received a year's salary!
Chapter 7 “Nineteen fifty five was a memorable year.” Marriage, family and the Party
Nineteen fifty-five was a memorable year. The biggest post war miners' strike had been fully successful in Yorkshire. A new mood of constructive militancy had replaced apathy and anarchy and the Communist Party was now a force to be reckoned with in the coalfield.
As for myself, a newly won full UK driver's licence replaced the previous one I had bought for £1 in Dublin Post Office. But undoubtedly the most significant event that year was my meeting a Yorkshire lass called Freda Warner, formerly Freda Hartley before her first marriage. Two years later she was to become Freda Watters.
Pic: Frank and Freda in the early days of their marriage
We were both students at a Party school at Wortley Hall near Sheffield. Freda had a six-year-old boy, Peter, from her first marriage. He was a very attractive, fair-haired lad, full of life, but spoiled with love and affection by his grandmother who looked after him as Freda worked awkward shifts as a bus conductress.
Also at that school was Joan Brown from Rotherham, who was to become a lifelong friend of both Freda and myself. We would all go walking together and I remember Joan saying: "Frank, calm down or you will have a heart attack". She is not the only one who has given such advice, especially when I had the scent of victory in my nostrils and certainly 1955 was such a time.
I must confess that I lacked the peacock ability to impress. I had had a sheltered youth and Freda would often remind me that she was a victim of this. The social environment of a divided religious community was not very helpful, especially when 'Vote Watters, Vote Communist' was painted on every public convenience and wall. What girl from a Catholic family would dare to be seen with someone of that name? And for the Protestant girls who lived in the Dykehead area of Shotts anyone from the Catholic enclave, known as the Stane, was taboo, even if they had broken ranks with the chapel. Maybe there were other reasons unknown to me why I lost out in my youth!
Of course there were girls in the YCL, but mainly in the cities and wartime restrictions precluded excursions into places like Glasgow. As a youth, most of my spare time was spent grappling with reading and attending educational classes organised by the Communist Party and the National Council of Labour Colleges.
As a committed Communist, I also spent a good deal of time campaigning for the second front for a speedy defeat of fascism and my pit job compelled me to work seven days, sometimes with overtime as well. I enjoyed the company of my workmates at weekends - a few pints and sometimes a "carry-out" to one of their homes for a good singsong or a gramophone music recital. I was also a member of the Scottish Committee of the YCL and was later elected to its national committee. Then my activities were temporarily curtailed after my pit accident when my hands were smashed.
That's my story why, like many of my contemporaries, I was not preoccupied with girls in my youth. Some would say it was a lost youth, but I maintain it was full and fruitful with a purpose that helped to shape the rest of my life. Without it I would never have been a member of the Communist Party for fifty-three years - an association that ended only when the party left me with no choice but to join, with other comrades in Scotland, the newly formed Scottish Communist Party.
When I joined, at the Scottish TUC in 1992, Andrew Clarke, an old friend from the CPGB, asked: "Why the SCP and not the Communist Party of Britain?" I told him that at my age I was entitled to have at least a spiritual link with my past, with that with which I had been associated for over 50 years and, anyway, the name of the Scottish Communist Party was more attractive.
After the week's school at Wortley where Freda and I met we would arrange, often 'accidentally' to bump into each other on a Wednesday afternoon when I was attending full time workers' meetings in Leeds where Freda was in charge of Communist Party women's activities. The Leeds Area Party shared rooms with the District and often we would have a coffee together in a nearby cafe but one afternoon I was invited to have coffee at her mother's house. I readily accepted, hoping that maybe some day I would be invited to dinner to enjoy Mrs Hartley's glorious Yorkshire puddings.
From the outset we had an easy-going attitude, not looking for the kind of lifestyle we could not afford. In the beginning Freda worked awkward shifts on the buses and I never knew from one day to another what might crop up in the coalfield, so we settled for a regular Saturday night together when we would meet at Freda's mum's house.
All the Hartley family met there with their children every Saturday so Peter was happy to play with his cousins, especially Freda's niece and nephew, Susan and Robert. This meant we were free to go and enjoy a social drink. I don't know whether it was to please me but Freda developed a taste for the "crater", a Scottish name for a wee dram of the hard stuff, despite the fact that both her parents were teetotal.
We only had a few drinks because neither of us had much money. We made sure we had enough left for fish and chips, which we enjoyed back at home in front of the gas fire, especially when Freda's Mum took her book to bed for a read. By this time I had a van so I was welcome to spend a few extra hours before returning to my digs in Barnsley.
After a very brief courtship we were taking each other very seriously and I was welcomed into the family. It was a close relationship that is still maintained. Freda's mother was very understanding and it was not a problem for me to be accepted.
Unfortunately, I could not say the same about my Mother whose Catholic background and narrow outlook on pre-matrimonial relationships limited her normally generous nature. But I would say to Freda: "Don't worry about what she says. That's her tongue speaking, not her heart. She is as kind and loving as anyone."
Freda and I had known each other for over twelve months when I decided to spend a holiday in Scotland to break the news and prepare the ground for the summit meeting later that year when I would have to introduce her to the family.
When I told the family they were delighted, but Mother was away on one of her rare holidays at a miners' convalescent home. When she arrived that evening I had been down at the local. Visits home were always welcomed by old mates with the usual Scottish greeting of a few drams but I had to make sure I had all my faculties as Mother had a tongue that could cut cold iron.
As gently as I could I broke the news that I intended to marry the following year and that my bride-to-be had been married before and had a son by that union. That was all it took to provide the tinder to detonate the powder keg of her pent up moral indignation and all the years the priests had invested in her indoctrination came to maturity at once.
To crown it all, she then asked where we intended to be married. When I told her the ceremony would be in a Register Office in Leeds she retorted: "You don't get marriage certificates at a Register Office, that's where you apply for a dog's licence". What could I say? I decided discretion was the better part of valour in the circumstances and bit my tongue just in time for her next body blow.
"You say she has been married before?" Yes, I agreed. "Well, you can't think much of yourself going to bed with someone who has been in bed with another man before!" There appeared to be no answer to that, either. I was 36, Freda was 32, neither of us were Spring chickens. I sometimes wonder what Mother would have to say about today's liberalised attitudes to personal relationships!
When I came back from Scotland, I told Freda the family was over the moon, but that my Mother had let her tongue slip. But I was also confident that once she met Freda she would open her heart and that is what happened three months later when we visited Shotts. My Mother died in 1958, a year before our daughter Lesley was born, and Freda enjoyed her company only twice.
I was in the Soviet Union when Freda received word of Mother's serious illness. I went up to Shotts within a few days of my return and she died on the Sunday. Coincidentally, the Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band were parading the town's streets before embarking on a month's tour of the Soviet Union - their prize for winning the championship. Abe Moffatt was proudly at the head of the procession and I went over to congratulate them, but I was not in the mood to join in the celebrations.
Freda and I had married in June 1957 and I accepted Peter as our son. We had a wonderful honeymoon in Dublin as guests of the McKeown family whom I had met on holiday in the late 1940s. They were members of the Irish Communist Party and were very active in the massive unemployed movement, which succeeded in getting a member elected to the Dail, the Irish Parliament.
Later we had our daughter, Lesley, who now has two lovely children of her own, a boy, Ben and a girl, Joanne. Lesley is a trade union and political activist in her own right, a college lecturer working with trade unions. She spent many years in the YCL leadership where she met her husband, Graham Stevenson, who is a senior national official of the T&G and we are one big happy Communist family.
Sadly, Freda would not see her grandchildren as she was cruelly cut off in her prime by cancer at the age of 52 in 1977 after a mercifully brief illness. There are many consolations: the comfort I get from seeing my grandchildren, the warm, humanitarian spirit, so much the preserve of the Hartley family, evidenced by the three generations of Hartley women I have known, grandmother, mother and daughter. In that sense the generous welcome I receive in my daughter's house is a great comfort, as is the political and sometimes social relationship I enjoy when Lesley has gone to bed and Graham and I have a nightcap!
There is no doubt that all this has been a great painkiller, but it is no real compensation for the loss of such a loving partner and Mother whom Lesley missed so much, especially when the children were born. Looking back, the only consolation is that we had 20 years together. Those 20 years that I shared with a stouthearted Yorkshire lass with a loving personality mean much to me. Above all I value the way she insisted on her independence of mind and spirit long before the phrase 'Women's Liberation' came into general use.
It is often asked whether comrades' cultural likes and understanding of each other's ways of life help to make a good marriage. The strengths that help to make a marriage more successful, especially when both partners are heavily involved in politics, in any section of the Labour and Trade Union movement, perhaps come from sharing ideas and ideals.
If Freda had not had such outstanding personal qualities, I certainly could not have survived in the coalfield. Can you imagine coming in at the weekend with only sufficient cash to tide you over in the hope that there might be something in Monday's post to see you through the rest of the week? Or coming home late nearly every night, exhausted after travelling miles after a hectic series of difficult meetings? What a comfort it was to know the door would still be open, and a welcome waiting with a cup of tea and a sandwich or cheese and biscuits. Or sharing a late fish and chip supper while I poured out my inner thoughts to someone who was able to judge whether I was right or wrong.
I have always said: 'When you marry you don't marry the Party.' Each must have the right to a separate life and interests or hobbies, whether it be dancing, which Freda enjoyed, or spending the last hour in the club, which was my way of unwinding when I got the chance.
The most important ingredient is a mutual implicit trust in each other, sharing one another's company when the opportunity arises. I think Freda and I practised that, never turning away from the struggle to a narrow, self-centred lifestyle as too many do. I am sure that the examples we had been set by both our families played a major part when the going got tough.
Freda's contribution was impressive in the years we spent in Barnsley and later in Doncaster. She nourished and sustained many young, awkward 'Mothers' Sons!' not least among them one young Arthur Scargill, who claims he nursed Lesley when she was a baby and uses that as an excuse to kiss her whenever he sees her now!
Immediately after our marriage I was faced with new responsibilities. I had three mouths to feed, a home to build and I had to adapt from the lifestyle I had enjoyed as a single man. The biggest problem was accommodation.
We were always made welcome at Freda's Mum's who kept a very comfortable home in Leeds. Lesley, who called her Nana, was always happy to spend a weekend there with Peter of whom she was very fond. She loved Nana very much, too, especially her Yorkshire Puddings! For her part Freda's Mum enjoyed the political stimulation Freda brought with her on her visits home. Nearly all of the Hartleys joined the Party, Freda's mum staying a member until her dying day. Freda was always grateful for her Mother's care when she had been experiencing problems with her previous marriage. Her life-long friend, Molly Finch was also always made welcome at the Hartley home. Molly was a Catholic but her lifelong friendship with Freda transcended their ideological differences and she found a comfort at Freda's Mum's home which, for a period she was denied in her own. So, while the warmth and generosity of the welcome at Leeds was never in doubt it presented another problem.
My major task, alongside consolidating our trade union electoral gains in the coalfield, was to win a breakthrough in local government representation that now appeared to be a possibility in the Thorne and Moorends districts of Doncaster, but they were 40 miles away from Leeds.
The last hour in the club was no longer possible. Freda was saddled with looking after Peter and the strain was beginning to show. We discussed moving to Barnsley but a mortgage was out of the question. The only way was to borrow some money privately. Freda's Mum agreed to help and I called on the District Party for assistance. With less than £400 from both sources I searched high and low and eventually came across a run-down shop in a dilapidated area at the top of Castlereagh Street in Barnsley town centre.
It was a case of any port in a storm and I was in a rough sea facing fog, snow and ice. Freda reluctantly agreed to forgo the relative luxury of her Mother's home and to get stuck into fumigating the shop to rid it of the smell of stale bread and rotten fruit and vegetables until it was just about habitable despite its outside lavatory and its lack of hot water plumbing.
The great thing was that we were not left alone to do all this. The comrades in Barnsley had, up to then, held their meetings in an upstairs room on top of a shop specialising in cat food. This had just come onto the market in a big way and it attracted all the cats in Barnsley and the combination of odours was not pleasant. I used the room as an office but preferred to be out in the coalfield, so the purchase of our run-down shop was welcomed, for at least it would provide more respectable office space and a place to hold meetings.
I had spent some time in digs with Norman Greenfield whose wife, Enid, was wonderful. They had a large family but one of their sons was doing his national service so I had his room until he came out of the Army. I had spent four years in digs so any place that could accommodate Freda, Peter and me was a palace by comparison. Norman had a heart of gold, always willing to help but the problem was you never knew what the end product would be because he would never tell you.
"Leave it to me", was his stock cryptic reply to any request. The urgent requirement was for hot water and, after 'leaving it to him' for a few days, he suddenly turned up out of the blue with a 'geyser' type gas water heater.
Hylton Stewart, a joiner, landed on the Sunday morning to dismantle some of the shop fittings; he took one look and gave his professional opinion between barely-suppressed bouts of mirth: "No teetotaller ever erected that." When I told him that Norman, who was a teetotaller, had done it he just could not believe it and said that it reminded him of Chesterfield Church's crooked spire.
Doug Stables and Harold Scargill, Arthur's father, provided materials and covered up the cracks in the ceiling with a heavy paper and layer on layer of paper were stripped from the walls and we were soon able to move in. Believe it or not I moved all our furniture in my A35 Morris Minor van, making several journeys backwards and forwards to Leeds, nearly 30 miles each way. We soon settled down and we must have been happy some time as Lesley was born there. But Barnsley was still a long way from the Thorne area and it became more obvious that the key to further advance in the coalfield lay in the Doncaster, Rotherham and Worksop area, the main developing coalfield with a big influx of miners from Scotland and Durham. Again the problem was accommodation for there was no way Freda was going into another dump.
Bert Ramelson, as I have often said, fully understood and was committed to winning the Yorkshire coalfield for progressive leadership. He was more than helpful. He promised me help if I could find a reasonable place that could accommodate the family, provide a room for an office and another room that would hold 20-30 for Mining Aggregate meetings. He would ask the Sheffield bakers, Fletchers, to buy it and rent it to me. Marvellous idea and Bert sold it to "Young George" Fletcher.
The snag arose when it was to be ratified at a Board meeting. Those responsible for advising the company on its property portfolio objected that they could not justify the purchase as it was not connected with the company's business. If I was one of their managers and was desirous of living in Doncaster, that would be fine, but the purchase of property for the South Yorkshire Area Communist Party was not on. Bert phoned me about the setback, but he had another card to play - a substantial donation from Fletcher's "Petty Cash" account, plus his workmen to carry out any structural changes to meet our requirements. Bert had become aware that the National Party often visited "Old George" and got round the solicitors with the "Petty Cash" fund, and thus had the idea of helping me out that way. Fortunately, this came off.
This time the decorations and structural alterations were completed before we moved in and there was no question of my having to use a small van. Sam Cairns provided one of his coal lorries, collected some of his lads and called into Armthorpe to collect Eric Browne and Ted Hall. Jock Kane had our coal cellar filled so, within a couple of hours of arriving at 11 Warmsworth Road, Balby, Freda had a good meal ready and we toasted our arrival in Doncaster where we remained from 1961 to 1968 when we moved to Birmingham.
The atmosphere at Balby was completely different. Freda had a part-time job as a home help. The house was never empty. Doncaster Branch Communist Party met there and there was the Mining Advisory, the Bazaar Committee, Education Classes and a flourishing YCL. Lesley was about two years old and attracted everyone. Jock Kane used to call on his way from the Barnsley office and would slip her a few bob. Eddie Collins sent her sixpence every week, always for Lesley Patricia as he called her. A railway comrade, Arthur Sewell, would call and ask her: "What does your Daddy do?" and she would reply: "He talks."
Yes, we were happy. Freda would go dancing every Tuesday. I could now have my last hour in the club and we had a nice park nearby where I spent some Sunday mornings walking with the kids.
The financial situation was not so serious. Freda had a couple of pounds that went away for holidays and "rainy days". I was doing not bad with a market stall. Shelves were built in the meeting room to store bedding and other saleable goods and the cellar was ideal for the storage of goods that were not for public display. Lesley was in a very good school and Peter found a job at a slaughterhouse so we were relatively comfortable, given that our expectations were modest.
In 1967 the District Secretary, Bert Ramelson, left Yorkshire to become National Industrial Organiser. This was a big blow to me but I always recognised the importance of industrial work and there was no one better than Bert to follow on from John Campbell, who had taken over from Peter Kerrigan when he died. The problem was, who would replace Bert as District Secretary? Dave Priscott was a newcomer to the District full-time staff so he was ruled out. The one who had expressed a desire for the post was Howard Hill, the Sheffield Area Secretary. There were some comrades who had strong reservations about Howard, who was not the most diplomatic nor the most considerate comrade and who had a tendency too often to dither in a crisis.
It was not an easy choice and a number of comrades were opposed to Bert moving to London and leaving a political vacuum in his wake. Bert and I discussed it and when it became known that both of us agreed it became much easier to accept Howard as District Secretary. This left a vacancy in Sheffield, which Bob Wilkinson filled, being moved from the Barnsley and West Yorkshire coalfield. I had strong reservations about Bob fitting into this scheme because I felt he lacked modesty and collective responsibility.
I don't know how many times we had to have special meetings to discuss Bob's threatened resignation. We got what we asked for, because, if the District and Centre were so concerned about my financial problems this was the time for them to show their concern. I could easily have covered the Sheffield Area, at the same time keeping my eye on the coalfield, or at least be available for consultation.
But time rolled on and Howard Hill made life more difficult. The crunch came in 1967 when I received a phone call from the National Organiser, Gordon McLennan, to say that he had had a discussion with Howard and they had agreed that I should be released from the coalfield to take up the position as Birmingham City Secretary.
My reaction was cautious but I could not understand why such a proposal was discussed with the Yorkshire District Secretary without it first going to the District leadership and for consultation with the mining comrades in Yorkshire and the National Mining Advisory.
I was faced with a real dilemma. The Yorkshire District Secretary had apparently readily agreed and the way I had been treated over the Sheffield position left me with no alternative but to draw the conclusion that Howard wanted to see the back of me in Yorkshire. In no way could he argue that I was not capable of being Sheffield City Secretary since he was recommending me for the second largest city with a growing membership more than double that of Sheffield and Rotherham.
I discussed the matter that night with Freda. She knew I was not happy working for the District since Bert left. Her usual reaction was that we must decide what was best for us and what was best for the Party.
I laid down two conditions. Firstly the National Mining Advisory must be consulted and made aware of the potential dangers of the Party losing its leading role. Secondly, I was to be employed as District Staff so that we would all share any shortcomings when the District could not meet our full salaries.
I was not invited to the Mining Advisory but I was told that assurances had been given that the coalfield would continue to receive first political priority. Of course, I was cynical because neither Howard Hill nor Dave Priscott expressed any interest.
Freda and I made up our minds reluctantly. Peter had just got a job, Lesley was nine and reaching a crucial stage in her education. Freda had a part-time job and enjoyed taking Lesley every Saturday to her Mother's at Leeds and she had made many friends. Very reluctantly we agreed to move to Birmingham.
Chapter 8 “From the best blend of Yorkshire coal to this old heap” Herculean efforts in the big city
So, moving to Birmingham was no easy decision. I had established myself in the coalfield and was now speaking one or two words of Yorkshire - at least some could understand me provided I did not get too carried away!
But, in October 1968 we landed in the Midlands after I had spent more than a year working there, living away from home and going back to Doncaster once a week. I enjoyed the same welcome there as I had when I first moved from Scotland to Yorkshire.
The District Secretary was Harry Bourne, like Bert Ramelson a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, brought up in the East End of London and a victim of racism because of his Jewish background. Mary, his wife, was born in North Yorkshire and she and Freda found an instant rapport. We soon became firm family friends, a treasured bond that endured until, sadly, Harry died in February 1974; more about Harry and Mary later.
It was agreed at the outset that I would have Fridays free. This meant that I could get off back to Freda in Doncaster in an old banger I inherited. Sometimes it would get me home under its own steam and sometimes I arrived on the end of a towrope. Jock Kane would say: "Well, Comrade, when you were in Doncaster you had nothing but the best blend of Yorkshire coal. Now you are in Birmingham where they make millions of cars and you have to put up with this old heap!"
But the weekends in Doncaster soon became less frequent. I was getting more and more involved in Birmingham. The District had acquired a site to build new premises. This meant organising voluntary labour at the weekend to clear the ground ready for the builders. The digs I was in were unsuitable for Freda to visit at the weekend so we had little opportunity to go home hunting together. After some time Ted and Hilda Baker offered me accommodation; this was just the job.
Both Ted and Hilda were working so I had time on my own to relax or do some reading and Freda was able to visit for the odd weekend. Lesley was always pleased to stay with her Grandma. While this eased the situation somewhat we were still no nearer finding suitable permanent accommodation because in the price range we were looking the houses were in many ways worse than the dump we had had in Barnsley. It soon began to tell on Freda's patience. We were spending all weekend looking at houses we couldn't afford or ones that were unacceptable. By the time I was into my second winter in Birmingham, the long lonely nights separating us were having their effect on her.
By contrast I was alright. I had plenty of work to occupy my time. Then one day I received a very depressing letter from home. It was obvious I had to do something and do it quickly or our future together was in jeopardy. I discussed it with Harry. By this time both he and Mary had taken to Freda. I was working hard and between us Harry and I made a good team, Harry the intellectual Marxist and myself the proletarian revolutionary. We agreed that unless we raised our sights to £3,000 plus for a house I could not remain in the Midlands. Without hesitation or even discussing it with the Midlands Treasurer, Don Brayford, Harry said: "Get off into King's Heath. There is an estate there with scores of semi-detached houses going for three to three and a half thousand. Make a choice, get Freda down this weekend and we will take it from there".
Just like that! What about a mortgage? The price I would get for the Doncaster house would not cover the new one and I still owed over £1,000 on that one. Then Harry had a brainwave. The Party bookshop traded under the name of Key Books. "We will make you manager and director of our enterprise Key Books Limited," said Harry. Of course, that provided the gloss with which to convince the building society to advance the loan for the house. Freda came down and was happy with the house that we eventually found after several possibilities fell through.
We had a little cry because, not only were we asking her to leave Yorkshire but she had been left a long time holding the fort in Doncaster with no apparent prospect of a permanent home. Now I had another problem - selling the Doncaster house as quickly as possible because Harry's brainwave was working. I applied for a mortgage and when it was delayed he got on the 'phone demanded to speak to the manager and complaining that it was costing Key Books Limited a fortune having to provide hotel accommodation for their new "manager". It worked. Soon we sold up in Doncaster and were once again a family, united among friends who welcomed us all.
Sid Atkin was the USDAW organiser and had no trouble fixing up Peter with a good job as a slaughter man with the Birmingham Corporation. Lesley got into a good primary school with a progressive head teacher. That just left Freda who needed to work because we had a big mortgage and the money that Peter paid for his keep left nothing to spare.
But Freda had a good reference as a home help from Doncaster Council and she was soon able to get a job with Birmingham City Council. She had two clients. One was Diane, a young mother whose husband had been killed in a car crash. Diane had sustained severe shoulder and arm injuries in the accident and she found it impossible to bath or dress her young baby. Freda found this job ideal. Not only did she fall in love with the baby but she and Diane became lifelong bosom pals.
Her other case was different. He was a war victim with shell shock, unable to look after himself and awkward and aggressive because of his illness. The house had been neglected. There were piles of old papers all over, some wet through. Food was trodden into a filthy carpet and the toilet was disgraceful. The problem was, where to start? It was hopeless and depressing. I came in for tea that evening and found Freda in tears. The small income was badly needed but she could not tackle this problem. She also feared that if she refused to take on the old man's case she would also lose Diane and the baby to whom she had already become very attached.
We discussed the matter and agreed that the old man was just one more victim of an evil system and a society that neglected duties of care unless it was forced to deal with them. We knew that there would always be cases like the old man as long as the root causes of the social evils in a callous system remained unchallenged. I could understand an ordinary home help walking out on the job. Why should an underpaid worker have to tackle single-handed problems that should have been dealt with by the socially evil society that created them? But Freda was not an ordinary home help. She understood the real causes of the old man's plight and realised that society was punishing him as well as those who were sent to help him.
After a long talk she agreed to go to Diane and the baby the following morning then to 'phone for the home help service manager to meet her there where she would explain the problem. It was obvious when the manager arrived that she was upset. She had been unable to get any home help to stay on the old man's case and Freda, with her good references, had been her last hope. If Freda could not cope with the problem it seemed nobody could.
Freda proposed that there should be a case conference about the old man's plight involving local church representatives, the British Legion, local councillors and any charitable organisations willing and able to help. She suggested that a special squad of cleaners should be sent in to strip the carpets and furnishings and dispose of everything including bedding. At least that might give her a clean slate to start from.
She also insisted that the old man should be taken to the public baths at least once a week and that she should be allowed Fridays free to shop and prepare his weekend meals. All parties agreed and, believe it or not, the awkward old man with whom nobody could communicate responded positively. Freda was now happy with her two clients.
The sequel to the story is also interesting. The council was taking on two additional assistant social workers whose jobs were mainly to involve visiting old people living on their own and working with the blind. The senior officer for the area who had been involved in the old man's case 'phoned Freda and suggested that she should apply for one of the posts. This would have meant a reasonable salary and a pension. Freda thanked him but said she had no qualifications for the job, meaning she had no academic qualifications. She was also worried about my politics and feared that if the interviewers asked her what I did for a living the answer would kill any chance she might have had. The officer said that qualifications did not necessarily mean framed certificates, since the appointment was for an assistant social worker. He was to be on the selection panel and as far as he was concerned Freda had proved her abilities by resolving the old man's problems when no one before could. The council was looking for good social workers, not document fillers. On the political question he said that if it was raised he would remind the panel that when he himself had been appointed he had been a member of the International Socialists, a party, he said, in a good-natured dig at me, which was more revolutionary than the Communist Party, which had lost its old fire!
The upshot of it all was that he persuaded Freda to apply and she got the job. She then began to worry about how she would fit into the team of a dozen or more social workers covering the King's Heath area and about what would happen if they found out that she was the wife of the Birmingham City Secretary of the Communist Party. She did not have long to wait to find out. On her first morning at her new job they were all having a cup of tea before setting off on their rounds when one of them enquired about my occupation. Freda did not know whether to lay her cards on the table and take the consequences or to lie low for a while until she had gained their confidence by demonstrating that she was a good social worker.
She chose the latter and said that I was a manager in a bookshop. Of course this did not satisfy their curiosity. And what bookshop did I manage, they asked. Thinking nobody would ever have heard of it she told them it was Key Books. "Isn't that the CP bookshop where Harry Bourne works from?” her inquisitor came back, quick as a flash and Freda feared the worst. "Jim Crump and George Jelf who run the camp at Talybont are associated with him, too. You are in good company. I was a member of the CP, too, until I got too lazy."
It just goes to show how dangerous it can be to stereotype people and to make snap judgments based on the warped values of an alien society! Freda's inquisitive workmate, then called Jo Bott is now married and lives in Dublin and will be delighted that I have recorded this incident. She and Freda became very friendly and Lesley still keeps in touch with her. Anyway, Freda settled happily into her new job and I was able to concentrate on my work without the distractions of domestic difficulties. There was certainly plenty to go at.
Pic: Frank and Freda - Christmas 1974
The Birmingham Mail described me as the "Communist Preacher" when referring to my invitation to speak in Saint Martin's in the Bull Ring in Birmingham. This experience may have helped me later to organise many secular funerals.
One of the biggest ideological problems the early Marxists faced was a dogmatic attitude to Christian beliefs and involvement. This was reflected under Stalin's rule where many churches and different religious denominations were persecuted, including those of Jewish origin. The Church became part of the State and failed miserably to protest about the imposition of State laws forbidding freedom to worship. This created a wrong concept that all Marxists were automatically opposed to religious freedom. Of course the Church has a lot to answer for. The Vatican supported General Franco and never lifted its voice against the barbaric treatment of Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe by Hitler and Mussolini's fascists.
From the early 1960s, two names will go down in history for endeavouring to put this right, in spite of their philosophical differences. Two major philosophies dominated the 20th Century - Marxism and Christianity. If humanity had to survive without nuclear destruction there had to be ways and means of seeking reconciliation and a common ground for some agreement, while retaining their differences.
In 1963 Pope John XXIII issued his Encyclical letter known as "Pacem in Terres", Peace on Earth, in which he said: "Catholics must be prepared to work with non-believers whose object is to do good." In response, the Italian Communist leader, Togliatti, said: "The old atheist propaganda is no use. If the ordinary Catholic worker is to be won he must know what we stand for." This opened up the way for Marxist-Christian dialogue. In France many Catholic priests consciously joined the ranks of the working class as "worker priests" but, unfortunately, Pope John XXIII didn't reign very long. The Catholic hierarchy were not satisfied with the French experience. Nevertheless, it made both sides examine their attitude.
I was by this time being invited to union meetings where an Industrial Chaplain covered the workforce. As a result I was invited to many schools where religious instruction and Church Sunday School were part of the curriculum. Arising from this, I was invited by Cannon Bryan Green, the Rector of Saint Martin's Parish Church in Birmingham Bull Ring, to be one of six chosen by him to speak on: "How Christianity still challenges us today." My subject was, "In light of Communism." The other five chosen were the Dean of Saint Paul's, the Bishop of Southwark, the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Bishop Trevor Huddleston and the Rev. Nicholas Stacey. I was the only representative of any political party in the West Midlands invited.
Once huge posters started to appear in the Bull Ring with the name of Frank Watters, Secretary of the Birmingham Communist Party, the media were soon on the job asking why Canon Green was allowing a non-believer to desecrate his pulpit. Canon Green replied that Frank Watters had earned respect for his ability to unite diverse communities and to find common ground within their different philosophies in the causes of peace, non-sectarianism and anti-racism.
This publicity attracted a large congregation - I am sure Canon Green and others would like as many every week. Included were many ultra-lefts who thought Frank had returned to the fold. Canon Green, on TV the Friday previously, defended my invitation by stating: "Frank Watters is a very good friend of mine. He is an atheist, but while there may be fundamental differences, as John XXIII says, there are areas in which we can work together." He then went on to praise me as a "very intelligent and sensible man", but claimed a good Communist couldn't be a good Christian, nor could a good Christian be a good Communist. I told him that I fundamentally disagreed. After all, the Red Dean of Canterbury, while he was not a member of the Communist Party, embraced our ideas. In Yorkshire we had the Reverend Alan Ecclestone, a member of the Party who stood as a Communist Councillor and conducted many meetings in the Yorkshire coalfield, and who always claimed he "found no difficulty being a Communist and a Christian."
Think of the millions in South America and South Africa who have found spiritual and material satisfaction from many of the churches and church leaders, but, realise their only hope lies in a Marxist Government.
In my experience, Communists have by no means always been the guilty part in our mutually bad relationship. The Catholic Church, especially in the West of Scotland, carried out personal character assassination and tried to divide family life for those who chose to be members of the Communist Party.
One of the most detested distortions of Marxism I often come across is when critics quote Marx's reference to religion being the opium of the people. What one must remember is that Marx was writing in the middle of the 19th century, an era that the ruling class regard as the glorious years, when Britain ruled the waves. They were certainly gloriously profitable years, when war and poverty was the order of the day. Trade unionists were jailed, there was child labour, especially in the pits and cotton factories, and widespread illiteracy. In such an environment as my favourite poet, Robert Burns said: "Death can be a welcomed friend." What Marx was suggesting was that religion was being used as a good tranquilliser in the absence of any real hope or inspiration in a heartless, soulless and spiritless society: "a sigh of the oppressed."
Nowhere was this truer than among miners and seamen who could be classified as those who were charting the unknown. All disasters at sea and in the coalmines were Acts of God. Five miles from Barnsley, in a churchyard in a village called Silkstone, there is a monument recalling a terrible tragedy that occurred in that village during a storm and an extraordinary downpour of rain on July 4th 1838, ten years before Marx's Communist Manifesto. The bodies of 26 children were interred in seven graves, the boys in four graves in one row, and the girls in three in a second row. On the four sides of the monument are inscribed the names of the deceased, eleven girls and fifteen boys and youths, whose ages ranged from eight to seventeen years.
Pic: Ben Stevenson and Miriam Pearson at the Silkstone memorial, c 1990
Working 12 to 14 hours a day was normal, sometimes these miners never saw daylight. On this monument it says: "On that eventful day, the Lord sent his thunder and lightning and hail and rain carrying devastation before them. And by a sudden inrush of water twenty six human beings were suddenly summoned to appear before their Maker." Then, it goes on: "Let this solemn warning then sink deep into thy heart, so prepare thee that the Lord when He cometh may find thee watching." A visit to this churchyard should be required study for anyone trying to understand the social history of capitalism. Or the monument at the top of a hill on the Barnsley-Doncaster Road, erected to commemorate the explosions at the Oaks Colliery, on December 12th/13th 1866, causing the death of 361 miners. In fact in 18 months, between June 1855 and December 1866, 649 miners were killed in the Yorkshire coalfield, an average of almost ten per week.
All these were "Acts of God" and the coal owners had no responsibility for them. Queen Victoria was so concerned, when she read about the Silkstone disaster she sent a personal letter of condolence to the parents and ordered a special inquiry into the employment of children in the mines. The owner of the mine, Robert C. Clarke, was interviewed and didn't think the work was suitable for girls, but he didn't know how the parents could possibly support them unless they were working. He of course was a typical coal owner.
I hope this will bring some clarity to this question of religion being an opiate. More importantly, the long struggle of the miners' union to win the first "Coal Safety Act" in 1911 is now under threat to clear the way for the re-privatisation of the coal industry. I only hope that there will be little need for tranquillisers, be they superstitions or chemicals in mining communities in the future. But somehow I doubt it.
I have already mentioned the new headquarters and bookshop building project that had kept me in Birmingham at weekends when I should have been visiting Freda in Doncaster. This was undoubtedly an imaginative venture that only someone like Harry Bourne would ever have dreamed of tackling. Whatever the anti-Soviet propagandists would have you believe about Russian gold, I can assure you none of it ever appeared in the Midlands to my knowledge. We could certainly have done with some of it!
The building costs alone of the new premises were estimated at £30,000, not counting internal fittings and furnishing. Some thought the whole idea was simply madness. Some of the pessimists would mockingly ask when we were going to move in, sometimes more than half hoping that we never would, just so that they could say that they were right and we really were mad. But, thanks largely to Harry's driving force and determination, we overcame all the difficulties and the new premises, including a well-stocked bookshop, opened after three years effort in 1971.
In one respect we had been very fortunate. Two brothers, Alec and Walter McCullough had provided technical and architectural skills and their professional abilities were of enormous value. There was no doubt the new premises and bookshop brought a tremendous prestige to the Party. Students from the Universities and colleges spent hours at the weekends poring over the well-stocked left book list.
There was a problem with the hall upstairs though. It could accommodate about 100, but after a jumble sale the police paid us a visit.
The original planning approval had been for a bookshop and offices and there was only one exit from the first floor. This meant we were allowed to accommodate only a few people upstairs and we could not hold public meetings or let the hall for other meetings that might have earned us some income.
We had to comply with legal and fire regulations to enable us to use the hall as a public meeting place and this required costly alterations, in particular installing a second staircase. We had
always hoped to provide a forum for all forms of political debate, a centre to provide vital support for workers in struggle and, most important, a meeting ground for the many and varied ethnic minorities of the area. The solution was to convert the upstairs hall into a social club with financial assistance for the alterations from one of the breweries. Watneys were poorly established in the Midlands and they were looking for an outlet. Perhaps the fact that they were then marketing their new keg beer, "Watneys Red", with advertisements portraying world Communist leaders tickled their fancy. Whatever the case, we got a decent club out of it and we were now really getting somewhere.
Pic: Frank Watters (centre) with Star Club volunteers, John Rhodes (left) and Walter McCollough (right), in 1972
We were able to hold meetings that drew together all the diverse communities in Birmingham in political and cultural activities. We had weekly folk concerts, twice-weekly discos where black and white youths mixed and we had a base that became a strike centre whenever the need arose. No group of workers in struggle were ever turned away as can be testified by steelworkers, fire-fighters, health workers, construction workers and many more.
The Star Club became famous throughout the length and breadth of the country. Unfortunately it is no longer available to provide such facilities as the building was sold after less than 20 years of use for a sum less than the original construction cost. I was not involved in the financial transaction as I had made sure that the property belonged to the Midlands District of the CPGB and had by then left to return to Yorkshire. What upset me was what I was told about the decision to sell.
At the time of the sale the District Secretary was Tony McNally who claimed, quite rightly, that the lease had only a short time to run. The City Council had granted a restricted lease because they were not sure in the late 1960s what they might want to do with the site later. What Tony did not say, as Alec and Walter McCullough were in a position to know, was that the land had been zoned for catering and entertainment. There would therefore have been no problem extending the lease, provided the club satisfied the fire regulations. Of course, there were always problems covering overheads, especially with a dwindling membership, but I remain convinced the club could have been retained as a valuable asset and an invaluable social centre.
I believe the real truth is that there were those in the Party who were already planning its dissolution and that justified this asset stripping in their eyes. There is more to be said about this faction and I shall come to that later. Doubtless some former comrades will feel uncomfortable about what I have to say, but we are supposed to be being frank.
Suffice it to say at this stage that the sale of the club left me feeling particularly bitter, if only for the fact that I regarded it as an insult to the memory of comrades like Harry Bourne who had invested so much time and effort in creating a unique political and social centre.
Thinking of those Herculean efforts reminds me of the ways we had to overcome problems with the club's construction. At one stage the project came to a dead stop because we had run out of building materials and were unable to pay the builders. The pessimists had a field day while Harry and I racked our brains to raise money, not only to pay for the building work but also to keep the Party itself afloat.
We were confident that if we could get a short-term loan to complete the building we would be able to get proper finance by depositing the deeds of the finished club as security.
Harry was a genius at raising money, but he was also highly respected. There were two women comrades in Newcastle-under-Lyme who had a prosperous business. They were always giving reasonable personal donations to the Party and to the paper but we were not talking about petty cash this time. They agreed to accept our title deeds on the unfinished building as security for a loan but the snag was, as ever, the scheme required the approval of their firm's solicitors. This firm of solicitors took a particularly serious view of their duties to their clients and the comrades were left in no doubt that Harry's proposition was definitely not in the best financial interests of their company.
So, we were back to square one. There was one comrade in Birmingham whom we both knew very well. A former toolmaker at the Longbridge cars plant, he had gone into business as a greengrocer and also dabbled in stocks and shares and a bit of property. His wife's father and mother were both lifelong members of the Party so the political background was no problem, but he was far too astute to fall for the deeds on an unfinished building trick. We decided we had to put our cards on the table. We turned up and told him that we were at the end of the road. We could not raise enough cash to keep the Party going and finish the building.
He told us that, as it happened, he had put a substantial sum of money aside for a project he had in mind to convert three houses into student accommodation but he feared his planning application would be turned down. He disappeared into the loft and reappeared with this fortune in cash. Harry and I looked at each other. We could not
believe our luck. We accepted with alacrity and, as I had the car, I had to take the cash home with me. I kept it in our bedroom overnight - a night during which I can assure you I had little sleep. Years later, during the 1984-85 miners' strike, I was often reminded of the incident when I heard about comrades running up and down the M1 with thousands of pounds in cardboard boxes. What if the car should break down? Even so, it seemed we had solved all the problems.
But, life is rarely as simple as that. As ever there was a sequel to the story. About three weeks after this stroke of astonishing luck, I had a phone call from our comrade asking me to call in on my way home. I hadn't a clue what it was about, until he asked me into his room and casually dropped his bombshell. "I've got planning permission after all, so I'll need that money now," he said. Don't ask how I felt. I was on my own now. Harry knew him better than I did, but he was not there to back me up. After a few moments silence the comrade asked what the matter was. All I could say was: "You know every penny was spoken for. We paid off the builders and bought more materials. We have selected the furniture and paid a deposit on it. We have two builders working now to get the brickwork done before the winter – and the money has gone."
His reply is unprintable. I took the flak, and then made what I thought was a reasonable proposition. We were not in a position to get an overdraft but, with his property, he was. I suggested if he got a loan we would pay the interest on it until the building was finished and we could raise our own finance using our deeds as collateral. Then we could pay off his loan, I suggested. It seemed to me like a simple but brilliant plan.
He gave me a frightful look and said, "Can you imagine it. You coming up here every month with an envelope to pay my interest. Then I would have to ask you how Freda and the kids are and how the money was coming in to pay your wages. And I would get the usual reply 'Not bad … ' and me knowing it would be bad, with you having to raise the extra money to cover the interest." Then in a typically comradely outburst he said: "The last person I want to see in this house every month is you because you always make me feel guilty about my comfortable way of life compared with you and Harry who work day and night helping everybody but yourselves." I knew I had won that round and I was moving towards the door when he muttered: "Forget about it. I will manage somehow." I knew he would as I was confident he was not down to his last pound.
Later, when Harry Bourne took ill, he sent for our comrade and explained that I now had a heavy political and financial burden to carry, keeping the District going and building a social club of which we would all one day be proud. Later still, when it was time for me to leave Birmingham and return to Yorkshire, I approached our comrade
again and apologised that the Midland District Committee had not honoured its promise to repay loans like his on request. He replied: "Forget it. At least you spent it in the way it was given, for Party premises, a bookshop and social club." He asked me to destroy all evidence of the loan, as he did not trust those who held office in the Party at the time - which may come as a shock to some of them. I understand he was very upset when subsequently the building was sold at a give-away price and comrades like him who had made substantial loans were not considered.
There was another episode after Harry died and I had reluctantly agreed to take on his duties as District Secretary. They did not replace me as Birmingham Area Secretary, so this meant I was in charge of the Birmingham Party as well as the Midlands District.
Every year we faced a painful, time-consuming and often heart-breaking two or three months re-registering membership. The most difficult cases were left until the end and the task was usually left to the full-time comrades. There was one old comrade who had been in the Glasgow Party in the 1920s, but he was an old drunkard. I appreciated why the Branch Secretary, Kath Barker, who was secretary to the Dean at Birmingham University, refused to visit him. I volunteered. A lifelong member could not be denied his party card, even if he was over fond of his native brew.
Sharing his life, or I should say living in Hell with him, was a sweet old lady whose health was deteriorating. She was a cleaner at a home for aged nuns. She asked to speak to me one day and I went round. I refused to give the old man an excuse to get the bottle out, saying that I was driving and that I was unfamiliar with the area. The old lady said she wanted me to accept responsibility if anything should happen to her and he was left on his own. What could I say except to enquire about what money was available?
She assured me there would be no problem on that score and showed me a bank book which would cover all expenses. I drew up a will in which I was named as executor and any money over and above funeral expenses would go to the Midlands District Communist Party. The old lady soon died and those that believe that if there is a life after death will agree she was entitled to a peaceful one, as she had suffered plenty on Earth. The old man took even more to the bottle, as he now had no one to restrain him. The way he was drinking I could see "our" little "nest egg" dwindling to the point where instead of there being any money left over we would be landed with a liability. But someone or something was on our side and he, too, soon passed away.
When it was clear that he had not long to go, I had a comrade called Bob draw his pension every two weeks and bank it. Then I got him to stay with the old man a couple of nights a week. One Thursday morning - pension day - I had a phone call from Bob about 8.30 that old Jock had died. I told him: "Hold everything. I will come straight away." By the time I got there the Post Office was open and Bob drew the pension and paid it into the bank. Then we dealt with all the other business. There was sufficient to over all costs, but not a great surplus.
We 'phoned the Co-op undertakers and they agreed to come on the Friday afternoon. As the body was being carried out a neighbour said: "I'm sure he left his body to medical science." I immediately searched high and low, but I could find no documents. Then I thought maybe Kath Barker would know, so I 'phoned her and told her what the neighbour had said. Her boss, the Dean at the University, would have access to
the department, which kept such records for the medical school. The problem was it was Friday afternoon and in those days, before the computerisation of records, it was not possible to get an answer right away. I had to wait until noon on Monday for an answer. I 'phoned Kath again then and she said the neighbour's suggestion was correct and put me through to the right department. I gave them details of the Co-op
funeral department and offered to pay the costs of the old lad's "weekend accommodation" in their parlour. But they said that would not be a problem. They would collect the body and pay any expenses.
There was one more hurdle before I had discharged my obligations to the old man. He had a stepdaughter who was not even kind to her mother. She arrived on the scene to see what she could salvage. I wasn't interested in anything in the house. I told her about the Will but said that once I'd paid all expenses I might be in debt so she was not interested in that. She asked to be informed about funeral arrangements, but when I said there was not to be any funeral she realised there should be a few hundred pounds available and she wanted a share of it.
Assuming my sternest attitude, I said I would have liked to have helped her but the law forbade it. As executor of the will I was bound to carry out the last wishes of the deceased and they were that the Midlands Communist Party was to receive the residue of the estate.
I thought once she had taken what she wanted from the house that would have been the end of the affair, but some time later I received a letter from New Zealand from the old man's step-grand-daughter, asking for some money for her daughter who needed some help with her education expenses. It was clear that the stepdaughter had put her up to this. Again I had to be firm and carry out my legal obligations, I explained. But I told her I was arranging a memorial meeting for the old man to coincide with Burns Night and that I would send a tape recording of my address. This I did and the few hundred pounds was handed over to the Party.
All's well that ends well, but these episodes demonstrate some of the ducking and weaving we had to indulge in to keep our heads above water and to complete the social club.
That is why some of us felt particularly upset when the club was sold off. The premises are now occupied by a nightclub and restaurant. No more will the Star Social Club occupy the central, even pivotal, role it could claim in the heady mass struggles of the 1970s - above all the Battle of Saltley Gates.
Chapter 9 "Close the gates! Close the gates!" Saltley, February 10th 1972
My close personal association with the events at Saltley in Birmingham during the 1972 miners' strike, when engineers and building workers came out in solidarity to close the gates to coal transported into Saltley Gas and Coke Plant by scab labour, is well known.
I have written many articles and spoken at many meetings on this glorious chapter in the British Labour Movement's history, which demonstrates that if the working class grasps the correct issue at the correct time, no power in this land can defeat it. But it must have leaders who understand the importance of such victories in building confidence. Knowing what class solidarity means; together with clarity on the role of the state and its police force is vital. Saltley certainly brought that understanding and clarity for that generation of miners whose only prior knowledge of real class struggle were the tales of their fathers or grandfathers. For the discerning reader, the story of the Battle for Saltley Gate ought to put an end to the dangerous and disruptive notion of the "New Realists" that, since capitalism has fundamentally changed, we need to replace "class struggle" by "consensus politics." Looking back, I am personally very clear about the inadequacy of that notion.
Saltley, February 10th 1972
Two articles of mine, which were published in the Morning Star, are included here as a appendices to this chapter and will provide the uninitiated reader with the bare facts. At this point I would prefer to deal in more depth with the run up to this event and to show that, without the earlier advances made by the Communist Party and the Left in the NUM, this victory would have been impossible. Also vital was the key position held by Communists and Lefts in Birmingham. The style of work we had developed, in building factory organisation, providing political education and winning key positions in the official leadership of the Trade Union and Labour Movement was critical. Without a shadow of a doubt the special role of Communists, who were always distinguished by their organisational capacity as well as their analytical powers and strategic vision was central. Unfortunately, such distinguishing features of Communists are challenged, since the "New Realists", with their politics of compromise with capitalism, have now destroyed the old Party and weakened the Labour Movement.
How was it that the unlikely appearance of Yorkshire miners played a significant role at Saltley? How did it happen that Arthur Scargill was the hero of Saltley?
By 1972, the Yorkshire Area had gone through a radical change. The "Big Five" Area Officials, President, Secretary, Vice President, Financial Secretary and Compensation Agent were no longer unanimously in the control of the right wing. Jock Kane had been elected as Financial Secretary and Sammy Taylor as Compensation Agent, preventing the officials from exercising power through their own cabal.
No longer could leaders emerge from their own officials' pre-meeting caucus before the Council meeting and say "the officials have agreed" and expect endorsement automatically from the rank and file. They now had to say: "Well as usual we have disagreed. Jock and Sammy have a different point of view." By this time the left on the Area Council could carry the day, working on the opportunities offered by the right-left divide amongst the officials.
On the National Executive Committee of the NUM there was a similar position. There, Sammy Taylor and Jock Kane were accompanied by a rank-and-filer called Tommy Burke, from Barnburgh Colliery. Sid Schofield was now National Vice President and Sam Bullough, the President of Yorkshire NUM, no longer alone could speak for Yorkshire.
Joe Whelan, a well-known Communist, had joined Les Ellis to represent Nottinghamshire. Mick McGahey and Bill McLean were on the NEC from Scotland, Emlyn Williams and Dai Francis from South Wales and Peter Heathfield from Derbyshire. While Lawrence Daly was General Secretary.
This was a powerful group with deep grass roots support. In no way could right-wingers like Joe Gormley, Sid Schofield, Sam Bullough, or Trevor Bell of the white-collar workers, make a serious challenge against such a force. Moreover, contrary to some media presentations of the 1972 strike, Gormley was by no means the driving force behind it.
It was this transformation, particularly in areas like Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, which made it possible to set the date, January 6th 1972, for the first national strike of the National Union of Mineworkers. (Pre-war disputes had of course been organised under the auspices of the old federation of county associations, the Miners Federation of Great Britain). The right wing was against this strike and continually complained about mass picketing, not only at Saltley, but at a complex in Scotland.
Until the end of February, the entire coalfield was united in a struggle for a just wage for the miners. Area strike headquarters were set up in Castleford, Worksop, Mexborough, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster. There were no problems in militant areas like Doncaster and Barnsley. The left was relatively weak in North and South Yorkshire, but the workforce could all be won when it came to the crunch. The Barnsley strike committee was accommodated in the NUM's Area headquarters. This meant the premises were occupied night and day.
Arthur Scargill was now the leading light in that part of the Area, occupying a central and strategic position. He was a delegate from Woolley to the Area Council and had already demonstrated his outstanding organising abilities.
Luckily, Jock Kane was strike paymaster in Yorkshire, so Arthur had no trouble in getting his troops mobilised when the information came from the NUM in London that the Midlands Area had requested help from Yorkshire and that the co-ordinator was Frank Watters at the Star Social Club. There was no need to argue about the number of buses, and the amount of away from home allowance spent, because Jock was Financial Secretary, with £2.5 million in the funds. If money was required to win the strike by getting pickets, then it would be forthcoming. Even now I can hear him say: "Spend the bloody money. Get the lads on the job and get it over with as quickly as possible."
Jock had to have a real up-and-downer with Schofield, who was opposed to unlimited pickets. The surest way of discouraging lads from going away from home was to stop their picket allowances. I remember a late night phone call on the Tuesday to report that the AEU, the TGWU and the National Union of Vehicle Builders District Committees all had agreed to support a day of action on the Thursday. Schofield was refusing to counter-sign the cheque needed to pay the lads so that they could get down to Birmingham. Jock said to me: "This picket in
Birmingham is costing a fortune, when will it finish". I replied: "Thursday, win, lose or draw". Jock asked my assessment and I told him, "I think we will win, but who knows?" This decided Jock who said: "Then I will sign the cheque in spite of Schofield."
It's a good job the bills for sleeping bags, blankets etc. didn't arrive until after we had won and that the Midlands Area NUM was covering the food and refreshments. Also, the TGWU was providing an unlimited supply of steak pies, which ended up not only being eaten but were also used as unwelcome missiles, which many of the scab drivers had to wipe off their faces. A friendly baker with a small family business who was in the Party churned out the pies each day.
At 11.00 a.m. on the morning of our victory, the sun broke through as if someone, somewhere was on our side. The sheer weight of numbers brought a victory. I phoned London and a TV flash soon announced the closure. The right wing was seeking to end the strike, with the excuse that the Government had set up an Enquiry under Lord Wilberforce, which promised a substantial increase. This Enquiry had been announced, not because of the action at Saltley, but thanks to the tremendous work being done in every other part of the country in stopping fuel going to power stations everywhere. Helicopters and all sorts of tricks and devices were used to try to get oil into power stations. At Thorpe Marsh, near Doncaster, a lad from Stainforth was killed in picketing duties. We asked the police to ease up while we paid our last respects on the Tuesday he was buried.
It was the fact that power stations were being stopped by widespread solidarity action that forced the hand of the Government. Industry was grinding to a halt as factories were put on a three-day week. Fresh forces constantly came in to go picketing. Students helped out in areas where there was little industrial strength and women were turning out. The miners received tremendous and willing support, as depicted on one of the banners at Saltley, "The Miners' cause is our cause". Victory was in any case in sight, but what Saltley did was to put the icing on the cake. To the everlasting credit of the Birmingham workers, Saltley was closed when they turned out in their thousands with a simple slogan, - "Close the gates! Close the gates!" They did the miners proud. But the miners did those lads and lasses in Birmingham a tremendous power for good - they united their Labour Movement and helped to realise a potential strength of great power.
We all rejoiced that day in the Star Social Club. Friends who had provided free bed and breakfast hospitality for pickets took the afternoon off to join in the celebration. That day ended as it began, with warmth and solidarity. An example of the constructive spirit was one instance about three o'clock in the afternoon, when we got word that a certain 20-ton lorry from Bristol which we had had "difficulty stopping" on the picket line all week was parked on the Bristol Road, only fifty yards from the Star Club and halfway between us and the Labour Club. What a problem! Everyone jumped up excitedly calling out:"Let's get him!" I am sure they would have lynched him. I stood at the top of the steps in front of this solid phalanx of courageous and militant workers and told them firmly: "This strike has been conducted in a disciplined way - it will end like that. Leave it to me and I will see justice is done." I have never revealed this before, but four TGWU drivers with appropriate tools rendered the offending article immobile.
The scab driver had the usual mad Alsatian dog and iron bar in his cab. Presumably, he was making a phone call to his company to explain that the plant at Saltley was shut. Either way, we never had sight of him; I expect he was scared to come near. The dog was getting madder and madder at the commotion around the vehicle. The end result was that the lorry was stuck on this busy road until it was later towed away. I am sure the police were aware of the incident, they knew where the culprits came from, but by now they had had enough for one day. So had their Government.
No history of this historical event is complete without making reference to the speedy action of the branch officers of the famous 5/35 TGWU road haulage branch and especially the Branch Chairman, Nick Bridge, who was backed up to the hilt by the Secretary and full-time official, Alan Law. I rang Brian Mathers, the Midlands Regional Secretary of the TGWU, to discuss how to control the scab lorry drivers and he told me to phone Alan Law as the key contact. But trade union officers are often difficult to contact.
Within hours Nick Bridge was down at Saltley to investigate. That same night the 5/35 branch officers made a decision in the absence of Alan Law; their members should not cross the picket line but should join the miners to reinforce their picket. Any driver who phoned for advice was instructed not to pass the Saltley picket line. Over the weekend of February 4/5, before the miners arrived in large numbers, the picket was able to persuade most drivers to respect this official line. Genuine lorry drivers who were members of the TGWU would in normal circumstances have stopped any movement of this 100,000 tons of coke; most drivers would be unlikely to proceed once they were asked to stop by official pickets.
After our experience on the Monday, when we succeeded in getting the drivers to turn round, the circumstances changed. The police, now in large numbers, were able to prevent the pickets approaching the lorries. The police now took on the role of strikebreakers and refused to observe established practices regarding the right of peaceful picketing and communicating to those involved. If that had been observed, instead of the police putting the lives of their own officers and the pickets at risk by waving on scab drivers, there wouldn't have been any scenes of violence, but the police, as 12 years later at Orgreave, were under Government instructions to allow the delivery of this vital fuel to keep power stations working.
Alongside organising a round-the-clock rota of pickets, the 5/35 branch of the T&G, with its full time officer, Alan Law, was concerned about the welfare of the hundreds of miners, we now had to provide accommodation for. They arranged for 200 beds to be found by their own members. Another gesture, as I have said, was to send a lorry-load of steak and kidney pies. Such an abundance of good food not only brought a lift to morale on the picket line, but I will never forget seeing strike-breaking Lorries driving into the coke depot with steak and kidney pies dripping from the drivers' faces.
A bond of friendship was sealed in this episode between Arthur Scargill and Alan Law, two powerful men but, to be fair to both, despite having a lot in common they were not of the same political mould.
Now the real battle was on, would the leadership of the NUM be prepared to fight for wage increases beyond those to which the Wilberforce Inquiry was restricted. The Report was due to be presented to the NEC that morning of the Saltley victory. By this time the lads had got the bit between their teeth. They were going from strength to strength. It was obvious the boot was on the other foot this time.
Both the Coal Board and the Government wanted the strike to end. The Wilberforce Report recommended a substantial increase of £6.00, £5.00 and £4.00, which was a small price to pay to get industry back into production. Fortunately, there were those on the left, especially Jock Kane and Emlyn Williams, who remembered what was lost in the 1926 strike. They smelled revenge and went for the prize, demanding the abolition of the penalty clause, which caused the loss of a shift or bonuses when disputes occurred. The miners had been arguing that bonuses should be incorporated into a guaranteed five-day week. Then there was the adult rate at eighteen, also a long outstanding grievance, and many more such issues like the campaign for canteen workers to get the same rate as surface workers.
This was not the time to capitulate and by an NEC vote of 13-11 the Wilberforce recommendations were rejected. This meant going back to the Coal Board, which desperately wanted the strike settled. There were no objections on their part to the wage increases, but the other long-standing grievances were a problem. The Board said "We haven't the power to settle anything other than the wage claim, but after you are back at work we can resume further talks, including these points."
Again an old trick, partial settlement, knowing it would take years and possibly another strike to get some of them even talked about.
Here is where the Government had to take over. The Prime Minister was Edward Heath. I can imagine senior civil servants greeting miners’ leaders, especially members of the Communist Party and others on the left, particularly the one the papers called "Red Mick." I am told that when Joe Whelan was introduced to Heath he said, "Hello, Sailor."
I can imagine him saying it because Saltley had provided the vital lift the men needed to take the initiative in their headlong drive for total victory. After hours of negotiations, the bonus shift was incorporated into a five-day week, the adult rate at eighteen was conceded and a string of other concessions were won which cost as much as the total wage award.
Great days that could have paved the way for even greater ones, but, as usual, the right wing who control the Labour and Trade Union Movement were afraid of workers' power and the 'New Realists' had begun to appear.
"The Battle for Saltley Gates" by Frank Watters
(Reproduced from the Morning Star, Wednesday, 10th February, 1982)
Ten years ago today, February 10, 1972, will go down as one of the greatest events in the proud history of the British working class. It was the day when thousands of Birmingham workers walked out of their factories and building sites and joined the miners' pickets at the Saltley Coke Depot in Birmingham, where a mountain of coke was piled, estimated at over 100,000 tons. That coke mountain was intended to be the Heath government's answer to the rail workers solidarity with the miners - they had stopped all coal moving out of the pits.
On February 10 the aim was to close this coke depot and to demonstrate to the government that Brummie workers had no intention of standing idly by, allowing the police to harass, kick and injure striking miners who were only asking for £9 per week on their basic rate of £19. And when they achieved that aim the die was set. The Tories knew the power of the trade unions and the power of workers in mass solidarity had to be crushed.
Today we see that Tory aim being pushed through the Tebbit anti-union Bill. As the Birmingham workers in solidarity with the miners defeated through working class organisation the bid to break the miners, the Tebbit Bill must now be destroyed. The battle for Saltley gates in 1972 and the battle against Tebbit a decade later are part of the same war to defend the trade unions and working class organisation.
Many had come to Birmingham in the '30s from the Welsh Valleys. Many of their fathers worked in the coal mines around Birmingham and the Black Country. They could remember the humiliation of the 1926 defeat and what followed - the mass unemployment and starvation. They had a debt to pay. And they did it with honour.
Arthur Scargill was then only a little known rank and file delegate from Woolley Colliery in Yorkshire. But he proved, in the course of the six days that this battle was to last, to be not only an outstanding organiser and leader but also a responsible one. It was Scargill who told the East District of the AUEW: "We don't want your pound notes. Will you go down in history as the working class in Birmingham who stood by while the miners were battered, or will you become immortal? I do not ask you - I demand that you come out on strike." He got a unanimous response, both from moderates and militants. And the Birmingham engineers became immortal within two days of that demand.
As Arthur Scargill declared from the top of the public lavatory in Nechells Square following the closure of the gates on Thursday, February 10: "'This will go down in trade union history. It will also go down in history as the Battle of Saltley Gate. The working people have united in a mass stand." There can be no doubt it was this act of solidarity and class understanding from the Birmingham workers which was vital in winning this battle. What was the strategy, political and social problems that had to be over-come during these hectic days, which started on Friday; February 4th?
I shall never forget the frustration and anger I felt on that Friday when I went to Saltley and saw lorries being directed in and out by the police, an average of 800 per day. And in no way was this coal going to hospitals or old folks' homes as agreed upon by the NUM. It was clear the miners were winning their struggle for a just wage.
Power stations were being closed down. Transport and railway workers had stopped the movement of coal. Industrial stocks were low. But Saltley Gas Works had the largest and the last major stockpile in the country and it was still open. How to check it and stop the lorries was the question? I knew the outcome of this battle would be decisive.
A group of miners from Hems Heath Colliery, Stoke on Trent shared my anger when they said: "Why should this coke be allowed into the hands of unscrupulous fuel dealers whose only aim is to make a fortune for themselves?" The scab lorry drivers were on £50-£60 per day, plus £50 bonus for every load. No wonder the miners were angry. It was their blood that was in that mountain of coke and all they were asking was a basic wage of £28 for underground workers and £26 for surface and £35 for power loading workers.
The police were under government instruction to ensure this El Dorado of the most precious commodity in the city found its way into the factories and power stations to defeat the miners. On Saturday, over 200 Midland miners had arrived but their job was to monitor the lorries with NUM certificates for delivering to schools, hospitals or old folks' homes. All that was happening was that drivers were passing the certificates on to each other.
Jack Lally the secretary of the Midland miners was in charge. I approached Jack and introduced myself as secretary of Birmingham Communist Party. Jack's politics were completely different from mine but we had something in common. We both came from mining stock and our political differences were not the order of that day. The main issue was how could we stop these lorries; how could we get the Birmingham working class to help, because I was of the opinion win Saltley and we will win the miners' struggle.
Jack got his first taste of Peaceful Persuasion when he tried to exercise his right. The police instructed the lorry drivers to accelerate so that the traffic could move faster. Jack got out his camera to ensure he had proof. But instead of taking any pictures, he was nearly knocked over by a fast moving 20-ton lorry. It convinced Jack that help was needed.
Together we went over to the Star Social Club, which is the headquarters of the Communist Party. All I can say, and Jack I am sure will endorse it, for Jack Lally to sit down and talk with the secretary of the local party is like getting Ian Paisley to have a friendly chat with the Pope. But in the Star Social Club we both willingly had that chat.
What a challenge! But what a prize, miles away from any pits, Birmingham was to become the centre of struggle and I was so proud to be part of it. Fresh from their success in East Anglia and Yorkshire power stations, Arthur Scargill's lads were now in no mood to see any mountain of fuel being moved. And when miners' leader Lawrence Daly told them of the nearly 1,000 lorries per day moving nearly 40.000 tons of coke at Saltley they got the bit between their teeth. and no police force was big enough to defeat them. But there were still big problems of organisation and little time.
What about accommodation? Trade union halls and rooms were closed because of the weekend. And it was no use trying to get B&B in any hotel with no money. There was, of course, plenty of room in the local police stations, which many of the miners sampled before the week was over. But I did not fancy making such a request. Finding accommodation was a nightmare. But, then again, some inspiring experiences of working class solidarity came out of this.
How was it done? Don't ask me, but I am sure I will be forgiven if I only mention one name - Moira Simmens, the secretary of the Birmingham Labour Party. Moira, like so many in the working class was the salt of the earth, never appear in newspapers or books, but their contribution to many victories like Saltley is indispensable. A bond of friendship and mutual respect between the Labour Party and the Communist Party was sealed during this struggle. We were jointly engaged on the good cause of winning a victory for our class.
It was clear that we were in for a hard battle. On the Sunday morning we managed to mobilise sufficient forces to stop any of the lorries going in. And the police decided to call it a day and the gates were closed.
On Sunday afternoon West Midlands police leave was cancelled. The Town Hall was booked to give them instructions, which were loud and clear. Saltley Gas Works' gates must be kept open in the coming week. By this time, hundreds more miners from Yorkshire and Wales had arrived. Accommodation became a bigger headache. But when I explained to Arthur Scargill about the size of the job he said: "You asked for them, it is your job to provide accommodation."
It was easier said than done, but what a response there was from the Working Men's Clubs and a big Irish Club in the centre of Birmingham. Moira and her team were overwhelmed and the Star Social Club, a focal point, provided a pint of beer, scones and pies, which had been baked during the night.
By Monday the Transport and General Workers Union had moved into action. Full time organiser, Alan Law, was the commanding officer, and what a helpful role he played. "Stay with the miners until they win," was his instruction. No expense was too great. Mobile canteens for hot tea and soup arrived followed by a van with hundreds of pies, specially baked during Sunday night. Monday was a successful day. Lorry after lorry was turned away. The lads thought it was going to be a cakewalk. With a reasonable allowance, free accommodation and a friendly city welcoming them, they looked forward to their stay in Birmingham.
Tuesday, however, was a nightmare. On Monday it had been members of the TGWU who had turned away on request. Now, cowboys, inspired by greed, brought Alsatian dogs, iron bars and sticks to force their way through the picket.
There were more policemen. And there were more pickets. I thought someone would be killed that day. And it was a very near thing. Just after 10 a.m., a scab driver put his foot down and drove his lorry into the pickets and police. Three policemen and two pickets were injured. One of these was a Chief Inspector. But, instead of taking action against this driver, the police allowed him in and out with his load. In fact, as soon as the ambulance cleared away the injured, the battle began again.
It was becoming obvious that the miners could not win on their own. They were stretched - other miners were involved in their own Saltley Gates. What was needed was local reinforcements and that was only possible from the big local engineering factories. How to get this was the problem. The answer lay in getting leading shop stewards to come to Nechells and see the battle for themselves. Here, local knowledge and local contacts with leading shop stewards played a vital role. They came, they saw and they were convinced something had to be done. Now, not only was the message being related to the workers in these factories, but on the same night, two vital meetings, the East District Committee of the AUEW and the Vehicle Builders, were taking place - two unions whose support was vital.
Arthur Scargill won their full support. And within 18 hours, nearly 400 shop stewards at a special meeting endorsed that support. On Wednesday we agreed to play the picket line with a low profile. The main work was in the factories. But one thing did happen that day which I will always remember. The women from SU Carburettors gave up their dinner hour and bought all the cigarettes, chocolates and crisps from their canteen and marched to greet the marchers. Yes, there were tears in many eyes as they grabbed these gifts like manna from heaven. In London the Cabinet discussed reinforcement.
But the West Midlands Chief of the Police, Sir Derrick Capper, advised the government he could handle the pickets. He must have thought we'd had enough on Tuesday - hence the reason for the low profile on Wednesday. But he was wrong. We were mobilising a massive force - an army of workers determined to take on the police and even the armed forces if the Cabinet was foolish enough to contemplate such a confrontation. I tell you, if the army had been used, no factory, no shop, no transport would have moved in Birmingham. But the 64,000-dollar question remained - would the workers respond?
Thursday morning started, in the usual way. About 6 a.m. the picket lined up at the gates. The police, in their usual military style marched to their positions. It is a frightening sight when you see over 1,000 policemen backed up with their truncheons and horses, and you have no defence. The police were stopping the coaches bringing support from Wales and searching for weapons to delay them. Little did the police know they were doing us a good turn - we knew the factory workers would not come until well after 9 am.
Word was sent to the Welsh pickets leave your buses, walk to Saltley. And they did. In the rush hour when the factory workers were going in, with usual Welsh cheer. They called on the Brummies: "Come and join us.' Building workers on site joined them and soon the ranks were swelling. The police were in an affable mood. Public opinion was not on their side because of the reports of brutality and they were responsible for it. And they knew it.
Thousands were also on the march from Washwood Heath, the big Rover plants in Acocks Green, moving slowly to allow workers from the massive Rover factory six miles away in Solihull to catch up. No traffic moved, only bodies blocked the road chanting: "Close the Gates". Then they came over the railway bridge with banners and cardboard placards made that morning.
Nothing could be seen, except thousands of human beings outnumbering a by now increasingly subdued police force aware its battle was about to be lost. The Chief Constable had been proven wrong. He had never bargained for this - he did not understand the deep-rooted loyalty of our class. The tables had been turned with a vengeance. From the other side of the city workers from Lucas GKN and others were still on the road to Saltley. The roads were blocked with workers from all walks of life welded together by a burning urge to answer the call of the miners for Birmingham workers to become immortal.
The human sea was too strong to hold back. The police dared not use their batons. The police backs and legs were being crushed by this human sea. If they had not given in they would have landed through the gates and all hell would have been let loose if the workers had got into the Gas Works.
At 10.45 a.m. that morning, Thursday, February 10, the gates were closed. I do not know if it was a coincidence, but the sun broke through and shone on a cheering and jubilant 10,000 workers And many hard men from every coalfield openly wept as Arthur Scargill expressed his deepest thanks for making February 10, 1972 an outstanding date in our glorious history.
"Salt of the Earth" by Frank Watters
(reproduced from the Morning Star February 10th 1992)
The victory of Saltley Gates, 20 years ago on February 10, 1972, was one of the proudest moments in the history of the British working class; thousands of Birmingham workers walked out of their factories and building sites to join miners picketing the Saltley coke depot.
The mass picket closed the depot, stopped the movement of coal supplies - and helped ensure victory in the 1972 national miners' strike. The Wilberforce inquiry, set up after Saltley, granted £34.50 for face workers, £25 for others underground and £23 for surface workers - and all the miners' other demands.
I well remember the frustration and anger I felt at Saltley on Friday, February 4th. The miners' national strike had been going for nearly six weeks. Power stations were being closed. Transport and rail workers were blocking the movement of coal. Industrial stocks were low. Saltley had probably the largest stockpile in the country - and about 800 lorries a day were calling at the depot, under police supervision. No way could that have been fuel for hospitals and old folk's homes, as agreed by the NUM.
The weekend that followed, more than 200 Midlands miners arrived, led by Jack Lally, general secretary of the Midlands NUM. They tried to check that the lorries had exemption certificates but the scab drivers, who were on £60 a day plus £50 bonus per load, just passed the certificates on to each other. Anyway, the police would not allow miners the right to picket peacefully.
Contact was made with the Barnsley strike committee in which Arthur Scargill, at that time branch delegate at Woolley colliery, played a leading part. Fresh from their success in East Anglia, the Yorkshire lads were in no mood to see the Saltley fuel mountain being moved. The flying pickets arrived. Local trade unionists provided accommodation and food supplies.
On Sunday, February 6, the lorries were stopped and Saltley's gates were closed. But the police were instructed that this was not to happen again and they mobilised large forces. On the Monday morning, battle was joined. Our side was backed by Birmingham workers; mobile canteens provided hot tea and soup, and a van full of pies arrived. Most were eaten, some were used as missiles.
The scab drivers, inspired by greed, brought Alsatian dogs, iron bars and sticks to force their way through. On the Tuesday, a scab driver injured three policemen and two pickets. The police waved him through. It was obvious that the miners could not win on their own. So, that
Tuesday evening, Arthur Scargill addressed the Birmingham East district committee of the engineers' union AUEW and appealed for active support.
"We don't want your pound notes," he said. "Will you go down in history as the working class in Birmingham who stood by while the miners were battered - or will you become immortal? I do not ask, I demand that you come out on strike." The response was unanimous and positive - as it was from a meeting of vehicle builders that evening and a further meeting of 400 shop stewards on the Wednesday.
The Thursday morning picket started in the usual way. The pickets took up positions at 6 a.m., and the police marched up military-style with their truncheons and horses. Coach loads of miners from Wales were held up as police stopped and searched them.
Then we received word that thousands of workers were on the march - from Lucas, GKN and other factories. From the big Rover plant in Acocks Green, they took it slowly, to allow the Rover Solihull contingent to catch up. Traffic was brought to a halt. Bodies jammed the road, shouting: "Close the gates" and singing: "We will not be moved." By 10 that morning it was a human sea. The backs and legs of the policemen trying to contain it were on the point of being crushed. At 10.45 a.m., the gates were closed. By coincidence, the sun broke through the clouds just then. The 10,000 pickets were jubilant - many hard men wept.
Saltley was a victory - but the labour movement was not properly prepared for the inevitable counter-offensive by it.
“New Territory of Class Struggle” – the diversity of Birmingham
Birmingham was a tremendous experience. I had travelled a long way in the 15 years since I buried my pick and shovel, in a small Scottish mining village. First graduating to a rural county in West Lothian, then to Barnsley and Doncaster; small towns that could be described as overcrowded villages.
This was different - Britain's second City and the capital of the West Midlands, sprawling into the famous counties of Stafford, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford and Shropshire. Along with the great industrial conurbations of Coventry and Wolverhampton, there were many more large towns and boroughs; a population of a million plus, containing the most widely skilled workforce of any comparable city in the world. The cradle of the industrial revolution, for nearly two centuries, the West Queen Victoria in the city centre is a vivid reminder of that imperial era, when Kipling talked of India as the "jewel in the crown" of the once mighty British Empire.
Yet when I had a chance to visit areas like Aston, Small Heath, Saltley and Handsworth, I was appalled at the slums, the social and industrial decay. I could understand that the different parts of Birmingham were not divided by geography but by the much greater gulf that separated the ruling and the working classes. It was also obvious that the wealth made in the jewellery quarter near Handsworth didn't find its way into making for the men, women and, yes, the children, a more civilised environment, but, as usual, to satisfy the greed for profit of people like Herbert Austin, who made his fortune in these areas before he set up his massive car factory in the Worcestershire countryside of what is now Longbridge, Birmingham.
Following the Second World War, Birmingham industry was booming, the only shortage was labour, especially unskilled labour to work in small factories and foundries that provided the car industry with their components. All nationalities and all colours were welcomed with open arms. Afro-Caribbeans and Asians from the Indian sub-continent provided the bulk of bus drivers. The Asians provided the manpower for dirty sweatshop foundries. The Irish came in boat loads, as in the famous "Dubliners" song, to join McAlpine and John Laing, the building contractors.
Others went into the car industry and other manufacturing employment. But the initial welcome was short-lived and by the late sixties, when I arrived, Enoch Powell was talking about "Rivers of Blood". He claimed the West Midlands was becoming "a black man’s haven". Getting jobs had not been easy in the beginning - the first black bus workers in Wolverhampton in 1958 had been greeted by a strike and the Union, the T&G, like most unions, turned a blind eye to racism. Not many black workers were employed in British Leyland, which had a labour force of nearly 30,000. Certainly not as toolmakers, or any other highly skilled trades. The excuse was that to be a toolmaker you needed a high standard of literacy and the only educational books the great empire builders provided was the Bible.
All this was a new territory of class struggle. We had plenty of "black men" in South Yorkshire, but a good shower soon changed their colour! I was fortunate. Because of my political and social upbringing, I can safely say I have not a drop of racist or sectarian blood in my body. This helped me to establish a rapport with the main ethnic minority groups, the Irish, Afro-Caribbean and Indian communities.
The Irish Civil Rights movement was now on the political map. Bernadette Devlin had been elected as Westminster MP for Mid-Ulster on a `people's democracy’ ticket. A tremendous victory, but she had a very narrow sectarian attitude. As an MP, she failed to establish links with the British Labour Movement. Whilst the trade union and Labour movement, just as with the struggle against racism, avoided the Irish question like the plague. I was under no illusion that this major political issue couldn't be swept under the carpet and that, when the crunch came, the anger and frustration of the Birmingham people, would be turned on the Irish people at work and in the community as the struggle got bitter.
This was precisely what happened in November 1974, when twenty-one innocent people were murdered and many others were mutilated in a city centre bombing. The Star Club was close to the scene and I remember well the horror of that night. The next day, all hell was unleashed, with anger never before witnessed in the City. This led to spontaneous walkouts in factories and on building sites with attacks on members of the Irish community, especially as a large proportion of pub managers were Irish. Here is where the role of the Labour Movement was vital.
Shop stewards met that weekend and called for calm. Many of the stewards were Irish. On the Monday morning, meetings were held at the major factories, which helped to take the sting out of the understandable anger. The various religious denominations, especially the Catholic Church, came out to condemn the massacre and appealed to the people of Birmingham not to be provoked or to join the anti-Irish racist demonstration called by Enoch Powell supporters. Posters soon appeared, calling for a demonstration on Monday afternoon and hoping for a massive walk out. We phoned the police and to their credit the posters were soon removed. Unfortunately, the unity of the Churches and the Trade Union Movement was short lived. If only the lesson of the need to contract in had been absorbed, the movement could have helped to get a political solution to the "Border" question. Maybe, also, the innocent men known as the Birmingham Six wouldn't have to spend 16 years behind prison bars, and the energy used in the campaign to prove their innocence could have been harnessed for a just solution.
Before the November 1974 bombing there were many demonstrations organised by the Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign. A massive one with 5,000 plus marched through Birmingham on Saturday, February 5th 1972. This was also the time of the national miners' strike. I wanted the Midland NUM representative (who by this time had arrived at the Saltley Coke Works) to address this rally and call for support for the miners. Pickets were now being organised to come to Birmingham, but the majority would not arrive before Monday. I got the reply I expected: "We don't want to get mixed up in the Irish question." My reply was: "If you are to win the working people of Birmingham for the miners' case, you will need the Irish as they are a large section of the Birmingham workforce." What I did get was permission for someone to make the appeal.
I had in mind the right person, Sean Kenny, active in the Civil Rights Movement, leading shop steward at Longbridge and Secretary of the Birmingham Connolly Association. You couldn't get better credentials and Sean did the job, appealing for them to attend early mass and come to Saltley to join the miners. They responded and those who hadn't attended early mass still had time for the late mass, because the police were only acting as traffic wardens and they soon closed the gate. This appeal also helped when hospitality was required. Many in the Civil Rights Movement appreciated the role of the Communist Party, for by this time we had built our Social Club where they held many of their meetings and gathered on a Saturday night for a pint of Guinness and a good old singsong.
I mentioned the Connolly Association, of which many readers may not have heard. I am not surprised, because I had occasion to apply for a Sunday afternoon licence to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising, after which James Connolly, one of the leaders, was shot. The usual procedure was that you had three magistrates and on this occasion one was the Trades Council Secretary, Dave Perris, now Sir David, who knew me since we were jointly involved in many demonstrations. Dave asked permission to be allowed to leave as he was a personal friend of the applicant. Now there was a large mental hospital in the Rubery area of Birmingham, which was known as the Connolly hospital. The Chairman of the bench asked if I was the Secretary of the Social Club at this hospital. I refrained from bursting into laughter and, with my tongue in my cheek, I explained the association I was representing was planning an event to commemorate the death of an Irish patriot, James Connolly, and it was a bit like what we have in Scotland, the Robert Burns Association. I left it at that and the licence was granted. I think Dave Perris saying I was a personal friend, and my making sure that the other two magistrates were no wiser as to what the Connolly Association was did the trick. It's nice to have friends in the right place and sometimes ignorance can be a blessing! Sean again did a good job reading the 1916 proclamation and in good spirits we celebrated the Easter uprising.
The Indian communities were mainly in what was known as the Black Country area, so-called not from its ethnic mix, but from the dirty environment caused by industrialisation. Once famous for chain making, the products of which were used in large ships like the great Atlantic liners, foundries dominated the area.
These foundries were by my time largely producing for the motor industry and the railway carriage business of Metro-Cammell. They were real sweatshops with little or no modernisation since the turn of the century. Open furnaces with smelting heat, to which the white man said "no thank you". The workers were not unionised, because the union that dominated was the Amalgamated Engineering Union, which was content to recruit mainly skilled workers. In 1972 the TGWU was able considerably to expand its existing interest in the car industry, when it took over the National Union of Vehicle Builders. Jack Jones, then General Secretary, set the aim of two million members as the Union recruited massively in every sector and workers originating from the Indian sub-continent were an ideal target.
But there were problems - one was language, but there was a more difficult one. These workers were not seriously recruited into the unions, but had been organised for many years into their own political, cultural and social formation the Indian Workers Association. A very powerful and progressive force, it was unfortunately divided into two, and later even more, political groups who reflected the major split between the Communist Parties of China and the Soviet Union and a parallel, but not exactly similar split in India, resulting in two Communist Parties there.
This not only divided the Indian people, but Joshi, one of the Maoist leaders in Birmingham, saw membership of the IWA as more important than belonging to a trade union, in fact he argued that the IWA should represent members who were involved in any industrial dispute. What was needed was for the unions, especially the TGWU, not only positively to recruit black members, but also to provide educational facilities to enable elected shop stewards to be able to negotiate at all levels with management.
Secondly, it was necessary to demonstrate that the union had come a long way from the racist bus workers' strike in Wolverhampton. There was one Communist TGWU officer, Don Higgs, who sadly died a few years ago, who was tremendous in assisting black shop stewards and black workers in getting better working conditions and rates for the job. He demonstrated that there were no contradictions between being a member of the IWA and the TGWU. Don also helped to bring these factions together on practical issues. As an aside, recently the IWA was largely reconstituted on a united basis, all major groups coming together at long last.
I often wondered why no black officer had been appointed in this area, given the big proportion of Asian workers in the TGWU. It was not because there were no black workers capable of holding office. Here we had a classic example of a failure to face up to racist propaganda. Enoch Powell and his mouthpiece, the Birmingham Mail, claimed that the TGWU was becoming a "Black Man's Union". I believe that fear of this sort of propaganda resulted in the Union being afraid to appoint black full-time officials.
In 1970, with the growth of the union in the Midlands, a vacancy for a District Organiser's post in West Bromwich occurred. None other than Bill Morris, later the union’s leader but then a young and up-and-coming convenor in Hardy Spicer applied and was rejected. Danny Bryan, a member of the Young Communist League, holding no serious position in the Union, was chosen instead. I often wonder what the members of that panel must feel now that their union is headed by the black man they rejected for just a simple district officer's position. Despite this setback, Bill was then elected in 1972 to the General Executive Council, sitting alongside the respected Communist Jock Gibson, convenor of the Ryton, Coventry car plant. Late in 1973, Bill was appointed as an officer in Nottingham. Far away from the centre of the region and the communities where he was so badly needed.
Danny Bryan's appointment caused a big problem. A leading lay member in the TGWU Region was Jim Falconer, my Jock Kane of the Midlands and another incorruptible rebel. He bounced into my office with all guns firing. He didn't ask any questions but laid into me with the fire and venom this Scot possessed. I let him carry on because my conscience was clear. Anyone who knows me will know that if I am innocent of the crime alleged, then I don't worry. Then, I found my temper, which is better then losing it, and Jim came off second best. I showed him minutes of our district secretariat criticising Danny for applying for the position. I never for a minute expected Danny, at that stage at any rate, to be a serious challenge to Bill Morris. The outcome was twofold. Jim, like many other hard-hitting comrades, respected honesty and integrity and a bond of friendship was established. Proof of that is that, even though I had left Birmingham when Jim died, he requested that I give his funeral oration, along with Brian Mathers, Regional Secretary of the TGWU, and Sid Easton, his companion in the long struggle against bans on members of the Communist Party holding office within the TGWU.
The only other time I was subjected to the fury of this dour Scotsman he won the round. When his wife died, Jim requested that I say a few kind words at her cremation. After this, he sent for me and explained he had drawn up a will and there would be some money for the Party when he went. He got me to swear that I wouldn't tell Harry Bourne, the District Secretary of the Midlands Communist Party, because he knew Harry wouldn't wait that long before he had his hands on it for the Party. "Yes, Jim. I promise", but I thought Jim was a bit unfair, as no one had done more than Harry to keep the Party viable. One Thursday morning, Harry called me into his office for a discussion regarding the usual prospect of no wages that week. I then broke my confessional vows and told Harry about Jim's nest egg.
The inevitable happened. Harry said "Well, you are closer to Jim than any of us - ask him for a £100". By this time, whenever I was in the area, I would drop in and have a crack with Jim, who was retired and living on his own. I was always welcome, but this time he went berserk when he discovered I had told Harry. I couldn't defend myself, but I had a good idea my visit was not in vain and, after all, what's in words if the £100 was forthcoming? His final words were: "Here's the £100, but never, never ask again until you press that bloody button and then you can do what you like". When I phoned Harry that night at home he was delighted, but I said never again. I was prepared to do a lot for the Party, but not to face Jim Falconer about the money he had tucked away! I never did get to know what was in that drawer as I had left Birmingham when Jim died, but I do know that Jim, given the way the Party was going, would have given me absolution.
Then there was a large Afro-Caribbean population. They were more fortunate than the Asians, because their first language was English, but they weren't as political as the Indians. Here again, the Star Social Club was a tremendous asset to them with a highly popular reggae disco at the weekend, bringing both black and white youngsters together. During the campaign for the release of the black American Communist, Angela Davis, who was framed on a murder charge in California, my connections as the Secretary of the club and also with the popular (and pleasingly, now famous) Andy Hamilton Jazz Band, helped in conducting the widest and most imaginative campaign in any part of Europe. Thousands of black and white youths wore "Free Angela Davis" tee shirts and badges in Birmingham. A packed meeting was held in Digbeth Hall with a guest speaker from Birmingham, Alabama, where Angela was born. She was finally set free and wrote a wonderful autobiography of her experience waiting for the death sentence that could have been imposed, if it had not been for the worldwide campaign.
Afro-Caribbean youth suffered more police harassment than any other of the ethnic minority communities. This meant we had to be ever vigilant to ensure the police had no excuse to raid the club. The group of lads who ran the disco were marvellous – a better bunch you couldn't have wished for. There was one occasion when this harassment went beyond any normal surveillance. One Sunday night there were police vans and cars all around the club. We made an appeal to the youngsters to be more than usually careful because of the police presence and promised we would do something to put an end to this unnecessary provocation. I visited Digbeth Police Station and asked to see the officer in charge and the Inspector in charge of race relations. Neither were available, but I requested a meeting between all responsible and the lads who ran the disco. This took place with six of the top police in this field of work.
We were on the offensive, claiming that these lads were doing more to bring black and white young people together with supervision second to none. No drugs, no excessive alcohol being consumed, hundreds off the streets, so why the harassment? The usual excuse was given - it wasn't the regular force that was on duty that night, there had been trouble at some other nightclub and a squad had been brought in from Nottingham. This didn't wash with me, as the heavy police presence was observable before 9.00 pm. I then made a proposition that those responsible for race relations could come into the club any time provided it was to observe, but they must not have any uniform on. We would ask the youngsters to make their way home as soon as possible when the disco ended. This meant there should be no need for police in the vicinity. It worked. The lads were delighted that someone was able to stand up for them without being intimidated. Lesley was in charge of the bar and the takings on disco nights and she couldn't have been better protected and loved by all those lads.
I have mentioned the Angela Davis badge. Actually, producing badges became almost a trademark of mine. Many people will not realise that because of Birmingham's long - standing jewellery quarter, badge making is an art practiced there in a way that has made it become a world-famous centre. I found out very quickly, the political and financial value of badge-production. Many people called me the "Badge King", since I seemed to be the source of all major badges favoured by progressive movements in the 1970s. But, to be honest, the real Badge King was the Managing Director of a leading jewellery quarter firm, with whom I struck up a professional and personal friendship. Though he was an arch-Tory, he and I enjoyed a very personable relationship. He is such a nice man that I will do him the great honour of not mentioning his name!
The first success I had was with the Angela Davis badge. We saw the material produced in the USA and it was clear that Angela's persona was so attractive it would feature well. But American badges are huge; we British prefer more discreet models. Armed with a British design version, our activists toured Handsworth, and central Birmingham, selling vast numbers of this highly popular badge.
This success was nothing compared to the sales of the "Kill the Bill" badge, which in the lifetime of the 1970-4 Tory government, put the movement's opposition to the Parliamentary Bill, which ended up as the Industrial Relations Act. Even the TUC was spurred into action. A massive demonstration was called - possibly one of the largest ever to date, with at least a quarter of a million people assembling in London
It was so large that Trafalgar Square was full whilst people were still assembled in their tens of thousands, bored stiff sometimes; waiting for hours in Hyde Park before they could march off. We organised a massively chartered trainload down from the Midlands.
In my bones, I knew much of this would occur. I had already developed some excellent relationships with key trade union figures on this issue of free trade unionism back when the Labour Government had proposed its own, milder version of the Industrial Relations Act - Barbara Castle's "In Place of Strife". Brian Mathers' predecessor Harry Urwin, who went on to be Jack Jones', number two, had been brilliant on this. We therefore had little difficulty, given our base, which was then substantial, in the AEU to bring the Regional TUC round to a major campaign on the
The TUC entered the debate with the unknown and unremembered slogans "Stop the Bill", or "Oppose the Bill", our position was considered too harsh - "Kill" was a naughty word. Even so, the hundreds of thousands who marched shouted "Kill the Bill" and bought "THE" badge in tens of thousands.
I had anticipated this. I mobilised the Midlands YCL, some of whom were a little sceptical as to the possibilities. Each seller found themselves selling two, three or even four thousand badges. At ten pence a time this was a considerable sum and I could afford to allow a reasonable discount to the YCL for their own use. My daughter joined many others from the Midlands YCL that day. Everyone who mingled with those delegations waiting in Hyde Park must have been personally changed by the experience. A Young Communist who could interchange with thousands of class-conscious workers and make money for their own organisation, so that it could more effectively campaign was a proud Young Communist. There were very few people marching without a "Kill the Bill" red badge. How embarrassed the General Council dignitaries must have been.
Emboldened by this badge making success, and remember we carried on marketing the badge after the demo, it occurred to me after the dreadful military coup in Chile in September 1972, that we could do some good work here. Especially as it was an international issue. I had discovered that my friend the "Badge King" was manufacturing badges for the World Federation of Democratic Youth, effectively a kind of youth Comintern, which along with internationals for women, journalists, trades unionists and others had survived Stalin's effective "suicide" in 1942 of a formal world Communist party. I saw the chance of a percentage profit for ourselves in such a massive business and still see no reason why not. After all, more funds would have been channelled into struggle from a legitimate business activity.
I got a badge produced, based on a design of the Chilean flag intertwined with barbed wire, and had it inscribed "Solidarity - Chile". Then it hit me - put the words in every possible language! e.g. "Solidarité - Chile", “Solidarnosc - Chile" (before anyone had ever heard of Lec Walesa!), "Solidaridad - Chile" and so on. Russian, German, Swedish - you name it. But the one I still recall with fondness - there are in fact only six demonstration models in existence - was the Chinese version. Unfortunately, the Sino-Soviet conflict was still sharp. Just because the Soviets were in opposition to an American manipulated coup, the Chinese leadership recognised the Junta and was of course therefore unlikely to want any badges! Even so, this badge was stupendously successful. For some reason, I could never seem to motivate the national YCL leadership on this or any other badge issue. This was daft, since YCLers were crazy about badges, just as young people are today. The trouble was that the revisionist, Euro -Communist or "Euro", element was firmly in control of the YCL. They hated WFDY and just ignored my suggestions that we try to get involved.
Fortunately, the Midlands YCL was not so stupid. I proposed a project that the League could not resist. Linking up with the Chile Solidarity Campaign, I proposed an excursion to France to sell the customised French badge at the French Communist festival organised by their paper "L' Humanité". My daughter Lesley, Graham Stevenson and Martin Parker, the son of a former Nottinghamshire miner and subsequently Birmingham polytechnic lecturer, went off to France with an official of the CSC. They stood in pouring rain for three days, the mud coming up to Somme standards. Perhaps the punters thought their broken French implied that they were in fact Chilean. Perhaps they pitied them for being so wet and so muddy, whatever the score, the Midlands Party, the YCL and the CSC all culled a very large amount of money. It is pleasant to record that so many years afterwards Martin and his wife Margaret are the closest friends of Lesley, Graham and their children.
Linking good design with good politics was and is crucial. There were many badges after that and it is not often appreciated just how many originated from Birmingham, with the local Party and YCL behind them. Sometimes we designed them for unions, sometimes for ourselves, but we never got it wrong! We always gauged the mood of the mass of ordinary workers exactly right. I like to believe that the great amount of badge and sticker activity in the Seventies, associated with the Midlands Communist Party, may have had some influence in the wave of affection for badges and stickers in the 1984/85 miners strike. Perhaps even more decisively in the present considerable interest in union badges, which has become a recognised activity of serious collectors.
I had quickly acclimatised myself to Birmingham, but it wasn't easy to grapple with the complexity of the structures of the various unions. Previously, I had only to be concerned with one main union, the NUM, and once we got the National Power Loading Agreement and a National Day Wage, problems were fewer and confined to the national level. But in the car industry the employers claimed they couldn't regulate the selling price of the car, because of the fluctuation of the sometimes substantial wages earned under the piecework system. There was a school of thought, similar to that in the mining industry, that the unions were piece-workers' unions or were only interested in upping the skilled workers' rates. Dick Etheridge, an outstanding convenor at Longbridge, a real black-country man and a well respected Communist, argued that if he "couldn't get a fall-back rate of £80 per week for tool makers there was no chance of getting £60 for a lavatory attendant."
Then there were other unions in which we were making inroads. UCATT Regional Secretary, Ken Barlow, could always be relied upon to make his office available for a strike headquarters. Ken was an ardent supporter of the Morning Star. The draughtsmen's union, DATA, was by now TASS - the white-collar section of the then renamed AUEW - although it later left and subsequently joined up with ASTMS to become MSF. (MSF later joined the AEEU to form amicus.) The Midlands Secretary of TASS was Willie Shields - a Spike Milligan double if ever I saw one. Another dour Scotsman, unpredictable from hour to hour. You could never tell what he thought of you, but he was incorruptible and had a heart of gold if he accepted you. I frequently visited his office because I could get some stationery and often a fiver stuck in my top pocket. Then another Scot joined Willie, John Rowan. He was a breath of fresh air, and, like Willie, dedicated to the Party. John unfortunately died during the miners’ strike of 1984/5.
Pic: Bill Warman
The `father’ of them all was Bill Warman of the Sheet Metal Union, for a long time chair of the Midlands Party. Bill epitomised everything that should be expected of a Communist – in using one's intellectual capacity, ability and compassion for the benefit of working people, without any thought of personal gain.
Then there was ASTMS - Don Groves was the principal officer. Terry Marsland was Secretary for the Gold and Silver Union before they amalgamated with TASS. At NUPE we had Roger Poole, later joined by Gordon Will from Scotland. The T&G's Regional Secretary Brian Mathers was a decisive force - as later accounts will show. We had quite a number of full-time trade union officials, all big men and women in their own right who could be relied upon when needed and who played a decisive role in the Midlands Region of the TUC.
Then we had powerful rank and file leaders. In Birmingham, Dick Etheridge, Derek Robinson, Jack Adams and Brian Chambers at Longbridge; Arthur Harper at Tractors and Transmissions; Peter Nichols and Joe Harris at the Rover plants; and Bill Goulding in Castle Bromwich. In Coventry, Eddie McCluskey in Chrysler, Stoke; Jock Gibson in Chrysler, Ryton; Phil Higgs in Rolls Royce.
These comrades constituted a powerful force, but it needed constant personal contact and guidance. I think my years in the coalfield taught me the importance of this style of work and many recognised this. I remember Jim Hunt, the present (now retired) regional secretary of the Midlands Region of T&G, introducing me to his personal secretary, not long ago, saying: "This is a life-long Communist who has the art second to none of bringing all political shades and different personalities together, and an outstanding organiser".
But the Midlands Labour and Trade Union Movement was renowned for its right wing Members of Parliament and Trade Union leaders. Some of the worst examples of corruption in Labour local authorities occurred during the post-war reconstruction of the City. The two unions that then dominated the majority of the organised workforce in the Midlands were the AUEW and the TGWU. In the late sixties, Hughie Scanlon replaced Carron as President of the Engineers. Jack Jones took over from Frank Cousins at the T&G. They were known as the terrible twins because by now, along with a change in the NUM, the circle had turned. No longer could the ruling class automatically rely on the TUC to be able to deliver the goods. It was this combination of forces that challenged the Industrial Relations Act. The growing strength and activity of women ensured that equal pay and a woman's right to choose on reproductive issues was now higher up the trade union agenda. The removal of the bans on Communists holding office in the TGWU from 1968 helped to build progressive lay member committees right up to the General Executive Council. The battle to strengthen the AUEW, both at EC level and District was also vital.
But while the Party and the left had a strong influence in the factories, the full-time officers in the AUEW controlled the official machine. For a short time we made a small advance with Brian Chambers being elected as District Secretary for West Birmingham and later as Divisional Secretary, but the right-wing introduced the postal ballot and, with massive media coverage of favoured candidates, that worked against the left. When Scanlon retired, right-wingers, Terry Duffy, a Midlander, and Jim Conway took over as President and General Secretary. Another Midlander, Bill Jordan is the current President. (Jordan is, of course, now long retired and the AUEW, having joined with the electricians to become the AEEU, the basis of much of today’s amicus.) Throughout, the right-wing machine has been centred upon the Midlands.
I have made reference to Communist full-time officers in the various unions and rank and file leaders which made the Party a formidable force in the Midlands and held with the highest respect, but they were all ageing and needed replacing. The Young Communist League, with which I will deal more later, had a number of talented youngsters but had been neglected. Moreover many had political differences with the adult section of the Communist Party. One of these springs to mind, the present (now retired) Regional Secretary of the Midlands TGWU, Jim Hunt; he was very critical of the Party's line on Czechoslovakia, which was characterised as "intervention" but Jim called it an "invasion". At least both of us agreed it was wrong, so we had something in common.
Jim was employed in a small factory and was in a tiny union of little consequence; the Screw, Nut and Bolt Riveters. There was no future if he remained there. I had a discussion with him and suggested he packed up this job and this union. What was the alternative? Get a job in a big factory. Lucas had a big factory that made batteries and the lead dangers meant a big turnover of labour - a chance therefore of a job. He agreed and he was soon in there and in the TGWU. I introduced him to Brian Mathers, Regional Secretary of the T&G and told him: "This is a potential officer". Brian then put him on the right road to take advantage of the educational facilities.
The night before the examination that saw him become an officer he had a Party meeting to attend and he was branch secretary. I had been helping him prepare for the interview and when I phoned him about how he felt about it and to check that he was relaxing, his reply was: "I have a Party meeting tonight which I must attend". My reply was: "No, comrade, if needs be I will take your place at the meeting". I am sure that was what Jim had in mind when he sent me a letter offering to help in promoting this book. He wrote: "I am most grateful for the help and assistance you gave me and many young trade unionists and nobody better exemplifies in their life than you, the commitments to working class values without thought to personal gain". Nice words from an ex-Communist who has strong differences with many of us, but my motto is – always keep an open mind and keep talking, some day on some issue you will find common ground for agreement.
There was another who had great potential; that was Graham Stevenson, a Coventry lad then aged 21 and the Secretary of the local YCL, whom Harry Bourne got to come to Birmingham. Graham was a draughtsman active in DATA, but was made redundant before obtaining his qualifications. This was the time of massive redundancies in the car industry, so Harry promised him a job at this trade in Birmingham, but like many promises that are made with the best intent this never came about. The main thing Harry wanted Graham for was to become District Secretary of the YCL.
In the early Seventies jobs became suddenly and increasingly scarce, so Graham drifted into the building industry and became very active in the national building strike of summer 1972. After that, and an episode concerned with occupying the famous Rotunda to highlight the lump labour question, (which nearly saw him share the fate of the Shrewsbury pickets), he was for a period unemployed and became a big asset to me. The club had ideal facilities for making banners and posters for all sorts of demonstrations. Trade unions wanted banners and Graham was first class because, along with his artistic ability, he had the politics to design appropriate slogans. He was also very helpful to me in making the party bulletin more attractive, designing badges and on other design and propaganda work. Also, Graham looked after the club at the weekends, when he was not attending the National EC of the YCL. So he didn't waste his time. An ardent reader, he would stay up to all hours at night, devouring books.
I strongly believed in applying a firm purpose in helping young people who are doing a job for the movement to gain a perspective for the future. Harry was quite happy that Graham was available to spend time to go into Coventry, Wolverhampton, Stoke, everywhere there were groups of young Communists, developing branches and individuals. I was more concerned that he got a job in one of the factories where this sharp political mind could be an asset. I finally took the bull by the horns and made it clear that I thought this was the priority. Easier said than done. But at that time there was a shortage of semi-skilled workers and there was a Government Training Scheme that, unlike the ones now, nearly guaranteed you a job and certainly gave you a trade.
This was what Graham did and after six months training and a little help he got a job in the Birmingham Small Arms guns factory. We had been planning to get him into Rover, but recruitment of labour was halted for a while and the BSA guns job came up. This was a TGWU factory, just the job for his future career in the union along with Jim Hunt and Danny Bryan. Again, I must say Brian Mathers was helpful, because he knew I wouldn't encourage anyone to see their future in the union unless they were capable and interested in the union. Graham had all these qualifications and by this time my daughter Lesley was on the NEC of the YCL along with Graham. She was soon herself to become employed by the T&G as a research worker. Both of them looked after the club on the disco and folk club nights and it was obvious something was happening between them. Like Jim Hunt, Graham followed Brian's advice and took advantage of the educational facilities, and after five years at BSA was shaping up to become an officer in the TGWU.
Unlike Jim Hunt and Danny Bryan who were appointed on their first application, Graham was only successful on his fourth attempt. I couldn't understand why he wasn't selected. On at least two occasions he had been unaccountably passed over for complete outsiders, despite Brian Mathers' confidence that he would succeed. I asked Brian about it and he said: "He is too clever; he won't let them finish their question before he has started giving the correct answer." Of course they resented a young person with more knowledge than themselves. This we soon rectified. Graham was told to hold back, to pretend he was searching for the answer. There was also I think some reserve about appointing yet another Communist, as so much talent had swept in to the TGWU from the Party after the lifting of the bans. Although only two other officers in the Midlands out of 50, Don Higgs and Bill Goulding, were by this stage Communist Party members. Graham made it three when in 1980 he was finally appointed as Derby District Organiser when Alex Kitson became Deputy General Secretary with Moss Evans as General Secretary. Lesley and Graham had not long been married and now went to live in Derby, leaving me in Birmingham. Sadly, Freda had died by this time.
Graham became National Secretary of the Union's Passenger Services (public transport) group in 1988 (currently National Organiser for Transport); Danny Bryan is Public Services National Officer (retired in 2003 as National Secretary Road Transport Commercial); Jim Hunt is Midland Regional Secretary (at the risk of repetition [!], now retired), all three from the same stable of the Midlands YCL. I know for sure that both Graham and Danny will be proud to associate themselves with Jim Hunt's remarks about my role in helping young trades unionists.
There were two others from the YCL around that time - Pete Carter and Tony McNally. I will make only brief references to both of them at this stage because they feature later in the book. Pete Carter had been National Organiser for the YCL and, when he came back to Birmingham around 1969, I discussed his future with him. The building union was growing immensely. The struggle against the "lump" was rife in Birmingham. I saw great potentialities in Pete as a mass leader, but the mistake I made was not immediately to appreciate that he could never work in a disciplined way in the Labour Movement. For example, he was elected as one of the UCATT delegates to the TUC in the seventies, but refused to stand the following year. He had a cynical attitude to this body. He was then elected as a full-time officer of UCATT in the Midlands, but left that position to take on the job of Industrial Organiser of the CPGB. Some comrades saw this as a great sacrifice. But it wasn't. Pete never wanted to be tied down to the routine work that full-time union organisers have to undertake. The post as Industrial Organiser was just what the Euro-Communists dreamed of, as the trade union comrades were the biggest stumbling block to revisionism. Pete was now, along with Martin Jacques, Nina Temple and Tony McNally, who succeeded me as Midland District Secretary, all part of a prominent group that had come from the YCL which subsequently spearheaded the revisionist takeover of the CPGB, as they had done in the YCL, a move which led to its subsequent collapse in the early eighties and dissolution in 1992.
They used the journal "Marxism Today", edited Martin Jacques, to reject the Party's programme, The British Road to Socialism, and in the eighties tried to take over the Morning Star; but more of this later.
I haven't made any reference to Tony McNally's industrial connections because he didn't have many and he should never have been a District Secretary of the CPGB in an area like the Midlands, the industrial heartland of the UK. Peter Carter should never have been selected as the Industrial Organiser, because neither of them were committed to the main strategy in the Party's programme, "The British Road to Socialism," especially the need to understand that the leading force in the broad democratic alliance had to be the working class as expressed through the labour movement. The British Labour Movement is one of the best organised and potentially most powerful in the capitalist world. Unfortunately, this power has not been fully used because the movement is dominated by an outlook that accepts capitalism, and prevents this power being used in many of the struggles I refer to.
In a later chapter, I will show how people like Carter, McNally, Jacques and Temple, the so-called "New Realists", projected the concept that the "Forward March of Labour had been halted". This was their view even before 1979 and the hostile Thatcher Government - even at a time of mass struggles, when Communists were playing a leading role. The Party was becoming a force to be reckoned with, especially for its industrial work and circulation of the Morning Star was increasing for the first time since 1956.
No wonder Marxism Today could attract Tories wet and dry (Heath and Currie), Tories with "no feeling" (Heseltine), Liberal, Social Democrat, Green, Labour, even a Communist putting a view opposed by the Party (Hobsbawm on tactical voting), but how did the reader learn what the Communists thought about events. There was a virtual embargo on Communists writing in the journal, unless they were "New Realists", and the Party had to pick up the bill for horrendous deficits. For over a decade resources were pumped into Marxism Today to enable it to play a negative role.
FOR PART TWO OF THE MEMOIRS OF FRANK WATTERS, `BEING FRANK', GO TO `RED MEMOIRS' AND CLICK ON THE SECOND SIDE BAR UNDER FRANK WATTERS - PART 2