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Walter C Stevens was born of working class parents in Woolwich in 1904, the oldest of five sons. He first began work at the age of 10, after school hours because his father, a labourer, had died and his mother was left with five mouths to feed. At the age of 12, the young Wally had won a trade examination.
Left: Stevens and Foulkes, the ETU President, meet strikers from their union outside the 1953 TUC in the Isle of Man.
At 13 years of age, Wally started in full-time employment. After serving his time in a film company, he worked in electrical contracting, but he returned to the studio as a sound maintenance engineer. As a young man, he became recognised as one of the finest technicians of the day, and was responsible for the installation in Denham Studios. The studios were founded by Alexander Korda, on a 165 acre in Buckinghamshire. When it opened, it was the largest facility of its kind in Britain. The studios were known by various names during their lifetime, including London Film Studios. Wally’s expert craftsmanship was allied to militant trade unionism, and London studio workers were soon to be completely organised by this determined cheerful Cockney. He was successively elected shop steward, branch secretary, branch president, and then full time area official with the Electrical Trades Union by the rank and file before becoming London secretary in 1940.
His progress was rapid and in 1942, at the early age of 38, he was elected assistant general secretary of the ETU. Six years later the members elected him general secretary with the highest vote ever recorded by an ETU official. In 1952, he was elected unopposed and, that year, he must have been especially proud to write the forward to the published official history of the union, “The story of the ETU”.
Electricians then held a strong grip upon the economic power of society. Wally’s leadership of the ETU saw him in solid support of his members but, at a time of Cold War, it was inevitable that any time ETU members engaged in lawful trade disputes, the media and the establishment would pounce on his membership of the Party. When, in 1950, electricians employed by the airline BOAC (later part of British Airways) were on strike, questions were asked about Wally’s Party membership in the House of Commons.
A minister was asked “whether he is aware that the general secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, Mr. Walter Stevens, is a declared and open member of the Communist Party, that this strike has already caused a great blow to our prestige and very great anxiety throughout the world?” It would by no means be the only time that Wally was put in the firing line but he never buckled.
Vera, his wife, was a fellow comrade in struggle, and a great support to him, but, tragically, Wally was killed in a motoring accident in 1954. George Sinfield, Daily Worker Industrial correspondent, who was a particular friend of Wally, wrote of him the following at the time:
“Walter Stevens was a Communist and proud of it. Attacks in the Press and sneers by the employers only served to strengthen his views. He never knew the meaning of surrender. Often he would explain that it was his belief in the destiny of his class that gave him confidence to tackle the responsibilities of leadership. It was this quality that made him the most formidable opponent of the right wing leadership in the Trades Union Congress.
No one who knew him could continue to cherish the idea that Communist trade union leaders were "inhuman." For Walter's hobbies included snooker, which he played at his working men' club near his Eltham home, shouting for Arsenal and watching big fights. His interest in boxing brought him close to the men in the ring, and he assisted them to form their own trade union, the Professional Boxers' Association.
…his death was a loss not only to family, his friends, and his union but to the entire working class of this country. "
Sinfield thought him: “tough, cool, modest and intelligent whether in victory or defeat.