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Bill Gee

William Gee, was born in Northampton in 1869 and worked there as a newspaper boy and later in a boot factory. Interest in the Bradlaugh case led him to politics and subsequently to socialism. This case saw Northampton successively elect a secular MP who wanted the right to affirm rather than make a biblical oath.

Aged 19, entirely self educated, reading all he could of Marx, he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and was a listed as a lecturer and speaker. Gee was the Social Democratic Federation organiser in Scotland in 1900, a SDF Executive member in 1907, and contested Ashton-under-Lyme in January 1910. He went with the bulk of the SDF into the  British Socialist Party (BSP).

“He was by universal recognition the outstanding street corner and market place exponent of Marxism in Britain, wrote T A Jackson: “we of the old brigade regard him as Socialist Propagandist No1 of the British Isles, and admired him for his unflinching refusal to compromise”. Another leading Marxist, Bill Joss, was “brought to socialism” by hearing Gee in Glasgow, during the South African Boer War. Another, Albert Adshead, stated that Gee was a “lucid exposition of Marxist economics. He made it easy for me to grasp the theory of value.”

The first contact Harry Pollitt had with Gee, then known as the “Socialist Dreadnought”, was in 1908 when he spoke at Openshaw Socialist Society at the ILP Hall in Margaret Street. This was a turning off Ashton Old Road, opposite the Alhambra, which partially functioned from 1907 but was officially opened 26th September 1908. Pollitt said that “Bill Gee was my idol; in my secret hope was to become as good a speaker as he.” Pollitt’s own special oratorical style – he always painted a picture of the `gleam’ of socialism in his speeches - may have owed something to Gee.

In 1911 Gee was lecturing in Coventry, where he was based, in its Market Square, to audiences of 500 to 1,000 people in what was, effectively, a series of linked theoretical lectures. Actually a course on Marxist theory, his lectures began on a Sunday night with “What is the class struggle?” and ended on the Friday with “Why socialism must come”.

In his prime, Gee was “tall, well built, with a bluff manner”. In later years ne was “somewhat corpulent”, according to Ted Ainley. Gee depended for his living on a share of the collections and the hospitality of the organisations who booked him, which clearly grew better as his reputation soared. An undated photograph  of him, in Harry Pollitt's collection, taken at Rossendale shows a well developed head, the “cerebrum capacious, the hair thinning, forehead broad and high, aquiline nose, firm chin and trimmed moustache, an expression of strength and resolution, shoulders sturdy, a chest broad”.

In 1920 Gee was a member both of the BSP and the Scottish based Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which had `The Socialist’ as its journal printed in Edinburgh. The SLP had particularly large membership on the Clyde, but also had small sections in northern England, especially Yorkshire, most particularly in Sheffield, which had strong connections to Coventry.  

Gee signed the manifesto on Communist Unity along with those in the SLP who helped found the Communist Party, amongst twenty two signatures were William Gee (Coventry) and Arthur MacManus, William Paul, Tom Bell, T A Jackson (Newcastle), Bob Stewart (Dundee) and  W.J Hewlett (Abertillery, South Wales). Gee joined the Communist Party but opposed the united front and affiliation to the Labour Party in such a manner that he ended up being expelled from the Party early. However, these political differences did not prevent Pollitt from remaining friends with him.

By December 1941 Gee was living in Aberdeen in appalling conditions. Pollitt said he was “really shocked ... he is in a little back room in a dilapidated slum tenement, no fire, no coal, only evil smelling little oil lamp ... I know well the many shortcomings of this old stalwart, but he has  carried the Socialist banner at every street corner when the message was not so easy to popularise as now”.

Pollitt organised an annual appeal for Gee, organising the statement of accounts personally. But, by 1951, Gee’s health was failing and he died in May 1954. Harry Pollitt concluded the funeral oration with the words: “When our Socialist cause shall have triumphed in Britain, as it will, it will be your pioneering work that helped to make it possible.”

Michael Walker

Source: "Harry Pollitt: a biography" (1976) by John Mahon