Exell was to play a leading role in organising the workers at the Radiators plant in Oxford. In a taped interview in November 1983, as part of an exercise conducted by the Oxford branch of the Communist Party, Exell recounted his story, summarised here and added to from other sources.
His life began against the backcloth of the miners’ disputes of 1910-11, when a massive struggle ensued against a change in the wage system that owners were trying to introduce. In October 1910, a dispute at the Cambrian Combine miners broke out when 800 men were locked out. By November, 12 000 miners went on strike in solidarity. Vast numbers of non-local police were brought to try to encourage scabbing, with much violence ensuing after a miner died after a blow to the head thought to be from a police truncheon. The then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, sent troops into the area to keep the peace for several weeks, causing the name of Churchill to be forever unpopular in the area for many years. The miners returned to work in October 1911 when they were forced to return on the owners’ terms and conditions.
Exell’s mother was pregnant with him during the dispute, as the family starved in common with everyone else; just weeks before his birth in late 1911 she survived a charge by the Yorkshire Fusiliers on the miners’ picket line at Ton-y-pandy. His father had been heavily involved in the dispute and was later victimised for his role resulting in much family poverty. This no doubt explained a short term move away from the valleys. However, at the age of nine, Arthur was to lead his first dispute – a successful school strike in Charfield, Gloucestershire to have Mrs Gurney, his sacked teacher, reinstated. His grandmother, with whom he was staying, had him returned back home for his troubles!
Arthur left school at 14 and became a “milk boy” in his local village, four or five miles from Pontypridd. He was scarred by his experience of not only his own but others’ poverty in the Welsh valleys but the way it adversely afflicted working class people when facing what he called “the plague” of the 1919 epidemic. He saw the effects on his rounds.
He was a participant on the 1927 Hunger March from South Wales and saw suffering there too. Many marchers were so weakened by their previous existence that they were unable to cope with the physical effort. Exall recalled carrying many such victims who died on the way, burying them in any hole they could manage to dig in out of the way places simply because no parson would allow them into their churchyards and they couldn’t in any case afford to pay for a funeral.
In these desperate times, he only stopped off in Oxford as the march made its way to London in the hope of finding a job there after hearing about the massive expansion associated with the new radiator plant started by William Morris (no not that one!), who later became Lord Nuffield. It was “hard, terrible work” and no union was allowed. After twelve months, he was laid off and walked back to Wales alone, to spend four months at home with his mother. Returning once again, he went back to the same factory, where he would be employed on and off for the rest of his working days from 1929.
In the 1935-6 period, some of the Welsh stalwarts including Exell’s brother began a nucleus of a union organisation but the move faltered and momentum was lost and organising work had to begin afresh. Radiators’ workers had observed Abe Lazarus in his campaign to organised Pressed Steel from 1934. This led to the Communist Party in Radiators winning an initial two members, including Exall in 1935. Gradually more workers joined the Party and meetings were held in the substantial Oxford home of a former bishop, Archibald Robinson, who was now an academic at the university. Jack Dunman (see separate entry) adopted the group and came weekly to tutor the workers in Marxism and the group grew to 20 members.
Only the AEU had members in Radiators and then only a few but the large housing estate of FlorencePark, where Exall moved to on his marriage, became critical to organisation at the plant. Pressed Steel TGWU activists who lived on the estate helped Radiators employees organise in the AEU though first involving them in community activism, especially over the bad housing conditions in the council housing there. A rent strike took place in 1935 and a delegation to the minister of health complained that even the very bricks of houses on the estate were infested with `bugs’ living in the straw-filled material were that shoddily built. Even though evictions were sought, the campaign did win some improvements, especially in the rebuilding of the footings of some badly sited houses. Another issue that exercised concern was the insulting and discriminatory wall that separated the council estate from the neighbouring private one. Lazarus organised activists, including Exell to repeatedly protest against the walls, a move met by the mobilisation of large number of police to protect them. The walls mysteriously `fell’ down several times only to be constantly rebuilt; it was eventually demolished in the different climate of the immediate post-war period.
By now, the British Union of Fascists was recruiting heavily at Oxford, and had formed the University Fascist Association. Strong support, for Britain’s fascist leader Oswald Mosley was given by the local car industry boss, William Morris, also Chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association. By 1933, a unified Oxford Council of Action Against War and Fascism had been set up. When Mosley made propaganda visits to address his followers at OxfordUniversity, the town’s workers also turned out in force. During Mosley’s 1936 appearance, his Oxford student followers decorated the local assembly rooms with Union Flags and sang the Horst Wessel Song as Mosley strode to the stage, flanked by black-shirted body guards. The first five rows of the audience were filled with a sympathetic audience but much of the rest of the hall was filled with large numbers of anti-fascist activists, mostly workers with a sprinkling of students, were also in the audience. Naturally, a lively event ensured!
During the Spanish civil war, the AEU formed a Spanish Aid Committee in Radiators and Exell was a key figure in this work. The committee engaged in a range of tasks in support of the anti-fascist struggle but one rather special task was to convert Harley Davidson motor bikes and sidecars into mobile stretcher-bearers. The American aid committee supplied the bikes and sidecars and Oxford engineering workers converted them in a makeshift `workshop’ in the Co-operative rooms. Once the mobile units were assembled, they were ridden to Swansea docks, where they were hidden under a cargo load of potatoes and smuggled to Spain. The Oxford engineering workers converted some 70 such units. The popularity of the project was such that so many workers came to volunteer to work at the conversion centre that at times it was difficult to know what to do with them. But none were allowed to work unless they had joined a union and, extraordinarily, this became a useful way to boost membership.
Arthur was heavily involved in the famous Oxford by-election in 1938 against Quintin Hogg, who supported Neville Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler at Munich. The Labour candidate, Patrick Gordon-Walker, was persuaded to step down to allow a unified challenge to the `appeasement’ Conservatives. Communists, Labour, Liberals and others backed A D Lindsay, the Master of Balliol College, who fought as an ‘Independent Progressive’ candidate. In the end Hogg defeated Lindsay. Arthur’s role in this was recorded in a Channel 4 documentary, `A vote for Hitler’, and, incidentally, on his work in the AEU in another programme, `Making Cars’.
By this time, the TGWU had well established itself in Pressed Steel and had effectively won de facto recognition but the AEU now had hundreds of members in Radiators and the Party by now had gained some 35 members in the plant. Nonetheless, it was not until the first few weeks of the war that it felt as if there was going to be any movement from management as regards recognition. By the time of the blitz, thousands of Londoners – already radicalised by the struggles to organise the new industries in the West of London, or earlier organisation in the East End – were flocking to Oxford to escape the bombers and very many took jobs in its factories, joining the unions en masse. In no time at all, Radiators had 100% membership and was able to demand and get a signed agreement, the first major automotive or engineering factory in the area to do so. Shop stewards were elected, amongst them Arthur Exell and Norman Brown, both members of the Communist Party, many more followed. Brown, who was from Wigan originally, was elected convenor and shortly afterwards Exall was elected to the AEU District Committee.
The Party factory branch grew to over 100 members just in Radiators. It began a small private library, initially with 15 to 20 Marxist books, which was kept in a box under Exell’s bench and loaned by enormous numbers of people. Demand for the facility grew, since few had time to go to the public library and an open facility was negotiated with management. Miriam Falkener became the librarian now the reserve of books had grown phenomenally.
Exell was the AEU branch secretary and, in that capacity, was given the responsibility for organising the women workers in Radiator that were not members of the union. The AEU changed it rules to allow women into membership and Exall promptly organised 100% (save one lone individual) of the plant’s female workforce in the union. During the war, Exell became the secretary of the joint production committee in Radiators.
It was an obligation on factory workers to either join the Local Defence Volunteers (`the Home Guard’) or to fire watch. Given the long hours now being worked in war provisions factories, such as Radiators, Exell was loath to do either and found himself in confrontation with the chief of police in the factory in consequence. He discovered from the Home Office that it was possible to drop out of the LDV and do an alternative, such as joining an anti-gas contamination squad. The value of this was that it was possible to do one’s extra hours by simply staying at home on a Sunday to study technical books to enable him to pass an examination in gas warfare technology. The police chief tried to stop Exall from doing this and was enraged when he obtained official permission against his opinion. The relevance of all this is that the chief harboured a grudge against Exall and vowed to get revenge on him at the end of the war.
And so he did; Norman Brown found himself victimised and Exell took over as convenor. Then, during the 1947 fuel crisis period, when the weather turned excessively cold and much of Britain was laid off work, Exell was not taken back at Radiators when most others were. He complained to the AEU District Committee and a works conference was arranged by the Divisional Organiser, Longworth and the District Secretary, Charlie Squires. After a desultory start, in which not a word was said about the reason for the meeting, the Managing Director said something to the effect that he wasn’t having Communist Party members working in his factory. Without the union officials opposing this, nothing more could be done and Exell was out of work for four months. A Jewish Communist, Mick Levy, gave him work in his tailoring shop but Exell was completely devoid of any talent in this trade, beyond running errands and doing turn-ups. He found it hopeless to even try to get in at Morris’ though he did seek work there. When he went for his box of tools at Radiators, he was frog-marched out of the factory by the chief of police, who reminded him of his pledge to “get him one day”.
He hit on a device, when turning up daily to seek work at Radiators and being constantly told there were no jobs, to flush out the obvious victimisation. He got one job hunter to go in and ask about work and then slid into the enquiry office just as he was being told that the only jobs were those on nights. Just as the job seeker was refusing this, Exell piped up behind his back that he’d take it! The embarrassment factor worked in his favour and he was re-employed. Within a month he was shop steward, assistant convenor and Chair of the joint shop stewards committee.
Exell then led the factory into the 1950s and the halcyon days of mass organisation and shop stewards’ power. One hiccup occurred during the heated anti-Communist atmosphere following the events in Hungary in 1956. A group of politically reactionary workers were mobilised to protest at Exall’s leading trade union role in the factory, a petition was organised and management pounced on it by claiming this had effectively de-selected him as a shop steward and they were derecognising him. Exall refused to surrender his credentials card and went to the union district office seeking support. Whilst the District Committee backed Exall, the terms of its motion did not commit it to doing anything about it. This uncertainty confused his members and, whilst in this state of limbo, Exall realised that the annual pay review was due in his department. He went in to see management and negotiated his own pay rise of 1/- an hour. When the workers asked him about it he told them that, since they didn’t want him as shop steward, he could only look after his own claims. Naturally, the majority of the workers cared more for this than anti-communist purges and he was immediately re-instated there and then by his members.
In his capacity as branch secretary for the AEU’s Oxford No. 4 branch, Arthur wrote to all and sundry to see of they would agree to form a BMC Combine Committee uniting all the shop stewards in the company formation that then applied to the car firms that would eventually become British Leyland and later Rover. The first attempt at gathering together in Coventry fell apart after the figurehead chair was sacked; the unity between plants was still sketchy so this went largely unchallenged. The next attempt saw the offer of a foreman’s job taken up by the person selected to front the Combine Committee, so they decided it had to be a Communist who would be the figure-head since they could rely on a comrade to resist both pressure and bribes. Les Girl was assigned the task and the Combine got together and went from strength to strength during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Arthur retired in this period and was to die, aged 81 years in 1992; he was married to his wife Mabel for more than half a century. They
adopted a baby, Carole, born in Swindon on April 27, 1944.
Sources: Details compiled from a tape supplied by Gwyneth Francis of Arthur Exell speaking to the Oxford Communist Party on his life and work in the early 1980s; Morning Star 1st September 1992