Papworth Bert

Bert Papworth

Albert (Bert) Papworth, London bus workers’ leader and the first Communist to join the TUC General Council, was known to fellow workers all his adult life simply as “Pappy”. It was a mark of the extraordinary affection and high regard he was held in.

Pappy was born into a Catholic family and, at the age of eight, began to seek jobs that would add a shilling or two to the family income.  When World War One began Pappy was in his teens and he started union activities at the tender age of 16, becoming a union branch chairman and leading his first strike at Morgan Crucible. He was later involved at strikes at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1917 and 1918.  Late in the day, he managed to get into the army but only because it paid 14s weekly dependents’ allowance, which "meant so much to his family struggling with poverty in Battersea. From 1918 his was a familiar sorry – factory work, elected a shop steward strikes, sackings the vicious circle of the keen trade unionist life in those days".

In 1918 he joined the Labour Party and became a leader and one of the founders of the ex-servicemen’s organization, the Discharged Solders & Sailors Federation, which later became the British Legion. Papworth found himself in conflict with the state “in all its brutal callousness”, as the one time heroes faced many police charges as they demonstrated for fair treatment from the country they had defended. This convinced Papworth that sectional struggles for small gains were not enough – Society itself must be changed before the working man could really get justice. [Daily Worker 23rd Oct 1945]
Regular work came at last in 1927 when Pappy secured employment as a bus conductor with the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) He soon became the branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) at Chelverton Road Bus Garage, Putney, South London (one London’s oldest bus depots). His reputation for organising and speaking soon won him the trust of his colleagues from across London.

The TGWU organisation amongst the London busmen stemmed back to the days of the London & Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers (LPU), which by 1913 had 9,000 out of a possible 12,000 members in membership amongst the London bus workers. The LPU was a militant, highly politicised union, commonly known as the “red button” union in homage not only to its politics but the colour of its membership badge. It would later amalgamate with the Manchester based `blue button’ Amalgamated Association of Tram and Vehicle Workers to form the National Union of Vehicle Workers. From January 1st 1922, this would become the Passenger Services Trade Group of the TGWU, always a powerful and political section of the TGWU.

In 1932, the London General Omnibus Company faced with the depression sought a two and half to five percent pay cut and 400 sackings. Discussions dragged on until August when the TGWU leadership, fearing the use of non unionised labour secured the principle of an eight and half hour day and signed an agreement.  

The more militant elements amongst the London bus workers responded by supporting Communist Minority Movement resolutions opposing the deal and in July restarting the `Busmen’s Punch’, a rank and file paper. As a result of this activity, eight or nine bus workers joined the Party. A month later on the 12th August 1932, the Busmen’s Rank & File Movement (RFM) was established and mass meetings of bus workers agreed at Penge, Stratford, Holloway, Battersea and other venues.  

While Papworth was undoubtedly a major figure in the establishment of and the RFM, other key activists included Bill Jones a Communist at Dalston Garage, Frank Snelling of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and Bill Payne of Dalston. While the RFM was a “united front” organisation, in reality it worked closely with the Communist Party. Indeed the technical Editor of the Busmen’s Punch, now selling 8,000 copies a month was Emile Burns of the Communist Party.

In 1932, the Communist Party had 40 members amongst the London bus workers; there were `cells’ at Cricklewood and Chelverton garages and a number of individuals at Holloway, Edgware, Enfield and Willesden, including Bernard Sharkey, an ex-policemen sacked during the infamous 1919 police strike. These Party members worked under the guidance of George Renshaw (See separate entry), London District Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party.

At the TGWU biennial delegate conference (BDC), Papworth spoke effectively on the need for a “United Front” against the growing menace of Fascism, so well in fact that the leadership, who opposed the motion were defeated. Building on this success and his growing power base amongst the London bus workers, Papworth was elected to the TGWU General Executive Council in 1935, the first Communist to join the union’s highest body after the BDC.

When the fascist threat materialised in Spain after Franco and his fascist allies Hitler and Mussolini attempted to seize power from the democratically elected Government, Papworth was keen to support the republican Government, joining  a delegation to visit Spain in 1937 visiting Barcelona, Alicante, Valencia and Madrid. His experience in Spain deeply affected him: “I beg you to do something to help the people of Spain. Create such an agitation that the (British) National Government shall either fall beneath it or be forced to render justice to a friendly country and a friendly democratic government. Please help Spain”.
It should be recorded that at least one London bus worker, Bill Brisky, a Communist Party member from Dalston, rose to the rank of Company Commander in International Brigade and was killed at Jarama in February 1937 defending liberty in Spain; as did a number of other TGWU members including George Brown from Manchester killed at Brunete in July 1937 and Ken Bond of London at Ebro in July 1938. Jack Jones, a future General Secretary of the TGWU, also fought in the International Brigade.

On Papworth's return from Spain, he threw himself into the campaign to secure a seven hour day and to the issues of speed, meals, reliefs, stand time and weekend working. Issues agreed at a Special Delegate Conference of London bus workers in December 1936. Management refused to negotiate and a London wide bus workers’ strike started at midnight on April 30th, lasting until the 28th May, as this period included the George VI Coronation as King the strike became known as the “Coronation strike”.  The strike itself ended in defeat and while defeat may have been inevitable, given the depression, the negative effects of the retreat were compounded by the role of the TGWU General Secretary, Ernest Bevin, in tacit collaboration with management. This arose primarily because Bevin both feared the power of the London bus workers and its Communist leadership.

After the strike, Bevin moved swiftly to expel the London strike leaders from the TGWU, Bert Papworth (CP –Calverton: Papworth actually joined the Communist Party only after the Coronation strike), Bill Jones (CP – Dalston) and William Payne were all expelled from the TGWU for life. Hayward, Bernard Sharkey (CP – Willesden garage); Bill Ware (CP – Enfield garage) were debarred from holding office in the TGWU until 1942 and Mark Cravitz barred from holding office in the union until 1940. The expulsions were ratified at the TGWU Torquay BDC in July by 291 votes to 51. Bevin then moved to marginalise the then 98 CP members in 28 London garages.

The London bus workers’ simmering anger at the role of the TGWU leadership, and Bevin in particular, lead to the formation of a breakaway  union by radical elements around Snelling, Payne and Hayward). This was promoted by the unlikely avowed right wing leader of the Civil Service Union, W J Brown, who later briefly joined Mosley’s New Party, before it was taken in a fascist direction.

The breakaway union, established in February 1938 was called the National Passenger Workers Union and had some immediate success. Crucially, Papworth and the Communist Party recognised the opportunism of Brown and remained loyal to the TGWU. Bevin, always the pragmatist, allowed the expelled to rejoin on the understanding that they would fight the break away union and this they did with vigour.

The left wing Unity Theatre produced a highly successful play based on the strike “Busmen” which chronicled the struggle for speed up and pay cuts to the defeat in 1937, written by Herbert Hodge a London taxi driver and Montagu Slater; Alan Bush provided the music.

Despite the defeat of the strike, defeats in Spain and expulsion, Papworth kept up his commitment to anti-fascist work, joining the Co-coordinating Committee for Anti-Fascist Activity along with, Bill Jones (TGWU London Bus workers), Harry Adams (Building workers union), R Briginshaw (NATSOPA Printers); Leah Manning (Teachers union); Ellen Wilkinson (Labour M.P); D N Pritt and the secretary John Strachey.

It was this Committee that organised the huge counter demonstration to Mosley Hyde Park Rally on 9th September 1937 over 1million leaflets were produced in aid of  mass mobilisation, primarily by the Communist Party’s publicity officer Bert Williams an ex miner.

The result was that a staggering 100,000 anti fascists (including many London bus workers), faced 2,500 Mosley’s fascists protected by 6,000 police.

During the war Papworth, like so many other Communists, gave total support to the war effort and the need to increase productivity. Papworth once said to bus workers that “Our Russian comrades are working worse schedules than ours in the tanks on the battlefield in the East. They are fighting our battle.”

Soon after readmission both Papworth and Jones were elected to the TGWU General Executive Council (Papworth for the second time). In 1944 Bert Papworth was elected to the TUC General Council, as the first self-proclaimed Communist to be elected to become a member of the senior body of British trades unionism. (Bill Jones was also later elected to the TUC General Council.) Walter Holmes in the Daily Worker of the 20th October 1944 wrote “His busmen comrades call him “Pappy” but he is anything but what that might imply….The TUC General council certainly won’t find the first Communist member A. F. Papworth a sleeping partner.”

In his role as a TUC General Council member he was co-opted onto a fact-finding delegation to visit Greece in July 1946, along with H.V. (Victor) Tewson, Assistant General Secretary of the TUC and Vic Feather, then a TUC officer and a future General Secretary, to observe first hand the Army Junta’s coup and its subsequent liquidation of the newly emerged free trade unions. The delegation discovered that the Greek Army Junta had replaced or imprisoned all the Greek trade unions leaders of worth and replaced them with leaders who had in many cases collaborated with the Nazis.

In the Cold War, concern at the Communist Party’s growing influence in the trade unions was fanned by the right wing press and right wing union officials disturbed by the Party’s organisational skills. Party members dominated the leadership of at least the Engineering Union, the Electrical Union, the Fire Brigades Union, and the Foundry Workers Union and was influential in many others. Despite the hysteria and Bevin’s replacement as General Secretary, Arthur Deakin, in 1948 eight Communist Party members won seats on the TGWU GEC, up by four from two years previously.

These were: Bert Papworth and Bill Jones from London Region, Jim Sloan (Irish Region), Charles McKerrow (Scottish Region), Bert Slack (Road Haulage), Alex Grant (Passenger Transport), John Trotter (Building) and Muriel Rayment (Metal & Engineering). Muriel Rayment, a Communist Party Central Committee member, worked at EMI and was a leading campaigner for Equal Pay.

Deakin responded in similar fashion to Bevin but even more ruthlessly by winning a decision to ban all Communists from office from January 1st 1950. Not only did the GEC members loose their seats but nine full time officials lost their paid jobs and hundreds of lower committee members and shop stewards were ejected from their role unless they could prove that they had jettisoned the Communist Party. This position was not reversed until the T&G Rules Conference of 1968, when Jack Jones was incoming General Secretary.    

Bert Papworth died on May 18th 1980.


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