BILL CARR AND SAMMY CAIRNS
Pic: The two Moorends Communists, Sammy Cairns (left) and Bill Carr (right)
Bill Carr was born into a mining family in the village of Houghton-le-Spring in 1908; on the early death of his mother, Carr went with his father to live with his extended family, also all miners, in Newburn on the outskirts of Newcastle. At the age of 14, in 1922, he began work at Throckley pit, where he remained until the General Strike. The entire family of the Carr men were blacklisted after the strike and, eventually, in 1928, Bill moved to South Yorkshire and was soon living at Moorends, on the edge of Doncaster, and working at the then newly opened Thorne Colliery, although he later transferred to Bentley Colliery.
Communist miners in Thorne determined to oppose the `butty’, sub-contract labour, system in May 1929. This was immortalised in the title of their Communist pit bulletin: `The Thorne Butty Squasher’! Whilst a strike led by Communists led to an ending of the butty in Thorne, many of the leaders were victimised for eight months and this was a decisive factor in winning the young Bill Carr to the Party. The atmosphere that must have pervaded the pit is recalled in a letter printed in the then brand new Daily Worker, on January 9th 1930, with the heading of “Reds win again in Thorne”, which reported the fact that the Communist leaders had been reinstated.
Bill became a regular attendee at the Party’s pit branch meetings and also took up WEA classes to broaden his knowledge and reading. The intensity with which he now threw himself into working class union and political struggle, study and activity resulted in him suffering a slight nervous breakdown in 1939. He left coalmining for health reasons and worked at Pilkington’s in Doncaster and then Dunstan’s shipyard at Thorne until he was called up during the Second World War.
Like many, he had hoped to become a pilot but the rigorous eyesight test defeated him and he ended up as a blacksmith-welder at various RAF stations but mainly at Hawarden in Cheshire. Once the Daily Worker was being published again after its ban had been lifted, Bill began the systematic winning of readers for the paper at the station. As with many Communists in the forces during the war, he threw himself into the Army Bureau of Current Affairs discussions. A facility that was to prove to be a decisive factor in winning so many to the left in the run up to the 1945 general election.
The first significant thing Bill did, after the war, was to join the Communist Party. He always recalled that he had practically been a member before the war, given the extent to which his support for the Party had resulted in his intense public activity on its behalf, now he took the obvious next step.
He obtained a scholarship to attend Ruskin College in Oxford for a year, was then offered a job at the National Coal Board’s headquarters but declined. So, he came back to Moorends and to the Thorne pit, both centres of the richest decades of his life. There he rapidly became a face representative at the pit and then a workmen’s representative.
In all, Carr was a Communist councillor for 24 years. He was first elected in 1950 for Thorne Rural District Council, for the Moorends ward, and held his seat until RDCs were abolished in 1974. The struggles to win this remarkable result laid the basis for a mass Communist presence that lasted 30 years and can easily be compared to the `little Moscow’ syndrome that was evident in the many rural and especially mining villages that have been much written about, although this experience has rarely been touched upon, even by the many recollections of the great mining struggles of the 1980s.
Back in the 1950s, the miners’ union in the Yorkshire coalfield was then controlled by right-wing Labour forces and was the mainstay of the entire right wing machine in the union. The 1952 Yorkshire District Congress of the Party resolved that it main task was to turn the coalfield into a bastion of the left. Bill Carr now led a campaign to oust the right-wing officials the Thorne NUM branch and, in 1955, he became the delegate to the Barnsley District Council of the union, a key position given the role it could play in mobilising all pits in the area.
The echoes of forty odd years of Communist in and around Thorne were still evident in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The rise in popularity of the local Communists followed the 1955 Armthorpe pit strike. The personalities associated with the NUM organisation locally were key to the transformation of the politics of the Yorkshire coalfield and the pit itself lasted until the late 1980s and was a bastion of Yorkshire determination. Names such as Tommy Degnan, Sammy Taylor, and Jock Kane – the latter two won high office in the Yorkshire NUM – recall the high respect and support that Communists were to win amongst the men of the coalfield.
This 1955 Armthorpe strike was the first major rank and file action where mobile, or what later became called `flying’, pickets were used. This innovative measure is rarely recognised as originating in this radical locality and the notion is often erroneously ascribed to later emulators, especially in the 1970s; but this is where it began. Moreover, it is understood by really informed opinion that the 1955 Armthorpe-led strike was the spark that led to the slide to the left that turned the Yorkshire coalfield away from the right wing dominance that had always characterised it to the left and eventually resulted in Arthur Scargill’s meteoric rise to the top of the NUM. (Being extremely young at the time and not part of this locality, he was not involved in these events, a fact that subsequent leftist and media interpretation has struggled with.)
Carr’s vote of 934 votes in March 1956 was a stunning result; he had taken some 1,000 votes out of a total electorate of 3,000. In 1964, he was even able to maintain 1,000 odd votes for the Parliamentary seat that included his area. A larger area than Moorends was contested by Carr for the West Yorkshire District council in 1963 and he took 1,200 votes, despite an extraordinary massive mobilisation by the Labour Party on a regional basis. Most of Yorkshire’s Labour MPs were brought in to combat the Communist `threat’.
In 1961, Carr was joined on the Thorne Council by fellow Communist Sam Cairns, who had joined the Communist Party 14 years earlier. Sam Cairns had taken 623 to Labour’s 1,093 votes in a straight fight in the election where Carr has won, but had failed to win himself a seat. Clearly, there was a strong basis for looking for a second Communist councillor. The full time Party organiser for the Yorkshire coalfield, Frank Watters had been nurturing the development. He was himself a product of a `little Moscow’ village in Lanarkshire – his brother, John, was a Communist councillor in their home mining village of Shotts. Frank now spent an inordinate amount of time in the locality.
As a result of intense activity, membership of the local Communist Party branch increased from 12 in 1958 to 60 in 1961, out of three thousand electors. Fully 2% of the community had joined the Party, a result that would have meant well over half a million members if transposed nationally! But even so, Cairns’ win was only narrowly achieved, given the right wing dominance of the Yorkshire NUM. He was deliberately opposed by a NUM left-winger, the turnout was phenomenally high and three counts were needed to determine the result, it was that close; in the end his majority was declared as two votes! The story was told that the last clinching votes – albeit that this was unknown at the time – had been achieved at one minute to nine pm, just before voting was to close, by persuading a Communist voter to rush his wife out of the bath to be run down to the polling station in a Communist canvasser’s car, wearing only a dressing gown!
1967 saw a near miss for Bill Carr in the more difficult to win West Yorkshire Riding County Council elections when he polled 1,343 votes, missing election by only 179 votes to the Labour candidate. [Morning Star 17.4.67]
Amongst the modest achievement of the small Communist group on the Thorne council, which was demolished by the Maudling local government reorganisation of 1972, thus ending the localism that enabled a welding of trade union struggle with community activism, like so many other Communist council fractions, was the successful winning, against extraordinarily virulent Labour opposition of the building of a local swimming baths.
A more persistent and pervasive inheritance was the observable mass resistance, producing un-believable and unrestrained violence from the police, in the area around the Armthorpe pit to the Thatcherite destruction of mining communities in 1984-5, far beyond that sustained by any other pit or village. The remnants of Carr’s, Cairns’ and Watters’ creation was still present in the next generation, even if the locals had by then lost their organisational and electoral adherence to the Communist Party – its name was still a force to be reckoned with, as any visitor during the strike prepared to mention the word `communism’ can testify.
Carr himself died, aged 79, in 1988. Thereafter, one or two veteran adherents still prominent locally, such as Eric Browne and Ted Hall and their estimable better halves, all now dead, were lionised by young NUM militants, if you asked about in the workers’ clubs, because they had been part of the revolutionary leadership. Jock Kane’s house, where his wife Betty still then lived, would be pointed out by passers-by in the street with pride, if one asked. It was a remarkable experience. There was no community more determined and more loyal in the whole of Britain’s mining communities than the former voters of Bill Carr and Sammy Cairns.
Sources: `Being Frank – the memoirs of Frank Watters’; Country Standard (details of the latter from Michael Walker); Morning Star 27th May 1988; FW Funeral oration June 1st 1988