Born Ernest Walter Cant in 1890 in Stoke Newington, Ernie Cant became a commercial chemist after leaving elementary school. He was, in his youth, a fine athlete, and an especially renowned cross country runner.
In 1905, he was involved in the successful battle to stop wages being cut at the Thames Iron Works, Canning Town, after the workers had completed the battle ship, “The Black Prince”. The Admiralty demanded that if the yard was to get more work, the workers’ pay had to be cut to that of those on the Tyneside. But a fight-back campaign was led by Will Thorne and Jack Jones (SDF MP for Silvertown), which provided Ernie (as he said in 1960) with inspiration and “a strong sense of class loyalty” that lived with him all his life. (The ship finally had her full complement of crew at Chatham Dockyard on the 27th March, 1906.)
Cant joined the Young Socialist League aged 15 along with Joe Fineberg and Will McDonald. In 1912, he the YSL national organiser and worked actively alongside trade union leader Will Thorne in the Gas and General Labourers Union, the forerunner to the present day GMB.
During the First World War, he was an active anti-war campaigner and these activities landed him in prison many times. He became a leading propagandist of the British Socialist Party, addressing meetings countrywide and contributing many articles to its paper, “The Call”.
He was London organiser of BSP from 1914-16 and was apparently involved in the “Battle of the Brotherhood Church”. (Note by Michael Walker: `This is perhaps a reference to the attack by a drunken mob upon a meeting held under the auspices of the Council of Workers and Soldiers on July 28th 1917 at Southgate Road Brotherhood Church, Islington, where the key speaker was John MacLean.’) Cant was sent as a conscientious objector to Ipswich prison for two years and only released in 1919 after a hunger strike.
Ernie Cant became the Scottish BSP organiser (1919-1920) and was chair of the conference arrangements committee at the final conference of the BSP.
He married Katherine B H Fergus in 1923 in London and became the first London Communist Party District Organiser (from formation in 1920 to August 1925). In October 1925, when the Tory government of the day was preparing for the 1926 General Strike, twelve leading Communists were placed on trial. Justice Swift sentenced Harry Pollitt, Willie Gallacher, Albert Inkpin, Wal Hannington, and Bill Rust to twelve months’ imprisonment. The other seven were given the option of leaving the Communist Party and being discharged, or take imprisonment. They rejected the offer to renege and, consequently, Tom Bell, J T Murphy, Arthur McManus, Tom Wintringham, J R Campbell, Robin Page Arnot – and Ernie Cant – were all sentenced to six month’s imprisonment.
During the miners’ lockout that followed, he toured South Wales, speaking at meetings. For a time he did international duty with the International Class War Prisoners Aid Movement, being based in the Soviet Union and he also worked in the Organisation Department of the Communist International.
Later when he moved to Nottingham, as a party organiser, he helped lay the foundations on which the East Midlands district of the party was built. He was particularly engaged in trying to build a base amongst Nottinghamshire miners for the Party. (See entry for Billy Lees.)
As a lifelong co-operator, Ernie Cant served for some time on the management committee of the Nottingham Co-operative Society.
This Communist Party foundation member died at his Nottingham home in early 1982. By that stage, he was one of the few remaining Communists who had taken part in the discussions in 1920 that led to the foundation of the Communist Party.
Sources: Morning Star undated cutting circa 1982; Sunday Worker 25th October 1925; Daily Worker 31 August 1960