The best Agent the Notts Miners Never Had!
Frank Ellis, who died on 16th February 2007 was one of seven children, his father was a miner at Hucknall Bottom pit; both parents were socialists and active in the newly formed Labour Party. One brother John became a Labour Councillor for Nottinghamshire, another, Les was an agent for the Nottinghamshire Area NUM from 1951 to his death in 1965; an uncle, ‘“bolshevik” Jack Smith was an agent for the Leicestershire Area of the miners, union (MFGB) and close associate of A J Cook. With that sort of background it isn’t surprising that Frank swiftly became politicised.
As a young lad he was thrown out of the Church Hall, which had the best snooker tables in town, because his religious affiliations were deemed inappropriate! He swiftly found and joined what he later described as, ‘…an organisation with the wonderful title of the Militant League of Atheists.’ [Tape recorded interview with Richard Stevens] Yet, while retaining his secularism he never attacked anyone for their beliefs.
His first job was as a butcher’s assistant at the Hucknall branch of the Maypole grocery chain where he joined, with about half a dozen workmates, the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers. He later got casual work at the Co-op dairy, frequently having to cycle ten miles back home because he had not been selected to work that day. Following the footsteps of his parents, who had joined the Communist Party in 1929, he joined the Young Communist League in 1931 and remained a Communist until his death.
In the early 1930s Frank played his part in the campaigns against the fascists. For instance, I have been told by several people, that no meetings of the British Union of Fascists were allowed to take place on Nottingham’s Slab Square because Frank’s comrades were so well organised that if, and when, the fascists started a meeting, they would be surrounded and chased off the Square within ten or fifteen minutes.
Frank got married to Julie during this period and she also proved to be a class fighter. It was his hatred of Fascism which, in 1937, led him, to make his way to Paris then down to the Pyrenees to be met by a mountain guide and escorted over the mountain range to cross the border into Spain and on into a reception unit of the International Brigade. Here he went through some basic military training before moving on to fight as a machine gunner, on the side of the new SpanishRepublic, in the bloody civil that was to continue until 1939.
In 1938 he and some of his comrades were confronted by a column of the Italian Army fighting on behalf of Franco against the Government. They were captured and spent the rest of the war in a Franco gaol.
As the civil war drew to a close, to the advantage of the fascist insurgents, Frank was repatriated to Britain. That was early 1939 with war against Nazi Germany looming large on the horizon, and which started in September. Frank was conscripted into the army, so he and his wife were again separated which, but for short periods of leave, was to last for six years.
In that time Frank trained as a glider pilot and platoon commander, having risen through the ranks to First Lieutenant and then Captain in the first Airborne Battalion of the British army; though he didn’t see action until September 1944 in Operation Market Garden, probably Field Marshal Montgomery’s biggest disaster. Frank was one of the 10,000 men dropped at Arnhem of whom less than a quarter succeeded in withdrawing across the River Rhine. Frank was one who managed to get out. One of the few stories I heard Frank tell of that battle was, as they retreated and searching for a boat in which to cross the river, they found one but as the first man stepped into it his foot went straight through the bottom! ‘If there’s a boat without a bottom, there must be a boat with a bottom,’ he urged his men. There was and they managed to get across the Rhine and into allied lines; those who have seen the Rhine will appreciate that must have been some achievement.
Back in Britain and after a short leave he was posted to Burma, where he served out the rest of the war. Typical of the man’s modesty he didn’t apply for any of his medals. Demobbed, in 1946, he returned to the dairy ‘because,’ as he put it, ‘a job of sorts had been kept open for me, but a few months later I went down the mines, Linby Colliery… just after it’d been nationalised ’
His brother, Les, already working at Linby and delegate to the Nottinghamshire Area Council was shortly elected Agent for the Nottinghamshire Miners. Frank succeeded him as delegate. With his class understanding, his clarity of argument and the support of the men he represented, he swiftly became the undoubted leader of the Left on the Council – a position he maintained for eighteen years including through the 1972 and 74 mining strikes during which his analysis and guidance was impeccable. He was a determined negotiator for his members and, recognising that he would be back at the table, always sought find a face saver for his adversary. It has often been said that Frank was the best agent that the Nottinghamshire miners never had; there are few who would challenge that!
In his home town he was well known and well liked (except when he started winning too many prizes for onions or chrysanthemums in the local horticultural shows!). He later took up bee-keeping, an interest he maintained to the end. He was selected by the allotment holders to represent them on the council’s committee which he did until the local government reorganisation, but failed to win a place on the council itself on the several occasions he stood on behalf of the Communist Party. Together with his comrade Joe Whelan, Linby branch secretary, he played a major role in the development and conduct of the Hucknall and Linby Miners’ Welfare though, as usual, he was self deprecatory about his role.
Many Nottinghamshire miners have played golf and Frank’s pit produced many more than competent players of whom Frank and Linby’s branch secretary, Joe Whelan, were but two. On many Fridays I would meet both of them in the pit canteen with up to four quires of the Daily Worker and we would just sit at a table, each with a mug of tea, while their workmates approached to crack a joke about Notts Forest or County, raise a point of grievance over working conditions or just to say hello; most would pick up a copy of the paper and drop money on the table while I just marvelled at the way in which a hundred-and-four Daily Workers just disappeared, a pile of money accumulated and I would eventually depart with a substantial surplus for the Fighting Fund!
Just over a year ago Frank went to a discussion on the General Strike and, as the final contributor, stood up wearing his Basque beret, thumb tucked into the fork of his chest high walking stick, to speak for maybe six minutes, with a clarity of diction, formulation and political analysis that showed he had lost none of those abilities which he had consistently used on behalf of the working class and for which he was renowned.