A much loved socialist pioneer in Sheffield, who played a leading role in cementing the Communist Party into the very life of the city, George Henry Fletcher was born, one of four children of a working class family, on September 7th 1879 in Horncastle, Lincolnshire.
His father was a craftsman shoemaker, often the sort of trade that wandering radicals took up in the 19th century since it guaranteed independence from the masters. George followed in his footsteps to also become a craftsman, taking an apprenticeship to become a journeyman baker.
For a short period, while searching for an opening in the trade in Derby, he was a miner at Grasmere pit. But he soon moved to Sheffield to work in Simmerson’s bakery. He joined the Bakers’ Union and became very active in this, even being able to unionise the bakery where he worked. Fletcher started a Bakers Union branch and became branch chair and its District Committee delegate.
He joined the left-wing orientated and united Sheffield Socialist Society in 1898 and, before long, was able to ensure security for himself and his family against victimisation for his outspoken beliefs and started his own small bake house in disused, old- fashioned bakery.
In 1902, with seven others from the Socialist Society, he formed a SDF branch in Brightside and became its secretary. The branch was noted for its lack of sectarianism and worked closely with the local Attercliffe ILP. Many ILPers found themselves attracted to the liveliness of Fletcher’s branch and the local SDF grew strongly. So much so that Fletcher was selected as a unity candidate for the Burngreave ward in 1905; he only lost election by four votes out of some 1,500 cast in all.
During the free speech campaigns of the Edwardian period, Fletcher was the public face of socialism, in the form of the now renamed Social Democratic Party in Sheffield. Public outdoor meetings were beset by police interference and arrests. He was fined the considerable sum of 40/- (perhaps two weeks wages) for speaking in High Hazels Park in 1910. A similar stunt in Hillsborough Park saw Fletcher imprisoned for 56 days.
He was the delegate from Sheffield to the 1911 unity conference that saw the formation of the British Socialist Party, when some ILP branches, Clarion groups and others came together with the bulk of the SDP. Indeed, largely due to the character of the local SDF/SDP, most of the ILP in Sheffield joined the BSP.
In 1914, Fletcher was elected to the Executive Committee of the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council (ST&LC). He was a staunch supporter of the No Conscription Fellowship in 1915, when he was also elected Vice-Chair of the ST&LC. He was to the fore in organising anti-war rallies in Sheffield in 1916-17, at a time when local factories were creating shop stewards’ committees that liaised with those of the Clyde and Coventry to form the basis of the modern shop stewards’ movement and which fed directly into the anti-war movement and the creation of the Communist Party. In common with local popular working class sentiment, Fletcher was strongly supportive of both Russian revolutions of 1917.
During the immediate post-war strike wave, Fletcher was prominent in the bakers’ national strike of 1919; indeed, Sheffield was the last centre to return to work.
Fletcher was a founder member of the Communist Party in 1920, was present at all the major national unity conferences and became chair of the first Sheffield branch of the Communist Party. The Party had applied for affiliation of the Labour Party but this was never going to be permitted by the dominant right wing. Yet, for periods, the SDP and the BSP had affiliated to the Labour Party, and Sheffield branches of these had been prominent in supporting wider labour movement unity, it did not therefore seem out of place to activists in the Sheffield trade unions and Labour Party (as was also the case in other parts of the country) for Fletcher to continue to be an elected voice for the local labour movement in the 1920s.
Standing as a Communist, he was continually elected and re-elected as a member of the local Board of Guardians, which then held considerable responsibilities for the distribution of welfare relief. Fletcher was first elected to the Board of Guardians in 1922 and became its treasurer; he remained on the board for most of the decade and was even elected chair of the Labour group, despite his Communist Party membership. He was a delegate to the 4th Congress of the Comintern in 1922 and met Lenin whilst in Moscow.
He was one of the best loved labour movement leaders in the city by now. In 1925, he topped the poll for the board, receiving 2,194 votes, in Darnal Ward. A second Communist was also elected to join him, the Party winning two out of three of the seats. But he was deposed as chair of the Labour group by national instructions that year.
George Senior was once again in custody after he was charged with sedition for a speech in 1921, in support of the miners during their strike, for a reference to the police strike two years before. Imprisoned for two months as a result, thousands turned out to greet him on his release. That year, he joined the Communist Party’s executive committee and son, George Junior, was a founder member of the YCL. George Fletcher Senior’s wife even joined the Communist Party to make both bread and Communism a `family business’.
`Young’ George had eschewed a life as a baker, being enamoured with the new fangled army surplus motor lorries that were now so readily available and had taken an apprenticeship as a motor fitter. In 1923, he took an innovative business venture to `old’ George and they went into a partnership. The father brought his baking knowledge and the son provided the expertise for running bread vans to deliver the produce from the bakery to homes and a gradually growing number of Fletcher shops. Undoubtedly, the business benefited from the custom of working class families, respectful of `old’ George’s commitment.
The motorised business not only resulted in a massive expansion of George Fletcher & Son, the bakers, the labour movement gained transport for all manner of activities. In the 1926 General Strike, George Junior even moved strike bulletins under cover in the family business’s bread van. His father was one of a dozen Party members in the city charged with “causing disaffection” though distributing the very same strike bulletins. But, ever respectful of business property, the police had to return the confiscated duplicator that produced so many radical bulletins in Sheffield in the 1920s, since it too belonged to Fletcher & Son and not the Communist Party!
The process of excluding Communists from the federal nature of the Labour Party, despite the affiliation of the BSP, one of its constituent parts, continued apace during the late 1920s. George Fletcher Senior was even deprived of the right to hold office in ST&LC in 1927, since the Trades Council also held the role as the local voice of the Labour Party, as well as being an umbrella for local trade union branches. Not content with removing him as Chair of the Labour Group on the Board of Guardians, the national office of the Labour Party ordered the ending of his participation in the Labour group on the Guardians and of membership of Hillsborough Labour Party in 1928.
Even thus excluded from the mainstream, standing as a Communist Party candidate and being squeezed by the popular desire to win a Labour government, Fletcher garnered a respectable 1,731 votes in the 1929 general election. But he failed to get re-elected to the Guardians in November 1929, when the role was merged with the City Council, even though he still polled well. In November 1932 Fletcher stood as a Communist candidate in Manor ward securing 1,071 votes, other Communist Party candidates in the council elections of 1932 included Comrades Lamb in Attercliffe Ward, Howarth in Darnall Ward, McIlhone in Heeley Ward, Hague in St Philips Ward. In common with all Communists, Fletcher was heavily involved locally in support for the unemployed movement and the anti-fascist struggle of 1930s. (See cutting below about an altercation in Sheffield cemetery, which dates from this time.) He continued to stand in elections for the Party and was able to win 1,586 votes in the Manor ward in the 1935 municipal elections.
Exhausted by a lifetime of struggle, juggling both business and political requirements, Fletcher retired from the bakery business at age of 61 and moved to Leverton, near Retford, living quietly thereafter but generously supporting the Communist Party financially. Despite the intense anti-communism sweeping the trade union movement at the time, he was awarded the honour of life membership of the Bakers’ Union in 1954. George Fletcher died in 1958 aged 79; he remained a Communist to the end. At his funeral, his coffin was draped with a red flag, complete with gold hammer and sickle. Harry Pollitt delivered the oration.
There is a footnote to the story of this remarkable man. His – and George Junior’s – bakery business retained local affection and resisted all attempts by monopolies to encroach on its grip of the Sheffield bakery market. But life moves on and, with all family traditions long gone, in 1999, one Paul Fletcher, heir to the two Georges, sold the still thriving but localised family bakery to Northern Foods for £40 million.
Sources: Nellie Connole “Leaven of Life – the story of George Henry Fletcher” (1961); Guardian 24th April 1999