Harold & Bessie Dickenson
Born in 1902, Harold Dickenson joined the Communist Party in the early 1920s, having moved from Burnley to work as a weaver in Blackburn, where he became a long-time activist and later official of the Nelson Weavers Association. He was elected to his local union committee in 1928 but was victimised by the employers, loosing his job, the following year.
His wife, Bessie (née Smith) was born in 1904 into a weaving family of parents and seven children. It was a socialist household for Bessie used to collect her father’s copy of `Justice’, the SDF journal. Blatchford’s `Merrie England’ and `Britain for the British’ were the first books she read. She entered a textile mill to work at the age of 12 years and worked as a tenter for half a crown a week. From 1922 she was active in the Young Communist League where she met Harold. They married in 1926 and lived in Blackburn. Together, they went to the Soviet Union for a year, which Harold spent studying.
There had long been a strong radical tradition in Nelson. In 1912, the 20,000 Nelson Weavers had loaned the local Clarion movement £350 to purchase is first house, a very considerable sum indeed; a Clarion House still exists and operates today at Pendle. Thus, the Dickensons were not fighting that must against the local trend when they sought to encourage, during the 1928-1932 period, weavers to engage in a fight-back.
Bessie rapidly became a leading cadre in the district. She stood as a Communist Party candidate in the Blackburn municipal elections in 1928 and 1930. She also wrote for the Party press on the labour movement in Lancashire.
Indeed, both husband and wife were to the forefront in the period as Communist activists as they led the struggle against an employer offensive on the weavers of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Bessie was the author of the pamphlet on Women and More Looms. The fight was against the “more looms system” and this struggle became very bitter and protracted.
In 1931, in the course of campaigning on this, both Harold and Bessie were arrested and given sentences of three months on trumped-up charges. Other campaigners got 14 days and a fine but the penal approach to demonstrations that suffered from over-intense policing seemed more designed to diminish support for the struggle than genuinely diminish civil disorder. Also sentenced to prison were Harper Harcher, Abe Tickle and Dick Alford – none of who could afford a legal defence. Police harassment was never ending; a few months after his release Harold was picked out for arrest by police and sentenced to a further fourteen days for selling the Daily Worker with others in Burnley Wood. He was bundled into a waiting Black Maria, driven to the police station, immediately tried in camera, given his sentence, and on his way to Strangeways before his family knew anything about it.
In November 1932, Nelson Communists stood in local elections. Dickenson stood in Bradley Ward, Ratcliffe, securing 82 votes. A Comrade Sagar stood in Southfield Ward, gaining 114 votes, whilst Comrade Garner stood in Letherfield Ward as a "Workers Candidate", obtaining 70 votes.
All during the remainder of the 1930s, Harold maintained activity in the textile industry as far as he could. In 1940, Harold described the plight of Nelson’s weavers in the Daily Worker: “We must do something to safeguard our livelihood, Nelson is a town which provides cotton mainly for the home trade. Nelson weavers have been in the forefront of all movements to safeguard and improve conditions. It has been established that our home trade in 1939 was 60% of the total production of Lancashire. Restrictions of trade sixty two and half percent and increase of twenty two and half percent increase in cost and a new purchase tax of thirty three and third percent.” He noted that the result was that many Nelson weavers “have been thrown out of work as orders are cancelled across Europe”.
In 1941, Harold became a full-time union official for the Nelson Weavers, later rising to Secretary of the union from late 1947 until his retirement in 1966. In this capacity, he would become a key figure in the establishment and maintenance of the Lancashire County Association of Trades Union Councils. During this time, he was also the Vice-President of the Lancashire textile `amalgamation’, actually a loose association of local weaving and other trades.
Harold was also a member of the Communist Party’s Executive Committee, first elected in 1947, and was a firm supporter of the Morning Star when he died in 1985.
Sources: Morning Star 9th April 1985; “History of the Nelson Weavers Association” A&L Fowler (1984); miscellaneous sources including additional information, courtesy of Michael Walker, from the Daily Worker September 5th 1940; Sue Bruley – `Gender, Class and Party: The Communist Party and the crisis in the cotton Industry’, University of Portsmouth, in Women’s History Review, Volume 2 Number 1 (1993).