Leo Joseph McGree was born in 1900 in Seacombe, Cheshire, the son of an Irish father and Scottish mother. At the age of fourteen, he left school and embarked upon a number of short-lived jobs before finding work in Sheffield. It was while in Sheffield he joined the communist party and met his future wife Hetty. He moved to Edge Hill, Liverpool and at the age of 21 was elected branch secretary for the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers union.
He was also a key figure in ensuring that the Daily Worker was distributed on Merseyside after the newspaper distribution networks refused to carry the paper because of its political content. He would meet the London train at 04.20 and he and other Communists would courier it throughout the region. He was a regular local public speaker; in one famous speech he denounced sectarianism which blighted Liverpool politics by stating “You fools, you fight each other every 12th of July and 17th of March, but forget about your empty bellies for the rest of the year”.
Leo became a doughty local election candidate for the Party, spearheading a strong tradition in the area, where Communist candidates did surprisingly well, outside of the more usually expected base of Scotland, Wales and the east end of London. The first Communist candidate in Liverpool was J. Young in St Anne's Ward in 1924; in 1925 J. Nield secured 706 or 16% of the vote in the same ward.
Leo first stood as a Communist council candidate in September 1928 for Edge Hill Ward, Liverpool. Later, he stood in Scotland North ward in 1930, receiving 18% of the vote and stood again in 1931 and 1932. He also stood for the parliamentary seat of Liverpool – Scotland, securing by 6%. Other Liverpool Communist council candidates in the 1930s were Mrs Bruce (Scotland North 1931, who received 12% of the vote), W. Fielding (Scotland North 1933), I.P. Hughes (Sandhills 1932), J F Hedley (Low Hill 1932) , A.E Cole (Kirkdale 1932), F.W. Gibson (Brunswick 1933), C.W Heaton (Croxteth 1932, Edge Hill 1933).
Leo’s work within the Communist Party was recognized with his election to the Communist Party Central Committee in 1929 to 1935. He also became a recognized leader of the unemployed in Merseyside in the 1930’s and in 1932, when major disturbances broke out in Birkenhead. On the 13th September, 10,000 unemployed demonstrated to the Public Assistance Committee with the demand for `relief for all able bodied unemployed and an increase of 3s per week, immediate supply of boots and clothes and one hundred weight of coal during winter months and starting of work schemes at trade union rates’. Joe Rawlings and Mrs Barraskill led the deputation to the Council; the local authority agreed to send a telegram to the government calling for the abolition of the means test.
However, as the demonstration dispersed the police made a number of arrests, two days later rioting broke out fuelled by indiscriminate baton charges by the police against women and children. Over 100 protesters and bystanders were hospitalised by the Police. The entire local branch committee of the National Unemployed Workers Movement were arrested. Leo was heavily involved in the protests and received a serious beating from the police and sentenced to twenty months imprisonment at Strangeways (Rawlings received a two-year sentence).
Birkenhead’s stand led to similar Unemployed demonstrations in Liverpool on 21st September, Glasgow, West Ham, Croydon, North Shield and importantly Belfast) Leo had also managed to spend some time during this period collecting funds for the striking Cotton workers in Burnley. When Mosley’s fascists tried to rally in Walton, it was Leo and local communists who organised the opposition.
Ewan McColl even wrote a song about the Birkenhead unemployed – a parody of popular song of the day:
Forward unemployed, forward unemployed,
Led by the NUWM,
We fight against the cuts again.
From fighting Birkenhead, we've learnt our lesson well.
We'lI send the National Government
And the means test all to Hell.
At the 1946 LiverpoolCity council municipal election, Leo McGree then district secretary of the Building Trades Federation union stood as the Communist candidate for North Scotland ward. While McGree had popular support, it was clear that the Catholic Church was not going to let him be elected and Church dignitaries issued a number of statements denouncing Communism and McGree in particular.
He stood on a platform of demanding a new prefab school to replace the blitzed St Albans School and a feeding centre for children from the overcrowded St Sylvester’s School, who had to travel by tram to another school one and a half miles away for their mid-day meal. Another “menacing problem” was the delay in cleaning up the blitzed sites. It was not until four houses collapsed killing one child and injuring others did the council call a special meeting to discuss the dangers and then the Conservative councillors voted down the clean up plans.
Leo Mcgree was the only TUC delegate ever to move `reference back' of the Obituaries section of the General Council report at its annual conference, on the grounds that it included a reference to the death of former NUR leader, J H Thomas, wisely seen as a traitor owing to his role in the 1926 general strike!
McGree was elected the District President of the Confederation of shipbuilding & Engineering Unions, but in the climate of the cold war anti communism he was witch hunted by the Daily Express newspaper and then by his union, being banned from office because of his political allegiance. He remained a committed communist all his life and when he died in 1967 large crowds attended his funeral at Anfield cemetery, testifying to his local popularity.
Source: J. Arnison `Leo McGree – what a man’ (London 1980)
Left – a painting of Leo McGree