Maurice (Morris) and Lily Ferguson (née Webb)
By her own account, Lily was born on the 13th of February 1897 (though her birth was only registered in early 1898) in Norton, then a distinct village, parts of which were in Yorkshire and parts just within Derbyshire. The whole was still anomalously placed within the Ecclesall Bierlow registration district, all of which is today in the boundaries of the city of Sheffield.
She was born into a committed socialist family, living at 18 Pearson Place, Norton. Her father, David, who came from Halesowen, was a skilled fitter in a brick works, and thus probably a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. Her brother, Harry (Harold John) Webb, was also registered for birth in 1897 but is likely to have been born at the beginning of the year, also became a prominent and founding member of the Communist Party like Lily. In the circumstances, it is highly likely that David Webb was also a Party member.
Lily left school early and, seeking work where she could find it, found herself working in a cotton factory in Ashton-under Lyme, near Manchester, where she joined the Communist Party in 1920. After being made redundant, she became active in the unemployed workers’ committee movement.
Lily is pictured on a delegation to Soviet Russia, having just been down a coal mine.m
Lily and Maurice
Lily met Maurice Ferguson around the time of the Party’s foundation. (He was registered at birth as “Maurice” but adopted the “Morris” spelling around 1933, it is believed for reasons associated with undercover work abroad; for clarity, only the Maurice spelling is used here)
They probably first became close in Manchester and Maurice also seems to have hailed from Sheffield, probably being born in 1901, making him a very precocious activist to be so well valued by the Party, so soon. Lily – Maurice, too, no doubt – was so involved in political work that her 1922 diary listed three meetings a day. (She wrote this to Frank Jackson, CP Librarian who was compiling information on Party history, in a letter in 1957.)
After they married, in early 1924, she took the surname of Ferguson as was customary then. Both immediately applied to the Political Bureau (later to be called Political Committee) of the Communist Party to work full-time on a job share – implying that the Party would get the two of them for the price of one. This was a remarkable and novel notion for the time but when the PC considered this, in December 1924, it was not felt feasible at that juncture. Subsequently, and very soon, both were to become full-time workers for the Party – or an allied movement – itself a highly unusual feature and it seems, by her account, that only one of them at any one time did receive a Party wage.
Maurice Ferguson (Morris after 1929)
Although believed to have been born in Sheffield in 1901, Maurice was living in Bradford at the time he was a founder member of the Communist Party.
After the earlier referred to PC discussion, sometime in 1925, Maurice was formally made a full time organiser for the Party in the Manchester District. The couple would therefore have been intensely involved in the locality during the general strike of 1926 during the course of which Maurice was arrested.
The difficult political conditions emerging globally in the late 1920s certainly called for a rethink over directions. Most Communists felt that capitalism was in a general crisis and this would intensify in the coming period. This political position was adopted in 1928 as the world view of Communists. Both Fergusons were enthusiastic adherent of the Comintern’s `new line’ which prevailed from 1928 to around 1934. But Morris, as he now was calling himself, would become particularly noted for being a key figure in support for the new line of an all-out struggle against the Labour Party and for a workers’ revolution and a Soviet Britain.
After being quite close to Labour even to the point of membership in the earlier years up the general strike, the Party found itself increasingly marginalised. Its position in the 1929 General Election, especially in its manifesto, saw a clear break with previous electoral policy, with the Labour Party being defined as ‘the third capitalist party’. This is a controversial area of history, much visited by competing tendencies in the past who have debated alternative estimates of what happened. Some would ask whether the new line was that sharp, given all that had happened in the few years beforehand. Alternatively, some would argue that the Party cut itself off from others by its hard line, although it is clear that many young workers were first attracted to the Communists precisely because of their sharpness of tone against sell-out and compromise.
But the truth was complex; it should be noted that the Party did not formally abandon its earlier (and later) demand to be allowed to affiliate to Labour, even if it issued statements about Labour that were so hostile that no one could ever imagine affiliation beginning to be raised as a demand. Only months before, over a hundred local Labour Parties were disbanded due to their refusal to denounce the Communists. Yet no approach to this force to seek to create a new Labour Party, which unions might affiliate to, was made.
The tenth plenum, or full meeting, of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, held in Moscow in July 1929, addressed a letter to the British Communist Party, in which it called for the appointment to leading positions in the British Party of comrades who would consistently carry out the line of the Comintern. (It should be borne in mind that Communists viewed the Comintern as a world party and the British part of it a mere branch.)
Those in the British Party who were strong supporters of the Comintern line, such as R W Robson (see separate entry) and Maurice Ferguson were thus placed in a special position. They now called for a fight against “the Right danger” on the Central Committee, implying that a large bloc of the leadership were too pro-Labour. They demanded that an all-out struggle for revolution in Britain now begin. The Congress of the Young Communist League, led by Bill Rust, also joined in this move.
He was immediately appointed North East England District Secretary of the Communist Party. Thus, in 1929, Maurice, as the leading comrade in the North-East England District of the Party, he was strongly associated with the Dawdon unofficial miners’ strike, which was promoted by some as an example of red trades unionism, whereby existing `reformist’ unions were pushed to one side in favour of new workers’ formations, in this case an unofficial strike. Emboldened by this experience, Maurice wrote the Tyneside District Party Committee’s high critical pre-congress statement in “Communist Review” in October 1929 [pp.568-569].
Almost immediately after the Dawdon strike, he attended the Lenin School in Moscow, where he used the alias of Morris Hall (the origin of the alternative spelling to his first name). After his return from Moscow, Maurice penned a report on the struggles of international seafarers, which the Comintern had prioritised as a key group to organise, suggesting this was one of his areas of responsibility. [Labour Monthly Vol 12 No 9, p546, 12th September 1930]
Maurice also wrote for the Party’s theoretical journal, `Communist Review’ on the “liquidation” of the Minority Movement, for which he was a representative of Bradford AEU.
During this period be became an especially renowned public speaker for the Party. Morrisbecame first Communist Party District Organiser for the West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1930s and later District Secretary.
In 1931, Maurice also became a member of the Party Executive, being associated with the Control Commission, a disciplinary and organisation body. He is known to have been active in covert Comintern operations for the next few years, using the cover name of Fagelson. He joined the Daily Worker editorial board in 1932 and his stance in pre-congress discussion in the paper in 1932 prompted sharp opposition as well as strong support.
As the role of the Comintern in undercover activity minimised after the war in Spain began and Soviet intelligence service of the Soviet state took over (in recognition of the supreme dangers now facing the Soviet Union), and as the British Party also moved into an anti-fascist unity phase, Maurice and Lily’s fervent almost separatist militancy must have seemed heavily outdated. Their role was showing signs of suddenly fading just as Lily’s health massively deteriorated.
Lily became National Unemployed Workers Movement Woman’s Organiser, although this does not seem to have been paid. The couple were nonetheless reassigned to the Lancashire coalfield for 1927-8, to Tyneside for 1928-29.
In May 1929, Lily was the Communist Party’s parliamentary candidate for Gateshead during the general election, polling 3,688 votes, a creditable near 7% of the total. Almost immediately, Lily was sent to prepare a contest in by election that arose in the Preston parliamentary constituency, but the Party was unable to raise the deposit amount for her to officially stand and she campaigned as a “demonstrative candidate” holding numbers of cotton mill meetings.
Lily was elected a member of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1929, when the 11th Congress of the Party met in December 1929.
Whilst Maurice was in Moscow, Lily joined him to work for the Comintern at its headquarters there. She was a British Party delegate to the Women’s Section of the Communist International.
On her return, the British Party assigned her to work with working women in Birmingham from 1930. She was heavily involved in the Birmingham Lucas `girls’ strike in May and June 1932. By October 1932, Lily was working temporarily in Burnley, so as to help with the Women’s National Hunger March to London, along with Maud Brown (NUWM women’s organiser), Maggie Nelson and Bertha Jane. They would march 12-14 miles every day in all weathers, singing enthusiastically all the way.
From to the end of 1936, she worked alongside Morris in the growing Yorkshire Communist Party. It seems as if they ended their role as full-time revolutionaries within months of the outbreak of the Spanish war.
Morris and Lily – the later years
In later years, the couple lived quietly, just as loyal Party members, the health of both being poor. Seemingly, when both ceased working for the Party they had been advised to look for a farm to manage, so as to keep Lily away from the smoky environments of the cities, so bad was the asthma she was now suffering.
During the 1950s, the Communist Party established its central library at King Street and appealed for old papers and books, along with historical reminiscences, partly with a history of the Party in mind. In 1957 Lily put together some written reminiscences, some of which have sourced some information here.
Maurice died in mid-1957 in south Yorkshire and Lily died in 1959 in West Hartlepool.