Will (Bill) Paynter
Thomas William Paynter was born in December 1903 at Whitchurch, Cardiff. During his life he was more commonly known as ‘Will’ or ‘Bill’ Paynter. His father was a farm labourer who later became a coal miner at Cymmer Colliery, Porth. His mother, in common with many who flocked into the South Wales coalfield in the early years of the last century, had her roots in Somerset.
Will Paynter was educated at Whitchurch (Cardiff) and Porth Elementary Schools, leaving school aged 13 in order to work on a farm. He married twice, once in 1937 and again in 1943, having in total 7 children, all sons, including two sets of twins.
In 1917, Will Paynter began work at the Coedely colliery as a collier, on the edge of the Rhondda, within a year he had moved to Cymmer Pit, where his father had always worked. After the General Strike of 1926, he began to take full advantage of the local Workmen’s Institute libraries in the Rhondda for study and he was introduced to Marxism. Will Paynter was elected Checkweigher at Cymmer Colliery in 1929.
Paynter – as he was often simply called – joined the Communist Party during the Parliamentary election campaign in 1929 in support of Arthur Horner in Rhondda East and this saw the start of a close life-long association between the two men. Paynter became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was one of its organisers in South Wales at the time. He was to admit in later years that he had been a communist for some time but, out of respect for the feelings of his deeply religious family, had delayed joining the Party. He soon became Secretary of the small Porth Communist Party branch and acquired two paper rounds, `Workers’ Life’ and the `Sunday Worker’.
For five years until 1936, he was a full time activist for the Communist Party and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. In 1931 he was victimised and then imprisoned in Cardiff jail for his trade-union and political activities and was expelled from the Cymmer Lodge for supporting a Communist Party candidate in the local election.
He was a student at the Communist Party’s school in Abbey Wood, Kent and, for a period from late 1932, Paynter then studied for a time at the Lenin School in Moscow and was involved in underground activities in Nazi Germany, assisting the escape of Communists and Socialists. When returning from Moscow in the early 1930s he was a Marxist tutor for the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) classes in the Rhondda.
He led three major Hunger Marches, in 1931, 1932 and 1936. On the 1932 March he was Treasurer of the South Wales contingent and in 1936 he was one on the leaders of the South Wales contingent democratically elected at Cardiff by the Marchers. In 1935 he stood for election to the local Rhondda Urban District council for the Port seat.
In 1936 Paynter was elected onto the rank and file Executive Council for the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) for the Rhondda. He was sent into Bedlinog to help with the campaign to break up the scab union at Taff Merthyr. However in the Spring of 1937 he was given official sanction from the SWMF to join the British Battalion of the International Brigades as a political commissar.
The South Wales District of the Communist Party had been asked to choose someone suitable for the position, to look after the British Battalion’s interests at the International Brigades’ Headquarters at Albacete. Paynter was not over-enthusiastic since he had only recently married. Nonetheless, he and Ted Bramley of the London District of the Party were sent out in May 1937. Paynter went with the support of the South Wales Miners’ Federation to be a political commissar.
Paynter was released from his duties in Spain in order to return home to defend his position on the SWMF Executive Committee. He was elected agent in the Rhymney Valley in 1939 and this marked the start of a long career with the South Wales miners for the next two decades and he became President of South Wales miners from 1951-1959. Pic: Paynter addresses a miners’ rally in 1959
In 1959, Paynter was elected by an overwhelming majority as General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, a position he held until 1968. He and his family moved to London to take up the post. His great challenge, in a union where the Presidency was dominant, was to face a right-wing dominated National Executive. His commanding achievement was to bring about the unification of the British miners under one wages system – the National Power Loading Agreement. It was this that provided the spring-board for the great advances of the miners in the early 1970s long after he retired.
He was a member of the General Council of the TUC for one year and a member on the Arbitration Panel for the Advisory Arbitration and Conciliation Service from 1972. Will Paynter officially retired in 1968 and left the Communist Party over a difference on his decision to join the Commission on Industrial Relations in 1969 against Party advice. But swiftly resigned the commision role once it had become unambiguously seen as a way of attacking the trade union movement and later took a Party card again.
He was an active member of many societies and campaigns, especially in retirement, including the International Brigade Association, Chile Solidarity, the Pensioners’ Movement (he was Secretary of the London Joint Council for Senior Citizens and Chairman of the London Region, National Federation of Pension Associations, the Peace Movement, Llafur (the Welsh Labour History Society, of which he was President) and the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities. He was greatly involved with the workers’ education movement, frequently lecturing at schools and conferences and helping in the development of the South Wales Miners’ Library at the University of Wales Swansea. In 1970 he published a book ‘Trade Unions and the Problems of Change’ and also wrote an autobiography, entitled ‘My Generation’, published in 1972.
Will Paynter was described as “a slight intensely tough little man, he has the walk of an ex-sailor, with his shoulders slouched and his hands in his pockets. A life-time of political struggle has left its lines on his face and when he speaks he often adopts the unconscious arrogance of someone who believes that there are only two classes of men – the miners and the rest.". He died aged 81 in 1984.
University of Wales Swansea LIS Archives, Library & Information Centre, University of Wales Swansea, Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP;
Hywel Francis funeral oration to Paynter, Hendon Crematorium, 16 December 1984, transcribed by Michael Walker
Comrades and Friends,
We are all here to express our personal sadness to the family of Will Paynter and to pay tribute to the life of a very great man. We bring to Betty and all the family the deep sympathy of the Communist Party of which Bill was a loyal and honoured member for over half a century and from the National Union of Mineworkers of which he was its distinguished general secretary for nearly a decade.
The leaders and members of both the Communist Party and the National Union of Mineworkers salute his memory and his life. We all join with them in stating that his ideals and his sacrifices are today being lived out through the courage of the men, women and children of our coalfields. To honour his memory we must all re-dedicate ourselves to the present miners’ struggle.
We know too that all the other organisations within which he worked to the very end – the International Brigade Association, Chile Solidarity, the Pensioners’ Movement, the Peace Movement, Llafur (the Welsh Labour History Society) and the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities – all join us in this dedication.
Although we are far from his beloved valleys, for the last ten months London has become as one with the valleys and with all the other striking British coalfields. Bill Paynter was very proud of London’s solidarity – indeed he was part of it – and it is right and proper that we salute his passing here, in this ceremony and then next Sunday at a memorial meeting in his beloved Rhondda.
The key to an understanding of Bill Paynter was his family. He was, as everyone who knew him would testify, despite great union and political commitments, a loving and dedicated husband, father and grandfather.
He always gave sound advice to his children with compassion and humour. He idolised all his grand-children and they him. He shared the boys’ love of rugby. He took great pride in their undoubted ability on the rugby field. As a recently arrived valley boy myself and son of a miner, I had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of the ‘Paynter boys’ (as they were called in the Cardiff schools which we attended) after they had departed for London on Bill’s election as general secretary of the NUM in 1959.
But there was a wider ‘family’, first in the South Wales coalfield and later all the British coalfields for he interpreted his role as a trade union leader very broadly. That has been of course for decades the great strength of the miners’ union. It is our industry and they are our communities. His attachment to such a wider social and political role came from his early trade union experiences in the ‘Fed’ particularly in the Rhondda and Rhymney valleys. Bill Paynter once wrote “(Lodge secretaries and chairmen) were social leaders called upon to advise and help in all kinds of social and domestic problems… They were the guides, philosophers and friends to a community as well as the trade union leaders dealing with the pit boss.” That is why, when asked in the 1960s, why the miners’ union was so concerned about pit closures and their effect on mining communities, he answered "When a pit closes, it’s like a death in the family."
Bill Paynter was born in December 1903, 81 years ago in Whitchurch, Cardiff. His father was first a farm-labourer and later a collier at Cymmer Colliery, Porth. His mother, like so many who flocked into the South Wales coalfield in the early years of this century, had her roots in Somerset.
In 1917 he began work as a collier in the Coedely colliery on the edge of the Rhondda, within a year he had moved to Cymmer Pit (where his father had always worked) and his earliest political recollections were the discussions underground about the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
By this time he had moved with his parents, his brother Jim and his sister Lil to Trebannog in the Rhondda. His ideas were now undoubtedly being shaped by the injustice of the world into which he was born where human life was cheap in the pits and where ruthless, wealthy coal owners cared nothing for the dignity of people and communities. But they were also shaped by the growing trade union and political consciousness of the Rhondda in its most turbulent and revolutionary period.
His outlook was undoubtedly conditioned by the defeats of 1921 and 1926 when miners were driven back to work to lower wages and ultimately longer hours, worse conditions and the shattering of the Miners’ Federation.
As a young miner after the defeat of 1926 he grasped the importance of study and took full advantage of the five workmen’s institute libraries in the Rhondda. It was here that he was introduced to Marxism which helped change him from a rebel to a revolutionary.
In 1929, he joined the Communist Party during the Parliamentary election campaign in support of Arthur Horner in Rhondda East. Typical of the man, he admitted in later years that he had been a communist
for some time but out of respect for the feelings of his deeply religious family, he had delayed joining the Party. The 1929 election campaign was the beginning of an association of four decades with a man – Arthur Horner – who became a kind of father to him, whom he followed as the leader of the British miners and whom he once described as the greatest trade union leader of his generation. He soon became Secretary of the small Porth Communist Party branch and acquired two paper rounds – Workers Life and Sunday Worker.
It is the 1930s, the era of naked State power, mass unemployment, scab unionism and international fascism, which marked Paynter out as a man of character, principle and future leadership.
Victimised and then imprisoned in Cardiff goal for his trade union and political activities in 1931, he was until 1936 a full time activist for the Communist Party and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.
He led three major Hunger Marches in 1931, 1932 and 1936. He was a student at the Communist Party’s school In Abbey Wood, Kent and for a period from late 1932 was a student at the Lenin School in Moscow. An indication of his courage and commitment was his underground activities in Nazi Germany when he assisted in the escape of Communists and Socialists.
These were desperate times for a revolutionary. He once described the apparent hopeless task before himself and such comrades as Len Jeffries and Lewis Jones in this way: "I believe that unemployment… degrades and demoralises. I remember in the early thirties… trying to organise demonstrations… (In an) Employment exchange like
Porth where over 3000 were signing, you couldn’t get a bloody hundred to Walk … When you see men with a bloody fag and a pin stuck in the bottom of it and passing it around a bloody group, it’s getting pretty
desperate, isn’t it. "But not for him the passive acceptance of defeat and demoralisation parroted by many trade union and labour leaders of the time. He saw the importance of mobilising people in extra-parliamentary struggle in the broad democratic alliance of that time – the united front and later the popular front.
Bill Paynter wrote of such struggles in the Labour Monthly in April 1935 in which he called for the unity of employed and unemployed and the linking of localised struggles in South Wales with similar struggles elsewhere. We are living out those principles and strategies again today through the NUM, the women’s support groups and the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities.
In 1935 he stood for election to the local (Porth seat) Rhondda Urban District Council. In 1936, he was elected onto the rank and file executive of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and was sent into Bedlinog to assist in the campaign to break up the scab union at Taff Merthyr. The eradication forever of the scab union in South Wales in 1938 owed much to the scientific approach of Horner, Paynter, Ness Edwards, Dai Dan Evans, Edgar Evans and others. When we are witnessing the re-emergence of this cancer in other coalfields today, it would be instructive for all of us to learn from the experience of South Wales in the 1930s.
In the Spring of 1937, Bill Paynter was chosen by the Communist Party, with the support of the South Wales Miners’ Federation to be a political commissar with the International Brigades which were assisting the Spanish people’s valiant defence of their new democracy. It was a
difficult and exacting task. He had to deal with the human problems of soldiers who had courageously come through several severe military engagements,
He wrote from Spain to Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party: ‘You know the nature of the work here at the base and the sort of juice that I am stewing in. I’m used to being in the front and not in the rear of any army. Harry. The bulk of the Welsh lads are now up there, and I say with National pride, they are the real McCoy. They can be made real workers to lift the whole position, since they are fresh and enthusiastic. That’s where I can do a good job of work. Here I have become the guide, philosopher and friend of the weary, the sick and the halt and on the whole I believe that I am well accepted by the lads.
Still if I am white haired when you see me next, it won’t necessarily be from old age…’ It was because of his obvious qualities of leadership in all these crucial struggles that he was first elected agent in the Rhymney Valley in 1939 and then the president of the South Wales miners in October 1951.
In the 1950s he became known as ‘the uncrowned king of the valleys’. Yet he would have been shy of such acclaim. He disliked ‘hero-worship’ or any personal attention and rarely spoke of his own experiences. The
shock and horror of the Spanish war made him a reluctant ‘war hero’. He always said, "Remember, I was never a soldier. "He never courted personal popularity. Indeed as President of the South Wales miners he became unpopular with some for actively discouraging sectional unofficial action. He was also outspoken in the McCarthyite period against the Cold War, Rearmament and Colonialism. Bill Paynter was also foremost in the campaign to get Paul Robeson, the great black singer and progressive leader, his passport returned. In a remarkable political and cultural event at the Miners’ Eisteddfod on the 5th
October 1957, Paynter spoke to Robeson by transatlantic telephonic link. He said:"our people deplore the continued refusal of your government to return your passport and deny you the right to join us
in our festival of song. We shall continue to exert whatever influence we can to overcome the position. We look forward to the day when we shall again shake your hand and may you sing with us in these valleys of
Again today, half-way across the world, from New York we received a message from Paul’s son, Paul Robeson Jr. who recalled the tremendous work he did for the release of his father and expresses his deep sadness at the passing of Bill Paynter. It was during Paynter’s leadership of the South Wales miners that both the Miners’ Eisteddfod and Gala became major cultural and political events in the calendar of the Welsh people. Whilst being an uncompromising internationalist he saw no contradiction in loving Wales, its language and its culture and did much to encourage such an outlook amongst our mining communities.
When Bill Paynter was elected by an overwhelming majority as general secretary of the NUM in 1959, the British miners could not have chosen a better leader to take them through that dark and disgraceful decade which witnessed the betrayal of the miners by successive governments and the subsequent mass pit closures and devastation of communities particularly in Durham, Scotland and South Wales.
The British Labour Movement and public at large must have wondered what kind of man Paynter was when he arrived in London to take up his new office. One writer summed up some of the character of the man at this time: "The National Coal Board has just had to face Mr. Will
Paynter arguing his first case… At the moment the case rests while the Board considers its reply, but neither side can now be in doubt that a formidable new figure has emerged in national negotiation in the shape of a clever, craggy 56 year old Communist from South Wales. During the decade in which he was President of the South Wales miners this father of seven children achieved something of the manner and authority of a pitman’s patriarch… Throughout his political career he has gathered many opponents: few of them question his courage and sincerity.
A slight intensely tough little man, he has the walk of an ex-sailor, with his shoulders slouched and his hands in his pockets. A life-time of political struggle has left its lines on his face and when he speaks he often adopts the unconscious arrogance of someone who believes that there are only two classes of men – the miners and the rest."
That of course would be to do Bill Paynter a great dis-service. Arrogant he never was. Uncompromising fighter for the miners, their families and their communities, yes, always. But he never thought only of the miners.
As a communist and an internationalist, he had a broader political vision.
Those who knew of his contributions on the General Council of the TUC, for one year only, were to deplore the anti-Communism which denied the wider movement of the experiences of one of Britain’s most outstanding trade union leaders in the 1960s.
He looked beyond the sectional interests of his own industry and his own union. He was always outspoken on such issues as peace, energy policy, automation, incomes policy and Vietnam as the columns of the Daily Worker, Morning Star, Labour Monthly, and Tribune revealed.
But I would say his greatest achievement was, at a time of great difficulty and faced with a right-wing dominated National Executive,
the unification of the British miners under one wages system – the National Power Loading Agreement. It was this that provided the spring-board for the great advances of the miners in the early 1970s long after
he retired. This was the culmination of decades of struggle by his and previous generations to achieve a truly national union and rid the union and the industry of the iniquitous piece-work system. But he would have been the first to acknowledge that it was not a lone battle. The Moffats, the Kanes, Jack Dunn, Les Ellis, Sammy Taylor and thousands of other
comrades had fought alongside him for years to achieve such unity.
Although officially retired in 1968 he continued to be active. The Peace
Movement, the Pensioners’ Movement, the struggle for democracy in Spain all occupied his time. He also wrote a very influential and challenging book Trade Unions and the Problems of Change in which he called on unions to face up to the need to streamline their organisations and abandon their sectional interests. He also served on the Commission on Industrial Relations until it became a means of attacking the trade union movement at which stage he resigned.
But most important of all, he was concerned with the revival of workers’
education and particularly the renewal of a progressive, left movement in the coalfields and beyond. Bill was a frequent lecturer at schools and conferences throughout the country and took great pride in being an active president of the Welsh Labour History Society and one of the prime movers in the development of the South Wales Miners’ Library. He delighted in meeting and discussing his ideas and his experiences with young miners.
His own resignation because of certain differences on industrial policy and his subsequent rejoining of the Communist Party in 1977 took considerable courage and dedication to long held principles. Lesser men in their mid-seventies would not have bothered.
There is no doubt that he had a profound impact on several generations of miners. The present leadership of the NUM of Arthur Scargill, Michael McGahey and Peter Heathfield owe a greater debt to Bill Paynter than any other previous miners’ leaders.
But as one young South Wales miner said to me the day he died, "Bill Paynter was not a god and he certainly didn’t see himself as one." As we all know, he was to the last a very humble, self-effacing man. It was his humility, that particular self-mocking humour and that warm, wry smile which we shall all miss so much. We shall also miss that courage, that sincerity and that incorruptibility which informed comrades, great and small, where he differed with them, without any personal acrimony. It was his high regard for the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, which made him raise openly his criticism and concern for the
development of socialist democracy.
These were some of the qualities of the man we now mourn. He served his class and all progressive causes to the very end. Only last Friday he was due to speak at a miners’ benefit in the Rhondda and in the week he died he had a phone call from Spain reporting solidarity collections for British miners’ families. On Thursday we received a Christmas card saying ‘No Cruise, No Trident, Noel.’ We salute you dear friend and comrade in the knowledge that you gave your whole life to the finest of all causes – the liberation of mankind.
We salute you dear friend and comrade for the last time in the knowledge that your life was the history of the working class in
Wales and Britain and that your ideas and ideals live on in the minds and struggles of the courageous men, women and children of our coalfields today and all those who struggle against tyranny and oppression the world over.