Charlie Woods, a veteran Communist Party member and mining union activist in the North East of England, was born in 1900 in County Durham. He would later move north of the Tyne to the area near his workplace, the Walbottle pit.
Charlie was radicalised primarily by the death of his elder brother on the Somme, but he was undoubtedly also politically influenced by attending "socialist sunday schools" in his County Durham childhood. Following his brother’s death, he sought revenge in what he referred to as a "fit of juvenile patriotism", joining the British army and seeing action in France, an experience that convinced him of the inevitability of war whilst imperialism reigned.
After the war, Charlie found work in the Durham coalfield, but was victimised as a result of his activities in the mining trades unionism and the subsequent General Strike of 1926, where he played a prominent role in the Newcastle Council of Action – a workers’ council which for the period of the General Strike played a crucial co-ordinating role for the Labour movement on Tyneside.
At some point, either during the General Strike or after it, Charlie joined the CPGB. Whatever the date of his recruitment to the Party, he would spend some significant amount of time, (circa 12- 18 months), undergoing cadre training at the Lenin School in Moscow in the late 1920s. Charlie was always extremely discreet about his international activities, but he did reveal in his later years that he travelled to and from Moscow, courtesy of a Russian vessel travelling to a Baltic port from Tyneside.
On his return from the USSR, Charlie’s unemployment through blacklisting meant that he engaged in virtually full-time unpaid political work for the CPGB and later the NUWM (National Unemployed Workers Movement). In 1934 and 1935 he is known to have undertaken Comintern work. Posing as a tourist, he visited Nazi Germany with German marks sewn into false linings in his trousers, to provide assistance to the KPD. One trip nearly ended disastrously when he was challenged by plain-clothes police prior to meeting his contacts, thankfully he was not searched.
In 1937 Charlie Woods was appointed North East District Secretary of the CPGB, following the departure of his predecessor, George Aitken, for Spain.
From 1937-1938, as well as the frenetic level of CPGB activity of the time, Charlie also played the difficult role of co-ordinating International Brigade recruitment in the North East. In this capacity, he saw many fine comrades from the North East volunteer to fight in Spain, and bore the difficult burden of informing their families and sweethearts when they were killed in action. Charlie was, to his dying days, saddened by the deaths of the many young comrades that he had, in some cases reluctantly, permitted to go to Spain. He seemed particularly affected by the deaths of Wilf Jobling of the NUWM and Bob Elliot (Communist Councillor on Blyth town council) both of whom had marched with Charlie on the Tyneside contingent of the NUWM’s 1934 Hunger March to London.
In a book entitled "An Inspiring Example-The North East of England and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" (by Watson and Corcoran ISBN 1-873434-36-7), Charlie Woods was interviewed extensively. Some of the following quotes are taken from an interview conducted in the mid-1980s. They may give a flavour of this outstanding Communist’s thoughtful personality:
" Some of the volunteers I knew well, they were Party members or activists in the NUWM, and I knew something about them and their domestic circumstances. I had an interview with them and their womenfolk if they were married and sometimes an argument. I’d volunteered myself but they turned me down on the basis of my family, I was married with three kids. There were some I was successful in stopping from volunteering because of the responsibilities they held and the positions they occupied in the Labour movement, with others it was domestic …
What we were looking for was whether they knew what they were going to. And as far as I was concerned, and people like me, we had to be sure about their politics. They had to be at least on the Left of the movement, which meant of course being against the official policies of the movement, and this obtained in most cases …
The toll that was taken of the lads who would have played a leading role in the labour movement was heavy. To this day I have misgivings, not regrets but misgivings, about maybe a mistake was made by the Party. We sent our best comrades from this area to Spain, they were killed and we couldn’t afford that to happen when we needed them here as cadres."
In the late 1930s, Charlie was at last taken on in the Walbottle pit, he worked as a face worker and later a check-weighman, and was a delegate to his union’s Area Committee. He remained at this work until his retirement in the mid-1960s.
Charlie grew increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the CPGB politically in the 1970s, in particular the drift away from the Party’s focus upon class politics and the Labour movement. This led him to become less active within the CPGB. However, in the late 1970s a Left opposition to the CPGB’s national leadership took control of the Northern District Cttee. Despite his advanced years Charlie became a strong and active supporter of the "Straight Left" oppositional faction within the CPGB. In conjunction with others, he authored a dissident internal pamphlet entitled "The Crisis in Our Communist Party- Cause, Effect and Cure", which was distributed nationally.
Given his age, and the length of his politically active life in the Communist movement, some thought he was a fictional personality, he took great pleasure in demonstrating his vigorous reality in the mid -1980s, especially during the historic Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 where he addressed a considerable number of miners’ rallies.
For his association with the pamphlet, he was expelled from the CPGB, but he never expressed regret for this however, feeling that it was necessary to take a principled political stand against the overwhelmingly revisionist grip of the CPGB leadership.
Charlie Woods was a prime example of that breed of self -taught working class intellectual, so many of whom found their political home within the CPGB. He spoke carefully and clearly, his North East accent was always evident, but so too was his remarkably precise grammar and pronunication. The walls of his modest terraced home in Westerhope, contained a plethora of books, not only of a political nature, but also many volumes of classical literature. He was particularly well versed in philosophical thought.
In keeping with his political convictions, he was a devoted friend of the Soviet Union, and took a lively interest in the work of Tyneside British -Soviet Friendship Society. Charlie, possessed a lively mind up until his death, and enjoyed lively discussion and conversation being particularly pleased to engage in discussion with younger comrades.
Charlie was at the centre of a large loving extended family, and he died surrounded by his family in 1987 after a short bronchial illness. Several hundred attended his funeral and speeches and music paid tribute to the remarkable life of one of the North East’s most remarkable working class revolutionaries."
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