Walsh Felix

Felix Walsh

Felix Walsh was heavily involved in the establishment of the Communist Party in Bradford and West Yorkshire. It proved hard to build the Party in the area due to the dominance of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and also because cotton workers were historically non-conformist or Catholic in outlook. The Communist Party also faced intense opposition from Yorkshire factory owners and local press.

Even so, although the Bradford Party branch probably had no more than fifty eight members by the end of the Twenties, they would play a key role in the April-May 1930 West Yorkshire wool workers’ strike. At the time, across Britain bosses were on the attack and cuts in wages were being imposed in many industries. In the Woollen industry the owners ensured the establishment of a Court of Inquiry, headed by Lord Macmillan. Its report recommended pay cuts of nine and a quarter percent, or two shillings in the pound. The textile unions sought to negotiate but the owners were determined to force through the pay cuts.

The wage cuts were despite the fact that, as Mr F.W. Birchenough the President of the Operative Spinners Amalgamation revealed, the Bradford Dyers Association had announced a gross profit of just short of  "4 million in the previous four years, allowing one and a quarter per cent depreciation, by paying an 85 per cent dividend on ordinary shares, preceded by 60% bonus in 1925".

The Communist Party and its allied left trade union front of the National Minority Movement was equally determined to oppose any attempt to cut wages and offer the workers a lead in the face of union retreats: "The workers counter offensive in the woollen textile industry", as Communist leader, J R Campbell, called it . It should be noted that the very first edition of Daily Worker on 1st January 1930 had blazoned across its front page the headline "Woollen workers take the field".

Ernest Woolley, Communist District Organiser and Executive member of National Minority Movement, was active until imprisoned for his trade union activities. On the 23rd March 1930 the Minority Movement organised a meeting in the West Yorkshire area to discuss wage cuts, which was attended by 150 delegates who decided to form a Committee of Action. After some provocation, the Bradford Wool strike of 1930 started on Tuesday 8th April when the night shift workers at Firth’s Hill in Spen Valley went out on strike, albeit that this was then a largely non-union organised mill. The strike spread quickly so that by the 13th April all Bradford and Shipley factories were was closed.

The Communist Party secured the position of Chair of the Central Strike Committee, which was taken by Ernest H Brown, husband of Isabel Brown (see separate biographical entries for most personalities mentioned in this entry). The Party also drafted in some of its most influential speakers into West Yorkshire its best speakers Harry Pollitt, Willie Gallacher, John Mahon and Rose Smith. The Party also poured in its International Lenin School students Maggie Jordan, Hymie Lee, Marjorie Pollitt and Dora Roberts.

The Communist Party, based at its offices in Sturges Street, also helped establish local strike committees and factory strike bulletins such as the Cardigan Mills bulletin issued by the Leeds Party. It also helped establish feeding centres such as that at the Socialist Hall and the Co-operative Hall at Shipley. However, differences occurred between the local Communist Party, which recognised the reality of a fight by low paid, unorganised workers (60% of the 250,000 strikers were women), and the Central Committee, which saw the strike as a part of the wider "struggle for power", overthrow of capitalism within in its `Class against Class’ strategy.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, the struggle divided opinion locally, too, according to the ILP’s Bradford Pioneer, which stated on 23rd May 1930 that "half the public think that the textile workers are heroic martyrs and the other half think they are terrible Bolshies"..

One key development in the strike was the rapid development of the Textile Aid Campaign, organised initially by the Workers International Relief (British section), which had a base in Adolphus Street, Bradford.

This organisation was important because many of the strikers were non-union members and therefore not entitled to strike pay. Money urgently needed to be collected to support the strikers from across Britain, and Workers Relief ensured that within a week six woollen workers from Bradford were addressing rallies in London. The London Textile Aid Committee was chaired by Tom Mann and its Secretary was John Mahon but George Renshaw did much of the organisational work. Meanwhile, Ernie Pountney, who was based at the United Clothing Workers Union offices in Leeds, gave some badly needed local back up.

The controversy sometimes spilled on to the street and, amongst those activists arrested were Isobel Brown, Jimmy Ancrum (Ashington), Jack V Leckie, Molly Sharkey (Mill Worker). A group of ten activists were arrested when they stormed a meeting of the Textile Hall in Bradford.

Despite the best efforts of the Textile Aid campaign and its fund, the Communist Party, and many others, not enough money was raised to sustain the workers who also had to face systematic attacks from the police, many of whom had been drafted in from Lancashire and were thus unsympathetic. Eventually the woollen workers, faced with starvation and poor or hostile union leaders, were starved back to work after eight weeks, or if the initial sporadic unofficial action is counted, as much as ten weeks of struggle.

Felix Walsh remained in the Communist Party and in 1947 was elected as President of the Yorkshire Warp and Twisters Society (Union).

Michael Walker

Sources: `Communism and the British TU 1924-1933′ by Roderick Martin; Daily Worker 14th April 1930, The Worker 3rd January 1931, `Red Roses for Isabel’ by May Hill

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