John White was born on the 5th May 1921 at the rural location of Crosslee, near Johnstone. On his father’s side his family were English, on his mother’s Scottish. And his mother’s mother’s family were French. There was an uncle called Eugene from whom John gained his love of books.
Times were hard, John recalled his father, who was never in very good health, having to make a two hour journey to work in Glasgow, walking into Johnstone to get the first of a series of trams. John himself left school in 1935 at the age of 14 and worked in a number of engineering factories before serving his apprenticeship at Rolls Royce.
Later, in Rolls Royce he met his future wife Barbara, who was employed there in war work, and became involved with the Communist Party. This was at a time when the party branch in Rolls Royce was over sixty strong and the convener of the factory was the leading Communist Willie Dunn.
Towards the end of the war John entered the merchant marine serving as ship’s engineer on convoys taking troops to the Far East and taking with him each time consignments of Marxist literature. By 1947 he had returned to Rolls Royce and married Barbara. They lived first in a Nissen hut in Johnstone and later in a tenement in Neilston Road, Paisley where their daughter Ann was born in 1951.
Through these years John was a very active trade unionist and a committed Communist. He stood as Communist candidate in Johnstone in 1949 campaigning particularly on the dreadful housing conditions in which many people, including his own family, still lived. He was also very active in the peace movement. When she was still a young child, playing outside the house, Ann remembers him coming down the street, returning from Holy Loch after the protests against the first nuclear missile base on the Clyde in 1960. After a weekend in police cells John was, very untypically, unshaven and unkempt. After the tragic early death of Barbara, John found himself a single parent.
As a trade unionist John soon became secretary of his local Johnstone branch of the Engineers Union, the AEU, and later a member of its Paisley District Committee. He was for many years Treasurer of the Paisley Trades Council. As an officer, he served beside Willie Gallacher as President and Bill McQuilken as Secretary, a proud record indeed. There’s a wonderful picture of John’s smiling face just behind that of Willie Gallacher on the commemorative booklet produced to celebrate the joint 100th anniversaries of the STUC and Paisley University.
It’s an appropriate memory of a man who was one of that generation that brought the Scottish Trade Union movement to the pinnacle of its achievement in the 1970s, a time when the movement was fighting for the right to work, to defend trade union freedom, to protect the welfare state and advance council housing – and also for a Scottish Parliament. A time which saw Rolls Royce under public ownership developing the RBII engine, developments in which John, as a skilled engineer and a socialist, took great pride.
John, who died on the 7th April 2008, was a modest man. He never made big claims about himself or sought the limelight. But it was precisely by such modest men and women that the movement for a better life was built, people who were trusted by their colleagues, people like John who had a compulsion to talk, explain and help others understand.
Source: funeral oration, courtesy John Foster (CPB Scotland)