Born on September 8, 1906, in a single-end, a one room tenement, in Rutherglen’s High Street, Bill Cowe’s parents were socialists. His grandfather was a rabid reader – Burns, William Morris, Tom Johnstone’s History of the Working Classes in Scotland and Our Noble Families, Keir Hardie, were all read avidly as was Blatchford’s Merrie England and Britain for the British.
Both grandfathers were engine drivers at Polmadie and his father a special class signalman in the Glasgow Central Station, all staunch union men.
At thirteen years of age was a milk-carrier for Avonbank Co-op in the Royal Burgh of Rutherglen, in south Lanarkshire, when he became “the moving spirit” in getting boys together to demand better pay and conditions by means of strike action. For delivering milk seven days a week at six o’clock in the morning in fair or foul weather, they received two shillings and six pence per week.
As he recalled: “It was hard work, carrying about twenty large cans of milk, cream and breakfast rolls, running upstairs, knocking on doors and waiting for the empty can being given back to. you. Good boots, thick stockings, gloves, balaclava and overcoat were essential equipment supplied by the parents of the boys. Of course there were the tips from customers, but only at Easter, July Fair holidays or at Christmas or New Year to any extent.
Anyway we were dissatisfied and the boys at the five Co-op shops agreed that I write a letter to the Co-op Board of Management requesting that our pay be increased to three shillings and sixpence with a supply of oilskins for rainy mornings. We got no reply and we decided to take strike action.
As strike leader I wrote another letter to the board informing them that they had not acknowledged my first letter, that we had decided to strike for the demands and that the strike was almost 100 per cent. Only two blacklegs had gone into work.
Again no reply was sent and the strike continued for ten days. The whole town supported the milk boys. The Co-op was castigated and many ILP and Labour Party members were pressing for the Co-op to lead the way in pay and concede the demands.
Then victory came. The leading woman in each of the five shops was instructed to ask the boys to return to work and inform them that their demands had been granted in full.
Members of the board came to congratulate the boys on their action and explained that a narrow majority agreed to disregard the first letter as “boy’s mischief”. The second letter and the action caused shock and easily won a majority for the milk boys’ demands.
He had attended the Rutherglen Socialist Sunday School from an early age. The result of the boys’ strike was that the school organised a discussion group. About thirty people, mostly teenagers, attended. By the third talk Bill invited speakers from the Young Communist League in Glasgow – Matthew Bird and Johnnie Mitchell.
Having started work at Kirkhill station as a junior porter in 1924, he joined the No 10 Glasgow branch of the NUR. Also, he had previously joined the Rutherglen branch of the ILP in 1923 but now resigned with five others to form the Rutherglen branch of the Communist Party. Their first street corner meeting at East Mains Street was chaired by Bill Cowe, with Bill Joss (see separate entry) as main speaker from Glasgow.
A group within the Socialist Sunday School joined the Young Comrades League (then the children’s section of the YCL). Three of the young comrades and Cowe attended the National Conference of the Young Comrades League in Manchester. There, Cowe met Davie Springhall, General Secretary of the YCL and also Lizzie Bain from Glasgow.
Cowe was, of course, a solid activist during the General Strike and was subsequently sent to the Lenin School in the Soviet Union. His general stance of questioning all authority earned him the following critical report: “strong remnants of petty-bourgeois individualism and traditions of the labour aristocracy”!
Despite this, he was first a District Party official in Lancashire and then became the Glasgow Communist Party Organiser in the late 1930s. He was elected to the Communist Party Central Committee in 1938 and was the Scottish Communist Party organiser, 1940-41.
He was detained for speaking at a gate meeting in May 1940 outside Babcock & Wilcox in Renfrew, at which the Communist Party held regularly factory gate meetings. This being at the beginning of the war, he was warned by the police not speak at the work gate again.
He returned as Scottish Industrial Organiser 1949-65 and served as full-time Party worker through to the end of the 1960s, latterly once again as City Secretary in Glasgow. He later became a member of the National Appeals Committee.
He remained a life long Communist and died aged 82 in 1989.
Sources: Morning Star July 18th 1989; Gideon Cohen, Kevin Morgan, Stalin’s Sausage Machine: British Students at the International Lenin School; Bill Cowe, The Making of a Clydeside Communist (1973);