Johnson Charley

Charley Johnson

This piece is by Charlie Johnson himself

I was born in a little terraced house at 39, Elbow Street, Old Hill, Staffordshire, on 19th July 1924 the youngest of four. One died in infancy and, in 1932, my eldest brother Sidney was killed at Stewart & Lloyds. Profoundly influenced by Sidney's praying for work, I could not understand why folk around me were hungry and ill-clad when millions were denied work to provide those necessities of life.
After Sidney's death my Mother, Alice, continued to work making hand made nails for 18 shillings a week to keep myself and Clifford my remaining brother, having been abandoned by our father in 1928. Every month, Alice took me with her to Stourbridge where she received a meagre sum doled out by judges’ chambers of the remains of £300 given by Stewart & Lloyds on the death of Sidney. It was here again that as a child I asked a Judge why he should dole out blood money that belonged to his Mother. "Watch that boy" said the Judge "he will be a source of trouble."

During this early period, I took jobs at the age of 10 years to help family income by taking out groceries and taking dinner to those in work. At 14 years of age, I entered full-time work at a local factory where, at 16 years of age, I started to recruit workers into a union – the AEU. In all these early years I was influenced by my godmother, Tilly Harris, who in her early years was influenced and became active in the chain-makers union, started by Mary McArthur in the early part of the century.  (Ed: Tilly’s son was Bert Harris, the Communist convenor at Boulton and Paul’s factory in Wolverhampton; letter to FW.) The other influence was my Uncle Jack whose experience of capitalism taught me of the idiocy of a society that produced poverty in the midst of plenty.

Charlie later recalled the kind of intense social solidarity that motivated Communists in a letter in the 1990s that, long before the official “Kindertransport” movement, one local Oldbury Communist Party couple, the Evans, “adopted a Jewish lad rescued from Hitler Germany, and brought him up as one of their own. A few years later, in, I believe about 1937, they adopted a Spanish refugee child. The strange thing is that both these adopted children were given a university education and had worthwhile careers. The two Party members who adopted these refugee children had two children of their own, neither of them had more than a state school education and ended up in mediocre jobs.” [Letter to FW]

After service in the forces toward the end of World War Two, I returned to the Labour Government of 1945-50, with high hopes from the setting up of the Welfare State and the nationalisation of the major industries making the first inroads into the power of the capitalist system. Later all this was changed by the gradual retreat by the Labour Party and the decline in the militant views of the early socialists.

Like all previous Labour governments, this one betrayed the principles on which it was based. Having joined the Communist Party in 1947, I decided to stand as a candidate for the local council.

Despite my defeat the campaign lead to recruits joining the Party and the setting up of the Tenants Association. I was active in the AEU, in the machine tool industry. In 1950, with the decline in trade in machine tools, this was an opportunity for my boss to get rid of the militants, and four of the active members of the union were made "redundant". Trying to find work, a local Employment Exchange clerk told me to take a temporary job in the Civil Service. Even here, it came to the notice of the Chief Regional Officer to haul me before him "for making derogatory remarks against the Royal Family" in the Trades Council of which I was a delegate from my union branch.

Like many others I regarded the 1960s as one of the important periods after WWII. There was a surge of activity around the peace movement of which I was an early member of the CND and also against racism. The early marches to Aldermaston found me helping to fill coaches from the area and in local demonstrations. Alongside this was my membership of The Community Relations Council as a delegate from the Trades Council. This alongside activities on the newly formed Tenants Associations took up most of my time.

Work wise, I felt unfulfilled with the Civil Service and, in 1953, until the end of my working life in 1986 I worked for the GPO, and later British Telecom, as a maintenance engineer and was involved in two disputes. This brought me in contact with Ruscoe Clarke (see separate entry), a consultant at the Birmingham Accident Hospital in Bath Row, who had a great influence on my development as a Communist.

Ruscoe was a very modest but highly skilled surgeon whose mind was as sharp as his scalpel. His early death was a great blow to his profession and the people he worked with. Ruscoe wrote two papers closely associated with his profession, one on burns the other on shock.

From my early working years I carried my membership of the union movement with pride. My union branch in Cradley Heath elected me to officer's positions from minute secretary to branch chair. I was elected annually as delegate from my AEU branch to the Trades Council and the Midland Federation of Trades Councils.

In the miner's strike of 1984 I, along with members of POEU, carried out regular street collections and organised demonstrations of support with miners, alongside this was a series of resolutions of support involving unions and political parties.

With the defeat of the miners the left knew that anti-union legislation would be strengthened to put the movement in a straight jacket – this has proved to be the case and any doubts that the Labour Party would scrap this legislation once in power has disillusioned many Labour Party members, as the present government has retained these anti-union laws on the statute book.

My mother was by now in her late nineties and this brought additional problems as she became more and more incapacitated and I was forced to retire when she could no longer cope when a warning came from my GP that I could not continue to work and look after my mother. I had to enter hospital for a minor operation. As there was no one to care for her while I was there, my mother had to be taken to hospital for geriatric care. This proved to be the means to the change in her condition and the Geriatric Consultant was able to diagnose pernicious anaemia as being the reason for her incapacity and she was able to walk again at 100 years of age!

In this situation she had to be placed in a Residential Home. My visits to the home brought about a change in my life which was to be one of the happiest, when I met my present wife Betty, a care worker from the home where my mother was a resident. Mother lived to the age of 103 years – a life through some of the bitterest years of the twenties and the hungry thirties. Despite all the anguish of making ends meet, her spirit and indomitable character made for a happy atmosphere within the household and among her friends and neighbours. She grew to understand the nature of the society she lived under and joined the Communist Party at the age of 82. She had long read the Daily Workers and was always challenging the council, the landlord, or the electricity board!
My wife were involved in the campaigns against the poll tax, even inside the local court, giving advice how to proceed, and outside in a demo. We joined peace demonstrations, filled coaches in anti-war campaigns and joined the pensioners’ fight for a decent life on retirement.

At the age of 83 (at time of writing) I am still campaigning among the retired members of my union and among pensioners.  In your 80s, sometimes the legs won’t go where they ought but, as long as we point `em for'ard, that's all we ask.

Sources:  and undated letter [c 201/2002] to Frank Watters


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