Edwards Bert

 Bert Edwards

Born in 1896, Bert Edwards was beaten up during a transport workers' demonstration in Liverpool in 1911. So vicious were the police that the day became known as Bloody Sunday. Thus, a proud boast of Bert was always that, before the First World War, he supported the activities of both Tom Mann and James Larkin. His father was president of the Liverpool branch of the Boilermakers' Society from 1900. 


Over the stove in the Edwards’s' kitchen was this motto:

“A union man you cannot be, no matter how you try,
Unless you think in terms of WE and not in terms of I."

In the Army, Bert held Western Command's feather weight and lightweight boxing titles simultaneously. After the First World War, he got a job in the growing motor trade and became a member of the National
Union of Vehicle Builders in 1920. A foundation member of the Communist Party, he became associated with Southwark Trades Council as a delegate for the Trinity Ward Labour Party, although when the 1924 proscription on Communists in the Labour began, he became a delegate from his union branch.


In the early 1920s, Bert was active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement, which he helped Wal Hannington get off the ground. It was the only body at that point fighting evictions for rent arrears. Bert recalled coming down to the Elephant and Castle one November morning and two women met him and took him to “where two little kids were under a table in Maywood Street, shivering”.


Discovering where the bailiff who had evicted the children and their mother, one of the women, he went to his nearby home to see if he could reason with the man somehow. There being no answer, Bert got in through a bedroom window. Ignoring the woman in  bed he went in to the house and found the bailiff and his son, both holding big sticks. But the element of surprise and the threat that the NUWM would come round, saw the evicted family put back. In fact, the NUWM was so strong in Southwark that bailiffs would ask them if they were to defend a particular eviction – and if they were they wouldn't come themselves.


Southwark NUWM would usually barricade up the door, and feed the defenders of the home via a bucket and rope. Although the police often tried to trouble landlords became wary of combative engagements that might damage their property and cost them more in the long run.


The NUWM would also raid factories which were doing overtime.


The 30-year old Bert was noted for being among the most energetic local leaders of Councils of Action in Southwark, where he was President in 1926. The local Trades Council set up this Council of Action. Like the Council of Action, Southwark Trades Council was a very united council. There were two former members of the British Socialist Party on it, who had been Labour Borough Councillors, and when the Communist Party was set up these two even kept their posts for many years.

The Communist Party had a hall in Browning Street, where strike meetings would be held. Given that it was one of the few labour movement bodies calling for preparation for what would be certain to be a general strike, this became a very busy headquarters during 1925. The Communist Party held street meetings at all hours of the day on the corner of East Street and Flint Street.


Bert worked for Gordon England Ltd, a coach building firm in Putney. (E C Gordon England manufactured and sold Austin-7 cars based on his racing models.) In the days before the general strike began management sought some accommodation with its highly skilled workforce. E C Gordon England himself called all the men together and spoke to them from the gallery, asking them to abstain from striking so as to keep the firm going. Bert asked for a right of reply and put a successful resolution to stand by the Trades Union Congress. The factory had hundreds of workers and only around twenty were actually in the union at that point but they all came out Thus, on the first day of the strike, Bert was able to go to the National Union of Vehicle Builders’ District office in Baker Street to report and get instructions to work elsewhere.


Incidentally, two of Bert’s brothers were co-driving runners for the TUC from Liverpool to London during the strike; one of them, Bob Edwards, later became General Secretary of the chemical workers union.


The Trades Council offices in Central Southwark Labour Party rooms at Walworth Road was where the sub-committees met. There was one each for press and propaganda, finance, contact with the TUC and the London Trades Council, an enquiry and disputes committee to handle requests for permission to join the strike, and requesting travel passes.  The propaganda committee had on it Dick Beech, a travelling salesman who had married one of James Connelly's many daughters but it was Tommy Strudwick of the NUR, and a member of the Communist Party, who was the most significant member of that team.


Tommy Strudwick lived in Swan Street, backing onto a factory, and in his front room he had a typewriter and duplicator all set up to produce a strike news-sheet from the Wednesday, the third day of the strike. He had disguised it in a wall recess, with wallpaper pasted onto a hard back so the work area and machines could be covered up. Bert had to pass the house on his way to the Trades Council and would pick up the papers. The police must have followed him, as it didn’t take long before Tommy house was raided.  In the each the police accidentally knocked the paper cover that was disguising the duplicator and found the seditious makings. He was arrested and charged with incitement to disaffection and he received two months hard labour. But three editions of the bulletin were produced before his arrest.

Bert became vehicle builder at a factory on the Park Royal estate during the 1930s. It is believed that he was still a member of the Communist Party during these years, although it is currently unclear when Bert formally left the Communist Party, mainly because he clearly had no dispute over any of its policies or activities.  It may possibly be in the late 1940s, when he married and, it is widely said (Raf Samuel put it in print), only after intense pressure from his wife to do so. But he remained very close to the Party, so much so that it sometimes prompted speculation as to whether he was now a secret member. His wife, Fiona Anne Connolly Edwards (1907-1976), was the youngest daughter of James Connolly, the infamous Irish martyr; it is assumed that her objection to her (second) husband’s membership of the Communist Party was based on a view of her father’s early position regarding the ILP and his final act of founding a Labour Party in Ireland. She is buried in Dean’s 
Grange Cemetery in Dublin – and not with her husband.


At any rate, Bert was a Labour councillor in Harrow and a county councillor for Middlesex, leaving local politics when elected to the union's district committee. Very much on the left in his union, one of the last major political acts Bert Edwards did was to second a resolution at the 1960  TUC opposing nuclear rearmament of Western Germany and resisting the right-wing sabotage of the earlier Scarborough Labour Party conference decisions on defence and nuclear weapons.

Bert retired at the age of 65 from the position as London organiser of the National Union of Vehicle Builders. He had been delegate to the union's area and national conferences, a member of its Parliamentary panel and of the London Labour Party's standing orders committee.


He served on the executive committee of the Labour Research Department (LRD) from 1967 to 1982 and the last meeting he attended was in November 1982.  It is likely that he died shortly after this. In his four decades of service to the labour movement, possibly half of that had been as an open Communist

Sources: “The 1926 General Strike in Southwark”; “Solidarity in Southwark” by Stanley G. Hutchins; “Nine days” by Bert Edwards; http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/text/ninedays.rtf

Daily Worker 11th March 1961(courtesy MW); Labour Research Department

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