Ruth & Eddie Frow and the Working Class Movement Library

The Working Class Movement Library is a national collection of the history of labour movement in Britain, founded in the mid-1950s by Ruth and Edmund Frow, whose personal and political partnership lasted for over 40 years and led to the creation of this unique and wonderful archive.

Eddie Frow was born in Lincolnshire in 1906, the son of tenant farmer. After leaving school he became a toolmaker in the engineering industry. In 1924 Eddie joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and in subsequent years lost many jobs because of his political and trade union activity. During the Depression he was active in the unemployed workers movement in Salford and served four months in Strangeways prison after being badly beaten up by police after leading a march to Salford Town Hall in October 1931, an event that Walter Greenwood included in his novel Love On The Dole and which also featured in the film version. He found work again on his release, became a leading member of the engineering union and was eventually elected as the full-time Secretary for the Manchester District, a position he held for just under ten years, retiring in 1971.

Ruth Frow was born in 1922 and served in the RAF during the war, going into teaching afterwards. She joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1945, whilst canvassing amongst Kent miners during the general election. In the 1950s and 1960s she was active in the peace movement, as well as the National Union of Teachers. Ruth finished her teaching career in 1980 as deputy head of a large comprehensive school in Manchester.

Ruth and Eddie first met at a Communist Party school in 1953 and soon merged their lives – and their respective book collections. They began collecting material on the history of the trade union, radical and labour movement, travelling the country in their holidays

In 1976 they recounted their experiences in article for History Workshop journal:

Our first journeys were in a 1937 Morris van. We carried a small tent into which we crawled wherever we found a grass verge or field conveniently near a town where a bookseller traded. We formed then the pattern which we have followed in the main for over twenty years. In the morning when we are fresh and full of energy we comb the shelves of the unsuspecting bookseller. In the afternoon we laze in the summer sun reading and gloating over our morning purchases. In the evening we walk and possibly move on to the next wide open bookshop. When our money is gone or the van is full, we return to Manchester.
Later developments included a larger tent and a superior car, a Skoda which made down into beds, a larger van and our present combination of a caravan and car. The large tent was fine, although not so easy to site, but in the course of time it became torn and less water-proof. Advancing years warned that the dampness associated with tents was an invitation to rheumatism, so we bought the Skoda. This dealt with the damp situation, but there was never enough room for books. There was the additional difficulty that we could not cook in the car and since it nearly always rains when one needs to cook, our mealtimes became too erratic to be consistent with health. The Morris 1000 van was in many ways ideal. Certainly it had the same problems with cooking, but we became adjusted to cold food and the storage situation was solved by placing our purchases underneath the foam beds on which we slept. As the holiday proceeded and we were fortunate in our book buying forays, we slept ever nearer and nearer the roof of the van. Eventually we were only just able to crawl in the space between the beds and the roof, and books do tend to be unstable in a pile.

The result of these journeys was that their house in Old Trafford became a treasure trove, with bookshelves in every room as well as banners, emblems, prints and much else all meticulously catalogued by Ruth and Eddie – although they could often locate a volume with bothering to look it up so well acquainted were they . They also began writing books, pamphlets, and articles and were in great demand as lecturers, as well as being active in the Society for the Study of Labour History. News of their library spread and many researchers made their way to Old Trafford, their studies fuelled by regular cups of coffee and Ruth’s home-made buns.

By 1987 the house was full to overflowing. Fortunately at this point Salford City Council offered to provide a new home for the library, together with full-time library staff, and later that year the entire collection moved to Jubilee House, (a former nurses’ home opened in 1901) which is situated on Salford Crescent opposite Salford University. In the seventeen years since the collection has continued to grow and rarely a week goes by without some new material being donated. Often a donor will arrive unannounced with a bag full of wonderful archive material that may have been in a family for several generations.

Eddie died in May 1997, just short of his 91st birthday, His obituary appeared in the Morning Star, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent and even (this would have amused him) the Daily Telegraph. Hundreds attended his funeral.

Veteran communist to her fingertips, Ruth carried on their work, visiting the library, neatly dressed and carrying her small case with everything she needed to do for the day. Visitors to the library were often amazed (and on occasions awed) to be personally taken on a tour by Ruth, who would then make tea and happily chat about history.

Ruth died suddenly in January 2008, just hours after attending a library committee. There was no funeral as Ruth had donated her body to science but hundreds attended a commemoration with songs and poetry in her hour in Peel Hall.

The library left by Ruth and Eddie is now recognized as one of the most important labour and working class history collections in the country. It begins in the 1770s and goes up to the present day. It is open to all and welcomes visitors and researchers.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Working Class Movement Library is at Jubilee House, 51 Crescent
Salford, M5 4WX
www.wcml.org.uk
email: enquiries [at] wcml.org.uk
Tel: 0161 736 3601

Benny Rothman and the 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass

Kinder Scout 75 years after

The young man, just turned twenty-one and up on charges of riotous assembly, assault and incitement at Derby Assizes, had prepared notes of what he was going to say to the jury. He wanted to make a case, he said, for the right to go walking in the countryside.

“We ramblers after a hard week’s work, and life in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling on weekends for relaxation, for a breath of fresh air, and for a little sunshine. And we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us,” he said. “Because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days per annum, we are forced to walk on muddy crowded paths, and denied the pleasure of enjoying to the utmost the countryside.

“Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable,”
he went on.

The speaker was Benny Rothman and the trial, held in the summer of 1932, was the aftermath of what has now become an iconic event in the story of the British outdoor movement. The ‘mass trespass’ of Kinder Scout, held on Sunday April 24th that year, saw some hundreds of walkers – perhaps three hundred, perhaps four hundred – stage what amounted to a political demonstration on the flank of Kinder Scout, in the Derbyshire Peak District. They’d been summonsed by hastily duplicated flyers distributed around the Manchester area. “If you’ve not been rambling before, start now, you don’t know what you’ve missed. Come with us for the best day out that you have ever had,” said one, given out in Eccles.

In the short-term, the trespass seemed to succeed only in attracting the wrath of the British state. Benny Rothman’s uncompromising speech from the dock in Derby failed to convince the jury, who – it turned out later – comprised almost a complete cross-section of the Derbyshire county establishment. He was jailed for four months. Four other young people in the dock with him were also imprisoned, on terms from two to six months.

But the story of the Kinder trespass refused to disappear from sight. There were rallies on Kinder Scout to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary in 1982, the sixtieth in 1992 and the seventieth in 2002, and it was the memory of the trespass which helped to inspire a new generation of walkers to campaign successfully for the legislation which, finally in 2000, achieved Benny Rothman’s “not unreasonable” demand for open access to the hills and moors. And though the right to roam is now won, there will be a rally in April this year as well, to make the 75th birthday celebration of the trespass.

The problem with an event which has been retold many times and has entered legend is that it’s difficult sometimes to get a real sense of what actually happened then. It’s worth remembering that the trespassers were, like Benny himself, overwhelmingly young, and that (we know from later accounts) they were determined that they were going to have a good time. The atmosphere, like so often on demonstrations, was good-humoured, and there was plenty of singing as the walkers headed off from the village of Hayfield towards Kinder Scout. What did they sing? They probably sang the Red Flag (this is what one unsympathetic press report claimed, anyway) but they gave Tipperary several renditions too, according to Benny Rothman. And there was another song produced for the occasion, a parody of Harry Lauder’s famous The Road to the Isles:

For by Kinder, and by Bleaklow, and all through the Goyt we’ll go

We’ll ramble over mountain, moor and fen

And we’ll fight against the trespass laws for every rambler’s rights

And trespass over Kinder Scout again…

Benny Rothman was the main organiser. He’d grown up in the north Manchester inner-city area of Cheetham, like many in this part of the city the child of Jewish immigrants. It was a difficult time to be young and working class: the country was going through the great depression and unemployment was high. Walter Greenwood’s novel Love on the Dole, published in 1933, offers a lightly fictionalised account of Salford and Manchester at the time, describing among other things the major unemployed demonstration held in 1931 which had ended with police violence against the marchers.

Benny Rothman was fortunate in that he had work, his first job being an errand boy in the motor trade. In his spare time, he was discovering the countryside, like many others joining the Clarion Cycling Club. “I was a seasoned camper and cyclist at the ripe old age of 16, or so I thought when I paid my first visit to the Lake District . I was a townie on a heavy ‘sit up and beg’ bike, home made tent and Woolworths map,” he later recalled. He was also becoming politically active and when he was about sixteen began to be drawn in to the activities of the Young Communist League. Politics and outdoor interests naturally came together. In his late teens, he helped establish a Lancashire branch of the British Workers Sports Federation, a communist-inspired organisation which had already led one successful campaign, for sports facilities in working-class Tottenham.

It was what happened at the Federation’s 1932 Easter camp which provided the spark for the Kinder event a few weeks later. The camp was being held a few miles west of Kinder Scout, and the programme included an organised ramble on to Bleaklow. Or at least that was the plan. Benny later recounted what happened: “The small band was stopped at Yellow Slacks by a group of gamekeepers. They were abused, threatened and turned back. To add to the humiliation of the Manchester ramblers, a number of those present were from the London BWSF on a visit to the Peak District, and they were astounded by the incident. There were not enough ramblers to force their way through, so, crestfallen, they had to return to camp.”

Back at camp, retaliation was planned. What was needed, the young people decided, was a body of ramblers so numerous that the keepers would have to give way. Someone came up with a name: the mass trespass.

Benny Rothman later wrote his own account of the Kinder trespass, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary in 1982. The original plan, to begin with a rally in Hayfield, was altered at the last minute to outwit the police, and instead everyone gathered in an old quarry a short distance away in the direction of the open moors. Benny Rothman clambered up to address the crowd: “There were hundreds of young men and women, lads and girls, in their picturesque rambling gear: shorts of every length and colour, flannels and breeches, even overalls, vivid colours and drab khaki (khaki shorts and shirts were fashionable at the time), multi-coloured sweaters and pullovers, army packs and rucksacks of every size and shape,” he recalled.

The idea hatched by Benny Rothman and one of his friends was to head northwards close to Kinder reservoir, taking the established right of way up William Clough (then it was generally known as Williams Clough), before breaking off to scramble up the steep hillside towards the Kinder plateau. Another of the trespassers later described what happened: “When we reached William Clough a whistle sounded and we all stopped, then turned right facing up Kinder, as a second whistle sounded. It was then that I saw against the skyline a line of keepers, some of them wielding sticks. A third blast of the whistle and we started scrambling up the steep incline. The keepers offered little or no resistance and we just walked past them…. Having got past the keepers we lined up and marched about 400 yards on to the moors where we met a group of ramblers from Sheffield.”

The plateau of Kinder had been reached, albeit some distance north-west of Kinder Downfall. It was good enough. As Benny Rothman put it, “We were on the holy of holies, the forbidden territory of Kinder.”

Later it transpired that one of the keepers had been slightly injured, and when the ramblers returned to Hayfield the police were ready to pounce. But ironically the prosecutions and prison sentences, widely regarded at the time as vindictive, helped publicise the event and the cause of countryside access. For the establishment, it was something of an own goal.

It’s necessary to add that the Kinder trespass was by no means the only attempt to put access on the political agenda. Year after year, from the mid-1920s to the outbreak of war, the ramblers’ federations held sizeable rallies in Winnats Pass near Castleton. Attempts to shepherd an Access to Mountains bill through Westminster had been regularly made since 1884, and equally regularly had failed. The more respectable ramblers’ bodies were, in fact, deeply angry that Rothman and his comrades had barged into the argument and, as they saw it, compromised their lobbying work. For his part, Rothman retaliated in kind, criticising at the time their tactics as futile (later he accepted that he had been unwise to antagonise potential allies).

Access to Kinder Scout was finally achieved through voluntary agreements in 1952 and in 1958 (though other parts of the Peak District remained forbidden land until 2004). The peat groughs at the back of the Kinder Downfall where once there were only gamekeepers are there to be walked and enjoyed by all. Benny Rothman, who died in 2002, must be there in spirit.

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was published in TGO magazine, 2007

Bill Watson and Eccles Communist Party

Bill Watson joined the Communist Party in 1965, after a chance encounter with a Communist at a construction site in Wolverhampton. He had been working as a bricklayer for six years and after witnessing the exploitation on building sites and how his parents had suffered at work, Bill immediately joined the party. He went on to become a leading member of the Eccles branch, campaigning against Thatcher’s policy to end school milk, to save the last local cinema as well as various issues such as Northern Ireland, Unemployment and Anti-apartheid.

Bill Watson was born in Irlam in 1944 to a working-class family. His father worked as a bricklayer and his mother worked on a farm as well as in munitions factories during the Second World War. Despite the lack of active political involvement in his family, his personal experiences of work and seeing his family struggle did influence Bill’s political awakening. “My father slogged his guts out for 50 years to enrich other people and all he got out of it is bronchitis. My mother worked on a farm; the farmer drives a big car, my mother’s got rheumatoid arthritis.” Bill also remembers that since his teens, he’d always thought that socialism and communism was a great idea but believed that human selfishness would prevent its realisation. This all changed after a meeting with the Communist party when when he was 21.

“It was as if the curtains were opened and this thing about nature was a load of baloney really. Human beings are capable of being everything from terribly evil to wonderfully good, depending on the environment that they live in and how they react to it.” The meeting profoundly affected Bill, who states that he learnt to look at society in a new way and acknowledge that change was possible. “We as humans have changed so much already, we weren’t set in stone.” He moved back to Irlam and got involved with the Eccles Communist party the same year. Bill was also greatly influenced by two books he read at the time: Robert Tressell’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ and Engels’ ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’.

School milk and the last cinema

The Communist Party in Eccles was not a particularly large branch – it only had around 80 members – yet they were very active and campaigned on various local issues. One of the memorable campaigns was against Margaret Thatcher’s policy to end school milk during her time as Education Secretary in 1971. “There was a major campaign over that in Eccles. We had hundreds of school parents outside school gates with placards.” Whilst they failed to change the policy, Bill states it was an example of the party leading a campaign without actually doing in its own name, as they wanted as many different people to get involved and to just win on the issue.

Another campaign led by the party was against the proposal to shut down a local cinema in 1974. “Eccles used to have three big cinemas and this was eventually reduced to one, which was the Broadway cinema, and the proposal was to turn this into a bingo hall. We thought it was a terrible idea.” Locals were also worried that the loss of the cinema would be detrimental to the youth, who already had very limited facilities. The campaign gathered significant support with local people, who expressed their concerns to the council and Labrokes’ company which was suggesting the bingo hall. The campaign was successful in the earlier stages but it went to tribunal and they lost the cinema in the end. Even so, the 1980s saw the rise of unemployment as a major issue in Eccles and the party would play an important role in tackling it.

Working together to tackle Unemployment

Local workers staged strikes against redundancies in local factories such as Gardener, which made diesel engines, and the Eccles communists worked hard doing things like food collections to support them. They also set up an important organisation known as ‘Eccles Community Campaign Against Unemployment’ (ECCAU), working alongside local clergymen, labour supporters and Salford’s trade council. “We would always try to work on as broad a basis as possible because that’s the way that we saw politics as developing- people working together instead of in isolation with groups fighting each other.”

ECCAU campaigned against unemployment and sought practical ways to resolve it by setting up the Salford Unemployment Centre. “We approached the council and for asked for the centre, and after a lot of campaigning and hard work (which included the Labour councillors too), we got the building and some funding.” The management team reflected the role the communists had played and it was composed entirely of ECCAU members apart from a few council personnel. “I think that they were just there to keep an eye on us and make sure that we didn’t do anything stupid, which we wouldn’t anyway!” Bill speculated. There was also a people’s march for jobs which ran the whole length of the country and came through Eccles and Salford and was supported by the Eccles Communists.

Support also came from unexpected places such as Salford’s Conservative Mayor, Tom Francis. “It was the same on issues like race- there were people in the Tory party that were good on race and there were people in the Labour party that were awful on race. There were even people in the Communist Party that were awful on race.” Watson was influenced at a young age by his father’s hod-carrier (a worker who carries bricks to the bricklayer) Billy Taylor, who was Afro-Caribbean, and he went on to campaign against Apartheid and cycled from Manchester to London to raise money for the ANC after Mandela was released in 1990.

Northern Ireland and meeting Special Branch

Bill Watson and with his wife, Sheila, were also heavily involved in the Northern Ireland issue and Sheila even visited Long Kesh internment camp for Republican prisoners on behalf of the Eccles Communists. The following was published in their branch newsletter ‘Red Rag’ on April 1974, describing her time there:

“There was barbed wire and fences and soldiers and guns everywhere. We went into another hut where we were searched. They took my driving license. Then through another door and we waited until our names were called. I visited the husband of the girl I was staying with. He had served three years of a 12 years sentence. The morale was great- they weren’t miserable or anything. He kept talking about when he was out and getting things done but I just couldn’t believe the type of place he was in. Long huts. You know, just like concentration camps in films. Grey and miserable.”

A meeting was also organised by the National Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty) on Northern Ireland at which Edwina Stewart, of Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Association, was invited to speak. Bill, along with Bert Cottam, went to pick her up from Manchester airport to find that she had been escorted by Special Branch, straight off her plane. “Burt and I started asking questions and we both got arrested. I managed to make a phone call that Edwina had been lifted from the plane, I think it was to David Lancaster, one of the councillors here, and then they asked for our names.” Bill initially refused to give his name, but was then threatened with a week’s jail and so he cooperated to avoid imprisonment. Edwina was also later released, although the meeting she attended was viciously attacked by the Ulster Defence Force (an extreme, right-wing protestant group with links with the BNP).

“I saw them pick up chairs and just batter old people to the floor with them,” says Bill. “They had been posted round the audience and there must have been a signal, as at some point they all stood up and started battering people. It was all over in a minute and then off they went.” The UDF had sent in coaches from Liverpool and on their way back, they were stopped by the police but no-one was arrested. Students from UMIST, who had hosted the meeting, took out a private prosecution against some of the attackers, which were successful and resulted in prison sentences.

The beginning of the end

Following the collapse of communism in Russia in the early nineties, the Communist party in Britain disintegrated into smaller parties such as the ‘Democratic Left’ and the Communist Party of Britain (as opposed to the Communist Party of Great Britain). Today, both carry very little influence in mainstream politics and many other members joined the Labour party. Eccles Communist party met a similar fate because, as Bill points out, the political culture where people sign up to a party just doesn’t exist anymore. Although many of the campaigns that Bill worked on were unsuccessfully and the party collapsed, he says he has absolutely no regrets. “I absolutely loved it. I learnt a lot during my time with the party and I really hope that it benefited people in some way.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

The Connolly Association in Manchester 1938-1962

The Connolly Association – originally the Connolly Club – was founded in 1938 from the ashes of two earlier Irish republican organisations. For nearly thirty years it campaigned from a left-wing perspective for Irish civil rights.

The Connolly Association was originally called the Connolly Club. The organisation emerged from a merger of the London branch of Republican Congress (a political organisation established in April 1934 by left-wing Republicans such as Frank Ryan and Peadar O’Donnell, which called for the creation of a Workers’ Republic) and the Irish section of the League Against Imperialism, an international socialist organisation which had been established in 1927 and disbanded in 1937.

By 1936 the Republican Congress was defunct but activity continued in London leading to the formation of the Connolly Club on 4th September 1938 at a meeting in the AEU Hall, Doughty Street. The first organiser, until his return to Ireland, was Michael McInerney. Other active members in the early years were Jim Prendergast and Patrick Musgrove.

In January 1939 the Club published the first issue of its monthly newspaper Irish Freedom (later renamed the Irish Democrat) which cost twopence. The editorial noted that it was the latest in a long line of papers with the same name and asserted that the demand for Irish freedom “will never be crushed, will never be eliminated except by satisfaction.”

An article in the paper countered the myth that the Irish were “job stealers”, arguing that the question of Irish people living in England could be used by:


“Fascist minded people in the same way as the Jewish people have been used by Hitler. In order to take the minds of the British people away from the real cause of the misery existing in England, campaigns are being organised in such places as the Midlands, Coventry, Birmingham etc where unemployment is high, against the Irish.”

The writer finished by urging the Irish to join trade unions or the National Unemployed Workers Movement. The Connolly Club used Irish Freedom to establish its organisation, gradually building up its sales in major Irish centres around Britain

At the onset of the war in September Irish Freedom proclaimed that the Connolly Club stood for “Freedom Unity and Democracy” but that they had no faith in Chamberlain. “We therefore state that the best manner in which we, as Irish workers, can play our part in this grave struggle is to unite our forces, irrespective of party or political differences, to smash the one barrier that prevents our country being able to play a more effective part in the war against fascist aggression, the partition of Ireland.” The paper also published the statement of the Communist Party of Ireland on the war.

At the annual conference of the Connolly Association in the autumn of 1945 the Manchester delegate was Jimmy McGill, a tunnelling worker from Donegal, who was warmly congratulated by delegates on his lively account of branch activities in the city. Jimmy eventually left the building trade to run a second-hand bookshop in Waterloo Place, Oxford Road. The shop was barely heated but the fortunate visitor might find a whiskey bottle in circulation amongst regulars to fend off the cold. Sadly, after his death, Jimmy’s own very extensive collection of books on Irish history did not find its way to a library. The secretary in Manchester in the late 1940s seems to have been Arthur Gracey, who lived on Talbot Road in Old Trafford.

In the immediate post-war period the organisation continued its campaigns on passports, welfare and conditions in hostels where they held a number of meetings. But as the restrictions on travel were lifted and employment conditions improved it switched its focus back to making propaganda for socialism and to raising the question of partition in the British labour movement as well as lobbying for the release of Irish Republican prisoners in Britain. Whilst there were close links with the Friends of Ireland group in parliament, there was little love lost between the Connolly Association and the Anti-Partition League, because the latter echoed the conservative Catholic nationalism of De Valera and was opposed to socialism.

Desmond Greaves became editor of the Irish Democrat in early 1948 . Greaves had been born in 1913 in Birkenhead into a Protestant family which hailed originally from Newcastle, County Down and studied at Liverpool University where he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934, remaining a member for the rest of his life. He also became interested in Irish politics and sold the paper Republican Congress in Irish districts of Liverpool.

In 1937 he went to London where he became acquainted with leading Communists such as T A Jackson, who had a strong interest in Ireland, having known James Connolly personally. He eventually went on to write the classic Irish history Ireland Her Own. During the war Greaves worked at Woolwich Arsenal and afterwards became chief scientist at Powell Duffryn.

He joined the Connolly Club in 1941 and in 1951 he gave up full-time work to devote himself to the Connolly Association and the Irish Democrat, much of which he wrote himself as well as supervising the printing, distribution and sales. In the course of fifty years of political activity Desmond must have spoken at thousands of meetings, indoors and outdoors, from a packed public hall to a handful of people in a room above a pub.

A voluminous correspondent, he had a huge network of contacts across Ireland and Britain and beyond, which enabled the Connolly Association to wield much more influence than its modest membership might have indicated. In addition to his writing in the Irish Democrat Desmond also wrote pamphlets and somehow found the time to write a number of important history books, most notably The Life and Times of James Connolly, published in 1961, and Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, published in 1971. He died suddenly in 1988 whilst travelling back on a train from a meeting, a political activist to the end.

In 1955 the Connolly Association adopted a new constitution which expressed two aims; to win support in Britain for a united independent Ireland and to stand for equal treatment for the Irish in Britain. The organisation also pledged itself to continue to publish and make known “the teachings of the great representatives of Irish democratic republicanism, especially of the socialist James Connolly.” A pamphlet published by the Birmingham branch argued that emigration was not just the result of unemployment and low wages at home in Ireland but also caused by partition hindered industrial development. It stated that:

“…a united Ireland would make it easier to get a united working class and this would make for a higher standard of living, which is the great cause of employment.”

The report at the 1958 conference summed up the organisation’s achievements.

“Month by month members have sold the Irish Democrat. Through this means the policy of the Association have been brought before many thousands of Irish people in Britain and important sections of the trade union and labour movement. In addition to this there is readership in Ireland and other parts of the world, principally Canada and Australia. The various campaigns of the association have been publicised and anti-Irish discrimination has been exposed. Many hundreds of public meetings have been held throughout Britain; thousands of leaflets on special topics have been distributed; MPs have been effectively lobbied and regular branch meetings with talks and discussions have been held in the main centres, principally London and Manchester. London and Manchester remain the two strongholds, and organisational difficulties previously hampering the work because of the lack of premises were overcome by the acquisition of a new central office in London and new premises in Manchester.”

In 1958 the Connolly Association sent the English lawyer John Hostettler over to Belfast to cover the trial of Kevin Mallon and Francis Talbot, two Republicans accused of murdering a member of the RUC in Tyrone. Both men claimed that they had been beaten to obtain confessions. There were three trials associated with the case and Hostettler observed them all. Eventually the two men were acquitted. On his return Hostettler spoke at meetings all over Britain, including in Manchester, about what was going on in the North of Ireland and wrote a pamphlet which laid bare the workings of the Special Powers Act.

The branch in Manchester was active throughout most of the 1950s and into the 60s. Membership was boosted by the collapse of the Anti-Partition League, some of whose leading members, such as Daniel Kilcommins, now joined the Connolly Association. Joe Deighan, originally from the Falls Road, became Secretary of the Manchester Connolly Association and also served as national president of the Association. Tommy Watters was also an active member. Many of the leading members of the branch were also active in the trade union movement. Tommy Watters was a printer and Father of the Chapel, Danny Kilcommins was chairman of his ASW branch while Joe Deighan was a delegate to the Manchester Trades Union Council.

The branch had an office at 94/96 Grosvenor Street, All Saints where there was also a hall which they used for socials. There were regular meetings at these premises for members with guest speakers. In March 1961, for instance, Desmond Greaves spoke on “In Search of Connolly” while John Hostettler spoke on “Human Rights in Northern Ireland and Britain’s Responsibility.”

The branch also held meetings every Sunday at Platt Fields. These ran into trouble in April 1954 when an official from the Manchester Corporation told them to take down the Irish tricolour. They refused, so he tore it down. After protests the council eventually backed down over the issue.

In November 1959 the branch issued a manifesto which called for a good turnout for the annual Manchester Martyrs procession on 29th November and also called for the organisation to be allowed to join the memorial committee. It seems likely that they had been kept off because in the climate of the cold-war politics of the1950s they were seen as too left-wing. The manifesto called for a united front of Irish organisations in Britain, arguing that the Connolly Association had a special contribution to make to the Irish cause because of its working class membership. They also said that the involvement of the branch on the Martyrs Committee would add young people to the commemoration, noting that “the Annual Commemoration in Moston has not deeply impressed itself on the Irish who have recently come from Ireland.”

“So isn’t it obvious that the Connolly Association should be represented on the Martyrs committee – along with all other Irish organisations who are prepared to help to keep this historic national commemoration going year by year. Our participation would completely rejuvenate the event, increase the attendance by hundreds, and would not alter its fundamental character to the slightest degree – indeed we should get back to what Seamus Barratt and the original committee stood for, not the affair of some of the Irish but the affair of all the Irish.”

In March 1960 four members – Joe Deighan, Daniel Kilcommins, Michael Rabbitt and Michael Crowe – were arrested whilst selling the Irish Democrat on Oxford Road, a place they had been selling in for seven years with no trouble. The police alleged that they were causing an obstruction and next morning visited their houses, though no charges were brought in the end.

In May 1960 the Association joined with other Irish organisations in Manchester in protesting when a Mr McMillans, Park Superintendent, banned Gaelic games from Manchester parks on the grounds that they were “not a recognised game,” even though hurling had been played in Platt Fields for nearly forty years. Manchester Corporation backed down and agreed that Gaelic games could be played once more after a form had been filled in.

The Manchester branch attempted to stir public interest in what was happening in Northern Ireland by organising a protest march against the continued imposition of internment by the Stormont government. This took place on Sunday 18th September 1960 when about a thousand people walked from Platt Fields to All Saints led by the Kerry pipe band and Kathleen O’Reilly’s girl dancers clad in Irish national costume. Some unions sent banners and messages of support were received from a number of local MPs, including Frank Allaun and Konni Zilliacus.

In November 1963 the branch made a significant contribution to the history of the Irish in Manchester when they published a pamphlet entitled The Story of the Manchester Martyrs, researched and written by two members of the association Jimmy McGill and Tom Redmond. In 1966 Desmond Greaves spoke on The Epic of 1916 and What It Means For Us today at a meeting on Easter Sunday in Chorlton Town Hall.

In the summer of 1961 the Connolly Association organised a national march from London to Birmingham as a way of bringing to public attention their campaign on the Six Counties. They called for the repeal of the Special Powers Act, an enquiry into the Government of Ireland Act, an amnesty for Republican prisoners and recognition by the Stormont government of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. There were fourteen marchers (including a number from Manchester) who set off from London on 25th June carrying a banner which read “Ireland One Country”. They included Tom Redmond, Aine Redmond, Sean Redmond, Desmond Greaves and Chris Sullivan. Walking in temperatures in the mid 80s they spoke at meetings along the way and arrived in Birmingham on 2nd July when, to their great relief, it finally rained.

Planning for a second march began immediately, this time organised by the Manchester branch of the Association, which departed from Liverpool on 25th August after an address by Eric Heffer, vice-president of the Trades Council. The marchers this time were Joe Deighan, Desmond Greaves, Danny Kilcommins, Sean and Aine Redmond.

On the way into Manchester the marchers were given a police motor-cycle escort until they reached Platt Fields. After an outdoor meeting in Hulme the marchers headed north to Oldham, making a slight diversion to Moston cemetery where they intended to place a wreath on the grave of Seamus Barrett. On arrival at the gates of the cemetery they found them guarded by a large posse of police who directed them to the far side of the road. A cemetery official informed them that the grave was the property of the Gaelic League, who had not given permission for a wreath to be placed. The marchers made it clear that they would not leave without laying the wreath. The stand-off was resolved when a Brother John was summoned who said that it had already been agreed that they could lay the wreath. And so they did and departed on their way, arriving at their final destination of Nottingham on 3rd September.

The third and most ambitious of the Connolly Association marches took place in the spring of 1962. This time the route was Liverpool to London, a distance of some 250 miles. The march left Liverpool on 30th March arriving in Manchester the following day where there was a public meeting at Chorlton Town Hall at which Tony Coughlan, Desmond Greaves, Sean Redmond and Joe Deighan spoke. Attempts to hold a factory-gate meeting the next day were defeated by the weather so two marchers went the offices of the Guardian on Cross Street to hand in some information about Northern Ireland, none of which was published. When they arrived in Macclesfield they found the town in uproar over rents and the town hall being barricaded for the second night running. The march arrived in London in mid April.

Looking back nearly 30 years later Tony Coughlan reflected that the marches

“were modest enough affairs, a couple of dozen Irish men and women giving up part of their annual holidays to try to show what the British government were permitting Brookeborough and co to get up to in the Six Counties. Even though they were met with indifference and ridicule rather than brickbats, these can truthfully be said to have been the first Irish civil rights marches.”

Article by Michael Herbert

Salford’s Unemployed & Community Resource Centre: workers’ rights, anti-racism and gender equality

Everyone knows that a good thing is worth fighting for and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to workers’ rights. On paper, a plethora of laws may claim to protect workers against unfair dismissals and redundancy but in reality they are often left to singly-handedly fight big corporations to enforce their basic rights. In Salford, this is where the radical Unemployed & Community Resource Centre comes in.

Set up in the 1980s, the centre was officially the third Trade Union Centre to open in the UK and has been offering free advice on employment law and representation at tribunals ever since. The centre has also gone on to introduce a computer education course, debt management advice and to launch a radical ‘Salford Prison Scheme’ to mentor offenders from the area. It has also been involved in some of the biggest unemployment cases to hit Manchester, such as the infamous ‘Accident Group’ which made its workers redundant via text message.

Thatcher and Unemployment in Salford

“Salford was one of the workshops of the world,” explains Alec McFadden, an active unionist and anti-fascist campaigner who runs the centre. “There was a massive engineering industry which employed thousands of people and you had very active docks. Thatcher came in 1979 and started a campaign, very very quickly, against the manufacturing industry and the reason was that in manufacturing you had very strong trade unions.” A couple of years later came the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 along with increasingly weakened unions and then, recession and mass unemployment. “The pound was weak and as the whole economy of Salford which was based in manufacturing and engineering went, unemployment shot up and a lot of young people went 5 to 10 years without ever having a proper job.”

The centre was subsequently funded by a government quango (the Manpower Services Commission) as McFadden puts it, “to reduce unemployment- not to solve the crisis of capitalism but to hide the number of unemployed people.” As well as rising unemployment, the radical activity in the area ,especially in Eccles, which had the biggest Communist Party in Britain at the time, made the centre an obvious choice.

When the centre first opened there were around 20 part-time workers running it but by 1995, when McFadden joined, it only had three workers. One of the first cases McFadden was involved was trying to stop the council shutting down a nearby social security office. “By closing the office, the unemployed had nowhere to claim for social security except the main benefit office which was three miles away and then you had to go on two buses.” It was occupied by around 46 supporters and gained a lot of publicity. Three months later, however, it was shut down.

Salford’s Fourth Emergency Service

Despite this minor setback, the centre has been involved in thousands of cases since, many more of which have ended successfully. “We classify ourselves as the fourth emergency service in Salford after the police, fire services and ambulances, because we keep people alive. We’ve stopped people from committing suicide by getting them their benefits and their rights for them,” says McFadden.

“We’ve done a whole host of cases for workers who are being exploited and sacked. One of the big ones that I spent a lot of time on was against P&A Packaging when five young men were made redundant by their employer.” The company had recruited 10 East European workers, trained them and then got rid of the higher-paid original workers. “We appealed and I explained to their employer, Peter Smith, that he had flaunted the laws of Britain… You can’t just sack and make workers redundant… He said he didn’t believe me and that he could do what he wants with his workers.”

On the eve of the tribunal, after being told by the company’s solicitor that the centre would lose the case, they were approached and offered thousands of pounds in settlement for the workers. Negotiations took place under a confidentiality clause and so the settlement amount was not disclosed although newspapers were reporting around £25,000. As a result of this success, more and more cases came through the centre’s doors and the staff are always happy to help.

“We are completely different from the CABs (Citizen’s Advice Bureaux). Its like whether you are from Afghanistan or Eccles is irrelevant to us- you’re a human being with a problem and we are exactly the same about whether its fundable or not.” Just the previous week, McFadden successfully won a case for a young Latvian girl who was mistreated at work. “Two of the girls were working for a hotel and one of them was sacked and the other one was threatened with disciplinary action for nothing. They were both very well educated and their mother tongue is Russian and they were disciplined for speaking their mother tongue at work.

“I rang the company and said that I was going to deal with the case and they were dismissive of me and I said ‘before we enter this situation, write my name down and go on to google and ring us back’. They rang us back and the girl who was given the final written warning, that was withdrawn immediately and the other one, I was allowed in to represent her and on Thursday they apologized for sacking her. They agreed to pay her two months wages after sacking her and she starts back at work today.” A real success story and, McFadden insists, “I have never lost a single case and I think for the community to have this resources is great.” He also added that anyone going to a solicitor and paying for their services when they are freely available at the centre ‘must be crazy.’

Mass Education Campaign

In 1997, the council put forward a ten-year plan for Salford to resolve certain social, housing and financial problems. “Salford was poverty-stricken, as it is now, and derelict, was just one hell of a state,” says McFadden. “You had major problems with Ordsall which had the highest negative equity levels in the UK… there was the issue of housing as the council had so many properties that were in disrepair- they weren’t repairing them- and people were living in horrendous conditions.” The centre decided to take time and consider what its contribution to this ten-year plan could be.

“We came up with this strategy in which we would continue to look after people’s welfare benefits but also look after debt. We would start defending workers in short-term jobs and their employment rights because if you’re not in the union, there is no one to represent you at work.” Another issue that the centre decided to tackle was education and training as a lot of people were alienated from colleges and universities and had only secured low levels of education. “So we started this mass education campaign which over the last 10 to 11 years, I would say, has been incredible.”

After a couple of false starts in which the centre was ram-raided and 4 computers stolen, a computer course was launched with the help of lottery funding. “We had people on the course who had never worked for years. We had a woman who had been involved in the sex trade for eight years, sometimes as a prostitute, sometimes on the sex lines.

“She took to the computers very quickly and was the third person to pass. And not only did she do that, she ended up as a volunteer helping other and when the tutor was ill, we employed her for a month. With that experience she got a job as an admin assistant and two year later was an admin officer in the national health service- so that was something very positive to come from the course.”

Salford Prison Scheme and Male Widowers

As well as supporting those with troubled backgrounds by teaching them new skills to help them move forward, the centre has initiated a new project to rehabilitate offenders. The Salford Prison Scheme “is a project for young men who are in Manchester prisons, come from Salford and are coming back into Salford after less than a year in prison.” They centre employs a full-time worker who works with the short-term prisoners while they are still in prison to resolve issues such as welfare needs, benefits, education, housing and employment.

“One of the main issues is getting them off drugs,” explains McFadden who started the project as he felt that offenders’ educational and employment needs were being ignored. Those serving shorter sentences for crimes like theft and burglary receive no support, such as probation officers, on release, and yet research shows that they are most likely to re-offend. “It’s an area which is completely neglected and I am hoping to announce by the end of September that we have funding for another two years.”

Alec McFadden has also led workers’ rights campaigns on issues very close to his heart. McFadden , who was widowed in 1997 after his wife Berit died of cancer, led a campaign along with another widower Alex Love to enforce the rights of male widowers to benefits. “The law at the time was the if a man died in a marriage, the woman would receive a pension and a lump sum but if the woman died in a marriage, the man got nothing.” The official reason given to McFadden and hundred of thousands of other male widowers was ‘sorry, you can’t receive any state benefits because you are not a woman’!

“So I campaigned in 2001 and the law was changed so that bereavement benefit was established – I now get £599 a month as I have two children to look after. That alone has provided billions for people across Britain.

“We have a reputation at the centre that when everyone else in the country says no, people can ring us and we say yes.”

Unemployed Workers Union

The centre has also recently announced that they are seeking to establish the first Unemployed Workers’ Union (UWU) for 25 years. “We have reached a stage where officially there is 2.5 million unemployed and the reality is that it is nearer 3.5 million. There are loads of young people who can’t sign or have decided not to sign because of the hassle, the stigma- there is no one looking after them. In fact, there is no one looking after the unemployed who are living on £64 a week, which is a scandal,” says McFadden.

Campaigning on issues such as the right to work, an increase in the minimum wage and free public transport for the unemployed (“when you’re unemployed how can you afford bus fares?” says McFadden), the UWU hopes to look after the unemployed who are currently ignored by the trade unions. “There is something that Tony Benn says and that is ‘If you want something done, do it yourself’ and so we thought it’s time to re-establish an unemployed workers’ movement to try and get unemployed people to work together.”

McFadden explains that he seen the impacts of unemployment on a community many times in his life – domestic violence, alcohol and drug-addiction as well as an increase in crime are only some of the implications – “The key thing to give these people is some hope.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Link:
Salford Unemployed & Community Resource Centre

Len Johnson; Manchester boxer and Communist

Len Johnson was born in Manchester in 1902. His father was William Benker Johnson, an African seaman, and his mother was a young woman from Manchester, Margaret Maher. After leaving the merchant navy his father worked for a time on boxing booths and, after a spell in engineering, Len followed his father into the profession. He fought professionally as a middle-weight from 1922 and 1933, and beat some of the best British and foreign fighters of the day, including Roland Todd, Len Harvery, Gipsy Daniels and Leone Jaccovacci. However Len was not allowed to fight for official British titles because the British Board of Boxing Control said that only white boxers could compete for titles. After he left the ring he toured his own boxing up and down the country. During the war Len worked in civil defence in Manchester and after the war worked as a bus driver and then lorry driver. During the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and become an active member, standing 6 times in the Moss Side ward but attracting only a small vote. He attended the Pan African Congress in Manchester in October 1945 and later set up the New International Society in Moss Side which was both a social club and campaigning organisation. He had retired from active politics by the 1960s and died in Oldham in 1974

Leonard Benker Johnson was born on 22 October 1902 at 12 Barnabas Street, Clayton. His parents were William Benker Johnson and Margaret Maher. Billy (as everyone called him) was from Sierra Leone and came to England as a seaman, never returning to his native land. Marrying Billy was a brave decision for Margaret. Popular racism against black men, their partners and children was overt and sometime violent. Margaret was once attacked in the street and suffered permanent disfigurement.

The Johnsons were a part of small black community that established itself in the early years of the twentieth century in Manchester and Salford as result of the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, which brought ships from Africa into the heart of the city. Some of the seaman, such Billy stayed put, married local women and raised families.

Len was followed by two brothers Billy and Albert, and by a sister Doris. The family moved to Leeds where Billy senior worked in a boxing booth. There was a long tradition of black boxers in Britain, stretching back to the prize fighting days of the early C19th. Boxing was one profession where a man’s skin colour might for once work in his favour, and not against him.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 the family returned to Manchester and Billy joined the British army. When he was old enough Len went to work at Crossley Engines in the foundry, later joined by his brother Albert. Len got into a fight at work with another young lad and their father took the two brothers to see some boxing matches at the Alhambra on Ashton Old Road. To Len’s great surprise (and it has to be said consternation) his father arranged for him to box in a few bouts in the hall. Totally inexperienced, Len won his two fights but then lost the next two. His boxing career seemed to be over.

A few weeks later, however, he was persuaded by friends to enter a competition at a boxing booth at Gorton fair, run by Bert Hughes. Hughes was impressed and offered Len a job. It lasted six months, during which time Len greatly improved his boxing skills and stamina. Len was to be part of the world of boxing booths for the next twenty years.

Len’s first official fight as a professional boxer was on 31 January 1922 against Eddie Pearson at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. His professional career lasted eleven years, during which he fought some 127 contests, winning 92, losing 29 and drawing 6. He fought in Europe on a number of occasions, spent 6 months in Australia in 1926 where he had 8 fights, and also visited the United States (but did not succeed in being matched). For most of his career he fought as a middle-weight.

Len came to national attention after defeating Roland Todd (a former European and British champion) twice in 1926 in front of packed houses at Belle Vue. In 1927 he defeated Len Harvey, who later to become the British middleweight champion. In January 1928 he defeated Gipsy Daniels, a recent British light-heavyweight champion. In November of that year he defeated Leone Jaccovacci, the European middleweight champion, in a non-title fight before a home crowd at Belle Vue, Manchester. In December 1929 he defeated Michele Bonaglia, the cruiserweight champion of Europe, also in Manchester. Once again the title was not at stake.

Len’s victories had brought him to forefront of British boxing and he should by rights have been entitled to a chance at the British middle-weight championship. The British Boxing Board of Control, which ran the game, refused to allow this on the grounds that Len was black, even though he had been born in Britain. This was matter of Imperial politics, pure and simple. Behind this decision was the fear that the myth of white superiority, the political principle on which the vast British Empire was based, would be undermined if white boxers were seen to lose to black boxers. Despite protest from many quarters and controversy in the boxing and Manchester press, the sporting and political establishment closed ranks against Len.

Disillusioned, Len bought his own boxing booth and toured Britain, occasionally returning to the ring. In May 1932 Len Harvey did agree to face Len in a fight which was billed as being for the British middle-weight championship but was not recognised as such by the BBBC. Len lost to Harvey after a tough fight. His last appearance in the ring was on 12 October 1933, losing to Jim Winters in Edinburgh.

For the rest of the decade Len continued to tour with his booth. He also turned his hand to writing , producing a series of short stories set in the world of boxing which were published in Topical Times. He seems to have given up his booth shortly before the war started. During the war he worked in the Civil Defence Corps and later as a Civil Defence instructor. After the war he worked as bus driver and later as a lorry driver for Jack Silverman in Oldham.

Towards the end of the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain which was then at the height of its prestige after the part played by the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. Len seems to have to been politicised by his own experiences of prejudice and racism. He also met Paul Robeson on one of his trips to England in the early 1930s and stayed in contact with him. Len was very active in the party until the early 1960s.

In October 1945 Len attended the 5th Pan African Congress, held in Manchester, which was very significant event in determining the course of the post-war anti-colonial struggle. Together with two other party members – Syd Booth and Wilf Charles – Len founded the New International Society, a club in Moss Side which combined social and political activities and ran for several years. In May 1949, for instance, Paul Robeson visited the club and sang to the people in the street and Len spoke at the same platform as Paul later that evening at a big rally at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue ( the site of many of his boxing triumphs in the 1920s)

Len also stood for the council on six occasions in Moss Side between 1947 and 1962, though he never attracted more than a handful of votes. In the mid 1950s he wrote a monthly column for the Daily Worker. Len was also active in the campaign for Paul Robeson, whose passport had been withdrawn by the US government preventing him travelling abroad. On 11 March 1956 there was a public meeting in the Lesser Free Trade Hall at which a special recording from Paul Robeson was played.

In his later years Len suffered much ill-health, perhaps as a result of his many matches, far more than would be allowed nowadays. At some point in the 1950s he spent several months convalescing at a Black Sea resort in the Soviet Union.

His last years were spent in Waterloo Street, Oldham, where he lived with his partner Maria Reid. He was not forgotten though. Members of the Ex-Boxers Association in Manchester held a collection and delivered a TV and groceries . Len died on 28 September 1974 at Oldham General Hospital. The Morning Star ran an obituary written by Jim Arnison.

Len was a major figure in C20th British boxing, though he never held any titles, and he was important activist in the labour movement in Manchester in the 1940s and 1950s. He deserves to be remembered.

Michael Herbert’s biography of Len Johnson, Never Counted Out! was published in 1992 and is available via the author at mossley [at] phonecoop.coop

Article by Michael Herbert

Sam Wild and Bessie Berry – the Spanish Civil War, Communism and Feminisn

Sam Wild, born in Ardwick, was one of the Manchester men who fought in the Spanish Civil War, eventually becoming the commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Bessie Berry, his wife, was a pioneering women activist in British Communist circles.

Dolores Long, Sam Wild and Bessie Berry’s daughter, described their lives and politics in an interview in June 2009.

Unemployment in Manchester

My Dad was a working class man who had a really poverty-stricken childhood. He was born in Ardwick and left school at 14 with no skills and found it very difficult to get work. He got involved in the unemployed workers’ movement because he couldn’t find work in Manchester and so he joined the merchant navy. And he always said, I joined the merchant navy because I knew I’d get accommodation and I’d be fed.

His political education was in the merchant navy, I think, because when he was going round the world he began to be aware of the officer class and the ordinary sailors and the difference in their facilities, different food and so on. Also he began to read, and so he always said that was his political education. He became a bit of a rebel and started agitating for better conditions on ship, he wasn’t popular with the officers, and he actually jumped ship in South Africa and came back to Manchester and started getting involved in the issues around unemployment in Manchester at that time.

The Spanish Civil War

Sam had a sister at that time in Manchester called Hilda, and Hilda had a boyfriend called Bert Maskey who was a Russian emigre. He was more political than my father. Bert and my dad became friends and when the Spanish Civil War broke out Bert decided to go to Spain. He was much more politically aware at that time than my father and he explained what Spain was all about and why democracy was at stake, and he realised that what was happening in Spain could be happening in the whole of Europe. He persuaded my father to go with him, so my father went out to Spain with just a kind of gut feeling. His politics just came from his experiences, he wasn’t particularly well read at that time or sophisticated politically, but he just had that kind of gut feeling that there was something wrong with the world.

So Sam and Bert Maskey went out to Spain together, and Bert Maskey was killed very early on in the war, which was a real loss to my father, but my father through his experiences in Spain became much more political, that was where he really began to form his ideas.

He was in his late 20s by that time. Because he’d been in the merchant navy he’d had a little bit of experience of discipline and organisation, but Spain was also where my father realised the skills that he had. His skills were leadership skills, and he was just a very, very inspirational leader and amazingly well respected by other people he was fighting with and very, very brave, so eventually he became the commander of the British battalion. One of my memories of childhood is when I met International Brigaders who’d been with my father, every one of them would just say I’d had total respect for your dad, he was a really democratic and efficient and effective leader, and very inspirational.

So by the time he came back from Spain – he joined the Communist Party while he was in Spain – and by the time he came back he was a changed person. During his time in Spain – he came back several times and went round the country giving speeches – he just became a confident, political, effective leader and a political leader.

The Communist Party

He stayed in the Communist Party all his life. I think with reservations, I remember when the Khrushchev speech happened, there were long discussions in the family. He stuck with the Communist Party, but he always had problems, he had issues. I think that that was to do with the kind of rebel qualities in him, he never reacted very well to the kind of discipline that the Communist Party instilled in people, he always had a problem with being told what to do by people. So he stayed in after all the revelations came out but I know never with the same enthusiasm. He stayed a socialist all his life though, without a doubt.

My mother who was also political, she had the organisational skills, but my dad was such a rebel, slightly wild and undisciplined, and I don’t think he fit into the Communist Party. My mother did, my mother became one of the first women elected to the Executive of the Party, but my dad was a man of action and the business and discipline that the Party required of people, he really couldn’t be bothered. He was also a drinker as well, I don’t think that helped.

I don’t think it was his kind of interest. The logical thing for my father to have done would be to have moved up in the Communist Party, but he never did that, he wasn’t very interested in it at all, so he spent the rest of his life in and out of work and never, ever finding something that interested him, used his skills, challenged him. I think it was a very sad life. Whereas my mother, who also came from a working class background, a very tough childhood, she got her act together and she had no education at all, or very basic education, but she was very active in the Communist Party. She went on delegations to Russia and Bulgaria, went on lots of delegations and trips. At the age of 40, with 4 kids, she took herself off to college and trained as a teacher, and her life kind of took off whereas my Dad’s never did.

Life after Spain

When Sam came back from Spain he was just another unemployed working class man and the experiences he’d had in Spain meant nothing really. He worked for the Communist Party, he went round and gave lots and lots of talks around the country about Spain and the Aid Spain movement. He stood as a Communist Party councillor in the local elections, and so he was active in all the political campaigns in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Eventually he got jobs on building sites, scaffolding, he was always elected the shop steward and he was very active in the TU movement for building sites and building workers, on safety issues, that usually ended up with him getting sacked eventually. In Spain, though, the situation used the kind of natural skills and abilities my father had and I don’t think he ever really found a role afterwards for himself. And I think that was really sad, because I think he had exceptional qualities but that for a working class men at that time, what would anyone do with the fact that he’d been an inspirational leader in Spain?

Bessie Berry

She got involved in the Communist Party I suppose in her mid to late 20s, and she and my father met when my father came back from Spain. He was giving talks about Spain and that’s how they met. I think that my father respected my mother for what she managed to do but I think he was very aware that her life had gone upwards and his downwards…

We lived in Longsight in a council house on Birch Hall Lane, a very small council house. My memories of growing up are two parents who were always busy, at meetings. There were always posters in the window of this little council house, there were always people visiting the house and kind of interesting people. Black people came to the house, which was really unusual – this was the late 1940s, early 1950s, and they were Africans coming to meetings in Manchester, Indians.

And we were taken to the Moscow State Circus and the Red Army Choir when they came to Manchester, and the Chinese State Circus, so although I didn’t realise it at the time there was a real sense of internationalism which even at that time I began to realise was unusual for someone living in a council house in Manchester.

And the other thing that was interesting is that I had a mother who at a time when most women were staying at home looking after the kids, being housewives, was out at meetings. She was talking at meetings, she was in the Co-op movement, she was in the Communist Party, she was active in anti-apartheid and boycotting South African goods. I can remember being totally embarrassed every time we went into a shop, my mother would ask where goods came from and when they said South Africa she’d say ‘oh no, I’m not going to buy that,’ and I can remember being totally embarrassed by that.

When we went to the cinema, which didn’t happen very often, but they used to have the Pathe news and I’d just cringe because I knew my mother would be complaining or disagreeing with something on the news. And we never stood up. In those days you used to stand up at the end of the cinema for God Save the Queen and my parents would never stand up. So an unusual and not an easy childhood, because particularly after the Cold War started there was, when people, people just had this fear of Communists, so the neighbours were always very suspicious and confused about what was going on in this little council house, and some were very hostile and didn’t want their kids playing with us because we were communist.

When my mother was elected onto the Executive Committee of the Communist Party the Manchester Evening News ran a massive hate campaign, because by this time she was a teacher and the angle they took was that this woman must be indoctrinating her pupils with communism, but fortunately her headmistress went to the Education Committee and defended her and said no, this woman’s just a great teacher.

So it was a very, very unusual, different kind of upbringing. At the time all I wanted was a normal kind of household and a mum who made cakes and wasn’t always out in the evening. As I got older I’ve kind of realised gosh, what an amazing childhood that was and what I gained from having two people as parents who were interested in the world and were active and also totally non-materialistic, just not interested in possessions and things, and having a mother who, although I didn’t realise it at the time was an amazing role model for what women could do.

Links

Working Class Movement Library information on the Unemployed Workers’ Movement
International Brigades Memorial Trust
Working Class Movement Library information on the Spanish Civil War
An ANC history of the British Anti-apartheid campaign
The current British Communist Party’s own history website
Basque Children of ’37 Association

Article by Sarah Irving

Betty Tebbs: “I’ve always been a revolutionary!”

Betty Tebbs joined her first trade union at 14, lost her first husband in WWII and spent her entire life working for rights for women and workers, global peace and justice and nuclear disarmament

Born in 1918, Betty Tebbs started her first job in a paper mill in Radcliffe at the age of 14. Realising that the boys working on the same machine as her were being paid 3 shillings a week more just because they were boys, she complained to a colleague and was told “you want to go upstairs and see this woman who organises the union.”

“So I joined – I still have my badge!” said Betty in 2007.

So I was always active, when I was young, but I didn’t see the political connections,” Betty continued. “But by the time I got into the big East Lancs Paper Mill in Bury, I did. So a while after I got accepted, I started organising. I was there 17 years and at one time we had a time and motion study. They were trying to make us work harder for less, and I brought the women out on strike. There were nearly 300 of us women, but the men who worked on the process side wouldn’t come, so we were on pickets a lot.

They sacked the man who collected the union dues, at a minute’s notice, and that’s why I brought the women out, but after a fortnight it was coming up to Christmas, and he said he weren’t going to see all the women out like that at Christmas, and he wouldn’t go back. I tried to persuade him that it wasn’t right, but he wouldn’t. So the union organiser went to management to tell them, and they said that we all had to apply individually for out jobs and we had this big meeting and I said that we all had to go back as we came out, or not at all, so we hung out for another 4 days, and then they accepted and we all went back. I became Mother of the Chapel then. And I can tell you, we became the best paid paper mill women in Britain. My sister-in-law told me that. She never gave me credit for a lot, because she was Labour Party but very right-wing, but she told me that.”

Betty’s first husband, Ernie, was killed in WWII, by which time they had a young daughter.

“I’d heard on the radio that free train tickets were being sent to the families of men wounded on the front, so when the envelope arrived with the telegram I thought he’d been injured, not killed, and that they were our tickets,” Betty recalls.

But Betty still supported the war against Nazi Germany. Of a newspaper interview which suggested she had been a pacifist, she declared proudly:

“They said I’m a pacifist! I’ve never been a pacifist! I’ve always been a revolutionary! And you know what upset me – was that they assumed that because my husband was killed in the war that I was against the war! I worked on munitions!”

Ernie himself had been in a reserved occupation, but nine months into the war had volunteered, believing that “I shall have to go because fascism has to be fought.”

“So Ernest went and in 1943 he was transferred from the artillery into the King’s Own Scottish Borderers which was like a crack regiment, and after training he was put down on the South Coast and he was on the Second Front. And he got through the second front and fought for 6 weeks till he got the other side of Caen, which was a big battle, I believe, and he was killed the other side of Caen,” Betty describes.

But what did rankle was that within days of hearing that Ernie had been killed in action, Betty got another letter telling her that the money she would receive from the government was to be cut from 28 shillings for herself and 12/6 for their daughter to 18 and 11.

“And when you were still reeling from that, you hadn’t recovered from it, you get another letter saying I was now a single woman and that I would be getting a reduction in the money the government was giving me,” she remembers.

“I was so angry, and his sister was the union organiser and after the war she put up for the local authority in Radcliffe, and she got in but we weren’t accustomed to having Labour in the ward we were in. and I canvassed for her and she got in, and then I became interested in politics.”

But exhausted by working for a living and bringing up a young child, Betty’s mother send her to stay with an aunt in Devon, where Betty met a young soldier called Len:

“One day I’m sat on the beach and there’s a young soldier sat on one side, and Pat [Betty's daughter] was good at speaking for her age and he got talking to her, and then me. And then he was there pretty often, and I though it was coincidence but apparently not. But I’d never been out with anyone else than my first husband, and I weren’t thinking about anything.

“But he started talking to me politically, and how if we had socialism we could have peace, and if we didn’t have socialism we wouldn’t have peace, and if we didn’t have peace we couldn’t have socialism! He’d been to the William Morris school, he was from Walthamstow, where the teachers were all socialist, so he had a head start you see. And he’d volunteered when he was 18, he was 3 years younger than me. And he was there each afternoon – he had a really good job during the war, he was on a motorbike in the Signals, going from one battery to the other to keep the communications open.

“I went home and he kept writing to me, he’d got my address, and then he asked if he could visit and in those days you didn’t have someone in your house like that, so my sister said he could go to her. And then he wanted to get married and I wasn’t ready for being married, and then he said if I weren’t going to consider it there’s no point in me coming when he was on leave, so I said alright, I would. He was posted to Syria and Lebanon, so he was away about 15 months and when he came back we were married straight away.”

Betty and Len started out as Labour Party members, but after it accepted Marshall Plan aid from the USA they left and joined the Communist Party. Both were active, organising in their workplaces and, in Betty’s case, working hard on the peace agenda and women’s rights within the trade union movement. Betty also recalls “cycling round North Manchester at night after work painting ‘Ban the Bomb’ on railway bridges.”

In the 1950s, with a son as well as daughter Pat, Betty and Len left Manchester for Warrington, where Len had been offered a job in a technical college. They had also left the Communists and rejoined the Labour Party, mainly due to local differences and before the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khruschev’s revelations about Stalin’s purges.

On moving, Betty asked the union which factories in Warrington needed organising and was directed to a paper bag plant where, she says, conditions were ‘appalling.’ The mainly women workers ate at their machines, which was illegal, and the toilets were ‘dreadful.’ Pay was low, there was no protection from chemical glues and management retained the union cards of workers who were members. But Betty stayed there for three years, becoming Mother of the Chapel to the union there.

In the late 1960s, Betty also ended up on the teatime TV news after a scandalous speech she made, declaring that “I’m sick of being a kept women” despite being married – her argument being that pay inequalities meant that however hard she worked, a woman would always be dependent on her husband’s income for their standard of living.

But after anti-communism in her trade union meant that Betty’s shot at election to its Executive was sabotaged, she left the job and and got work driving bread trucks for the Co-operative. Reluctantly she started collecting union dues here as well and, finding to her surprise that few Co-op workers were union members, encouraged people to join.

Then, Betty recalls, “I went and got a nice job going round the Polycell factory selling dinner tickets, and I was getting them nicely organised when it closed down.”

At the age of 57, in the mid 1970s, Betty spotted an advert in the Morning Star for a trade union organisers’ course at Middlesex Polytechnic. Encouraged by Len, who said that everyone should have the chance at some further education, she applied. Despite her terror at the interview, she was accepted straight away, recalling that “I think I went through some red lights! So I went there for 12 months, and it were smashing.”

Being in London at this time, Betty joined in with the pickets at the Grunwick dispute, a strike by mainly women workers of South Asian origin at a photo processing plant with appallingly oppressive conditions. The mainstream trade union movement failed to support the workers, and demonstrations at the site were met with police brutality.

On finishing her course, almost at legal retirement age, Betty stopped paid work, but remained an active organiser. Bringing together a coalition of middle-class feminists and working class women in Warrington, she helped found the town’s first battered women’s refuge, despite being told by the head of the Council’s Housing Committee that “We don’t have battered women in Warrington.”

“What made him think Warrington were different from anywhere else?” recalled Betty. “So we tried to raise some money and we weren’t so good at it, and a Women’s Aid group was set up and they were like middle-class women and they did a good job, so we joined them and I became chair of that, and they were good at raising money – I mean they even got Warrington Rugby Club to do a sponsorship – I bet half of them beat their bloody wives up!”

During the 1980s Betty also became chair of the National Assembly of Women, regularly visiting East Germany for international women’s conferences.

“I met some wonderful women – they came from all over the world,” she remembers. “Valentina Tereshkova was the chair, the fist woman in space – she’s lovely. It were very nice having friendships like that. I remember when I was in the factory in Radcliffe and they said this woman had gone up in space. And then one day I was in this conference and it was the break time and she came up to me and said Betty, tell me what they’re doing at Greenham. And I told her and the bell went for the next session and she said Betty, you’ve not drunk your coffee, I’ll get you another one and I though ‘struth, I never thought she’d be getting me a coffee!” She also met with Warsaw Pact and NATO negotiators on the subject of nuclear disarmament, recalling that senior Warsaw Pact officials met them with courtesy and interest, while junior NATO representatives made them wait and were rude and dismissive. As Betty recalls:

“I said to them, why will you not sign a No First Strike agreement? And one them said, oh America will never be the first to use nuclear weapons. I was astounded, and I said, well you bloody well have, haven’t you? Do you not remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We’ve just had a poll in Britain and 64% of the people don’t want American bases. He said, ‘well Britain’s never satisfied – we didn’t come into the first WW soon enough, we didn’t come into the second WW soon enough,and then when we’re there and ready you don’t want us.’ So I said, ‘you never came into the Second WW for us – you came into because Pearl Harbour was attacked.’ I’ve never understood whether they were stupid or just ignorant.

“So we got nowhere with them, and so we ended up at Greenham – thousands of women. It were wonderful. I camped at Greenham, but not like my friends who were there for weeks on end.”

In the wake of the USA’s use of British bases to bomb Libya after a bomb brought down a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, killing 243 passengers and 16 crew, Betty also led a delegation of 150 British peace activists to Libya.

Just as he retired and they bought a new home near one of their children in Rawtenstall, Len tragically died of a heart condition at the age of just 61. So Betty returned to a flat in North Manchester.

Despite her age, Betty has remained active, particularly on nuclear disarmament issues. In October 2007, at the age of 89, she was arrested for blocking an access road at the Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland by locking herself to fellow protestors using thumb cuffs.

“It makes me feel awful,” says Betty. “When they were bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we saw pictures of little children with their skin hanging off them, and I’ve talked to people who were there, people who saw people just burning and who were there one minute and a shadow the next – you can’t think why human beings would do things like that to each other. So for me, it’s a fight for the future, for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchild.”

The state of the world today is still one of Betty Tebb’s big concerns at 91. “Well, now I sometimes wonder what it was all for, the way things are now. In the Middle East, especially – the backing that Europe and the USA have given Israel is the cause of so much trouble, but it’s worked, hasn’t it? It’s like with the union work – if the management can get workers fighting each other they’ve won, haven’t they? And that’s what they’ve done in Palestine. And climate change. The environment is a class issue too – it’s the poor that are affected when heating prices go up or factories are dangerous. When we were near Runcorn in the 1960s Len used to look at the power stations and comment on the waste of heat – he said ‘we could grow tomatoes on that.’ We had a compost heap and solar panels then, to take the chill off the water and use less gas to heat it up properly.”

But despite a world which is far from perfect, Betty Tebbs still has a positive outlook on the decades of work she’s put into the causes she’s believed in:

“It’s not all grind – what you get back from it are life long friendships and understanding, and I feel privileged – that I met Len and he told me how things worked together and how things worked out. He once said to me, ‘I’d not have married you if I didn’t think that you’d be good behind the barricades’! I think I’ve had a good life – and it keeps you going! I’ve often said I don’t know what I’d do if peace broke out! But it’d be lovely, wouldn’t it?”

Links
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Faslane 365
National Assembly of Women
‘Enemy Within,’ Francis Beckett’s very readable history of the British Communist Party
Introduction to the Grunwick Dispute

Article by Sarah Irving

Bernard McKenna and the Spanish Civil War

After fighting Fascism – in the shape of Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts – in Manchester, the 21-year-old Bernard McKenna went to Spain to join the battle against Franco’s troops. Despite being wounded he “never regretted going” and stayed involved in left-wing politics throughout his life. Bernard died in 2008, 2 years after this interview was carried out.

Born in Hulme, Bernard McKenna joined the Young Communist League at 18, attending meetings, educating each other about Marxism and political issues and supporting workers who were out on strike or suffering at the hands of their bosses.

There was always something to do, it was a busy time politically,” Bernard said of the 1930s. He himself worked in a clothing factory in Cheetham Hill, owned by one of the area’s Jewish businessmen. It was a ‘good company’ to work for, he recalled, and his jobs included stock-keeping and dispatch, making use of his good memory.

Manchester was, Bernard recalled, a very active area in terms of support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Money and supplies such as clothes were collected by the Communist and Labour Parties (despite the national Labour Party’s policy of non-intervention) and by aid committees. Spanish refugees already in Britain were also supported, Bernard remembered. “It took hold of people’s imaginations,” he said, “it really livened up the political scene in Manchester because people could relate to it. And we heard about Franco’s misdeeds from French newspapers which were brought to Britain.”

At the age of 21, Bernard McKenna decided to head for Spain himself. The deciding factor, according to Bernard, was that the leader of the Manchester Communist Party decided to go, and Bernard himself thought “what the hell am I doing here? I’m doing a job here of no great importance, maybe if I go there I can do something useful.”

He left in January 1937, crossing the Pyrenees on foot, to find a situation of individual workers in Spain looking for ways to be useful. Meeting up with other volunteers from Latin America, Europe and the USA they formed a military unit, drawing on the experience of men who had served in WW1 or in regular armies in their own countries. Bernard himself recalled that “I was lucky, I’d no military experience so they put me in a group being run by a Czech ex-army man who was really good, and I got quite a number of weeks’ training. It was unusual to have been so well and efficiently trained” This training including physical fitness, use fo weapons, self-defence and political and military education.

“I realised it was more or less a dead end job,” Bernard joked, “but I hoped to be able to do something useful.”

As he was posted out, a need was identified for communications operatives, working with radios and telephones in an all-British battalion.

My job was simple,” Bernard described. “When we went into line to take up any lengths of phone wire and exchanges and field telephones and help to install them, and then after to fall back in with the battalion and fight with them, and then help to try and put things right if anything happened to the communications. At times when there wasn’t a lot of fighting, if the battalion was holding a position, that was something for me to do. When we got wounded members we could use the telephones to ring up and get cars or vans to move them out to bases where they could be looked after – this was difficult because if the fascists found a hospital they’d bomb it, you’d take a wounded person there and then have to find another one.”

According to Bernard’s descriptions, although this was a busy time the military action was mainly defensive, and at times members of the brigade would also be drafted in to help with farming and other tasks in villages where most of the men had been captured by Franco’s fascists or were in the Republican armies. But with the Fascist offensive in Central Spain and towards Madrid the action largely turned into defensive fighting and retreats. “It was a miserable existence from a military point of view, but there was still a feeling that we could stop them sometimes and stop them getting big victories,” Bernard recalled of the hot summer of 1937. “But there was a constant dwindling of people because of casualties, men would disappear to hospital or burial grounds, and fresh ones would come in and have to be trained.”

Bernard himself was wounded in the foot and taken out of the lines for several months. “It was a stray machine-gun bullet, it got lodged in my shoe,” he described of his injury. On recovery, he returned to the Aragon Front and was part of a major retreat under one of Franco’s attacks. But, he recounts:

“I was thinking it was a shame to leave all that telephone cable, so I took a trolley and collected some to take it back cross-country. I went onto the road to pull the trolley and ran into a group of Italian soldiers who took me prisoner, drove me off and handed me to Franco’s Spanish. They put me in a concentration camp, which was pretty rough. Ispent some months there, but we got by. Then the Italians helped me – they were pushing for an exchange of prisoners and after a lot of pushing the fascists agreed, so they took 100 International Brigaders from where I was, British and French, and handed us over in exchange for 100 Italians. We were given to the Italians in the rags we were living in, covered in lice and first thing the Italians did was to give us some second-hand Italian army uniforms, so I ended up dressed as an Italian private. I was handed to the front, under military guard then taken to a port and we were pushed onto boats. In Britain we were handed over to the police and sent under supervision to Manchester – still wearing an Italian private’s uniform.”

Bernard had been away for nearly 2 years, and on his return travelled round the North-West talking about his experiences and trying to raise support for the Republican cause. But he left the Communist Party during WWII in order to volunteer for the British army, so that he could choose to serve in the RAF rather than being conscripted into the infantry. With his communications experience from Spain he joined a signals unit and served in Malta, North Africa and what was then Persia.

Bernard McKenna rejoined the Communist Party after WWII and continued his efforts to keep the issue of Spain alive, joining anti-Franco rallies and supporting Republican refugees from Spain. He also trained to be a teacher and after the decline of the British Communist Party joined Labour. Even into his 80s, Bernard carried on listening to Spanish radio, reading Spanish left-wing newspapers and attending reunions with fellow members of the International Brigades.

In 2006, Bernard lamented the move to ‘middle-of-the-road’ politics and the absence of any real left-wing alternatives. “I’m glad I went to Spain,” he emphasised. “It was important not just for the people of Spain but also for anti-fascists from Britain – many weren’t that politically strong but went out of feelings of humanity and feelings of anti-fascism.”

And he also emphasised his fears about the continued presence of fascism in European politics. “People see Spain as somewhere pleasant with sunshine. It’s easy for them to forget that it was a fascist dictatorship until very recently.”

Links:
The International Brigades Memorial Trust
Working Class Movement Library resources on the Spanish Civil War
Bernard McKenna’s obituary in the Times
Manchester Evening News interview with Bernard McKenna from the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War
Information on Spanish refugees and evacuated Basque children in Britain
La Columna, a British re-enactment group commemorating the International Brigades
Basque Children of ’37 Association