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

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