Leonard Tilsley – Stalybridge’s noted socialist councillor and World War One Mutineer and Gertie Tilsley – feminist and community activist

In this article, Leonard and Gertie Tilsley are recollected by their grand-daughter Lesley Wade, interviewed by Aidan Jolly:

Leonard & Gertrude Tilsley, 1921


“My name is Lesley Wade, I’m a Lecturer in the School of Nursing at Manchester University. My grandparents were Mr and Mrs Tilsley: they lived at 99 Ridge Hill Lane and had lived there since approximately 1923. They lived with my granddad’s father Ellis Tilsley and Ellis and Leonard were notable Aldermen of Stalybridge and ultimately my grandfather became Mayor of Stalybridge in 1956. I spent many evenings and many holidays with these two charming people and of course in doing so they did reflect about the house they lived in, the nice new Hague estate and the people they’d met and the sort of conditions of Ridge Hill and they looked at it with optimism.

He was a noted Socialist Councillor and that was part of his philosophy as a very young man. My grandmother was a Manx woman, she came from quite a big farm had a very tragic life because her mother died when she was 13: she brought up 5 children. Leonard went to Coneyman’s Camp on the island, on holiday, and they were introduced by her cousin as they walked along the prom in Douglas. He went to the First World War and they wrote beautiful letters to each other for at least 6 or 7 years, and the first thing he did when he came out away from Cyprus was to get a new pair of clothes, go with Ellis Tilsley’s father and go and marry Gertie Kennaugh.

My grandparents were very much average working class people who were Socialists and they insisted about education, education, education: so that my grandmother had insisted, unusually for that time, that her daughter would also get, if she wished, to go to the grammar school. If she was able, they would make sure she went, so they sacrificed a great deal for both of them. There was nothing in the house of real value except books, I remember that even in 1962, 63, but everything was valued regarding education so of course my mother had done very well at what was called the Nursing School then, and she’d said she was determined she wasn’t going to give up her profession. She became the Assistant Director of Nurse Education at Ashton-under-Lyne Hospital.

I remember I was even then able to distinguish that my parents’ house in Denton was quite a modern house with all relatively modern amenities but my grandparents’ house had stayed as though the Second World War had just not even finished. There was little money in the house because my grandfather was a committed Socialist, he was a grocer and he had quite a few shops in Stalybridge. Castle Hall was one of his first shops and ultimately he had the grocers shop in Hanover Street and then in Melbourne Street as well, so he was well known in Stalybridge and he was the manager of the Co-op in that part of Stalybridge. Everybody in Stalybridge knew them that was quite amazing. Just one reflection is that if we had to go in to town, which we did every Thursday and Friday, you had to dress up. I used to polish my granddad’s boots and I loved it because I loved them but Rosie and I (that’s my sister) used to raise our eyebrows because they wouldn’t have got outside the door without people coming to talk to us and ask Leonard about problems, what could we do, could we help them and it was like a procession into Stalybridge. He’d be very nice and directing people, and he’d retired by then, but we’d always end up in the Stalybridge Reporter office. I don’t know why, we always did that and with one of the chief reporters and I think he’d sometimes ask Leonard what he thought about different things. It was great for me because I’d be sitting there as a young girl about 6 or 7 or 8 but it was quite a learning experience I suppose.

Leonard was quite left wing and had said after the First World War he had contemplated going into the Communist Party and then he thought he’d go into the Salvation Army, he was very annoyed and disturbed by things he’d seen. He wasn’t in France he was in Palestine and Basra but he was very annoyed at the class differences. I’ve just read his war record and amusingly it says something like ‘memory very intelligent, writing very intelligent’ and at the bottom it says ‘very intelligent for a working class man’. It was signed by this Lieutenant; whoever was his Officer – he said he actually got on very well with his Officer. The reason was because the troops that were sent to Palestine obviously thought, at the Armistice, that they were going to go home in 1918. As they got on the boat, the boat went left not right. Leonard, who was probably a spokesperson politely asked his Officer excuse me sir why we’ve turned the wrong way, he said ‘because you my boy are going to Cyprus’. He said ‘the new treaty has changed and we’re occupying Cyprus for 2 years’. They got to Cyprus and there’s two things about Cyprus, Grandfather said it was absolutely beautiful and for a boy from Stalybridge in the north of England to be taken to a Greek island like that, if you had some imagination, it was great. But after 2 years they got a bit annoyed and one day they rebelled and they threw their arms down: I only realised that you could do this after I watched ‘The Monocled Mutineer’. They went out on parade and they just put their arms down and said ‘we’re not continuing’. Leonard thought ‘God we’ve really done it now’, I think there were 3 men, Leonard was one of them, and the Officer in charge took them into the office and he listened to them, and he said ‘why did you do that’. Leonard said ‘well we’ve been here 2 years we want to go home and we want to marry our sweethearts’ and the Officer said ‘indeed and so do I so we’ll say nothing of this matter’. So he was lucky.

If you asked me was my grandmother Socialist, I’d say no she was Liberal, but I also suspect that my grandmother was very keenly an early feminist. She was a Manx woman and as you know the Isle of Man had given the vote to females in 1867. She was an educated woman: my grandmother was the real educator, tremendous reader, very quiet lady and she didn’t socialise outside the house except as the Mayoress. She really kept herself to herself, but she used to make some key points to me. ‘Never forget, never forget Churchill wouldn’t give us the vote, he promised he’d give us the vote and he didn’t and it was only until 1928 that people of England could vote’ she says and that was the most shocking thing when she came to Lancashire, was the fact that she felt really annoyed that she couldn’t vote.

They were very much within a working class culture: the free libraries, Stalybridge Library, was the big boon to them – they used to use the library an awful lot. They were stalwarts of the community: to some extent it was a hard act to follow, and I suppose as my mother said, particularly Gertie was quite Victorian in a way but now reflecting on it I’d say Victorian in a good sense. Of course she was very strict but in the sense that there was an expectation of what you did and you just did not misbehave in any way your voice was never raised, there was never any swearing ever in the house and it was a very genteel atmosphere to be brought up in.

I felt I was growing up in a household where you could ask questions. Every evening in 99 in the parlour, Leonard would have these grey envelopes and they were always from Stalybridge Town Hall and Chester, because he used to go to Chester a lot (that was the centre of administration for Stalybridge) and he’d be working till 11 at night on the papers, never paid for anything but worked till eleven at night, until he was about 70.

My nan said that the new houses on Ridgehill were much better than the terraced houses lower down in Stalybridge and the Brushes estate. They were very optimistic about what socialism could do, but I’m not too sure that at the end of his life granddad was actually as optimistic, because he once sat down with me, bought me a book on the TUC, and said ‘we’ve gone all wrong Lesley, all gone wrong’.

I think both my grandparents and my parents maybe, but particularly my grandparents, they actually lived for the future and they were optimists. The old days were not halcyon days, they were difficult days for people to operate as in a humane way. My granddad died in the early 70’s, Nan lived till she was 94, very articulate still, and she said ‘my God’, when I was doing my A-Levels, she came and collected me, and we walked down into Stalybridge, she said ‘this town has been ripped apart, it used to be so wonderful, the Library, the shops were nice, the streets were lovely’, she said ‘there’s nothing, nothing here’, and that was again the late 70s, early 70s, and that was one thing, the actual decay, the loss of civic pride, very very important to them.”

Aidan Jolly adds:

This story inspired me to write this song, which focusses on Leonard’s WW1 experiences. It’s sung to an adapted version of a Cheshire tune called ‘The Rambling Royal’. This tune also tells the story of a man who deserts (several times) rather than fight other people’s wars – notably, he refuses to go and fight in Ireland. Its roots are in an 18th Century Ballad called ‘The Bold Belfast Shoemaker’. It’s unusual in that it takes the side of a deserter rather than a recruited man, and also in that the soldier’s girlfriend encourages him to desert and shelters him, rather than encouraging him to join up. I’m grateful to my friend Roy Clinging (www.royclinging.com) for the use of his research.

The allusion to Tipperary is there because the song ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’, which became a soldiers’ song of WW1, was written by Stalybridge Music Hall Artist Jack Judge in 1912.

Leonard Tilsley
My name is Leonard Tilsley
I’ve a shop in Melbourne Street
My sweetheart’s Gertie Kennaugh
Who in Douglas I did meet
Now I’m called to do my duty
Not for me the Wipers mud
I’m to stand upon the Holy Land
And baptise it with my blood

We fought the Turk in Basra
Advanced the British Line
Left Mr Lawrence and the League
To settle Palestine
I wrote a letter to my sweetheart
Said “We’re on a steamer back”
But Aphrodite’s Isle was calling us
The ship began to tack

Chorus:
And it’s a way to Tipperary
And it’s even further home
And a man gets tired of putting up
When he’s weary to the bone
So I asked too many questions
And refused to let things stand
And they marked my card as
“Intelligent, for a working class man”

So I put it to my officer
As on deck he took the air
And he told me of a change of course
In Government affairs
“My boy, we’re bound for Cyprus
Its beauties to behold
It’s our duty to the Empire
To do as we are told”

Well 1919 came and went
While Russia it turned red
And by Christmas 1920
I was longing to be wed
We came out one day on parade
And said “we can’t go on”
The Armistice is two years old
We laid our rifles down

Repeat first Chorus

Well they could have called it mutiny
And we’d have all been shot
But the C.O. he was tired too
And let the matter drop
I came back home to Stalybridge
Picked up where I’d left off
Married my sweet Douglas lass
In a suit of Sunday Cloth

Chorus:
And it’s a way to Tipperary
And I was seven years from home
And the land that’s fit for heroes
Is yet distant and unknown
So we’ve kept on asking questions
We’ve refused to let things stand
I’ve kept the card they marked for me
To remind me who I am

So come on all you working folk
When slaughter is your school
When next they ask for cannon food
Don’t heed the butcher’s call
You serve your fellow workers best
With ploughshares not with swords
We’ll bring down the ruling class
Not with rifles but with words

Mary and Percy Higgins: Communists in Tameside

Mary and Percy Higgins, a couple from Tameside, were active politically on the left, first in the Labour Party and then in the Communist Party, from the early 1930s to the end of their respective lives.

Mary was born Mary Boardman on 22 August 1914 in Failsworth, of working-class parents. Her mother ran a hardware and china shop. Politics ran in the family: her parents were members of the Failsworth Secular Society and founders of the Independent Labour Party, whilst on her mother’s side her grandparents had been Chartists. Mary herself joined the Labour Party at the age of 16 and was elected to the executive the next year. She also became active in the Labour League of Youth (LLY, which in the 1930s had 30,000 members) and was elected as a delegate to the Manchester Federation.

She attended a national LLY conference in Leeds but came back disillusioned because, she felt, the young people attending were not allowed to discuss matters of real importance. As well as being active in Failsworth she also helped out at Mossley Labour Party (very likely because she had met Percy Higgins, her future husband, who lived in Mossley). By the late 1930s she was becoming disillusioned with the Labour Party and began reading the Daily Worker. Mary joined the Communist Party in Oldham in 1940, at first it seems as a paper member, because she carried on working in the Labour Party. After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil and hearing Harry Pollitt (the national secretary of the Communist Party ) she made the final break with Labourism and become an active member of the CP in Oldham. She later said that: “I found that I could not reconcile pacifism with a belief that, should the time come for the working class to defend their rights, I would fight for those rights.”

Within months Mary had become the Party Secretary in Oldham. That same year she got married to Percy Higgins. At this time they were living on Dacres Estate, Greenfield.

Percy was born in Mossley on 3 January 1910, one of a large family, and attended St George’s Elementary School. “I learned very early in life what it means to be one of a big working class family in wartime and slump. There were nine of us in the family, but a sister died at the age of three and my father became estranged and separated from the family as a result of the 1914 war.” From a young age Percy had shown an aptitude for painting and drawing but with his father gone and family on the breadline Percy had to be sent to work in a mill at the age of 14 to earn money for the family, instead of going to art school, as both he and his mother had dreamed of. “I shall never forget the heartbreak it occasioned my mother, never shall I ever forget the way she wept when I went off on my first day to work in a cotton factory at the age of fourteen, instead of art school as she had always hoped for.”

Starting as a learner piecer at 10/- a week, Percy rose to become a big piecer by the age of 17, earning 25/- a week, enough for him to afford evening classes in art in Ashton-under-Lyne where he won prizes and improved his technique. Percy was thrown out of work in 1928 but after a few months got another job with a commercial firm in Rochdale.

Whilst unemployed, Percy heard a speaker on the Market Ground in Mossley proclaiming how Socialism could solve the problems of poverty and ignorance. “I thought it over and read some books.” These included the Socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As a result he almost immediately joined the local Labour Party in which he became very active, assisting with the election of Herbert Gibson as the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Mossley at the general election in 1929. “I decided to give all the time I could to working for Socialism.” He started a Labour League of Youth and helped set up the Manchester Federation of Labour League of Youth (which is probably where he met Mary). In 1932 Percy organised a large demonstration by thousands of young people in Mossley against the Means Test and also stood for Mossley Council, but was defeated by 65 votes.

Percy realised his life’s ambition when he set up business as a freelance commercial artist in 1934. Though now a small businessman he did not abandon his Socialism and was Secretary of the Mossley Labour Party from 1933 to 1939 as well as Propaganda Secretary for the Lancashire District Clarion Youth Committee. In 1935 he assisted workers at Mossley Woolcombing to fight and win a strike over pay and conditions. At the same time Percy was also elected Secretary of Mossley Smalltraders Association, organizing a shopping week that same year to mark Mossley’s 50 years as a borough. He was also active in Aid Spain during the Spanish Civil War and in the Left Book Club. He took the 12 month correspondence course for Labour Party election agents, but left the Labour Party and joined the Communist Party in 1940.

In 1941 he joined the RAF and during his time at Padgate camp led a successful deputation to protest at the inept training and the food. After a brief spell in the Shetlands (where he established a Communist Party branch in Lerwick along with Peter Jamieson), he was eventually posted to Allahabad in India in 1943. He remained politically active, organising a Daily Worker reading classes and making contact with the Indian Communist Party. He met Indian Nationalists, including the son of Gandhi. Percy also served in Burma. His activities led him being moved to Nagpur, though this did not dampen his fervour for he made contact with local Communist Party and organized a Daily Worker reading group. He was posted again to Burma where he organized a Forces parliament.

Percy was demobbed in 1946. According to biographical notes submitted for a CP National School in January 1946 the Higgins were living back in Greenfield and Mary was working as a short-hand typist at R Radcliffe in Mossley. In 1947 they moved to Wales, where Percy worked as a full-time organiser and election agent for Harry Pollitt who stood as Communist Party candidate in the Rhondda East constituency several times, though was not elected. They lived in Penygraig, near Tonypandy, at this time.

Percy attended a National CP School in May 1950. The assessment of him noted that that he was very co-operative and ready to tackle problems and contributed well to group and class discussions, “though he has rather a tendency to leap into discussion without sufficiently thinking out his points.”

By the early 1950s Mary and Percy were back in Lancashire. Percy was now organising sales of the Daily Worker in Lancashire, quite successfully, according to a report in the CP archives. Mary worked as a medical secretary at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

They were very active members of CND formed in 1958, and took part in the Aldermaston marches and also marches to Holy Loch where nuclear submarines were based. Mary was involved with the Women’s Peace Caravan which crossed Europe to Moscow. In their spare time (what there was of it) they enjoyed walking in the Pennines and Lake District and also spent time at Dent in the Yorkshire Dales. Percy painted landscapes of their beloved lakes.

Percy died on 7 November 1977 and Mary died on 20 March 1995. The Working Class Movement Library has a tape of Mary taking about her life and politics.

Article by Michael Herbert