Friday, 28 July 2017

Bill Christopher: A radical born on Bastille Day

From South Africa to West Yorkshire

Brian Bamford peruses the politics of the 1960s, 

as he talks to Joan Christopher about her husband, Bill

THE early 1960s was a time of great expectations in radical left-wing politics.  There had just been the Campaign to Boycott South African Goods, called by the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The boycott attracted widespread support from students, trade unions and the Labour, Liberal and the then Communist Party.  The Anti-Apartheid Movement had begun as the Boycott Movement, set up in 1959 to persuade shoppers to boycott apartheid goods.

The Campaign to Boycott South African Goods had been preceded by another single issue social movement the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was founded in 1957 in the wake of widespread fear of nuclear conflict and the effects of nuclear tests.  In the early 1950s, Britain had become the third atomic power, after the USA and the USSR had recently tested an H-bomb.

 Joan and Bill Christopher on holiday in France
Politically this was the atmosphere of the early 1960s, especially in London where Bill and Joan Christopher were to be activist members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) for most of their adult lives.  However, there were unofficial strikes and industrial struggles going on at that time, and in 1960 Bill had left the I.L.P. to join the Worker's Party [1] formed by Brian Behan [2], when Brian and others had broken away from the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League in 1960.  The Worker’s Party later merged with the Syndicalist Worker’s Federation (SWF).

Later together with the Freedom Press anarcho-syndicalist Peter Turner, Bill Christopher was to become joint-secretary of the Industrial Sub-committee of Committee of 100 [3], that was a time of great conflict and activity during the national campaign against nuclear weapons and the Bomb.  It was to be out of this Committee of 100 London Industrial Sub-Committee that the industrially based National Rank & File Movement (N.R&F.M)[4], an organisation of militant trade unionists and shop-floor syndicalists, developed and was founded at a conference in London in January 1961.

An article in Freedom newspaper covering this National Rank & File founding conference, of which Bill Christopher was an active member,announced:
 
'This week-end there is to be held in London the first Conference of the newly-formed Rank and File Movement.  Much work has been put into the preparation of this conference by liaison committees; discussion meetings have been going on in London, resolutions and amendments have been drawn up, and it may well be that this event will be a significant one for militants among the industrial workers at least.' 
(FREEDOM: January 28, 1961)


Joan Christopher speaking to N.V. in Todmorden, West Yorkshire

  Introduction to the interview by Brian Bamford

These were the days before Spies for Peace and before my own trip to Spain on behalf of the young libertarians of F.I.J.L in France, before the arrest of Stuart Christie in Madrid in 1964, well before the student sit-ins at the L.S.E. in 1967 and before the French events in 1968 and the 'Donovan Report' into the trade unions .  Back then I and my then compañera, Joan Matthews, who were staying with the S.W.F. national secretary Ken Hawkes at his home on Parliament Hill, attended this London national rank and file conference of perhaps 200 workers and activists; we were both employed at that time at the same engineering firm in the North West. At this conference we were sat in front of the Freedom Press anarchists Colin Ward, Philip Sanson and his compañera.  It was the first time that I’d met people like

Bill Christopher, Brian Behan, Ken Weller of Solidarity, and Peter Turner of Freedom Press, with whom I became a close friend for the rest of his life.  

In a pamphlet authored by Bill Christopher entitled 'SMASH THE WAGE FREEZE!' (1960s), and published by the Syndicalist Worker's Federation, Bill wrote:

'It is obvious that today only a Labour Government would dare to implement a wage-freeze policy and arm it with heavy penalties for non-implementation...  The opening attack on workers' wages and conditions came with George Brown's Joint Statement of Intent on Productivity, Prices and Incomes.... shop stewards wishing to improve wages and / or conditions in their plant, are subject to the penalties of the Act.  The officials of their respective unions can also be penalised.'
 
The intention of the then Labour government here would be to discourage unofficial strikes, that is strikes not supported and financed by the trade unions: in the 1950s and early 1960s unofficial strikes represented about 90% of all the industrial action taking place.  Historically shop stewards were intended to be simply 'union card checkers', in the 1896 rule book of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, that later became A.U.E.W., this was stated to be the sole role of the steward.  Yet, after the Second World War the shop steward had become a key figure on the shop-floor.  Bill Christopher during his involvement with the S.W.F. and in his writings as an industrial editor on Freedom, was anxious to extend the responsibilities of the shop stewards as was the rest of us involved in the National Rank & File Movement.

*******

Political Journey - wartime South Africa to West Yorkshire



Bill Christopher in the North of England

Bill Christopher was born on Bastille Day in July 1924, and died in January 1993.

Brian Bamford's Joan Christopher interview on Bill Christopher:
Began April 2015 and was finally completed in July 2017.

Brian Bamford: When did you and Bill first move up to Todmorden?

Joan Christopher: We came here in July 1986. I was born an Essex girl in a town called Woodford in 1928, but my family moved to Walthamstow from around 1930.

Brian:  How did you find living up here?

Joan:  We didn't know how things were going to work out. Of course, we had been up to visit Aileen and Bob (daughter and son in-law) several times. But I soon learned to drive after coming up and I began to go to college to do A-level art. Some dear friends of ours Eric and Joan Preston (in the Independent Labour Party) lived in Leeds

Brian:  Has Todmorden changed much since you came?

Joan:  There has not been a great deal of change. There is more of a hint of tourism – a bit like (nearby) Hebden Bridge, and it's more gentrified now. We use to meet people who had not been out of Todmorden all their lives.

Brian:  How does life up here compare with London?

Joan:  Bill use to reminisce about about London. He didn't seem to settle down as much as me. For me I’ve liked living up here and I find ‘Tod.’ people very friendly – I like somewhere a bit rural and countryfied.

Brian:  How did you meet Bill?

Joan:  I use to work with Bill's sister, Jean; sewing. I started working when I was 14-years-old at a dress-making factory cutting, finishing and re-drawing from the pattern book on Hudson Street, Walthamstow for about 4 months.   I then worked at Cannels Ltd dress-making. It was through his sister Jean that I met Bill and we first went out at Xmas 1942. Jean use to say Bill only liked me because I liked playing monopoly.  He had asked me to go to the pictures a week before he went into the RAF.   Bill was a volunteer and didn’t wait to be called-up, nor was he influenced by his mates at the time into his decision to join up.   At that time he was at first doing air-training in St. Johns Wood.
Later he was based in South Africa training to be a navigator, and didn't come home until 1944. After that he was in the Army in India until 1947.
While he was in India during the troubles there; that is during the Bombay riots, I remember him saying that he shot into the air,.rather risk hitting anyone.
He didn't talk much about South Africa! It was the war that influenced his later political views as well as his later (post war) experience in India (in the Army).  When he went to the war he had been a Christian and as a boy he wanted to be a missionary in the Church of England. My Mum too had been a strong believer before she met my Dad.
After he left the Army, Bill (Christopher) went back to working in the print (industry) in the 1940s up to the 1970s.  He was an Imperial Father of Chapel (Works Convenor) at the Daily Mail in NATSOPA and Sogat. After he left school he worked flat-bed printing on 'The Queen' magazine, which was a glossy.  He was doing White Chapel preparation though his grandfather had been a copy-taker.   He left the Daily Mail, went on to Teacher’s Training College, and later began teaching in the early 1970s.  He taught at Leyton County High School for Boys.  Bill was a member of the NUT (National Union of Teachers).   Bill came into teaching as a mature student and ended up teaching sociology as part of his teacher’s training certificate.

Brian:  Why did you both come up North?

Joan:   In July 1985, he decided to retire, because Bill didn't have a degree and he assumed that he wouldn't get a job in a 6th form College or High School. He was 61 (Bill was born in July 1924). We already had a daughter living in Cornholme in Todmorden. Our daughter, Aileen, has lived in the North longer than down in London. She originally lived in Cornholme, Todmorden, but is now over the border in Burnley.
When we got here Bill studied for a Master's degree (entitled) 'The women's role in the factories in World War II'. An oral history involving (research) doing interviews with workers (who had) worked in the mills and factories in the Tod(morden) area (in the War). It was a dissertation for his MA (Master's Degree), and I typed it up for him on a Word. Processor. He started studying for a Phd shortly before he died.

Brian:  What do you reckon of today's politicians?

Joan:  You can see that I am a Labour supporter (a Labour Party poster is in the window). Both me and Bill voted Labour in the 1945 and 1951 general elections: although I haven't got a lot of faith in any of them. Because they make promises and then can't deliver. I look on Labour as being the lesser evil. I always vote, because people died to get the vote. The trouble is that big business has more control, although you do get the odd MP who does a good job.

Brian:  But you were both in the Independent Labour Party (ILP)?


Joan:  (The I.L.P. merged with the Labour Party in 1975) when the I.L.P. stopped being the Independent Labour Party and became the 'Independent Labour Publications'.
Bob Galliers (Bill's son-in-law) intervene here to say that Bill had always been a syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist, and that they (Bill and Joan) had been raided by the police in 1963 after the revelations in the Spies for Peace documents.
Joan Christopher then continued:
In the mid-1960s Bill wrote and edited industrial and labour reports for the Freedom newspaper with Peter Turner, who was a carpenter in the building trade.
I wrote for Freedom (the anarchist weekly newspaper) a piece about that raid after the 'Spies for Peace' [5] incident at Aldermaston at Easter in 1964. (At that time this 'subversive' document was being widely circulated by anarchists, independent socialists and pacifists and) at a Conference of the I.L.P. in Yorkshire [probably Scarborough] everyone were asked to reproduce the 'Spies for Peace' leaflet.  (At that time) Eric Preston, Bill’s friend in the I.L.P., was being followed by the police as he moved 'Spies for Peace' leaflets and other materials from Leeds to London, but when he his copies in the Left Luggage, the police moved in and took them. The organisation 'Solidarity'* (nothing to do with the current Solidarity Federation) started the 'Spies for Peace' campaign. (Bob then intervened to say the journalist Natasha Walter published a book on the 'Spies for Peace'): (her father was, Nicolas Walter the well-known anarchist writer, and the only member of the 'Spies for Peace' to go public on this matter).
We also duplicated a rank and file newsletter the ‘Seaman’s Voice’ in Cumberland Road, and as I recall one of the seamen ended-up stapling his own finger, but he was still enough of a gentleman to avoid swearing in front of a woman, although I’m sure that he wanted to.
Bill unsuccessfully fought the Walthamstow parliamentary seat (at different times) for both the ILP and CND.. He was a member of the (anarcho-syndicalist) Syndicalist Worker's Federation (SWF) and produced both 'Worker's Voice' (then the paper of the Worker's Party) and 'World Labour News'. Earlier in 1959, we were both involved in the 'Worker's Party'* with Brian Behan* (the brother of the play-write Brendan Behan and musician Dominic), but Brian was very mercurial.
Bill rejoined the I.L.P. around 1980ish, and the 'Friends of the ILP' are now part of the Labour Party.

Brian:  What did you do in the Miner’s Strike?

Joan:  We supported the miners! 
We had an ‘I.L.P. Miner’s Support Group’ through which we channelled our support. We were awarded a Miner’s Lamp for our efforts. I’ve still got that lamp here at the bottom of the stairs.

Brian:   I believe that William Morris was born in Walthamstow?

Joan.:  Yes, in the 1930s the house were he was born was turned into a clinic, and when I was a kid, I attended the clinic for treatment in about 1935.

Brian:  Many of those anarchists and syndicalists in London in the 1960s, I remember as having a wide variety of other interests as well as politics. Over the years from the 1960s I often stayed in London on the Peabody Estate behind Chelsea Town Hall on Kings Road with Bill’s old mate, the joiner Peter Turner and his then wife Gladys, and we often would talk about you and Bill. Peter loved cinema, the arts and above all music. As I recall from talking to Peter, he Bill and Jack Stevenson were all very enthusiastic about Jazz – I think Jack and Bill had disputes over their tastes in Jazz?

Joan:  Yes, we all had a passion for Jazz! But at first I was into the Classics, and Bill was into Jazz. When we were living on Cumberland Road we made it open-plan, and, on Jack Stevenson’s advice bought a Pye Black Box. We liked Bruck, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Oscar Peterson. But it was through Jack Stevenson we came to know the track by Jack Teagarden ‘Tribute to Sydney Bechet’ (Joan at this point started to hum the tune). ‘I want that played at my funeral’, she said.

Brian:  Did you know many other people at Freedom besides Pete Turner? People like Vernon Richards, Colin Ward and Philip Sanson?

Joan:    Indeed, we were close to quite a few people at Freedom Press, and would go over for lunch on the odd Sunday to Philip Sansom and his partner’s house. We knew Tom Cowan and his Italian wife Gabrella. He was in the building trade. We were also close to Ken Hawkes, a sports journalist on the Reynolds News and the anacho-syndicalist editor of World Labour News – the journal of the Syndicalist Worker’s Federation (SWF) in the 1960s. Brian Behan, the brother of the play-write Brendan Behan, was another good friend who we knew Brian was a bit eccentric, he lived in a pre-fab with his wife and use to wear bicycle clips, and we asked him about this he turned his pockets out and showed us the holes. The bike-clips were there to catch the coins in.  His wife later went into teaching.  Brian was a carpenter in the building trade who was blacklisted and ended-up at university. I’m still in touch with Dave Picket who took over the S.W.F., when Ken Hawkes, who lived on Parliament Hill in Hampstead, left to go to work for the BBC.


Brian:  Thank you for that Joan, and please express my thanks to Aileen and Bob for all their help in producing this short rendering of the life of Bill Christopher.
******

[1] The Worker's Party was a breakaway from the Socialist Labour League in summer 1960.

[2] Brian Behan, the brother of the Irish play-write Brendan Behan, founded a short-lived 'Workers Party', which published Worker's Voice and was active in support of the Seaman's Strike.
In 1964, Behan wrote his first piece on his family life, With Breast Expanded. Forced to give up building work due to an arm injury, he moved to live on a boat in Shoreham-by-Sea and studied history and English at Sussex University. He then studied teaching, before in 1973 becoming a lecturer in media studies at the London College of Printing.[3] In 1972, he contested in a swearing match at the British Museum, to mark the republication of Robert Graves' Lars Porsena.[2]
[3] The Committee of 100 was set up after a difference in CND about the use of civil disobedience as a political weapon between Canon Collins and the philosopher Bertrand Russell,

[4] The National Rank & File Movement. Affiliates of SWF; the Worker’s Party; the ILP; Commonwealth; London Anarchists; Socialism Re-affirmed (publication Agitator - later Solidarity).
[5] The ‘Spies for Peace’ was a clandestine group of individuals including we now know the Freedom Press anarchist, Nicolas Walter, later admitted involvement: His Wikipeadia entry states: ‘Walter was a member of Spies for Peace, the only member to be publicly identified, only after his death. In March 1963, it broke into Regional Seat of Government No. 6
(RSG-6), copied documents relating to the Government's plans in the event of nuclear war and distributed 3,000 leaflets revealing their contents.’
In his book ‘Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow’ the historian David Goodway wrote:
The Spies for Peace were essentially this group (Solidarity), locating and entering the Regional Seat of Government (RSG) at Warren Pow, Berkshire, and circulating the pamphlet, Danger! Official Secret: RSG-6.
[6] ‘Solidarity' publication of the Socialism Re-affirmed Group edited by Christopher Pallis and Ken Weller, was originally entitled the 'The Agitator' until 1961.


1 comment:

Bob said...

Hi Brian

Thanks for this. It is a good piece of history worthy of being told - so
we all appreciate the work that you have put in. It was a unique time in
our history with a good cast of characters and politics. Could you
produce a history of the period as your next project?