Radical Lives

This page provides an index of appreciations and obituaries of figures from the history of the radical and labour movement in the north east of England. Click on the links to read their full stories. If you know someone who should be included here, or would like to add something to one of the existing articles, please contact us. The entries we have are predominantly male and exclusivly pale (but not stale!) so appreciations of radical women and BAME people, or both, would be especially welcome. The North East does have female BAME activists but, we are pleased to say, the ones we know of are still among us.

Lionel Anwell Active in the Newcastle Labour Party from the early 1920’s. Because he was a civil servant from 1945 he was unable to stand for the Council till after he retired in 1973. He then served as a councillor for Moorside Ward for nine years. Born almost blind before the First World War he nonetheles survived and prospered. He was very well read, highly musical, and a lively conversationalist blessed with an excellent memory.

Dave Atkinson A lifelong communist and one of Tyneside’s most outstanding trade unionists of the twentieth century. Dave started work at the Post Office in 1929 and he quickly became an officer in the Post Office Workers Union. In 1939 he enlisted in the army as a Gunner. By the time he saw action at Gold beach in the Normandy landings in 1944 he was a Lieutenant, rising to Captain by the time he demobilised. Following the war he returned to the Post Office, resuming his union activities, both at the Post Office and in Newcastle Trades Council, where he earned the title of its spiritual and political “father”.

Kenny Bell  Trade unionist, internationalist, feminist, able mentor and enabler of those around him. Deputy Convenor, UNISON Northern Region, Branch Secretary, UNISON Newcastle City Council Branch. Kenny recognised the need constantly to build, renew and develop a strong and creative trade union in the workplace; an organisation able also to reach out to the city and fellow citizens. His way of leading was always to share power, to encourage others, to help people realise capacities they doubted they had. He put especial emphasis on bringing on young activists, for example, by attending new stewards training sessions.

Albert Booth Former “Old Labour” Cabinet Minister, lifelong socialist, trade unionist and advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament. He drafted some important legislation, including the employment sections of the Race Discrimination and Sex Discrimination Acts making it illegal to sack a worker for being black, or to pay a worker less for being female. He also drafted the Employment Protection Act, which created ACAS and enshrined in law that the state favoured collective bargaining, ie., that employers should negotiate workers’ pay and conditions with their trade unions.

Ray Challinor One of the driving forces of the North East Labour History Society from his arrival in the north east in 1971 to the mid-1990s. Despite a stroke in his later years he recovered to the point where his remarkable memory for the labour movement’s history remained a resource for travelling researchers anxious to catch those memories on tape. He remained publically stoical, good humoured and welcoming to visitors to his and Mabel’s home in Whitley Bay. He was one of the leading British historians working in the Marxist paradigm and probably the best of his generation who had never embraced the Communist Party.

Rene Chaplin A founder member of Live theatre, Newcastle, and vice-president of the city’s People’s theatre, as well as a keen but by no means uncritical patron of the Stone, Bede and Northumbria galleries. A born storyteller, Rene made an immeasurable contribution to her husband Sid Chaplin’s work. He always listened to “my first and most unerringly accurate critic”. At the age of 90, she became a published author with her brilliant memoir ‘Educating Rene’ and to the very end she remained herself – clever, wise and astonishingly sharp of memory.

Sid Chaplin Prolific Writer, Playwright, Poet. The link takes you to John Mapplebeck’s revealing discussion of Chaplin’s literary work. There is also an appreciation in Volume 20 of North East History which is currently inaccessible because of pandemic restrictions, but which will be added when conditions allow. Like Norman Cornish and Sam Watson (both to be found in this anthology) Sid Chaplin started his mining career in the dangerous Dean and Chapter Colliery in Co Durham which, for all its faults, seemed to be a nursery for young talent. His early work was one of the bases for Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door and he also worked on the BBC’s When the Boat Comes In. A long-time member of the North East labour History Society, the Society’s annual essay prize for young writers is named after him.

Joe Clarke  The founding secretary of the North East Labour History Society in 1966. Born in Dublin in 1927, his earliest encounter with authoritarianism was a ferocious Catholic priest whose method of teaching him Irish left much to be desired. He moved to England in 1943 and joined the Communist Party, where he remained until 1956.  Following university he went to Rutherford College in Newcastle where he established a research group looking into the history of science and technology. He was joint author, with Terry McDermott, of a Centenary History of Newcastle Trades Council.

Dick Copland Early pioneer of progressive, comprehensive education who, with his family, lived close to Ryhope Comprehensive school in Sunderland, so that he could be close to the community of the school he led. He was also active in CND and Stop the War, the NUT (where he remained an indefatigable proponent of comprehensive eductation) and the Trades Council.

Norman Cornish Sublimely talented artist of Spennymoor. Cornish went down the pit at an early age, 14 years. His chosen pit, Dean and Chapter Colliery, had such a poor safety record that it was known locally as ‘the Butcher’s Shop’. Fortunately he survived it and it was there that he met and became a lifelong friend of Sid Chaplin, destined to be one of the North East’s finest writers. Cornish’s portrayals of life in the mining town of Spennymoor are vivid and in a style wholly his own.

Norman Dennis  Notable Wearsider, Academic and Labour Activist. The son of a Sunderland tram-driver, Norman graduated with a first from the LSE in 1952, the best graduate of his year. Following his academic career through Palo Alto to Newcastle University, he and his family settled in Millfield, Sunderland where he became closely involved in the campaign to revitalise the Millfield area, rather than its wholesale clearance that Sunderland Council had planned.

Val Duncan Trade union organiser, socialist, fighter for women’s rights and engineer whose MA thesis was titled ‘Women into Science and Engineering’. Val held a number of positions in both the Labour Party and the trade union movement: regional secretary for the TASS/MSF trade union in the Milton Keynes area and heavily involved with its women’s committee, secretary to the Tynemouth Branch Labour Party, of which she had been a member since her youth and from which she resigned in 2003 over the Labour Party’s role in the invasion of Iraq. For a number of years, secretary of the North East Labour History Society and also a keen singer and ballroom dancer.

Len Edmondson Elected full-time official of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, becoming a member of the Executive Council in 1966. He was also President of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. Always identified with the left wing of the union, supporting Hugh Scanlon in a celebrated contest for the leadership of the AEU in 1968. After retirement he was Chairman of the Tyneside May Day Committee, and a leading light in the Pensioners’ movement and the Anti-Apartheid movement. A life-long supporter the cause of the Romany people, a member of the Gypsy Council and regular attender at the Appleby Horse Fair.

Don Edwards A prodigious reader including: Plato’s Republic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Don was a lifelong trade unionist and member of the Newcastle and district Trades Council, becoming elected Secretary, a post he was to hold till 1982. Don was also active in the local Labour Party and a delegate to the City Party. He was on the left of the LP including opposition to the British Bomb and an antagonism to capital punishment. He also petitioned against the restrictions put by the US government on Paul Robeson. In 1962 he was elected a full time officer for the ETU just at the time when the leadership was being witch hunted out of office. His own election was challenged and declared null and void. He was entirely cleared of any rigging and in the re-run won with a bigger majority. During the sixties he became a member of the National Assistance Board and ultimately Chairman where he said his sympathies lay firmly with the claimant.

Bob Fryer Trade unionist and adult educator. For 15 years from 1983 he was the principal of the Northern College near Barnsley and in the early 1990s he played a key role in bringing Nupe, Nalgo and COHSE together to create Unison. He helped to found Lifelong learning and the Union Learning fund in the early years of the 1997 Labour government, and he officially launched Bridges to learning at Unison’s Newcastle office in 2003.

Mike Furlonger History teacher, Chair of Heddon Local History Society, teacher at the Centre for Lifelong Learning and long-time member of the North East Labour History Society. His paper on the Primrose League , based on his original draft and prepared for publication by Liz O’Donnell and Sue Ward, was finally published in the 2020 edition of North East History.

Alex Glasgow Writer and performer of socialist songs, peace campaigner, journalist, broadcaster and creator of the occasional musical. Perhaps his most famous song was Close the Coalhouse Door which was used in Alan Plater’s play of the same name, as were the Socialist ABC and As Soon as This Pub Closes. With Stan Barstow and Henry Livings he was one of the composers of Joe Lives about the great 19th-century Tyneside radical and songwriter, Joe Wilson. He spent his latter years with his family in Freemantle, Western Australia because the climate there far better suited his chronic arthritis.

Frank Graham  International Brigade soldier who later became one of the most successful local publishers in Britain since the Second World War. Born in Sunderland in 1913, he was academically gifted, he won scholarships to grammar school and then to King’s College London. In London he threw himself into anti-fascist work, including the famous fight during Oswald Mosley’s rally at the Olympia in London, and through this he joined the Communist Party. Too badly wounded in Spain to serve in World War 2 he worked at manual jobs, then in post war years worked as a teacher. He published his first book, about Lindisfarne, in 1958 and by the time he sold his company in 1987 he had published 387 titles and sold 3 million copies.

Bill Griffiths Poet, archivist and historian who combined his extensive knowledge of community dialects such as pitmatic with the history of the people spoke them. He helped to establish the Tyneside and Durham Dialect Society and organised events to showcase these dialects. He catalogued the papers of the Northern Sinfonia.

Mary Gunn* became the first female Mayor of Gateshead in 1942. She was the first woman to chair the town’s Labour Party, and was the first female Roman Catholic municipal councillor in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. However, she was not just a pioneering Labour activist in Gateshead but was also, along with her husband, Hugh Gunn, sister, Annie Hanlon, and brother-in-law, James Gunn, an Irish nationalist and a founding member of Gateshead’s Irish Labour Party – an organisation that today is all but forgotten but which, for a few years after 1919, flourished on Tyneside.
*This link is to an article in the website of exiles in England: Irish nationalists in North East England on the founding of the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead at the time of Irish independence. Mary Gunn played a major part in these events.

Tom Hadaway Playwright. Tom wrote sixteen stage plays, seven television plays and three screenplays. Tom was a natural storyteller and he had the talent to write authentic dialogue. He wrote about ‘the commonfolk’ from experience. He did a spell as writer-in-residence at Durham Prison, and spent several months researching material for a television play about British orphans taken to Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. For reasons never fully explained, the BBC killed off the project before Tom had completed his final draft.

Tony Hepburn Leading historian and teacher of modern Irish history. Becoming an “accidental” expert on Ireland at Cambridge, he went on to study the roots of the sectarian divide at Coleraine University and, in 1988, became Professor of Modern Irish History at Sunderland University.

Davey Hopper General Secretary of the Durham Miners, and a lifelong activist in the NUM, taking part in both the 1972 and 1984 strikes. Davey Hopper adapted himself to new ways of thinking and new outlooks, but, unlike many who rose through the ranks, he remained true to the daily struggle for workers’ rights. Nobody was happier to see Jeremy Corbyn become leader of the Labour Party. A strong supporter of Cuban solidarity and anti-racist campaigner, he removed the Durham miners’ banner from the entrance to the Stadium of Light when, self-avowed fascist, Paulo de Canio became Sunderland manager.

Chris Killip One of Britain’s best post-war photographers. In 1975 he won a two-year fellowship from Northern Arts to photograph the northeast of England. He moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to pursue this work, to which Creative Camera magazine devoted its entire May 1977 issue. In the same year, he became the first director of the Side Gallery, Newcastle. He produced In Flagrante ‘portraits of Tyneside’s working-class communities amongst the signifiers of the region’s declining industrial landscape’. Any labour historian of the North East should spend some time viewing In Flagrante before diving into the history of the region in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a key document.

John King Social worker in Newcastle who identified the prevalence of mental health problems among the homeless and established Hill Court in Pitt Street as a centre of good practice in addressing these problems. The good work achieved at Hill Court won national recognition when, in 1997, the Sainsbury prize for Inter-agency Co-operation in Mental Health was awarded to Newcastle City Council. He worked on child welfare for his VSO in Kenya and after retirement he volunteered at the east-end food bank and the People’s Kitchen. He was a keen participant in the Great North Run.

Peter Latham Lifelong trade union activist, chair of the Newcastle College NATFE branch, Peter was one of the local and national leaders of the resistance to the Thatcher government’s attacks on the pay and conditions of FE college employees. He offered his support widely to others in struggle, notably the miners in 1972 and 1984. He was a delegate to Newcastle Trades Council, Labour councillor on North Tyneside Council, elected governor of the Northumbria Healthcare Trust, school governor, active in Wallsend People’s Centre for fourteen years (he was especially proud of its work with immigrants and the unemployed) and member of the management committee of the Rising Sun Farm. A graduate from Oxford in French, he and his wife Judith McSwaine remained lifelong francophiles and members of the Alliance Francaise. He once mentioned that, whilst he admired many things French, the excellent wine at the Alliance Francaise meetings at the Lit and Phil was one of the special attractions.

Phil Lenton National Secretary for Unison, internationalist, CND activist, communist. Like others in this list, he earned his spurs at the great Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam war. His internationalism was practical: working to organise the first free elections in South Africa, in 1999 he broke the trade embargo on Cuba and he worked in Palestine, Syria and Mozambique.

Douglas Malloch (use this link to Journal Issue 39 and scroll to page 179) Active in the Labour and Union movement on Tyneside, ‘Dougie’ worked at Parsons turbine works in Byker and as a mental health nurse.  John Charlton’s fascinating interview with him in 2008, just before Malloch died reveals great detail of the life of a working man in the North East of the 20th Century.

Terry MacDermott One of the four people who 
formed a steering committee that launched the
 North East Labour History Group in 1966. He served as Chair from 1977 to 1982, and in 2017 was honoured for his services by being elected a Vice President of the Society. Terry was born into an Irish Nationalist family in Northern Ireland and remained a supporter of a united Ireland throughout his long life. He was active in the Tyneside Irish Centre and was its Chair from 1986 to 1993. He was also active in the Newcastle Labour Party and served for several years as a magistrate. He was commissioned by Newcastle and District Trades’ Council to write a history of trade unionism on Tyneside published in 1965 as Centuries of Conflict, and in 1973 he co-authored (with J. F. Clarke) a centenary history of Newcastle and District Trades Council.

John McNair (use this link to Journal Issue 49 and scroll to page 71) Chair of the ILP from 1939 to 1954, a writer and biographer he travelled widely, including living in France for a number of years and working as the ILP’s liaison with the POUM in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war. He worked closely with George Orwell at that time and they narrowly escaped arrest by the Communists on trumped-up charges.

Mo Mowlam’s most significant political achievement was her part in the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement in 1998. A long-standing member of the Labour Party before becoming an MP, she was adopted by New Labour for the ‘prawn cocktail offensive’ in the city of London and was a key Blair supporter for a number of years. Before and after her stint in Blair’s Labour, Mo held strongly anti-war convictions and after retirement from parliament in 2001 she was prominent in opposing the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Unusually among senior politicians, her public and private personas were the same. To the question from people who did not know her personally: ‘but what is she really like?’ the only answer could be ‘exactly as you see her on TV’.

Jim Murray Shop stewards’ convenor of Vickers Elswick works at a time when such a position held an almost mythic status on the left. Add to this his intellect, speaking ability and slightly bohemian appearance and we have the archtypical working class hero. He had a lifelong contempt and mistrust for Labour movement officialdom, and the passage of time only reinforced this and strengthened his view that the working class had to organise independently to advance its interests.

Bernard Newbold Miner and mining engineer with a specific interest in researching mine safety. He was chair of the Housing Committee of North Tyneside Council during the Thatcher years when he struggled, with great difficulty, to keep private developers at bay. He joined the Labour Party in the 1950s having become disillusioned after the suppression of the uprisings in Poland and Hungary.

William Parker Chartist, campaigner for improved conditions for the working poor and soldier. Parker was born in Wandsworth in 1790. He came to Tyneside about 1820 after discharge from the army following the killing of a fellow soldier. He was acquitted on a plea of insanity. He lived in the Ouseburn where he married Isabella Potts in 1821. He became an active Chartist leader on Tyneside and in 1838 was elected, along with Thomas Hepburn, to the council of the Northern Political Union.

Archie Potts Lifelong Labour activist, Sunderland FC supporter, fan of boxing and wrestling, and a founding member, latterly President, of the North East Labour History Society. Archie started his career as a railway clerk but after taking advantage of RAF educational facilities became an educator and writer, based at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University). He served on Tyne and Wear County Council and in 1981 he co-authored for the Library Association a bibliography of Northern Labour History.

Bill Purdue Born in North Shields, Professor A.W. (Bill) Purdue was a historian whose early career covered the growth of the Labour Party in the North East and other Labour history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He worked at the Open University for 30 years and, over time broadened his interests, including studies of the two world wars. He was also closely associated with the University of Northumbria (previously Newcastle Polytechnic). He spent his later years in Allendale in Northumberland where he was a Conservative councillor for South Tynedale.

Fred Ramsey (use this link to Journal Issue 45 and scroll to page 163) Miner, poet and seaman. Fred Ramsey was born into a mining family in Tantobie and, although at Grammar School on a scholarship, soon went down the pit himself, forced there by his family’s poverty during the depression. A strong socialist he was also a patriot and an anti-fascist and he seved in the Royal Navy during WWII as an ASDIC operator. Twice he was forced to abandon ships that were so badly damaged that they had to be scuttled. He returned to the pits after the war and in the 1970 started to write the vivid poetry for which he bacame known. His nephew, Peter Brabban, gives a number of striking examples in his appreciation.

Mick Renwick Trade union activist, Wobbly, anarcho-syndicalist, anti-fascist, internationalist, and Geordie working class hero. Mick Renwick began his long and varied political career in CND and the Committee of 100, taking part in demonstrations against Polaris at Holy Loch (there’s a monster in the loch) and the Aldermaston marches. He later took part in the great Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam war. He was for a time the Secretary of the Gateshead Trade Union Council and organised some of the best Tyneside May Day rallies. Raised in a militant mining family in Heaton, his father worked at the Rising Sun pit at Wallsend, Mick took part in every battle the miners had from the 70’s 80’s and 90’s, raising funds and joining pickets.

The Richardson family of Usworth*
Over several generations the Richardson family of Usworth were closely involved in the Labour and Trade Union Movements in and beyond Usworth in Co Durham.
Read their stories via the link to Jim Gill’s excellent local history website. Many thanks to Jim Gill.

T Dan Smith. Leader of Newcastle City Council from 1960 to 1965.  Responsible for massive slum clearance and rebuilding but eventually imprisoned for corruption. Perhaps history has been a little kinder to T Dan Smith than his contemporaries were. Time may have softened the fury. There can be no doubting his importance to the region, what he built, how he modernised and how he raised our profile. The BBC epic, Our Friends in The North, portrays him as Austin Donohue, a charming, rascally, shaker and mover. But there is no getting away from his corruption and his betrayal of the people who he was supposed to represent. He mixed with some bad sorts: Andrew Cunningham, John Poulson and others, but this does not excuse him. Our Radical Lives entry for Smith has three essays by: Archie Potts, Ray Challinor and David Byrne. Reading these pieces, nearly thirty years on, still does not resolve or mitigate. But there can be no ignoring T Dan Smith. He mattered.

Elizabeth Spence-Watson (use this link to Journal Issue 47 and scroll to page 73) Social reformer, pacifist, quaker, suffragist. 1838-1919. Positions she held included President of the district’s Women’s Liberal Association (WLA), which she founded, and President of the Newcastle branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage. She was a member of the Gateshead Nursing Association, the Women’s International League, and the Tyneside Peace and Arbitration League, and was a Poor Law Guardian for eighteen years. For a bit of light relief Elizabeth hammered in the central rivet of the Redheugh Bridge on its opening day. At the age of seventy-five she climbed Mount Wellington in Tasmania. 

Pete Steffens Journalist, teacher, staunch opponent of the Iraq invasion with friends in the many parts of the world he worked and lived. Born in Italy to American left-wing journalist parents Ella Winter and Lincoln Steffens, Pete studied at Harvard, Oxford, Florence and Prague. He worked in the USA, the Middle East, Sunderland and London, to retirement in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

Nigel Todd was primarily a community activist but his interests were wide ranging: Greening Wingrove, the Bike Garden, tackling climate change and food poverty, fighting racism and fascism, his forty years as a Labour member of the City Council, producing three books as well as articles for our own Journal, his long-term commitment to the co-operative movement and the Workers Educational Association, and his championing of life-long learning and helping to bring about the women’s access course. For him, the struggle for socialism whilst working tirelessly and effectively to enrich the lives of the people around him in Newcastle’s West end were all part of the larger whole.

John Veit-Wilson* Sociologist, socialist, quaker and anti-poverty campaigner. In the early 1960s John worked with Professors Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith on the first national study on poverty.  In 1965 he was one of the founders of the Child Poverty Action Group. His mother, Harriet Wilson, was also a founder. Born in Bilbao in 1936 to German-Jewish parents, the family fled the Nazis to the UK in the late 1930s. John worked at the universities of Stockholm, LSE, Northumbria (then Newcastle Polytechnic) and Newcastle. Following retirement he continued to work, writing and translating documents on poverty from Swedish and German into English. He was especially noted for his learned and erudite letters to the Guardian.
This link is to John’s obituary in the Guardian. We hope to have our own obituary before too long.

Harriet Vyse Trade Unionist who became a household name (more recognisable as Harriet Hopper) in Sunderland in the 1970s when, as shop stewards’ convenor, she led a protracted series of industrial actions at Plessey for equal pay for equal work and against redundancies. She was the first woman to be elected to the national committee of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers. Diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis as a child she spend long periods in stiff corsets and strapped to a bed in a vain attempt to halt the gradual curving of her spine.

Eric Wade The son of an Ashington pitman, Eric left school at sixteen and followed his dad into mining. At first via evening classes, he went on to study mining engineering to doctorate level. Research and teaching posts followed at Edinburgh, Cambridge, Newcastle Polytechnic and the Open University. He was energetically involved with his union at both local and national level, serving, for example, as President of the OU AUT Branch from 1985 to 2000. He was also a passionate ‘Labour man’ fighting two general elections in Hexham with the slogan ‘Wade In With Labour’. Eric was great company with a fund of humorous anecdotes.

Eric Walker  Lifelong socialist and Labour Party member of decades standing, Eric Walker collected money for Basque refugees in the 1930s, took part in the Normandy landings in 1944, served in Palestine at the time of partition and, seeing the brutal theft of Arab land, became a lifelong supported of the Palestinian cause. Coincidentally, his future wife also served in Palestine at the same time and came to the same conclusion. He edited the Newcastle Labour Party paper, the Northern Star in the early 50s and in later years he served on Newcastle City Council.

Sam Watson Miners’ leader who started his working life at the Dean and Chapter pit in County  Durham where he me Sid Chaplin. Like Chaplin, Watson was an excellent witer, but he was also an excellent public speaker, eschewing rhetoric and hyperbole for carefully reasoned argument. He was was Agent of the Durham Miners’ Association and member of labour’s national Executive Committee.

Ellen Wilkinson (use this link to Journal Issue 36 and scroll to page 114) Jarrow Marcher, author of The Town That Was Murdered, Minister of Education in Attlee’s post-war government, Labour MP for Middlesbrough then for Jarrow. In her early years of activism she was a feminist, communist, opponent of the First World War, and trade union organiser.

Ethel Williams Newcastle’s first female general practitioner, radical suffragist, pacifist, educationalist and social welfare campaigner. She co-founded both the Northern Women’s Hospital and the Medical Women’s Federation in 1917. See also Nigel Todd’s article on Ethel Williams in Volume 30 (1996) of North East History. This is not available online, but see https://nelh.net/the-societys-journal/ for a list of libraries where it may be found.

Thomas Wilson Radical Whig councillor on the newly formed Gateshead Council in the 1830s, campaigner for the 1832 Reform Act, dialect poet, businessman, scientist, writer of an invaluable journal of his times and, creator of an immense collection of contemporary newspaper cuttings, playbills and other printed material. Wilson was born to a mining family in 1773 and started work in the mine at the age of 8. By 19 he had had self-educated himself into becoming a teacher and by 1805 he was a partner in an iron foundry.