Eric Walker 1921-2003

Eric Neilson Walker 1921-2003

Eric Walker died at the end of 2003. For over fifty years he had been an active member of the Labour Party but his political involvement stretched back to his teenage years in the 1930’s when he had stood in the Bigg Market collecting pennies for Basque refugees. His Uncle Leslie devoted a lot of time to find accommodation for the Basque children who came to Tyneside in 1937. Leslie married Carmen Gil, the teacher who brought them from Santander. The Walkers were a family who welcomed refugees and played a part in helping them to re-settle. Of course this was very urgent in the late thirties. In 1939 Eric’s mother befriended a Czech woman fleeing from the Nazi occupation of Prague. The woman, Mrs Dub, later wrote from Quito, Ecuador, thanking her for her help and sadly reporting that ‘half a year has passed and my husband has not yet been able to leave Praha.’

Frederick Handel Walker, his father, a veteran of the Great War, was an industrial chemist and an early environmentalist. He caused a considerable stir in 1911 by exposing his employers, the Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company for tipping chemical waste into the River Tyne at Dunston. Eric remembered him as a free thinker who taught him about Darwin and Huxley and also passed on his enthusiasm for music, especially Beethoven. Both parents supported the Soviet Union. Fred was active for the British-Soviet Cultural Society organising a programme of speakers on Russian music and literature meeting during the War at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle.

His mother, Edith Irene Aitkenhead, was a school teacher who shared Fred’s socialist sympathies. She became founding secretary of the Tyneside Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society, entertaining delegations, visiting Russia and reporting back to Tynesiders on what she saw as the great experiment. Both parents hailed from long established Tyneside families. The Walkers had run an ironmongery on Northumberland Street and Eric’s grandfather had been Organist at St Nicholas’s Cathedral. The Aitkenheads were a North Shields family with strong maritime roots. Irene’s father, a merchant navy skipper, died at sea when she was just one year old. Her brother Thomas, an engineer, went through the Royal Naval ranks retiring as a rear admiral.

It is likely that Fred Walker’s war experiences at Gallipoli and the Somme had pushed him politically to the left for he was active in the Fabian Society and many inter-war campaigns. Both Eric’s parents were keen members of the Peoples’ Theatre from its very early days as was Eric from his youth. Fred had several times played the Executioner in St Joan, once witnessed by its author, George Bernard Shaw. Politics, in the widest sense was always part of his life. Eric remembered an episode in 1931. “I was a great eater. I always cleaned my plate. One day my father hit the roof. Don’t make such noise, he exploded and left the room. I thought eating was something which should receive approval. I looked at my mother. She said, he’s angry but not with you. I asked who is he angry with. It’s a man called Ramsey MacDonald. I became curious, even then.”

Eric won a scholarship to the Royal Grammar School were he performed excellently at academic work, rugby and athletics. In 1941 he was offered a place at Cambridge but decided instead to volunteer for service. He remembered his time at Sandhurst in officer training as a great experience. He said, “not only were you shown how to ride a motor bike but were paid for it too’. He was not keen on the corporals who ‘set up map reading exercises where the co-ordinates happened to be cafes where they would sit and tick you off for seeking cups of tea when you should have been completing the exercise”. After a period in reconnaissance he sought excitement and physical adventure, joining the Royal Armoured Corps. He took part in the Normandy landings in 1944. In 1945 he was posted briefly to training in Norway and then on a jungle survival course but then in contrast was sent to Palestine but without any briefings on the political situation there. His varied war continued with a transfer to the 6th Airborne Division and finally as a training officer for recruits to the Airborne. The Palestine experience was truly formative. He especially balked at the treatment of Arabs regarding the land settlement as theft. He developed life long support for the Palestinian cause.

When Eric returned to civilian life he decided not to take up his Cambridge place, electing instead to read History at Sheffield. With military service behind him he was a mature student. He was elected President of the Students’ Union, busy in the Labour Club and a member of Rugby 1st XV. A letter to his father in 1950 indicates how politics was a preoccupation. The family were supporters of Konni Zilliacus the left wing MP for Gateshead. Though a ‘Zillie’ sympathiser, Eric disagreed with his support for Tito’s ‘breakaway’ from Moscow on the grounds that though self determination was ‘laudable in general’, it had a tendency to foster dangerous nationalism especially in a part of the world where strife was endemic.

After teacher training he taught in County Durham. For an ex-officer and vigorous rugby player he had a curious dislike of being in authority. One of nature’s democrats, he decided school mastering was not for him. In the early fifties he joined the new Youth Employment Service in Newcastle under the very authoritarian figure of Brenda Calderwood who was given to doing spot checks on her young staffs’ appearance and behaviour. He retired in 1982 as Deputy Head of the service.

Meanwhile he had joined the Labour Party. On a journey from London in army uniform he had bumped into Arthur Blenkinsop the new MP for Newcastle East. Blenkinsop was an old friend of the Walker family from pre-war days in the Peoples’ Theatre and the Ramblers’ Association. Both of these, and especially the latter, were life long ‘homes’ for Eric too. He credited Arthur with recruiting him to active politics though it seems unlikely that much persuasion was necessary.

After Sheffield he threw himself into organising. He was too old for the League of Youth and he found his first project in being the effective editor, main writer (‘Crispin,’ ‘Midas’, ‘Javelin’, ‘Douvet’, etc.) and business manager of Newcastle City Labour Party’s monthly newspaper, The Northern Star. The paper ran for 35 issues (1951-54) selling up to 2000 copies per issue. Yet the paper was a vehicle for the promotion of left wing ideas in the Labour Party and was to fall foul of influential right-wingers especially in the Transport and General Workers Union which instructed its branches to withhold financial support. The Northern Star was an important part of boosting morale when demoralisation was rife following the Labour Government’s defeat in 1951.

It was also important in the struggle to keep ideas and debate at the centre of party life when many party leaders sought to marginalise them, prioritising electoral organisation above all else. The key issues of the day were the campaigns against German Re-armament, for the halting of nuclear tests, against the Suez adventure and, a little later, Anti-Apartheid. On each of these issues Eric steered firmly left. His stance on the latter ultimately led to his being invited to meet Nelson Mandela on his first visit to Britain after his release from Robben Island.

As an employee of the City Council, Eric Walker could not stand for election to the council but for the thirty years that followed he was one of the Labour Party’s most diligent workers as Ward Secretary, Constituency Treasurer and City Party delegate. He was also a delegate to the national party conference and in 1955 he was proud to have moved the motion to place Clause 4 on the party membership card and later, to keep it there. He thought it was an important reminder that the Labour Party stood for public ownership at a time when ‘revisionists’ were trying to disown the principal.

For many years Eric acted as agent for Lionel Anwell’s unsuccessful contests to win Fenham Ward in Council Elections. After Eric’s retirement from the Youth Service he was free to stand for election. The unsuccessful agent became the successful candidate when he was elected for Moorside Ward which he served for a decade with the diligence and integrity he applied to everything. He was particularly pleased with his work for the Race Relations sub-committee which he saw partly as a piece with his youthful opposition to the Mosleyites before the Second World War.

In Doreen Walden Eric had a partner in life and in politics. Her family were old members of the ILP. Her father was an apprenticed engineer at Armstrongs, who had been fired in the 1920’s, at the end of his time to avoid taking another journeyman onto the strength. Coincidently Doreen, in the ATS, also served in the middle east initially in Egypt. She travelled to Jerusalem in time to see the King David’s Hotel blown up by the Ergun, led by a future Prime Minister of Israel, Menechem Begin. She sat in on a UN meeting in 1947 where partition of the country was being discussed noting the American bias towards the Zionists in handing them the best land, almost as a reward for their effective terrorism. Like Eric she formed the strongly pro-Palestine views. They were both to return to the area in the 1990’s to meet up with Palestinians whos friendship had survived for fifty years. Doreen has been a most effective rank and file activist who recalls trailing round the ward (Sandyford) collecting 6d a month from 40 members and being subjected to door-step lectures on what was wrong with the Party.

Just a month before he died, Eric joined the North East Labour History Society’s ‘Radical Walk’ round Newcastle. In tracing the activities of Spenceites, co-operators, chartists, engineers, suffragists and so on, he was covering ground he had written about in The Northern Star’ under the pseudonym, ‘Crispin’, fifty years ago. He had a strong sense of history and its importance in carrying the democratic flame from generation to generation. He was an unusual socialist, internationalist, active Old Novo rugger player, devotee of public ownership, mountaineer (individualist?), republican, ex-paratrooper and participant in Remembrance Day. The contrasting fields are perhaps best explained by a strong vein of loyalty to the people and associations to which he belonged: family, school, regiment, Labour Party and indeed, humanity. His final act was to donate his body to medical science. There wasn’t a grain of opportunism in him. Towards the end of his life he developed a strong anathema to the policy and activities of the current New Labour government. Many years ago the late Paul Foot said of a labour loyalist he had interviewed, “Such decency! Such integrity! The bloody Labour Party doesn’t deserve people like that.” He might have been speaking of Eric Walker.

John Charlton, 2007.

This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 38, 2007