The funeral gathering of Len Edmondson was a roll call of workers in the now lost Tyneside ship-building and engineering industries. Former shop stewards and trade unionists from Parsons, Vickers, Reyrolles, Smith Docks, Swans, Clark Chapman, North Eastern Marine, Readheads, Hawthorn Leslie and many others turned out to pay respect to their comrade. He had served with integrity and distinction as a shop steward and District Secretary locally and as a member of the National Committee, the Executive Council of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the General Council of the TUC for nearly fifty years till his retirement in 1977. Trade union organisation was the central preoccupation of his life but it was located within a firm commitment to democratic socialism.
Leonard Firby Edmondson died on Monday 20th November. He was born in Gateshead in December 1912 in an impoverished working class household. His father, Arthur, was an unskilled factory worker (albeit a highly skilled and noted dog handler) who was unemployed for periods of Len’s youth. Elizabeth, his mother, was a shop worker before her children arrived, when she followed the north east convention of giving up work outside of the home. Len was the youngest of three sons. He was educated at Gateshead Central School, where he achieved distinction in English, Arithmetic and book-keeping. He left school at 15 and was launched onto the labour market in the depths of the depression. He recalled a moment when his elder brother’s wage of nineteen shillings per week had to keep a household of five adults. His first job was for a haulage contractor where he said his life as a negotiator began when he was offered five shillings a week but pushed them up to eight. His ‘triumph’ was short lived. His next demand brought the sack. After a spell out of work he secured an apprenticeship as an engineering fitter at the Liner Concrete Machinery Company on the banks of Ouseburn in Byker. That was in 1929 and in the twenty years that followed he worked in fourteen engineering shops on the Tyne, and was a shop steward in nine of them. Depression and war made this an extremely tough period for trade unionism. He developed a reputation as a confident and very well informed negotiator. Two successes are well remembered. His work brought apprenticeship to semi-skilled machinists and the engineers secured a limit to over-time, thereby creating jobs for the unemployed.
In 1934 he joined the National Unemployed Workers Movement, motivated by anger at the government’s Unemployed Assistance Act. He called it a most vicious piece of legislation as it targeted the unemployed. It brought swingeing cuts in benefit and subjected workers to petty regulation and military style discipline. He recalled taking part in a massive demonstration from Windmill Hills in Gateshead to the Town Hall, forcing the Town Council to send a petition and delegation to parliament against the Bill. Len believed that the national revulsion sparked by the Bill led to its most exacting clauses being ditched.
This activity took him into the Independent Labour Party which had recently seceded from the Labour Party to pursue a more radical strategy. Though he had sympathy for the Soviet Union, he chose the ILP rather than the Communist Party because he did not like the CP’s People’s Front strategy of building alliances with allegedly progressive Tories and Liberals. He stayed with the ILP till the late forties when it had ceased to be an effective body. During that time he continued to campaign against unemployment but like so many of his generation the rise of fascism and plight of Spain became a major focus. He did not go to Spain himself but was deeply involved in the big campaigns: against the British embargo on arms to the republic, the settlement on Tyneside of Basque school children refugees and support for food ships to Spain. During the Second World War he fought to prevent the government and employers using the war effort to undermine wages, working conditions and civil liberties for British workers.
In the early nineteen fifties he became an 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. He always identified himself with the left wing of the union, supporting Hugh Scanlon in a celebrated contest for the leadership of the AEU in 1968. He retired as an official in 1977. In 1976 he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Legal Services. It reported after three years. He said it produced a lot of worthwhile proposals, all of which were dumped into the dust-bin by the incoming Thatcher government in 1979.
After retirement his political activity increased. He was Chairman of the Tyneside May Day Committee, and a leading light in the Pensioners’ movement and the Anti-Apartheid movement. From the nineteen forties he had taken up the cause of the Romany people although he had no family connection. He became a member of the Gypsy Council whose spokesman called him the salt of the earth, always ready appear and protest when they faced eviction. Regular attendance at the Appleby Horse Fair was one of his great pleasures as was the breeding and showing of Shetland Sheepdogs on which he was a local expert.
Towards the end of his life he was somewhat physically disabled but he regularly turned out for meetings till the early part of this year. He continued to make an interesting and useful contribution. His lively mind was not at all impaired. He became the best living source of information about the 20th Century Tyneside labour movement. Countless students and researchers beat the path to his home in Low Fell. They were always courteously welcomed and treated to a wonderful monologue. It could take in the General Strike, when he was a 13 year old message carrier, an engineering apprentice’s life, the unemployed workers’ movements, party life in the Gateshead ILP, the Gateshead Progressive Players (forerunners of the Little Theatre), the campaign to end the ban on showing Eisenstein’s film, The Battleship Potemkin, the Spanish Civil War, factory organising in the Second World War, the moment he heard news of Labour’s 1945 election victory, the opposition to German re-armament, the campaign for Sunday Cinema and so on, right down to recent asylum seekers. Len was an internationalist, a republican and a democrat. He refused to stand for the National Anthem. He turned down all offers of honours, except those bestowed by the labour movement. He believed strongly in the importance of election of all union officials and the now apparently ‘old fashioned’ idea of accountability through recall of delegates. He lived modestly, surrounded by well thumbed books. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and C L R James’s Black Jacobins were particular favourites.
Len’s friend of many years (and intended partner) Elsie Winch, herself an activist in the labour movement, died in April 1983, aged 61. She had been a pioneer in securing membership of the AEU for women workers. He leaves a daughter Brenda, two grandchildren, Nicola and Rachel and a great grand daughter Rosie, a devoted long term carer, Helen Harrison, and a multitude of friends and acquaintances.
John Charlton, North East Labour History Society
This article is a slightly longer version of the obituary published in the Newcastle Journal on December 5th 2006.
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 38, 2007