Jamie Driscoll, North of Tyne Mayor
Workers Educational Association: WEA
Greening Wingrove and Arthur’s Hill
Joan Allen,The Society for the Study of Labour History
Chi Onwurah MP (Facebook)
From John Charlton
The death of Nigel Todd in March 2021 created shockwaves across the progressive communities of the North East and further afield. When we list his spheres of interest and activity, it is hard to imagine one person finding time and energy to participate so widely and so fully. There was his forty-year stint as a City of Newcastle Labour Councillor, his work with the WEA, the Co-op Education movement, the Open University (OU), the Greening Wingrove Community initiative, anti-racist and anti-fascist activity, Anti-Apartheid, Palestine Solidarity, CND and the North East Labour History Society. He wrote four books of local history and numerous articles for historical journals. Additionally, he was always ready to give lectures and talks and write a stream of letters to the press. He certainly made an impression by his serial presence in large meetings, committee rooms and street demonstrations. He was the essence of reliability. In a sense, this massive list of activities only tells part of the story of what made him beloved across the Tyneside left. He was the least sectarian of activists, in a movement not known for amiable discourse between different political tendencies. Yet he was no soft touch, bending in the breeze of shifting opinion, for personal gain or popularity. On the contrary he was remarkably firm and consistent in his views, while usually expressing his opinions with a warm smile.
Nigel was born in Dartford, Kent, in 1947. He was an only child, raised by grandparents in Welling, South London. One side of his family was from Ireland, Catholic in origin, but lapsed in practice. The Irish question was discussed at home, and as an adult United Ireland became part of his political make up. Like the majority of children of his generation, he had failed the 11+ examination, the most vicious part of the Butler Education Act of 1944. That sense of rejection contributed both to his belief in comprehensive education and his lifetime involvement in adult education. While still at school, he joined the recently revived Labour Party Young Socialists. As a twelve-year-old, he had been moved by the images of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, but his engagement with the Labour Movement had begun even earlier, when he took his grandfather’s weekly engineering union dues to the Labour Party hall where the AEU branch met.
Nigel left Welling Secondary School at 15, briefly taking jobs in routine packing of clothing for Viyella International and as an office boy to a firm of solicitors in Central London, before spotting an advert in the New Statesman for a junior clerical post at the Workers’ Education Association in Tavistock Square, London. He was appointed, aged seventeen, starting nearly sixty years of deep involvement with the WEA. It is an understatement to say that Nigel loved the idea of adult education. He was to devote a large part of his time to it organisationally and theoretically, through the WEA, the Co-operative education movement and the Open University. In pursuit of more formal and structured education he applied to Ruskin College, Oxford which he entered as one of its younger students in 1967 to study, history, sociology and politics. He really relished all that Ruskin had to give intellectually, politically and socially.1 It was an exciting time to attend college. He was active in student sit-ins, and local and national demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He chucked eggs at Enoch Powell, the purveyor of racist filth, on a visit to the Oxford Union. He met Ruth Hirst at Ruskin, and they went on to have one daughter, Selina, born in 1975. She was named after a suffragette, Selina Martin. This was more than token as, both in political action and in his books, Nigel was very alert to the role of women and supportive of feminism and women’s rights, especially the Greenham Common Peace camp in the 1980s.
From Ruskin, Nigel went to Lancaster University in 1970. His closely researched MPhil thesis on the early Lancaster and Barrow-in-Furness labour movements was a very sound basis for an academic career at an opportune moment for left-wing intellectuals, but this was not to be his choice. Adult education was his passion. The WEA had placed him on the road but his first job after university was at the Co-operative College at Loughborough. When an opening came on Tyneside to organise co- operative education, he grasped it with relish. It turned out that his journey to the north was complete.
In the mid-1970s Nigel began to put down his roots in the North East labour and socialist movement. Putting down roots is an apt description for his work, his geographical field being the west end of Newcastle, though he had one stab at national politics in 1983, a bad year for Labour, when he stood for the Newcastle North Constituency. He was defeated, but even then he put his community-oriented mark on the campaign. The LP ran an extraordinary campaign involving hundreds of activists. That story is related in vivid detail in his article last year for this journal.2 He had been elected to the City Council in 1980 and represented west end wards, for over forty years. His attachment to policy formation and execution varied over time. He was rarely in accord with the leadership team. A local leadership, always on the Labour right, was too conservative for his radical drive. There were several moments of frustration for a figure of his ability and clarity, especially when the Blairite revolution in the party was taking place in the 1990s. He disapproved of the switch to cabinet government with its exclusiveness, secrecy and officer-determined policy. He opposed the move initially but for a time participated, and became a strong advocate of elected mayors, writing a pamphlet, The Democratic City. He presented his ideas on elected mayors to a House of Commons Select Committee in 2000. He had little taste for factionalism, and in the new century he largely left it behind to continue his own distinctive bottom-up approach to community politics.
The wards he represented were the most ethnically diverse in the city. In a sense, he grew politically himself, as the communities grew numerically and, developed their own roots on Tyneside. He encouraged young Asians to participate and take up elected roles. He stood shoulder to shoulder in building anti-racist organisation. He was always prominent in resisting incursions by the far right at both ward and city level. His book, In Excited Times: The People Against the Blackshirts, is a very sharp and readable account of the first British Nazi movement of the 1930s and the popular movement which confronted and destroyed it.3 Meticulously researched, it serves as a warning for the present: be vigilant, defeat the far right when they are small and exposed.
In parallel, in the past two decades Nigel was involved in the climate change debate. The Greening Wingrove Campaign was a practical project, essentially at street level, attempting both to widen awareness of the growing climate crisis and to do something about it. In a decade it has had a real and obvious effect on the local environment, in developing urban tree planting, car free spaces, back lane gardens and community litter patrols in which he regularly participated. Greening Wingrove has become a model for local councils across Britain.
Nigel was certainly committed to small-scale community causes but he never allowed them to divert attention from his strong internationalism. Always active in the Palestinian cause, he led a City Council delegation to the West Bank in 2014, and another to Bangladesh in support of the Rohinga refugees in 2017. People will recall his regular speeches at the Monument in Newcastle on a range of international as well as domestic issues. He was a quiet, authoritative, and persuasive speaker not given to histrionics.
He published fascinating and sometimes exotic articles on ideological superstructure in Gramsci and Mao Tse Tung, the limitations of democracy in Cuba, 1890s Engineering workers strikes in Barrow in Furness, the emergence of a Black presence on Tyneside in the 19th Century, Owenite educational activity in Wallsend in the 1860s and women’s activity in a south London Labour Party after World War Two. In his first book, Roses and Revolutionists, he discovered and imagined, the largely forgotten William Morrisite commune of the 1890s, in Clousden Hill, Forest Hall.4 Somewhat lyrical in style, researching and writing it after the bruising 1983 electoral defeat may have provided a temporary retreat from day to day politics.
Published in 1991, after years of research, he broke new ground in his biography of the Newcastle radical Joseph Cowen in The Militant Democracy.5 He explained hat Cowen’s towering reputation in his lifetime, a man at the centre of every possible radical cause, had been discarded by historians and political activists as he did not fit acceptable stereotypes. He was neither the local Liberal establishment politician made good, like Joseph Chamberlain of Birmingham, nor the militant precursor of the rising labour movement. A man of many parts, Cowen was an advocate of universal suffrage, including women, of Irish independence, of progressive European nationalism, of co-operation and universal education. And he was elected to Parliament by a Newcastle electorate well aware of his radical positions. It is probably not an accident that Nigel Todd was attracted to this radical, militant, principled man of independent mind. Modesty would probably prevent Nigel from acknowledging the parallel, though he might have chuckled.
- ‘Blitheringly Fantabulous. Ruskin College 1967-69’, North East History 47 (2016), 143-150.
- ‘Back in ’83: A General Election Revisited’, North East History 51 (2020), 29-46.
- In Excited Times: The People Against the Blackshirts (Whitley Bay: Bewick Press, 1995).
- Roses and Revolutionists: the Story of the Clousden Hill Free Communist and Co-operative Colony (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2015, 2nd edn).
- The Militant Democracy (Whitley Bay: Bewick Press, 1991).
This appreciation first appeared in North East History, Volume 52, 2021
From Keith Hodgson, North East Regional Chair of WEA
Like so many people on Tyneside I have been in some shock this weekend at the sudden death of our friend and colleague, Nigel Todd. He was such a pivotal figure in so many important issues and campaigns, and it is impossible to imagine the scale of loss so many now feel. He was a very gentle, kind man, always self-effacing, and never seeking the limelight; yet he had a quiet, steely determination to make things happen. His list of achievements in so many different areas and causes is truly exceptional, and he had a deep and profound knowledge of the history of the working class and adult education in our region.
Nigel was an active member of the WEA Regional Committee, and has had a long association with our movement and the whole cause of adult learning. He was, for example, the person who in 2018 first drew our attention to a long forgotten report “The 1919 Report” on the reconstruction of Britain after the First World War and the Flu Pandemic; and that 2019, would be its centenary and should be celebrated. His Motion to our Annual Meeting was forwarded to our National Conference, and subsequently brought together all those interested in adult learning through the Centenary Commission, which has continued over this last year to host seminars and discussions on how liberal adult and community learning should play a key role in the recovery after this pandemic.
In the WEA Nigel had many roles – as student, volunteer, Regional Secretary from 2005 -2011, as a National Ambassador, and as a treasured historian of our movement. He was actively involved in helping our History and Heritage Branch get established, freely sharing his knowledge and skills. He also was instrumental in establishing our Green Branch, as well as an important £1million Big Lottery Project “Greening Wingrove” in the West of Newcastle, where he was a long-serving and highly regarded Local Councillor. With his knowledge of climate change and the need for measures to ensure sustainability, his activism has led other regions of the WEA to develop Green Branches, and the issue is now embedded in the core curriculum of the WEA. Without Nigel’s knowledge and skill in networking and politics, it is unlikely any of these would have come to fruition.
Nigel’s work covers so many areas: a life long campaigner for the Co-Operative Movement, a committed socialist and campaigner against racism, an environmentalist and a great believer in social justice and international solidarity. In the week before he died he was involved actively with so many areas of his work.
Many members have contacted me to say they are heartbroken, and the sense of loss of a friend, a colleague and a comrade is palpable. As one Regional Committee Member said “They say no-one is irreplaceable, but Nigel came as close to denying that as anyone I have ever known”.
His life and legacy is something we treasure and celebrate. A life well lived.