Raymond Challinor 1929-2011

Ray Challinor was 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 when he and the Society ran out of steam, as it seemed at the time. It was not clear to anyone then that his health was gradually failing. In the early years of the last decade he suffered a stroke whilst undergoing surgery. 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 till Christmas 2007 when a serious fall took him into hospital and finally to a care home in Wallsend where his decline accelerated till his death.

The local labour history society was only one activity in a life of enormous vigour. 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. Although he worked amicably with most CP and former CP scholars he never shirked openly criticising where he felt their Stalinist pasts had blemished their work. In this he could be quite unreasonable and when prompted could cite disputes which had occurred thirty or forty years before. It should not be thought that he was an angry or bitter person. More commonly he could forget a political row and carry on with a friendship as if the quarrel had never occurred. He was a friend to many and especially to young comrades who came to his door for help with a project. They would share a laugh, leave with some fresh ideas on how to proceed, an armful of books and a full stomach, the latter provided by Mabel for his culinary skills were sometimes undermined by kitchen chaos.

Raymond’s contentious streak may have had roots located deep in childhood. He was aware early of antagonisms between his mother and father which catastrophically ended in separation and the farming of him out to live with an aunt when he just 10. He learnt that his paternal grandparents had also split up after bitter rows. Further complications for the family were produced as war approached since his maternal grandmother was German. She ran a cycle and engineering shop in Crewe. Much stress was caused by local bigots who argued that Germans should not be allowed to own shops in town. Of course those late thirties days were stressful for everyone but as well as being at the centre of family crises Raymond was engaging with political issues even as a small child. Both parents were activists who took him with him out with them or left him to his own devices. His father was right wing Labour and Secretary of his party branch throughout the thirties though his orthodox views did not stop him believing in direct action. Ray remembered his Dad heckling Mosley at a fascist meeting in Hanley Town Hall provoking violent responses from the Nazi honour guard. He was not above pulling loudspeaker leads out at Tory Rallies and recalls him once asking a friend to drop his trousers in a pub to show a hollowed out part of his bum where he’s been hit by shrapnel in the trenches. This was used as a pretty down to earth anti-war message for his young son. This seems strange behaviour for a Headmaster. In 1917 when only 15, he ran away, falsified his age, joined the Royal Flying Corps, actually flew over France in 1918 and he married a German woman. He was a reckless man given to heavy drinking and gambling though remarkably succeeding in holding down his teaching jobs.

Ray’s mother (Gertrude) was more left wing and a political thinker. She joined the ILP and was also an activist opposing the fascists and collecting money and Medical supplies for the Republicans in Spain. In 1939 they gave refuge to a Jewish Czech socialist. However unlike his father she was keen to educate herself and those around her. She was Secretary of the Longton WEA Branch. It was at such meetings, that he met lecturers such as R H Tawney, Richard Crossman and Emrys Hughes. Another episode was cited by Ray in his development as a social critic. Poor working class parents living nearby his home lost all six of their young sons in a terrible drowning accident. One boy fell into an industrial pond and his brothers were drowned trying to save each other. News of the ghastly episode churned up the district for months. However, apart from a report of the funeral, the local press completely ignored it. For Raymond this underlined their contempt for working class lives unless they were murderers. He was proud that his very first appearance in print was in a list of mourners at the funeral: ‘Raymond Corrick Challinor, 16 years of age.’ Ray said that where most of his friends listened to the fortunes of Stanley Matthews and Stoke City football team the daily diet in the Challinor household was ‘politics, for breakfast, dinner and supper.’

Ray was born in the Potteries in 1929. For the period his parents were fairly affluent. As socialists they were sharp observers of the cruel hardships suffered by the communities in which they worked and conducted their political activism. Both mother and father had left their Methodist roots behind and were agnostic. So it was in this environment that Ray was reared. He did not feel he was obliged to hold the same views as his parents but believed that the exciting, liberal and challenging context of his early life made it likely that he would. He was certainly witness to eccentricity and difference which may explain his intense interest as a historian in figures in the movement who had been little noticed, unconventional or both: John S Clarke, W P Roberts and F A Ridley. Often left alone he became a voracious reader and collector of books and pamphlets. His interests were broad. Like his father he knew his Dickens and Shakespeare and the works of the American socialist realists: Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, J T Farrell and Saul Bellow. Before he went to University his knowledge of world history was considerable but his greatest enthusiasm was for radical and socialist politics. His appetite for the doings of the most obscure sects and breakaways was insatiable as his vast library of books, newspapers and documents testified.

In his words, he was ‘shell shocked’ by his parents’ separation. He was 11 and in the first year at Crewe Grammar School. He was summarily shipped off to boarding school, the George Fox Quaker School at Lancaster. We can’t know what personal anguish he suffered but the school turned out to a positive experience. Pupils were actually encouraged to take part in local politics and in 1942 he got involved in the Lancaster by-Election. As it was war-time there could have been no contest as the official Labour Party did not stand but the ILP put up the pacifist Fenner Brockway against the Tory, the diplomat and spy, Sir Fitzroy McLean. The election meetings were very angry affairs. The local press dubbed the ILP ‘friends of Hitler.’ ILP members were beaten up by Communists who were urging support for the Tory. Fearing open dissent the Government had had troops billeted at Lancaster Castle when the old Clydeside MP, Jimmy Maxton came to Lancaster. Ray remembers little of what Maxton said, but was aware of him chain smoking his way through his speech and telling him if he had to choose between tobacco and food he’d choose the former. It was during that election campaign that Ray visited Preston seeing the bullet holes in a wall at the rear of a bookshop where Chartists had been fired on during the great strike of 1842.

His first political allegiance was to the ILP. Alongside the trade unions it was the founding political constituent of the Labour Party. The ILP had broken with the LP in 1932. By the Second World War it was reduced to a tiny faction-ridden membership with a small Parliamentary representation which was to disappear entirely by defection to the LP in 1947. A well remembered event was the Summer School of 1946 which he may have attended with his mother, a delegate from Crewe. Here he shared a room with the Spanish Civil War veteran, John McNair and a pint (he said) with luminaries like Maxton (who died that summer), Campbell Stephen, F A Ridley and the young T Dan Smith. Ridley he considered to be the lost Marxist theoretician though it might be thought Ridley lost himself as he apparently contributed nothing to the movement in thought or action in the last forty years of his life.

By 1946 the ILP was riven by factions. Small Trotsykist Groups vied for position within it, the largest of which the Revolutionary Communist Party attracted the 18 year old Ray Challinor. The RCP had some credibility as its members had been active in the celebrated Tyneside apprentices’ strike of 1944. But like the ILP the RCP was a field of factions. Ray appeared to have become a formal member whilst living in the south east of England during his National Service. He had registered as a conscientious objector choosing the land rather than the mines as an alternative to carrying a gun. Ray said he worked on 19 different market gardens in Essex, Norfolk and Sunbury on Thames in two years, leaving a trail of destruction everywhere he went. He noted that this was not conscious agricultural sabotage but his own incompetence in matters horticultural.

He went back to the Potteries to a job on a local newspaper. During this period the RCP had finally fractured at least three ways. One group, ruled autocratically by Gerry Healy would morph into the Socialist Labour League. Another led by Ted Grant, burying itself in the Labour Party, would eventually be known as the Militant Group. Ray was drawn to the group formed round Tony Cliff named the Socialist Review Group, later the International Socialists (IS) and from the 1970s the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In these early days he struck up a friendship with the future Labour MP, Stan Newens from Essex, a fellow Conscientious Objector, who had chosen the Staffordshire pits for his National Service.

There were several differences between the groups but the issue which fomented fracture was the nature of the Soviet Union. As a teenager Ray had already decided that that orthodox Trotskyism had it wrong; Russia was no kind of workers’ state. In the ILP magazine, Left Ray wrote an article entitled ‘State Capitalism-A New Order.’ In clear, readable prose he laid out the case that, ‘ it is criminal to call Russia Socialist. This harms not only the cause of the Russian worker but also that of Revolutionary Socialism. The only thing to do is to tell the truth about Russia and to show it has nothing in common with Socialism.’ He was just 18, In the same month, in much greater detail Tony Cliff’s substantial work, The Nature of Stalinist Russia’ was published in the RCPs internal bulletin. These works were paving the way for the formation of the Socialist Review Group which started with just 33 member in the Autumn of 1950. Ray was on the Editorial Committee of a new paper, Socialist Review a task he undertook for the several years contributing many articles himself.

Of course there was much more going on in his life. In 1952 he met Mabel Brough in the Labour League of Youth. They were married in 1957, a relationship which lasted over 50 years to his death. They had one son, Russell, born in 1962 who was also to become a political and trade union activist. In 1952 Ray started a four year degree at the new University College of North Staffs at Keele. He was involved with CND and the Committee of 100, attending the first Aldermaston March in 1958. He was active in his local Labour Party and for a brief time a local councillor and a Parliamentary candidate. This occasioned a dispute with Tony Cliff and the SR Group. The Group’s strategy was to work in the Labour Party as a platform for ideas though not as formal entrists like the Militant Tendency. The feeling was that seeking council and parliamentary seats was likely to lead to compromises with revolutionary socialism. In Ray’s case there was no problem. His unrelenting critique of the Labour Party, in print and debate, never ceased. Indeed his ‘deviation’ ended soon, after his abuse of John Golding the future MP for Newcastle under Lyme ended in fisticuffs. His parliamentary career was still born when he was selected then quickly deselected for Nantwich, his anti-Labour leadership diatribes too much for the functionaries at Transport House.

Raymond’s relationship with the IS and the SWP was always contentious. In debates from the sixties to the eighties he was almost always on the opposite side to Tony Cliff. His many talents were usually devoted to opposition to the group leadership. He belonged to a small number of comrades who found party discipline irksome. Like his friend Peter Sedgwick he could act with fury in a dispute and just leave the organisation. He never joined another political group. He could never lose sight of his role as a founding member. It was as if the group belonged to him, so, right up to the end of his life he wanted to identify with it. In 2003 at the time of the great anti-War demonstration he discussed formally re-joining. That was after his long last illness had begun.

In or out of the party he was an activist. In the early sixties after a period as a school teacher in Crewe he got a lecturing job at Wigan Mining College later moving on to Harris College, Preston Then Bolton College of Technology. The family moved to Wigan. Whilst at Preston in 1965 he was at the centre of support for the strikers at Courthaulds. The intervention was typical of Ray. He was in Preston visiting a travel agent at lunch time one day when he saw a group of Indian workers walking, down the street led by a very large man. This was ex-Indian policeman Amrit Choudery, a chemical engineer working on the line at Courtaulds nylon spinning factory. Raymond accosted them. They told him they had walked out of the factory when their section had apparently had their work doubled and their wage increased-by only 10/- from £18 a week. He told them they should have picket line to prevent scabs going in to work. When he arrived next morning he found the men outside the factory but sitting on the ground away from the gate. He persuaded them to form a picket line and ask other workers not to cross it. Most white workers respected the picket line. He assembled a phantom strike committee. He had to advise not holding meetings when he learned that the workers from different parts of the sub-continent would stand together on a picket line but would not sit in a room together!

In 1971 Raymond was appointed a lecturer in history at Newcastle Polytechnic and the family moved to Whitley Bay. A founding member in 1968 of the national Society for the Study of Labour History he joined the North East Society developing intellectual and personal friendships with a remarkable group of historians including Archie Potts, Joe Clarke, Terry MacDermott, Ted Allen, Maureen Callcott and Norman McCord. Together they produced the Bulletin (later North East History) which involved researching, writing, typing on wax stencils, running off on a duplicator, collating, stapling and posting a lively committed publication which survived and prospered. (See Don Watson’s article in this volume).

His arrival in the north east was to mark the fruition of his publications in book form. In the two decades which followed six full length studies appeared which did not arrest the flow of articles historical and polemical. The first two books came from research undertaken in Lancashire, one collaboratively with his colleague Brian Ripley and published just before coming to the north east. This was A Trade Union in the Age of the Chartists which was the product of the discovery of a hitherto unknown ‘Pitmen’s Strike Collection’ in Wigan Public Library. Here they charted the struggles of men like Martin Jude and Ben Embleton, the Durham pitmen, to organise a union in the enormously hostile environment of 1844. The next was The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners which was published by Frank Graham, the Spanish Civil War veteran, in Newcastle. This book was also submitted successfully to Lancaster University for a Doctorate in 1974.

In change of key came his most controversial book, The Origins of British Bolshevism. It is a meticulously researched study. The activities of the tiny sects in the period before the outbreak of the First World War are recounted intricate detail. He shows his sharp eye for errors and missed chances drawing on his own experience in small groups vying for an audience. It was the final chapters which created a stir on publication in 1977. Tony Cliff was in the middle of his four volume study of Lenin, seen by him as a guide to action in a period of rising class struggle. The IS Group had become the SWP. Ray had dissented. In his book he challenged an orthodoxy arguing that in 1920 Lenin had misjudged the situation in Britain, making a wrong choice in supporting the British Socialist Party over the syndicalist and more libertarian Socialist Labour Party as the carrier of Bolshevik strategy and tactics in Britain. In 2011 it seems an arcane dispute. It does illustrate two of Raymond’s essential characteristics, his wicked delight in sparking discord and his determination to relate his historical enquiry to contemporary contexts.

This latter point is seen strongly in A Radical Attorney in Victorian England largely researched and written during the Thatcher years. It is a biography of William Prowting Roberts the courageous defender of Chartists hounded by the ‘justice’ system. The parallels with the fate of miners in the mid-eighties are obvious. Roberts began his adult life as a comfortable middle class Tory lawyer. He became outraged by the abuses of power he witnessed in dealing with dissent. He turned radical in the 1840s. He was sent to prison twice for his pains and deserted even by his friends, ending his life in penury. Reclaiming his story from the archives was Ray’s mission pursued with relentless energy for nearly two decades from ‘discovering’ him in earlier research.

There were also two smaller projects running alongside the Chartism research. Another marginalised figure was the left wing scots socialist MP John S Clarke who had worked in circuses as a lion tamer. This exotic combination appealed to Ray. As with Roberts, rescuing an almost forgotten dissenter of principle supplied a strong motive. This was the first of series of books published by Bewick Press, the little publishing house he founded in the late ‘eighties with Archie Potts and Mabel. His final book was The Struggle for Hearts and Minds, a witty and revealing series of essays on the Second World War. This was part of what had started as a major book. He believed that despite an Everest of books it was a territory massively under researched. Again he was on a rescue mission to chart the activities of dissenters of which he argued there were thousands buried under the weight of patriotic narratives, deceit and plain lies. One essay attempts to recover the story of George Armstrong, a Wallsend sailor hanged as a traitor, a tragic victim of deliberate misinformation and cover up.   Another looks at the ignorance and incompetence of the politicians and service chiefs at the start of the war. He wrote of Dunkirk and Singapore, ‘It was as if His Majesty’s Forces were under the command of General Oliver Hardy and Field Marshall Stanley Laurel.’

In a review in New Society of The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners, Ralph Samuel, who could have said this of himself, wrote, ‘Raymond Challinor is a devoted historian. He has a fine knack of rescuing vanished organisations from oblivion (he might have added ‘and people’ JC). His accounts of strategy and tactics are convincing and unforced. He lets his facts speak for themselves, and the reader is free to put his own construction on them.’

Raymond arrived in the north east in a period of rising industrial conflict. Postmen, dockers, building workers and miners were on picket lines and on the streets. Ray involved himself in many support activities racing around the region menacing the public with his erratic driving. Characteristically he would turn round from the driving seat to address rear passengers with, “There are three points to be made…” On two campaigns he placed his special stamp. The first was supporting Eddie Milne, the deselected MP for Blyth in his battle against the official Labour candidate, John Ryman. Ray threw himself into this campaign with gusto and was threatened with slander actions by the Labour agent, whose bluff was called. Indeed Ryman was himself was forced to resign when subjected to a corruption investigation. Next he took on the Northumbria Constabulary in trying to call them to account for the death in their custody of Liddle Towers a night club bouncer. His campaign was taken up by the local media and Dr Challinor became briefly a minor celebrity. His lack of fear for authority was marked here when had a slanging match in Newcastle Central station with the then Chief Constable, Stanley Bailey. One outcome was that other people fetched up on his doorstep when they became victims of injustice.

It is very sad that Raymond’s active political and intellectual life was interrupted, slowed down and halted in the way it was. Until quite near the end he was aware and deeply frustrated by his diminished powers. His repeated, rather wan plea, was, ‘someone should look at this.’ His curiosity was undimmed. One of his last public political confrontations took place in the front row of the Tyneside Cinema. Chance had placed him in the next seat to Frank Graham, one of last surviving members of the International Brigade in Spain. The film was Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. The old friends locked horns. Ray would say, with Marx, ‘to leave error unrefuted is to encourage intellectual immorality.’

John Charlton

This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 42, 2011