2017: The Society’s Jubilee

North East Labour History Society Fifty Year Jubilee

We are most grateful to the North East Area Miners’ Social Welfare Trust Fund for their support for these NELH Jubilee events.

Our Jubilee programme is now complete. We would like to thank our members and others who turned out in large numbers to the talks and the day-school which are listed below. A summary of the Jubilee events will be published in next year’s NELH Journal, as well as the keynote address for the September day-school.

22 June 2017, Professor James Walvin:  Slavery in Small Things: Slavery and Modern Cultural Habits

Professor James Walvin

The talk explored the cultural legacy of slavery through commonplace daily objects. It traced the relationship between slavery and modern cultural habits through an analysis of such objects that include sugar, tobacco, tea, maps, portraiture, print, and more. It utilised common objects to illustrate the cultural impact and legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.

Professor James Walvin is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Professor Emeritus at the University of York, and formerly a Visiting Fellow at Yale University. His books include Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire, 2E (2001); The Trader, The Owner, The Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery (2007); A Short History of Slavery (2007); Britain’s Slave Empire (2008); The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery (2011); The Slave Trade (2011); and Crossings: Africa, the Americas and the Atlantic Slave Trade (2013).


4 July 2017, Michael Chaplin:  Hame – My Durham, Collected Works of Sid Chaplin

This talk was also part of the Education4Action Gala Week activity Programme at Redhills.

The son of a miner who became a pitman himself, Sid Chaplin’s early work brilliantly chronicled the mining life he observed around him. To mark the centenary of his birth in 1916, this new collection of stories, essays and poems features the very best of this work, with essays and commentary by his son, Michael Chaplin, tracing the early life of his father and the story of the villages which meant so much to him. An affectionate evocation of landscape, people and place, captures the culture which created the modern North East but which is now lost forever.

Sid Chaplin




16 September 2017, Day School: Fifty Years of Activism

This was a joint event with the Histories of Activism Group at Northumbria University. Over seventy people spent the day in workshops covering the Trade Unions and the world of work, Labour Activism, the Cooperative Movement, the Women’s Movement, Music, Environmental Activism, the Peace Movement and the Growth of Ethnic Diversity in the North East. The programme of the day school can be found on this link.


7 November 2017, Professor David Saunders talked about Rudolf Abel

Willie Fisher (Rudolf Abel) and his father Matvei Fisher

David talked about the Geordie roots of Rudolf Abel, the key figure in the recent film “Bridge of Spies”, on the actual 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

This was a joint event with the Newcastle Literary and Philosphical Society.

‘Rudolf Abel’ (Willie Fisher), the Soviet spy exchanged for the American U2 pilot Gary Powers in 1962 (after having been in prison in the USA since 1957), was born at 140 Clara Street, Benwell, on 11 July 1903. He was the son of immigrants from Russia to Newcastle. His father, a fitter at Swan Hunter, was called Matvei Fisher, or, to give him his full name, Genrikh Matveevich Fisher (or Heinrich Matthäus Fischer, for the father was himself the son of an immigrant from Germany to Russia).

Professor David Saunders

Matvei Fisher, Abel’s father, was a committed socialist. He speaks in his Russian-language memoirs of the ‘Newcastle Socialist Society’, a free-standing socialist club which came into being in the 1890s and was sometimes affiliated to the Social Democratic Federation. He participated in a covert gun-running operation from Newcastle to Russia in the course of the Russian Revolution of 1905-7 (storing the weaponry at 42 Leazes Park Road), and agitated on behalf of socialism among the Russian crews who were sent to the Tyne by the tsarist government in the course of the First World War.

The Fisher family stayed in north-east England until 1921, moving from Benwell to Eleanor Street in Cullercoats in about 1908 and later to nearby Lish Avenue in Whitley Bay. Then they moved to post-revolutionary Russia, where the future Rudolf Abel, or William Fisher to give him the name on his birth certificate, was recruited by what is now the KGB in the later 1920s.

At the point of his arrest in 1957, Abel had been working as a commercial artist in New York for some eight years. What he had really been doing in his time in north America has never been fully explained, but since he was skilled as a radio operator he was probably somehow transmitting to the USSR information collected by other Soviet spies in the USA.

After returning to Russia in 1962, Abel died there in 1971 and is buried with his father and other members of his family at the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow.