Sunday, October 04, 2009

Wal Hannington and the Slough Soviet 1920

Wal Hannington
and the Slough Soviet
In October 1919 I was going through one of my spells of unemployment when I received a message from Bob Lovell, a fellow tradesman who knew of my activities in the union and workshop, and who had recently started work at the famous Slough Transport Depot, a government establishment.
His message asked me to meet him next meeting night at the Cricklewood (West London) branch of the Toolmakers’ Society. I kept the appointment and he then told me that he wanted me to apply for a job at the Slough Depot, where over 5,000 were employed, and where he was already carrying on a fight against a reactionary shop stewards’ committee.

He stated that there were many grievances amongst the workers, but many of the shop stewards were passive and under the domination of the chairman of the works committee, who appeared to be acting more as a representative of the management than of the men.

He said they were wanting more men at the depot and he wanted me to get a job there in order to strengthen the fight for a militant shop stewards’ organisation. He had also written to Tom Dingley of Coventry, who was on the National Committee of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement, urging him also to come down for a job.

I was keen to take on the job and the activity, and next morning I got started in the engine-fitting shop.

Dingley followed next day in the tool-room. So we were both in, and soon got down to business. We arranged for talks with groups of militant trade unionists in the dinner-hours. We planned our propaganda and lines of agitation. Both Dingley and I were platform speakers and we began a series of dinner-hour lectures at the works, on various subjects relating to trade-union activity and the working-class movement.
The attendances at the meetings grew day by day until they reached the size of mass meetings. We quickly gathered a tremendous support around us and launched our campaign against the weakness of the shop stewards’ committee, particularly the reactionary role of the chairman. In less than a month we had caused important changes in the works committee and both Dingley and I were elected as shop stewards in our respective departments.

We succeeded in getting regular weekly meetings of the works committee (shop stewards from every department throughout the works) and we led a fight for a militant policy in respect to numerous grievances which prevailed in a number of departments. So keen did the struggle on policy become that it ultimately took the form of open mass meetings amongst the men, with both sides, the right-wing and the left-wing representatives, stating their case and fighting for support. For over a week this battle of mass meetings raged throughout the various departments. The left wing, which Dingley and I were leading, were fighting not only for action against the management for im-proved conditions, but also for our works committee to become part of the National Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement.

As the campaign developed it was clear that the left wing were gaining ground rapidly. Then came the final round of meetings at which the men were to vote for the policy which they supported. The results were a crushing defeat for the right wing. New elections of shop stewards resulted in the militants sweeping the board.
Tom Dingley became convener of the works committee, I became chairman, and Bob Lovell secretary. The management had, of course, been following the course of the battle, and there is no doubt they were seriously alarmed when “the reds,” as we were called, won the day.

They had good cause for their alarm, for we were not long in letting them know what a militant works committee meant. Deputations met the management in several departments to demand the remedying of various grievances about conditions of employment. Negotiations failed to bring results, but when the works committee called for strike action from over 5,000 men and every shop struck solid the management soon came down to satisfactory terms.

The first big battle had resulted in victory for the militant policy, and many who had wavered between the left and the right line now became firm supporters of the left. From then onward, whenever grievances arose, if the shop stewards could not settle the trouble by negotiation they had no difficulty in getting strike action in the department affected, with the threat of a works stoppage if the management did not come to terms within a fixed time. The departmental actions invariably won, and it only became necessary on one occasion in the next six months to resort to a complete stoppage.

This arose over the question of rates of pay on certain classes of work. The works were a government concern and the management at Slough said they had no power to negotiate a settlement because they were acting under orders from Whitehall.
The works were situated about twenty miles from London, several miles from any big town, and stood on a mile and a quarter square of ground in the open country on the outskirts of the town of Slough which at that time was not much more than a large village. Most of the workers lived long distances from the works and travelled daily by special trains which ran into a railway siding in the works. They came chiefly from London, Reading, Staines, Guildford and Windsor. From London three special trains ran from Paddington every morning, and returned with the same workers at night.
Accordingly, when strikes took place in the Slough Depot, they were all stay-in strikes. If they were not settled before leaving-off time in the evening the strikers caught their trains as usual back to their homes and returned next morning to the works, entered it in the usual way, but did no work. The men would have “sing-songs,” play cards, read books and chat together while waiting for the shop stewards to report the results of their negotiations.

The complete stoppage over wage rates continued into the third day, when the management called in the leaders of the works committee and informed us that the “people in Whitehall” wanted to meet us that afternoon at the Admiralty building to discuss the dispute.

A meeting of the works committee, consisting of about seventy shop stewards, was immediately convened, and a deputation of seven, including the officers of the committee, was elected. To the sound of cheers from the workers we departed to Whitehall to do battle with the “brass hats”.

We were received in a well-furnished room by a group of very efficient men. But not all the efficiency was on their side of the table. Before the interview finished they realised that they were dealing with a group of workers’ representatives who knew how to state a case and knew how to fight on the finest points. At the end of an hour and a half we came to terms. We had to concede one or two small points, but in the main it was a complete victory.

We hastened from the conference room and rushed back to the Slough Depot, arriving there about an hour before the time of departure. A tremendous mass meeting was called in the chassis shop and from a lorry used as a platform we reported our negotiations in Whitehall. The terms of settlement were unanimously endorsed by the men, and that night as an expression of their solidarity they formed up in marching formation and marched in a body to the railway siding and the depot exits. Next morning work was resumed.

News of the events at Slough had spread far and wide. It was a topic of conversation in many trade-union branches and workers’ clubs. In the House of Commons a Conservative member one day rose to ask: “What does the Government intend to do about the existence of the Soviets which have been created in the Slough Government Motor Transport Depot?” The answer was: “We are carefully watching the situation.”

The depot was handling all the old army lorries that were being returned from the battle-fields, and it was known of course that sooner or later the depot would either be closed or radically changed. It was commonly spoken of as a “white elephant.” Politicians argued that it was not a paying concern and agitation in the government circles was directed towards closing it down or selling it to a private concern.
The blow came in April, 1920. Notices were posted up informing the employees that on April 30th the works would close down and that all employees were under a week’s notice. We learnt that the works were to be sold to private enterprise and the managers put the story into circulation that certain men would be asked to continue their service with the new company, if their conduct had proved satisfactory.
There were not many men caught by this trick. The bulk of them saw through the move and were not inclined to stick at their job during the week that they were under notice. It was a week of intense activity for the shop stewards, who took advantage of every opportunity to hold meetings of the men and to spread working-class propaganda. The organ of the National Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement, Solidarity,had a big sale in the works, as well as thousands of pamphlets dealing with the working-class movement. 

One afternoon the shop stewards were surprised to learn that at the two main exits small huts were being rapidly erected and that a force of police had been brought into the works. We gathered that that evening as the men left a personal search was to be carried out by the police and works officials to ascertain whether the men were taking out property which did not belong to them. The shop stewards and the men indignantly resented this move and its inference, and it was decided to resist any search.

Wide roads ran through the works, and all the employees assembled in marching formation, twelve abreast, to march out. When we reached the main exit a cordon of police stood across our path, but the workers marched on, and as the dense column of marchers came almost breast to breast with the police the cordon sagged and gave way, and with mighty cheers the workers marched out of the gates. A little scuffling took place when the police tried to recover their lost position, but they were hopelessly out-numbered and the temper of the men was such that they ultimately gave it up as a bad job. The organised march out from the works was carried out each evening up to the last day.

As the depot had received the name of “white elephant,” the works committee decided to make a fitting end to the “elephant” by organising a mock funeral for the day on which the employment terminated (30th April 1930). The carpenters, body-builders and upholsterers agreed to make a huge white elephant. There were to be a clergyman and choir boys in their surplices, the workers were to be the mourners, and pall-bearers were appointed to carry the body of the elephant. The funeral was to start at 9 o’clock in the morning on the last day of employment. Before leaving the works the night previous we saw the elephant completed. It was a splendid piece of work—real craftsmanship had been put into it. It almost seemed a pity to have to bury such a fine specimen. It was carefully covered with a tarpaulin in the body-building department to await the return of the workers next morning. But next day, when we arrived in the works, to our horror and dismay we found that the elephant had disappeared!

The police who had been brought into the works, in conjunction with the management, had evidently decided to put a stop to the mock funeral by a premature cremation! We were not sure that that was the end of the elephant, for no traces of its end were left; it had simply disappeared.
The choir boys were all dressed up in their surplices, the clergyman was ready with his bible, the pall-bearers were bracing themselves for their strenuous task, and the jazz band with its instruments were ready to play the Dead March in Saul—but the body had vanished!

We were determined not to be beaten and we decided that another elephant should be quickly constructed. The start of the funeral was postponed until 11.30. The new elephant appeared on time, and the funeral with its 5,000 mourners moved slowly down the roads of the works towards the big space in front of the main offices. The clergyman mounted a dais, the choir boys with their candlesticks gathered at his feet, and the congregation formed a huge semi-circle. The grave-diggers were ordered to dig the grave; it measured twelve feet long by twelve feet wide. The clergy-man read the funeral oration—it was an oration over the body of capitalism, ending with a call for the workers of the world to unite to end the system which had created the “white elephant.”

The assembled mass of workers were then solemnly called upon to uncover. They had caught the spirit of the thing and they all obeyed. Then just as the elephant was being lowered into the grave the clergyman noticed that the managers and foremen and other members of the staff who were assembled on the big flat roof of the offices were looking down on the scene and had not removed their hats.

He stopped the ceremony and pointed to the roof of the building. A shout went up from the mourners demanding that “respect” be shown by the managers and foremen as well as by the men. The crowd began to move towards the offices; quickly the group on top of the building removed their headgear, and the ceremonies were continued. The grave-diggers shovelled the earth into the grave and the great mock funeral ended by all sing-ing the “Red Flag”—the workers’ battle-hymn. The rest of the day was spent in improvised concerts and general merry-making.
The numerous red flags which had been used in the funeral were jealously guarded and carried home as souvenirs.

Many small flags hung from the windows of the trains as they steamed for the last time out of the Slough Depot. On the door of the carriage in which I was sitting with other shop stewards, one of the wags just before the train departed, had chalked in big letters: “Slough Soviet makes its last journey.”
Next day was May Day. The banners which were carried in the Slough funeral were brought to the Thames Embankment and the Slough workers gathered behind their banner and marched with the rest of the workers to Hyde Park.
They declared themselves a Soviet made a big wooden elephant, wrote ‘Capitalism’ on it and buried it. Then they went to London to demonstrate.

Source: Wal Hannington Unemployed Struggles 1919-1936


House of Commons 08 June 1920 Mr. DOYLE M.P.asked the Home Secretary whether he is in a position to give the number of Soviet committees established in South Wales, in Glasgow and Scotland generally, and the industrial centres of England; if there are very strong bodies of the same at Slough motor depôt
Wal (Walter) Hannington

Wal Hannington was an infamous leader of unemployed struggles in Britain between the wars. He was born on 17th June 1896 in Randall Street, Camden Town, London into a large family, his father being a bricklayer. Relatives of one Herbert Hannington, suspect that Wal was his uncle, in which case Wal’s father would have been Louis Hannington, born in Chalk Farm.
He was apprenticed to a toolmaker at 14 and joined the Toolmakers' Society during the 1914-18 War, and married his wife, Winnie, in 1917. He joined the British Socialist Party during this period and became a member of the Toolmakers’ London committee. He went over to the Amalgamated Engineering Union in the 1920 merger and was a founder member and life long Communist Party member.
On November 11, 1918, the War ended but Wal was just beginning. He celebrated Armistice Day by hoisting a red flag atop his factory. Later, in the huge Government motor transport depot at Slough.
When the closure of the factory was announced, Wal gainned fame by dressing them all up as clergymen in surplices and paraded them through the grounds before a huge white cloth elephant, (representing capitalism) which they mourned as dead.
Made unemployed during the 1921 slump, he helped found the National Unemployed Workers' Committee Movement (NUWM), which organised hunger marches and other activities to draw attention to the consequences of unemployment. Hannington was National Organiser of the NUWM from its formation at the International Socialist Club, City Road, Hoxton, on the 15th April 1921.

In 1922, as the leading figure in the national hunger march on London, he was arrested in Leicester and jailed for a month. While in gaol he stood for Parliament as the Communist candidate for Bermondsey West. With 11 other Communists, he was sentenced in 1925 to three years imprisonment. In the general election of 1929 he stood as Communist candidate at Wallsend.

Hannington successfully prosecuted Lord Trenchard, then Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and two policemen for wrongfully breaking into the offices of the NUWM in Great Russell St, London, and was awarded damages.
In his autobiography, he vividly describes the endless demands of local authorities, the deputations to the TUC, fights with the police, local and national Hunger Marches. He recounts dramatic episodes involving fake coffins and occupations of salubrious restaurants of the rich. He organised a series of activities, including a lie-down in Oxford Street, to illustrate the effects of unemployment. He was sent to prison for several months, after an unemployed march on Parliament in 1932, as "a disturber of the peace ". Hannington led the very last Hunger march, which took place in October/November 1936, and led the NUWM until its effective end in 1939.
A life-long member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, he became its National Organiser in 1942. In this, he was particularly associated with the wartime relaunch of the shop stewards’ movement in the engineering industry. He was beaten during the cold war in a re-election for his position as National Organiser in 1950 but later became the Assistant Divisional Organiser for the No. 25 Division. He formally retired from trade union work in 1961 but was still attending demonstrations in 1964 against the then Government imposed "Pay Pause".
Wal Hannington died in November 1966. He died aged 71, just after leaving Hammersmith hospital, where he had been having a medical examination.
The then General Secretary of the Communist Party, John Gollan was reported to have commented that: " Wal Hannington was one of the great, cheerful, and optimistic figures of our movement - a founder of the Communist Party and a great leader of the engineers and of the unemployed. His life was a model of service to his class."