Fred Warburton worked at Water Haigh during the 1920s. Born in Lancashire in 1892 he was a lifelong socialist and early member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Later he joined the Labour Party.
After serving an apprenticeship to become a riveter he fought in France during the First World War. On his return he worked in Wakefield but got the sack for taking part in the Hands Off Russia campaign to stop British troops from being used against the Russian Revolution.
At Water Haigh Fred became a militant branch official of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association. His activities put him at odds with the management and he was penalised by being put on permanent night shifts.
In 1924 he was elected to the Leeds Trades Council where, as the representative for Water Haigh, he was one of the first in the country to propose a resolution which led to the General Strike of 1926.
During the strike and the six month lock-out of miners which followed he was harassed by the police and appears not to have returned to Water Haigh. In 1929 he was described as a fish and chip vendor when he stood for election as a member of the Communist Party in one of the Hunslet wards for Leeds council.
The memories below are adapated from typescripts now in the possession of the Ford Macguire Society in Leeds.
I was born in a small town in East Lancashire called Horwich on 11 April 1892 into a very strict Methodist family. My father, who tried to carry out all the tenets of his belief, was also a very strong trade unionist and I remember that he also belonged to the Reform Club which had its main strength in Lancashire.
I was the 8th of a family that finished with 13 children and although father was a journeyman boilermaker, we never had money to spare though not knowing what real want was. I remember we had a parlour where father did his writing and we were allowed there on Sundays when a fire was lit and after Sunday School we all used to sit and read. I remember that we had a picture of Gladstone at one side, Queen Victoria on the opposite, and over the mantel a picture of Hawarden Hall which I was told was the house of Gladstone.
When I was about five things took a change. There was much talking about Socialism and we noticed that the pictures of Gladstone, Hawarden Hall and Victoria had now been replaced. Photogravure given away by Pear’s soap, such as Bubbles, had taken their places. Also my father, who had up to then taken no papers, had started taking the Clarion and read books like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, Looking Forward and Equality.
We moved from Horwich in 1898 and went to Liverpool, then to Manchester. We finally settled in Leeds where we lived on South Accommodation Road. My father became a member of the Labour Representation Committee and the following year saw the election of the first Labour councillor for East Hunslet.
I left schoool when I was 13 and became a rivet lad and later an apprentice riveter. In 1911 engineers from about seven unions were given a rise of 1/- per week. The apprentices got nothing so we decided to strike. As my father was the president of his branch I became one of the leaders. It was an abortive strike but had results later. Until then there had been no catering for the apprentices, but such sections were formed after, which we think arose from our strike.
I remember during the strike the Leeds branches No’s 1 & 2 called a meeting for apprentice strikers at the Spotted Dog where No 1 met. About 40 of us went and we heard a worthy brother speak for 20 minutes on how he got to be the top man at his firm. Then he said: “You lads want to think about that.”
I jumped up and said: “There are 8 apprentices where I work. How do we all get to the top?” I was then informed not to be a cheeky bugger.
After the strike at our firm three were called into the office and we expected either the sack or some other action. The general manager asked us individually about our opinion. He said he did not want a leader’s opinion so I was last.
I pointed out to him that I was in a squad that had three; two of them had 38/- per week, which had now risen to 39/- per week, whilst the third (that was me) had 11/6 per week. Also as we earned on part piece time and a quarter it meant that we had to work harder to get time and quarter and that the 11/6 man had to help to earn that extra 2/6 for my mates and got nothing myself.
The general manager said I at least had a case. As I was returning down the boilershop Jim Partington, the angle-iron smith, and also a member of the branch committee said: “Look here, there always were gaffers and there always will be.” I started reciting “No Master” by William Morris to him and he threw a flattener at me.
After I came out of my time I moved to get my full money. At that time when you came out of your time your wage would rise from 13/- to 22/- with 2/- rise every quarter until you reached the full money. That meant you were 23 before you got it, so most men left.
I had two or three short spells before I got a regular place at a repair shop. It was while working at Beyer Peacock’s in Manchester that I met our late brother, Harry Pollitt.
Like many other young men who could not afford a holiday I had joined the Terriers so when the war started I became a reluctant soldier and went out to France in April 1915 and until I was transferred after the Somme I had kept my nose clean and was neither punished nor promoted.
I went out to the Middle East and did not get home until 7 months after the war had ended. After 5 years away I felt rather unorganised and had a bitter resentment that I had been robbed of 5 years in a capitalist war.
During the next year we were very busy in our trade catching up with the 5 years neglect and being away from home. Although I had a Socialist Labour Party card I was not active and only talked to my mates. But then arose the Hands Off Russia campaign and a comrade and myself bought two dozen copies of the Daily Herald with the full page HANDS OFF RUSSIA advert and posted them in our works and on walls in Wakefield where we worked early in 1921.
Although I was an old hand by then and had been acclaimed as the first to go and the last to come back from the war, and had all the specious promises, I got the sack.
I changed my S.L.P. card for the new Communist Party of Great Britain and became active in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. I became local adviser to the N.U.W.M. until Comrade Deas who was the Bradford District Organiser told me he had had a letter from Comrade Pollitt who had suggested that I was better doing direct work for the party, and that I should take up the work of the Minority Movement which had strong trade union attachments.
I was now working down the pit at Water Haigh Colliery. I was soon well known there and asked to stand for office but I think, to my error now, that I refused.
I had quite a strong feeling of the syndicalist idea and the S.L.P. that we should convert and to take office would only tarnish our Socialism. It was after the formation of the Minority Movement that I met the miners’ leader A.J. Cook and after a strong argument he convinced me that Socialism came after the revolution and I could do more by taking office and working for the working class than by discussing theory in a debating society.
I then became Secretary of the Yorkshire Miners Minority Movement and later all Yorkshire Secretary. Meanwhile I had become more active in my local branch and had become the main propagandist for the party throughout Yorkshire.
By 1925 we in the party realised that a General Strike was inevitable and our job now was to strengthen the working class whenever or wherever we could.
I had also become a blanket victim at the pit. I was given every rotten job and the management told the deputies that they must get rid of me. One of them, Ebor Williams, said: “But he’s such a nice chap to talk to and it might cause some trouble as this pit is now 99% organised and I am sure they’ll come out unless it is something extraordinary.” “Well make it something,” he was told.
We were now issuing a broadsheet called the Pit Worker and in the next issue it was inserted with a note from F. Warburton that he had 400 spies in that pit while the manager had only 12.
This resulted in a note being left in my lamp that I must wait and see the under manager the next morning. I had been put on permanent nights and after waiting from 6 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. the under manager called me into his office and then proceeded to try and extract from me who wrote the Pit Worker. “We know it’s you,” was his opening gambit. “Well then why ask me?” I said.
“It says issued by the Communist group, therefore there can’t be one as one does not make a group,” he said.
After half an hour he raised his stick and I thought I was going to get it but he changed his mind and made a X with it saying that’s the way not your way.
I then asked him to sign a paper for half a shift overtime and I reminded him that if a man was detained at the pit on matters that were not affecting his work he must be paid and this was a part of the Mining Act and he couldn’t refuse. There was no further attempt to sack me until the strike took place.
The hunt for the Pit Worker went on and on one occasion I came out of a gate to find the canchman holding a deputy over a tub and threatening to kill him. I stopped them and asked what was the matter.
The canchman said: “He’s been going through thy pockets to find a Pit Worker.” The manager then issued a notice, along with the part of the Mines Act, that said no paper of any sort had to be taken down the pit and he doubled the searches.
This rattled the men and all sorts of snap tins appeared from chocolate tins to the orthodox snap tin. Miners were used to carrying paper for other purposes, so the next Pit Worker had a comment that “bum fodder” would be hung at every gate end.
Satire of this sort was loved by the miners and hated like hell by the management. By now we had a regular group of 60 members of the Minority Movement that met each week on Sundays. Every gate was represented and we were certain of 100% support.
When I started at the pit I joined the Yorkshire Miners’ Association and found myself along with another comrade in a branch that had a Labour councillor as its chairman. It was not affiliated to either the Trades Council nor the Labour Party, so our first job was to rectify this and we were surprised that the chairman gave us no help at all. I and Jud became the first delegates to the Labour Party and Trades Council a position we both held until the expulsion.
In 1924 I put up for the executive committee of the Trades Council and received what was then and perhaps still is the highest vote ever recorded. This was a position that was very useful both before and during the General Strike.
The following year I became Vice President and it was the year before the upheaval. The party and M.M. both advocated the setting up of Councils of Action. We knew that we could get it through our branch of the Y.M.A.
We knew that we could set Council agenda and we never expected any opposition but when we brought it up at the branch the chairman, who was now a Labour alderman, ruled it out of order. This seemed a blow and we thought he had been primed. I remembered the rule that a chairman could not rule out of order any legitimate business.
He then said he would not have it read. By this time I was ready and moved that he be removed from the chair. It was seconded and although we had a majority of M.M. members present and they had always accepted my lead they voted and we placed a vice chairman in. After our motion was carried I moved that the chairman now resume his chair, so we put him back.
So we got the vital resolution for a strike to the Trades Council and on behalf of the Water Haigh branch I moved it at the December 1925 meeting on a suspension of Standing Orders. I was allowed free time to put our case, so after outlining the miners’ case I called for unified control so that what had been hotch potch in previous strikes could be averted.
We had very little opposition to this. It came mainly from the old trades union and labour Lib-Labs as we called them. When the resolution had been carried overwhelmingly one Labour alderman jumped up and shouted, pointing at me: “He’s the bloody tail that wags the left wing dog.”
The day before the strike began in 1926 was Sunday and the May Day demonstration took place on Hunslet Moor and at least 26,000 people were there. I was to speak on the No. 1 platform along with the West Leeds M.P. Tom Stamford.
We had more than our share of listeners and with true Independent Labour Party thinking Stamford talked of a compromise which he hoped might be reached. As I followed him I remember asking the crowd if they were prepared. Hadn’t we been on 3 days a week for nearly a year? How much lower did they want us to sink? This brought the miners, who composed the larger part of our crowd, to shout: “No. We’ll Fight.”
We had no difficulty with the workers during the General Strike. They were solid. But following the old remedy, “cut off the head”, I was arrested on the night the strike was over and was bound over. We had been sold and we were the “burnt offering.”
Now began the long struggle from May to December of slow starvation and of attacks by local authorities who where unsympathetic to the miners.