Tribute to Paul Whetton
Mark Seddon guardian.co.uk, Tuesday May 02 2006 16.02 BST Article history
A major miner Gone, but not forgotten: Paul Whetton, rank and file Notts NUM strike leader, teacher, campaigner and working class activist.
I doubt that he would have made it to the obituary pages of the national press, but then he wouldn't have cared if he had. Paul Whetton, who died last month was a rank and file leader of the Nottinghamshire NUM during the great miners' strike. His death came, ironically, on the same day that the strike was called off 21 years ago.
I first met Paul as he arrived with a group of fellow miners at Norwich Labour club at the beginning of the strike. Their intention was to close down some of the small East Anglian ports where coal was being imported from eastern Europe to break the strike. It was ironic then to see him carrying a blue plastic holdall, with CCCP emblazoned across the side. A broad smile, a moustache, big glasses and a most extraordinarily hairy nose, suggested that he was something of a character before he even opened his mouth. And when he did, the voice was as deep as it was friendly. "Greetings Marra!" was his opening gambit before heading upstairs to plan our trip on an Eastern Counties doubledecker bus to the sleepy Essex port of Wivenhoe, where coal was being landed. Our first outing as flying pickets ended comically with us getting lost on the way, finding Wivenhoe, but not getting anywhere near the port and spending the rest of the afternoon in the pub. But Paul, and his old comrade Taff King, also from Bevercotes colliery were deadly serious, and attempts to land coal in the centre of Norwich along the rivers and canals were headed off at the pass.
It was Taff who told me the sad news about Paul, who had succumbed quickly from lung cancer, but who had at the least the time and sense to record his own message for the hundreds of mourners gathered inside and outside the church in his home village of Tuxford. And when Tuxford had become one of the first parishes to appoint a woman as vicar, Paul's first words were "Welcome, comrade!" "It was typical of Paul that he should insist that his coffin be draped in a red flag, that his old Russian hat was placed on top of it and that he would ask Arthur Scargill to give the oration from the pulpit," recalls Taff King.
To be a striking miner in the Nottinghamshire coalfield in 1984-5 was not easy. For a start, the area union leadership, which had called on its members to continue working, also had control of all but one of the miners' welfare halls in the coalfield. To be a leader of this embattled minority, when all around families were going short of food and clothing made it even more difficult. Ollerton, which became an early flashpoint in the dispute, after striking Yorkshire miner David Jones was crushed to death in an attempt to picket out the local pit, also became the focal point of survival for those Notts miners and their families who heeded the national strike call. For Ollerton welfare was under the strikers control, and it was here that Paul and others organised the twinning with Norwich and the vanloads of provisions we took up there each weekend.
After the strike ended, Paul returned to Bevercotes, where he attempted to organise the NUM in the teeth of opposition from both the new breakaway UDM union and colliery managers. He was sacked and fought a long two-year campaign, eventually winning reinstatement - but at Manton colliery in the north of the county, where management figured he would be without a local powerbase. I remember Paul telling me that he was determined to have every "last cobble of concessionary coal" that he had been deprived of during his two years without work: "They offered me the money instead, but I told them I wanted the whole bloody two years' worth." And so a pyramid of coal outside Paul's house became the talk of Tuxford. He was invalided out of Manton in 1989.
Over the past decade or so, Paul helped set up and became a central figure in the Justice for Mineworkers campaign, a constant reminder that many men had lost their jobs and become unemployable for simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time on the picket line.
Paul's family must have been proud. Labour MPs, council leaders and former NUM leaders, including Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield, were all there for Paul, alongside his old comrade Taff. "Gone, but never forgotten," is an easy epitaph to write, but in the case of Paul Whetton it is true. It is also a reminder that real history is often made by ordinary people, who may never be household names, but whose imprint and achievement is far greater than much that is left behind by candyfloss celebrities and by our here today, gone tomorrow politicians.
Tribute to Joe Whelan
Joe was born on 1st March 1925, in Dublin, to a family that was as involved in the independence struggle as any. He left Ireland at the age of 15 to join the RAF. During his period in the forces, he met and married Ethel, with whom he had five children. They had decided to settle in the heart of the Nottinghamshire coalfield and, after Joe left the RAF, he started work at Linby Colliery, where he remained for over 20 years.
A life-long member of the Communist Party, which he joined in 1949, Joe Whelan was quickly elected to the NUM branch committee. He later became branch secretary, a position he held with great distinction until he was elected to be an NUM Area Agent in 1965. Along with leading Communist miners, such as Les Ellis, who Joe had first met at Linby and who he succeeded as agent following his death, Joe Whelan was a key figure in creating conditions for moving the Notts area beyond its heritage of �Spencerism� during the 1960s and 1970s.
Some six years later, he was elected to the National Executive Committee of the NUM. In May 1971, he was elected Financial Secretary of the Nottinghamshire Area NUM and then, from 30th November 1977, the Area General Secretary. In this capacity, he was Joint Secretary of the Notts Pension Scheme, Secretary of the Coal Industry Welfare Organisation and a Trustee of the Miners� Convalescent Home.
During the 1972 and 1974 national miners� strikes, as a member of the miners� union NEC, Joe made powerful contributions to the negotiations with the Coal Board and Government. He was noted for a particular affinity with the rank-and-file of the miners, which aided his popularity across political divides.
An active member of CND and Vice-President of the Nottingham British-Soviet Friendship Association, he was also active in support of pensioners� campaigns and the Peoples� March for Jobs. Joe was also a cultured man, fond of poetry, which he could recite with aplomb. He was an accomplished musician, with a fine singing voice in which he rendered Irish rebel songs, traditional miners� ballads and revolutionary hymns with equal talent. Joe Whelan died in Mansfield in September 1982, still a member of the East Midlands District Committee of the Communist Party, having previously served for eight years as a member of the national Executive Committee.
Source: GS personal knowledge;dated 6th September 1982 Fred Westacott and Frank Watters.
The best Agent the Notts Miners Never Had
Frank Ellis, who died on 16th February 2007 was one of seven children, his father was a miner at Hucknall Bottom pit; both parents were socialists and active in the newly formed Labour Party. One brother John became a Labour Councillor for Nottinghamshire, another, Les was an agent for the Nottinghamshire Area NUM from 1951 to his death in 1965; an uncle, ��Bolshevik� Jack Smith was an agent for the Leicestershire Area of the miners, union (MFGB) and close associate of A J Cook. With that sort of background it isn�t surprising that Frank swiftly became politicised.
As a young lad he was thrown out of the Church Hall, which had the best snooker tables in town, because his religious affiliations were deemed inappropriate! He swiftly found and joined what he later described as, ��an organisation with the wonderful title of the Militant League of Atheists.� [Tape recorded interview with Richard Stevens] Yet, while retaining his secularism he never attacked anyone for their beliefs.
His first job was as a butcher�s assistant at the Hucknall branch of the Maypole grocery chain where he joined, with about half a dozen workmates, the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers. He later got casual work at the Co-op dairy, frequently having to cycle ten miles back home because he had not been selected to work that day. Following the footsteps of his parents, who had joined the Communist Party in 1929, he joined the Young Communist League in 1931 and remained a Communist until his death.
In the early 1930s Frank played his part in the campaigns against the fascists. For instance, I have been told by several people, that no meetings of the British Union of Fascists were allowed to take place on Nottingham�s Slab Square because Frank�s comrades were so well organised that if, and when, the fascists started a meeting, they would be surrounded and chased off the Square within ten or fifteen minutes.
Frank got married to Julie during this period and she also proved to be a class fighter. It was his hatred of Fascism which, in 1937, led him, to make his way to Paris then down to the Pyrenees to be met by a mountain guide and escorted over the mountain range to cross the border into Spain and on into a reception unit of the International Brigade. Here he went through some basic military training before moving on to fight as a machine gunner, on the side of the new Spanish Republic, in the bloody civil that was to continue until 1939.
In 1938 he and some of his comrades were confronted by a column of the Italian Army fighting on behalf of Franco against the Government. They were captured and spent the rest of the war in a Franco gaol.
As the civil war drew to a close, to the advantage of the fascist insurgents, Frank was repatriated to Britain. That was early 1939 with war against Nazi Germany looming large on the horizon, and which started in September. Frank was conscripted into the army, so he and his wife were again separated which, but for short periods of leave, was to last for six years.
In that time Frank trained as a glider pilot and platoon commander, having risen through the ranks to First Lieutenant and then Captain in the first Airborne Battalion of the British army; though he didn�t see action until September 1944 in Operation Market Garden, probably Field Marshal Montgomery�s biggest disaster. Frank was one of the 10,000 men dropped at Arnhem of whom less than a quarter succeeded in withdrawing across the River Rhine. Frank was one who managed to get out. One of the few stories I heard Frank tell of that battle was, as they retreated and searching for a boat in which to cross the river, they found one but as the first man stepped into it his foot went straight through the bottom! �If there�s a boat without a bottom, there must be a boat with a bottom,� he urged his men. There was and they managed to get across the Rhine and into allied lines; those who have seen the Rhine will appreciate that must have been some achievement.
Back in Britain and after a short leave he was posted to Burma, where he served out the rest of the war. Typical of the man�s modesty he didn�t apply for any of his medals. Demobbed, in 1946, he returned to the dairy �because,� as he put it, �a job of sorts had been kept open for me, but a few months later I went down the mines, Linby Colliery� just after it�d been nationalised �
His brother, Les, already working at Linby and delegate to the Nottinghamshire Area Council was shortly elected Agent for the Nottinghamshire Miners. Frank succeeded him as delegate. With his class understanding, his clarity of argument and the support of the men he represented, he swiftly became the undoubted leader of the Left on the Council - a position he maintained for eighteen years including through the 1972 and 74 mining strikes during which his analysis and guidance was impeccable. He was a determined negotiator for his members and, recognising that he would be back at the table, always sought find a face saver for his adversary. It has often been said that Frank was the best agent that the Nottinghamshire miners never had; there are few who would challenge that!
In his home town he was well known and well liked (except when he started winning too many prizes for onions or chrysanthemums in the local horticultural shows!). He later took up bee-keeping, an interest he maintained to the end. He was selected by the allotment holders to represent them on the council�s committee which he did until the local government reorganisation, but failed to win a place on the council itself on the several occasions he stood on behalf of the Communist Party. Together with his comrade Joe Whelan, Linby branch secretary, he played a major role in the development and conduct of the Hucknall and Linby Miners� Welfare though, as usual, he was self deprecatory about his role.
Many Nottinghamshire miners have played golf and Frank�s pit produced many more than competent players of whom Frank and Linby�s branch secretary, Joe Whelan, were but two. On many Fridays I would meet both of them in the pit canteen with up to four quires of the Daily Worker and we would just sit at a table, each with a mug of tea, while their workmates approached to crack a joke about Nottm Forest or County, raise a point of grievance over working conditions or just to say hello; most would pick up a copy of the paper and drop money on the table while I just marvelled at the way in which a hundred-and-four Daily Workers just disappeared, a pile of money accumulated and I would eventually depart with a substantial surplus for the Fighting Fund!
Just over a year ago Frank went to a discussion on the General Strike and, as the final contributor, stood up wearing his Basque beret, thumb tucked into the fork of his chest high walking stick, to speak for maybe six minutes, with a clarity of diction, formulation and political analysis that showed he had lost none of those abilities which he had consistently used on behalf of the working class and for which he was renowned.
W L Ellis
Ellis was a Nottinghamshire miner, who was blacklisted after the 1926 General Strike. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and was a full time organiser for the Party from 1941-1942. He then served in the army in the period 1942-1946, securing the post of Staff Sergeant. A member of Hucknall Co-operative Society from 1921, he was later a Director of the society. In the late 1940s, he was elected first a Miners Checkweighman and then an NUM official. A Communist Party Executive Committee member, he stood as a Communist parliamentary candidate for Mansfield at the 1950 General Election.
The death of former miners' leader Peter Heathfield reminds us of a disgraceful episode in the media's history
Peter Lazenby guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 5 May 2010 10.04 BST Article history
With the death of the former miners' leader Peter Heathfield the labour and trade union movement has lost one of its most courageous leaders.
For those who knew him, the loss will be a source of both sadness and anger.
The anger will be directed at sections of the media who conducted a reckless, irresponsible, politically motivated, groundless and downright venomous campaign against Heathfield, and against Arthur Scargill, as leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers. They were wrongly accused of misappropriating union funds for their personal use.
The campaign's effects remained with Heathfield for the rest of his life.
He was elected national secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984, just weeks before the start of the miners' strike against pit closures. He joined Scargill and Mick McGahey, president and vice-president of the NUM, to make up the triumvirate at the head of the union during that bitter dispute.
In 1990 the Daily Mirror launched a campaign of denigration against Scargill and Heathfield. The accusations of dishonesty were ludicrous, yet they were taken up almost unquestioningly by wide sections of the media. The Cook Report sailed into battle with its own "revelations".
The allegations were eventually and inevitably disproved. Years later the editor of the Mirror at that time, Roy Greenslade, apologised, through the columns of the Guardian.
In Heathfield's case the damage was already done. The grinding pressure of the repeated accusations, week after week, month after month, took its toll on his health. Anyone who knew him could see the hurt he felt, the mental stress. He aged visibly, before his time.
The last time I saw Peter was in March last year at the annual lecture delivered in memory of David Jones and Joe Green, two Yorkshire miners who were killed on the picket line during the 1984-85 strike. David's father was one of the speakers.
Peter was greeted by friends and comrades he had worked with for decades, and though he smiled and shook hands, he seemed to have little memory of them. I felt he was going through the motions. He was frail, feeble, dependent on loved ones to support him.
Peter Heathfield had been a formidable speaker, a disciplined activist, yet someone who always had time for a laugh, a joke and a pint.
I doubt if those behind the campaign against him knew or cared about the effect their actions were having on a man who put enormous value on integrity.
Shame on them.