Saturday, August 04, 2012

A Stay At Our Stately Home

WITH FINE VIEWS and formal gardens, a stately home for the workers' movement

IMAGINE an 18th century stately home, with formal gardens and woodland, set on a gently sloping hillside affording fine views over the countryside. The manorial crest and motto set in stone on its portico reappear in the ornate ceiling beneath which you take breakfast amid marble pillars and oak panneling, and admire the view across the gardens and ha ha to the fields and hills beyond.

But the panneling of the breakfast room is decorated with plaques from the Fire Brigades Union, and the accents around me are not those of the aristocracy but fellow trades unionists from Yorkshire, London and Scotland attending a conference, as well as a few holiday makers like myself.

Not a dream of "after the revolution", but Wortley Hall, in south Yorkshire, where I spent a few days last week, is an asset acquired by the working class movement in the heyday of Labour reformism, a few years after the coal mines were nationalised and the formation of the NHS. Fortunately it was not taken over by government, so has remained safe in our hands.

The hall was built in the 18th century as the seat of the Wharncliffe family who had been lords of the manor around these parts since Norman times. Their reign was briefly interrupted by revolution during the Civil War, when the Earl's ancestor Sir Francis Wortley having fought on the losing side was taken to the Tower of London, while Wortley Forge which had made cannon balls and cartwheel rims for the Royalists was another prize.

During the Second World War the Army made use of parts of the hall, and after the war its structure was deteriorating.

A good deal of the Wharncliffe family fortune was made in coal mining in south Yorkshire. So it is appropriate that among those who began to eye the hall in post-war years with a view to its possible use, a leading part was played by a Sheffield man, Vin Williams, who had worked in the pits since he was 13 years old.

During the General Strike in 1926, Vin, already known as a Labour and trade union activist, edited a strike Bulletin called the Derbyshire Chronicle. He was sentended after the strike to two months with hard labour, for inciting "mutinous sedition".

In the 1940s Vin was sacked from the pits for his union activity, and took up part-time lecturing with the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), going on to work for this educational body full-time. In 1949 he heard that Wortley Hall was empty and on the market, and started making enquiries about leasing the premises. In 1950 a group of labour, co-operative and trade union actvists met to discuss converting the hall into a conference, education and holiday ccntre.

The owners were keen enough for the money, and would settle for £50 in the first year and £500 in subsequant years. An appeal raised £1,300. But surveyors who looked over the place, with its mouldy ceilings and disrepair, estimated it would cost between £40,000 and £50,000 to restore the building and convert it for use.

This time there was another appeal, not just for money but for volunteers. They came forward, workers with different skills, and people with willing hands offering their time, and the task was begun. In 1951 3,000 people attended the official opening, A few years later the opportunity arose to buy the hall outright, and eventually the house together with six cottages and 28 acres of land were acquired for £10,000.

A co-operative was formed to run the place, and shares were distributed at a shilling apiece -5p in today's money! Fortunately it seems to have been better arranged and administered over the years than my local trades and labour hall, where to sort things out with the bank and raise money for needed repairs we may have to engage a medium and hold a seance to contact all the shareholders.

Today most trade unions as well as co-ops and local Labour Parties have some stake in Wortley Hall. The gardens are spick and span, and the hotel accomodation as I can testify, with all mod cons, now rates four stars. The wing I was in was named after Alf Hague, an engineering union convenor who had to retire with ill health - TB - from his job at the forge, but was found a job in the clean air helping run Wortley Hall. Other parts of the house have been named after William Morris, George Lansbury and miners' leader Abe Moffat.

Contemporary art was on show, as well as historic pictures on the walls, from the 1832 meting of the unions in Birmingham to a photograph in the bar of London dockers stewards being chaired in triumph after their release from prison - not Pentonville 1972 but the docks strike of 1951. Ours is a rich history.

One important part of that history was the Wortley Hall conference of April 1957, which brought together people who had recently left the Communist Party over Hungary, and some still in it, together with Trotskyists and Labour Lefts, to discuss how a new socialist but anti-Stalinist movement could be formed. Its results did not take an immediate organisational form, but did perhaps rescue people from drift and despair, and influence the new generations coming into politics in ensuing years.

Wortley Hall has kept its working class character, in the best sense, whether as a venue for the movement or an attraction for young and old. While I was there ASLEF members were gathering for a weekend residential conference, but there was also a coachload of pensioners come for an afternoon tour of the gardens followed by cream tea, and a couple discussing their wedding even as another party were already arriving for their 'do' - in the Unite ballroom of course.

I might not go as far as Wortley's former president Stewart Charnley who called it "An Oasis of Socialism"' But it does show what the movement can do. And I can recommend it for a holiday!

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