Monday, February 01, 2010

West country postman finds hidden treasure -again!

SOMERSET post office worker Dave Chapple has done it again! Five years ago, when we were delegates at the trades union councils conference in Liverpool, he told me of his meetings with Manchester communist veteran Henry Suss, a former trade unionist in the garment industry and Communist councillor in Swinton and Pendlebury, who had retired to the West Country.

Dave had gone to see the octogenarian activist at a home for the blind in Burnham on Sea, from where he was running a campaign against closure of a local post office. Before long he was interviewing Henry about his background and past struggles, persuading the old boy to dig out family photographs and press cuttings, and taking trips to Manchester himself for some more pictures. Dave was thus able to publish the lavishly illustrated and fascinating book Henry Suss and the Jewish working-class of Manchester and Salford(November 2005).

Next, Dave befriended a retired but active hospital trade unionist called Howard Andrews, better known to his mates as 'Andy', originally from Kilburn in North West London, and in his Nineties turning up on his buggy for picket lines and peace demonstrations in Taunton. Andy had been an International Brigade volunteer, still remembered for his work at a field hospital on the Aragon front. As his 100th birthday approached he was asked whether he would like a greetings telegram from the Queen, and declined, saying "I never got on with that family".

Dave Chapple made sure 'Andy' Andrews was honoured in political and trade union circles,and on the Left Stage at Glastonbury, though amid the speeches at his 101st birthday in Taunton Andy complained, saying he wanted to hear "less adulation, and more politics!"

Dave Chapple himself is an activist rather than archivist; currently chair of Bristol and district amalgamated branch of the Union of Communication Workers(UCW), defending workers' jobs and conditions in Royal Mail, and a stalwart of the National Shop Stewards Movement, to which he has brought his independent political outlook and sense of history, as well as the trades councils. In his spare time(!) he is a keen cyclist and popular DJ around his area. But his alert eye for material, ear for a human story, and energy for research have enabled him an output many an academic must envy.

Now Dave has enriched our knowledge, and collective class memory, again, by bringing another old veteran into the limelight. It all started he says with the discovery, a few years ago, of an old Union of Post Workers(UPW) minute book in his Branch office, the minute book of a 1935-37 Bristol UPW Rank and File Movement, and an oral history project involving the only surviving member of that group, George Massey.

George, who will be 94 on February 20th, is the oldest Honorary Member of the Bristol Branch, and, almost certainly, the oldest living member of the UPW Executive Council. His memories cover a working class Bristol childhood with a Post Office father, Boy Messenger from 1930, SC&T/Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, War Service in the RAF, marriage to Mary -a Bristol telegraphist in the Blitz- and UPW service as a Bristol Branch Officer in the 1950's.

A self-educated and at times dissident Communist from 1935, George was expelled from the Communist Party in 1938 for opposing the Moscow Trials, and, twenty years later, was in trouble again for protesting the execution of Hungarian ex-Prime Minister Imre Nagy. Promoted to overseer in 1959 whilst still a Communist, George organised regular collections for postmen and telephonists among his fellow managers during the seven week UPW strike of 1971 and was a welcome guest speaker at strike rallies. Dave's book is a fitting tribute to a Post Office union stalwart who has also been an active socialist for 76 years.

However, Dave’s book is no mere biography. It charts the rise and fall of Communist Party influence in one important UPW Branch over thirty years, under the different pressures of a Rank and File Movement, World War, 1945 Labour Government, the H-Bomb, and the long Cold War.

"Grasshoppers, Stonkers and Straight Eights:George Massey and Bristol Post Office Workers 1930-1976" has been published with the financial assistance of the CWU, the Lipman-Miliband Trust and the South West Region TUC. Dave hopes it will encourage CWU and other trade union branches to consider local union history projects themselves. "These might include recording memories of retired activists of unions such as the UPW, NCU/POEU or CPSA; the collecting of old photographs, certificates, or long-forgotten branch banners; the cataloguing of surviving Branch Minute books, press cuttings and other records; and the holding of special branch committee meetings to discuss our union's history at local or national level".

Like his Henry Suss book, "Grasshoppers, Stonkers and Straight Eights" is a large-format A4 sized softback. Its 242 pages are profusely illustrated with photographs and UPW documents, none of which have ever been published in book format.

If Trades Councils/Trade Union Branches wish to order copies, the costs are £12 for 1, £18 for 2, £25 for 3, or £30 for 4, all post-free, from Dave Chapple, 1 Blake Place, Bridgwater, Somerset TA6 5AU, Tel. 01278 450562,

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