Monday, May 4, 2009

James Ancrum- Gateshead Communist Councillor- Photos from his Personal Collection

Thanks to Dr Don Watson for provding us and all internet users with access to some unique photographs from the 1930's from the personal collection of the late James Ancrum, who was a notable figure in the Labour movement of the North East of England in the 1930s.
Each photograph has its own accompanying text provided courtesy of Don, and for ease of posting and lay-out each one has been allocated a seperate post in its own right.
None of these photographs have been available online before, and we are posting them here to provide a point of access for all who are using the internet for research purposes.

The image above shows Jim Ancrum speaking at a National Unemployed Workers Movement
meeting in Felling Square, probably in 1935. The placard refers to the NUWM campaign at that time for free milk and boots for schoolchildren whose families were affected by the mass unemployment. The banner of the Felling branch of the NUWM is behind Jim Ancrum. The banner is now in the Unemployed and Trades Union Resource Centre in Newcastle on Tyne

JAMES (JIM) ANCRUM 1898-1946

Jim Ancrum was born in Felling-on-Tyne, in County Durham, England, in 1898. He worked as a miner, more than likely at Follonsby Colliery because he seems to have had connections there throughout his career. He served in the Royal Navy all through the First World War, volunteering for service when he was sixteen years old.

He joined the Communist Party in 1926 when he was 28, presumably during the General Strike or the long miners’ lockout that followed it. In the course of this he was arrested. He gained national prominence through his role in the Dawdon Colliery dispute in County Durham in 1929. He organised the collection of food and money around the county through ‘Workers International Relief: this was used to feed the strikers and their families for the fifteen weeks of the dispute. He described this work in his article “The W.I.R. In The Dawdon Lock-Out” in the Communist journal Labour Monthly in September 1929.

Ancrum performed similar work with Workers International Relief during the long strikes in the Yorkshire woollen and Lancashire cotton industries in 1930.

Probably as a result of the reputation he had built by his work in Dawdon, Ancrum was voted on to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in December 1929; he does not seem to have served any longer than two years because between late 1931 and 1932 he studied at the International Lenin School in Moscow. Ancrum was one of 159 British Communists who attended the School between 1927 and 1937 to be trained for leadership positions.

From the early 1930s until the start of the Second World War Ancrum led the Felling branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM). During the later 1930s he had a national organiser role with the NUWM too, his name appearing on the official letterhead until the NUWM was dissolved during the 1939-45 war. This organisation, a satellite of the Communist Party in Britain, tried to organise the unemployed to campaign against inadequate benefit scales and indifferent bureaucratic treatment. Its local branches gave advice, trained people to represent themselves at tribunals, advocated for them in appeals, and resisted evictions. Above all it tried to convince demoralised people that organised campaigning was the way forward.

One aspect of this was the organisation of national Hunger Marches of the unemployed that converged on London in 1920, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936. None of these were supported by the leadership of the Labour Party or by the Trades Union Congress. Their demands included the scrapping of the punitive ‘Means Test’ for unemployed people and their families, introducing national schemes of work at trades union rates, and no compulsory work camps for the unemployed. Jim Ancrum was a Tyneside organiser of the last four of these Marches and took part in 1934.

Ancrum was elected as a Communist councillor to Felling Urban District Council in 1935. That had been a by-election; in the full Council election of 1937 he doubled his vote. This success was rightly attributed at the time to his energetic work with the unemployed through the NUWM. On Felling Council he waged a tireless if only occasionally successful campaign around increasing benefits scales, public works to reduce unemployment, and work for the unemployed at trades union rates.

During the Second World War he was an ARP Warden in Felling and continued to serve as a councillor.

Jim Ancrum was often in poor health and he died suddenly in 1946. His Council seat reverted to Labour and the Communist candidate came bottom of the poll, suggesting that the extensive support Ancrum had built up in Felling was for him rather than for the Communist Party. But if his local standing was never translated into success for his Party it was based on solid work as an advocate and organiser with the dispossessed and exploited in his community. In that role he made a distinctive contribution to working class history in the North East of England.


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