Thursday, 10 May 2012


Trades union members in the Bridgwater area are invited you to join us at an open meeting of Bridgwater Trades Union Council, for an informal  discussion about local workplaces and trade union issues and organisation in Bridgwater.
The meeting will be on Monday 14th May, at 7.30pm, at the GWRSA Club, Wellington Road, Bridgwater (next to the Railway station) and I hope you will be able to join us.
Bridgwater Trades Union Council brings local trades union branches together, to campaign about issues affecting working people and their families. Apart from regular meetings with our affiliated delegates, we are also keen to talk to local trades union members about their workplaces, and to learn more about the issues important to local workers.

Thursday, 3 May 2012


First stop Castle Street
May Day 2012 saw the first of what could be a new feature on Bridgwater's socialist landscape - an annual  'History Walk to celebrate International Workers day'.

Organised by Bridgwater Trades Union Council, the event attracted  30 people and even the weather brightened up for the evening.

The expedition started from Bridgwater's West Quay where Trades Council President Vicki Nash of the NUT welcomed walkers and led them off into Historic Castle street where Postal Worker Dave Chapple (CWU)  spoke of the campaign to save the former Mary Stanley maternity hospital in 1988 which had resulted a in a minor victory saving a single delivery bed- soon to be upgraded to 2  in the planned Community hospital.

Inside the Bridgwater Arts Centre
Sheep Worrying at The Art's Centre

Stepping inside the Bridgwater Art's Centre, Brian Smedley (UNITE) took to the well trodden stage to tell of the history of Britains first Art Centre -established in 1946 with the aim of making the arts accessible to the community and the battles that were fought in the 1980's to keep that accessibility  in the face of the attacks of those reactionary Tory years. The example he spoke of was the Sheep Worrying organisation, a radical art's project that had originated during the punk rock years of the 1970's with the aim of putting on original plays and music by local writers and performers but had become radicalised in the process as Thatcherism made it's mark. The organisation had recieved a council grant for it's youth work at one point and had it snatched away again by the Tory council the minute it's views challenged the orthodoxy. By the mid 80's Sheep Worrying was producing and performing socialist plays by local authors which told Bridgwater's history from a working class viewpoint.
Taking on the Poll Tax Baillifs
Fighting the Poll Tax

Outside the Magistrates court, Glen Burrows (RMT) spoke of the struggles of the towns people against the introduction of the Poll Tax  in 1990. The Anti Poll Tax Union in Bridgwater had been very strong and well organised with the Magistrates Court acting as the site of many battles against the attempts by the council to enforce the unjust tax. APTU members had acted as 'Mackensie friends' in the court for victims and had also taken part in 'Baillif Watch' events on the estates including a famous incident where the group travelled to Nempnet Thrubwell and occupied the head baillifs house and held a mock auction of his own property!

Slum poverty in the 1920's

The 'Other Courts' at Market Street

In Market street, Dave Chapple spoke about Bridgwater housing in the 1920's using these last surviving examples of the old 'courts' which peppered the working class areas of the town. In particular Dave recalled the struggles of Walter King to bring the  poor housing conditions to the attention of the council. In one example "no fewer than 10 members of one family had to sleep in one miserable room and at the back there were two lavatories that were used by 40 people". Walter King was crucially the voice that won the case for Municipal Socialism over Private Enterprise in Bridgwater and Dave believed that a blue plaque should be put up to him in the town. Following the Housing Act passed by the first Labour Government in 1924 saw Bridgwaters first  Council homes established.

Remembering the Brickyard strike
the night they read the Riot Act

Outside the Bridgwater Town Hall Brian Smedley spoke of the incident in 1896 when the towns brick workers were on strike and the Tory government had responded to the Councils worries with troops on the streets. The strike had been solid consisting of 820 hands newly unionised by the Dock Wharf Riverside and General Labourers union (subsequently TGWU and UNITE). The demands of 6p a day and 1/2 a day less on saturdays weren't even listened to by the bosses. The workers marched around the town with banners. The Police harrassed strikers in return. When the Strikers seized scab brickcarts and took them to the cattle market the mayor (Henry Pollard) called in the entire county Policeforce in an attempt to recover them with the result of barricades on the Penel Orlieu and a battle with strikers which saw the police and council besieged in the town hall. The Gloucestershire regiment, on it;s way to South Africa, was rushed to the town from Plymouth harbour and cleared the streets at bayonet point as the mayor read the riot act with 27 arrests and hundred of injuries. A photo of the troops in their Zulu war uniforms and the county police (a combined occupationforce of 210) still hangs in the Town Halls Charter hall.

In front of the old T&GWU offices
Organising the Farmworkers

In the grounds of st Mary's Church, Barry Leathwood (UNITE) former National secretary of the Agricultural Workers Section pointed to the former T&GWU offices and spoke of his time in the town and county organising workers. He refered to the mass meetings on Ham Hill in South Somerset and the Feudal nature of village and rural political life where whole communities were expected to be solidly blue and of his surprise at his first visit to Dunster when he was greeted by a sole red flag in the middle of the village-which turned out to be the local Labour Party secretary. He also paid tribute to the last Bridgwater T&GWU secretary Tom Searle who , like most T&G or Dockers union leaders, had been a key part to the town's labour movement.

Dockers Hall in the background
Bridgwater's Labour Movement come's together

Outside of the Dockers Hall in Friarn street, Dave Chapple spoke of the development of Trades Unionism and the Labour Party in the town.  He mentioned the Labour Church which met there at the turn of the last century and the coming together of Trades Unions and the Labour Party which had seen the founding of the Trades Council in 1913. The leader of the Dockers, Sid Plummer, also became the first Labour Parliamentary candidate.

The 'Red Borough'
introducing John Turner
Entering the modern Labour Party HQ at Unity House the walkers met Bridgwater's longest serving Councillor John Turner who talked to them about the 'red borough' days . A period when the Labour party took control of the town in the 1950's and clung onto that control making important strides in progressive housing in particular until the Boroughs power was destroyed by the local government reforms of 1973 when Sedgemoor District Council (or 'direct rule from Cheddar') was set up. John was first elected to council in 1960 and recalled the role of Czechoslovakian socialist Fred Phillips in creating and organising such a strong local Labour party. Fred had escaped from Nazi controlled Europe in the 1930's where he had played a key role in the Trade Union led resistance movement and it was our good fortune that he ended up in Bridgwater where he threw all his socialistic organising skills into building the Labour party here. Labour to this day remains the strongest party on the Town Council with 14 of the 16 seats.

Bridgwater and the General Strike

In Blake Gardens to conclude the walk, Dave Chapple spoke of the General Strike and Bridgwater's role in it. A stormy 13 days in May 1926 had showed the potential power of the Trade Union Movement around the country as workers came out in support of the Coalminers. Bridgwater was part of that great struggle with the railworkers at the forefront. Workers faced victimisation and hardship as a result.

The socialistic wander ended up in the Fountain inn where toasts to May Days past and future were raised. Another walk is planned for next year.