The death of: Len Edmondson

Len Edmondson 1912-2007

Len Edmondson 1912-2007

The funeral gathering of Len Edmondson last week was a roll call of workers in the now-lost Tyneside shipbuilding and engineering industries.

Former shop stewards and trade unionists from Parsons, Vickers, Reyrolles, Smith Docks, Swan's, Clark Chapman, North Eastern Marine, Readheads and Hawthorn Leslie, and many others, turned out to pay respect to their comrade.

Len Edmondson served with integrity and distinction as a shop steward and district secretary locally and as a member of the National Committee, the Executive Council of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and General Council of the TUC for nearly 50 years until he retired in 1977.

Trade union organisation was the central preoccupation of his life but it was located within a firm commitment to democratic socialism.

Leonard Firby Edmondson died on Monday, November 20.

Born in Gateshead in December 1912, his father, Arthur, was an unskilled factory worker who was unemployed for much of Len's youth. Elizabeth, his mother, was a shop worker. When her children arrived, she followed the North-East convention of giving up work outside of the home.

Len, the youngest of three sons, was educated at Gateshead Central School, leaving at 15 and entering the labour market in the depths of the depression.

His first job was for a haulage contractor where he said his life as a negotiator began when he was offered five shillings a week but pushed them up to eight. His `triumph' was short lived. His next demand brought the sack.

He secured an apprenticeship as a fitter at the Concrete Liner Company in Newcastle's Ouseburn district in 1929 and in the 20 years that followed he worked in 14 engineering shops on the Tyne and was a shop steward in nine of them. He developed a reputation as a confident and very well informed negotiator.

His successes are well remembered.

His work brought apprenticeship to semi-skilled machinists and the engineers secured a limit to overtime, thereby creating jobs for the unemployed.

In 1934 he joined the National Unemployed Workers Movement and this took him into the Independent Labour Party which had seceded from the Labour Party to pursue a more radical strategy.

He stayed with the ILP until the late 40s and, during that time, he continued to campaign against unemployment. But, as with so many of his generation, the rise of fascism and plight of Spain became a major focus.

He did not go to Spain himself but was deeply involved in campaigns: against the British embargo on arms to the republic; the settlement on Tyneside of Basque school children refugees and support for food ships to Spain.

During the Second World War he fought to prevent the Government and employers from using the war effort to undermine wages, working conditions and civil liberties for British workers.

In the early 1950s he became an elected full-time official of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, becoming a member of the Executive Council in 1966.

He was also President of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.

Len always identified himself with the left wing of the union. He retired as an official in 1977.

In 1976, he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Legal Services.

This, he said, produced many worthwhile proposals, all of which were dumped into the dustbin by the incoming Thatcher government in 1979.

Retirement increased his political activity.

He was chairman of the Tyneside May Day Committee, and a leading light in the Pensioners' movement and the Anti-Apartheid movement.

From the 1940s, he had taken up the cause of the Romany people, although he had no family connection, and he became a member of the Gypsy Council.

Regular attendance at the Appleby Horse Fair was one of his great pleasures, as was the breeding and showing of Shetland Sheepdogs on which he was a local expert.

Towards the end of his life, Len was somewhat physically disabled but, until the early part of this year, he regularly turned out for meetings.

His lively mind was not at all impaired.

He became the best living source of information about the 20th Century Tyneside labour movement.

Countless students and researchers beat a path to his home in Low Fell. They were always courteously welcomed and treated to a wonderful monologue.

This could take in the General Strike, when he was a 13-year-old message carrier, an engineering apprentice's life, the unemployed workers' movements, party life in the Gateshead ILP, Gateshead Progressive Players (forerunners of Little Theatre), the campaign to end the ban on Eisenstein's film The Battleship Potemkin, the Spanish Civil War and factory organising in the Second World War.

He could tell of the moment he heard news of Labour's 1945 election victory, the opposition to German re-armament, the campaign for Sunday Cinema and so on - right up to recent asylum seekers.

Len was an internationalist, a republican and a democrat.

He refused to stand for the National Anthem. He turned down all offers of honours, except those bestowed by the labour movement.

He also believed strongly in the importance of election of all union officials and the now apparently old- fashioned idea of accountability through recall of delegates.

Len's partner of many years, Elsie Winch, died in 1983.

He leaves a daughter Brenda, two grandchildren, Nicola and Rachel, a great grand-daughter Rosie, a devoted long-term carer Helen Harrison, and a multitude of friends and acquaintances.

Are you on this picture with Len Edmondson? If so, or if you know who is, please contact John Charlton on (0191) 268-3168 or through the website: www.nelh.net

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