William Webb: Electrical Trades Unionists and Communist – An Autobiographical Sketch

Susan Webb, Margaret Bettison and Ernest Foyle

The early nineteenth century British essayist and conservative social critic, Thomas Carlyle once suggested that ‘History is the essence of innumerable biographies’. Carlyle’s point is certainly contestable. The history of human kind, after all, is much more than the sum of its individual parts. Yet Carlyle’s assertion as to the importance of biography as a means of understanding collective historical experience is not so easily dismissed. In particular, biography and autobiography give voice to those whose life experiences might otherwise be lost to posterity. Nowhere is this more so than in respect of the lived experience and recollections of ordinary working people. In Australia, published worker autobiography is a particularly rare commodity and the reasons for this are as curious as they are frustrating. For this reason, The Hummer is particularly keen to publish autobiograhical pieces by Australian workers.

Below, we reproduce the first of what we hope will be many such selfl portraits. It’s the story of William Henry James Webb, electrical’ trades worker, unionist and communist activist. Born in Wolverhampton, England, in 1903, William Webb wrote his life story two years before his death in Sydney in December, 1985. His story came to us courtesy of his dau~hter, Susan Webb, Australian Dictionary of Biography researcher Margaret Bettison, and ‘Margaret’s husband, Ernest Foyle.The Hummergratefully acknowledges their role making this publication possible.

My Uncle Bill and his father were blacksmiths and ran the local blacksmith shop. As a small boy I used to ride the Clydesdales and other horses back to the Squire’s mansion bare-back. I remember trudging through snow and sleet to sing carols at the Squires. At Christmas the local choir would sing several carols in the Hall. Afterwards the men got a tankard of ale and the boys an orange or an apple. Happy days ‘were spent at Cross Green near Berwick on the way to Shrewsbury. George – my younger brother, about a year between us – and myself and Uncle Bill were in the local Church Choir. After leaving Cross Green, Uncle Bill, Auntie Dolly, George and myself went to Shrewsbury to live and we both started school at the Council School in Abbey Forgate. The headmaster encouraged me to write and recite poetry – my first concert at school I recited “The Midnight Express”.

When war broke out in 1914, uncle Bill joined the Army as a Farrier in the Engineers. Uncle and Auntie were wonderful to George and me. When George was II years old he was drowned in the River Severn. I was 12 years old; it was a tragic time. Mother came down from London for the funeral. I left school just after my 14th birthday. Mother took me away from Auntie Dolly. She was bitterly upset and to’ok me to London where she worked. She found me lodgings in Walthamstow. I started work at The Micanite & Insulating Company. It was a horribt’e job. At about 16 years I started an electr,ical apprenticeship. I worked on installation jobs all over London and Brighton and other places. I was a member pf the Electrical Trades Union. After the 1926 General Strike, in which I was active, I could not get a job in London. Eventually I went down to the docks, worked with Green & Siley Weir, ship repairers, was appointed to the P & 0 as ship’s electrician and sailed on many ships: the ‘Baradine’, ‘Beltana’, ‘Kashmir’, ‘Cathay’, ‘Bendigo’, ‘Strathnaver’. I sailed to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, China, Japan, round the English Coast and Mediterranean Coast. I loved the life at sea – I had some very exciting times, and experienced some very rough weather in the “roaring forties”, in the Bay of Biscay, China Seas, the Great Australian Bight and English Channel and North Sea.

Life boats were washed over the side and two or three passengers and crew drowned. I made some very good life-long shipmates, though, particularly John Bickford and Frank Perkins.

I feel that now I must retrace my steps. So far I have dealt with my childhood, school days, apprenticeship and working life at sea. I want to deal now with my political development. The 1926 General Strike in England was my first real experience of industrial struggle – the sell out by reformist Labour Leaders and the T.U.C. leaving the miners to go down to defeat, after a lock-out of many months. Visiting Durban and Capetown while at sea I saw the frightful conditions that the black Africans had to work under: the coaling of ships for instance with black women walking up a gang-plank with baskets of coal on their head which they tipped into the bunkers; the appalling conditions of the Indian workers in Bombay, dying of starvation and dying in the gutters. All these things left an indelible impression on me – capitalism in all its evil. In China, in those years before the revolution, … in Shanghai the hotels on the Bund had notices at the entrances: “Chinese and dogs not admitted”. The country was ruled by the capitalist countries of the world – England, France, America, Japan – each with their own sacred “concession”. I did some reading of Marx and Engels – I read Lenin’s “State and Revolution” and “Left Wing Communism”. The years in London between 1935 and 1938 saw the rise of Fascists and Nazis, the Spanish Civil War and the rape of Czechoslovakia. Mosley’s Fascists got more active.Tremendous marches and demonstrations were undertaken by progressive workers, both industrial and intellectuals, with the Communists in the vanguard.

In 1933 I met Nessie Dobney from Wagga Wagga, on my last trip on the ‘Strathnaver’. We were married in Melbourne in August 1934. I was still a member of the crew of Engineer’s Department. Nessie joined the ship as a passenger and we had our honeymoon cruise to Fiji. On returning to Australia Nessie left the ship to pack up from Wagga and I continued to Tilbury, London, where I resigned from the P & 0 in February 1935. Nessie came over on an Italian liner. We first went to Hythe, Kent, and stayed some months with my mother and stepfather. We then moved to London and our first flat was in St. Johns Wood. Our next move vas to a flat in Hampstead and I got a job with John Mowlens Civil Engineers working on a job at Battersea Power Station. In 1937, after hearing an address by Harry Pollitt in Hamstead Town Hall, I became a member of the Communist Party. During our stay in London, Nessie m:td I went to many concerts in the Queens Hall and Albert Hall conducted by Sir Henry Wood and Sir Thomas Beecham. We attended numerous plays; we sawall the great actors and actresses of the time; all the works of art etc. We went to Paris a couple of times. Went right through Germany onto the Austrian Tyrol up to Innsbruck. We went on to Nurenburg and had dinner at a famous restaurant – Goering had been there the day before. The next day we saw the Castle and had look around the town which is quite picturesque but too large to appreciate in less than a week, as was Munich.

In 1938 Nessie became pregnant and we decided to come to Australia. We lived in Wagga Wagga for a while where Susan was born. I came down to Sydney, got a job at Cockatoo dock, then joined the Sydney County Council. I was posted to Bunnerong Power Station and was there for 30 years. ‘A’ Section had been completed’the year before, in 1937, and I saw the first unit go into service in ‘B’ Section, and progressively increase, making a total installed capacity of 375,000 kilowatts, which made Bunnerong then the largest power station in the Southern Hemisphere. During World War Two, Bunnerong Power Station was flat-out with boilers bursting at the seams, generating every megawatt it possibly could, vital to the war effort. The power station and the water inlet at Bomborah Point were guarded night and day by military forces. During that tir:ne lots of struggles took place for better wages and conditions, including a bitter long struggle over maintenance shift work. I was Chairman of Electrical Trades Union Supply Sub Branch and State Councillor, Shop Steward for 25 years, Chairman Shop Committee, President Combined Delegates’ Committee, and President Bunnerong and Pyrmont Provident Fund; In 1975 Bunnerong celebrated its fifty year Jubilee and during 1977 the ETU of Australia celebrated its 75th anmversary.

I was chosen and invited to attend as an observer to the 5th World Trade Union Congress in Moscow. I flew to Hong Kong… then by train across the border into China where I was a guest of the All China Federation of Trade Unions and visited many places such as Canton, Shanghai, Peking, Nanking, Wu Han and lots of other places. The Chinese people were most kind and generous to me. After leaving China I flew via Siberia through Irkursk to Moscow where I was a guest of the Soviet Electrical & Power Workers Union and of the Trade Union Congress. I also visited Leningrad and other places. The Congress vas held in the Hall of Conferences in the Kremlin. I visited the Bolshoi and State Theatre and many other places and saw some wonderful ballet and theatre. After the Congress was over I made my own way by train through the Soviet Union, Poland and East and West. Germany through Holland to The Hague and then across the Channel to England to stay with my mother at Hythe. She was a great age then and crippled with arthritis. Altogether I was away nearly six months – two months in China, one month in the Soviet Union and the rest of the time in England, spending Christmas in Hythe with Mother and also being with her for her 85th birthday, in London with an aunt and uncle, in Shrewsbury with Auntie golly and in Swansea with an old ftiend, Frank Perkins. My mother dfed six months after I got back to Australia.

I retired from Bunnerong after 30 years. On the day I retired the staff lined up in a Guard of Honour as I made my way out the gate and the next night the Electricity Commission employees (wages and staff) gave me a wonderful reception and presentation at Sydney Town Hall. The ETU members of Bunnerong Power Station also gave me a dinner and gold watch and the Electrical Trades Union Federal Council gave me Life Membership with gold badge.