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Radical Politics

Aberdeen played its part in the Radical Politics of the 20th century. There were publishers like James Leatham, active Labour and Communist Party Organisations and numerous Trade Unions with a central Trades Council organising matters. Aberdeen activists joined the 1926 General Strike and during the Spanish Civil War 19 men fought against Franco’s fascists.

James Leatham ‘The Class War: A lecture delivered in the Northern Friendly Society’s Hall, Aberdeen, under the auspices of the Aberdeen Socialist Society’ (James Leatham, Aberdeen, 1892) (L A K Lea)James Leatham (1865 - 1945) was an Aberdeen-born political activist, author and publisher. He was heavily involved in local socialist organisations and between 1889 and 1892 he ran a printing and publishing co-operative, selling works by writers such as William Morris, Robert Cunningham-Graham and John Bruce Glasier. He also published many of his own well-received pamphlets such as ‘The Class War’, ‘An Eight Hours Day, with Ten Hours’ Pay’ and ‘The Most Important Thing in the World’. Between 1891 and 1892 he also produced ‘Workers Herald’, the first openly socialist weekly paper in Scotland. James Leatham ‘The Class War: A lecture delivered in the Northern Friendly Society’s Hall, 213-217 George Street, under the auspices of the Aberdeen Socialist Society’ (James Leatham, Aberdeen, 1892Leatham explains why class war is inevitable under capitalism; “The theory of Socialism is that the division of society into classes renders social warfare inevitable … that the poverty of the poor is caused by the robbery on the part of the rich. The Mansion explains the Hovel. The Factory, the Foundry, the Shipbuilding Yard account for the Shooting Lodge, the Yacht, and the tours in foreign lands. The long day’s toil of 1 class renders possible the lifelong leisure of the other ... ”

Aberdeen Clarion Club - 42 Castle Street
The Aberdeen Clarion Club was formed with the intention of being radical and revolutionary. It was an offshoot of the Social Democrats of the time, and flourished from 1899 to 1909. Its foundation was inspired by The Clarion, a weekly socialist paper based in Manchester which ran between 1891 and 1931. Rule 2 of the Club states "That the Club would exist for the study and public discussion of all questions relating to Literature, Science, Art and the Drama, viewed from the Socialist standpoint … ". A collection comprises 3 minute books covering the period 1899 to 1909 in which are detailed members lists (including women), topics of lectures and reports on social activities organised by the Club.

Aberdeen Clarion Club
Excerpt from minute of 15th February 1902 when the Club discussed a paper read by a Miss R T Craigmile about the fictional character ‘Mrs Grundy’ and what she stood for. Mrs Grundy was a character from Thomas Morton’s 1708 play Speed the Plough and was considered the personification of the tyranny of conventional propriety. Her name and the expression became very familiar throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries as an eponym for an extremely conventional or priggish person. The discussions illustrate how women were involved in the labour movement at regional clubs and at national political groups and actively discussed issues relating to sex relations.

General Strike Press Editions 
The General Strike of 1926 began with disruption in the coal industry and became general with the involvement of other industries, including road and rail transport, building, printing and iron and steel. Although the miners stayed out for 6 months, the general strike itself lasted only 9 days. The collections comprise rare strike issues of the Aberdeen Press and Journal, Aberdeen Evening Express, The Times and British Worker.

The General Strike in Aberdeen - 1926 from the balustrade tower in the main block Electricity Works

The General Strike of May 1926 was a nationwide strike that affected all the cities in the United Kingdom. It had been organised by the Trades Union Congress in an unsuccessful attempt to force the British Government to act to prevent wage decreases and worsening conditions for coal miners.  Wider fears about the breakdown of order and the possibility of a more serious revolution prompted some organisations to take more defensive action, as this photograph of the roof of the Aberdeen Corporation Electricity Works shows.  To all intents and purposes it shows a machine gun placement on top the Corporation's Millburn Street building across from Ferryhill Parish Church. The placard underneath identifies it as a “Lewis Machine Gun” used in the General Strike of May 1926. The weapon, however, is artificial – a deterrent silhouette designed to dissuade strikers from occupying the Electricity Works.

A strike occurred at the A. C. and I. Co.'s meat works on Monday. At starting time 17 slaughter men approached the management, and asked for an advance of 5/- per 100 for extra heavy sheep. The management refused to grant the increase, stating that the company would pay the ruling rate and, further, that the whole matter was now. being discussed at a conference in Sydney. The sheep and cattle penned for Monday were turned out into paddocks, and the workmen returned home. About 100 men have been thrown idle. All the other departments are working.

But post the General Strike there were a number of Communist Agititators' and Mannie Shinwell a grand old Scottish Socialist started out as a Communist and well meaning they all were.  The Morning Star or Daily Worker then was always offered on sale by strong minded Socialists outside the Shipyards.

Bob Cooney (1908 - 1984)

Physically, he was short, perhaps 5ft 7ins, a wiry Scot from Aberdeen, but he always appeared to be larger than life when he sang at clubs. He had a shock of silver grey hair, was clean shaven and dressed casually, though, unlike most folkies, he wore a jacket.

Image of Bob from the Star Club in Essex Street, Birmingham where he was a regular floor singer. The Star Club was named after the 'Morning Star' newspaper which was the new name for the former 'Daily Worker'.   He sang songs from the Spanish Civil War like Jarama, Jamie Foyers and There Was An Old Man and He Lived In Jerusalem. The last was learnt in Spain from an American in the 'Lincoln Brigade'.

Radical politician. Born in Sutherland in 1908. On the death of his father the family moved back to Aberdeen and Bob was educated at St Andrew's Episcopal School. After school Bob was apprenticed to a pawnbroker. He became involved in the street politics and debates in the Castlegate in Aberdeen and became a communist and bitterly opposed to poverty. Between 1931-2 he lived and worked in Russia. On his return to Aberdeen he fought hard, successfully, against the forces of the British Union of Fascists under William Chambers Hunter in Aberdeen. In 1937 he volunteered as part of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil war, which he viewed as the front line against fascism. He served as a gunner for the duration of the Second World War. After the end of the war Communism became the main enemy and Bob found his position less tenable and spent a period in Birmingham (Pressed Steel Fisher). In these years he became increasingly involved in folk music and became a celebrity in that field. He died in Aberdeen in August 1984.

Picture of plaqueBob was born to an Aberdonian family, of 7, who were living in Sunderland. Bob's father died a few months after his birth and the family returned to Aberdeen. Bob and his brother, Dod, were educated at St Andrew's Episcopal School. The brothers cleaned the school before and after each day and were members of the choir. On leaving school the children all entered a Trade: in Bob's case he was apprenticed to a Pawnbroker the oldest form of Usary. During the period of apprenticeship he began to hate the pawnshop system and develop a hatred of poverty.

The Pawnbrokers would consider anything as of value as a pledge and if the Breadwinner of the Family spent too much of his wages on beer on the way home from work on a Friday then his watch or best Suit would be 'hocked' on the Monday for 10 shillings only to be redeemed again on the Saturday for 7/6d so he could dress in his best to out or go to church.  The margin was regular and handsome profit for the Pawnbroker.  There was one at the top of Commerce Street, corner of Broad St and Queen St and anywhere there were 3 brass balls suspended.

At the time Aberdeen's Castlegate was the centre of street politics: debates raged here and it was a venue for views from all across the torrid political spectrum of the first quarter of he 20th century. Bob became a Socialist and then a Communist and a firm believer in revolution. Bob became involved, much to his mother's shame, in street speaking. This plaque has been placed in the Castlegate in part to commemorate the central role it played in Aberdeen's street politics, as well as the life and achievements of Bob himself.

In 1930 Bob quit his job in order to devote himself full time to his politics. Between 1931-2 he spent 13 months in Russia, working at night and studying at the Lenin Institute by day. On his return to Aberdeen Bob threw himself fully into organising hunger marches, mobilising the unemployed and spoke at open air meetings across the country. During this period the local branch of the British Union of Fascists, under Oswald Mosley's Gauleiter for the North - William Chambers Hunter, was becoming increasingly active. There were a series of running and pitched battles between the Communists and the Fascists from which Bob earned a reputation as a hero.

Following the outbreak of hostilities between the democratically elected Spanish government and the Fascist and Nazi backed forces under General Franco in 1937 Bob planned to go to Spain and fight with the Socialist and Communist backed International Brigade. At 1st the Communist Party refused to let Bob go as he was so valuable an asset in Aberdeen. Eventually he was given permission and was initially appointed as Commissar of a training group eventually rising to the position of Commissar of the XV (British) Brigade. Bob was present at 2 major campaigns: 1 at Teruel in January 1938 and at Ebro from July to October 1938.

Spanish Civil War 
The Spanish Civil War raged from 1936 to 1939 between loyalist Spanish Republicans and General Franco's fascists. Nineteen men left Aberdeen to fight with the British Battalion of the International Brigade: 5 of them did not return home.  A plaque in Aberdeen’s Music Hall commemorating the local folk who fought and died for democracy during the Spanish Civil War (July 17 1936 to April 1 1939).  It includes those who fought and survived alongside those who died at Ebro and Gandessa during 1937-38.

After his return from Spain, amidst Franco's victory, Bob was enlisted as a gunner for the duration of the 2nd World War.  After the cessation of hostilities in 1945 Bob became heavily involved in the squatter movement. Shortage of homes had been an issue before the War in Aberdeen and was an issue for many after its conclusion. Many squatted in the recently vacated Army Huts, Camps and Batteries around Aberdeen. By now Bob and his wife, Nan, had 2 daughters, consequently he took work as a Builder.  Due to his subsequent activities in Unionising men he was effectively blacklisted from employment in Aberdeen and had to seek employment elsewhere for some 20 years. Also, during this period, after the death of Stalin in 1953 and with growing American influence, Communism acquired a particularly bad reputation. During the later years of his life Bob became increasingly involved in folk music and made a new name for himself in that field.  He died in August 1984 at the age of 78. He is also remembered in Bob Cooney Court, a Housing Association development. There is possibly only 1 existing recording of Bob's later folk songs, on his contribution to the ‘Singing Campbells', released on Ossian Records.

Street Bairns also sang a ditty about Bob as his election posters were all over the St Clements Ward and their immediate parents regarded their champion Bob Cooney with a deal of suspicion.

Vote Vote Vote for Mr Cooney!
Who's that knocking at the door?
If its Cooney and his wife
Stab him wi' a knife
An' you'll never vote for Cooney anymore.

Cooney the Folk Singer

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Last modified: 01/09/2013