Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) was one of the most influential trade unionists of the twentieth century.
He was born into a large, poor family in Winsford in Somerset. He never knew his father. He became a farm labourer but after a heated row with the farmer, he headed to Bristol.
Bevin's birthplace in Winsford on Exmoor
When he got to Bristol he lived in St Werburghs and did odd jobs before becoming a carter – delivering mineral water and pop. Ernest became involved in local politics, joining the Bristol Socialist Society. In 1908 he was the Secretary of the Right to Work Committee. He led a silent demonstration of some 400 unemployed men into a service in Bristol Cathedral. The stunt shocked the City’s establishment and the City Council agreed to a series of public works including the construction of the lake in Eastville Park – known for many years as ‘Bevin’s Lake’.
'Bevin's Lake' in Eastville Park
The work at Eastville Park engaged 300 men for 17 weeks. The wage bill was estimated at £4,000.
In 1910 a strike at Avonmouth spread to Bristol. The dockers were members of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union but the carters had no union. Harry Orbell, the dockers’ organiser appealed to Bevin to help recruit the carters.
In August of that year, the Carters’ Branch was formed with Ernest as Chairman. In 1911 he became a full-time officer.
One of his first achievements was to re-negotiate the bonus system that led the carters to overload the horses to such an extent that some died trying to climb Bristol’s steep hills.
He became a national figure when he presented the case for a pay rise to a court of enquiry held under the Industrial Courts Act of 1919. With no legal training and little time to prepare he forcefully and imaginatively put the arguments to the court, closely watched by the media. He used plates of food to show how poor the offer was. News photos of the derisory quantities of food shocked the nation and helped him to win a national minimum wage for dockers of 16s a day for a 44-hour week. The press dubbed him the ‘Dockers’ KC’.
Bevin was a tough, formidable organiser and he worked his way through the union to become General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. He ruthlessly steered through a series of negotiations to merge fourteen unions. He led the union during the General Strike in 1926, the depression of the 30s and the start of the war.
In 1940, the day after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister at the head of the National Government, Bevin was asked to become Minister of Labour. He agreed and a month later he was elected unopposed as MP for Wandsworth. He mobilised millions of people to the war effort and re-directed conscripts to work down the mines. Those chosen became known as ‘Bevin Boys’.
In 1945, with the war over, Labour won a landslide victory and Bevin became Foreign Secretary. He led Britain’s negotiations with the Soviet Union and America. It was the start of the Cold War and a period of recognition that Britain was no longer the powerful force it once was in the world.
Bevin’s sudden death in 1951 ended a remarkable career from Somerset farm worker to the top of world politics.
Busts of Ernest Bevin are now displayed in Bristol and Somerset Councils.
Bill Morris, then General Secretary of the T&GWU, unveils a plaque to Ernest Bevin on his former house in St Werburghs. Left to right: Graham Roberton, Bristol Mayor, John Ashman, TGWU South West Regional Secretary; Val Davey MP, Bill Morris, TGWU General Secretary, house owner and Nigel Costley, South West TUC Regional Secretary
For more see History of the TGWU