11. The Workers' Committees

There was a substantial industrial dimension to the rapidly developing revolutionary movement in the last part of the War and immediately afterwards, and this was reflected in the emergence of the London Workers' Committees. These had their origins as far back as 1910 when the Provisional Committee for Amalgamating Existing Unions was founded. From this time until virtually the end of the War, the move- ment's most prominent figure in London was W. F. (Billy) Watson. Watson, an engineer, was a member of the BSP before the War but he had strong connections with the syndicalist wing of the movement, notably the Industrial Syndicalist Education League.

After the outbreak of War there was a short hiatus in radical industrial activity in London, but in 1915, following a dispute at Woolwich Arsenal, the London Workers' Committee (LWC) emerged with Watson as president and T. F. Knight as secretary.1 Typically, the LWC received its share of police repression. In February 1916 its premises in Featherstone Buildings, Bloomsbury, were raided; in December the same year Watson was arrested, charged with sedition, and fined for an article he had written in The Trade Unionist, which was closed down. Watson went on to write a regular weekly column for Workers' Dreadnought.

The London Workers' Committee began to spawn offspring. In late 1918, the North London Workers' Committee was born; it met at Fore Street, Edmonton. The NLWC had been initiated by a group of workers at the Gothic Works, Angel Road, Edmonton, and it had substantial support at the Ordnance works at Enfield and the JAP engine works at Tottenham. While the geographical scope of activity of the North London Committee ranged ostensibly from Kings Cross to Enfield, its main base of support seemed to be in the northern half of their constituency.

The East London Workers' Committee came into being about the same time as its northern neighbour. Among its leading figures were our old friends Walter Ponder, who was its chairman, and, after their release from prison, Vic Beacham and Henry Sara, as well as Miriam Price,2 all of whom were active in the NLHL. Indeed, this committee seemed to be more active in Hackney, Shoreditch and South Islington than the NLWC.

In Feburary 1919, Watson was arrested for sedition for a speech at a 'Hands Off Russia' meeting at the Albert Hall. In March he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment; after an appeal he finally went to prison in July. While he was inside there was a considerable campaign for his release in which the East London Workers' Committee played a leading part; and it was this committee which organised a mass meeting in his support at Trafalgar Square on August 24th. It also organised a number of other meetings and fund-raising functions. Watson was finally released on December 5th, 1919.

While Watson was still in prison the bombshell burst; it was announced in parliament - in reply to a question from a Labour member- that he had been an informer for the authorities and that he had been paid £3 a week from the summer of 1918 until his arrest in return for information. Four days after his release Watson went before a sort of people's tribunal convened by the West and East London Workers' Committees at the International Club in City Road, which found the charges against Watson essentially proven.

Watson did not deny the charges of receiving money, either at the Tribunal or in his pamphlet Watson's Reply, published in June 1920 (which, incidentally, was published from the address of the NLHL) but he denied that he had ever supplied the Special Branch with any confidential material. All he had given them was chickenfeed which the police could easily have garnered from the radical press.

A shock wave went through the movement. Radicals were only too aware of the amount of police spying and the use of police informers. But there was also a strong feeling that the whole business was a set-up aimed at discrediting the revolutionary left. Indeed, there were some very peculiar features about the whole affair; for example it seems unlikely that the authorities would have sent a valuable secret inform- ant to prison for six months. The general opinion of survivors with whom I have communicated is that Watson allowed himself to be used. Hennem expresses this attitude well when he writes:3

Yes, I remember Billie Watson. He was a quite attractive and, I thought, sincere character - suffering from a little too much ego. The police allowed the information to come out that he had been accepting government money for information. . . we all tried to suspend judgement until he came out ofprison and addressed a meeting [of the NLHL] to answer the complaints.

He was quite open about it - he took the money and said he gave the police no confidential information. This was probably true because there was not much confidential information to give. Any rank and file member knew pretty well what was going on. Watson tried to be clever, and the meeting felt that he should have told other members what he was doing and given the money to the movement.

I think that although it ended Watson's position - and rightly so- he was more fool than rogue. There are too many clever people in the movement who have failed to understand the socialist position and that our task is to convert people to socialism and not play clever games.4

  • 1. Both Watson and T. F. Knight were associated with the NLHL.
  • 2. Miriam Price was an activist within the WSF, she was secretary of its Islington Branch, as well as the NLHL. She had been a member of the ILP before the 'War, as had her father; after the War she married H. G. Coleman (see previous note about him).
  • 3. The best source of information on W. F. Watson is his entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography by Edmund and Ruth Frow and John Saville. After his release from prison Watson was living at lnderwick Road, Homsey.
  • 4. Hennem, op cit. Watson lived until 1943, and although he remained active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union he seemed to have played no significant role in politics.

Comments

Battlescarred
May 20 2014 14:07

William Foster Watson. Born 19th August 1881, died 13th November 1943 in Aylesbury. Born in east London, the son of a lithographic printer. Started after-school work at age of ten and full time work at 12. Parents could not afford premium of £40 so he remained unapprenticed. Eight different jobs by age of eighteen. Between 1896-1914 had 15 different jobs, some lasting one week or one month, the longest job one of three and a half years. Brought out short lived paper Masses , first issue February 1919, which Harry Pollitt supported. It was based at 7 Featherstone Buidlings, also the seat of the London Workers' Committee.
Married in 1903, with family.
After his exposure as an informant banned from all rank and file organisations. Wrote The Machine and Its Purpose in 1933 and Machines and Men: An Autobiography of An Itinerant Mechanic in 1935. Also wrote The Worker and Wage Incentives: The Bedaux and Other Systems for the press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1934 and practical manuals like Turning and Screw-Cutting in the same year, and Tips for turners: a workshop Manual for Mechanics in 1936.

Battlescarred
May 20 2014 14:06

In 1926 Watson volunteered for the Southwark Council of Action during the General Strike. Because of the previous revelations, it was agreed that he only work with the Council under direct supervision.
He appears to have been a convinced anti-parliamentarian as witnessed by the comments he made in the regular weekly column he wrote for the Workers' Dreadnought:
"Men who should be concentrating on the Shop Stewards' movement are either Parliamentary candidates or actively working for them.
I am more than ever convinced that the revolutionary industrialists will sooner or later have to repudiate the Parliamentary machine entirely and build up, through the Workers' Committees, a National Administrative Council outside of any Capitalist structures, and supersede the functions of the Parliamentary machine".

Battlescarred
Dec 12 2016 09:25

Previous to the London Workers' Committee Watson had been active in an Amalgamation Committee. The LWC had very close links with the WSF, sharing premises on various occasions and using the Workers' Dreadnought to publicise its activities.Pollitt wrote for both the Masses and the Dreadnought.
Watson and Pankhurst set up the People's Russian Information Bureau in July 1918, which operated from the LWC offices at featherstone Buildings. It later moved to the Dreadnought offices on Fleet street. It was also due to Pankhurst and Watson that a broader committee was set up at a Hands Off Russia conferences organised by the LWC the following January.