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.