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The Plebs League in the NE of England 1908/1926 By Robert Turnbull B.A

The stated aim of the Ruskin rebels who included Noah Ablett of the South Wales Miners Federation and Ebby Edwards of the Northumberland Miners Association was to “Bring about a more satisfactory relationship between Ruskin and the wider Labour movement. Their motto was “Educate, agitate and organise”.

Their philosophy that of IWCE or Independent Working Class Education, or to put it another way an education that was perceived to be free from the pernicious influence of the bourgeoisie, and the leading educational institutions of the time.

Photo of Ruskin College With Noah Ablett In Back Row
Photo of Ruskin College With Noah Ablett in Back Row

My burgeoning interest in the Plebs League was to be further developed on leaving Ruskin. In 1995, my work took me to Cardiff and the South Wales valleys. It was during this time that I first came across the personalities who were to shape my future direction for the next 20 years. Men such as Noah Ablett, Arthur Horner, Will John Edwards and others were to leave a lasting impression on me and would contribute enormously to my future development as a writer and historian.

Several years passed in which I gained a degree, had a family, and thought about writing a biography of Noah Ablett, but never quite managed to find the time to do so. In the meantime I kept up my interest in the history of the Plebs League by collecting old copies of Plebs, and any other items I could find. My earliest copy of Plebs is from 1919. It’s proved impossible to find any on the open market before this date, although the Working Class Movement Library in Salford have an entire print run from 1909 onwards. I also read Bill Craick’s book on the Central Labour College as well as JPM Millar’s account. These are the best sources for an account of the early years of the IWCE movement.

Sadly this is not matched by any individual accounts of the personalities that made up the IWCE movement. Ebby Edwards left almost nothing in terms of personal correspondence, neither did Will Lawther. The fragments that I have been able to dig up for Ebby however are fascinating. They include a reference from W.M Straker of the Northumberland Miners Association dated 24 December 1907 in which Straker supports Ebby’s application for a Ruskin scholarship and a reply from Bertram Wilson of Ruskin to the same effect.

The most frustrating element however is that of Noah Ablett. Ablett was a ferocious intellect and up to the 1920’s was a regular letter writer to the press in South Wales as well as being heavily involved in the IWCE movement. Sadly after around 1923 with his increasing dependence on alcohol, his letter writing stops abruptly.  He did how however write a fascinating fragment of autobiography in which he talks about the dangers of the South Wales Coalfield. It is in a book called What we Want and Why, published in 1922

In the meantime I was fortunate to become a researcher on the North East Labour History Mapping Politics Project with a brief to investigate the history of the NE Labour College Movement. This was the chance that I had been waiting for, and it is through this research that I have managed to accumulate enough material for my book.

Previously I had resisted the idea on the grounds that I was not at all convinced that the Northumberland and Durham miners were as radical as their South Wales comrades. On this last point I was very wrong, because if South Wales was the cradle of the Plebs League, then as I argue in my book the North East of England was very definitely its kindergarten.

As my research developed further, it became clear that despite the Northumberland and Durham Coalfield being a late convert to the idea of IWCE or Independent Working Class Education the area became a magnet for some of the most outstanding personalities within the Labour College Movement.

To name a few Will Lawther later to become Sir Will Lawther, Ebby Edwards and George Harvey who became prominent in the mining industry, Other tutors on the NE circuit included T.A Jackson whose autobiography Solo Trumpet gives a vivid flavour of the splits and schisms that have bedeviled the British left for generations as well as a fascinating glimpse into the hardships endured by the IWCE tutAlso prominent for a time in the NE was Mark Starr who wrote perhaps the most famous textbook for the IWCE movement entitled ‘A Worker looks at History’. The story I was told concerning Starr’s journey from Somerset to Tyneside was this.

Mark Starr

During 1917 Starr was imprisoned as a C.O or conscientious objector and as a result of his treatment in prison his health began to deteriorate. There are two versions of this story. One suggests that his father became so concerned at his sons health that he petitioned a prominent Liberal MP with connections to the Home office for his release.

The second story is that through his contacts within the mining industry Mark had become very friendly with Will Lawther who managed to get Starr a job on the Northumberland farms and then introduced him to the expanding IWCE movement within the Northumberland and Durham coalfield. Starr was by this time well known among the South Wales mining community for his IWCE propaganda work and it is not inconceivable that Starr and Lawther became friendly.

What is clear to me is that there is a vast area of history that has not been researched in relation to the North East Plebs League. In my book I have done little more than a brief overview and as a consequence have concluded the book in 1926 as this marks a watershed in not only the history of the post war working class, but also the original ideals of IWCE as had been propagated in the heady prewar atmosphere of 1909.

By 1926 the CLC itself was in financial difficulty, the original Plebs League was being wound up and many of its leading exponents were moving to the right (Will Lawther) were exhausted (Arthur Cook) had emigrated (Mark Starr) or in the case of Noah Ablett had sadly succumbed to the bottle

What is left is an account of an era whose time had come, but which will surely come again. The ideals for which the IWCE movement fought are as relevant now as they were in 1909. There is a desire out there for a radical alternative, and there are numerous groups working towards this end, but we need something to bring the disparate elements together. Do we have the will to create a new labour college that can challenge the failed neo liberal hegemony? I wonder.

 

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