‘They knew I was a bit of a wild character’ (2).
John Gibson’s memoir appears in the form of a transcript from a tape recording, the source of which is uncertain. However, in these pages, the informal use of Geordie shining through, we get a sense of the kind of man he was. Selfless and with a strong sense of brotherhood, John worked tirelessly throughout his life for the benefit of his fellow workers, with his political activism and involvement with trade unions seeing him brush shoulders with future Lords and major Labour Party figures. Despite his own lack of peerage, John himself was a well-respected member of this movement, as was evident in his rapid rise in rank in a factory in Letchworth. Here, it took John a mere ‘two days in the town, and [they] want[ed] me to be shop steward’ (6).
It appears John’s passion for social justice and workers’ rights came particularly from his upbringing. John reveals how his mother would ‘fight for the working classes’ (1) on issues like extortionate rent prices and would also help out the local workers during times of hardship, such as strikes and. Taking his mother’s lead, John grew up to be involved in ‘every mortal thing’ (6) within the Labour movement, serving on countless committees and holding membership with numerous political parties, including the British Communist Party. Aside from his mother’s kindness, the poverty John experienced as a child will no doubt have affected his political leanings. ‘We had hard times’ (1), he explains, a reflection of the way in which the working-class were treated during the early 20th century. The reality was that workers were ‘paid poverty wages and were forced to live in overcrowded squalor’ (Cameron, 1994), something John sacrificed much of his life to change.
Aside from his political activism, John also worked as an engineer for much of his life, somewhat of a betrayal to his father who was a builder. ‘It was a damn disgrace…joining the fitters, when he was a builder’ (1), John admits, however, he could not resist the opportunity to join ‘the intelligentsia’ (1) of manual labour. Throughout his career John travelled all over the country looking for work, from his birthplace of Tyneside, to Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and eventually Letchworth in Hertfordshire, where he lived from 1925 until his death. Born in 1887, John lived to the ripe old age of 93, and it was in the final year of his life in 1980 that this transcript was made available.
During his travels across Britain, it seems John managed to witness several pieces of history. Whilst in Darlington, he caught a glimpse of the famous 1911 Daily Mail Circuit of Britain air race, in which a £10,000 prize was awarded to the person who could fly around a circuit of Britain in the quickest time. Perhaps a less cheery affair, John was also present for the infamous George Square riots of Glasgow in 1919. A snapshot of the horrific violence of this event is presented in the transcript, where police were seen striking protestors with batons and clashes ‘went on all night’ (5). The shop steward from Tyneside also briefly discusses his whereabouts during the outbreak of war, where he and a friend had to cancel a planned trip to Holland due to the announcement.
I chose to write about this particular memoir mainly due to John’s political activism and his support for causes in line with my own political leanings. The recording reveals a lot about the Labour movement in the early 20th century and its political processes, as well as the conditions in which working-class people lived during this time. John sheds light on many of the characters involved in this movement and recounts in great detail historical events such as the George Square riots of 1919. However, there is clearly more to ‘“The Christmas Conjuror’” (1) than his politics. Horse racing, smallpox, and the humility of strangers; I am certainly looking forward to delving further into the candid storytelling of this ‘wild character’ (2).
Cameron, Jim. Red Flag Over the Clyde. Scottish Militant Labour, 1994.
3:O232 GIBSON, (John?), Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Map of Tyneside: http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/maps/sheet/new_series_revised_medium/sheet_04
Keir Hardie portrait: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/james-keir-hardie-18561915-83746/view_as/grid/search/keyword:keir-hardie/page/1#image-use
George Square protest: http://socialistpartyscotland.org.uk/2014/01/31/95-years-on-red-clydeside-and-the-battle-of-george-square/