Today it is twenty years since Eddie Frow died. In his long life Eddie embodied the way in which Communism shaped the life of a man who was an activist in his trade union, a historian, a writer, a rambler, an opera lover… and so much more.
I met Eddie and Ruth for the first time in 1981. At first they seemed to come from a completely different era. My political education was built on my parents’ mix of socialism, Catholicism and Irish Republicanism, combined with my own experience of being at University in the late 1970s and with being a shop steward in local government in Thatcher’s Britain. We should not have got on but we did, and I had many conversations with Eddie about being a shop steward, discussing the problems I faced with my own union. His view was that as a trade union activist you often spend most of your time fighting the people supposedly on your side.
Ruth and Eddie never seemed “old” to me. They were happy to come with my partner and me to watch foreign films at the Cornerhouse art cinema and were always interested in the dynamics of present day politics. They were generous with their time, knowledge and always ready to listen. In her 70s Ruth took on getting a computer and grappling with new technology which gave her a new window into life.
Eddie was from a rural background, born on 6 June 1906 on a farm in Lincolnshire. His father had a chequered career, finally settling the family in a mining village in Wakefield whilst he worked in the local mining office. Eddie went to the village school and was one of the top students. But for the First World War, he probably would have gone to the grammar school, but instead he went to a technical school for boys where he was prepared for entering an apprenticeship at 16.
At home Eddie and his sister Millicent played the violin and piano and sang hymns with family and neighbours. At the age of 13 his father bought him H.G.Wells’ Short History of the World, which began his life-long love of reading and laid the foundations for his own exploration of ideas and philosophy about the world.
His worklife started when at 16 he started his apprenticehip at an engineering firm in Wakefield. He joined the Communist Party in Leeds , recalling “There was a fantastic feeling that yes, there was going to be a revolution in Britain and it was going to be tomorrow.”
Through the CP his political education began as he was guided by a comrade, Lou Davies, and introduced to Frederick Engels’ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Daniel de Leon’s Two Pages from Roman History, and Bogdanov’s Short Course in Economic Science.
Eddie lived at a time of great hope for working class people with the rise of socialism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also a time of great misery, including mass unemployment and an economic worldwide crisis started in 1929 by the Wall Street Crash.
Unemployment for Eddie was a constant theme throughout his life: he worked in 21 engineering factories and he was blacklisted, victimised and sacked for his militant actions.
He was a lifelong member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and active in the Minority Movement in the trade unions. This had been formed in 1922 by Harry Politt and other Communists in the engineering trade as part of the Red International of Trade Unions. Their aim was the speedy overthrow of capitalism and establishment of workers’ states.
In 1930 he went to Moscow as a delegate of the British Commission of the Communist International which was investigating the role of the British Communist Party. At this time the CP’s membership had declined as had its influence in the wider labour movement, because it was attacking the Labour Party as a capitalist party no different to the Tories.
But the CP played a major role in setting up the National Union of Unemployed Workers which fought for the rights of the unemployed. In 1931 the unemployed, including Eddie, numbered well over two million. Eddie became one of the leaders of the Salford Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Opposition to further cuts in benefits led to the notorious Battle of Bexley Square where the SUWM march to the Town hall was attacked by the police and Eddie was sentenced to five months in prison.
From 1934 onwards Eddie was back in work, involved again with trade union activity as well as taking on the big issues of that era , including the rise of Fascism, the threat of war and support for the Spanish Republic.
In 1939 the CP were not supportive of the Second World War, because of Stalin’s pact with Hitler, and suffered a loss of membership an d credibility, but after June 1941 when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany and joined in the “People’s War” against Fascism, membership of the CP trebled. But this harmonious relationship between the victors in 1945 did not lead to a better world. As Eddie commented; “There was this hope of a new world. There was this hope that when the war was over, when fascism was defeated, there would be a new set-up, not only politically but industrially. But it was just an illusion really.”
Post-war Eddie became more involved in his union and the CP. This led to the end of his marriage by which time his son, Eric, was 16 years old. In May 1953 Eddie went to a CP school on labour history and met Ruth Engels. She said; “From that moment Eddie’s life and mine became inextricably mixed.” After the summer school Eddie went for a meal at Ruth’s digs, noted that her books were complementary to his, and they made plans for her to move to Manchester to live with him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Eddie and Ruth did not have any children, you could say the Working Class Movement Library was their child. It started in 1957 when Jack Klugman, a CP tutor and historian, came to their house and commented on the amount of wall space they had, and how it could be filled with books as in his house. He advised them to study labour history and start collecting material related to it. And Ruth says; “The Library began on its unstoppable expansion from that day.”
Their life now became an exploration of bookshops across the country, spending their weekends and holidays collecting valuable and rare additions to the stock. They also used the material they collected producing articles for journals, pamphlets and books.
At the same time Ruth and Eddie were still working full-time, visiting their family and continuing their CP branch activities with Daily Worker (now Morning Star) sales and leafleting.
In 1987 the WCML, which was bursting out of their house in King’s Road, Old Trafford, entered a new phase when Salford Labour Council offered them premises on the Crescent opposite Salford University. The offer, which they accepted, included a librarian, two library assistants and a caretaker. Ruth and Eddie settled into the flat within the building.
Over the years through the WCML Ruth and Eddie made the history of the trade union and labour movement available to anyone who walked through the door. They were enthusiasts, and their own experience of activism made the history come alive to individuals and groups who came through the always open front door. To this day, people mention not just their in-depth knowledge of labour history, but their compassion and humility that they shared with all visitors.
Eddie Frow died in 1997. He was a Communist until the day he died; he never gave up on the idea of creating a society that would put people first and stop the exploitation of the working classes. Tom Paine was his hero, and the library has a unique collection of his work, but it was Paine’s view of the world that summed up both Ruth and Eddie’s. “The World is my country. All men are my brothers. And to do good is my religion.”
Find out more about Ruth and Eddie in this brilliant film
Writer Mike Crowley wrote a brilliant poem about Eddie.
Eddie Frow: Previous Generation.
Carried the past inside him
Tucked it up sleeves and baggy clothes
inside tins at the back of wardrobes,
In rooms gone spare, in a decade gone cold.
They must be feeling it, those
who gave their all for the world we know,
(or thought we did a while ago).
Held up a vision in rain and snow.
on street corners and shop floors,
from the front of hope filled halls,
going from door to door, peddling a conscience.
For all this and more before the War.
Before all this, a point in spotting trains
caps and hands tossed in the air, rifles in Spain,
and there, behind the barricades
man again, with freedom to sacrifice.
Few remember them now, the old times.
in the rush to clear out,
grab our things and flee the council house,
something dear was left behind.
Precious those who sweep up after us
filtering the dust for gems
that belong to us. Keeping in touch
with those before us.
Edmund Frow filled a house and more,
with facts and stories from roof to floor.
Left them there, for those who want to ask.
He knew how precious we are, about the past.