Mr Alex Acheson came to live in Highfields in 1938.
This is Lindsay Castledon recording an interview with Mr Acheson on Tuesday 12th July 1994.
Mr Acheson, can you tell me how you came to be in the Highfields?
Both my wife and I, before we married, belonged to International Tramping Tours which organised trips abroad to frontier areas where there had been wars and arguments, and we both decided separately to go to the Pyrenees, Andorra, and that's where we met. I actually went there with a girlfriend. I have to say with a little trace of shame, that I dumped my girlfriend and got together with Margaret! That was in the August and we were married in December 1938. Then there was the question of looking for accommodation, a flat if we could. Leicester was very poorly supplied with flats just then, but just round the corner from where she lived in Connaught Street, she found a downstairs flat in Seymour Street which is at the back of the Collegiate School. We lived at number 13 which we always considered our lucky number because we met on the 13th August.
We think it had been occupied by a lady of easy virtue because all areas around railway stations tend to be red light districts, and although people say now that Highfields has gone downhill, it had been going downhill for a hundred years. My father-in-law came over from Lincolnshire to help my wife to clean up the flat.
The bath was in the kitchen but it was separate from upstairs because the staircase had been divided. The front room that we had as a lounge was also our bedroom with a put-you-up. Then there was a middle room, there was also what we would call a living room/dining room and then the kitchen/bathroom combined with an outside loo, as was common in Leicester for health reasons and there is still some argument that it was a good idea at the time.
So we moved in there, or Margaret moved in there, about March time. I was working in London and had to find a job to bring me to Leicester. If you remember, 1938 was the year of Munich and trade was very bad. I was a commercial traveller and I managed to get a job with Romeo the duplicator people who had an office just at the beginning of Granby Street there in the YMCA building. I moved up at Easter, April time 1939. So that's where we lived until I was called up in July 1940 and Margaret went on living in the flat. She had a friend from Long Whatton who shared it in Leicestershire, and then, to cut a long story short, when I came back from the war in July 1945, we got together. I was demobbed in January 1946. But as my wife was a teacher and got the long school holidays, I had to go on working normally just getting two weeks holiday a year which was always a bone of contention between us. Teachers never seemed to do any work you see! But she convinced me that I should swap and go in for teaching. So from March 1946 until April 1947 I was away in Worcestershire at Shenstone Emergency Training Centre. I refused to go to their camp school in Staffordshire, a place called Rugeley, I thought that after so long away from my wife, that to be in Staffordshire teaching for the Leicester City Council was not good enough. So during our first nine years of married life we only had approximately eighteen months together! I was put into a school in Friar Lane called St Martin's Church School and we lived in Seymour Street quite happily, at least I did!
I was very active in Wycliffe Ward Labour Party. We had some terrific struggles there, losing and winning council elections and that sort of thing. I met all sorts of people in Highfields because as you know, the St George's area and the Highfields' area being near to the railway, there were a lot of railway workers there who could walk to work on the early shifts in a very short time so we stayed there until 1953, when we moved up to Knighton.
Tell me more about the Labour Party in Highfields,just after the war. Was there a good deal of popular support at the time?
Well, if you remember the 1945 selection was a landslide. The great hero of the war, Churchill, in effect, was rejected. I had refused a commission. In my naive way when the Colonel asked me if I would go forward for training for a commission, I am astonished now, I said, "Sir, I wish to earn my commission on the field of battle." I mean how naive can you get? So I was in the other ranks. In the army, and I say this with real conviction, it was a 'class' army it was 'them and us'. That really was one of the reasons why the overwhelming bulk of the other ranks and the armed services voted for Labour, with their programme of nationalisation and the taking of profit making concerns into public ownership.
So when I came back, I dived into Labour Party work. I covered the Wycliffe Ward which covered the St George's area and some of Highfields up to Spinney Hill. It was a tiny Ward. During the war, the Labour Party had had the political truce, so there was no organisation. Most of the men were either working hard on munitions or things like that. In the army the membership card of the Labour Party in Wycliffe was between thirty and forty and there were only perhaps half a dozen of us who attended meetings.
I came in full of energy and wishing to change the world! Along with some other young men who had come in, we built up the Wycliffe Ward to the second biggest Ward in the city, not just in South Leicester but in the city. In those days, the Labour Party subscription was six shillings a year, we went round every month collecting sixpence a month and entering it on the card. We kept in touch with the grass roots. Now, in many areas that has all gone as the subscription is centralised at Walworth Road. Many people now have a bank account so it's paid by standing order, even the local people are tending to lose touch with the grass roots.
In those days during the Atlee regime, there was still a struggle between the parliamentary rightwing and the parliamentary grass roots leftwing, known perhaps as the "Tribune Knights" or the "Bevan Knights". I found in politics, if you characterise somebody with an adjective 'ite', that is hostile, but if it is 'ist', then it is favourable, friendly. That is something worth remembering. We fought very hard in Wycliffe, we were a leftwing Ward and in those days. Leicester was peculiar in that it didn't have constituency parties. We had divisional parties and the main party that passed political motions and resolutions to the headquarters was the City Party. That was really a workers' parliament because the trade unions sent dozens of delegates there, and at the Annual General Meetings of that Delegate Party, that City Party would be up to two hundred and the divisional committees hadn't the power. We operated in Wycliffe and had a Ward Committee as well as the Members' meeting. We got up to a membership of between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and eighty.
In those days, there was somebody who was the sort of chief power in the Ward, that was Frank Nolan, the councillor was Councillor Hall, who lived up Kimberley Road way but he was not a very political person. I think he was a Co-op Insurance Agent and when it came to 1949, because he had been elected in the first council elections after the war, he was defeated. Already the tide was running out for the Labour Party and in that election, I think, I'm not sure, we either lost the Labour Party majority on the council or they lost a lot of councillors. So we were a very active party which only goes to show that however hard you work, if the tide is running out, all the organisation in the world can only minimise that change. So we went on working very hard and very shortly we got back in again. I could give you the dates if I looked them up. We got Johnny Gale elected, he worked at the technical college as it was then, on the building staff. He was a very energetic and flamboyant character. A by-election after that we elected Len Hurst.
Now Len Hurst lived in Upper Kent Street and he was a window cleaner. He had been in the Royal Navy as a regular. I was honoured to give the eulogy, or account of his life when he died last year. He was a live wire, he fought very hard but the difficulty with him was that there was only a payment of something like ten shillings if you attended a committee meeting during the day, but that was no good to Len because if he didn't clean his windows on a regular basis, ten shillings didn't compensate for the loss of customers.
He was very active. His wife Margaret supported him and she is still alive. His son and I keep in touch. He is very active in the Secular Society. Len decided to oppose the Labour group raising of council rents due to government regulations and he opposed this. So in the council chamber, he moved that they reject the raising of the rents. Now the Labour group knew that the Tories would vote for raising the council rents, (I don't think he even got a seconder for his motion to reject the raising of the rents). I called it a vindictive, mechanical way they withdrew the whip from Len Hurst. That meant that when the next council elections came for him to fight he would not get an endorsement. So after a year or so he decided to resign from the Labour Party and we lost a very good fighter.
In Wycliffe we organised a network of leftwingers in Leicester and met to decide on policy and how to get motions through the city council. There is a lot of detail in this that has not been recorded, unfortunately Ward Labour Parties do not treasure and preserve their Ward records. Some may send them to the Leicester Record Office but most of them are in the hands of people who dump them into the dustbin. So unfortunately, if my generation don't record their knowledge it will be lost forever, and I have to say although they have sometimes been good to me, in publishing news or items, the Mercury does not reflect the true history of the working class in Leicester. So if people are going to write the history of Leicester by just looking through the Mercury they will not get a very good all round picture.
Was there ever a Labour newspaper in Leicester?
Yes, on the left we had a Mercury journalist called Dick Clements. He decided to set up a Labour paper, I have copies of that. Dick was a supporter of the Tribune. I think it was called the Midland Star. He supported that. I had gone to Yugoslavia in about 1954 with Margaret and they published an article about Yugoslavia in that. Dick of course got to the central party, the city party. We raised all sorts of motions, for example, we had a big fight over sharing council chairs with the Tories. When we were in the majority, we fought long and hard and it took seven or eight years before we finally got the Labour group, where Charles Keene was the autocratic leader. What he said went. Even an outstanding councillor like Mark Henig always gave way to Charles Keene and we fought them over that. We said that to implement party policy, whether it was Tory or Labour, you had to have the party members sharing the committees. But another big fight, and I can say this although it's blowing my own trumpet, I was one of the first in Leicester to campaign for comprehensive education.
Now in those days we called it multilateral education. That was the American word and very soon I was in touch with other teachers and the N.U.T. I was very active, I went as a delegate to a national conference of the N.U.T. I only went once as a delegate to a Labour Party conference but we fought very hard on that and I will make no apology for it. Finally, the communists in Leicester began to support the idea of comprehensive education, in other words, the word had come from Moscow. The British leadership followed suit so then their members supported it. I moved in the N.U.T. in support of comprehensive education. We very soon got in touch with people like Brian Simon at the University and George Freeland, who had at one time taught at Medway Street. He had become a head and various other people like Tom Adams who was not a communist member but would, some would call, a fellow traveller but anyway he was in the Labour Party. At one time he was the Chairman of South Leicester Labour Party. So all told, we struggled very hard on comprehensive education. Now that is a saga in itself. We were defeated because Charlie Keene was opposed. His idea was, that he and others like him in the working class had been able to become what is now called, socially mobile by the privilege of a grammar school education. He said "Why destroy what is good for something that we are not certain about?" What he said went and the chairman of the Education Committee was Oram, Oldham and Oram. He made the famous statement that "We would get comprehensive education over his dead body". And perhaps, not saying it in a joking manner, within eighteen months he was dead.
We fought hard and we began to get more people, it took a long time on the Education Committee in the council and finally, we had, Councillor Peachy. He worked in the Post Office, and he became chairman of the Education Committee. He and Helena Roberts, who had been a mayor of an East London borough, came up here and very soon became a very active councillor for New Parks. They both asked me to brief them and they practically used my arguments. Because I was well known in the Labour Party and I was a teacher, and I was also in the National Association of Labour Teachers, they used my argument and it was carried that there would be comprehensive education and there was a Labour majority. But then the General Election came and the Tories came in and that scuppered Leicester.
Now Leicester did have problems over going comprehensive. In the 1920s, Leicester was a pioneer, an outstanding education authority, at least I am repeating what my wife and her family said, because they were all Leicester teachers. They anticipated the Hado Report which was going to split up the all age schools into infant or primary, senior and to do that with the least expense was to put the infants and juniors in the downstairs, and the girls upstairs and the boys in separate schools. They thought that in playgrounds the girls would be less brutal to the juniors than the boys! So to get this reorganisation, Leicester had segregated schools. Now to become comprehensive you had to have integrated schools and that was a problem. So Brian Simon, George Freeland, myself, Jack Brooks and a whole host of others, drew up a plan which showed how, although they might be separated by a couple of hundred yards, we could still have, like up in the Johnny North School and the Lancaster Boys' School that could become comprehensive, we showed in various areas that that could be done. So again, to cut a long story short, Charlie Keene found that he couldn't head it off any longer, so they did that wonderful ploy of deciding to have a pioneer, or pilot scheme.
Two new schools had been built and one of them was Beaumont Leys, and they decided to make that comprehensive. They appointed a former Grammar School Head from out of the area, that should have been a warning signal. I was at St Martin's School and when Len Hurst visited that school I told him about the conditions there. St Martins was built in 1789, there was no hot water, the toilets were shared with staff and boys, there was also no hall. There was no playing area at all except a small yard at the back, it was decided to close it down and I was given to understand that we would be consulted as to where we went. So I naturally applied for Beaumont Leys and for Spencefield Lane. The Head and I were very good friends and our wives were very good friends. He told me that the staffing inspector for secondary schools was Dr Saunders, he was a music man. He was really in the wrong job, and I was told that he rejected my application on the grounds that I was too fanatical about comprehensive education. So that was another warning sign, that they weren't serious about comprehensive education. So I was sent to Wycliffe School. I don't like to rake all these things up. They sent me there with no consultation, I arrived the week before term started and the Head said to me, "I want no trouble in my school." So I knew he had been told that I was a dissident that I was a trouble maker. So I simply went round to Leicestershire County Council and applied and got a job there. Very inconvenient as I had no car and I was put on the staff at Burbage near Hinckley which meant catching the 7.25am train from London Road to get there in time, then a mile walk from the station to the school.
There were many other people who were involved in all this and who kept me with one foot on the ground, my head in the clouds. People like Norman Start whose father and grandfather had been active in the Labour movement in the Highfields area for the best part of the century. He, in the end, found like Jack Johnson. Because of the influence of the Labour leadership, when it came to promotion, as you know the managers and governors of schools are often appointed by political parties, and yet although there have often been a Labour majority so they could get their representatives on boards of management and governors, the word went out that people like Jack Johnson should not get the Headship. Now Jack Johnson became Deputy Head at the same school as my wife and that was Bridge Road School. He had been at Lancaster Boys and had been very active in comprehensive education. We fought in the city party on things like German rearmament. Now surprising as it may seem, we opposed German rearmament whilst at the same time supporting disarmament of the other countries, and yet people like Barnett Janner, whose race had suffered so severely under the Germans, that he should have followed the Labour Party line of agreeing to German rearmament, at the behest of the American Government was surprising.
In those days the Tribune ran Brains Trusts which went all round the country, and in our naive way we booked in a Tribune Brains Trust at the Secular Hall, that's in Humberstone Gate. This was apparently in Barnett Janner's constituency but it was a public hall and we booked in. There were MPs on that Brains Trust and Barney created a row over this that he had not been informed and consulted about other MPs coming into his constituency, so that was another bone of contention.
When South Leicester was split into South East and South West, he decided obviously to take the more easier South West and he became, under Guitskill, the Chief Whip. The fact that his constituency and the city were passing motions that were embarrassing the Labour leadership, meant that in the end they decided to bring the axe to the leftwing dissidents of Leicester. They decided who was going to be the axe wielder, and, surprise surprise, it turned out to be Harold Wilson! In my life I have met three or four men, and I find there is a look about their eyes. I would say they had snake eyes, people that you would think three times before crossing swords with them and Harold Wilson, the first time I ever came close to him personally had those same eyes so I knew that he was a dangerous man.
Now, Leicester had all Labour MP's, we had a Labour majority whereas in Nottingham, with whom we were being compared, they had a Tory council at that time, and I think they had only two Labour MPs. So he came up and our full time agent, Charlie Woods, and many of the other Labour councillors were still in favour of a City party and divisional committees. Charlie Woods was a rightwinger he was a transport house man, but he was opposed to the change, but we knew what was going to happen and we sent at the annual conference our representative, Bill Whitlock, who was a trade union shop assistant union organiser. He went as our delegate and let us down, he sided with them over this question that we had no say in opposing this. So that meant that instead of having a whole city supporting a motion now, there were two constituencies that were right wing, so this meant that it eased the embarrassment of the Labour leadership there were other fights as well.
There were many political struggles which were not personal struggles obviously. It drove many of my teacher comrades like Jack Johnson and Norman Start away, they found they had to leave Leicester as I had to in the end. It was clear that I was blacklisted in every school I applied for in Leicester. I was asked for by an astonishing man, Anson Smith, of Rushey Mead, an outstanding man. He asked for me because he knew of my reputation as we took boys on a holiday camp to Sudbrooke on the Severn and then to Conway at Whitsun holidays. So he knew of me there. Saunders simply said he was going to see the Director of Education about this and how dare Anson Smith offer me a job that didn't exist. So when I knew there was a row of this proportion that drove me into the county, and I found that although Stuart Mason had all the credit for this two tier comprehensive system, undoubtedly the idea had originated from Robin Peadly, the outstanding Education Lecturer at Leicester University. That was where he and Brian Simon worked together.
So I was active in Leicestershire and I joined the Hinckley N.U.T. I think with a Labour government and the fact that the tide was turning, that people like Len Hurst had publicised the information that when you took the percentage of pupils that went to Grammar Schools, but then examined what percentage of that 20% actually got reasonable 'O' level passes, (as they were then), then the percentage dropped below 15%. The drop-outs were phenomenal, and of course the girls and the boys were in separate schools anyway. So in the end the tide had turned. You see we organised Labour Party trips to one of the earliest comprehensive schools which was Kidbrook in London and then we went to Coventry, to another comprehensive school. So we had visited comprehensive schools and then in the N.U.T., we were very active in trying to see what was the best way of organising by age groups. From primary to secondary, should the cut off age be 10 or 21, should there be middle schools or sixth forms?
We were preparing and feeding information to councillors in the city council to enable them to get an informed, satisfactory way of not having huge schools like they had in London, where you would have say two thousand, because small is beautiful and if kids were going to identify and if staff are going to identify then small numbers in class are also important but smallish schools, where there is a feeling of unity, are also important and this meant that more sites would be available for smaller schools. Of course, the county had the advantage of plenty of open space and Stuart Mason used elevated sites so that you weren't down in the hollow, but you had views so that is what happened there.
Now there were other fights in the Labour Party, mainly on the question of Nuclear Disarmament. Once again, blowing my own trumpet, I am probably today the sole survivor of those who attended the first meeting in the Edward Wood Hall on the London Road, which I think is now the Noble Building. Where the campaign for the abolishment of nuclear tests met, I think it was organised by the Friends' Meeting House, the Quakers, I was a member then and I was then living up in Knighton. That was a campaign that we fought long and hard in the Labour Party, and in the main we belonged to C.N.D. and we believed in unilateral disarmament, and this again embarrassed the Healey factor in the Labour Party. So all told, Leicester was nearly always on the left and Wycliffe had been one of the leads in that.
I kept in touch with events when I had left Wycliffe Ward in 1953, but from 1947 when I came back from college I tramped the streets of Wycliffe Ward and Spinney, (we helped in Spinney Hill Ward). There was a sense of community then, where it had been going downhill before the war because of the housing shortage, there was a very respectable working class in Highfields. I can only remember one West Indian family living in the Wycliffe Ward area at that time and there were no Asians at all. It was a mixed population and there were quite a number of Tory owner occupiers up near the Medway Street area and we had quite a number of Tories who were councillors for that Ward At one period I think there were three Tory councillors but we had all sorts of candidates who stood in Wycliffe, but certainly for me the outstanding ones were Len Hurst and Johnny Gale. I can't think of any others later.
Was there quite a large Irish Community in Highfields?
The Irish Community? Yes, I've been active in the Irish Movement because my father was an Ulster Protestant who would never have any 'cotter' with the Orange Order. I had his memoirs published about three years ago. He emigrated to America in 1904. His experience of transport workers on trams and the railways made him a Socialist. He never opposed the 1916 rebellion in Ireland and in fact he had a book that was published almost immediately afterwards about the Dublin scene. I read that as a child, and I think that influenced me towards support for an independent united Ireland. Ian Paisley was invited to speak at the Melbourne Hall. At that time Martin and Anna Ryan were very active in the Labour Party in Wycliffe. Martin is now the leader of the county Labour Party. They were migrants who had come down via Glasgow to Leicester and he went into the mining industry. The only house they could get was on Constitution Hill. Constitution Hill is tucked in down almost below the level of the railway. At the back of Constitution Hill they had built a pair of semi-detached cottages, outside water supply, outside toilets and that is where Martin and Anna had to bring up their two children. Later on, once he had been working regularly in the coal mines at Desford, they moved up to London Road, so I knew of them. And then another very active person working on the Wycliffe Labour Party was a weird, outstanding, eccentric, dedicated Labour Party was Dennis McCarthy. He was outstanding. He helped to build up the membership and they lived in Lincoln Street in a flat at the top. He was of Irish descent obviously with a name like Dennis McCarthy.
I knew other Irish people like Bomber Thompson who was a Hyde Park orator. In the early days I even supported the official Sinn Fein as against the Provisional because they were the more Marxist Socialist wing where as the Provisional were more nationalists and rural. We very soon realised our mistake. Much later on, this was in the late Sixties, I met another Irish member of the South Leicester Labour Party, Tony Barren, who works for the city council. He was a Republican like me.
Do you find Highfields today very different from that period after the war when you were living there. When you go back today, and what changes do you especially notice?
Yes, layers of memory become peeled off and all sorts of figures emerge. There is a lot of talk recently about St Mark's Church and the famous Canon Donaldson, yet there was another outstanding Cleric or Parson. He was the Pastor or Minister at the Wycliffe Church, that was Seyward Bedows, an outstanding man who was on the left, and although I am a Secularist I went to some of his Sermons. He gave a wonderful sermon on Charlie Chaplin and around him was a whole group of leftwing Labour Party people, people like the Hurds. They even won over my sister-in-law to the Labour cause. There is one book on the history of Leicester that mentions she was a teacher at Friar Lane, at the Friar Lane School, St Martins called Maria Sage. She recalled walking up the London Road to the Windmill and at the top there, picking violets at the roadside.
Thomas Quick's revolutionary boot manufacturing techniques the industrial revolution came again to Leicester so the Highfields area rapidly mushroomed, I mean the houses were built perhaps in the 1870s onwards. They were all shopkeepers and tradesmen and professionals. I think the Chief Constable at one time lived in Seymour Street, there was a conduit there and the water came underground down the Highfields slope. In the war, when we lived in Seymour Street, the basement was wonderfully dry and cool and we could keep milk and things there for days on end, but when the bombing came, particularly in Seymour Street, where, in my wife's diaries you will read about it, three houses away, the conduit was completely destroyed and they happened to be staying in their kitchen which wasn't demolished. This disrupted all the piped streams so that our basement after that was always damp and wet so you can imagine.
I know in one of the streets that I'm trying to think it of, Melbourne Road, there was a Lieutenant Colonel from the First World War who lived there, along with quite a lot of professional people in Seven Street. Quite a lot of people were what you might call lower middle class. In my day, when I first came to Leicester, Waterloo Street as it was then, was notorious as a 'pick up' place you see. Some of them would live there because the streets off Waterloo Street there were quite good. I mean New Walk was still lovely. The Secretary of the Leicester N.U.T., Len Grudgings lived in the New Walk . Yes, it had become respectable round Conduit Street there but there was quite a good shopping area in Conduit Street you see. There was a chemists there, and we did our buying from wholesale and retail grocers, Youngs Wells and Youngs. And of course, all of those houses were badly shaken up in the war time. As it happened, a revolutionary friend of mine had been called up in the Pay Corps and Leicester was considered a safe city. The headquarters of the Pay Corps or one of the headquarters was centred in Leicester , one was in Granby Street and the other one I think was down Narborough Road. Many people of the Pay Corps were in Boarding houses and in the Saxby and Highfields Street, and he was amongst them so he would call round quite often.
When the bombing took place in Leicester, they went down into the basement, and of course the bombing disrupted the gas mains and the water mains and they either got drowned or gassed. The Pay Corps lost quite a number of men. Of course, in the Leicester Pay Corps there was the famous impersonator of Field Marshall Montgomery, Clifford James.
So the Pay Corps suffered very badly in Highfields, and of course, there were gaps where the houses had been demolished along with the Methodist . My wife was very pleased when she retired. She was a member of the Labour Party although she was not very active. She helped in the elections, but the Labour Party nominated her as a manager of the Highfields Junior School. She worked with a Miss Sin, an unusual name Sin was. My wife was absolutely anti-racist, she supported the integration of the population there. She was made a Governor which she really really enjoyed. That was at the Collegiate School in the last years of its existence. She was probably the only pupil of that period who ever became a Governor of that school.