BEVIN, Ernest

Type

Person

9th March 1881 to 14th April 1951

Biographical Text

Bevin was co-founder and general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. He later served as Minister of Labour in Churchill’s government during the Second World War. 

Bevin was born in Winsford, Somerset on 9 March 1881. His mother was a domestic servant; his father was unknown. He was educated briefly at the Hayward School in Crediton, but left school at age eleven to become a farm labourer. At thirteen he moved to Bristol to join his older brothers, and worked at various menial jobs. From 1897-1900 he was a tram conductor, and from 1902-11 worked as a van driver. During this period he became involved with Florence Townley, his lifelong companion; it is not known if they ever married. Bevin also became involved in nonconformist religion, and took classes run by the Adult School Movement and the YMCA. 

Bevin’s involvement with socialism seems to have begun around the end of the Boer War in 1902. He stood for election to Bristol city council as a socialist in 1909, unsuccessfully. During a dockers’ strike in Bristol in 1910, Bevin organised a relief fund for the striking workers, and later organised carters and van drivers to join the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union. In 1911 he became a paid official of the union, and began campaigning for the merger of smaller unions in order to give them more bargaining power. 

During the First World War, Bevin opposed conscription but in general tried to distance himself from anti-war and pacifist stance of some of the more left-wing unions. He also kept himself at arm’s length from the Labour Party, and criticised some of its policies, although he stood for election as a Labour candidate in the 1918 general election. In 1916 he was elected to the executive committee of the National Transport Workers’ Federation. He continued to push for mergers between unions to give them more power, and in 1922 he was elected as secretary to the newly formed Transport and General Workers’ Union, the largest union in the country with over 650,000 members by 1930. 

Bevin’s ambivalent relationship with the Labour Party continued. Following the election of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1924, there were strikes by dockers and drivers, leading MacDonald to accuse Bevin of disloyalty. In 1925 Bevin was elected to the general council of the Trades Union Congress, and played a major role in resolving the miners’ strike of that year and the general strike of 1926. He was bitterly critical of MacDonald for forming a unity government with the Conservatives in 1931, and was one of those who called for MacDonald to be expelled from the Labour Party. During the 1930s his relations with successive Conservative governments were surprisingly good. He also patched up his relationship with the Labour Party after Clement Attlee became leader in 1935. 

In 1940, Winston Churchill invited Bevin to join his coalition government as Minister of Labour, even though he was not an MP at the time. A special act of parliament was passed to enable a by-election in Wandsworth, and Bevin was elected unopposed. Bevin was a loyal member of Churchill’s cabinet, but he also used the war to secure better pay, rights and working conditions for workers in many industries. Following Labour’s victory in the 1945 election the new prime minister, Attlee, rather surprisingly appointed Bevin as foreign secretary. He proved a success at the job, adopting a strongly anti-Soviet stance while at the same remaining sceptical about American aims. His health failing, Bevin resigned as Foreign Secretary and became Lord Privy Seal in March 1951. He died on 14 April 1951. 

Original Source

Lectures 
How management can secure the full co-operation of workers’, September 1924Balliol College 
‘American efficiency from the standpoint of British labour’, September 1927, Balliol College 

Citation

“BEVIN, Ernest,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed July 16, 2020, http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk/items/show/592.