Stewart Purkis

Biographical Notes

Source: Based largely on Revolutionary History, Vol 10, no.2
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

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The following is derived from Ron Heisler in Revolutionary History, Vol 10, no.2, pp 301-306 where a fuller account can be found.

Stewart Purkis (1885-1969)

Stewart Purkis, born in Kent in 1885 or early 1886, was perhaps the most influential trade union militant taking the Trotskyist route in the 1930s. His close friend, Reg Groves, is a key source of information, and from him we learn that Purkis became a socialist in 1904. Very unusually both Groves and Purkis were committed Christians of the High Anglican variety. In 1914 Purkis was associating with GDH Cole, attracted by guild socialist ideas. In 1911 he obtained a job at the Railway Clearing House near Euston Station, and it was his work in the Railway Clerks’ Association that brought him in to prominence over the years. He was certainly that union’s most important left militant for three decades, fighting an extraordinarily reactionary union bureaucracy and a mostly backward membership steeped in stifling petit bourgeois attitudes.

In 1919 Purkis was among the few branch members of the RCA who pledged themselves to supporting a strike over ‘recognition’. Groves first met him with his pals Billy Williams and Bert Field — all in the Clearing House branch at Euston— at the Reverend John Groser’s ‘little back and front living rooms in Teviot Street, Poplar’. It was Red Friday in 1925, the day of the great lock out of a million miners, when the employers were trying to impose a wage-cut In 1926, during the General Strike, Purkis chaired the meeting called by the local strike committee in St Mary’s church, Somerstown. After joining the CPGB it was natural that he would throw himself into the party-dominated National Railways Minority Group. A militants’ magazine had been circulated in the clearing house from 1927 onwards, and Purkis soon took over as editor of the Jogger, a role for which he seemed cut out. Its independent voice resonating with the membership, the union leadership decided the irritation should be squashed. They expelled Purkis in 1929, his appeal being heard at the union’s March conference. He lost the vote by 39,275 votes to 3,750. His offence was to have disseminated in a Communist paper a ‘statement reflecting unfairly and improperly upon the union and making objectionable reference to the general secretary and other officials’. The conference added a condemnation of the Minorities Movement for good measure. In September that year he applied to rejoin the union and was told he could, subject to his severing his connection with the Jogger, a condition he found unacceptable. In 1932 he was allowed back in by which he had been expelled from the Communist Party ‘for disruptionist activities and political unreliability’.

Between 1936 and 1939 Purkis served as an elected member on the union’s national executive but he remained intent on a ‘class against class position’. Hence he opposed the entry of the Labour Party into a wartime coalition with the Tories calling for the creation of a workers’ government. More surprising was that when the union president denounced the Communist Party as acting as Hitler’s agent, Purkis bothered to intervene to protest. But he always retained a vision far broader than the internal politics of the RCA. Not far from Euston, in Camden Town, was the Idris soft drinks factory, and he was the driving force for a while behind the militants’ factory paper, the Idris Ginger. In the 1930s he became the president of the St Pancras trades council. And he sat on the Executive of the TUC-backed British Workers’ Sports Association.

Purkis, ‘a dynamic, dapper, gnome of a man’, was a revolutionary Socialist all his adult life. But arguably he was primarily – and we should not forget his Victorian upbringing — a revolutionary Christian. Conrad Noel’s Catholic Crusade provided Purkis with an intense emotional and intellectual outlet, which clearly delayed his move to the CPGB which he only joined in 1926, shortly after the General Strike, as did Groves. In 1922 he wrote the Crusade pamphlet Has the Church Forgotten?

As some of his articles in Labour Monthly show he was a hard-line member of the Third Period CP and must, with Groves, have been a protegé of Palme Dutt, but when the line changed he did not and joined the Trotskyist Communist League in August 1932, left them in 1934 but played a full role in the “Justice for Leon Trotsky” campaign, signing a joint letter to the Manchester Guardian in 1936. At some point, perhaps in 1934, he rejoined the Catholic Crusade. He wrote a number of articles in Church Militant, the last one on “Wholemeal Bread” in 1942. After he retired he became involved with the Christian Socialist League which published Socialist Christian. By 1954 he was the editor and the journal became less sympathetic to Stalinism and in 1956 he became active over the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. In 1957 joined the British section of the “Labour Committee to Release Imprisoned Trade Unionists and Democratic Socialists”. He died in 1969.