Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Ann Keen (1915–2001)

ANN Keen will always be remembered in the labour movement for the determination and bravery she displayed when she was prosecuted for her rôle in the strike of engineering apprentices on Tyneside in 1944. She was born Angel Rosalie Ryan on 12 July 1915, in Hampshire, one of six children of an Anglican clergyman and his wife. When she was still young, the family emigrated to South Africa, where her father was attached to Capetown Cathedral. She had a conventional liberal upbringing in the house where Desmond Tutu later lived. Always a tomboy, always attached to good causes, a nascent political awareness developed when, in 1935, after an early marriage she moved to Johannesburg. Here she witnessed endemic racism against black workers and Jews. As she recalled 60 years later: ‘It absolutely appalled me … They were treated like animals. I began to realise for the first time that something terrible was going on.’

In early 1937, with her marriage to Robert Keen breaking up, she returned to England to rejoin her family, who were now living in Cornwall. On the long voyage from the Cape, she met two young members of the Workers’ Party of South Africa who had been active in Johannesburg, Dick Frieslich and Heaton Lee. She listened ‘spellbound’ to their discussions on the 1917 revolution, Stalinism and Trotskyism, Marxism and religion with a clergyman also sailing to Europe. Hitherto, the only radical politics she had encountered were those of Douglas’s Social Credit Movement. Within a few weeks she was converted to Trotskyism. When Heaton Lee moved from France to London later in the year, he wrote long letters to her in Cornwall. On the death of her mother, she moved to London to look for a job. She was a foundation member of the Workers’ International League (WIL), established at the end of 1937 by a handful of members around Ralph Lee who walked out of the Militant Group over spurious allegations that Lee had embezzled trade union funds in his native South Africa. She was soon joined in the WIL by her sister Rachel Ryan, later Rae Hunter.

Ann spent much of the next seven years working for the WIL as a secretary, bookkeeper, administrator and business manager of the Socialist Appeal. Women kept the WIL working. Millie Lee was a crucial and underestimated force in its success. Ann felt that her own efforts, like those of other women comrades, were sometimes undervalued and unappreciated. In 1943 she moved, together with her companion Heaton Lee, to Newcastle, where he had a job as a constructional engineer with Wimpey. They operated as open members of the WIL group, most of whom – Dan Smith, Alec Auld, Ken Skethaway and Jack Rawlings, were working within the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

By the time the Revolutionary Communist Party was launched in March 1944, they had established a close relationship with leaders of the Tyneside Engineering Apprentices Guild, particularly Bill Davy, recently expelled from the Young Communist League because of his criticism of the Stalinists’ opposition to industrial militancy as they campaigned for a Second Front. The Guild’s struggle against engineering apprentices being drafted into the mines culminated in a strike which began on 28 March 1944. The RCP locally and through the efforts of Jock Haston, its General Secretary, and Roy Tearse, its industrial organiser, was involved in advising and supporting the strike leaders.

Ann Keen was arrested at Walker in Newcastle in the early hours of Saturday, 8 April. The arrests of RCP members represented the consummation of a prolonged press campaign against the Trotskyists, spearheaded by the Daily Mail and the Daily Worker. Recovering from a severe attack of measles, she found her imprisonment, after a hearing in camera, a terrifying experience. She came through with the help of a woman warder from a mining village. By fortuitous accident, she was a regular reader of the Socialist Appeal, and she took letters out and brought information in. The six day trial of Keen, Lee, Haston and Tearse commenced on 12 May 1944. They were charged under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act and the 1927 Trades Disputes Act with inciting and furtherance of an illegal dispute.

Ann remembered the courage of the apprentices in defending the Trotskyists and the arrogance of the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin – who they subpoenaed to appear as a witness – in justifying the use of legislation he had so strongly opposed 18 years earlier. She recalled the encouragement the solidarity campaign, which embraced the entire left, included Jimmy Maxton and Aneurin Bevan and extended into the Eighth Army, gave the prisoners. She strongly resented the rôle of the prosecutor, Paley-Scott, who persisted in portraying her as a political ingénue and the dupe of her male comrades, and the attitude of the judge, Cassells, who instructed the jury to convict the accused on the charge of aiding and abetting others to further the strike. In a speech which she carefully prepared, but which the judge refused to permit her to make, she rejected the court’s patronising views: ‘… throughout the trial, the prosecutor has attempted to separate me from my comrades because I am a woman. I do not ask for any special consideration. The part I have played in assisting the movement of the apprentices was a conscious and voluntary one.’ She went on, radiant with optimism, to emphasise the significant rôle women were beginning to take in the wartime struggles of the working class.

That a woman has been charged under this Act side by side with her men comrades is symptomatic of the movement that is developing in the ranks of the working class … the development of society in the past few years has torn women away to a large extent from their slavish existence of the past. No longer are the mass of the working-class women entirely dependent upon the male breadwinner. During the course of the war hundreds of thousands have been drafted into the factories, where they stand shoulder to shoulder with their brothers, fathers and husbands and become economically independent of their husbands and fathers. They now stand shoulder to shoulder in a relation far stronger – far more lasting – than the blood relationships that bound them in the past. Today they are workers first and last. They are members of the same unions in which they share equal rights and in which the voice of women is becoming daily stronger. In the struggles that lie ahead, women trade unionists will play their part. Not only the women in the factories but the mothers of working class youth have a new outlook … the strike of the apprentices could not have lasted more than a day had the 20,000 lads involved not had the wholehearted and sympathetic support of their mothers … That they received the entire support of their parents became apparent when the barrage of lies and calumny was put out by the capitalist press, radio, the trade union leaders, the Communist Party and the Economic League … I consider it an honour to have been chosen from thousands of other women who supported the strike to represent them before this court.

While Lee and Tearse were sentenced to a year and Haston to six months, Ann received only 13 days. She was immediately released as she had spent weeks in gaol on remand. In the autumn, the Court of Criminal Appeal overturned the verdicts on the grounds of well-established precedent. All the evidence against the Trotskyists related to the period of preparation of the strike. Since 1909 the courts had held that it was only possible to further a strike which was already in progress.

As Ann spoke at a protest meeting flanked by Maxton and Davy immediately after her release with several of her warders sitting in the audience, she held bright hopes for a new and resplendent dawn of revolutionary socialism. They went unfulfilled, indeed it was the last time she would speak in public for four decades. By 1948, the Trotskyist movement was in decline and she was drifting away from it. Together with others in the North London RCP, she embraced the ideas of Max Shachtman. She worked briefly with Bob Armstrong, Bert Atkinson and George Leslie to popularise them in Britain. Her flat on Parliament Hill, Hampstead, became an informal meeting place for dissident Trotskyists and socialists from America and South Africa. But as the boom developed, she dropped out of organised politics.

She was fleetingly a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League, formed by Ted Grant, Jimmy Deane and Sam Bornstein in 1957 as the British section of Mandel and Pablo’s Fourth International. She remained active in the Labour Party in North London. Although she moved from Trotskyist politics and became a supporter of the state of Israel, she continued to identify with working-class struggles and women’s liberation, giving talks on her own experiences during the 1984–85 miners’ strike and corresponding with miners’ leader Peter Heathfield on the vicissitudes of living in Mrs Thatcher’s Finchley constituency and owning a cat called McGregor. She enjoyed painting and playing the piano. Her exuberance and zest for life were always infectious. Ann Keen died at the age of 86 on 3 December 2001. She was a strong and formidable woman whose struggles will live on in socialist memory.

John McIlroy

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011