Tom Bell, 1882-1944
Bell (always known as Tom) was born in Parkhead, a district in
the East End of Glasgow. Parkhead at that time was still a semi-rural
village. His family were originally fishing folks from John O'Groats
who migrated to Ayrshire where Tom's father was born. Tom's father
became a stonemason and moved to the Glasgow area for work. Settling
in Parkhead he married Barr Hargreaves, daughter of a local mining
family. Tom was the first born of two sons and two daughters.
Tom started school in the spring of 1889 and left in the spring
of 1894. While at school, like so many young children, he worked
part-time - his job was delivering milk. Getting up at six o'clock
every morning, summer and winter he received 1/6p (app. 7.5P today's
money) for his effort. Leaving school at eleven Tom's first full-time
job was as a dairy-boy, working from 6:30 am, to 6 or 7 o'clock
seven days a week for 3/6p, (app.17.5P today). Leaving there he
moved to a mineral water manufacturer. Tom could not help but be
interested in the miners strike of 1894 due to the close proximity
of the coal mines to his home. He also took a very keen interest
in the railway workers strike of 1897 following the processions
of workers as they marched through the streets of Parkhead. It was
at this time that his thoughts started turning to atheism and labour
politics. Tom though had experienced his first strike at school
when he with some other pupils refused to enter school in protest
at the cruelty of some of the teachers.
At the age of 15 he started his apprenticeship as an iron moulder in Glasgow's Springfield steelworks.
As a young man he would get into political discussions at street corner meetings, strengthening his
atheist and socialist views. Soon he would make his first visit to the Secular Society in
Brunswick Street Glasgow. The speaker was G. W. Foote, this fired his enthusiasm for more information.
He went on to read all Shakespeare's plays and saw most of them performed. Now 17 he devoured
the works of Huxley, Darwin and The Rationalist Press Association. Tom soon developed a broad
intellectual grasp of politics and philosophy andvery soon he was regarded as something of a
thinker by his fellow workmates. In keeping with his belief of self education, Tom Bell attended
evening classes in french, geology and astronomy at the Andersonian College Glasgow, later
becoming a member of the West of Scotland Astronomical Society. He also, for three years, took
courses in English literature under Professor Eyre-Todd at the Academy of Literature.
In addition to this Tom became closely associated with the Plebs League, an organisation whose
aim was to provide marxist education for workers.
Back to top
1900 saw Tom join the Independent Labour Party. He became somewhat disillusioned with the party
because of its lack of emphasis on theory, and in 1902 attended economic classes run by the Social
Democratic Federation at 63 Adelphi Street in the south side of Glasgow. In February 1903 he joined the
SDF but soon after this, due to a split, Tom with some others formed the Glasgow Socialist Society and then changed
the name in August 1903 to the Socialist Labour Party. Apart from Tom Bell and James Connolly, the party
had many prominent personalities such as Arthur McManus and Neil MacLean, who was appointed national
secretary. Although Tom was a founder member and leading theorist of the SLP, in 1907 he found himself
facing expulsion because he agreed with the conclusions of a pamphlet, 'The Decadence of the SLP',
written by Richard Dalgleish, a Glasgow member of the SLP. The pamphlet claimed the SLP was wrong
to favour the Industrial Workers of the World, (IWW), as it was not a "truly socialist" organisation.
Tom was eventually re-admitted to the SLP at its 1908 conference and he also became a propagandist
for Advocates of Industrial Unionism, the SLPs response to the IWW. In the beginning of the SLPs life,
the main speaker was James Connolly, but Tom Bell was also a frequent speaker on its platform. The party
also ran economic classes until 1920.
Tom held classes every winter from 1905 until 1920 with the exception of one year when he worked in
London and Liverpool. The SLP also ran small tutor courses and from these emerged a band of class
tutors who held classes in factories and shipyards. Tom had joined the Associated Ironmoulders of Scotland,
in 1904 and by 1919 he was elected president of the Scottish Ironmoulders Union.
Back to top
It was during the early years of the SLP that Tom met Lizzie Aitken, who was also a member of the SLP.
Her father was a stonemason and an atheist. Tom and Lizzie were married by Sheriff's warrant in
Glasgow on February 4th 1910. Tragedy struck some four years later when their younger son
Lawrence died from a chill.
Back to top
Tom became a propagandist for the broad based industrial union and was a member of the Singer's
Branch of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain. He was an active member during the 1911
Singer's Strike that started after the dismissal of a woman worker. The Singer Co,
in an attempt to break the new militant union, decided on a lock-out. The factory was
shut down and 10,000 workers were locked out. Without success, the management made an
appeal to "loyal" workers to return to work. They then decided to send a postcard to everyone
on the firm's books, inviting them to return the card and say if they wished to resume work.
The firm, through the press, reported an overwhelming majority for resuming work and promised
revisions of pay and conditions and opened the gates after a week's lock-out. Believing the press
the workers started to return to work. After the strike was over leading members of the
union were dismissed.
Back to top
First world war
At the beginning of the first world war,
in 1914, there was considerable unrest in British industry, Glasgow
and the Clydeside were not exempt. Among the workers in industry
there was a tremendous amount of anti war feeling. Tom Bell stated
that his attitude to the war was one of open hostility and resistance
to the war on socialist grounds. During the first half of 1914 there
were on average 150 strikes a month. Due to the Treasury Act, and
the Munitions Act, many unofficial committees were formed and in 1915
the Clyde Workers Committee was founded. Tom Bell returned to Glasgow
in 1916 after a year working in London and Liverpool and became
a member of the Clyde Workers Committee. Tom along with Jock McBain,
an engineer and member of the SLP, continued the policy of educating
the Clydeside workers in the principles of industrial unionism.
1917 saw Tom devoting his energies in the task of being a leader
in a national strike of engineers and foundry workers in their demand
for a forty-seven hour week. To guarantee the strike was well organised,
Tom along with Willie Gallacher, were instrumental in forming the
Clyde Emergency Committee. The strike being deadlocked, the Clyde
Emergency Committee sent Tom Bell and Jock McBain to negotiate with
the Ministry of Munitions in London, the negotiations ultimately
Back to top
Tom Bell as president of the Scottish Ironmoulders Union played a leading role in the Clydeside
agitation for a forty-hour week. On Friday January 31st 1919 Tom was part of a demonstration
march to George Square. There was a police baton charge and a riot ensued with the leaders being arrested.
The government was so alarmed by the event that English troops were paraded through the streets,
The initial support for the strike was not sustained and the forty-hour week was not achieved.
1919 also saw Tom become national secretary of the SLP and editor and director of the official
paper of the SLP, the Socialist.
Back to top
After March 1919, in spite of their prominent positions in the SLP and their commitment to the party,
both Tom Bell and Arthur McManus were becoming increasingly alienated from the party. This was mainly due
to their contact with the Russian Communist Party and their being urged to leave the SLP and form a
single communist party. From then on they became involved in a movement to unite all radical members of
other left-wing parties to join them and form a single communist party. In April 1919, while still members
of the SLP, Tom Bell, Arthur McManus, J.T. Murphy and Willie Paul formed a separate faction within the party
called the Unity Communist Group. While still continuing to be members of the SLP they withdrew from its
internal politics, this forced the executive committee of the SLP to dissolve the Unity Communist Group
in the beginning of 1920. After this Tom Bell and Arthur McManus formed another Unity Group and
invited delegates to attend a Unity Conference at Nottingham in April 1920. The Nottingham conference,
with Tom Bell acting as secretary, issued a manifesto putting forward the offer of joining a "Bona fide"
Communist Party in preference to all other political parties. The publication of the manifesto and their
refusal to attend the official conference of the SLP in Carlisle, held the same month, resulted in Tom Bell
and those associated with the Nottingham conference being expelled from the SLP. Tom was obliged to
resign the editorship of the Socialist. Together with Arthur McManus and Willie Paul he set up the Joint
Provisional Committee of the Communist Party, its first national convention being held on July 31st 1920.
From this the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed with Tom Bell and Harry Pollitt
as its first full-time employees.
Back to top
During the 1920s Tom was closely involved with international politics. January 1921 saw him make his second trip to
Moscow having been invited to the third congress of the Communist International. He was the first
representative of the CPGB to be appointed to the executive committee of the CI. On this visit Tom was
travelling without a visa and to avoid the police he had to sleep in a coal bunker on board a small
cargo vessel. He was in Moscow for five months and had a meeting with Lenin who showed considerable
interest in the miners' movement in South Wales. In 1922, along with Arthur McManus, Tom returned to Moscow
for the fourth congress of the CI. It was then decided that he should stay in Russia as a foreign reporter and
representative of the CPGB. From Russia he wrote a number of articles for the Communist on varies topics before
returning to Britain at the end of 1922.
Tom held a considerable number of prominent positions on a range
of committees. He was on the executive committee with William Gallacher
and Helen Crawfurd until 1929.
Tom was also on the Political Bureau and the Organising Bureau and
was responsible for the propaganda work of the party. He was also
head of the Education Dept. and organised classes in Marxism until
1925. As a writer of considerable experience Tom was appointed editor
of the party's monthly paper, the Communist Review. Tom's work with
the CPGB eventually caused him to settle in London.
Back to top
Tom Bell was arrested in Glasgow on the 4th of August 1925 shortly after speaking at a demonstration,
and taken to Wandsworth Prison where he discovered that 11 other communist leaders, including
William Gallacher and every member of the political bureau, had been arrested for being members
of the CPGB. All received prison sentences - Tom's was six months. Tom believed that this was a
deliberate action of the government to weaken the labour movement in preparation for the
impending general strike.
Back to top
After the general strike Tom
Bell went back to Moscow to work on the Communist Review and to
do work for the Propaganda Department. In 1929 he once again returned
to Britain and along with William Gallacher and Harry Pollitt was
appointed to the newly formed political bureau of the CPGB. During
the 1930s, Tom continued to embrace the general policies of the
CPGB and devoted time and energy to the international movement combating
fascism in Spain and Italy. In 1930 he joined The Friends of the
Soviet Union, a Communist Party front organisation and in 1937 became
its secretary. In the struggle to fight fascism in Europe Tom joined
the National Council for Democratic Aid and the International Class
War Prisoners Aid. Both these organisations were formed to give
aid to interned anti-fascist prisoners during the Spanish Civil
War. During all of this activity he managed time to write his "History
of the British Communist Party" which was published in 1937.
Tom Bell, saw Nazi Germany as a threat of world fascism and supported
the general policies of the CPGB and through this supported the
second world war. The remaining years of his life were spent at
the CPGB headquarters on London helping victims of the war. Tom
Bell, a lifelong teetotaller and a small sturdy man, was said to have
a rather serious facial expression. He was direct and honest, he
never tired in his dedication to his beliefs and principles and he died
in his native city of Glasgow on the 19th of April 1944.
Next: Guy Alfred Aldred,
Back to top