Sam Watts, whose life will be celebrated in Liverpool tonight, experienced more than his fair share of hard knocks but became a fearless and articulate advocate for workmates and community.
Born in February 1925 in Liverpool’s Great Homer Street area, he lived through the direst poverty as a child, which he described eloquently when interviewed for Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of of 45. “I was the third of eight children, living in the worst slums in Europe, sleeping five in a bed. The house was full of vermin — bed bugs, cockroaches, fleas, rats.
“There was nothing we could do. We couldn’t get rid of them. They were part of the family,” he quipped.
He was caned regularly in school for turning up with dirty knees despite using the sleeves of his shirt to try to clean them. Sam’s love and admiration for his mother shone through. He thought she deserved a medal for looking after eight children in a two-room slum with just a single cold-water tap in the backyard.
Three siblings died in childhood, two at the same time, prompting Sam’s memory of his family travelling to the cemetery in a one-horse carriage bearing two coffins on their knees before burial in a pauper’s grave.
His mother’s task was not eased by the removal in 1933 of her husband, who had worked in a timber yard, to what was then called the lunatic asylum at Rainhill. He suffered from post-traumatic stress brought on by experiences in the first world war trenches that were further aggravated by his brother William’s execution for supposed cowardice.
Sam’s father remained in Rainhill without speaking until he died in 1943. In reality, William was suffering from shell-shock and exposure to gas, as were many of the 306 British soldiers shot by firing squad in that conflict. Sam campaigned for years for these men to be pardoned and was delighted in 2006 when this was belatedly agreed.
He had proudly but provocatively waited in line on Armistice Day to incur the wrath of the British Legion by laying a wreath of white poppies at the war memorial in memory of the uncle he had never known. Sam joined the Royal Navy in 1943, but, after being demobbed, he returned to the same slum conditions before going to London to seek work.
Eventually, he found work at a Lyons Corner House where he cleaned the place in the morning before donning a brown suit, peaked cap and white gloves in the afternoon to welcome customers. “Every night I joined the long queue to get a bed in the Salvation Army hostel, as I had no money for proper rent,” he said.
Returning to Liverpool, he survived on dead-end jobs and then benefited from the post-war economic upturn to find work as a rigger on Liverpool docks and become a shop steward.
Although he had never been a great reader, he was given The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by a workmate on the docks. “It opened my eyes to many things, to life and how we were being conned,” he said. “I was invited by leading Mersey Docks shop steward Alec ‘Bunny’ McKechnie to attend a Communist Party rally at St Georges Hall in Liverpool.
“It was addressed by general secretary Harry Pollitt and I joined the party at that meeting. I became a regular reader and seller of the Daily Worker from then onwards.”
From that day until his death at the end of 2014, Sam spent over 60 years as a Communist Party activist. His activities included being lifted, literally, by police when he protested against Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the Eldonian council estate in Netherton in 1989. He was also for decades the party’s Morning Star organiser, collecting a quire every morning before cycling around Liverpool’s trade union offices to sell them their daily paper.
His round kept his body fit as his politics kept his mind lively and positive. Sam rejected negative assessments of today’s youth, insisting: “Our youngsters aren’t layabouts. They’re not benefit frauds. The problem is that there just aren’t enough jobs for them.”
He was in no doubt that the real problem was a clapped-out economic system. “The capitalist system is finished. It just doesn’t work any more. You can’t make it work. The only answer is socialism to get the country back on its feet.” Communist Party leader Rob Griffiths first met Sam during Communist Campaign Group discussions that led to the setting up of the Communist Party of Britain in 1988.
“They don’t make many gems like that,” said Griffiths. “He gave a lifetime of unstinting activity to the working-class movement and the Communist Party. Nobody could take the Morning Star for granted while Sam was there to sell and collect money for the paper with his rough charm and persistence.”
Institute of Employment Rights director Carolyn Jones said: “Sam was the best Merseyside Morning Star organiser we have ever had. It was Sam who initiated an annual Morning Star appeal letter that went out via the North West TUC, a practice still continued today. “But he also approached people direct, knocking on doors and not leaving till a paper was sold. A fantastic man.”
Sam is survived by son Paul and was predeceased by his other son Alan and his beloved wife Bridie, who he said would not have survived as long as she did with TB but for the NHS — “the finest thing” achieved by the labour movement.