The Rt. Hon. WILLIAM ADAMSON, P.C., M.P.
A Man of the People
By George Robertson
Between 1905 and his death in 1936, Willie Adamson became a Local Councillor in Dunfermline, Member of Parliament for West Fife, Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Secretary for Scotland, Secretary of State for Scotland and a Privy Councillor. This part of his life is well documented but not so well known is how his life outside politics shaped the man he was to become.
William Adamson – referred to as Willie by his family and friends – was born in the tiny mining village of Halbeath, about three miles east of Dunfermline. His birth took place on 2nd April 1863 in Long Row, one of several rows of houses within the village. He was the youngest of eleven children and was given the name of an older brother who had died eighteen days prior to his birth. His father James Armstrong Adamson was a coal miner and his mother Flora Cunningham, was also from a mining family having worked in one of the Fife pits until the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 banned all females and children under the age of ten from working underground and thus preventing her continuing to doing so. Conditions within the home were not ideal, being typical of what existed in mining villages throughout Scotland at that time. The houses, owned by the Halbeath Colliery Company, were dark and damp with none of the amenities taken for granted nowadays.
It has been suggested Willie, who began his schooling at the age of five, was taught at a dame school but to date no evidence has come to light to indicate such a school existed in Halbeath. Perhaps the answer to whether he attended a dame school or not can be found in an article which appeared in the Glasgow Evening News on 24th December 1927 when during an interview he states he – “never had a schoolmaster. The few years I got at school were under a village dame the wife of the engineer in the village.” He then goes on to name her as Mrs Thomson. An examination of the 1871 Census for Halbeath reveals the fact that the colliery engineer was named James Thomson and he lived in the village with his wife Ann. At this time a Colliery School did exist in the village and there seems little doubt this is the school Willie attended therefore it would appear Mrs Thomson taught here, possibly as an assistant to the schoolmaster. Although not mentioning Mrs Thomson by name he does make a further reference to her whilst taking part in a debate in the House of Commons on 16th July 1931 when a bill on Public Education in Scotland was being discussed. During the debate he states “I was one in a single room containing 100 pupils or thereabouts. We had only one teacher – a very heroic woman. We were not a class of about the same age or the same level of attainment. We were of all ages, ranging from four to eleven years and of all degrees of ability. Looking back in after life of the experience that I then had, it has strongly impressed me with the need for classes being cut down to a manageable size, so that teacher and child may get the full benefit of the opportunity that the country has provided for them.” Not only does this give an insight into school conditions which existed in Scottish mining villages such as Halbeath during the 1860’s and 1870’s it also appears to indicate that Mrs Thomson and the Colliery School at Halbeath made a significant impression on the young Willie. These Colliery Schools were set up by the local employer, in this case the Halbeath Colliery Company which provided the school building and a house, garden and coals for the schoolmaster. Payment for the education was provided by each miner employed by the Company paying three pence every two weeks, with those miners who had children at the school paying an additional two pence for each enrolled child. These payments were subtracted from wages at source.
On 6th March 1872 Willie’s father died. He was 56 years old. His death certificate shows the cause of his death as carcinomas lung and black spit, both common causes of death amongst coal miners. Despite the loss of her main bread winner Willie’s mother saw him complete his schooling which came to an end during 1874 when he reached the age of eleven. Willie then followed in his late father’s footsteps and became a pit boy, probably working in one of the two local pits, the Queen and the Eliza. His introduction to coal mining must have been traumatic since on Saturday 24th October 1874 his uncle, Thomas Cunningham, was killed when a large stone fell from the roof whilst he was working in the Burnside Pit which was situated at nearby Crossgates. The stone fell onto his back, breaking his neck. The Queen and Eliza were the last two pits in operation in the Halbeath area and even they closed during November 1876, meaning Willie would then have found it necessary to find work in another pit in the area, possibly at the nearby village of Kingseat.
Little is known about Willie for the next few years but the Census of 1881 shows him to be living with his mother and a sister in Long Row, Halbeath. His occupation is given as coal miner. However there is evidence that he was prepared to take on responsibility on behalf of his fellow miners. This can be found in a somewhat uncomplimentary description of him given by the social reformer Beatrice Webb who states in her Diaries 1912-1924 that Willie “pushed his way up from hewer to checkweighman.” This latter position was given to a person elected by the miners to check the findings of the mine owner’s weighman where miners are paid by the weight of coal mined. From this it can be assumed that from a fairly early stage in his mining career Willie was trusted by the miners to look after their interests.
His marriage to Christina Myles Marshall, daughter of a local gardener, took place on 25th February 1887, probably at Halbeath and the couple settled down to married life in one of the houses in Long Row. Over the next few years the couple had five children, Christina born 1888, Flora born 1889, James born 1893, David born 1900 and finally Margaret born 1902.
Life in Halbeath at this time was hard. The houses provided by Halbeath Colliery Company were not of a good standard, being as stated previously, dark and damp. Water was pumped from one of the pits to the houses by the Company and no doubt this was of a dubious quality which could lead to all sorts of illnesses, such as typhoid. During 1875 when a review was carried out regarding the condition of the houses in Halbeath it stated – “The best way to deal with the houses at Halbeath would doubtless be to pull them down from roof to basement, but in the meantime, it must be admitted that the Company are doing what they can to make them decently habitable. Wooden floors have been put into some of the frailest, and in other respects the houses have been greatly altered for the better. There is still much damp in many of them, and this will continue to be the case until a thorough system of drainage is carried out.” However, by the 1880’s and 1890’s the Company, under the proprietorship of the Wallace family, was working a pit in the Kingseat area and it began to improve the standard of accommodation it provided for its miners, an example of which can be found in Long Row. Having decided to replace the original row of sub standard houses, the Company did so by first building a new house which was then occupied by a family whose house was then demolished then rebuilt to be occupied by another family and so on until the entire row was completed. Willie and his family benefited from these improvements when, during the early 1890’s, he took possession of a new semi detached house situated at the east end of Long Row. Originally identified as South East Long Row, the house later became known as Forth View.
Having seen how difficult life was in the village for his fellow miners, Willie was very much involved in efforts to improve the life of the villagers. He was instrumental in setting up a Mutual Improvement Society, a Sunday school and a Children’s Church. This latter involvement gives an insight into his religious views as he is known to have possessed a devout Baptist faith and in addition he was a teetotaller. Further improvements occurred when a reading room and reading club were started and these, together with the provision of a provident society for sick and funeral purposes, must have improved village life considerably. The young women of the village were also catered for with the introduction of a sewing class.
Not only was Willie involved in the social welfare of the villagers he also became interested in the welfare of his fellow miners. He represented Halbeath and Kingseat as a delegate to the Board of the Fife, Kinross and Clackmannanshire Miners’ Association, becoming the Association’s Vice President during 1894. By 1902 he had become Assistant Secretary and in 1908 he became Secretary of the Association, a position he held until his death. In addition, having moved from Halbeath about two years earlier with his family to take up residence in Dunfermline, and despite having an earlier leaning as a Liberal, in 1905 he became Labour Party councillor for Dunfermline Ward Three. This Ward covered the villages of Townhill and Kingseat, both strong mining areas. He then fought the West Fife seat for Labour during the General Election of January 1910 but was defeated. However, in December 1910, a second General Election was held and this time Willie sensationally won the West Fife seat for Labour to become the first Scottish miners’ M.P. He held the seat until defeated in the General Election of October 1931. Willie attempted to win back the West Fife seat for Labour during the 1935 General Election but was defeated by William Gallacher, the Communist candidate.
This must have been a tremendous blow for Willie as for many years he had fought a bitter battle to hold back the advance of militancy being brought about by those of a Communist leaning. This began in 1920 when a new rule was introduced to have the five representatives from Fife elected to the Board of the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers by means of ballot as opposed to being appointed. The ballot resulted in victory for the left wing candidates. Willie did not agree with this and by using the argument that the poll had been very low he persuaded the Fife board to re-appoint the five sitting candidates. As a result of this action a bitter confrontation was begun between the union officials and rank and file members. Another point of contention concerned the suggestion from some that Willie in his negotiations was too responsive to the coal owners’ demands and eventually in January 1923 a rival Reform Union was created in Fife. This situation continued until March 1927, when the two unions became one. However, this did not resolve the difference of opinion between the right and left wing factions of the new union and this came to a head in December 1927 when elections took place to elect representatives to the Fife union posts and also to choose the Fife coalfield representatives on the Scottish Miners’ Executive. This resulted in a victory for the left wing candidates and the split between the right and left wings of the union now burst wide open when Willie and the other right wing officials refused to accept the validity of the elections. The newly elected Fife Executive then suspended Willie on a charge of misrepresenting his members and went on to arrange a ballot to decide whether he should be dismissed from office. Attack being the best form of defence, Willie immediately responded by setting up a rival union which was named the Fife, Clackmannanshire and Kinross Miners’ Association. This union was recognised and supported by the Scottish Miners’ Executive Committee and the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. It could be said Willie won the tactical battle by what might be seen as a creative use of the rule book but there is little doubt his reputation suffered and he lost the support of many miners’ in Fife. On the other hand one of Willie’s political colleagues – Tom Johnston – stated in his “Memoirs” that during this period in his life he compared Willie’s attitude to his adversaries as being similar to the words displayed on the banners carried by the Covenanters at the Battle of Tippermuir – “Jesus and no quarter” – a description which might have pleased Willie!
As stated at the beginning this article is not intended as a record of Willie’s political career but it is felt some mention should be made of this. He was Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party from October 1917 until 1921 when he resigned his post due to illness. Later one of his colleagues – Manny Shinwell – was to describe Willie as “a dour and phlegmatic Scottish miners’ leader very much out of his depth in the Commons”.” Shinwell went further by saying – “His selection (in 1917) had been motivated by a desire to have a chairman who would cause the minimum of trouble, so the movement got the results it deserved.” Despite this obvious criticism of his ability as a politician, between January and November 1924 Willie became Secretary for Scotland in the first Labour Government having been appointed by Ramsay MacDonald. In June 1929 he was appointed to the upgraded post of Secretary of State for Scotland but had to relinquish this as a result of the disastrous General Election defeat suffered by the Labour Government in October 1931. In addition, during 1918 Willie was appointed a Privy Councillor. One appointment did elude him when during the Labour government’s second term in power the Prime Minister – Ramsay MacDonald – proposed Willie should move to the House of Lords. Willie agreed to this elevation to the peerage but when MacDonald realised Willie had a son the proposal was withdrawn as the Prime Minister was against appointing peers with heirs. Willie was a supporter of the Labour Party’s policy of Home Rule for Scotland having the view that there should be a Scottish forum for dealing with some Scottish matters and he also supported the Party policy of nationalisation of the coal mines, although with his mining background in Halbeath, perhaps this is not surprising. He was a staunch supporter of World War One despite his eldest son James becoming a casualty of that war he being killed on 12th October 1916 whilst fighting on the Somme in Northern France with the 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. His name appears on the 1st World War Memorial in Dunfermline.
Due to his work with the miners and his political activities Willie gained recognition in other ways. On 18th July 1924 he was given the Freedom of Dunfermline and this was followed on 29th July 1929 by the Freedom of Edinburgh. On the same day another well known Scotsman – the author J.M. Barrie – also received the Freedom of Scotland’s capital. Not to be outdone by Edinburgh, on 18th October 1929 Willie was granted the Freedom of Glasgow followed on 27th August 1931 by the Freedom of Kirkcudbright. The author believes he was also granted the Freedom of Dumfries but to date this has not been confirmed. In addition, on 28th June 1927 St. Andrews University conferred on him an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree and it was at this University he delivered a lecture to a company of Principals and Professors entitled “Points from a Layman.” During 1929 Glasgow University followed the example of St Andrews University by also awarding him an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree.
Willie obviously had strong religious beliefs and as stated previously was a devout Baptist. He was a pioneer member of West Baptist Church in Dunfermline occasionally preaching from the pulpit and was baptised in that church on 11th May 1902. He became a deacon of the church a year later and was then appointed church secretary during February 1908, a position he held until November 1911. During 1906 he was one of the founder members of Dunfermline Temperance Council, an honorary member of Dunfermline City Mission and Evangelistic Association and was Honorary President of Dunfermline Boys and Girls Religious Society. In the previously mentioned article which appeared in the Glasgow Evening Times he states that during 1918 he addressed a company of some two hundred Church of England clergy from the London diocese an event he describes as being an “adventure.” In the same article he also states he – “speaks throughout the country on behalf of the Brotherhood Movement.” This Movement was an organisation in the Socialist tradition of the Free Churches, aimed at the reform of society on Christian lines. Not surprisingly he was invited to lay the foundation stone of the Parish Church at Rosyth which he did on 7th June 1930.
Perhaps it was partly due to his local activities that in August 1932, Dunfermline Town Council named a new street – Adamson Crescent – in honour of him. Not content with the foregoing, Willie served for a time as a member of the Board of Management of the Charles Carlow Miners’ Convalescence Home at Blair Castle, Culross and was also a member of the Boards of Management of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and Dunfermline and West Fife Hospital. He became a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Library of Scotland and during October 1918, a Scottish National War Memorial Committee was appointed by the then Secretary of State for Scotland Robert Munro, with William becoming a member of that committee.
On Monday 23rd December 1929 Willie was involved in a road accident in London. Having left the House of Commons at 11.30p.m., he was returning to his hotel – The London Temperance Hotel – and whilst crossing Southampton Row, he was knocked down by a car. He was trapped beneath the vehicle and dragged for several yards along the road before the driver brought it to a halt. It took eight men to lift the vehicle before Willie could be released when he was found to be unconscious. After recovering consciousness he was, as he described it “oxtered into an ambulance” which took him to University College Hospital. There it was found he had suffered bruising to his left knee, left shoulder and lower part of both legs. He also sustained three abrasions to his head. It was at the hospital he finally revealed his identity to a persuasive nurse having previously refused to do so saying he “wanted no fuss made and no publicity!” Despite his injuries his main complaint was the fact he found his heavy overcoat which he had “purchased in the beginning of the winter” was torn to ribbons across the shoulders! He then returned to his hotel, swathed in bandages. The following day he attended to his duties at the Scottish Office and the House of Commons and then took the overnight train from King’s Cross to Scotland, arriving in Dunfermline just after 8a.m. on Christmas morning. Does this incident suggest Willie was made of stern stuff? He worked until late in the evening – is knocked down by a vehicle – is injured and rendered unconscious – is taken to hospital – appears in the Commons next day stating he had simply “suffered a nasty bump” – and then takes an overnight train to Scotland – stern stuff indeed.
Willie’s ability to overcome adversity was tested to breaking point on Monday 1st April 1935 with the death, at the age of 73, of his beloved wife Christina. She had been an invalid for some time and died at the family home at 1 Park Avenue, Dunfermline. They had been married for 48 years and there is little doubt her death affected Willie deeply. This set back was then compounded by his defeat to Willie Gallacher in the General Election held in November that year and quite possibly the death of his wife and the unsuccessful attempt to win back the West Fife seat for Labour affected his health which began to deteriorate.
On Tuesday 18th February, 1936, having returned to his home at Park Avenue, Dunfermline after visiting Valleyfield Colliery in West Fife in his capacity as General Secretary of the Fife, Clackmannanshire and Kinross Miners’ Association, he complained of feeling unwell. The following morning, his condition worsened and by Friday of that week it was decided to remove him to Garthdee Nursing Home in Buchanan Street, Dunfermline. At this time his condition was considered critical and he fell into a coma. There was to be no improvement and at 7a.m. on Sunday 23rd February, at the age of 72, he died. The immediate causes of death were given as pleurisy and pneumonia.
His funeral, which attracted a large number of mourners, took place on the afternoon of the following Wednesday when he was buried alongside his wife at Dunfermline Cemetery. Nine members of the Executive Board of the Fife, Clackmannanshire and Kinross Miners’ Association escorted the hearse carrying his coffin from his home to the cemetery – a fitting tribute to the man who had worked so hard during his lifetime for the benefit of his fellow workers. The funeral service was conducted by the Rev. M.F. Wright of West Baptist Church, Dunfermline and an oration was delivered at the graveside by Willie’s lifelong friend James Brown, P.C., M.P. and former Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The King was represented at the funeral by the Lord Lieutenant of the County, the Earl of Elgin.
How does one sum up the life of Willie Adamson and how should he be remembered. There is little doubt he was not a total success whilst carrying out his duties in the House of Commons. To again refer to the article which appeared in the Glasgow Evening News of December1927 he admits – “I drifted into politics, so to speak, in my progressive eagerness to advance the cause of the working miner. I found that it provided an additional and valuable opportunity for helping forward his interests, for I was a working miner myself.” Perhaps this gives an indication that he considered himself to be primarily a representative of the miners in union matters as opposed to being a politician. A further example of his support for the less fortunate in society occurred in August 1931 when he was one of those who voted against a proposed cut in unemployment benefit stating “I’ve never voted against the poor yet, and I can’t now.” It is true he was not the most eloquent of speakers and whilst Secretary of State for Scotland had a tendency to leave some of his work to his subordinates. In addition, he was not adverse to delaying decisions in the House by stating matters under discussion were being given “due consideration,” much to the frustration and sometimes amusement of all concerned. However, he was a shrewd, reasonable and patient negotiator and became a much respected member of the House. Having said this, it is perhaps his quiet unassuming manner, his honesty and tenacity whilst dealing with problems and the work he carried out whilst attending to the needs of the miners and their families in Halbeath during the early days of his life – and others in later years – that he should be remembered for. Although Tom Johnston said Willie’s motto should be Jesus and no Quarter, which is quite appropriate, but in this writer’s opinion his epitaph should be that he was quite simply A Man of the People.
George Robertson is Honorary President of Dunfermline Historical Society. His wife is Willie Adamson’s great-great niece. He wishes to acknowledge the advice and assistance given so willingly by Eric Simpson.
This article first appeared in Issue 77 Winter 2009, of the Scottish Local History Journal.