Temple Tales #3 “The Whole Package”: from Pembroke Dock to Mandela thanks

Bert banner

By Kathryn Evans

Bert Pearce is the true definition of a hidden history.  Why did I start researching Bert Pearce?  Here at the Temple of Peace we have a tree and plaque dedicated to him in our Garden of Peace so naturally, intrigue followed.  This commemoration is here because not only did Bert visit the Temple of Peace, it was believed he would respect and appreciate many of the campaigns we support here.  Another reason I wanted to delve further into the life of Bert Pearce is because he was personally thanked by Nelson Mandela in his 1998 speech at Cardiff Castle; a magnificent recognition and indication that he was a key individual in Wales’ fight for peace.

Bert Pearce gave a lifetime devotion to active politics. He was born in Pembroke Dock, Wales, to a Christian minister and an enthusiastic Co-operator.  What influenced Bert considerably  was the closure of Pembrokeshire Dockyard in 1926.  In the documentary A Welsh Life by Patrick Hannan, Bert explains there was, “like an eerie silence, unemployed workers and people being sent away and friends disappearing,” concluding that there must be something wrong with the system for this kind of devastation to be brought among them.  His parents were both members of the Labour party, and in 1936 Bert became a clerk at the Labour Exchange.  In 1938 he moved to Birmingham where he became fully integrated with political activism, the Communist party and fighting for the people’s democracy.  He was employed by the Communist party where he eventually became the party’s full time organiser.  Bert was also Birmingham’s City Secretary and was actively involved in a number of projects for Birmingham that were extremely productive.

Bert returned to Wales in 1960 when he became the secretary of the Welsh Communist Party. He was also heavily involved in National Union of Miners (NUM), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the fight for a Welsh parliament alongside the Communist Party.  Noticeably from his mention in Nelson Mandela’s speech, Bert  was also an active participant in the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement (WAAM). He was a proud Marxist and on the editorial board of Marxism Today where writings consisted mostly about the Nationalisation of Wales, where he argued we needed to devolve government and unify Britain and Europe.

Bert lived through the times of the Communist party when it was very much following the line of the Soviet Union.  When Czechoslovakia reformed Bert was one of the people in the party who was in the forefront of questioning the Socialism that they seemed to be following.  Bert believed that politics developed and you have to question to take things forward, and this is where he stood politically.

In A Welsh Life he proudly talks about how he lived to see the exposure of his mistakes and strategies that were wrong in the Soviet Union, and a new development of a Marxism which is green, humane and feminist.  Patrick Hannan asked Bert if he thought fighting for Socialism and Communism had been a waste of his life given its failures. Bert replied beautifully, laughing:

“I don’t see how I could have wasted my life better. I took part in all the key struggles of my time. Fighting for real causes: the creation of a real popular people’s democracy. Those of us who have learnt through the struggles, like the Welsh miners, clung to fact they were strong enough to stand up to anybody and fight for cause, many brilliant analysts and politics.”

 

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Picture caption: office of a communist party branch in Wales in the 1970s.

In the documentary Bert also made the perfect statement portraying his motivation towards politics: “a communist is there because you believe in the people.”

 I also discovered that the founder of the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement (WAAM), Hanef Bhamjee, was put in contact with Bert to help lift off the WAAM campaign.  I got in touch with Hanef who very kindly wrote an emotive statement describing his relationship with Bert:

“I met Bert Pearce in early 1973. He was a very committed Socialist and anti-racist and supported Revolutionary Causes. I discussed the idea of the formation of a Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement with him. When I spoke at meetings on South and Southern Africa in various parts of Wales the level of support was very high compared to other Parts of the UK. I was surprised that there was not an all Wales movement.

 He was very helpful and provided various peoples across Wales who would be supportive to the idea of WAAM. He knew people across the political spectrum, and in different forums. This was very useful. He ‘opened’ many minds and doors for WAAM. In the beginning I needed contacts that I could rely on to help in various cities in Churches, Trade Unions, Trade Councils etc. and in the cultural fraternity.

 Our friendship was a very close political one and lasted ‘til he died.  When Mandela visited Wales to receive the ‘freedom of the city’ in Cardiff, he asked me to single one Welsh person as a key activist. Without hesitation I provided the name of Bert, whom he then mentioned at the award speech. Bert was involved with anti-apartheid and anti-racism all his life as a dedicated Communist. He is and was well remembered in CND, Working class politics, and Solidarity movements associated with areas on the 5 continents. He was instrumental in assisting third world politics that I was involved with in Africa, Asia and South America. When we finally launched the WAAM in April 1981 after painstaking work in Wales, we already had 22 branches in towns and cities, all church groups and religious groups supported us. We had branches in nearly every college. WAAM was regarded as the most powerful pressure group in Wales – Bert’s involvement was well recognised.”

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Anti-apartheid demo in Wales; you can see the communist party’s banner in the background

As I mentioned before I found it an enjoyable challenge searching for information of Bert’s life, and I was lucky enough to have Bert’s daughter Marian get in touch with me. A life-saving moment as my conversations with Marian opened up a whole new side to Bert that I wouldn’t find in any library which has led me into this more personal article about Bert Pearce and why he is relevant to Wales’ fight for peace. In one question I asked Marian what she believed would be Bert’s proudest moment:

“It’s a difficult thing to say, because I think he wouldn’t be proud in that sense, he would just look at the broad brush of how he got on with the people that he worked with. I think one of the things he would be most proud of, that I ended up as the Chair of the Communist Party, you know as that was like carrying the mantle. The Nelson Mandela moment would have to be a proud moment. Mandela had obviously asked, who shall I pay tribute to? And all these people in the anti-apartheid movement said my dad! And that just has to be the most stunning tribute. Mandela had said in the speech, ‘there’s somebody here in the audience who is even older than I am..’ and when Mandela came over to meet Dad to be introduced to him all dad could say was ‘um I actually don’t think I am quite as old as you.’ Even in a moment like that, he was very sort of genuine and rounded.”

It’s very easy to understand how Bert Pearce was an ordinary, jolly man who was naturally charismatic, and had the capability to apply his passion to politics and make a difference.

Bert was a very influential and well respected man and I was extremely keen to delve further into this side of Bert. It wasn’t until I had a conversation with Marian that it came to light exactly how much of a people person he was, and how it was this personality trait that sprung him forward into a politically active life and made campaigns such as WAAM a success. Marian went into teaching along a similar career path to her mother, and also became Chair of the Communist Party as her life had always been involved with the Communist movement. I asked Marian how she thought Bert had influenced her:

“In a very real sense, what my dad influenced me in was an interest in people – he was very much a people person. His politics were very people orientated rather than dogma orientated and I learnt a lot from that. So that was kind of my approach to my parents politics – it was all about people so I took that with (me) and all those good principles.”

Marian spoke about how much of an ordinary man Bert was, he was never unwilling to engage with somebody because of differing perspectives.  He was always very intrigued to hear about people’s views and was incredibly open-minded about religion and politics and believed everyone was entitled to make their own mind up.

It’s easy to understand then why Bert was so well respected by a wide range of movements. Marian told me he was never the ‘cog’ but he was always there – at every speech, every demonstration and every activity he was one of the key individuals behind it. Marian proudly states how Bert was an incredible organiser, always there helping to support organise and publicise actions. That was essentially what he did for his career, his life – he was an extremely good organiser and strategist. I enjoyed listening to Marian as she described her father:

“He was a brilliant man.  His range of interests were phenomenal.  He knew such a lot about classical music, literature, poetry.  His mind was just stunningly broad, a fantastic person from that point of view. He was just so proud of his kids and his grandkids.  A lovely people person, his funeral was just stunningly wonderful.”      

In a very pleasant chat with Marian I also enjoyed learning about Bert’s past that didn’t involve politics, the fun loving side to him. On his plaque at the Temple of Peace it says, “a lover of music and mountains of Wales,” which Marian talks fondly about.  Describing one of her memories walking up Cadair Idris Mountain with her father:

“He packed our rucksacks and we were all climbing up Cadair Idris and I was very tired and thought ‘this bag’s heavy.’ He says, ‘come on come on we’re nearly there!’ Then I discovered that I’d carried a bottle of his Drambuie all the way to the top, so he could have some Drambuie at the top.”

Another enlightening anecdote from Marian was about the unique Community Camping Club that she is now secretary of that began in 1952 and is still active today. It was formed by a group of people with similar interests, all Communists which the Pearce family joined and enjoyed many holidays with.

Marian’s words conclude this article perfectly so I will end with one last comment from his daughter, whom I thank enormously for the insight into Bert Pearce’s life:

“I wouldn’t say he had a career, he devoted his life to the cause that he believed in and he just happened to work for the Communist Party. For him it wasn’t a career it was how he could best contribute to what he passionately believed in. What makes his life extraordinary was ‘the whole package’. How he managed to be so important in so many people’s lives. I think he would struggle to say one thing that he did because there was so many bits of things that he did.”

Further reading:

If you are interested in watching Nelson Mandela’s speech at Cardiff Castle accepting the Freedom of the City, and finding out more information of the day please follow the link below. It is at 41 minutes in that Nelson Mandela begins his speech, and at 44:40 he begins his acknowledgement to Bert:    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYBcIHTBDxs

Telephone interview with Bert Pearce’s daughter Marian Darke 30.08.2017

A Welsh Life, documentary by Patrick Hannan (with thanks to Marian for this reference).

Bert Pearce has a collection of Communist papers, minutes, and newspaper clippings on various actions he took in his life and his efforts toward WAAM held at the National Library of Wales.

Obituary in the Guardian, September 16, 2002: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2002/sep/16/guardianobituaries

Wikipedia, Bert Pearce:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Pearce

Graham Stevenson:

http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=454:bert-pearce-&catid=16:p&Itemid=119

National Library of Wales:

http://anws.llgc.org.uk/cgi-bin/anw/fulldesc_nofr?inst_id=1&coll_id=20102&expand=

UNZ.Org for Marxism Today articles:

https://www.unz.org/Pub/MarxismToday-1977dec-00358?Author=Bert+Pearce&Action=Search

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