Back to top

John B Smethurst

John B. Smethurst: An Obituary

John Blears Smethurst was born on 18 January, 1934 in Eccles, Manchester, England, son of Wilfred Blears Smethurst, an Eccles Co-operative Society grocery shop manager, and Hilda, née Clague, a tailoress.1 He had one sister, Margaret.2 He was baptised at St. Mary Magdalene's Church, Winton, Eccles and attended primary schools at Westwood Park, St. Mary's Peel Green Open Air and Monton County. After secondary education at Winton Modern School, 1945-1947, and while an apprentice electrical engineer, he attended Salford Technical College on a part-time basis, 1947-1954. He achieved an Ordinary National Certificate in Chemistry and Electrical Engineering and a Higher National Certificate in Electrical Engineering, then among the highest qualifications available outside the exclusive and narrow university system. Smethurst was a bright student, his natural inquisitiveness and capacity for problem solving proving good attributes in the practical world of workplace engineering. His engineering training stood to him all his life, as, faced with a problem, he applied systematic analysis of cause and tested possible solutions. He was an 'ideas man' with a difference: he knew which of them would best work.

Always an energetic man, Smethurst was interested in most sports. In his youth he played Rugby Union for several clubs, including Sedgeley Park, but his abiding passion was Rugby League. He played for Salford Boys, Langworthy Juniors, Belle Vue Rangers and Salford 'B'. Apart from supporting Salford/Salford City Reds, he gave much to the game. In 1978, he was approached by GEC Amateur RLFC to become involved as the club transformed itself to Eccles RLFC, Smethurst being first Chair, 1987. His son Mike played for the side as they won many trophies in their upward development until today, as Eccles & Salford Juniors, they compete successfully in the National Conference.3 The club have become much-respected for developing talented players who move up into Super League. In 1987, Smethurst was made an Honorary Life Member for his work in promoting the club. He had interests in football, athletics, boxing, any physical activity.4 In his youth, he participated in local musical and dramatic societies, and enjoyed folk and labour songs, seeing them as source material for historians as well as simple entertainment. He would not have regarded himself as a great singer but could, famously, 'put a song over', an appealing talent in itself. He loved Brass Bands and regularly attended recitals and competitions, taking particular interest in Co-operative Society Bands.5

Smethurst commenced employment in 1947 and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), quickly becoming a member of the Junior Workers' Committee, 1947-1951, at a time when many craft unions considered apprentices should be seen but not heard. When it came to working conditions and grievances, Smethurst was not very good at silence. He transferred to the Association of Scientific Workers, 1951-1952, before going underground with the National Coal Board. From 1952-1955, Smethurst was active in the National Union of Mineworkers, Pendlebury Branch, Lancashire Colliery Tradesmen Section. He retained in interest in NUM and mining matters, strongly supporting the now defunct Lancashire Mining Museum, Buile Hill, Salford. Having seen pits closed, he was doubly annoyed when the authorities began to close mining heritage museums as well.6 After a colliery accident, Smethurst left mining and practised his trade, finally joining the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) in 1956. Despite many differences with his union's 'line', by and large, Smethurst remained active through the ETU's various incarnations as the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) and Amalgamated Engineering & Electrical Workers Union (AEEWU). When the progressive Electricians' and Plumbers' Industrial Union was created, Smethurst joined in solidarity, 1987-1989, transferring to the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union (MSF), 1989-2007. He was finally a member of Unite. From 1963, Smethurst held a casual workers' card in the National Association of Operative Printers & Assistants, Manchester Branch S17, eventually becoming an Honorary Retired Member. Within this union, he was Chair, Thompson House, Withy Grove, House Liaison Committee, 1968-1985, serving successfully as Shop Steward, FOC (Father of the Chapel) and Imperial Father. He represented the ETU/EETPU on Manchester & Salford Trades Council, 1968-1982, and consistently contributed to industrial relations, policy development and general membership claims. His was a constant presence on rallies, organising campaigns and solidarity actions.

After publisher and newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell fell from his yacht on 5 November, 1991, praise for his achievements quickly turned sour when his appropriation of £400 million from company Pension Funds to shore up the Mirror Group and avoid bankruptcy was revealed. Smethurst, along with thousands of others, suddenly discovered that the retirement years they had looked forward to were un-provided for. From 1990-1997, Smethurst was Chair, Manchester Mirror Pensioners' Action Group, and a member of the Maxwell Pensioners National Co-ordinating Committee. He assisted in the formation of Groups in Leeds and Sheffield and, from 1986, was a member of the Thompson Pensioners Fellowship. Retirement that should have provided opportunity to research, write and collect, instead became an endless round of lobbying, report writing and campaigning. Success for the 32,000 victims of Maxwell's fraud was finally achieved in February 1995 with a Government-supported settlement. Smethurst's role as organiser, motivator and battler cannot be underestimated. The opportunity cost for his family and labour history was high.

When only thirteen, Smethurst joined the Labour Party League of Youth (LOY) in 1947. He attended LOY rallies at Butlin's, Filey, in 1949 and 1951 and was a delegate to the Berlin Youth Festival, 1951. He was Chair, Manchester Federation LOY, 1950-1955, being a member in both Eccles and Swinton & Pendlebury.7 He quickly progressed to full Labour Party membership, serving Eccles Constituency Labour Party, 1951-1962, and as Secretary, Eccles Trades Council & Labour Party, 1956-1962. Simultaneously, he was active in the Co-operative Party, 1955-1962. By now, however, his Marxism was leading him away from reformism and he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He served on the Party's Manchester Area District Committee, 1964-1968, acting as Parliamentary Agent in 1966 and 1969, as he had done for Labour in 1955. Smethurst stood unsuccessfully for Salford City Council for both Labour and the CPGB.

Smethurst left the CPGB in 1968 after the events in Prague. He rejoined the Co-operative Party in 1975, serving in a variety of capacities for the remainder of his life. He was Secretary, Co-operative Party Council, Eccles & Prestwich Co-operative Society, 1981-1984. This, in turn, led him to become Secretary, Co-operative Party Northern Regional Council of United Co-operatives, later United Norwest Co-operatives, 1987-1999, and United Co-operatives, 1999-2005. From 1996-2007, he was a member of the United Norwest Co-operative Party, Society Co-ordinating Committee and Party Council. He faithfully attended all Co-operative Congresses, including that in Belfast in 2002; Education Convention Conferences at Scarborough, Blackpool and Weston-super-Mare; and all Co-operative College [Loughborough] Conferences, 1985-1999. Co-operative offices and positions Smethurst held included Sealing Committee Board, 1996-2001, acting as Chair, 1998-1999; Education Committee, Eccles & District Co-operative Society, 1958-1961; Board, Eccles & District Co-operative Society, 1968-1981; Director, Eccles & Prestwich Co-operative Society, 1975-1983, the last three years as President; and, after merger of Eccles & Prestwich with United Co-operatives in September 1983, he was co-opted onto the Board of United for two years whilst still being elected as Director, Bolton & Wigan Area Council, 1983-2004, and Northern Regional Board, 1983-1985. He was elected Director, United Norwest Co-operatives Northern Regional Board in 1992 and to the Main Board, 1993-2004.8 His belief in the neglected potential of co-operatives never diminished.

Smethurst's activities saw him nominated to various committees, testimony to the recognition of his abilities by his fellow activists. No board upon which Smethurst sat was unimpressed by his commitment, forward thinking, attention to detail and positive purpose.9 He was seldom distant from stacks of minutes for meetings he was to attend, minutes that were read in finite detail, each item provoking comment and demand for further, planned action. At meetings, he was vociferous, tenacious in pursuit of principle or position and never intimidated by being in a minority until, that is, the majority eventually saw the error of their ways. That said, in every organisation with which Smethurst engaged he made friends of allies and won the respect of opponents.

Smethurst completed a BA in history at Sheffield University as a part-time mature student, 1974-1976, proceeding to an MA in Social History at Warwick University, 1975-1983. His subject was Lancashire and the Miners' Association of Great Britain and Ireland, 1842-1848. Well before his formal studies, Smethurst had been active as researcher and organiser of local studies. He was a founder member of the Eccles & District Local History Society, 1956, serving as Treasurer, 1964-1985. He frequently contributed to the Society's journal and was made a Life Member. He helped found the Salford, Irlam & Cadishead and Urmston Local History Societies, and was founding Treasurer of the Lancashire Local History Federation, 1972-1980.10 His knowledge of Manchester and Lancashire social and political history was encyclopaedic, readily sharing it with students, researchers and in casual conversations.

Smethurst's real interest was in working class history. He joined the Society for the Study of Labour History from its foundation in 1960.11 Inevitably, he was a founding member of the North West Labour History Group, serving as Treasurer and Membership Secretary, 1978-2010. This was not a straightforward position. He had to whittle down a debt of over £6,000 in the early 1980s and on one occasion 'even arranged a bank loan using his own home as security to ensure publicationof the Group's Bulletin, later North West Labour History'.12 A stalwart presence at labour history events, Smethurst attended Llafur and History Workshop conferences, bringing informed and practical application to proceedings and his entertaining personality to the social events.13

Smethurst's central passion was badge collecting, although he never neglected his extensive library, co-operative movement ceramics or general labour movement ephemera. In Eddie and Ruth Frow, he met kindred spirits, politically and socially. Smethurst became a Trustee of the Working Class Movement Library (WCML), originally when in its King's Road, Old Trafford home, and later at The Crescent, Salford.14 After Eddie Frow's death in 1997, the Trustees assumed greater responsibility as the WCML left the stewardship of the City Council nd took full control of the Library for the first time. Smethurst and Ruth Frow enjoyed a close, if at times tempestuous, relationship, its common guiding light being a commitment to the vision that inspired both. Smethurst, the longest-serving Trustee at his death, continued to attend Library meetings, despite increasing immobility and ill health, and was badly affected by Ruth Frow's death in 2008. His contribution to the WCML will be greatly missed. Some rare items from his collection will be going to the Library and, appropriately, the Library is to commission a commemorative badge for sale to supporters, an idea given to Royston Futter by Smethurst himself, never slow to grasp an opportunity for a new badge!

Smethurst was generous with other badge collectors and helped form the Trade Union Badge Collectors' Society.15 He donated trade union banners he had purchased or rescued to museums in Preston, Bolton and Helmshore. His 'lapel consciousness' inevitably led to his interest in 'trade union genealogy' and, from being an initial critical reviewer, he became central to the completion of the Historical Directory of Trade Unions project begun to Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan. With the assistance of Peter Carter, the highly impressive concluding Volume 6 was published in 2009. It was a triumph over many adversities for Smethurst, given his failing sight and frequent hospitalisation. A seventh volume dealing with Ireland is nearing completion.16 He regularly displayed elements of his collection. It was used to raise funds during the Miners' Strike, 1984-1985, and was central to large, impressive exhibitions held in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, and National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, in 1984.17 He was a stalwart supporter of the Irish Labour History Society.

Through all his activities, Smethurst did not act alone. His wife, Alice Mary Campbell, who he married in Huntly, Aberdeenshire on 23 February, 1957, was supporter, assistant, and loving soul mate. They had two daughters and a son.18 There were many 'ordinary' sides to a quite 'extraordinary' person. John Smethurst was a big man in any sense of the term. He was a skilled engineer, tireless campaigner and organiser, supportive workmate, great company, and loving husband, father and grandfather. He was a class fighter, loyal comrade, socialist trade unionist and co-operator, Marxist radical and thinker. He was a badge collector extraordinaire, 'organic intellectual', scholar and Don to many students, especially fellow workers embarking tentatively on their first research works, BA dissertations or post-graduate studies. Pat Bowker said, 'his last words to me hours before he died were that "Dennis needs No. 19" [he meant Journal No. 19, which is on the Co-operative Movement]. He was working for the cause until his last.'19 He was a true friend and trusted confidante. He was likened to one of those Music Hall acts who span plates on rotating poles. Just how many plates had Smethurst in the air at any given time? Yet, did a plate ever fall? If Smethurst gave a commitment, having argued through precisely what that commitment might be, he saw it through. Smethurst was the essence of the labour history movement, a worker who made, recorded and rescued labour history, a 'people's remembrancer' who in turn will long be remembered. Many individuals and organisations - richer for having known him - will be poorer for his loss.

John Smethurst died in Hope Hospital, Manchester on 14 February, 2010. He was cremated at Peel Green Crematorium on Friday, 26 February, 2010.20 The large attendance, drawn from all walks of life, was testimony to his greatest collection: an extensive circle of comrades and friends, all of whom had a tale to tell, a smile on their face, a loss in their heart.

Francis Devine


In compiling this obituary, I am grateful for the assistance of Alice Campbell Smethurst; Mike Smethurst, who made his father's biographical notes available to me; Royston Futter, Working Class Movement Library, Manchester; Eric Taplin, North West Labour History Group; Morning Star; Brendan Byrne, President, Irish Labour History Society; Eugene McCartan, General Secretary, Communist Party of Ireland; and those who spoke so movingly at John's funeral, Margaret Cohen, Ken Martin and Jim Sherrington.

1 Hilda's father, George Clague, worked for Woolley's, the pharmaceutical company, and was an active trade unionist.

2 Margaret strongly supported her brother's many activities, most conspicuously from a workstation at typewriter or computer as she did much of his secretarial work, especially as his eyesight faded.

3 Smethurst was a strong supporter of the British Amateur Rugby League Association (BARLA) and the grass roots development of the game and eagerly awaited his weekly copy of Rugby Leaguer.

4 He was a Manchester United supporter but Pat Bowker tells me that 'he was known to those of us who knew him in his early youth as "Blue Moon" because he always sang this in the Labour Club. When he died the message was "Blue Moon" had gone, we didn't have to say his name, everyone knew it was John, after all these years.'

5 At his funeral, he entered to the sound of the United Co-op Band (Crewe) playing 'The Contester'; we reflected to Black Dyke Mills Band, 'Cornet Carillon'; and left to Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band, 'Jerusalem'.

6 For details on the now closed Lancashire Mining Museum in Salford and Astley Green Colliery Museum see

7 He was also member of the LOY Conference Standing Orders Committee, 1954, and for the aborted 1955 Conference. He was Youth Representative, Lancashire & Cheshire LP Regional Committee.

8 He was also a member, Central & South Lancashire Members' Relations Committees United and United Norwest Co-operatives, 1983-2002; Central Region Members' Relations Committee, 2002-2006; and Director, United Co-operative Dairies, Hyde, 1980-1985.

9 He was a member, Eccles & District Employment Committee, 1960-1973; Region 31, Lancashire County Council Youth Employment Committee, 1960-1972; Trafford Park Consultative & Development Committee, 1956-1980, acting as Secretary, 1959-1960; and North West Gas Consumers Council Consultative Committee, 1968-1979.

10 See Smethurst always called it the Federation of the Local History Societies of the County Palatine of Lancashire.

11 See

12 Pat Bowker, 'John B. Smethurst - a celebration', North West Labour History 31, 2006-2007, p. 33, and Eric L. Taplin, 'John B. Smethurst and the North West Labour History Group', p. 37. The Group made presentations to John and Alice Smethurst on 10 May, 2007, in recognition of their contribution. For details on the NWLHG see

13 Llafur, once the Welsh Labour History Society, is now the Welsh People's History Society, From the mid-1970s until after the Miners' Strike, Llafur conferences were huge, thrilling events with large NUM contingents enlivening debate and social aspects alike. For History Workshop see

14 John and his wife Alice 'were co-witnesses to the signing of the first Declaration of Trust' by Eddie and Ruth Frow in 1969: 'John B. Smethurst', Shelf Life, Newsletter of the Working Class Movement Library, issue 26, Spring 2010.

15 See Smethurst developed an international network of 'fellow sufferers'.

16 Irish content increased significantly from Volume 4 and he wanted to see this brought together.

17 Timothy P. O'Neill 'In Solidarity: An Exhibition of Trade Union Badges, Emblems and Medallions, Ulster Museum, Belfast and National Museum, Dublin, 1984', Saothar 10, 1984, p. 136.

18 Lynn Campbell Smethurst, 1958; Michael Wilfrid Blears Smethurst, 1959; and Alison Ann Smethurst, 1960.

19 Email from Pat Bowker to Francis Devine, 11 March, 2010. The reference was to Dennis Maginn.

20 A Celebration of the Life of John Smethurst, (Salford, 2010).

John B. Smethurst: A Select Bibliography

Lancashire & the Miners' Association of Great Britain & Ireland, 1842-1848, (Eccles & District Local History Society, 1968/1969), pp. 32
Co-operative Societies' Histories: Bibliography, (Co-operative Union, Manchester, 1973), pp. 122
'The Manchester banner-makers', Bulletin 3 [North West Labour History Group], 1976-1977, pp. 17-38
'Portraits of nineteenth century Lancashire Miners' leaders: William Pickard, George Pickard, Joseph Booth, Robert Lewis', North West Labour History 11, 1985-1986, pp. 11-24
'The early Co-operative Movement in Salford & District', North West Labour History 19, 1994-1995, pp.85-96
'Ermen and Engels', North West Labour History 31, 2006-2007, pp.34-36
'Ruth Frow (28 July, 1922 - 11 January, 2008): an appreciation', North West Labour History 33, 2008-2009, p. 5
'A select bibliography of British labour history, 1984', Saothar 11, Journal of the Irish Labour History Society, 1986, pp. 135-136
'A select bibliography of British labour history, 1985-1986', Saothar 12, 1987, pp. 128-130
'T.A. Jackson and C.D. Greaves Collections in the Working Class Movement Library, Manchester', Saothar 15, 1990, pp. 104-105

with Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan
Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 4: Cotton, Wool and Worsted, Linen and Jute and Other Textiles, (Scholar Press, Aldershot, 1994), pp. 574

with Arthur Marsh
Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 5: Including Unions in Printing and Publishing, Local Government, Retail & Distribution, Domestic Services, General Employment, Financial Services, Agriculture (Ashgate, Farnham, 2006), pp. 586

with Peter Carter
Historical Directory of Trade Unions, Volume 6: Including Unions in Building and Construction, Agriculture, Fishing, Chemicals, Wood and Woodworking, Transport, Engineering and Metal Working, Government, Civil and Public Service, Shipbuilding, Energy and Extraction in the United Kingdom and Ireland (Ashgate, Farnham, 2009), pp. 712

with Francis Devine
'Trade union badges - mere emblems or means of membership control?', Saothar 7, 1981, pp. 83-96
'Déanta i nÉirinn, P. Quinn and Company, badge manufacturers, Belfast and the Irish Industrial Development Association, 1906 - 1967' Irish Archives, Journal of the Irish Society for Archives, Thirtieth Anniversary of the Irish Labour History Society Special Edition, Vol. 9, ns, Winter 2003-2004, pp. 72-76

For Alice, Lynn, Alison and Michael

Dirty old town, words
on gas-yard walls, primitive
socialist sermons.

Donkey stone and sneck,
allus axt awkerd wotsits,
trouble up at t'mill.

Labour League of Youth,
stacking chairs, moving mountains,
sparky apprentice.

Cowd Caledonia,
oatmeal and Huntly shortie,
he loved his haggis.

Dawn deliveries,
Co-op'rative Commonwealth
divvies bread and rose.

Rugby Leaguer, brass
bands, songs wi'Jimmy Miller,
Northern Star broadcasting hope.

Pit and press, pension
rights denied, energising
grey warriors to stand and fight.

City and Guilds cap
to gown, Gramsci's organic

Buttons and badges
Toad Lane ceramics, banners
parading Parrin.

Biggest collection
were countless comrades building
new Jerusalem.

Francis Devine

John B. Smethurst and the North West Labour History Society

The passing of John Smethurst, who died on 13th February 2010 aged 76 years, has robbed not only the North West Labour History Group of a loyal colleague but also the British labour movement.

The Group was formed in 1973 at an inaugural meeting in Liverpool. John was elected membership secretary in 1978 and treasurer in 1980. He served in those capacities until his death. From the outset the group has successfully issued an annual journal. From humble beginnings it now publishes a handsome bound volume each year containing articles on the history of the labour movement from the eighteenth century to the recent past.

We are a small group with about 400 members and rely heavily upon the annual subscriptions of members and revenue from adverts in the Journal. Nevertheless finance has always been a problem. Most of our income is spent on the printing and distribution of the Journal. It was in this respect that John played a crucial role. His stewardship of our finances and his efforts to increase our membership were vital for the survival of the Group. Indeed in the 1980s our deficit was £6,000, which over the years John successfully eliminated to the extent that we now have a small surplus of income over expenditure. To achieve this John worked tirelessly to strengthen our finances and encourage lapsed members to update or renew their subscriptions – though I would not care to detail some of the methods he used! In short I have no doubt that but for his commitment and enthusiasm the Group would have collapsed financially. It should also be remembered that his achievements were in the face of declining health.

Apart from the efforts for our Group he made a major contribution to the wider labour movement. He was a founder member of the Eccles Local History Society in 1958 and was made an Honorary Life Member. He was also a founder member, with Ruth and Eddie Frow, of the Working Class Movement Library and a member of the library trust. He was a member of the Co-operative Council for forty-eight years. He was a major collector of labour memorabilia and trade union banners which he donated to various museums including those in Preston, Bolton and Helmshore. His cooperative memorabilia included pottery, pamphlets and books. But above all is his extensive collection of trade union badges and emblems, which must be one of the largest in the country.

So we pay tribute to John for his devoted work for the Group and the labour movement. Latterly, declining health restricted him but he maintained his enthusiasm and dedication to the end. It is appropriate to thank his wife, Alice, his sister Margaret, and our secretary, Pat Bowker, for the assistance they gave him in his last few years. John was a giant of a man who served our Group with dedication and loyalty. He was a man of deep convictions and strong emotion; fierce in his loyalties but kindly with a concern for others ... To say he will be missed by members of the Group is an understatement. He will be long remembered and although we grieve his passing we celebrate a man who devoted his life to the labour movement.

Eric Taplin