Norton - in the Labour
The best thing about history is that we are all involved in the making of it. Over our shoulders our good deeds, as well as our mistakes, stand as watchful sentinels and we are sure to be judged by them.
The Old Nortonian Society was founded in 1923 primarily to preserve its parish heritage. Not content with the union of six principal towns the growing Borough of Stoke-on-Trent had begun to gorge itself with the annexation bug and was eyeing-up a clutch of adjacent parishes. It was the turn of Norton-in-the-Moors to be the sacrificial lamb as the village was unceremoniously carved away from its neighbours and covetously gobbled up. The Old Nortonian Society was then formed to challenge the newly federated authority and to warn it that Norton would never succumb to tyrannical seizure.
One of the Society’s founders was the powerful E. B. Wain, the owner of Chatterley Whitfield colliery and Smallthorne Chain Works. And although Norton-in-the-Moors lost the battle and ceased in 1927 to be a parish council, the Society has continued to meet monthly ever since to record and preserve Norton’s heritage and to promote the well-being of its community. Geoff Brammer is the Society’s current secretary (2004).
| Smallthorne Chain
owned by E.B. Wain - one of the founders of the Old
Photos: Harold Bradburn
“It is important,” said Geoff, “to make sure that an accurate record of history is maintained for the benefit of a modern community. We have a strong membership of 125 and do a lot of fund raising for charity. Our last annual garden party realised over £2000 for McMillan homes. We have a full agenda of activities but maintain an establishment of being non-political, even though constitutionally we are a male-only
Being a single-sex club, I reflected, is one thing, a dubious thing nevertheless. But being non-political these days is virtually impossible especially in Norton in the light of recent political events.
Norton has consistently returned Labour councillors since the Federation. There were a couple of minor aberrations in 1992 and 2002 but many observers’ think that hiccups is all they were.
Imagine if you were a candidate with not a snowball in hell’s chance of winning and then discovering that you’d won against the odds in the local elections. You’d be a bit chuffed wouldn’t you and you’d be more than pleased if you’d won in a Labour stronghold as an Independent claiming to be non-political just as the Old Nortonians do. That was the situation in which Barry Cuthbertson found himself in 2002. He told the community that he was one of a new breed of councillor tainted with no party shade or hue. Yet, two years on, elected as an Independent, Barry Cuthbertson has moved to show his true colours as he walked across the council chamber to declare himself a ‘born-again’ member of the British National Party (BNP).
Does it matter what it was that turned him to the far right of party politics? More pertinent I suggest is what it was that influenced a traditional socialist working class district like Norton to vote for an independent candidate in the first place.
Former councillor and Labour stalwart, Harry Brown, (now deceased) is under no illusion.
“It was a protest vote against labour; I’m certain of that. Labour is still rock solid up here. It will come back soon mark my words,” he assured me.
Eighty-four year old Harry has represented his Norton patch for thirty years from 1956 to 1985. In 1992 he served as deputy Lord Mayor and was made a Freeman of the City. His long service to the Labour Party has earned him a commemorative award and he was made a life member of the party by Tony Blair in 1997. A Burslem-born man, Harry Brown returned from war service in 1948 just in time to watch the Norton council housing estate being built. In the year he became a councillor he accelerated the process of opening the unmade roads and getting street lighting effectively installed.
The estate, with 1100
houses, is laid out across the western slopes of the redundant Pinfold colliery which closed down long before coal nationalisation in 1948. The choice of quirky street names was inspirational with the use of Greens, Groves and Gardens instead of the bland ‘roads’ and ‘streets’, no doubt plucked out of the dream-world of some planning clerk’s languid imagination. An estate pub was erected in Pound Gardens and named the Sperling. Now, before you reach for your encyclopaedia for a definition, let me tell you that there is but one reference in the Oxford Dictionary that defines sperling or sparling, and that is a smelt or a young herring. I mean, who on earth dreamt that one up? Anyway it really doesn’t matter for the troublesome pub was demolished 18 months ago having been subjected to vandalism after economic and anti-social activity forced its closure.
It’s hardly surprising that Labour held such a strong position in a working class community with two collieries on its doorstep – Bellerton at Norton and and Whitfield at Ball green, with high slagheaps towering over the perimeters in the north and south like two hideous bookends. Hard work and manual effort still evokes the landscape years after the pit closed under Thatcher’s heavy industry shut-down policies which men like Harry Brown fought long and hard to prevent.
Harry’s long career in local government administration covers many upheavals, none worse than the local authority reorganisation of 1973 when Stoke on Trent’s powers shifted to the county council. Although he continued as a city councillor he was elected as a county councillor where for eight years he was chairman of the Police Authority. He has also seen the insultingly poor rate of councillors’ allowances rise to become a substantial salary when powers were returned to the city in 1997.
“Do you know,” he reminisced, “I don’t begrudge councillors getting paid what they do but when I was a councillor I worked at Whitfield from half past six in the morning until half past one. Then I cycled straight to a meeting at Stoke Town Hall for two o’clock and stayed until the meeting finished often as late as seven o’clock. I’ve done all this regularly for no money at all.”
Harry’s declaration resonated with bitter truth and yet he mentioned casually with the absence of animosity towards his modern colleagues. “Being a councillor with or without pay was all I ever wanted to do,” he said, “just to help others to have a better quality of life.”
Norton Community Centre -
opened in 1962
In 1962 Stoke-on-Trent council
embarked on a policy of building community centres. Harry made sure that Norton was in there from the start. Arranging mass meetings and gathering petitions. Norton’s lobbying was successful and the community centre was opened that year. Harry was given the responsibility of being the centre’s first secretary and has served continuously for 42 years in one or another of managerial posts. Currently he is the chairman of the management committee a position he has held for as long as he can remember, and he acts as unpaid doorman when the hall is full at weekends.
Is he worried about the presence of a BNP councillor in Norton?
“Well yes I am and the danger is that most people have used it and will continue to use it as a protest vote as they did when they voted for the Independents – it is a way of beating Labour with a stick, reminding the party who it belongs to. Labour has done a lot in Norton and the electorate has pointedly said to us ‘pull your socks up.’ And locally I believe Labour will do that.”
The old bruiser speaks the idealism of Harold Laski and Nye Bevan – politicians of his own times on whom he based his own socialist philosophy. He was agent for Harold Davies MP when Norton was in a Moorlands’ constituency, and worked closely with successive City MPs Harriet Slater, Edward Davies and John Forrester.
Harry is definitely Norton old guard. By contrast former miners’ union leader Joe Wills has only lived in Norton for four years but he loves it for the people who always stop and talk to him. Joe came to Stoke-on-Trent over forty years ago with hundreds of other Durham families as economic migrants from struggling coalfields – yes, I suppose the term ‘economic migrants’ is a true and representative description. “Coming from another district to look for work doing the same job makes us migrants looking to earn a working wage,” he agrees.
As strangers Joe and his fellow job-seekers had to work hard for equality and to fit into a wary North Staffordshire that wasn’t always as friendly as is often portrayed. He remembers his first accommodation.
“We lived for a while in a lodging house in Havelock Place Shelton. There were twenty of us in a few overcrowded rooms. It was hard but at least we had a job. Stoke-on-Trent was desperately short of miners. In the summer it was customary for many North Staffordshire miners to leave the pits to go and work in the pot-banks. And in the winter they’d go back to the pits. Miners who came from out of the district did the work the locals shunned.”
Representation in the workplace led Joe into union activity with the NUM where he eventually became the area’s fulltime agent and secretary after the miner’s strike ended in 1985. As general secretary for the Midlands Joe Wills today represents a handful of members in one last working pit – Daw Mill in Warwickshire. At the height of union membership he acted for 11,000 men and today he represents just one union member, the last NUM member in Stoke-on-Trent – and that’s himself. But, like Harry Brown, he has played out his role on the big political playing fields in the communities of the working classes handing over wherever applicable to community associations whose role is becoming increasingly important in modern times.
The history of Norton can be traced to a Domesday entry – Nortone. A church has been located here from the 12th century and the records of the Old Nortonian Society are there to remind us of what the word ‘community’ means.
Geoff Brammer, Harry Brown and Joe Wills have written their roles in the various chapters and along the various byways of Norton’s history – their passion survives.
Before I ended this article written in 2004, I really wanted to compare what the then Councillor Barry Cuthbertson’s plans were for the community as opposed to the traditional politics of the area. I wanted to know what his aspirations were for the future Nortonians. We’d arranged to meet but he later rang to cancel.
“The Sentinel doesn’t hold us in a good light.” He explained, “So my people don’t want to meet you.”
Which was a shame for surely he must have something to say to Nortonians, something that history will hold as valuable? Since then the city has seen the rise of the BNP to 15 councillors.
In 2011 Norton had returned to the Labour fold, and there are no right-wing BNP representatives at all on the council benches. Mr Cuthbertson has long resigned from all local politics and resides moderately in retirement.
The best thing about history is that we are all involved in the making of it.