Alec Robson was born on 18 March 1895 into a coalmining family in South Shields. At age 11 he started work at the Cambois pit near Blyth, participating in 1910 in the national miners’ strike for an 8-hour day. At age 16 he joined a boxing booth, travelling country fairs and boxing for a living. He probably got called ‘Spike’ because of a South Shields professional boxer of the same name.
In 1912 Spike joined a tramp ship as a cabin boy, sailing first to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, where he saw political prisoners chained together. On the next leg, he learned from an old sailor about the Battleship Potemkin, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, theChartists and the Mutiny on the Nore. Arriving in New York, he boxed around the UnitedStates, but on the outbreak of World War 1 returned to Britain and joined the Army. He was wounded twice, and awarded the Distinguished Conduct and Military Medals. Demobbed in 1919, Spike married his sweetheart Evelyn and then signed as a stoker on the SS Tzarita, carrying 700 British troops for Murmansk and Archalgensk.
Fraternising with Red Guards in Murmansk, he learned about the class struggle, and on return to Liverpool joined the ‘Hands Off Russia’ movement. During the winter of 1920-1, unemployed in London, he came across a protest march which led to his joining the Communist Party and becoming active in the seamen’s section of the Minority Movement (MM), and in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM).
In 1926, the National Union of Seamen (NUS) was expelled from the TUC for opposing the General Strike. The union was largely a management stooge at the time, and the MM sought to form a new Union of Seamen and get it affiliated to the International Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH). That failed, but in 1932 Spike was elected onto the ISH executive committee, and in 1933 he was active in the campaign to free imprisoned German Communist leader Ernst Thälmann.
Spike was a fighter, not only for the rights and freedoms of British workers and their families, but against the oppression of working people of all races, creeds and lands. In July 1931, he defended, against an angry crowd of 500+ white sailors, the right of local Arab seamen, who were union members, to join the crew of a South Shields ship. The next month he led an MM occupation of the local NUS office to demand the transfer of an official who had been blocking members in arrears from getting work. In 1932 he addressed mass meetings and demonstrations against the Means Test and the Public Assistance Committee; after the police charged one demonstration he was arrested and gaoled for 4 months.
In 1933, during the Japanese war on China, Spike was arrested again and fined, this time over the SS Stanleyville, which was at Blyth harbour to take scrap iron to Japan.
He spoke at migrant seamen’s boarding lodges, getting the ship blacked so that it only sailed after a long delay. He was arrested and gaoled in North Shields in July 1934 when he “appeared to collide” with a fascist speaker; and then the following year he was arrested in Cape Town, and deported, for organising a petition and protests against the SS Julius Caesar, which was loading material for the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.
In early 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Spike was shipped on the SS Linaria in Boston, USA, when the crew learned that they were to deliver nitrates to Seville, the fascists’ headquarters. Suspecting that the cargo was to be used for explosives, Spike led the crew in holding a sit-down strike for 3 weeks. They were deported and charged at Liverpool under the Merchant Shipping Acts. They were fined for “impeding the navigation of a ship”, but this was overturned on appeal.
Blacklisted until the outbreak of World War 2, Spike then joined the Royal Navy as a petty officer. His activities included landing in Yugoslavia with supplies for the partisans, and teaching them to throw and detonate hand grenades.
After the war, Spike went back into the Merchant Navy, and in 1947 became the first communist to be elected onto the NUS executive. Under the impact of Spike and other left-wingers, the union had changed, and the living conditions on board ships were transformed from the squalor that seamen had to endure before the war. He continued his union activities till retirement, and died in November 1979.
Sources: Spike … Alec ‘Spike’ Robson 1895-1979, Class Fighter, North Tyneside Trades Union Council, 1987; Don Watson, No Justice Without a Struggle: The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the North East of England, 1920-1940, Merlin Press, 2014.