Anthony John Topham was born in Hull on 27 October 1929. His father, who was the son of the village schoolmaster in Sutton-on-Hull, was a cement-works office worker and his mother was an elementary school teacher. His childhood environment was 'a semi-detached, Daily Mail reading climate'. Hull, like Britain's other major ports, was a prime target for the Germans during the Second World War, and suffered greatly from enemy bombing. In 1940 his family narrowly escaped a bomb attack which destroyed their house, and which resulted in the death of a neighbour. As a result the Tophams moved from Sutton-on-Hull to Willerby, 'a more affluent suburb of Hull'.
Between 1941 and 1947 Tony Topham attended the Beverley Grammar School where he was greatly influenced by his English Literature and History teacher, Frank Nicholson, who later became a colleague when he joined the Workers' Educational Association. In 1947 he entered Leeds University to read economics and politics despite being encouraged to read English Literature by his mother, Frank Nicholson and his Headmaster at Beverley. After graduating in 1950 he was awarded a scholarship to research West Yorkshire's textile industry finances in the nineteenth century, for which he was also awarded an MA by thesis in 1952. Between 1952 and 1954 he undertook his deferred National Service commission in the Royal Signals and served in Egypt's Canal Zone which, 'was still under imperial occupation by a permanent 80,000-strong army and airforce garrison'.
It was during the formative years of school, university and then the army that Tony Topham 'grew into socialist commitment'. After first reading volume one of Karl Marx's Capital while still at school, he became increasingly conscious of the 'call of social purpose'. He had deliberately chosen his degree subject in reflection of this belief. He had already been attracted to the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) slogan 'Knowledge is Power', through Frank Nicholson who had introduced him to 'the then very radical, left-wing activities of the Hull WEA branch, whilst I was still at school... I knew before I left school, that I wanted to be in workers' education'. The WEA had been founded in 1903 by a group of trade unionists and co-operators committed to providing education for working class adults.
During his time as a 'reluctant and rebellious National Service subaltern', Tony Topham's experience of the 'awful type' of regular army officers, from captain to colonel, served to re-enforce his socialist and egalitarian views. After National Service, and in the increasingly chilly climate of the Cold War, he felt that he could not compromise his growing opposition to nuclear weapons and their contemplated use by the United Kingdom. As such, he registered as a conscientious objector to any future military service as well as becoming an early member of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Workers' Educational Association
In 1954 Tony Topham joined the North Yorkshire District of the WEA as an Organising Tutor for the Rydale Area. Although, predominantly a rural area, he managed to pursue his desire to work with the labour movement working with the Agricultural Workers' Union, and with the 'small' trades councils in Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington. It was at this time that he developed projects on behalf of, and actively engaging, his working class students and made studies of 'the causes and characteristics of the seasonal nature of unemployment in sea-side economies' [U DTO/1/8]. He also organised many weekend schools for the District Workers' Educational Trade Union Committee (WETUC) [U DTO/1/35]. In 1960 he was transferred to become the Organising Tutor on Teesside, one of three areas nationally chosen by the WEA as 'Pilot Schemes' in Trade Union Education. This policy was the result of recommendations in the 1957 Clegg Report on the WEA and trade union education.
Tony Topham worked on Teesside between 1960 and 1962 during which time he developed trade union courses for steel workers and ICI (Imperial Chemicals Industries Limited) workers in evening, weekend and day release classes. It was at this time that he first became acquainted with the system of Yugoslav workers' self-management in summer schools run by Fred Singleton and the WEA District, and he visited both Slovenia and Croatia. Summer schools were also held by tutors such as John Hughes of the Extra-Mural Delegacy at Ruskin College Oxford. Indeed, it was around the Oxford District WEA and the university that a network of tutors and researchers came to centre as a result of the national and regional expansion of the WEA and extra-mural work with the trade union movement.
Hull University, Department of Adult Education
Tony Topham was appointed Staff Tutor in Social Studies at Hull University's Department of Adult Education in 1962: 'I had a free hand to pioneer trade union courses; there was no such work at that time in Hull, Grimsby or the East Riding... these were the early years of the spectacular growth of the shop steward movement, and of its gathering self-confidence'. Shop stewards by this time were becoming a semi-independent force in the industrial relations system. He found much of his inspiration in Sheffield and Nottingham and the well-developed day release courses in the steel and mining industries that already existed and which were organised by Michael Barratt-Brown and Ken Coates respectively. Indeed, he modelled much of his work at Hull, including the dockers' day release classes, on these examples. He also shared the teaching of the Scunthorpe Steel day release courses with the Sheffield tutors. His evening classes attracted participation from amongst the municipal bus workers and employees of the engineering factories of East Hull.
Life was not without problems: 'my twin modes of activity - trade union education and political work - were deeply intertwined', and this often made him a controversial figure. Nevertheless, he managed to survive 'hostile pressures' from some employers and local Labour councillors which was applied to the Departmental Head, WE Styler and the Vice-Chancellor of the University. The Hull City Council was in the 1960s, though Labour, dominated by an older generation of 'right-wing' Aldermen and in 1968 Tony Topham had to defend himself against a public denunciation by Alderman Lawrence Science following his support of a student sit-in. In addition, the University was influenced and financed by some of Hull's leading industrial companies such as Reckitt and Colman, who objected to his politics, but who later agreed to a day release scheme for their shop stewards.
Tony Topham's educational work at Hull University expanded in the 1970s: 'less controversially, and with more official university, government, and trade union/employer support, so that I was able to form an Industrial Studies Unit'. As a result of this, Mike Somerton and Daniel Vulliamy became full-time members of staff at the Unit. Later 'a notable contribution to [this] work was added when the new Labour-led Humberside County Council agreed to a generous day release scheme for its employees'.
The Trade Union Congress (TUC) Education Department engaged the Industrial Studies Unit as a tutorial agent when it established a programme of courses [U DTO/1/51-53]. In addition, Tony Topham orchestrated a number of national trade union summer school for the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) [DTO/1/41-50], the Vehicle Builders, the Draughtsmen, the Printers and others. These included a series for the Draughtsmen in Ulster and the Irish Republic.
Tony Topham described the content of the Hull University courses as involving 'concrete issues which bore directly on pressing day-to-day experiences at work. Thus, in engineering and chemicals, the issue of productivity bargaining was prominent, on the buses it was the employers drive for the abolition of the conductor, (One Man Operation), and on the docks, it was the struggle to democratise the Docks Labour Boards and the abolition of the casual system of hiring and firing. At the same time, I was always concerned to include a strong historical element, to give back to the students their own class experiences as reflected through 19th and 20th century labour movement history'.
The Workers' Control Movement
Tony Topham throughout his adult life has been a great exponent of industrial democracy and workers' control: 'my own intellectual and ideological interests lay already in the field of industrial democracy and Workers' control, influenced by the Yugoslav system, and by British labour's historical period of syndicalism, guild socialism, and industrial unionism'. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s industrial relations became an important issue for successive governments and issues of industrial democracy had pushed their way through to the forefront of political discussion by the late 1960s. This resulted in the production of 'major research, publications, official reports and legislation'. Industrial democracy was covered by the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy in 1974. In Tony Topham's case 'the left-wing alternative to corporatism which I took a large share in promoting was advanced in the Voice newspapers... and the Institute for Workers' Control (IWC) (of which I was a founder, and frequently convenor). It was inspired by the socialist version of industrial democracy, and expressed in a whole series ever larger and more representative week-end conferences of trade unionists, and generated a substantial flow of publications' [U DTO/4/5-4/19].
The IWC conferences involved a multifarious group of trade unionists, industrial workers from the docks to the printers, members of Communist, Trotskyist, Young Liberal, Labour and Independent Labour parties. Left-wing trade union leaders, such as Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, and Labour MPs such as Ian Mikardo and John Prescott, offered their support for the movement and were often involved in the conferences, delivering seminal papers. Tony Topham described the conferences as being, 'usually several hundred strong, and at their height, one thousand took part in Birmingham (1969)', and as 'a gathering for many elements of the labour and socialist movements, and were occasions of great intellectual and political stimulus'.
Tony Topham initiated and edited a monthly newspaper called Humberside Voice. It was the local edition of a parent paper Labour's Northern Voice which was edited by a group of Labour Party people (including the future playwright Trevor Griffiths) under the general editorship of Frank Allaun MP. Apart from the parent paper, there were several local editions already in circulation, including Merseyside Voice, Stockport Voice, Huddersfield Citizen, Nottingham Voice, and an industrial edition, Aviation Voice [U DTO/8/3]. The paper also shared articles and contributions with the London edited (by Walter Kendall and Richard Fletcher) Voice of the Unions. Humberside Voice was used for publicising campaigns such as the protest at the sale by the Brough (East Yorkshire) Hawker Siddeley aircraft factory (now British Aerospace) of military aircraft to South Africa and the dockers' campaign for the decasualisation of the docks. Indeed, as well as editing the paper, Tony Topham wrote many of the articles and issued pamphlets such as Not Wanted On Voyage - the seamen's reply to the Pearson Report on the national seamen's strike of 1966 [U DTO/6/82].
Another local campaign was for the abolition of casual hiring in the deep-sea trawling industry [U DTO/6/1-6/5]. Tony Topham later published a booklet (researched by Hull University students) on the extreme health and safety problems of the Hull trawlermen. In 1968 three trawler vessels were sunk with the loss of over 40 men, as a result of which he helped Lil Bilocca, leader of the wives' safety campaign, to make contacts across the country when she embarked on a speaking tour of universities and labour movement conferences. Following which he was also commissioned to write the Transport and General Workers' Union official policy for the decasualisation of the fishing industry.
In the 1970s David Cairns of the Transport and General Workers' Union Humberside Region asked Tony Topham to research and advise the union on the case of the Hull Imperial Typewriter workers, who were taking part in a sit-in against the closure of the factory by the multi-national company Littons in 1975 [U DTO/6/58-77]. The aim was to produce a feasibility study for converting the plant into a workers' co-operative called New Harmony Enterprises Ltd. This action gained support from Tony Benn MP, Secretary of State for Industry, who was already actively encouraging such ventures. However, as Tony Topham suggests, 'Tony Benn's influence was... being eroded at this time, and the project did not gain government support'. Nevertheless, Tony went on to form the steering committee which led to the formation of the Humberside Co-operative Development Agency.
In response to the precipitate rise of unemployment in the late 1970s and early 1980s Tony Topham established a committee to promote education for the unemployed at a public meeting in January 1981 - the Hull Unemployed Education Project (HUEP) [U DTO/2]. This project was closely linked to a related scheme arising from a course on the environment and energy conservation set up by Tony and Hull City Council, called HEAT - the Hull Energy Action Team [U DTO/2/6]. One of the main aims of HEAT was to create 'jobs from warmth'. Another related course that he was involved with was the one day course for trade union representatives on SBATs - Supplementary Benefit Appeal Tribunals [U DTO/2/18].
The Peace Movement
As already mentioned Tony Topham was a 'rank-and-file' member of CND in the 1950s, taking part in the Aldermaston marches to London. In the 1960s he took a more prominent part in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign which supported the Vietnamese liberation movement's struggle to expel the 'American invasion'. He led many local demonstrations against the then Labour government's support for the Americans, including one held during the 1966 North Hull bye-election when Richard Gott stood as an independent candidate supporting the British Council for Peace in Vietnam position (the BCPV was supported by the Communist Party and was less militant than Vietnam Solidarity). The campaign was promoted by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, of which Tony Topham became a Director in the 1980s.
Another campaign promoted by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation was the campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament (END) [U DTO/5/7-5/23]. The movement originally initiated by Ken Coates 'brought together a wide cross-section of West European socialist, pacifist and trade union forces, and certainly influenced the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, with our slogan of "a nuclear-free Europe, from the Urals to the Atlantic". A series of European conferences was held in the early 1980s, in Brussels, Berlin, and elsewhere.
Tony Topham became the convenor of END's European Trade Union Committee along with Walter Greendale, which campaigned for arms conversion. The aim was to convince governments, trade unions, workers and the electorate of the benefits of converting from arms production to socially useful alternatives. This work brought him in to contact with the trade union activist Mike Cooley and Mike George of CAITS - the Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technical Systems.
Throughout his career and political activity Tony Topham wrote (often, but not exclusively, as co-author with Ken Coates) a great number of pamphlets, articles and reports on industrial democracy and trade unionism. His books include: Industrial democracy in Great Britain (1968, and two later editions); The new unionism (1972, and later Penguin edition); The organised worker (1975, Hutchinson Press); Trade unions in Great Britain (1980, and two later editions); Trade unions and politics (1986, Blackwell), plus the three annual books of essays and reviews, Trade Union Register (Merlin Press, edited with Michael Barratt-Brown and Ken Coates, 1969, 1970 and 1972). He also co-authored the Fabian pamphlet Workers' control in Yugoslavia with Fred Singleton. His most extensive work is however, the two part pre-history of the Transport and General Workers' Union, The making of the Transport and General Workers' Union, which was written with Ken Coates and published by Blackwell in 1991.
In addition he published many articles in Humberside Voice and various journals including, New Left Review, Les Temps Moderne (founded by Jean Paul Satre), The Socialist Register, The Industrial Tutor, The Spokesman, The Bulletin of the Institute for Workers' Control, European Labour Forum and Historical Studies in Industrial Relations.
Tony Topham was a member of the Labour Party for several decades and was offered the support of the Transport and General Workers' Union Humberside Region for selection as Labour candidate for the parliamentary seat of East Hull. However, he decided to concentrate on his educational work and was not interested in main stream politics, as a result of this the nomination went to John Prescott, now the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. When Tony Blair was elected as party leader, and Clause 4 of the Labour Party's constitution was repealed however, he resigned as a party member.
Tony Topham married twice and had two sons by his first marriage, and five grandchildren. He played cricket for Beverley Grammar School and later Leeds University, and has been a keen coarse angler as well as fell walker. During his career as a tutor in industrial studies, he attempted to 'bring culture into the trade union experience', and among his personal cultural pleasures were playing the piano, and reading and listening to the music of classical composers such as Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. He died on 2 March 2004.
[This biography is based on, and quotes from, an autobiographical paper by Tony Topham, 'Some events in a life', October 1999]