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Five men, six days: Pentonville voices

Pentonville voices

On Friday 21 July 1972 at the premises of the Midland Cold Storage Company in Hackney, east London, three docker shop stewards, Derek Watkins, Tony Merrick and Conny Clancy, were arrested for ignoring an injunction by the National Industrial Relations Court to stop picketing the site. Two other stewards, Bernie Steer and Vic Turner, were also arrested a little later. All five were put in Pentonville Prison in north London.

The Pentonville Five, as they became known, had been taking part in a national campaign organised by local shop stewards committees against the threat posed to dockers' jobs by the containerisation of transported goods. As well as a picket of the prison itself, their arrest provoked a wave of strike action in the docks and elsewhere, with the Trades Union Congress general council calling a one-day general strike for 31 July.

In this fraught situation, the Five were released on Wednesday 26 July as a result of a re-interpretation of the law by the courts. The strike action in the docks then became official.

The affair of the Pentonville Five was a notable episode in the history of British industrial relations, epitomising the long-running tensions between trade union rights and the law and between union leaderships and their rank and file. Some also see it as an inspiring example of the collective strength of working people.

The interviews

Presented on the following pages are extracts from recorded interviews of dockers involved in these events. They were conducted by Professor Fred Lindop in the early 1980s as part of his research project on the ideas and activities of shop stewards and other trade union activists in the dock industry.

The original recordings, together with transcripts and summaries, were deposited at the Modern Records Centre under the title Trade unionism in British docks via the Economic and Social Research Council Qualidata Resource Centre at the University of Essex.

The interviewees (quotations are from Lindop’s summaries)

  • Bill Chapman: member of the committee set up to co-ordinate the campaign and “a moderate”.

  • Colin Coughlin: “in the hard core of younger activists in 1972”.

  • Maurie Day: a close associate of one of the Five, Vic Turner.

  • Micky Fenn (born 1938): treasurer of the London Ports Shop Stewards Committee, his militancy is reflected in the strength of his language.

  • Tony Merrick: one of the Five.

  • Ian Olley: an associate of Micky Fenn and similarly outspoken.

  • Eddie Prevost: a member of the International Socialists and apparently particularly interested in the wider implications of the struggle.

  • Colin Ross: “with Michael Fenn, the leading young militant in the London Port Shop Stewards Committee in 1972.”

  • Derek Watkins: one of the Five.

The images

The scenes of the picket of the prison and of the march to its gates are taken from Now lets finish it!, a broadsheet calling for further action following the release of the Five, which is held in the Centre among material collected by Coventry International Socialists (MSS.21/4190/48).

The campaign poster issued by the London Port Shop Stewards Committee (see 'Inside & Communication') is in the archive of Socialist Reproduction, a left-wing publishing group (MSS.217/B7/1). Both documents were printed by the Briant Colour Printing Joint Chapels during their work-in over job losses in 1972.

The story is told on the following pages:

1. Arrest & picket

2. Inside & Communication

3. Persuasion & March

4. Parliament, Release & Conclusions

Next: Arrest & Picket