An appreciation of Paddy Neary

Written 18 May 2006


See also: 1960 Seamens' Strike 'Liverpool Workers:- Free Neary!'


The death of Paddy Neary at the end of last year, will be greeted with sadness by many old seafarers and by many retired Merseyside dockers who went to sea before they started work on the Docks. Other Merseyside Trade unionists will remember the demonstrations and meetings in 1960 demanding his release from Brixton jail. Paddy Neary has an honoured place in the struggle of seafarers to end bad and repressive conditions. He was chairman of the Seamen's Reform Movement and has also a place in the history of unofficial movements of trade unionists for democratic rights in their unions following the Second World War.

In the summer of 1960 there were increasing demands from rank and file trade unionists for increases in wages and a cut in hours. Merseyside dockers came out on strike for two weeks at the beginning of July with these demands. They were followed by Liverpool seafarers who walked off their ships demanding four pounds a month increase and a 44-hour week. At that time they worked a 56-hour week. The strike was more widespread than in 1955 when ship's stewards on the passenger ships previously took up the battle for shorter hours and were forced back to work when strikers were called-up to the forces.
Their union, the National Union of Seamen, was one of the most bureaucratic of unions. One of the first actions that the Liverpool strikers took was to pass unanimously, a vote of no confidence in their union Leadership. Time and again a resolution for a reduction of hours had been passed at the union's annual general meeting. Yet nothing had ever come of it.
Seamen from other ports joined the Liverpool strikers. The Seamen's Reform Movement was set up to fight for better conditions for seafarers and for reform of the union including shop stewards and committees on ships, regular branch meetings at fixed times, and control of officials. Paddy Neary was national chairman.

This strike lasted two weeks. The union was forced to negotiate and came out with an agreement for 44 hours in port and a 52-hour week when at sea. Sir Thomas Yates, the general secretary of the union described the agreement as a 'New charter for seafarers'. The Reform Movement rejected the agreement, its leaders declaring: 'Yates apparently does not know that ships spend most of their time at sea.' A month after they had gone back to work the seafarers came out again.

The struggle grew more bitter. Paddy Neary was sentenced to imprisonment by order of a High Court judge under the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act. This was an act which made absolute the dictatorship of the captain aboard ship, made protest or strikes a mutiny. The imprisonment of Neary roused a storm among the rank and file of the trade unions. Trade unionists marched to Brixton jail where Neary was imprisoned shouting: 'Stop jailing strikers – free Neary now!' The majority of British trade union leaders, to their eternal shame, kept quiet.

On Merseyside, an action committee was formed by the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party (LTCP), the Merseyside Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and the Merseyside Federation of Building Trade Operatives. It called meetings and a demonstration of 5,000 workers demanding freedom for Neary. Bill Hart, who was a Labour councillor but had been an unofficial leader of seafarers in 1948, told the demonstration: 'We have lit a flame today which will start a fire throughout Britain till Neary is released'.

The employers and the union were once again were compelled to begin negotiations. Neary was released and the seafarers returned to work. The strike ended without winning the workers' demands and following it, there were reports of some victimisations. Nevertheless, it was successful in profoundly shaking the union and creating the conditions for advances against the old bureaucracy.
Paddy Neary gave his opinions in an interview to Bill Hunter a short time after he came out of jail: 'Even while in jail I still had pressure put on me. For the first three days none of my letters were allowed out, because the governor said he was not having the jail for collecting strike funds or raising support. I was put on bread and water and confined to the cell for two days for refusing to work, and it was only after I started a hunger strike that my mail was allowed out.

'Let us be clear that while the material gains of the strike were only small, we achieved several things. First, we have laid the foundation for the National Reform Movement. Secondly, we forced Yates to negotiate against his wishes with this movement. Only two days after saying he would never have anything to do with unofficial organisations, he was meeting the acting chairman and the secretary of the Reform Movement, and he also had to humiliate himself by meeting Billy Hart who he expelled from the union in 1948. This stands as a warning to all union leaders. The National Union of Seamen will never be the same again. During this strike many young seamen have become politically and trade union conscious and these will be a great strength in our fight.'


Eddie Loyden, who died on 27 April 2003, wrote this:


I left the merchant navy just after the war and I got a job on the floating plant of the Mersey Docks Harbour Board and became a shop steward. The plant was run by ex-naval officers who had tried to impose naval discipline on us. When they said "Jump" you were supposed to say "How high?".

The MDHB had a large fleet then of dredgers, survey and salvage vessels and two lightships, one at the Mersey bar and one which stored explosives for salvage work We signed seafarers' articles every six months and came under the National Maritime Board agreement.. Men worked in dangerous and hard conditions.
I remember when O'Hare, a staunch catholic, the district secretary of the TGWU, showed a very unusual militancy when he went to see Commander Hill with me to negotiate a special agreement with Commander Hill. O'Hare talked of the hazards and periods when men were on vessels, such as the lightships, and then said: "Do you realise laddie, they cannot go to church?"

Hill said: "I will go out to them on a Sunday and run a service."
O'Hare replied: "You cannot save their bodies; how are you going to save their souls?"
We were part of the awakening of seafarers. The advances we were making in working conditions and wages was accelerated in the atmosphere after their strikes and the fight for Paddy Neary. We forced a break away from the Maritime Board Agreement and made our own agreements. Among other things, we won payment for all time aboard ship.

I was president of the LTCLP and chairman of the action committee for Neary. Our branch – the South branch of the docks and waterways section of the T&GWU took a decision for a one-day stoppage in support of the seamen and a £1 a week levy for their funds. A £1 a week was, of course, a lot in those days. We actually held several one-day strikes.