Tom Bell

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Tom Bell, 1882–1944

Formative Years

Thomas Bell (always known as Tom) was born in Parkhead, a district in the East End of Glasgow. Parkhead at that time was still a semi-rural village. His family were originally fishing folks from John O'Groats who migrated to Ayrshire where Tom's father was born. Tom's father became a stonemason and moved to the Glasgow area for work. Settling in Parkhead he married Barr Hargreaves, daughter of a local mining family. Tom was the first born of two sons and two daughters. Tom started school in the spring of 1889 and left in the spring of 1894. While at school, like so many young children, he worked part-time - his job was delivering milk. Getting up at six o'clock every morning, summer and winter he received 1/6p (app. 7.5P today's money) for his effort. Leaving school at eleven Tom's first full-time job was as a dairy-boy, working from 6:30 am, to 6 or 7 o'clock seven days a week for 3/6p, (app.17.5P today). Leaving there he moved to a mineral water manufacturer. Tom could not help but be interested in the miners strike of 1894 due to the close proximity of the coal mines to his home. He also took a very keen interest in the railway workers strike of 1897 following the processions of workers as they marched through the streets of Parkhead. It was at this time that his thoughts started turning to atheism and labour politics. Tom though had experienced his first strike at school when he with some other pupils refused to enter school in protest at the cruelty of some of the teachers.

At the age of 15 he started his apprenticeship as an iron moulder in Glasgow's Springfield steelworks. As a young man he would get into political discussions at street corner meetings, strengthening his atheist and socialist views. Soon he would make his first visit to the Secular Society in Brunswick Street Glasgow. The speaker was G. W. Foote, this fired his enthusiasm for more information. He went on to read all Shakespeare's plays and saw most of them performed. Now 17 he devoured the works of Huxley, Darwin and The Rationalist Press Association. Tom soon developed a broad intellectual grasp of politics and philosophy and very soon he was regarded as something of a thinker by his fellow workmates. In keeping with his belief of self education, Tom Bell attended evening classes in French, geology and astronomy at the Andersonian College Glasgow, later becoming a member of the West of Scotland Astronomical Society. He also, for three years, took courses in English literature under Professor Eyre-Todd at the Academy of Literature. In addition to this Tom became closely associated with the Plebs League, an organisation whose aim was to provide marxist education for workers.

Socialist Politics

1900 saw Tom join the Independent Labour Party. He became somewhat disillusioned with the party because of its lack of emphasis on theory, and in 1902 attended economic classes run by the Social Democratic Federation at 63 Adelphi Street in the south side of Glasgow. In February 1903 he joined the SDF but soon after this, due to a split, Tom with some others formed the Glasgow Socialist Society and then changed the name in August 1903 to the Socialist Labour Party. Apart from Tom Bell and James Connolly, the party had many prominent personalities such as Arthur McManus and Neil MacLean, who was appointed national secretary. Although Tom was a founder member and leading theorist of the SLP, in 1907 he found himself facing expulsion because he agreed with the conclusions of a pamphlet, 'The Decadence of the SLP', written by Richard Dalgleish, a Glasgow member of the SLP. The pamphlet claimed the SLP was wrong to favour the Industrial Workers of the World, (IWW), as it was not a "truly socialist" organisation. Tom was eventually re-admitted to the SLP at its 1908 conference and he also became a propagandist for Advocates of Industrial Unionism, the SLPs response to the IWW. In the beginning of the SLPs life, the main speaker was James Connolly, but Tom Bell was also a frequent speaker on its platform. The party also ran economic classes until 1920. Tom held classes every winter from 1905 until 1920 with the exception of one year when he worked in London and Liverpool. The SLP also ran small tutor courses and from these emerged a band of class tutors who held classes in factories and shipyards. Tom had joined the Associated Ironmoulders of Scotland, in 1904 and by 1919 he was elected president of the Scottish Ironmoulders Union.


It was during the early years of the SLP that Tom met Lizzie Aitken, who was also a member of the SLP. Her father was a stonemason and an atheist. Tom and Lizzie were married by Sheriff's warrant in Glasgow on February 4th 1910. Tragedy struck some four years later when their younger son Lawrence died from a chill.

Singer Strike

Tom became a propagandist for the broad based industrial union and was a member of the Singer's Branch of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain. He was an active member during the 1911 Singer's Strike that started after the dismissal of a woman worker. The Singer Co, in an attempt to break the new militant union, decided on a lock-out. The factory was shut down and 10,000 workers were locked out. Without success, the management made an appeal to "loyal" workers to return to work. They then decided to send a postcard to everyone on the firm's books, inviting them to return the card and say if they wished to resume work. The firm, through the press, reported an overwhelming majority for resuming work and promised revisions of pay and conditions and opened the gates after a week's lock-out. Believing the press the workers started to return to work. After the strike was over leading members of the union were dismissed.

First World War

At the beginning of the first world war, in 1914, there was considerable unrest in British industry, Glasgow and the Clydeside were not exempt. Among the workers in industry there was a tremendous amount of anti war feeling. Tom Bell stated that his attitude to the war was one of open hostility and resistance to the war on socialist grounds. During the first half of 1914 there were on average 150 strikes a month. Due to the Treasury Act, and the Munitions Act, many unofficial committees were formed and in 1915 the Clyde Workers Committee was founded. Tom Bell returned to Glasgow in 1916 after a year working in London and Liverpool and became a member of the Clyde Workers Committee. Tom along with Jock McBain, an engineer and member of the SLP, continued the policy of educating the Clydeside workers in the principles of industrial unionism. 1917 saw Tom devoting his energies in the task of being a leader in a national strike of engineers and foundry workers in their demand for a forty-seven hour week. To guarantee the strike was well organised, Tom along with Willie Gallacher, were instrumental in forming the Clyde Emergency Committee. The strike being deadlocked, the Clyde Emergency Committee sent Tom Bell and Jock McBain to negotiate with the Ministry of Munitions in London, the negotiations ultimately being successful.

Forty-Hour Week

Tom Bell as president of the Scottish Ironmoulders Union played a leading role in the Clydeside agitation for a forty-hour week. On Friday January 31st 1919 Tom was part of a demonstration march to George Square. There was a police baton charge and a riot ensued with the leaders being arrested. The government was so alarmed by the event that English troops were paraded through the streets, The initial support for the strike was not sustained and the forty-hour week was not achieved. 1919 also saw Tom become national secretary of the SLP and editor and director of the official paper of the SLP, the Socialist.

Communist Party

After March 1919, in spite of their prominent positions in the SLP and their commitment to the party, both Tom Bell and Arthur McManus were becoming increasingly alienated from the party. This was mainly due to their contact with the Russian Communist Party and their being urged to leave the SLP and form a single communist party. From then on they became involved in a movement to unite all radical members of other left-wing parties to join them and form a single communist party. In April 1919, while still members of the SLP, Tom Bell, Arthur McManus, J.T. Murphy and Willie Paul formed a separate faction within the party called the Unity Communist Group. While still continuing to be members of the SLP they withdrew from its internal politics, this forced the executive committee of the SLP to dissolve the Unity Communist Group in the beginning of 1920. After this Tom Bell and Arthur McManus formed another Unity Group and invited delegates to attend a Unity Conference at Nottingham in April 1920. The Nottingham conference, with Tom Bell acting as secretary, issued a manifesto putting forward the offer of joining a "Bona fide" Communist Party in preference to all other political parties. The publication of the manifesto and their refusal to attend the official conference of the SLP in Carlisle, held the same month, resulted in Tom Bell and those associated with the Nottingham conference being expelled from the SLP. Tom was obliged to resign the editorship of the Socialist. Together with Arthur McManus and Willie Paul he set up the Joint Provisional Committee of the Communist Party, its first national convention being held on July 31st 1920. From this the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed with Tom Bell and Harry Pollitt as its first full-time employees.


During the 1920s Tom was closely involved with international politics. January 1921 saw him make his second trip to Moscow having been invited to the third congress of the Communist International. He was the first representative of the CPGB to be appointed to the executive committee of the CI. On this visit Tom was travelling without a visa and to avoid the police he had to sleep in a coal bunker on board a small cargo vessel. He was in Moscow for five months and had a meeting with Lenin who showed considerable interest in the miners' movement in South Wales. In 1922, along with Arthur McManus, Tom returned to Moscow for the fourth congress of the CI. It was then decided that he should stay in Russia as a foreign reporter and representative of the CPGB. From Russia he wrote a number of articles for the Communist on varies topics before returning to Britain at the end of 1922. Tom held a considerable number of prominent positions on a range of committees. He was on the executive committee with William Gallacher and Helen Crawfurd until 1929. Tom was also on the Political Bureau and the Organising Bureau and was responsible for the propaganda work of the party. He was also head of the Education Dept. and organised classes in Marxism until 1925. As a writer of considerable experience Tom was appointed editor of the party's monthly paper, the Communist Review. Tom's work with the CPGB eventually caused him to settle in London.


Tom Bell was arrested in Glasgow on the 4th of August 1925 shortly after speaking at a demonstration, and taken to Wandsworth Prison where he discovered that 11 other communist leaders, including William Gallacher and every member of the political bureau, had been arrested for being members of the CPGB. All received prison sentences - Tom's was six months. Tom believed that this was a deliberate action of the government to weaken the labour movement in preparation for the impending general strike.


After the general strike Tom Bell went back to Moscow to work on the Communist Review and to do work for the Propaganda Department. In 1929 he once again returned to Britain and along with William Gallacher and Harry Pollitt was appointed to the newly formed political bureau of the CPGB. During the 1930s, Tom continued to embrace the general policies of the CPGB and devoted time and energy to the international movement combating fascism in Spain and Italy. In 1930 he joined The Friends of the Soviet Union, a Communist Party front organisation and in 1937 became its secretary. In the struggle to fight fascism in Europe Tom joined the National Council for Democratic Aid and the International Class War Prisoners Aid. Both these organisations were formed to give aid to interned anti-fascist prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. During all of this activity he managed time to write his "History of the British Communist Party" which was published in 1937.

Tom Bell, saw Nazi Germany as a threat of world fascism and supported the general policies of the CPGB and through this supported the second world war. The remaining years of his life were spent at the CPGB headquarters on London helping victims of the war. Tom Bell, a lifelong teetotaller and a small sturdy man, was said to have a rather serious facial expression. He was direct and honest, he never tired in his dedication to his beliefs and principles and he died in his native city of Glasgow on the 19th of April 1944.

Posted by John Couzin

The book Radical Glasgow

Radical Glasgow website