Friday, April 09, 2021

Another "man o' independent mind" - William Walker (1871-1918)

William Walker's name has popped up from time to time in various bits of reading I've been doing. The two books above – The Belfast Labour Unionist Centenary Essays (Umiskin Press, 2018, online here) and Dr Mike Mecham's biography of Walker Social Activist and Belfast Labourist (Umiskin Press, 2019, online here) will tell Walker's story better than I will, so I'll not mangle it here, but will outline a few highlights.

He was born 150 years ago in 1871. His father was a shipyard worker, and Walker was an apprentice joiner and member of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, a Scottish trade union. A Rechabite and teetotaller, he described his religion as "Agno-Theist" on a census form but his wife and children are listed as Presbyterians.

He has been presented by some as a kind of Unionist version of James Connolly, with whom he debated in print, convinced that the 'Four Nations' together would most effectively protect workers' rights. The Larne Times said that Walker 'held advanced views on social questions, and championed the Socialist cause in the city at the Custom House steps and elsewhere in its early days of propaganda in the city'.

Scotsman Keir Hardie, the Labour party founder and leader, came to Belfast to campaign for Walker. (I have visited Hardie's monument, outside Cumnock Town Hall, a few times). In December 1902 Walker was selected as a candidate for the Duncairn Ward in North Belfast; in January 1904 Walker addressed an audience of trade unionists in the Ulster Hall.

Walker had stood for election twice, in September 1905 (against the Lord Mayor, Sir Daniel Dixon). Andrew Boyd's book The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions (1972) outlines that Walker 'ruined a good campaign by succumbing to the pressure of the Belfast Protestant Association' by providing answers to a host of loaded questions, 'answers which he gave were very offensive to Catholics'. It was a record poll for the constituency but Walker lost by a margin of 474 votes. In 1906 Walker again lost to Dixon but by fewer votes than before.

Dixon died in March 1907, and so a by-election was held in April, with Walker standing against shipyard magnate Sir George Clark.  Walker decided to 'out-Unionist' Clark, who seems to have been using the Royal Standard or Crown on his election materials. Walker wrote to the King's Private Secretary, Francis Knollys, to complain about this – and then turned Knollys' reply into the basis of this campaign poster. He lost again, this time by nearly 2000 votes. 

'One Parliament for All Europe'
In November 1909 Hardie was back in Belfast and at a meeting in Belfast Engineers Hall he and Walker selected Robert Gageby as their next candidate for Belfast North.

In 1910 Walker, described as 'Ireland's best-known trade unionist', stood once again for election, but this time in Leith Burghs in Scotland, but again unsuccessfully. During the campaign he was reported as saying 'he was not a believer in having a Parliament in Dublin and another in England. There were too many Parliaments already. If there was only one Parliament for all Europe there would be no wars.' He went on to say that 'he did not want, as an Irishman, to be divorced from his fellow democrats in Scotland'.

Walker died in the Royal Victoria Hospital on 23 November 1918. The Northern Whig reported that he was buried from 'his late residence, Rathcoole, Park Avenue, Strandtown, for interment in Newtownbreda burying ground ... a very large number of friends attended to pay their last tribute of respect to his memory. Rev D.D. Boyle (M'Quiston Memorial Presbyterian Church) officiated'.

The Independent Labour Hall on York Street was where the above photograph was taken in 1935. One of those present, Harry Midgley, is perhaps best known today as the man whom Midgely Park is named after – the training and reserve pitch beside Linfield's Windsor Park.

(Another similar hall, North Belfast Independent Labour Hall, on Langley Street off the Crumlin Road, was subjected to three arson attempts in August 1920, the third causing extensive damage; a William McCausland was charged).

As with all people, who knows what Walker's motivations were? Perhaps he was another one of those oddball or maverick individuals that Ulster's unionist history seems to be littered with – convinced of his own ideas, but unable to bring enough people along with him to make much of an impact. As has so often been the case here, the wider constitutional issue of his time submerged all else. But as a non-establishment voice, coming from within the Unionist community at a key moment in our history, he deserves some attention.  

• Paper on Walker by Emmet O'Connor is online here
• Article by Dr Mecham here on The Failure of a Four Nations Labour Movement
• 2016 article by Brian John Spencer on Slugger O'Toole here
• Wikipedia entry online here