Born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1921, the son of a watchmaker who, having fought in Africa, became a railway worker, Jock Nicolson was one of five children. Leaving school at the age of 14 he became a laundry van boy. At 17, Jock was sacked for trying to start a union in a small sheep wool workshop. After a spell of unemployment and casual work, during which he became an enthusiastic poacher (!), he got a job on the railways, at the beginning of the Second World War, as a `caller up’ at Hamilton West locomotive depot in Scotland. A night shift job, it required him to cycle to drivers’ and guards’ homes in the early hours to wake them in good time for them to start their shift. Nicolson’s father had worked at the depot and his brother had been called up for the armed services, so he qualified to be placed on a waiting list for a job.
Throughout the 1930s, Jock had been attending education classes and debating socialism with a range of forces, gradually finding himself drawn to the Communist Party. For a while he was influenced by the Blantyre Party branch, which was dominated by mining comrades, and a very articulate Councillor, Eddie Laughlan. But he never found himself invited to join the Party! Since most mining Communists came from an Irish émigré background, Jock’s own Protestant background inhibited them in case they frightened him off. In the end, Bob Harvie, a miners’ son and university graduate, not much older than Jock, signed him up.Soon after the beginning of the war he became secretary of the Hamilton Branch.
During the war, he was able to obtain a position as a locomotive fireman, a hard and dirty job and became a highly active member of the Communist Party. Jock worked closely with railway worker Communists such as Dan Kelly, a wagon examiner at Shield hall Docks, a brilliant lecturer on Marxist theory. There was also Jock Shearer, a signalman at West Street Junction, just outside Glasgow, who became a much respected Divisional Officer in the NUR.
In 1947, Jock was appointed Area Secretary for the Lanarkshire Communist Party, the year he also met his wife Bridget in 1947 at a Communist Party summer camp in Hastings, Sussex. Then he was sent along with Murdoch Taylor, the National Secretary of the YCL to bolster the constituency work in Fife, supporting Communist MP Willie, Gallacher.Despite the romance, Jock could not immediately move to London to be with her, while she already had two children and was unable to move north.
The effects of the Cold War were tearing the Party’s base apart badly, even in such a stronghold as Fife.In the County Council elections, which wne twider than mining territory, the Party at this point had four councillors up for re-election; two were returned and two lost their seat. The total Communist vote had dropped significantly, although with 5,199 against Labour’s 13,126 it could hardly be said that the Party was in massive decline yet. Almost unbelievably Rab Smith failed to hold his seat in Lumphinnans but in Kelty, which had always been a Labour stronghold, John Fernie polled 334 votes to Labour’s 1,808.
However, Jock eventually moved to London in 1950 and the couple set up home in BelsizePark. Jock found a job as a goods porter at the British Railways Board Chalk Farm depot, immediately becoming active in organising the depot’s trade union work. There, he built up a routine sale of between 30 and 50 Daily Workers each day, with up to a 100 for special editions. An attempt by the British Transport Police to charge him under railway by-laws for selling on the premises of Camden’s loco depot without permission was satisfactorily dealt with by his union.
Secretary of the North London district council of the National Union of Railwaymen in the 1960s, from 1974 Nicolson also served two terms of three years each on the national executive of the NUR. (Pic: Jock campaigning at St Pancras station.)
He played a significant role at mass meetings and as a spokesperson during the St Pancras rent strikes. This built on a pre-existing basis of some localised support for the Party and he contested the St Pancras North constituency in four general elections as a Communist candidate, the London County Council and also stood for the GLC in its first year of existence. In 1955, he polled about 1,200 votes, 10 per cent of the winning Labour tally. In 1959, Bill Webster, publican of the Black Horse pub in Royal College Street, Camden Town, also stood for the far-right British Party in the same constituency. Jock’s election rally, held at the Prince of Wales swimming pool, required the attendance scores of young communists from the building trade to guard against disruption. Whilst comrades took turns to sit in the family home in case fascists tried to intimidate them.During these election contests, Jock would rise daybreak on Saturdays to secure a spot for his soapbox outside KentishTown Tube station, where he made speeches to shoppers.
Jock Nicolson died aged 87 in 2007.
Sources: NUR Transport Review March 27th 1992; Jock Nicolson “A turbulent life” (unpublished mss); Camden Journal September 2007