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Ernie Pountney was born on November 6th 1881, to a family with a radical background; his grandfather had been an active Birmingham Chartist. Ernie lived in Sparkhill, a district of Birmingham until he was 21. Attracted to studying, initially through religion, he became an `outdoor’ student at LondonUniversity. Subsequently taking up a teaching post in Blackpool, returned to London where he worked as a clerk and then a buyer and salesman at Harrods in 1911.
He was called up in 1916 and became exposed to socialist ideas in the army. On returning after demobilisation to Harrods, he joined the shop assistants’ union. Becoming also involved in the Marxist dominated Labour Research Department, he was appointed a full-time officer in 1920 for the Knightsbridge branch of the union that emerged from post-first world war merger phase, the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW, following other mergers this became today’s USDAW).
He also joined the Communist Party as soon as it was formed. Pountney became a member of the Executive Committee of the London Trades Council and the London District Committee of the Communist Party. He was West London NUDAW district secretary by the time of the general strike.
Pountney found himself expelled from NUDAW in 1928, which lost him his job, after supporting the Rego garment workers’ strike. Arising from outrage at the failure of their union to support the strike, the workers led a breakaway `red’ union, the United Clothing Workers Union. Pountney became an organiser for this, working nationally and especially in Leeds. He became its general secretary and was a Minority Movement delegate to RILU, the red union international in 1933, staying in Moscow to work for it for a year.
On his return, he worked part time for Class War Prisoners’ Aid, with Isobel Brown and part time for the National Unemployed Workers Union also. Having joined the municipal and general workers union (then the NUGMW, after several mergers now the GMB), he was elected as a branch delegate to the union’s conference but the leadership promptly debarred him from holding further office in this period, due to his Party membership. Nonetheless, he kept up his membership and years later was able to play a fuller role as a branch activist in the NUGMW and GMWU (its incarnation in the 1950s and 1960s).
In the later part of the 1930s, he began his long stint in working for the Daily Worker. Pountney was placed as the technical `owner’ of the paper, essentially the `fall-guy’ for any legal assault on it. During his stewardship, the Daily Worker was sued by Walter Citrine, TUC general secretary, for a libel against him. Pountney, who had no assets of any significant value, was unable to pay the award and was declared a bankrupt; this was no tragedy but the purpose of the exercise in placing him as owner. Nonetheless, he went on to be involved in the business side of the paper until the Peoples’ Press Printing Society, a co-operative of its readers, was formed to own and manage the Daily Worker (later the renamed Morning Star). He then headed the post and despatch department, then rather more important for circulation and finance than it perhaps sounds today. Pountney continued to work for the paper for next 20 years.
In the meantime, he also became involved in the local labour movement in Kingston, Surrey, where he lived. He was the Trades Council’s press officer, the Kingston branch secretary and stood three times as a Communist candidate in local elections.
In common with many members of the Surrey district of the Communist Party, Pountney opposed its majority position on the events in 1968 in Czechoslovakia and became increasingly vocal about the Communist Party’s stance on matters relating to the Soviet Union. Pountney wrote his memoirs at the age 91, which were published in 1973. Possibly a supporter of the New Communist Party 1977 breakaway, he was to die sometime in that decade.
Source: Ernie Pountney “For the Socialist Cause” Lawrence and Wishart (1973)