Born in 1920, and brought up in early life in Leeds, Percy was an illegitimate child. After his uncle had sought a legal order to have him made a ward of court on the fallacious grounds that his mother could not properly take care of him, he was sent to an approved school at the age of six where he remained until he was fourteen. He was to return to live with his mother and his stepfather in Goldthorpe mining village when he was 17. But left to find work and was able to obtain a job with London Transport, where he stayed until the outbreak of war.
Pic left: Percy in his early 20s
He joined the Communist Party in 1940, which he remained a member of all his life, but had been active in the 1930s with Communists in London in action against the BUF. Unable to join the armed forces due to a lung condition, he was placed back in Yorkshire in a sanatorium. Eventually, he came into contact with the then South Yorkshire coalfield Communist Party organiser, Johnny Mason. He obtained work at the Royal Ordnance factory in Maltby, joining the Maltby Party branch and lodging with the Sheffield United footballer, Harry Draper, who was a Party member. Riley got married locally and became the full-time YCL organiser in Sheffield.
One task the YCL undertook was the mobilisation of thousands of Yorkshire miners to spend a week’s holiday in harvest camps in Bedfordshire. YCLers also took part and made a fortune for their organisation this way. On one occasion, the miners were paid for pea picking and, whilst they enjoined the change of scene and regarded the experience as a holiday, they stubbornly and promptly went on strike when they discovered that the Bedfordshire agricultural rate was not equivalent to the Yorkshire rate! Percy was thrown out of the camp at four in the morning, for encouraging the miners in this.
In 1946, he became the first Communist councillor in South Yorkshire, when he was elected in Thurnscoe in Hickleton village. This service was truncated after three years, as he and a group of 12 rebel Labour councillors were surcharged by a Labour government for `over-spending’ on house building and barred from standing for five years and declared bankrupts, Percy lost all his worldly possessions. Seemingly, the offence concerned the timing of a retrospective payment regarding the building of 500 homes. After the ban had expired, Percy stood again many times but it was during the Cold War and he was never again successful.
Pic right: Percy in 1941
He was involved in organising the collection of 50,000 signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal and was one of the key figures in the attempted convening of the World Peace Congress in Sheffield. When the Labour Government refused visas to foreign guests to attend, Percy attended the reconvened Congress in Warsaw in November 1952. He had applied for permission to be released from his employers, unpaid, for the period needed. This was at first refused and a campaign to force them ensued by means of a petition. The Secretary of the Dearne Labour Party, a moderate and Catholic councillor, found himself censured for being a “Communist stooge” by the Labour hierarchy and local press when he expressed his support and belief in the rights of individuals to hold controversial opinions.
During this period, Percy and Frank Watters, by now South Yorkshire coalfield organiser for the Party, became great friends and were especially close to a fellow Communist, Bill Blessed, father of the subsequently famous actor, Brian, who was himself to suffer prejudice over these associations when called up for National Service.
By 1954, Percy worked in a small engineering factory in Doncaster but then went via the Labour Exchange to a secretarial school for one year. He then found work as a door to door commission salesman for Betterware and excelled in this, becoming branch manager for Barnsley. He continued to be active in the Party as a member of the Yorkshire District Committee and was involved in mobilising Tenants’ Association struggles against rent increases in the 1960s, especially in campaigns against rises for NCB houses. So valued was his work in this area, when the Yorkshire NUM met Alf Robens, NCB chair, over the issue and he refused to allow Percy access to the meeting since he was not in the NUM, the entire delegation refused to enter without him.
All this time, he had sought to get work with the NCB and had been cold-shouldered. But he was able to get a start working with diesel fitters in 1970, during a period when the personnel manager was off work ill! He became an NUM activist and within a year was on its branch committee. Percy was heavily involved in the 1970 and 1972 miners’ strikes and was part of the Yorkshire NUM contingent at the celebrated Saltley Gate picketing. During this period he took to recording with tape and camera picket line activity, a practice he continued for the rest of his life.
Percy as Communist candidate for Dearne UDC in 1972
In 1975, he moved to Sheffield when he married for the second time, to Doris Askham, subsequently a Labour councillor –as he put it a blow for “Labour-Communist unity”! Percy joined the Heeley branch of the Party and was active in local campaigns and trades council work. He was successively press officer, vice-chair and then chair of the Sheffield Tenants Federation. Out of employment in the mining industry due to this move, he was able to get work at the NCB Fence Workshops in 1977. He was a constant presence at the Grunwick picket line, as part of the Yorkshire NUM delegation and won election to the Yorkshire Area Council of the NUM, a key position and was involved – as he had been over the years, albeit sometimes from the sidelines - in all the major debates and work that finally shifted both the Yorkshire Area and then the National Miners Union firmly to the Left.
He was still a member of the Area Council and engaged in debates over strategy to adopt in the coming struggle during the build up to the miners’ strike of 1984-5 but ill-health (he went down with pneumonia) forced his early retirement just before the strike began. Nonetheless, he devoted himself in the next year full time to organising solidarity work in a vast range of ways. He became such a fixture at the permanent street collection pitch in Sheffield that the local paper published a cartoon depicting him being `knighted’ by `King’ Arthur Scargill!
In the months following the end of the strike, Percy wrote a short memoir of his life, which was posthumously published. Never a robust man, Percy virtually exhausted himself and brought on severe ill-heath in his last year of life after a lifetime of devotion to the struggle for working class rights. He died on 3rd January 1986 after being seriously ill for a long time; a staggering 800 people attended his funeral.
Sources: Percy Riley “The life of Riley” Yorkshire Arts Circus (1986); cuttings from local press January 16th 1952 from papers of Frank Watters, GS personal knowledge.