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One of the founders and key leaders of the British Communist Party, Stewart was born on 16th February 1877 in Angus, to a farm foreman and handloom weaver. The family moved to Dundee when Stewart was two years old and he remained closely associated with that town thereafter. His father supported twelve children on a carter’s wage, Bob Stewart being tenth out of the brood. He attended school only between the age s of seven and thirteen. For a time he worked in various capacities in jute mills, before becoming apprenticed as a carpenter at the age of twelve.
He joined the Amalgamated Association of Carpenter and Joiners on becoming a journeyman and was elected to the union’s yard management committee. He was a shop steward by 1900 in the ship yards of Dundee, and then went to South Africa to work for a short while before returning to Scotland to become a full-time organiser for the Scottish Prohibition Party, a unique force for alcohol temperance.
He was elected for this party to Dundee Town Council in 1908 but, between 1909-10, participated in a socialist split against religiosity in the SPP to form the avowedly socialist Prohibition and Reform Party, for which he became a full-time organiser in 1911. In 1912, the celebrated Scottish Marxist John McLean, described Stewart as the “finest propagandist in Scotland”.
In 1915, he was appointed Dundee and Forfar organiser for the Scottish Horse and Motormen’s Union (this union was to merge with the T&G in the 1970s). In 1916, he was an organiser of the No Conscription Fellowship. Despite his occupation and his opposition to the First World War, he was himself gaoled in December 1916 and then conscripted into the army from 1917-1919. But he spent most of the time in jail, perhaps setting some kind of record for the number of times he faced a court martial – four in all! His first brought him 112 days in Wormwood Scrubs for a protest over infested blankets. Then he got six months (reduced from a year on appeal) for leading a protest against corrupt cuts in rations. He was next in Carlton jail for `refusing to go on parade’, in a row arising from his declaration that he would not use his guns on Germans, when he heard of the news of the February 1917 revolution in Tsarist Russia. His fourth court martial was also for refusing to bear arms – although his laxity with taking weekends away from jail to see his family was thrown at him - and he was not released until April 1919.
Above: a bust of Bob Stewart and right pic from the 1930s
He wrote `My Prison Rhymes’ during his various incarcerations and it became an immediate best seller! He launched himself into work for the now renamed Socialist Prohibition Fellowship (SPF). But, within a year, he was liaising closely with Tom Bell and Arthur MacManus (see entries for both) on the issue of revolutionary socialist unity.
A large majority of the Socialist Prohibition Party, as Stewart’s party was now called, voted to join a single British Communist Party. Bob Stewart was a delegate from the SPP to the April 1920 discussions between various groups on the founding of a British Communist Party. He was at the Nottingham Communist Unity national conference in August, where he was in favour of parliamentary participation for the new party. He was highly placed in the election for six members of the first Executive Committee of the Communist Party that, in addition to the Chair and Secretary, would form the new leadership. Stewart was then also at the Leeds 1921 conference that finally resolved outstanding unity issues.
In 1922, he became the first Scottish Organiser of the Communist Party and found himself yet again in jail, three months in Cardiff, for sedition arising out of a speech in south Wales in 1921. It was a time of severe repression; there were already 68 Party members in jail. That year, Stewart contested the first ever parliament election for the Communist Party – a by-election – in Caerphilly constituency. He polled 10.26% of the vote, a creditable performance given the immaturity of local Party organisation and the repression felt everywhere.
As the British representative on Comintern, he attracted extensive British security force and some of the files are now available in the National Archives. A bundle covering 1927-31 includes correspondence relating to Stewart's contacts with Norwegian and Chinese communists in 1927. The file chiefly concerns correspondence with Norwegian officials and British representatives in Norway about Stewart's visit and his objective in addressing Norwegian union meetings.
There are also reports from an informant in Ireland concerning Stewart's continued activities to organise the Party there, including from August 1929 and into 1930 on contacts between the IRA and the CPGB. There are also numerous surveillance reports and records of Stewart's overseas visits.
But he maintained links all this time with his base in Dundee, in 1924 he was the Party’s candidate in the `Zinoviev’ general election, polling 8,340 votes.
Following the arrest of the 12 leaders of the Party, when Stewart was working in Liverpool, he found himself the Acting General Secretary of the Party as the sole major member of the leadership at liberty. The security force files includes correspondence between Stewart, as Acting General Secretary, and Zinoviev relating to propaganda work in the UK, the colonies and the empire and covert funding.
He stood again in Dundee in 1929 but his vote was squeezed to a little over six thousand in the clamour to get a Labour government elected. In the 1931 general election, he was to boost this to 10,262 votes. But again found himself in jail – for three months – for protesting at police heavy-handedness of the crowds waiting to greet his arrival for the campaign in Dundee. The security forces collated a file on Stewart’s prosecution and kept a copy of his election address for the October election.
Toward the end of the 1930s Stewart had reached retirement age but he continued to play a significant background role in the Party, especially as a sort of elder father figure, smoothing over personality clashes and resolving personal problems, formally leaving the executive of the Party in 1936. He was known as a shrewd but friendly and humorous man and was universally liked and admired within the Party, as well as being lionised within his home town for at least a couple of decades after his death and perhaps still is amongst cognoscenti . No doubt, this unique, unifying role, which is supposed to have included being Moscow’s pacifier on troubled waters within the British Party, made him still an interesting figure for the spooks to watch, for their files for the period 1941 to 1951 give a detailed history sheet of Stewart's continually observed activities.
There are many detailed reports of intercepted phone conversations, including one of December 1943 where Stewart apparently talks disparagingly of a Soviet intelligence contact, with which he was familiar, saying: “the things I've done for that b.! (Editorial note – sic, is this a discreet way of reporting the word `bastard’?) But I might have been caught quite easy because I carried the stuff … bloody lucky we were…” Whatever all that may mean!
Bob Stewart was married for a very long part of his life to Margaret, who died before him, on 14th March 1950. Overshadowed by her famous husband, she was herself a foundation member of the Communist Party. Of her welcoming to the incessant visitors to her house, whether in Dundee or in London, it was said that: "Her hospitality was unbounded and her friendship was treasured by all those who were privileged to know her." [Thanks to Michael Walker for this detail]
He remained a member of the Party to his dying day, in his 90s, in the late 1960s. The Communist Party’s headquarters in London once boasted a fine bronze bust of Bob Stewart (pictured - it is now in a museum).