Ian Allinson and Sam O’Brien describe the remarkable life of Brian Bartley Willcock who died last week at the age of 82.
Note: this has been updated with some details about funeral arrangements at the bottom.
From an early age Bartley got very involved in his local church, St Clement’s Higher Openshaw, across the road from the house where he was born. His father, Richard Beswick Willcock, worked as an engineering photographer at Ferguson Pailin Ltd, which later became GEC Openshaw – a workplace he was to sell Socialist Worker outside many years later.
By fourteen Bartley was already an enthusiast for the movies, even producing his own “cut and paste” Film Fan magazine. Going to the pictures with him was always an experience. He read Philip French’s column in the Observer religiously. He knew nearly every actor, what they had starred in before, television parts, if they had famous parents and of course their political leanings.
Southport remained an enduring part of Bartley’s life from an early age. His close friend Geoff Howard had been planning to take him back there soon when Bartley passed away.
Bartley trained for the clergy at St Aidan’s, Birkenhead, before working as a curate at various churches in Greater Manchester, with a brief spell in Bexley Heath. He was seen as evangelical, but not dogmatic, and a powerful preacher. When he trained, churches had no PA systems, and Bartley was always proud of winning an elocution contest. For the rest of his life Bartley could make himself clearly and loudly heard in any circumstances. He advised others “stand up, speak up, shut up” and “good speakers say finally and finish; bad speakers say lastly and last”.
From 1956-58 Bartley undertook national service but refused to bear arms on pacifist grounds. After a brief spell as a medical orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he was stationed as a clerk at Saighton Camp near Chester, where he was in charge of records for 3500 men. His discharge papers describe him as “a thoroughly reliable, trustworthy and most intelligent man. He is most loyal and conscientious, uses his initiative, is popular, and is of the highest character”.
In 1971 people at his church wrote a “this is your life” for him, which mentions that “Bartley is a socialist” and his forthright opinions when a Bexley Heath conservative praised Edward Heath.
In the early 1970s Bartley gradually accepted that he was gay. Until his 30’s, because of his religious background, he hadn’t even known such a thing existed – male homosexuality was only partially decriminalised in 1967. To begin with he didn’t know how to meet other gay men and relied on rent boys. His experiences in the gay scene shaped his view of the police, who he described as liars and perjurers. Bartley ran into financial difficulties, had a breakdown and left the ministry.
Though he later became an atheist, Bartley was heavily influenced by his time in the church. As a socialist activist, he saw “contact visiting” as the equivalent of pastoral visiting and weekly meetings as playing a role like the Sunday service in bringing people together. He was always a staunch opponent of any move to weaken basic organisation. His church experience taught him never to brow-beat people in arguments, he often said you could “win the argument, but lose the man”. Bartley maintained friendships from his church days (such as Albert Ratcliffe who he met at St Aidan’s) and still took a keen interest in church affairs.
As Bartley began to pull his life back together, he held a variety of jobs. For a while he had a secretarial role at the Johnson & Nephew copper rolling factory, where he was elected as a shop steward. He was not particularly militant at the time but he did once bring the production line to a halt. The foreman in charge left at the end of his shift and the foreman who was supposed to replace him was half an hour late. The health and safety rules clearly said that a foreman had to be present at all times. Bartley had no choice but to tell the workers to stop. When the foreman finally arrived he was furious but Bartley stood by what he had done. There was nothing they could do.
In the 1980s Bartley took a clerical job in the Manchester University chemistry accounts department, where he worked until retirement. He became the equality officer for the UNISON branch.
It was from the university that Bartley became politically active. One day in 1990 John Baxter, an SWP member, walked into his office wearing a badge opposing the gulf war. Bartley began to buy papers, magazines and pamphlets. He was greatly excited by the ideas, joined the SWP and became a very active member of the Gorton branch. He felt he had found a political home.
Bartley was involved in innumerable campaigns and was a regular on local picket lines. His ability to connect with people of all ages was remarkable.
When the National Minimum Wage was coming in, we checked the local job centre for adverts paying less. We found that Belle Vue dog track was amongst them and several union branches called a protest and leafleting outside. Security was both heavy and aggressive, manhandling other protesters until the police (who they had called) stopped them. All the other activists had to carefully stay on the pavement while leafleting. Bartley strolled around the car park, leafleting at will, shouting at full and considerable volume that he’d survived the blitz and they weren’t going to move him.
Bartley was always a vigorous opponent of racism and fascism. In 2002 the BNP were on the rise in the North West and the ANL Carnival had been banned in Burnley. The gig was moved to Platt Fields Park in Manchester. The event was a massive success with Miss Dynamite and Doves playing to thousands of people. However, the organisers broke the agreement about the times when music would be played and a nearby church that was attempting to hold a service complained. He was very proud of saving the movement a lot of money by successfully mediating in the dispute and using his church contacts to smooth things over.
Bartley’s father had died in 1974 and his mother, Mabel, eventually became too frail to live at their Openshaw family home. Bartley used to visit her every day and take her out when he could.
Bartley’s knowledge of East Manchester was spectacular and he was well known and loved. He could navigate by both pubs and churches, tell you what used to be where, what had been bombed when, and much more. For a long time Bartley drank far more than was good for him. Around Christmas he would complain about the “once a year drinkers” who would drink more than they could cope with.
Bartley never drove, but used to walk miles. When stationed at Saighton Camp there was a curfew and if you got back after 11pm you would be put up on a charge. The nearest evangelical church was twelve miles away and Bartley would hike there and back, but would never be back in time after evening services. He had to wait until 3-4am when the guards were less attentive before sneaking into the camp to get a little slip before reveille at 6am. He once led a group following the route of Chaucer’s pilgrimage. Later in life he would do huge rounds delivering Socialist Worker to regular readers. The clink of his umbrella when down would let you know Bartley was approaching. When up, his umbrella was a hazard to all nearby. It was a terrible blow to him when his legs got too bad to deliver papers, reducing him to tears.
For a number of years Bartley was treasurer of Manchester TUC Pensioners Association, and helped organise their delegations to the National Pensioners Convention in Blackpool.
As the NHS came under increasing attack, Bartley was always keen to relate to younger people his experiences from before it was set up. He could remember people being unable to afford to see a doctor, and the sheer astonishment when this became free.
The rape scandal and split in the SWP caused Bartley immense distress. Like many, he initially rallied to defend the party and the alleged perpetrator, of whom he was a big fan. But as he listened to the arguments he shifted his position and joined those attempting to ensure the crisis was properly addressed. He left the SWP when this didn’t happen and was part of setting up rs21. He found the break with comrades and friends deeply distressing, particularly when people he had been close to treated him badly. He was always delighted whenever any of them showed any signs of friendship.
Bartley lived in poor quality private rented accommodation, often rooms in shared houses. Twice he had to leave accommodation after fires caused by other people smoking, losing a lot of his belongings. The second time he had to be rescued by the fire brigade, but another resident was killed.
His health and mobility had declined in recent years, to the point where he could only leave his upstairs flat on a good day, with a lot of help and a wheelchair. He also suffered with anxiety. His friends had tried to help him get rehoused, but due to cuts no official support was available. He was told he had to “bid” for housing through a web site, but was too anxious to do so.
The left has lost a deeply committed and determined fighter, and many have lost a great friend whose big grin and humour will be sorely missed.