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Trying to Stop George From Having a Night Out – Martin Cloonan


This is the next in an occasional series of posts originating from  ‘The Musicians’ Union: A Social History’ – an AHRC and ESRC funded research project based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. You can find about more about the project, and the history of the Musicians’ Union here.

Professor Martin Cloonan describes the Union’s dispute – up to and including appearances in court – with George Formby’s musical director Bill Main, and how they illustrate the legal and political climate around labour relations of the era.

One of the notable characteristics of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union (AMU) was its determination to ensure that all eligible musicians joined it.

While this was complicated by the status of various musicians as amateur or part time (or both), the Union held that anyone making their live from “the profession” should be a member. Following the amalgamation of the AMU with the National Orchestral Association (NOA) to form the Musicians Union in 1921, this determination was continued, at least within some quarters. The result of this was to affect all sorts of musicians, as the following story shows.

In August 1928 Fred Dambman was Assistant General Secretary of the MU and wrote in this capacity to W.Murdock, then secretary of the Union’s Glasgow branch, advising him about a forthcoming visit to the city’s Empire Theatre by George Formby‘s “Night Out” company. Formby was at this point a rising star whose career would be boosted in the 1930s by a succession of commercially successful recordings and films. He remains a highly popular figure with a devoted fanbase. However, Formby himself was not the centre of interest for Dambman and the MU: instead their attention focussed on the Musical Director (MD) of Formby’s show, Bill Main.

During the General Strike of 1926 Main had fallen out with the union over their apparent lack of assistance at this point during a dispute with the impresario Harry Day who had taken the opportunity presented by the strike to lower the wages of the musicians he employed. While Day had taken the action against all musicians in his employment, Main appeared to take the case personally. While there were also suggestions that his wages had been cut because of his unsuitability as an MD, Main became aggrieved that the Union had been unable to prevent his wages being reduced. He thus left the union and – in defiance of the MU’s longstanding campaign to recruit all professional musicians – refused to rejoin.

Dambman’s letter to Murdock asked him to visit the Formby show and to arrange “for pressure to be brought to bear on Mr. Mayne (sic), with a view to him becoming a member of the Union”. Murdock also received a letter from the MU’s Newcastle branch dated 31 August 1928 saying of Main that: “When he was at the Palace here I stopped the men playing with him, as he refused to join the M.U. Eventually his manager insisted upon him joining, which he did under protest”. However, the letter continued, “He is now on the list of non-member conductors. He has just played Newcastle Hippodrome and has nothing to say but that he won’t rejoin”. The Newcastle branch urged that Murdock take the opportunity provided by the show’s visit to Glasgow to pursue the matter further with Main.

Murdock subsequently visited the show on 10 September and reported back to the MU’s General Secretary, E.S.Teale. Murdock said that he had spoken to Main who argued that he would not rejoin the Union as it had let him down twice and did nothing for touring MDs. Main also noted that he was prepared for the MU trying to prevent him from performing and Murdock opined that “arguments seem to be useless with this Man” (sic).

As part of his visit to Glasgow, Main had also invited a fellow MD, musicologist and MU activist, Henry Farmer – with whom he had previously been in contact on other matters – to meet him before and after the show. Farmer’s account of these meetings suggest that before the show Main told him that he had been visited by the Glasgow branch, who asked him why he was not a member. According to Farmer, Main gave the same two reasons – i.e. (i) being let down by the Union before and (ii) that the Union was of no use to travelling MDs. Farmer’s account also says that Main claimed that the MU was afraid of him because he had beaten their officials all over the country (by refusing to rejoin). However, Farmer begged Main to rejoin “because it meant smooth working with musicians.” Following the end of the show they talked again and Farmer told Main that his non-membership would cause problems at some point. Main apparently responded by saying that the union wouldn’t take action against him because doing so would come to expose the London officials who are in “the palm of my hand.”

Meanwhile, although Murdock had not specifically asked for the AMU’s headquarters for permission to withdraw his members if Main were to perform, Teale nevertheless informed him that:

“I should like to teach such fellows as Billie Maine (sic) that if the Union is no good for him he ought to be careful that it cannot do him a lot of harm.”

Teale added that if members objected to playing with a non-member then he would know what to do. However, he cautioned Murdock that:

“You must not talk of stopping him because that is a threat about which he could make trouble. Your course would be to stop the men from playing and leave him alone.”

Teale further noted that the MU’s agreement with the Moss chain which owned the Empire included a clause:

“That the Union shall not withdraw without giving legal notice… solely on the grounds that a musician engaged in the orchestra at said Theatre is not a member of the said Union, but this shall not debar the members of the said Union from following their declared policy of refusing to play now and in the future with a musician of any country with whom Gt.Britain is now or shall be at war.”

The correspondence between Teale and Murdock suggests that at this point there was some frustration amongst MU branches that their attempts to pressurise touring MDs into joining were not supported by the Union’s central offices. In September 1929 Murdock wrote to Teale expressing frustration that if a recalcitrant refused to join there appeared to be little that local branches could do to persuade them otherwise:

“….take this Billie Maine, he was seen last week by Hope (the Newcastle branch secretary) and refused to join, nothing done about it; the same thing occurs again this week, I would expect that next time he is interviewed he will tell the Official not to waste his time asking questions which he has answered many times, and he will be so puffed up with his position that he will be a menace to us everywhere; if we can’t deal with him, he should be left alone, that is my opinion, because the result of interviewing him simply shows up the weakness of our position. I see your position and will, of course, report to my Comm.”

Teale replied that the MU’s HQ could only act if they were assured that branch members would be called out, while Murdock responded that a decision to strike had to be taken at national level. It seems, however, that at least one of the MU’s officials was prepared to act.

On 7 November 1928 Bertram Newton-Brook, London organiser for the MU, visited the Empire Theatre in Woolwich where Main was due to appear as MD of the Formby show. Brook informed Main that he had come with “with instructions to prevent you from continuing” and he tried to persuade musicians in the show not to perform. However after some delay the show went ahead after Main agreed to attend the MU offices the following day to discuss the issue.

On 8 November Main met with Newton-Brook and MU officials Fort Greenwood, William Batten and Henry Farmer. In this meeting he argued that the 1922 “Askwith” agreement (which set terms and conditions for the employment of musicians in theatres and music halls following the 1907 Music Hall strike) MDs were deemed to be executives and so different from ordinary musicians. The following day Main met with the union’s full executive committee to deny accusations that he had slandered the union by saying that they were scared of him and that their London officials were in the palm of his hand. Farmer commented later that in the face of these denials: “I can only conclude that Mr. Main is either a hopeless fool, or an unmitigated liar.”

That evening (9 November) Newton-Brook turned up at Woolwich Empire as the Formby show was about to start and asked Main to sign a declaration that he had not made any of the alleged remarks about the MU and also to sign a membership application form. When Main signed the declaration but not the application Brook allegedly tried to prevent Main from carrying out his work, telling him that should he attempt to conduct then Newton-Brook would withdraw the orchestra. This led to the orchestra subsequently refusing to play and the show only went ahead after a local conductor was installed to replace Main.

However Main did not take this laying down and brought a legal case for intimidation against Newton-Brook who was charged with intimidation contrary to Secion 3 (1) of the Trade Disputes and Trades Union Act, 1927 which had been brought in to curb union activity following the general strike. He was also charged with inducing others to do so, trying to prevent Main from carrying out work which he had a legal right to do and with watching or besetting him. The case came before the Woolwich Police Sessions in February 1929 where it was adjourned and transferred to the London Sessions.

Following the initial adjournment and the new hearing there was a great deal of correspondence between the various MU officials involved as well as between the Union and its solicitors, Hall, Hawkins, Pimblott, Brydon and Chapman. This included various correspondence with Farmer who, having met Main, was both canvassed for a character assessment and primed to give evidence. In the end other duties prevented Farmer from attending the trial. He would go on to be the editor of the Union’s magazine, The Musicians’ Journal, between April 1929 and January 1933.

Meanwhile Farmer wrote to the solicitors on 11 March 1929 saying that : “I am strongly of opinion that Main should be cross-examined on the question of his attitude to the Union, and especially on the question of whether he approves or peruse of industrial action being taken by Trade Unions”.

Farmer reported that he had first met Main in December 1927 when Main had complained about being let down by the Union in the Day case. Main had shown Farmer details of correspondence on the case and argued that the MU should have done more to help him. In contradistinction Farmer held the view that they had done all they could. In addition, argued Farmer, helping him in that case would have entailed using an “industrial weapon” (striking) of which Main appeared to disapprove.

“In other words,” he continued, “Main has no compunction in invoking this weapon when it is in his interest, but he strongly objects to its use in the interests of anybody else, especially when it is used against him.”

The case, Rex v Bertram Newton-Brook, came to court on 11 April 1929. A transcript of the verdict is contained in the Farmer Collection at the University of Glasgow. It shows that Brook pleaded not guilty. The prosecution’s case was that on 9 November 1928 Brook unlawfully attended the Empire Theatre in Woolwich in order to persuade or induce Main to abstain from working. There were also additional charges of intimidation and watching and besetting. Prosecuting, J.W.Morris said that it is a principle in law that every citizen be free to do what he has a legal right to do. The option of joining or not joining a trade union was, said Morris, one which involved the exercise of judgement and free will. Such an exercise had been denied when Newton-Brook visited the theatre and threatened to withdraw the orchestra, leading to Main being unable to perform on that or the following night. Main, he argued, had suffered an injury via Newton-Brook’s actions.

The case was heard by H.W.W. Wilbeforce Esq, Deputy Chairman of the court. He took Morris to task for failing to distinguish between an injury and an unlawful injury. Only in the latter case, said Wilberforce, would an action be legally constituted as being intimidation. Thus the question was not whether Main was injured, but whether such an injury was unlawful. In response Morris said that that if it became known that Main was “chased and ferreted out by the London organiser of the Musicians Union” then he would go about in fear of losing his employment. He then related details of the case and of Newton-Brook’s visit on 9 November.

Wilberforce opined that it was perfectly legal for the orchestra to decide not to play and that, having heard Morris’ arguments, he could not understand what would be illegal about that. He noted that Newton-Brook was charged with intimidation and watching and besetting, crimes which were defined in the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act. He then asked Morris to produce evidence that under the law any injury, rather than unlawful injury, constituted intimidation. Following a long wrangle over the definition of injury Wilberforce addressed the court in the following words:

“Members of the Jury, learned Counsel has made his submission, and in the circumstances I think that it is right to tell you that there is no real evidence against the Accused of any legal criminal offence. In those circumstances, I will ask you as a matter of form to return a verdict of Not Guilty.”

The foreman of the jury did just that and the case was closed.

Hence it was that a Musicians’ Union official was found not guilty of intimidating the Musical Director of a performer who was to become one of the UK’s most-loved. In the Woolwich instance George got his night out, albeit one which was not quite as intended. He would go on to greater fame, Main to apparent obscurity.

There are several interesting aspects to this case.

The first is that it appears to have been part of a general anti trade union atmosphere in some circles following the general strike of 1926. The legislation which was used here was part of the backlash against the unions. It was repealed by the post war Labour government in 1946. Meanwhile it allowed individuals such as Main to pursue personal grievances. The fact that the case was dismissed at least showed the limits which the law applied to such grievances.

The case also illustrates the frustrations some trade unionists felt post ’26. In particular, attempts to enforce a closed shop appeared to be frustrated by the reluctance within the Union’s hierarchy to sanction strike action in the face of possible legal action. Under such circumstances it was left to individuals to try and persuade recalcitrants. That such persuasion was held by some to be intimidation is perhaps not surprising.

The fact that Main was working within a form of popular music is another key aspect. In future years the Union would find trying to enforce a closed shop in that area of music impossible and thus the Main case is a fascinating harbinger of difficult years ahead for the Union within the UK’s most popular artform. The terms and conditions of musicians providing a night out were, and remain, a key area of the Union’s work.

Martin Cloonan


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