Clive Jenkins and the ASTMS at Sutton House

This exhibition, based around a recreation of Clive’s office, marks the beginning of a project to research and document the thirty years that the ASTMS leased Sutton House. This is the first time we have looked in depth at this important period in our history, and a recent swell of interest from former ASTMS staff members means that together we can collect more stories and memories and further enrich our understanding of the role Sutton House played in the work of such an important trade union.

“Champagne socialist? No, I’m a Bollinger Bolshevik”

Clive Jenkins, when returning to his home town of Port Talbot as part of a BBC Wales documentary in the early 1980s, described it as a ‘devastated wasteland’ and explained the infrequency with which he visited the town by claiming there was ‘not enough industrial activity down here to bring me back’. When quizzed by a school pupil if he enjoyed his childhood in South Wales, he replied without hesitation ‘I don’t think I did’.

Clive was born in May 1926, the day before the General Strike across the United Kingdom, which saw around 1.7 million workers taking part in industrial action that lasted nine days. Port Talbot, Clive recalled, was ‘a narrow, blinkered town’, ‘Calvanistic’ and ‘bitterly anti-Catholic’. Clive described himself as a priggish and sanctimonious child, who altered the dates in his library books to get around the local Carnegie public library rules of only two books per day in school holidays. His school, Port Talbot County School, was one, he felt, in need of ‘helpful, destructive dynamite’, and he left it before the age of 14 to work.

He attended his interview for a new aluminium alloy sheet plant dressed in his school blazer and cap. His first payslip, of 16 shillings and eightpence, went straight to his recently widowed mother. His father had been a railway worker and an ‘apathetic’ trade unionist. Clive became the youngest ever to enrol on a City and Guilds course, and became a shift chemist, a day chemist and eventually a chief chemist at 18. It was in this position that Clive first encountered Marx and Machiavelli, when he was loaned copies of their work, after this, he ‘never looked back’. He left Wales at 18, taking the train for the first time to Birmingham, and when he returned he was ‘full of ideas for revolutionising South Wales industry’.

Clive’s meteoric rise in industry was matched by his rapid progression up the trade unions ladder. He joined the Labour party at age 14, and was recruited to the Association of Scientific Workers (AScW) at 16. He quickly became branch secretary, and by 19 was a member of the National AScW Union committee. The following year he was elected as the youngest ever full time trade union officer in the UK (for ASSET – the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians). 14 years later, 11,000 members unanimously elected Clive as the General Secretary.

Under Clive’s leadership, AScW and ASSET merged in 1969, and became ASTMS (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs). Clive playfully noted in his Who’s Who entry, that his recreations included ‘organising the middle classes’. Perhaps his greatest impact as a union leader was in shifting perceptions of trade unions as purely for the working classes, and in actively recruiting middle management, foremen and supervisors in industry. They were, he rightly believed ‘socially aggrieved and ripe for organisation’:

It now seems extraordinary that foremen in the 1950s and early 1960s were thought to be special representatives of the employers. They were praised as part of the illusory ‘middle management’ group and yet were scandalously paid to a point where they commonly earned far less than the workers they supervised after incentive payments and overtime (which the foremen usually did not get). The workers were not very interested in such a job and only took promotion from time to time for the benefits of holidays and pension schemes.
(from Clive Jenkins: All Against the Collar, 1990)

Clive was also a master of public relations, ASSET and the ASTMS were rarely far from the headlines. He was a peerless orator, whose musical Welsh lilt and acerbic gift for storytelling were developed from a young age and inspired by the minister at his church, whom he described as ‘an expert preacher and a mass exciter’.

From 1974 until 1982, Clive was the Technical, Engineering and Scientific Group representative on the General Council of the TUC (Trades Union Congress), and in 1988, when ASTMS merged with TASS (Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section) to become MSF (Manufacturing, Science and Finance union), Clive continued as General Secretary before becoming President of the TUC. He announced his retirement shortly after, having spent almost half a century steering trade unions into the future. Clive passed away in September 1999, aged 73.

In 2001 MSF merged with AEEU (Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union) to become Amicus, which later merged with TGWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union) to become Unite the Union.

The happiest moments in my life have been righting injustices, and I’ve done a lot of that, or doing a good deal where you can go away swinging your briefcase with the agreements in it as happy as a radiant bride, knowing that people next week will say ‘I’m going to have an increase!’
(from Clive’s appearance on Desert Island Discs, 19 Oct 1990)

Sutton House

In 1938 Sutton House, then known as the St. John’s Church Institute for Men, was acquired by the National Trust with the proceeds from a bequest. The Church Institute had occupied the house for nearly 50 years, with the aim of promoting among members ‘both spiritual and intellectual improvement’. The future of the house looked bleak when, in 1936, the Institute began looking for premises that were less costly to upkeep. The Trust was reluctant to take on the rather rough-round-the-edges Tudor-built house. National Trust country house scout and acid tongued architectural historian James Lees Milne described it as ‘a wretched one’.

Writing in his diary that the building was ‘no more important than hundreds of other Georgian houses, still left in slum areas’ he went on to say ‘I found it terribly depressing and longed to hurry away.’

The building was leased to a variety of voluntary organisations until the spring of 1953, when ASSET moved in. The name St John’s Institute was thought to conjure up ‘a rather grim picture’ so the house was renamed Sutton House, after Charterhouse founder Thomas Sutton, who was thought to have lived here. A document produced by ASSET at this time demonstrates that research into the house’s history was in its infancy, stating as fact many things that have since been proven to be mistruths, such as the speculation that Thomas Sutton ever lived here, or that General Picton who died in the battle of Waterloo lived here, or that the 200-year-old remains of a soldier were found in an underground tunnel beneath the house.

When Clive Jenkins took over from then General Secretary Harry Knight in 1961, he made the lavish Linenfold Parlour his office. The room is likely to also have been an office for the first owner of Sutton House, Sir Ralph Sadleir. Clive reportedly had a slot under his desk especially for storing bottles of alcohol and he liked to start the day with a Buck’s Fizz. He took naps in the afternoon, and, as Roger Lyons, who was later the General Secretary of MSF recalls, he kept a ‘head toaster’ in his office, a device for tanning his face, which he would use at his desk each morning.

The ASTMS occupied Sutton House in many capacities. Over the 30 years they had a presence here, they occupied the whole house, at other times operating out of just a portion of it while another part was leased to Hackney Borough Council. By the end, Sutton House was an administrative office for the Union. There were just 30 staff members remaining, and the headquarters, Clive, and many other staff members, had moved to offices in Half Moon Street in Westminster and Jamestown Road in Camden.

The National Trust and the ASTMS had a rather frosty relationship, especially when coming to terms with the union’s desire to end the tenancy. National Trust officials described them as ‘a tricky lot’ and as ‘Clive Jenkins’ mob’. Correspondence between the two institutions conveys dissatisfaction from both on the state of the house, which had only undergone rudimentary repairs during the ASTMS’s time there. A large bill was served to the union in order for them to surrender their lease. The Trust considered that ASTMS were interpreting a report about necessary repairs ‘very narrowly’, while the ASTMS bemoaned the conditions they had been working in for decades with no attention from the Trust, with their solicitor claiming that the house was ‘a rabbit warren of scrappy offices, uninsulated and heated by off-peak electrical heaters’. A reduced bill was eventually agreed and paid. In spite of the hostility, the Trust were sad to lose the long-standing tenants as they vacated in early 1982, realising the volume of work that needed to be done to make the house suitable for subsequent tenants.

For almost three years the house lay empty, slowly decaying, until in 1985 a group of young anarcho punk squatters moved in, where they remained for almost two years before being served an eviction notice from the Trust who were making plans to sell the house to be turned into luxury apartments. The squatters’ attempts to make the house a community space helped to generate debate and raise awareness amongst locals, and kick-start direct community action against the National Trust’s proposals.

Curated by Sean Curran, Community Learning Manager, Sutton House.

With thanks to Sutton House volunteers Julia Bairstow, Beattie Clements-Hill, Jean Colson, Alyson Hamilton, Jennifer Hilder, Nel Jones, Eddie McAteer, Peter Robinson, and Polly Symes. Thanks especially to former ASTMS staff members who have reached out, donated and loaned memorabilia and shared their stories David Barr, Mike Hill, Lord Doug Hoyle, Julia Lafferty, Roger Leary, Roger Lyons, Russell Miller and Bill Walsh. This is an ongoing project and we look forward to meeting and hearing from many more ASTMS alumni.

We feel especially lucky to have an existing oral history interview recording with Joy Geary from 2011. Joy, who sadly passed away in 2013, worked at Sutton House as office manager for ASTMS, and when she retired she became a member of the Save Sutton House Society, and later its treasurer and a much valued National Trust volunteer. This exhibition is dedicated to her memory.

Finally, thanks to Daniel Adediran, George Alabaster, Christopher Cleeve, Barbara Curran, Emma Gilliland, Penny Hines, Alex Long, Sarah Lloyd, Katy Parry, Ann Smith and Eleanor Smith.

Images by Adrian Tauss.