In the midst of poverty there was plenty: William S Rennie – Socialist

William Simpson Rennie Aberdeen

William Simpson Rennie
Aberdeen

William Simpson Rennie: Socialist & Stonecutter

Guest blog by Textor

William Simpson Rennie, 1866-1894, was a man of his time and one who would have asked questions of the present morass of greed, wars and crises.   Sadly aside from labour historians he is probably unknown to most Aberdonians, but for a brief period, too brief a period, he was one of the best known men amongst the city’s working class.

He was a member of that band of activists of the 1880s and ’90s who fought hard for the rights of working men and women.   At meetings, demonstrations and marches he, with others, stood against wealth and privilege and argued for the right to unionise as well as believing in the need for labour to have its own distinct political voice in parliament.   In other words he had a notion that the classes defined society and as a consequence favoured foundation of a Labour Party, although not necessarily the one that we now know. Through the later part of the nineteenth century most of the parliamentary and municipal representation of workers found expression through the Liberal Party.   Socialism challenged this.

S. Rennie came originally from Ellon but spent most of his life in Aberdeen. where he served his apprenticeship with Bower & Florence at the Spittal Granite Works, becoming a qualified stonecutter in the 1880s, when the reputation of the city as the place for quality granite work and workers was at its highest.   From the beginning of the 19th century to William’s time the sophistication of the stone trade had come on leaps and bounds.   Basically the trade consisted of the building side and the monumental-decorative industry.   Evidence of the skills of both can be seen in not only the remarkable monuments standing in cemeteries across the world but also the fine cutting displayed on buildings, bridges and other civil engineering structures.   This was the working life of William Simpson.   Like many others he crossed the pond and spent some time in the United States, taking his skills to Concord, New Hampshire to work with many other Scotsmen and stonecutters from across the world.   William was there 1889-1890. when Concord’s granite industry was at its height, with 20 local quarries, 44 stone companies and 45% of the population were foreign born. Apart from the attraction of available work the town had a further attraction for W.S.: Concord was at one time the home of the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and this fact made work in New Hampshire doubly attractive.   When he returned to Aberdeen he came, back as his fellow stonemason and historian of the Trades Council records, abuzz with stories of his time in the US and replete with Americanisms.

Coming from the highly esteemed granite industry William, within his own class, was in an envious position.   Stone masons had a long history of being willing to defend their craft status against any attempts either to cut wages or undermine their rights.   Like others they suffered the ups and downs of economic cycles, trade slumps and booms.   But given that so much of the work they carried out depended upon knowledge of stone, manual skill and dexterity, in times of business upswing masons were in a relatively strong position.    Unlike trades such as handloom weaving which had been destroyed by mechanisation machinery had not pushed their skills to the margins.

William S Rennie Headstone

William S Rennie
Headstone

It seems that W. S. first entered the political arena in the mid 1880s when he joined Aberdeen Parliamentary Debating Society a forum for all manner of opinions.   This was some forty plus years after the high points of the Chartist movement, years which had seen the creation and expansion of a more secure industrial capitalist society.   In the process, or perhaps more correctly part of the process, elements of the working class had organised themselves into trade unions which had more solid foundations than those of the earlier period.   Working class interests became more distinct and with a gradual expansion of workers’ indirect representation in Parliament socialist ideas began to permeate ever wider circles with a corresponding challenge to and gradual decline of Liberalism’s influence.

William Rennie was in at the formation of Aberdeen Socialist Society, he represented Aberdeen Operatives’ and Stonecutters’ Union on the Trades Council and was a founding member of the local Social Democratic Federation and Aberdeen Independent Labour Party.   This was a period of mass outdoor meetings with Castle Street-Castlegate being particularly favoured for gathering.   He was no shrinking violet and had no hesitation in addressing hundreds of workers, whether it was damning the managers of the gasworks for sacking men with many years service, calling for the introduction of the eight hour day, demanding that all Town Council workers be paid union rates, or seeking help for the unemployed; all these issues and more drove the stonecutter to fight for a fairer more just society.

He was a member of what the conservative Aberdeen Daily Journal called the advanced wing of socialists which, for them, was evident in, among others things, in his call for the nationalisation of land.   No doubt this was confirmed when William Rennie took part in a demonstration in 1891, standing behind an Aberdeen Socialist Society banner which made fun of the Duke of Argyll.   Aberdeen’s socialists did not falter when it came to attacking privilege and wealth and when necessary denounce the class pretensions of local Town Councillors: in 1892 William writing as a representative of the city’s unemployed demanded relief work for those in distress, including men being put to work on building council housing.   This letter was not couched in wheedling tones but in terms of strident rights for the unemployed.   Some Councillors took great exception to this including Provost Stewart who said the letter had a disrespectful tone; Baillie Lyon said it came from a subversive street meeting and was seditious.   Unperturbed W. S. damned the Council decision to pass a list of the city’s unemployed to the Aberdeen Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.   It was not improving that was needed he said; not charity, but the abolition of the conditions of exploitation which gave rise to poverty.   he recognised that in the midst of poverty there was plenty.   An unemployed man he said was like a man buried up to the neck in sand, and surrounded with food which he could not reach.

William Simpson Rennie worked closely with fellow socialists such as James Leatham.   Not that they agreed on everything, far from it.   Ideas and arguments were the stuff of political discourse; it might be over who should be chosen as a parliamentary candidate in a coming election or, indeed, with the presence of the Anarchists and Revolutionary Socialists whether Parliament was in fact the way forward.   William sided with the parliamentary road and was one of the Aberdonians who in 1891 called for a conference of all Scottish Trades Councils and socialist societies with a view to establishing a national presence to fight for greater representation of the working class.   However, despite significant differences he had with others it seems he did not fall into a narrow sectarianism and was willing to march and associate with a wide spectrum of left wing opinions.

It’s clear that William Simpson must have spent most of his time on union and socialist business.   He had a wife and child (sadly I have no further information on them), how far, if at all, the strains of such a heavy load played on the family I cannot say.   It must surely have been present in one way or another.   What we can say is that there is every likelihood that the volume and pace of political work he undertook, not to mention the physical toil of being a stonecutter, played some part in his sudden death on 3rd August 1894.   For three months prior to his death he had been staying with his wife and child at Kincardine O’ Neil, just west of Aberdeen, working on a contract of stonecutting at the local mansion, a new-build castle in the ever popular Scots Baronial style.   On Friday the 3rd William returned to his lodgings at the end of the working day.   Was taken ill and died shortly after.   Dr Cran of Banchory issued the death certificate, concluding that death was caused by heart disease.   William Simpson Rennie was twenty eight years old.

Kincardine o' Neil castle

Kincardine o’ Neil castle

It is a sad irony that a man who campaigned against privilege should die while employed on the grand folly at Kincardine Castle

The following day his body was taken from the village to the railway station at Torphins to be carried to his home town.   In a mark of respect some fifty of his fellow workers at Kincardine O’ Neil, dressed in working clothing, followed the coffin to the station.

When it came to his burial at St Peter’s Cemetery at 6.30p.m. on the evening of 7th August (allowing workers time to attend) the extent of his influence became apparent.   The cortege of mourners was in the region of 1600 with thousands lining the streets to the graveyard.   And, again giving an indication of how he stood for breaking of many of the conventions of bourgeois society a large number of processionists were ladies.   Women walking to the graveside en-masse, not a common sight in late Victorian Aberdeen.   His coffin was draped with a red flag, bearing the words “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”.   An indication of the non-sectarian strength of the man and others was that at the graveside orations were given by men from the Anarchist Communist Group, the Trades Council, the SDF, the Aberdeen ILP and the Secularist Society; and at William’s home at Kingsland Place the Reverend Alex. Webster had conducted a short religious service.

At the Trades Council meeting of 15th August W. S. Rennie was described as one of their youngest and best members . . . one of their most eloquent speakers . . . always endeavoured to convince rather than to bully . . . a credit to the council and an honour to the working men of the city.

John H Elrick

John H Elrick

His headstone was erected by fellow workmen to a design by John H Elrick, mason, trade unionist and socialist.   Drawing on his own verse inscribed on the headstone it’s fitting to describe William Simpson Rennie as “A Courageous Friend of Freedom”.

5 Comments to “In the midst of poverty there was plenty: William S Rennie – Socialist”

  1. There was also James Leatham 1863-1945 who produced the first socialist newspaper in Scotland (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Weegies) and ended up Lord Provost of Turriff! (there’s a plaque to him in Schoolhill).

  2. The title made me smile! My rural Aberdonian mother often described her life in the 30’s in a similar vein. “We never went without” was her reply when I asked her early somewhat hard life. Incidentally she was brought up at Kirkstyle Cottage Midmar and it was your blogpost about that area that led me to your site.

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