Thomas Gavan Duffy

One of the great men of the early part of the 20th Century in Cleator Moor was Thomas Gavan-Duffy (no relation!).  He was the Member of Parliament for the Whitehaven constituency and also the secretary of the Cumberland Iron-Ore Miners and Kindred Trades Association.  He held the post of secretary for more than 23 years.

Thomas Gavan was born in Dublin on 25th September 1867 and was the son of Bernard and Elizabeth.  His education started in Dublin under the guidance of the Christian Brothers.  In Ireland, he began to use his oratory skills to further the cause of Irish Home Rule.

His education continued in Liverpool where he had gone to work as a Journalist at the age of 17.  As he moved around the Country, he began to take an active interest in Socialism.  From this interest, he went into Trade Unionism.  Later, while working as a shop assistant he became the district delegate for his union.  He began seeking better wages and conditions for the union membership.  When he was 24-years of age, he became a full time organiser of the then emerging Labour Party.

It was while touring the Country as an organiser for the Labour Party, and by giving speeches and encouragement to workers to unite, that he arrived in West Cumberland.  While in Cumberland, Thomas Gavan-Duffy was requested that he stand for the vacant post of ‘General Secretary of the Cumberland Iron-Ore Miners and Kindred Trades Association’.  The then secretary of the union, Mr James Flynn had been rejected by the membership through a ballot on 12th July 1906.  Thomas Gavan-Duffy was voted into his position by 1,644 votes for, and 108 against.  He took up the position on August 26th.

Some problems that Thomas Gavan-Duffy had to deal with when he took up his position were: The outgoing General Secretary had refused to accept dismissal from his office and was still withholding all account books along with the union banner.

In 1910, there were two iron-ore unions registered in the area, one ‘The Cumberland Iron-Ore Miners and Kindred Trades’ at Alva House, Moor Row and ‘The National Iron-Ore Miners Association’ of which James Flynn was secretary on High Street, Cleator Moor.  This split within the membership of the miners made collective bargaining difficult with the Mine owners more willing to deal with the more moderate union under James Flynn.

John Stirling, a mine owner would neither join an association of Iron mine owners nor permit his workers to join a union.

Thomas Gavan-Duffy was not content to sit back while negotiating for his men.  To ensure that he had all the relevant facts, not only on the union side, but also by becoming a shareholder in the Workington Iron and Steel Company, he ensured that he had access to all events within the business.  He was also aware of the various directorships in different companies.

The new offices for the union were opened at Bowthorn on 15th August 1914 at a cost of £1,200.   At the opening ceremony, Thomas Gavan-Duffy spoke of the time when he had taken over as General secretary, that they didn’t even have a chair to sit on, or a table to write on, and were now able to purchase a new building as well as having money in the bank.

He stood as a Labour candidate for Whitehaven in the General Election of 1918, but lost to the Conservative Unionist by 1,720 votes.  He stood again for the local constituency in 1922.  However, this time he was elected as a Member of Parliament by a majority of 1,979.  He lost his seat in 1924.
While he was a Member of Parliament, he won the rights for compensation cases in the law courts to be fought by every Trade Union on behalf of their respective membership.  He was also active in having an amendment to the ‘Workman's Compensation Act’ put through Parliament.

Thomas Gavan-Duffy died on 4th August 1932, and was interred in the cemetery of the Grotto of St Mary’s Church, Cleator.  At his funeral, a very large and overflowing congregation attended to pay their respects.

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