RUSKIN HOUSE

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The history of Croydon's Trade Unions and Labour Party in Ruskin House

Throughout the history of Trade Unions, the most likely place for their members to be able to gather together was the local pub or tavern. These became known as the Carpenters Arms, Bricklayers, Blacksmiths and many other crafts. So when the widespread liberal movement developed in the nineteenth century with its campaign against the dangers of drink, it was very natural for some of the Quaker ladies in the Croydon area to seek to set up a meeting place so that Trade Unions could meet in an 'alcohol free building'. This was the Ruskin House in Station Road, West Croydon of 1912. By the end of the First World War it had already failed to meet the growing needs of the Trade Unions in Croydon. 1919 saw the opening of the building in Wellesley Road where more than 50 Trade Unions, Croydon Labour Party and other organisations associated with the Labour movement met.

By 1925 when it had become clear that a major struggle was looming, Ruskin House became the organising and meeting centre. In May 1926, on the eve of the General Strike, Ruskin House was the main starting point for a march of over 20,000 people to Duppas Hill for a mass meeting. A smaller march started from South Croydon bus garage.

The Croydon T.U.C. transformed itself into a 'Council of Action', and all the unions elected the Central Strike Committee. There were reported to be 300-500 people in and around Ruskin House every day. The Social Committee of the Labour Party organised a profit-making canteen with the money raised going to the Miners' Hardship Fund.

A dispatch department circulated the printed editions of the Croydon Worker, the Social Committee organised dances and socials, and the 'Workers Defence Corps' defended Ruskin House from the local fascists as well as stewarding meetings.

Many of these organisations continued to function from Ruskin House long after the Strike ended, and it became more and more the centre of the movement throughout the 1930s.

In the early 1940s there was an expansion of this type of activity. While the Trade Union branches continued to meet regularly, the various youth groups began to meet together in Ruskin. One member remembered these times: "The Coydon Youth Service, a voluntary unofficial organisation formed in early 1942, consisted of the Labour League of Youth, Air Training Corps, Sea Cadets, Guides, Scouts, Young Communist League, etc. We met on Sunday mornings at Ruskin House, and Croydon Council provided a dust cart and driver. We toured areas of Croydon collecting pots and pans and articles for melting down for the 'War Effort'. In the latter part of the War, and soon after, this group regularly toured Croydon noting empty houses and reporting them to the Council in an effort to help homeless people to be housed. We ourselves were 10,000 plus on the housing list in 1947, but never did get a council house."

The fear of atomic bombs produced new organisations, protesting, and calling for nuclear disarmament. Croydon's Ban the Bomb group, predating CND, was based at Ruskin. The advent of unrest and wars in Britain's colonies where the local people wanted their independence produced the Movement for Colonial Freedom and Ruskin House became one of the meeting places for all of these groups. The Suez Emergency Campaign was active too.

With the end of the old Ruskin House in Wellesley Road and the move to Coombe Road, there was a great deal of debate within the Trade Union branches both for, and against the plans for the new building to have a bar, but with very few exceptions the union branches moved their meetings to the new Ruskin House - and used the bar.
The growth of industrial disputes in the 1960s and early 1970s once again found Ruskin House at the centre of the organisation of support for those on strike. During the Miners Strikes of both 1972 and 1974, Ruskin House was used by a delegation of miners for their pickets on Power Stations in the area. As miners support groups grew, Ruskin House also became the collecting point for food and money for the strikers. It also became the venue for a large number of mobilising meetings for other unions and supporters of their disputes.
Co-operators also used Ruskin, as the number of co-op halls declined. Croydon Cooperative Party and the regional Party Council still meet there.

It was the Labour Party's main centre from 1966 onwards, having been based for a period in their own building in Tamworth Road. In the 90s, Ruskin was the base for Labour's period of greatest success, winning Croydon Council twice, and two of the parliamentary constituencies. Following the 1979 election it speedily became the centre for the opposition to the attacks not only on the Trade Unions, but also on other groups in the community.
Groups opposing the way in which the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) was being used to provide cheap labour and the Anti Poll Tax groups were meeting at least every month, sometimes every week. The Anti Racist Alliance (ARA) also met here. The meeting rooms and halls were seldom empty.

During the 1984/85 Miners Strike, Ruskin House again became the base for a delegation of miners, not just for the pickets, but also for their speakers who spoke at every meeting they could get to to explain their case. Ruskin House also served as a central collecting point for both money and supplies. Most weekends, carloads, sometimes vanloads of food supplies or money would be sent from Ruskin to Kent, South Wales and the North East coalfields by delegates from Croydon unions.

Ruskin House still has a number of miners lamps presented to Croydon by miners lodges as a mark of thanks for the support.

However with the change in the employment pattern in Croydon, and the destruction of the manufacturing industry, the unions were forced to reorganise. For instance, the engineers union at one time had seven branches in Croydon, but now have just one. The same is true of other unions. However the other organisations in which trade union members were involved also used Ruskin House throughout the period. For some years in the 1980s and 1990s the garden was the site of MayDay rallies and festivals organised by Croydon T.U.C.

Ruskin also became a centre of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, later Action for Southern Africa. This involved meetings addressed by senior members of the ANC and was marked with the naming of the Mandela Lounge.

The basis of the founding of the first Ruskin House in 1912, and of its expansion in 1919 is still valid. Ruskin House remains the main venue for the meeting of the Trade Union and Labour Movement in Croydon.

 

Trade Unionists marching together in Croydon's North End in the 1980s

 

 

Ruskin House is a centre for folk and blues music in Croydon

 

Ruskin Today

Croydon Trade Union Council (CTUC), one of the largest TUCs in London, has always held meetings at Coombe Road and, with Sutton TUC, is committed to maintaining this centre for the benefit of all its affiliates and the wider labour movement.

Trade Unions make up the majority of Ruskin's tenants. USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive & Allied Workers have had their Regional Office at Coombe Road since 1968, and are the biggest leaseholders. USDAW also hold their branch meetings and training schools at Ruskin on a regular basis. The GMB (General, Municipal & Boilermakers Union) has an office in the Cedar Hall and holds regular branch meetings.

Other unions meeting at or supporting Ruskin include: UNISON Segas and Riverside branches; four of the local branches of the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) - some hold their annual social events in the Cedar Hall; the Union of Construction Allied Trades & Technicians (UCATT); MSF, the Manufacturing, Services & Finance Union, Croydon, Crystal Palace and Craft branches; the Musicians Union (MU), South London branch; the AEEU, Amalgamated Electrical & Engineering Union, formerly the EETPU and AEU, now have just one large branch; Croydon National Union of Teachers (NUT); Croydon National Association of Teachers in Further & Higher Education (NATFHE); ASLEF, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen; the RMT, Rail Maritime & Transport Union; the Fire Brigades Union (FBU); and the Communication Workers Union (CWU), particularly the Engineers and Postal Constituencies based in Croydon. Ruskin continues to hold out the hand of friendship to present and other potential TU users.

Monthly constituency meetings of the Labour Party continue to take place at Ruskin, as well as regular Local Government Committee meetings. Some branches meet at Ruskin too, as well as affiliates such as the Socialist Education Association, the Labour Party Retired Members Group, Labour Women's Group and Young Labour. Fundraising events, campaign meetings and political education, as well as the new Annual Croydon Labour Party Conference also take place. The Organiser works from an office in the House, and Croydon Central's MP 1997-2005, Geraint Davies, held a surgery every Friday evening .

The Croydon Co-operative Party, and Surrey and Berkshire Regional Party Council, and the wider Co-operative movement hold regular meetings at Ruskin.

The groups of active retired organisations include those of the TGWU, AEEU, GMB, CWU, and the Croydon Retired Forum, meet at Ruskin on various days of the week. They play an important and influential role locally and on the national scene. The University of the Third Age (U3A) runs a variety of social and educational events including history, art and bridge. These daytime gatherings have established extra revenue on days not previously being let out.

The Croydon Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Croydon Peace Council hold meetings and occasional Barbecues, whilst the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) hold a regular weekly meeting in the Cedar Hall.

The Cedar Tree Playgroup, which caters for up to 30 young children every weekday morning, has used and supported Ruskin for 30 years.

Following the 1994 confirmation of the shareholders' wish to retain the Coombe Road premises, new users were attracted to Ruskin House. The Folk & Blues Sunday night club was joined by the Rhythm & Blues club on Friday nights. They have contributed a great deal to both Ruskin House and many charitable causes, and hold a very popular Annual Folk Festival. More recently Croydon Folksong became a regular Monday night club, presenting big name professionals in folk music. The Carrom League (a board game group) has a regular monthly fixture as do the Croydon Budgerigar Society, the Croydon Dolls House, the Bluebell Railway, the British Koi Keepers Society and the Surrey Fighting for Animals Group (SUFFA).

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