Thursday, November 29, 2007

National heroes: Sir Hugh Springer & Sir Frank Walcott


In life he was a portrait of greatness. In death his image looms forever large.

From educator, to politician, leader of organised labour, parliamentarian, member of the Government and, finally, to the pinnacle of public life as Head of State. This was the spectacular and unexcelled rise of Sir Hugh Worrell Springer, Barbados' third native Governor-General. For six years up to 1990, Sir Hugh held that post, following the death of his predecessor, Sir Deighton Ward.

In recognition of his "good work for Barbados in general and for the Barbados Progressive League in particular", Sir Hugh is complimented by historian F.A. Hoyos. In his book "The Story of the Progressive Movement", the author points to Sir Hugh's "impressive contributions to the common stock of policy and counsel".

His long and distinguished academic career and public service mark Sir Hugh as among the greatest Barbadians of all time. A 1931 Barbados Scholar in Classics achieved at his alma mater, Harrison College, he later stood in the vanguard of public education policy-making throughout the Commonwealth for most of his life.

That scholarship qualified him for entry to Hertford College in Oxford where he gained a B.A. degree in 1936. He obtained the M.A. degree from this institution in 1944, studied law at the Inner Temple, London and was called to the Bar in 1938.

Sir Hugh Springer, already recognised as an outstanding administrator, was the organiser and first General Secretary of the Barbados Workers' Union from 1940 to 1947. He left Barbados that year to take up the post of Registrar of the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica.

He worked in a variety of professional and political capacities, including being a Member of the House of Assembly; General Secretary of the Barbados Labour Party; Acting Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Barbados, as well as serving as Director, Commonwealth Education Liaison Unit; Commonwealth Assistant Secretary-General and Secretary-General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

By 1940, the Barbados Progressive League, whose labour programme had been outlined the previous year by new president, Grantley Adams, had won seats at the General Elections. Adams had also rededicated the League to political education and organisation as well as the development of trade unionism. Among those capturing a seat in Parliament was Hugh Springer who won on the League's ticket for St. George.

His administrative skills greatly benefited the Progressive League, of which he was General Secretary and which had created an economic section later registered as the BWU. So remarkable was his stewardship as the union's first General Secretary, that Hoyos wrote: "Hugh Springer's organising genius at this stage was of the first importance to the labour movement ...."

His already distinguished career advanced even further in 1944 when he was appointed a member of the Executive Committee, thus increasing labour representation as Mr. Adams had become a member two years earlier.

In a 1946 Barbados Progressive League-Congress Party coalition, led by Mr. Adams as the first Premier in the annals of the colony, Mr. Springer held responsibility for Education, Legal Departments, Agriculture and Fisheries.

It was impossible, however, to limit the services of so talented a son of the soil to Barbados alone. In response to the obvious regional need, he resigned from the League and the Union in 1947 to take up duties as Registrar of the University College of the West Indies, at Mona in Jamaica, a development regarded by the historian as a "severe blow to the labour movement".

But Springer had laid a solid foundation. For the BWU, he had bought properties including the first headquarters at the corner of Fairchild and Nelson Streets and the former Beacon building or "Unity House" on Roebuck Street.

Along with Frank Walcott, who was assistant to the General Secretary of the League and the Union, Hugh Springer had roped in the agricultural workers from the mid-1940s; consolidated divisions in the docks, and attracted membership from utilities, government, and clerical as well as white collar workers.

A published academic, Sir Hugh's work appears in regional publications such as "Caribbean Quarterly", "Pelican Annual" and "Torch" and in international publications such as "RSA Journal", and "Universities Quarterly", among others.

The former Governor-General was married to Dorothy nee Gittens and had three sons and a daughter.

Sir Hugh died in 1994.


Building on the foundation laid by such stalwarts as Sir Grantley Adams and Sir Hugh Springer, Sir Frank Leslie Walcott has become an heroic trade union fixture as much in recorded history as in folk memory.

A tough, principled negotiator with a visionary approach to bargaining for improved conditions for the working population, he served the island's first trade union - the Barbados Workers' Union - for 50 years.

Beginning as an active unionist in 1941, he rose from the status of a humble clerk at Lashley's on Swan Street to become assistant to Sir Hugh Springer, the BWU's first General-Secretary. He succeeded Springer on July 25, 1948.

Born on September 16, 1916, in St. Peter, the son of a policeman who died when he was very young, Frank was raised in Bridgetown and attended Wesley Hall Boys' School where he came under the strong influence of legendary Barbadian Headmaster of revered memory, Rawle Parkinson.

Walcott gained a reputation for being a good mathematician and skilled craft worker. In the late 1920s, when he was seeking employment, liberal and progressive forces were asserting themselves in a quest for democracy, including organising workers into trade unions.

In the 1930s, he became an active member of debating groups such as the Weymouth and Riverside Clubs where his fearless views attracted the attention of some progressive leaders. Hugh Springer who, along with Grantley Adams, led the Progressive League, formed in 1938, soon invited Sir Frank to join the labour movement. He showed promise as a union worker and from January 1, 1945 became assistant to Springer who was also General-Secretary of the Progressive League. After March 10, 1946, he was fully employed by the BWU and spent 45 years as an employee, initially being involved in grievance handling and later negotiations and all the administrative duties which fell under Springer's control.

Thus when Springer left the union in October 1947, to be the new Registrar of the University College of the UWI, his successor was obvious. Frank Walcott was appointed to act as General-Secretary on November 5, 1947, and the following year on July 25 was elected General-Secretary at the Annual Delegates' Conference.

Sir Frank distinguished himself locally, regionally and internationally. He consolidated the union's internal administration while engaged in organising workers and negotiating on their behalf.

It is significant that he acceded to the position of General-Secretary at a time when the union was fused with a political party. Over the next six years, he quietly achieved three objectives:

extricating the union from its junior position in the partnership with the Barbados Labour Party,

organising an effective accounting system which could pass the closest scrutiny of independent auditors, and

making the union more militant.

Describing himself as "frank by name and frank by nature", Walcott adopted a forceful but reasonable approach to trade unionism. By 1954, as they were captivated by his dynamism, workers in the utilities, in government as well as clerical and white collar employees became substantially unionised.
As General-Secretary in those days, when Barbados moved from being a British Caribbean colony to being a proud independent nation by 1966, Walcott embarked on a process of self-education, study tours, seminars and longer courses, including one at the University of Miami's Centre for Advanced International Studies, in preparation for his arduous task in the field of industrial relations.

Walcott had only an elementary education when he entered the BWU as a paid functionary. It is therefore remarkable testimony to his outstanding abilities, energies and character that he rose steadily within the organisation and expanded the role which he inherited from Springer.

In continuing the difficult task of organising sugar workers on plantations throughout the island, it was clear to Walcott that only organised labour and strong, capable leadership could reduce the power of an entrenched oligarchy which was accustomed to having its way in every confrontation with workers. Walcott proved himself more than a match for the planter-merchant oligarchy.

As Dr. Francis Mark points out in his book "The History of the Barbados Workers' Union", Sir Frank came to the post of General-Secretary "with none of the social or educational advantages or mystique of the Founding Fathers (Adams and Springer) and with none of the 'externals' which was linked in the Barbadian consciousness with traditional leadership, yet after five years in the post he was clearly the union's most forceful personality."

Walcott established the administrative authority of the General-Secretary and gained full confidence of the Union's Governing Council. By 1953 he was elected to the Executive Board of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, a capacity in which he served until his retirement in 1991.

Recognition of his stature as a regional and international trade unionist followed quickly. He served as President of the Caribbean Congress of Labour for three terms 1960-1963, 1966-1969, 1977-1980.

Few other Caribbean trade unionists gained such honours as listed here, either before or after this period: Member of the Governing Body, International Labour Organisation; Vice-President Executive Board, ICFTU; Member of AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labour Development), Board of Trustees and Chairman, World Employment Conference.

He also made his presence felt at important regional and international conferences, among them the Inter-American Ministers of Labour and Trade Union Hemispheric Conferences, Commonwealth Sugar Conferences, LomT Convention meetings and a Special Session of the United Nations in South West Africa.

In a 1958 study entitled An Analysis of the Political Situation in Barbados, eminent author and political scientist, C.L.R. James, noted: ├┤Walcott impressed me as one of the ablest and most modern-minded labour and political organisers I have met in the West Indies. ... In reply to my question as to what he wanted, say for the next five years, he replied unequivocally that he saw himself as devoting his energies to the trade union movement."

Indeed, Frank Walcott never wavered in his quest to expand the union's role and consolidate its gains. Between 1958 and 1991 he made the BWU as strong as any in the region, concentrating not only on collective bargaining but on worker education and housing, as well as on evolution of the professional trade unionist and improvement of the quality of life in Barbados as a whole.

The Labour College at Mangrove in St. Philip, established in 1975, owes its existence to Walcott's progressive thinking, and he organised scholarships there for members of the BWU and their dependents. His guiding principle was: "Unity is strength. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

Arguably the single most important factor in the development of Barbados' unionism as a bulwark against a return to the entrenched exploitation of workers, he won the union's right to be represented on all important national developmental projects. He himself served on many Boards and Committees, including the National Insurance Board, National Economic Council and the Immigration Advisory Committee. He was a Director of the Export Promotion Committee and the Barbados National Bank, besides being a member of the University of the West Indies' Finance Committee. Walcott was also a Privy Councillor from 1970 to 1976.

He became a Member of Parliament form 1945 to 1966 and again in 1971 to 1976, and played a role in the famous Bushe Experiment as a member of the Executive Committee, the precursor to the modern Cabinet from 1948 to 1954. During 1966 to 1971 he served as a Senator and was President of that Chamber from 1986 to 1991. When Barbados gained Independence in 1966 he was appointed the island's first Ambassador to the United Nations.

It is not often that a Barbadian has stood out as extraordinary while working in the company of great patriots in their struggle for social justice. Yet, Sir Frank did just that alongside Sir Grantley Adams, Sir Hugh Springer and Mr. Errol W. Barrow. With them, and in his own right, Sir Frank Walcott made a truly remarkable contribution to modern Barbados.

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