Wednesday 21 February 2007
Ernie Amey -Dorset
A life dedicated to the welfare of others
Brian Moore has been to talk to Ernie Amey
Ernie Amey outside the cottage at Farnham into which his family moved when he was four.
Ernie Amey watched a television programme at a friend’s house in 1958, didn’t like it and has never felt the need to watch another. ‘I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to sit in front of a small screen and waste an evening of precious time when there is so much to do,’ he says. ‘Apart from the news, which I can hear any time on my old radio set, I can’t recall one programme I’ve heard discussed that I would have been better off if I had seen it. That little box in the corner of every sitting room in the country controls lives like nothing else I have come across in 80 years. It tells you what to buy, where and when to buy it, how much to pay, where to go, what to do and who to do it with. Now I ask you, if there are so many experts around who know so much about what is best for us, why is the world and the country in such a mess and why are the majority of people in so much debt?’ That is Ernie’s final word on the subject of television. He hasn’t got one, doesn’t want one and, if given one, would never watch it.
Ernie Amey is an anachronism, able to function in the 21st century only because he works as if it is still the early 1950s. He cannot take the step necessary to become part of modern living and doesn’t want to. His hundreds of friends wouldn’t want him to, either. He is venerated for what he is, not for what he could or should be. If he was suddenly transported back to 1951, he would be wholly at home, although he says he prefers the era before the Second World War, when horses and steam engines ruled the roost and when the countryside was awash with men and women working the land in ‘God’s own county’ – that is what he calls Dorset. His only criticism of those far-off days is the way the farmworker was forced to live in abject poverty, shackled to the land by the tied house system.
Born in a farmworker’s cottage in the hamlet of Cashmoor on 11 November 1923 Ernie knew poverty from the time he could walk and the lessons he learned in his hungry, formative years helped to mould his character. Watch him amble down
in Blandford on any Thursday on his way to the market stalls and if you didn’t know him you wouldn’t give him a second look. Yet there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people throughout the county who would doff their caps to him and stop and thank him for all he has done for them over the years and all that he is still doing for their children and grandchildren.
'We drew our water from the village well... pure as North Pole ice and just as cold.'
When Ernie was four, his father Fred, mother Ethel and the children moved from Cashmoor to a cottage in Farnham a mile or so away. ‘It was a big move for me. I wasn’t yet five and was only just getting used to being where I was. But apart from a few poverty-induced blips it turned out all right and I stayed there until 1977, when I moved to Blandford. Mother liked Farnham. There was enough room in the cottage, and with the horses and traction engines coming past every day she had plenty to look out on. Women were house-tied in those days what with cooking, washing and keeping a home together for large families. There were six of us children. Joe sadly died following an accident in Blandford in later life but we all grew up in that cottage. We drew our water from the village well about a hundred yards down the road, carried it in metal pails we did. You don’t taste water like that today – pure as North Pole ice it was, and just as cold. On a summer’s day after working in the fields, a jug of that water was as good as a pint of Hall and Woodhouse best bitter. But you didn’t waste water, not like many do today. It was hard-won in winter, when the north wind blew face-on and the handle of the bucket froze to your skin. We didn’t waste a drop, I can tell you. Even today I can’t abide to see a tap running with water draining down a sink.
‘I was fourteen when I started work. I was paid 7/6 – 37 1/2p in today’s money – for more than sixty hours a week. I was paid on a Saturday at midday and handed every penny over to my mother. If she had a mind, she would give me sixpence for myself. No-one knows what it was like in the 1930s unless they lived through it. My father was a carter but in the early 1930s he was laid off and the family had to go on parish relief. There was a lot of shame attached to that. You didn’t get money, only coupons, and had to work at stone-picking for the basic necessities of life. Nothing a bushel we were paid, only food coupons to keep body and soul together. When father got his job as a carter back, it was a seventy-hour back-breaking week for barely a living wage. Farmworkers were like slaves in those days and lived in fear of losing their job and house. In his stolen spare time dad would mend shoes, poach rabbits and do his garden. My mother could make a stew out of a brace of rabbits, a few herbs and a dozen dumplings that could fill an army. She could cook with barely nothing and I don’t know what she would make of today’s shopping basket with everything prepared and done ready for the oven. She would think she was in heaven. Sadly, she died of cancer in 1959. She was only 58 and didn’t live to see the better times.’
In 1944 Ernie joined the Farnham branch of what was then the National Union of Agricultural Workers, since amalgamated into the giant Transport and General Workers Union. He became branch secretary in 1949 and over the succeeding two decades took over the responsibility of running many more branches throughout Dorset, South Somerset and South-East Wiltshire. Since his appointment in 1949 he has spent over half a lifetime fighting for a fair deal for his members and has pursued claims on their behalf for unfair dismissal, work related accidents, traffic accidents and under payment. He is relentless, dedicated and absolutely unshakeable in his determination to get a fair deal for the working man. One farmer, faced with a claim in 1997, told me that he would rather pay himself than go through the insurance company and have to face Ernie Amey. ‘He’s like a terrier, he never lets go. All we farmers respect and admire him and although I don’t think we would like to admit it in public, he is our conscience.’
Ernie Amey in his office from which he has won millions of pounds for his members over the years.
Ernie was dubbed the Columbo of the union, after the raincoat-clad detective of the TV series, in the early 1990s when he pursued television star Eddie Shoestring to America and secured a back payment for one of his members for gardening work that the errant star had forgotten to pay. In nearly 55 years of representing his members he has secured awards in excess of £3 million, ranging from 7/6 in 1949 to over £700,000 in 2003. In January this year he secured a settlement of £100,000 for a member who moved to Suffolk many years ago but remained loyal to Ernie. He has thousands of members who, when asked what union they belong to, will say, ‘Ernie Amey’s’. Most have no idea that it is the giant TGWU. He travels over 20,000 miles a year collecting dues and marking the union payment cards. He is the last in a long line of doorstep collectors and when he retires there will be no more. At his 80th birthday party held in the Crown Hotel in Blandford last November, over 100 people from as far apart as Exeter, Oxford, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Southampton and every town in the South-West attended. Solicitors, newspaper editors, farmers and farmworkers came to pay their respects to a man who has dedicated his life to the welfare of others. While lesser mortals are recognised in the honours list, Ernie Amey is honoured by the people: a giant of a man and Dorset through and through.
Ernie has no wish to take life more easily. ‘I think the union would like me to retire, but as long as I can drive and get around I will stay. I think my members would miss me calling and I fear that without the personal touch, many may not remain loyal to a union they cannot see, and that would be sad. But it is inevitable, I know that, and too soon I will have to shut up shop and listen to the radio – but no television, not ever.