Sunday 4 March 2007

Jack Boddy MP

HE NATIONAL Union of Agricultural Workers found some of its leaders in Norfolk - Alderman Edwin Gooch was President from 1928 to 1967, and Bert Hazell from 1966 to 1978 - and, like Gooch, later MP for the same constituency of North Norfolk. But, by the late 1970s, the NUAW (now the NUAAW) had dwindling membership and had got into deep financial difficulty, from which it was rescued by another Norfolk man, Jack Boddy. Jack Jones, former General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, says:

Jack Boddy, with progressive ideas, realised that, in order to become an effective force representing agricultural workers, the rural poor and their families, his members would benefit themselves by becoming the rural and agricultural section of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He proved a good and progressive comrade after the merger, which he handled extremely well in view of the resistance in certain reactionary areas.

Boddy was born into a Quaker family; his mother, Lucy, was one of the first left-wing women to be made a Justice of the Peace. Leaving City of Norwich School, to the distress of his teachers, who saw wasted talent, to work on a farm as a cowman, he became a farm foreman at 21 and was chosen at 31 for the key position of NUAW Lincolnshire District Organiser in 1953. He returned to Norfolk in 1960 as District Secretary.

Gillian Shephard, later to be John Major's Secretary of State for Education, was Boddy's contemporary as a Norfolk county councillor and knew his work in her capacity then as an inspector of schools in Norfolk:
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For 40 years Jack was a champion of children in rural schools having equal chances. He was a giant of a man in the old tradition of the NUAW. We were extremely personally close. Until weeks before his death he took a keen interest in public affairs and I sent him Hansards of the debates on gangmasters and Jim Sheridan's Bill going through the House of Commons. Jack was about public service.

In 1978, Boddy emerged victorious in a closely contested election to be General Secretary of the NUAW against Ross Pierson and three other candidates: Arthur Leary, Len Pike and Jim Watts. The authoritarian right lost control for the first time. As leader of the workers' side of the Agricultural Wages Board, Boddy realised more muscle was needed, so he battled within the union and got his way to link up with the TGWU. He had been a valued member of the General Council of the TUC from 1978 to 1983.

The last time I telephoned, tearfully he told me that he had allowed his Labour Party membership of more than 60 years to lapse. The television pictures of the bombing of Baghdad were more than he could take:

My Quaker Mum and Dad, members of the party from its earliest days, would be revolving in their graves at the behaviour of the Labour government.

Jack Boddy was wonderfully supported by his wife, Merle, like him a former Mayor of Swaffham, who died in 1987, and then by Merle's best friend, the widowed Joan Laws, whom he had first known in Lincolnshire days and who had been the head of a home for delinquent children in Essex, and who was to nurse Jack throughout his final illness.

Shortly before Christmas, the Mayor of Swaffham, Ian Sherwood, went to Boddy's home to confer honorary citizenship of Norwich, to add to his cherished Freedom of the City.

Jack Richard Boddy, trade unionist: born Norwich 23 August 1922; MBE 1973; General Secretary, National Union of Agricultural Workers 1978-82; Group Secretary, Agricultural and Allied Workers Trade Group, Transport and General Workers' Union 1982-87; married 1943 Merle Webb (died 1987; three sons, one daughter), 1990 Joan Laws (nee Britton); died Swaffham, Norfolk 9 March 2004.