Triumphant end to Ricky's campaign for justice

From the outset the trial of the "Shrewsbury Six" – as they were originally – was a cause celebre among the trade union movement.

Banner-carrying demonstrators marched through Shrewsbury as the trial began in October 1973.
Banner-carrying demonstrators marched through Shrewsbury as the trial began in October 1973.

That case at Shrewsbury Crown Court began on October 3, 1973, and in the dock were six building workers accused of being flying pickets who allegedly conspired to intimidate workers at Shrewsbury and Telford in the national building workers strike of September 1972.

Over 2,000 banner-waving protesters marched through Shrewsbury on the opening day.

Among those in the dock was plasterer Eric Tomlinson, later to become a household name as the actor Ricky Tomlinson.

Tomlinson's big acting break was a role in the Liverpool-based soap Brookside, so it is a curious coincidence that it was mainly events in Brookside, Telford, which first propelled him into the headlines.

He and his colleagues in the dock at Shrewsbury saw themselves as being at the wrong end of a politically-inspired show trial.

The political backdrop was of a Tory government led by Edward Heath which had brought in highly controversial legislation, the Industrial Relations Act, which tried to rein in the unions.

After a trial at Shrewsbury lasting over two months, Tomlinson was convicted. He got two years, of which he served 16 months. Another man, his pal Des Warren, got three years.

It was not the end, but the beginning of a campaign by Tomlinson to clear his name and of others who found themselves at the wrong end of the law as a result of those events nearly 50 years ago.

It is a mission which received high level support from Labour figures.

In 2015 the then shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham said: “The Shrewsbury 24 were the convenient scapegoats of a government campaign to undermine the unions – the victims of a politically-motivated show trial orchestrated from Downing Street, the Home and Foreign Offices and the security services.”

And yesterday Tomlinson's campaign ended in triumph.

The Court of Appeal ruled that his conviction, along with that of 13 others sentenced across three trials, were unsafe because original witness statements had been destroyed, meaning the accused had been denied a fair trial.

The appeal court allowed appeals against convictions on every count.

Warren, and five others among the 14 who brought the action, have not lived to see justice.

So what exactly happened on that day, September 6, 1972, which was to change the life of Tomlinson and others?

His account was told in his autobiography “Ricky”.

That morning, he wrote, he boarded the coach from Wrexham and they drove to the meeting point, the Oswestry Labour Club, all looking like extras from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, dressed in donkey jackets and duffel coats, with sandwiches in their pockets.

Seven building sites were visited that day. If they could find the site manager, they would ask for permission to address the workers. If nobody was about, they talked to individuals or groups of workmen.

Some listened. Others ran away at the approach of the pickets’ coaches.

Yes, there was a little bit of minor trouble, with a few door frames damaged and windows smashed. Nobody on his Wrexham coach was involved. Flying pickets were lawful, he says, and overall the picketing was good-natured and effective.

“I had seen more hostility at a kiddies’ Christmas party.”

Afterwards he went back to work on the Wrexham bypass. He was arrested weeks later.

The contemporary report in the Star of events on the building sites painted a less benign picture.

It said that about 250 pickets poured out of coaches which came from Oswestry, Wrexham, Chester and Liverpool and “tore through Telford, terrorising workmen and bringing sites to a standstill”.

The evidence at the trial given by prosecution witnesses who had chosen to continue to work during the strike included allegations of threats, thuggery, and violence.

The general thrust was given in the prosecution's opening address in which it was alleged that flying pickets had descended on the Shropshire building sites “like a horde of Apache Indians” shouting “kill, kill, kill."

A policeman described being “scared stiff” when he saw an “unruly mob” of pickets at a building site at Brookside.

So it needs to be said that Tomlinson's long campaign was resented by many in Shropshire who recalled those events, and when he met an ex-hod carrier in Malinslee for a 2007 television documentary, the 79-year-old, who had never recovered his sight in one eye after being hit by a brick during the affair, pointedly refused to shake Tomlinson's hand.

Today many of those who were involved have passed on, but for Tomlinson and his surviving colleagues their enduring sense of injustice has been vindicated and validated by the Court of Appeal's decision.

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