Ricky Tomlinson is a true-life hero of the Bears and this was cemented even further last year when he was caught trying to donate £1million to Alder Hey hospital and keep it quiet. As Jim Royle, he has also entertained us for years and we are big fans of many of his other ventures. It doesn’t matter if he is playing private detective Nice Guy Eddie or if he is singing songs like My Arse or Speak No Spaniardo, here at Jammy Toast we are fans of everything he does. In fact, in recent years he has won more acting awards than Liverpool FC ever won cups – he is a true Scouser!
However, what many people don’t know is that before he became a star he worked as a plasterer and was unfairly sent to prison for his role in the National Builders Strike of 1972. Now in later life, instead of sitting back with his pipe and slippers and enjoying his Grandkids he is filled with a burning sense of injustice. Ricky spent 16 months behind bars for his role within the Shrewsbury 24, a group of trade unionists charged with serious criminal offences after picketing construction sites.
The Attorney-General of the day evoked a century-old conspiracy law as Ted Heath’s Tory government came down like a ton of bricks on the building workers. Now Ricky is fighting to reverse the verdicts with an appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
“I want to get this cleared up before I snuff it. There was definitely a conspiracy – a conspiracy involving politicians, police and the construction industry. It’s not even debatable. There was a conspiracy to punish us as examples to warn others, and we want the record set straight. It was an abuse of power. A bloody miscarriage of justice,” Ricky has said.
However, time is running out because some of the men involved are now in their 80s. Three of the group have already died. Ricky is convinced that one of the six who were jailed, Des Warren, was driven to an early grave with Parkinson’s disease by the “chemical cosh” used to sedate inmates. Considering themselves political prisoners, Ricky and Communist Des went on hunger strike and staged blanket protests – refusing to wear prison clothes. Both were repeatedly moved from prison to prison – including Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton, Leicester and Stafford – without the authorities even having the decency of informing their families where they were.
Ricky, who at 33 years of age, worked as a Site Safety Officer when he was convicted of Conspiracy to Intimidate, remembers; “It was hard but my humour helped get me through it. Dessie found it harder. They bloody hurt him, giving him that cosh. He wasn’t the same when he came out.”
The Government’s allegation was that Ricky and others meeting in the upstairs room of the Bull and Stirrup pub in Chester had unlawfully plotted to intimidate workers on building sites into joining the national strike. The prosecution claimed the flying pickets were “like a swarm of Apache Indians” when they swooped in Shropshire. Strikers had been protesting about pay, appalling working conditions and the notorious “lump”, this was tax-free cash given to workers in return for them being denied employment rights.
A witness even claimed they had chanted; “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Ricky denies ever chanting this and says; “We chanted ‘kill, kill, kill the lump’ but they left that bit off.
The strike wasn’t just about pay because the conditions were terrible. On building sites the places where you went to wash up were so bad the owners wouldn’t keep their horses in them. Toilets were filthy and there was no toilet paper – that’s if you were lucky to have a toilet at all. We wanted to end the lump. But the idea that it was violent is ridiculous. I’ve seen rougher kids’ parties. We shook hands with the police and went home and thought nothing was wrong. Five months later you’re in the back of a Black Maria.”
An online petition tabled by Ricky is demanding full disclosure of all government documents relating to the strike and the court cases. Files like these would normally be handed to the National Archives after 30 years. But they are still being kept secret by the government.
The Shrewsbury 24 group are convinced the Tory government – that had been defeated by a miners’ strike and forced to release the Pentonville 5 jailed Dockers – was desperate to show the trade unions who was boss. Researcher Eileen Turnbull has uncovered documents revealing political pressure on the police to bring a case from then Home Secretary Robert Carr.
Terry Renshaw, who at 64 is the youngest member of the Shrewsbury 24, is furious the last Labour government refused to review the case. Confronting Jack Straw at the last Labour conference, he told the former Home Secretary: “You’re an excuse for a politician and less than useless.”
Terry, who had received a suspended sentence, says; “I was a bit angry at that sentence because I hadn’t done anything. And I was angry others were in jail. We were victimised and it affects your life. I’ve never been to America because the conviction meant I couldn’t get a visa.”
Ricky was interviewed twice in the US Embassy in Belfast before he got a visa for the States.
“For years and years we were castigated,” he says. “I think it was partly to do with my divorce. You couldn’t get a job. My lads got the finger pointed at them. People now think ‘haven’t you done well seeing as you went to jail’.”
Ricky will have the bears in fits of laughter over Christmas when he returns to the comfy armchair as slob Jim Royle in The Royle Family Christmas special. However, Ricky is not losing focus on the very serious business of his campaign.
“We’d done nothing wrong yet ended up at a trial with as much security as if we were the IRA. We can’t let it go. I sometimes laugh that it was supposed to be a great conspiracy. Some of those accused didn’t meet each other until we started this campaign. Some conspiracy that, when lads don’t even know each other.”
We first heard of Ricky’s past when we took his autobiography on holiday with us a few years ago. It is past time this issue was sorted out once and for all and if the Politian’s have nothing to hide why don’t they release the papers so we can all see for ourselves? It is just like the Hillsborough fight all over again. Is it any wonder that Scousers always think it is us against the rest of the world?