First Alumnus to have a biography entitled “Revolutionary Communist at Work” and to be described by a Prime Minister of Great Britain as “the most dangerous man in Britain.”
This series promised a few surprises, so let’s start with probably the most unusual U of A First of all.
I grew up in an industrial and seafaring town in North-East England where everyone knew the name Bert Ramelson. He was the National Organiser for the Communist Party of Great Britain and was at the heart of a strike by the National Union of Seamen in 1966. The strike threatened to bring the country to a standstill and was ended only when the government of Harold Wilson declared a National State of Emergency. He was one of a group of six organisers described by the Prime Minister as “a tightly knit group of politically motivated men” and later as "the most dangerous man in Britain." At the time, naturally I had no idea that he was also a distinguished alumnus of the University of Alberta.
This fact was pointed out to me by my then colleague, Jeremy Williams, shortly after I joined the Faculty. He pointed to the photograph of the class of 1934 and asked whether I had ever heard of one of its members. The photograph contains a picture of a very conventional, slightly smiling Bert Ramelson. The unusual and enduring hairstyle was convincing proof that this was indeed the same Bert Ramelson who was the scourge of the British establishment.
His family fled the pogroms that occurred in Ukraine following the Bolshevik Revolution and arrived in Edmonton in 1922, where his uncle was a fur trader. In case it assists any reader to trace local contacts, Ramelson’s birth name was Baruch Rahmilevich Mendelson. He must have been formidably bright, because he was educated in Ukraine until he was 11 years old and succeeded in winning the gold medal in law 13 years after he had arrived in the country. He articled to Abe Miller (U. of A. Law 1924) in Edmonton but left to work on a kibbutz in Palestine immediately afterwards.
His experience in Palestine began a life of activism. He left the kibbutz when he became disillusioned with a campaign to replace the Arab workers on the kibbutz. He then fought in the Canadian Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war, where he was wounded on two separate occasions. Upon returning to England, he took up the unlikely position of trainee manager with Marks and Spencer.
During the Second World War, he was a tank commander in the North African campaign and was captured after the fall of Tobruk. He organized classes in Marxism among his fellow prisoners of war and eventually led a mass escape from an Italian prisoner of war camp. He fought with the Italian resistance and later served in India.
He became a formidable organiser of labour in the postwar world in Britain. He was influential in setting up militant groups in the National Union of Mineworkers and was the mentor of Arthur Scargill in the momentous miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1980s. He expressed his opposition to the mainstream of the Labour Party by running as a Communist candidate in a 1963 by-election to succeed the late Hugh Gaitskell, the former leader of the Labour Party. He obtained only 600 votes.
Although acknowledged as a “hard man” in politics, he was and excellent orator and known to have a good sense of humour. He died in 1994, but remains well known in left wing politics in Britain. In January 2012, a Conference was held in London in honour of his life and times. It was entitled “The Working Class Organised”.
Born Ukraine 1910, Died England 1994
Prime Minister Harold Wilson called him ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’. During the 1966 seafarers’ strike Harold Wilson again singled him out - as the ringleader of a ‘tightly knit group of politically motivated men.’
- 1922 emigrated with his family from Ukraine to Edmonton, AB
- 1934 - Won a scholarship to the University of Alberta, graduated from Law with First Class Honours and was awarded The Gold Medal
- June 5, 1934 – Began articles in Edmonton
Completed a year in practice as an articled clerk
- June 8, 1935 – he was called to the Bar.
- February 10, 1936 – Changed his status to non-practising and went to work on a Kibbutz in Palestine, left after becoming disillusioned with Zionism after a campaign to exclude Arab labour
- Joined the Canadian battalion of the International Brigades, fought in the Spanish Civil War and was wounded twice
- 1939 settled in Britain.
- During WWII he was a Tank Commander in Britain’s Royal Tank Corps and in 1941 was imprisoned by German forces at Tobruk. He organized a mass escape from a POW camp and connected with the Italian Resistance
- 1946-1953 full-time secretary to the Leeds (Yorkshire) Branch of the Communist Party. Worked with the national Union of Mineworkers encouraging political activism
- 1965-1977 was the industrial organiser of the Communist Party of Great Britain
- He was a Communist and proud of it. He was as he said, ‘no red under the bed’
- Famous for being a ‘hard man with humour’