Rodney Bickerstaffe was a great champion of the International Brigades. The men and women who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain from 1936-39 were an inspiration for him throughout his life, he would always say.
The IBMT keeps alive the memory and spirit of the 2,500 volunteers from the British Isles who fought in the Spanish Civil War – 530 of whom gave their lives for the cause.
Writing in 2014, Rodney said: ‘It’s vital that future generations learn the lessons of what happened in Spain and know about the sacrifice of so many decent people in the cause of freedom, social justice and democracy – a struggle that continues to this day.’
His support for the International Brigades was down to two important people in his life: his mother, Pearl Bickerstaffe, and Jack Jones, the greatest trade unionist of his generation and a veteran of the Brigades.
Jack Jones, the Liverpool docker who became leader of the T&G (now part of Unite) was a veteran of the British Battalion at the Battle of the Ebro in 1938. He was Rodney’s friend and mentor for many years, despite an age gap of more than 30 years,
They first met in the early 1970s, when Rodney was still a young full-time union official. In 2001, when the IBMT was established (Jack was its life president), Rodney accepted Jack’s invitation to became a trustee.
They travelled to Spain together to visit the Ebro battlefield in 2005 and Rodney, along with son Mick Jones, was at Jack’s bedside when he died four years later.
But Rodney’s admiration for the volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War pre-dated his friendship with Jack, and had its origins in his own mother’s support for their cause.
Pearl Bickerstaffe passed on her memories and lessons from the war in Spain to her son. Some of Rodney’s earliest childhood recollections, he would later recall, were of looking through two large volumes of newspaper cuttings chronicling the final 18 months of the Spanish Civil War that his mother had kept while working at the time as a children’s nurse in south Yorkshire.
In his foreword to the book Rodney wrote: ‘The scrapbook Pearl kept during the Spanish Civil War was one of her treasured possessions. I thumbed through its stark pictures as a small boy and as I grew older tried to make sense of the tragic defeat of democracy in Spain.’
As an IBMT trustee and patron, Rodney was a regular speaker at the trust’s events, notably the annual commemoration held on the first Saturday in July on London’s Southbank. Until his death he remained a great source of inspiration and encouragement to all those of in the Trust who worked with him.
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