The Making of a Trade Unionist

Pearl Bickerstaffe and Rodney 1949
Pearl Bickerstaffe and Rodney 1949

Born on the 6th April 1945 as the Second World War was coming to an end Rodney could hardly have become anything other than an active trade unionist given the political awareness and trade union activity of his mother, Elizabeth Pearl Bickerstaffe. Known, variously, to family and friends as Pearl and Liz.

She was an inspiring individual, born in 1920, winning a place at her local Doncaster grammar school before leaving at 16 to pursue her vocation in nursing. When she was seventeen she began keeping a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings about the Spanish Civil War filling more than 170 pages by early 1939.

The scrapbooks have been published by the International Brigade Memorial Trust and provide an insight into how Rodney developed a political awareness at an early age.

As a student nurse she became a member of NUPE in 1941. Faced with the choice of joining the Royal College of Nursing or NUPE she later told Rodney “I wanted to join a real trade union” and remained a member throughout her working life.

Liz, at the age of 19, began her employment as a student nurse at Whipps Cross hospital in the east end of London. There she met Thomas Simpson, a young carpenter from Ireland.

They courted for a few months before Thomas returned to Dublin. Liz found herself pregnant giving birth to Rodney at Queen Charlotte’s hospital in West London and facing the prospect of bringing him up on her own while pursuing her nursing career.

In 1948 she and Rodney returned to Doncaster to live with her parents, taking Rodney on a number of union marches as he grew up. Reminiscing about this period Rodney said “among my mum’s books there were only two picture books, so the earliest images I remember seeing as a child were those in a copy of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and photos from the Spanish Civil War.”

After attending Doncaster Grammar School for Boys he studied at Rutherford College of Technology in Newcastle and graduated with a degree in Sociology in 1966.

On February 1st 1966, prior to his graduation, his mother wrote to Sydney Hill, NUPE General Secretary, inquiring if there was any chance there might be a job in NUPE that Rodney could apply for. She little realised she was initiating his progression from trainee Area Officer to General Secretary and, some 16 years later, receiving the NUPE badge of merit and a Life Membership Certificate from her son, NUPE’s new leader.

Biography by Jim Sutherland

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