The Ballad of Bantam Billy: The political life and times of Bill Perkins Jack Perkins
Review by Don Franks The Spark Dec 2009 – Jan 2010
My most entertaining and memorable read this year has been a self published family account titled “The Ballad of Bantam Billy”. The author is Jack Perkins, Bill Perkins’ son. “Bantam Billy” was the nickname Lancashire coal miners gave to a short statured young workmate who became – and remained for life- an uncompromising fighter for socialism. “ If dad sensed any challenge or disrespect for his beliefs he was instantly and fearlessly outspoken. There were never any beg-your-pardons in his outbursts. I remember a bus trip when some unsuspecting passenger slighted the Soviet Union. Dad’s volcanic response turned heads, including the driver’s who brought the crowded vehicle to a temporary halt while things calmed down.”
Born into a mining family in 1897, Bill Perkins left school at 13 to go down the pit. British mining conditions then were comparable to Chinese mining conditions in 2009. “It was hard, dirty and dangerous toil. Thousands were killed by explosions from gas build-ups. In the period between 1900 and the first World War, dad remembered three disasters which in total took the lives of about one thousand men.”
Bill Perkins continued his education at night school and became a voracious reader. When world war I broke out in 1914 the young miner was a committed socialist. When called up, Bill refused to serve in the capitalist army. He was sentenced to two years hard labour and jailed in Wormwood Scrubs. Back in the mines after the war Bill took an active part in the General Strike of 1926, and later, when unemployed, in the hunger marches.
Bill’s reading of left reformers Beatrice and Sydney Webb interested him in the supposed socialist experiment of New Zealand. In 1928 he and his wife left the discord and squalor of working class Lancashire to seek a new life halfway across the world. This involved coal mining on the West Coast, more unemployment, relief work, and a job in Wellington as paid organizer for the Communist Party. That was at a time when New Zealand communists suffered sever state repression.
In 1933, the whole Central Committee was imprisoned for six months. After a lifetime of struggle, Bill Perkins died at the age of 98. ” He was intelligent, well read, a good speaker. He would have had little trouble finding a place in the ranks of the Labour party, but he’d have none of it. In his eyes they were traitors to the working class.”
He also reflected some of the movement’s inflexibility and dogmatism: “During the 1950s and 60s, as former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s murderous excesses became undisputed, I would have long arguments with Dad, but he would never budge in his support for the Soviet Union” Weaknesses of twentieth century communism have been endlessly trumpeted by establishment historians.
Trumpeted while the inspiring principle, heroism and humanity of many party members and their partners has been ignored, forgotten and lost. This moving book rescues and celebrates a singular piece of working class history. (Jack Perkins is Executive Producer of Radio New Zealand National’s weekly documentary series Spectrum. Jack has spent 50 years in broadcasting, mostly in documentary work, much of it exploring the social and political history of New Zealand.) Copies of “The Ballad of Bantam Billy” may be obtained for $15.00; email jperkins@…