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Obituary Derek Watkins: one of the Pentonville Five

Roger Sutton remembers a stevedore and a class fighter, jailed for picketing — then released after a mass working-class campaign

ON AUGUST 21 Derek Watkins died. He was a key part of working-class history as one of the Pentonville 5. Derek, a lifelong trade unionist, was born in Bermondsey on September 30, 1937 to Violet and Joseph — he had a brother and sister.

His family were evacuated out of London during the war and on their return moved to Mottingham in south-east London. He and his wife Sally met in a dance hall over a Burtons in Eltham. He was soon called up for National Service and ended up in Tripoli in the late 1950s — after demob he spent most of his life thereafter in Bexleyheath.

Derek followed his father and grandfather’s footsteps to work in the hard and tough job of a stevedore, first in the Surreys and then Erith Wharf. He was a rank and file trade union activist and later a steward, involved in the constant battles in the docks.

When the battles intensified in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was seen as a solid and reliable figure by his workmates. When the dispute focused on containerisation he was involved in the picketing, in 1972, of places like Chobham Farm in Stratford.

He, like all the stewards, was under police and private investigator surveillance as the stewards developed their campaign to save dock jobs. When the list was issued of which stewards were named by the National Industrial Relations Court, the special anti-union court set up by the Tories, Derek was on it.

He and the other four — Vic Turner, Bernie Steer, Connie Clancy and Tony Merrick — were sent to Pentonville Prison for contempt of court for continuing their picketing in defiance of injunctions. That was when the working-class response was stepped up with workers walking out in solidarity across the country, mass marches going up to Pentonville and all night picketing of the prison.

When the sheer strength of that working-class response became clear, the authorities suddenly started to backtrack and had to dig out the Official Solicitor as a face saving device to let them out in July 1972. The five were released as a mass demonstration reached the prison. A massive working-class victory.

Derek returned to picketing and carrying on the struggle for jobs in the docks that went on through the Jones-Aldington Report, further redundancies until the ending of the National Dock Labour Scheme. Derek then moved on to work in Purfleet and subsequently did a number of different jobs — but once a stevedore always a stevedore.

Always a fighter, he fought Parkinsons when it visited in the last years of his life. He refused to be totally restricted by it. Everyone you talk to says the same — a good bloke, self-effacing, a cracker of jokes, a class fighter. A reat family man too, he could pick up skills quickly and thus a good DIYer and liked yachting, using his waterman skills. He leaves his wife Sally and two sons Paul and Chris.

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