Jack Richard Boddy (23 August 1922 – 9 March 2004)

Jack Boddy, was the former general secretary of the National Union of Agricultural Workers (latterly the rural and agricultural workers’ section of the Transport and General Workers’ Union). His main objective always was to secure the future of rural trade unionism for the sake of vulnerable workers and their families.

Jack Boddy, Gen Sec Agricultural Workers Union, Mayor of Swafham 91-92, NCC Councillor
Jack Boddy

He was born in Norwich. His desire to work on the land began when he was three years old and ,when he left the City of Norwich grammar school in 1939 to work on the farm, his teachers thought it was a waste of a good education, though few who knew him later would believe that.

He was the son of Quaker parents who were both active in the trade union and labour movement; their house formed the local Labour committee rooms where, as a child, he helped during elections. His mother, Lucy, was one of the first left-wing women to be made a Justice of the Peace. Boddy was educated at the City of Norwich School. He hoped to become a veterinary surgeon, but his parents could not afford the tuition, so instead he became a cowhand on a local farm and a trade union activist for the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers (NUAAW); collecting union dues from other workers almost from the time he left school.

During these early years at a Quaker meeting he met his school teacher wife Merle, who

Merle Boddy, Branch Secretary of Swaffham Agric Workers Union, Swaffham Labour Mayor 1985
Merle Boddy, Branch Secretary of Swaffham Agricultural Workers Union, Swaffham Labour Mayor 1985

shared his political views, and together they won seats on the district council. Jack was twice the Mayor of Swaffham and also a Norfolk county councillor, and became leader of its Labour group. Merle was also a onetime Mayor of Swaffham. During a lifetime of public service Boddy was appointed as one of the country’s youngest magistrates, he served as a member of local hospital management committees and was also chairman of one. In addition, he was a member of the East Anglian economic planning council.

In 1953, Boddy was appointed as the NUAAW’s full-time organiser for the Holland Division, Lincolnshire. In 1960, he moved to become the Norfolk District organiser, serving until 1978, when he was elected as the union’s General Secretary in a fiercely contested election, defeating Arthur Leary, Len Pike and Jim Watts. In contrast to his predecessors, he was seen as a left-winger and a change from the rightwing authoritarian leadership of the past. Jack Boddy was a gentle man with a passion for social justice which found expression within the union and the Labour Party. He was very progressive and very much in tune with the wishes of his members.

Norfolk Agricultural Workers Union ~ Swaffam Banner
Norfolk Agricultural Workers Union ~ Swaffam Banner

On taking over, he realised that the union was close to financial collapse. He initially focused on recruiting new members while cutting costs without laying off staff. However, these measures were insufficient, and he negotiated a merger with the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Although this was a highly controversial proposal it was ultimately approved by members, with a landslide majority with 7 to 1 in favour. His aim was to preserve rural trade unionism, and he had the tenacity to carry it through.

During this period, Boddy was also active in local politics, representing the Labour Party on Norfolk County Council. He also served on the General Council of the TUC from 1978 until 1983, on the European Economic and Social Committee, and on the Industrial Injuries Advisory Committee.

He was awarded the MBE in 1973 for public service.

The merger took place in 1982, and Boddy became the Group Secretary of the TGWU’s new Agricultural and Allied Workers Trade Group. He retired in 1987, returning to local politics by serving on Breckland District Council and Swaffham Town Council. His wife, Merle died shortly after his retirement, but Jack Boddy resumed his political activity and became a local councillor once again, with a renewed interest in the environment. In 1990 he married Joan Laws (née Britton); a friend from his early trade union years.

He served as Mayor of Swaffham in 1991/1992, and only retired from the council in 2003.

The union and the Labour party dominated his life, though he was never a “yes” man and was often critical of the establishment within the union and the way in which he felt that successive Labour governments sided with employers rather than the workers. As time went by he became less enamoured by New Labour and, after over 50 years’ of membership, finally resigned from the party in 2003 over the Iraq War. The television pictures of the bombing of Baghdad were more than he could take:

“My Quaker Mum and Dad, members of the party from its earliest days, would be revolving in their graves at the behaviour of the Labour government.”

He died in Swaffham on 9 March the following year. Until weeks before his death he took a keen interest in public affairs and received Hansards of the debates on gangmasters and Jim Sheridan’s Bill which was going through the House of Commons.

Shortly before he died, the Mayor of Swaffham, Ian Sherwood, went to Boddy’s home to confer honorary citizenship of Norwich, to add to his award of the Freedom of the City.

He was survived by Joan, who nursed him during his illness, and three sons and a daughter from his first marriage.

Thanks to Rural Labour (@rurallabouruk) for the images used.

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