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Belfast's forgotten hero Robert 'Bob' Smillie who battled for children and miners

By Cate McCurry

A Belfast orphan who campaigned for the rights of the working class and changed the social fabric of Great Britain has been dubbed the forgotten hero of the early 20th century.

Robert 'Bob' Smillie became a pioneering trade unionist who defended the rights of over one million miners, co-founded the Save The Children Fund and battled against prime ministers including Winston Churchill.

Now Mr Smillie's great-grandson, Blair, has helped write a book that charts the life and work of his great-grandfather.

"He had courage which started in Belfast, as he had to grow up with no parents, work from a young age and came from nothing," he said.

Mr Smillie, from Chester, said that Robert's campaigns for social justice should not be erased from the history books.

"He became a miner in Larkhall in Scotland where he worked as a hand-pumper and every second week he would work two days in the pit for 12 hours with no human contact," he said.

"His fellow workers began to recognise he was someone who could represent them.

"People who were much older than Robert looked up to him in the mines."

The leading socialist was born into a penniless family in Belfast in 1857, left orphaned by the age of three and worked from the age of nine.

He grew up in a tall terrace near the Crumlin Road with his brother, James.

The pair were raised by their maternal grandmother, who taught them to read and write.

After moving to Scotland in his teenage years, he became a miner aged 17. But after seeing the living and working conditions of the workers, it galvanised him to enter the political and industrial world.

He went on to become a giant of the Labour movement and leader of the miners, helping improve the working conditions and wages of fellow workers.

It recalls how Robert's political journey brought him into contact with prime ministers David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Stanley Baldwin, and renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Blair (62) continued: "Robert had to learn from a young age that he had to work for a living and to look after his grandmother with his brother - they were like a team. He was never an extravagant man, he had to fend for himself and look after his family.

"Miners would often die at a young age because of their working conditions.

"He was forever negotiating to get better working conditions.

"He was a very straight, honest and socialist man who was feared by the people in parliament."

He organised some of the earliest miners' federations and went from being a union secretary to branch secretary and then formed the Scottish Miners' Federation.

By the age of 30, he became a school governor and fought to get free books for schoolchildren.

He soon became president of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain and held significant power by the First World War.

He was a controversial and popular miners' leader.

"He battled with Lloyd George to improve the conditions of the mines," Blair said.

After being elected as the first Labour government was formed, he turned down two government positions.

"He dealt with seven prime ministers and he knew them all," Blair added. "For a man from Belfast to achieve all of this with his background is remarkable.

"All these powerful people knew him and appreciated he was an honest socialist. It was that bringing up he had until he was 15 helped him fight honestly to allow people to have a decent life.

"He had a great passion for education. One of the major things he did was fight to get children out of the mines.

"He was also the main person to launch Save The Children in the Royal Albert Hall in May 1919. He also gave £30,000 from the miners of Great Britain to set up the Save the Children Fund.

"The interesting thing is that in 1920, it grew into an international organisation and there were 20 people who were honorary committee members - five from Britain and one of whom was Robert."

The Robert Smillie Memorial Primary School was named in his honour and a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, was also created.

Due to an intense workload, his health failed and in 1929 he resigned as an MP.

He then suffered from a degenerative mental illness and spent much time in the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries, where he died in 1940 at the age of 83.

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