Obituary: Bill May, activist and veteran London co-operator

Socialist campaigner with a commitment to co-op education

Bill May who passed away recently at the age of 94 was part of a remarkable generation of working class men whose wartime experiences unlocked a passion for a fairer socialist society.

After service in the Royal Navy in the Far East Bill returned to civilian life. Activism in the TGWU led to a scholarship to Ruskin College, one of a small group of long term residential colleges that included the Co-operative College. With a commitment to adult education, Bill became an organiser for the Workers Educational Association (WEA) before commencing a long career in co-operative education with the St. Albans Society.

In 1965 he moved to become education secretary at Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, which was widely recognised for its extensive and innovative work (and which owed much to the work of Joe Reeves who had held the post until becoming an MP in the 1945 Labour landslide). Bill joined a society with a strong active membership. It also had a proportional representation system in its elections for a full-time board of directors as well as for its Education and Political Purposes Committee. The PR system meant none of the unofficial members groupings could have a majority on the Committees, making it a challenging governance environment. Bills quiet and calm professionalism enabled him to build on its radical co-operative education traditions, in particular with what was the strongest and longest-lasting Young Members Organisation in the movement.

 Bill moved to take up the post of sectional education officer for the Co-operative Union Northern Section in 1978, returning to his northern roots before retirement in 1991.

“Bill was a highly respected and authoritative figure in co-operative education whose thoughts were always valued and appreciated by colleagues regionally and nationally,” said former Co-operative College principal, Mervyn Wilson.

“I first met Bill when I joined the London Co-operative Society as an education organiser in 1974. He was always kind and considerate, and was welcoming and encouraging to the new wave of younger people joining the world of co-operative education. He welcomed challenge and new ideas and recognised that the movement had to change to survive. I’m sure he would be smiling seeing the global movement today.”