Peter Curran, the son of George Curran and Bridget Curran, was born in Glasgow on 28th March 1860. After he left school he began work in the blacksmith's shop of a steelworks. (1)
Influenced by the ideas of Henry George he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a Marxist political group formed by H. M. Hyndman. Other members included Tom Mann, John Burns, Eleanor Marx, William Morris, George Lansbury, Edward Aveling, H. H. Champion, Theodore Rothstein, Helen Taylor, John Scurr, Guy Aldred, Dora Montefiore, Frank Harris, Clara Codd, and John Spargo. Hyndman became editor of the SDF's newspaper, Justice. (2)
In 1881 he married Mary, daughter of Peter McIntyre, an egg dealer. The couple moved to London where he found work at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. He helped Will Thorne and Ben Tillett to establish the National Union of Gasworkers & General Labourers. Thorne led the successful negotiations for an eight hour day in the industry. As they previously did twelve hour shifts this was a great advert for union power and the Gasworkers' Union soon had over 20,000 members. (3)
In 1893 Pete Curran helped Keir Hardie to form the the Independent Labour Party. (4) It was decided that the main objective of the party would be "to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". Leading figures in this new organisation included Robert Smillie, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann, George Barnes, John Glasier, Katherine Glasier, H. H. Champion, Ben Tillett, Philip Snowden, Edward Carpenter and Ramsay Macdonald. (5)
At the general election of 1895 he was the ILP candidate at Barrow, where he was a poor third in the poll. In the autumn of 1897 he again represented the ILP, at a by-election in the Barnsley constituency. An attack on him by Benjamin Pickard, leader of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, who supported the Liberal candidate did not help his campaign and he again finished at the bottom of the poll. He was not helped by rumours that he had deserted his wife. Whatever the truth of these, in 1897 he married his second wife, Marian Barry. He took a leading role in the General Federation of Trade Unions, which formally came into being in 1899, and became its chairman. (6)
On 27th February 1900, representatives of all the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Fabian Society, met with trade union leaders at the Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass Hardie's motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour." To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The committee included two members from the ILP (Keir Hardie and James Parker), two from the SDF (Harry Quelch and James Macdonald), one member of the Fabian Society (Edward R. Pease), and seven trade unionists (Pete Curran, Richard Bell, John Hodge, Frederick Rogers, Thomas Greenall, Allen Gee and Alexander Wilkie). (7)
Whereas the ILP, SDF and the Fabian Society were socialist organizations, the trade union leaders tended to favour the Liberal Party. As Edmund Dell pointed out in his book, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999): "The ILP was from the beginning socialist... but the trade unions which participated in the foundation were not yet socialist. Many trade union leaders were, in politics, inclined to Liberalism and their purpose was to strengthen labour representation in the House of Commons under Liberal party auspices. Hardie and the ILP nevertheless wished to secure the collaboration of trade unions. They were therefore prepared to accept that the LRC would not at the outset have socialism as its objective." (8) Henry Pelling argued: "The early components of the Labour Party formed a curious mixture of political idealists and hard-headed trade unionists: of convinced Socialists and loyal but disheartened Gladstonians". (9)
In July 1907, Pete Curran won the by-election at Jarrow. His success was partly due the active part in the "right to work" agitation of the National Unemployed Committee. Once in the House of Commons he advocated a ‘right to work’ bill, the eight-hour day and advocated a system of state insurance. Ben Tillett described him as "a man of courage, mingled with ambition, and some egotism; virile and eager with an Irishman's rollicking humour and optimism and notable for the sturdy frame, the square determined jaw, the small alert eyes of the man of action". (10)
Curran was a heavy drinker and in February 1909 he suffered the embarrassment of an appearance in court, where he was fined 10s. for being drunk and incapable in the street. By the general election of 1910 General Election his health was ruined, a factor which probably contributed to his narrow defeat, by sixty-seven votes. (11)
Pete Curran died of cirrhosis of the liver on 14th February 1910. According to The Times thousands followed the hearse to Leytonstone Roman Catholic cemetery, a journey of 2 miles through "thick lines of sympathising spectators". (12)
In the late 1880s Curran left Glasgow for London where he found work at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. He soon began to appear on socialist platforms and took a full part in the upsurge of the ‘new unionism’ of 1889, so much so that, having worked with Will Thorne and others to establish the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers, by September 1889 he had become a full-time official, the secretary of the union's west of England district. There he gained some notoriety when with two other union leaders he was convicted of intimidation at Plymouth and ordered to pay a fine. The case, Curran v. Treleaven, became a landmark when in 1891 it reached the Court of Appeal and the earlier verdict was overturned. In 1891 Curran returned to London as the national organizer of the gasworkers. At about this time, he joined the Fabian Society in which he took an active part until 1900 when he resigned because of the society's failure to denounce the South African War. At meetings of the Trades Union Congress he was associated with the younger socialist delegates who called for a collectivist programme and greater political action. In 1893 he supported James Macdonald in a successful amendment requiring the parliamentary committee of the TUC to give financial aid to candidates accepting the principle of collective ownership; and at the 1894 TUC he was among the delegates who secured the replacement of Charles Fenwick (described by Curran as a round peg in a square hole) as secretary of the parliamentary committee.
Pete Curran was a man of courage, mingled with ambition, and some egotism; virile and eager with an Irishman's rollicking humour and optimism and notable for the sturdy frame, the square determined jaw, the small alert eyes of the man of action.