He remains its defining figure, and his influence as a dogmatic, organised negotiatior cast a long shadow over the Union. Both the subsequent General Secretaries – ES Teale and Fred Dambman were described at the time as Williams’ “disciples.”
Williams came from an artistic family – his mother, Kate, who worked unpaid for the Union in its earliest days, was an actor, while his father, Edward, was an accomplished musician, having been an apprentice to Ferdinard Wallerstein, before becoming a musical director at the Princes and Queens Theatres in Manchester.
JB Williams, like his three siblings, trained as a musician and by the age of 16 was teaching clarinet and working in theatre orchestras in and around Manchester.
At the age of 20 in 1893 he was playing clarinet in the orchestra of the the Comedy Theatre in Manchester when he began organising musicians in response to the low pay and (perhaps more significantly) terrible conditions under which theatre musicians were employed. His call to form a “protection union” was initially taken up by only 20 or so musicians who turned up to a meeting on the 7th May 1893, but rules were established, and the Union grew in number both in Manchester and surrounding areas where new branches were formed.
Part of this was down to Williams’ zeal as an organiser, but the early years of the Union saw him faced with a number of problems – not least internal conflict (between the Manchester branch and the Union’s Executive) and with similar (but non-union) organisations like the London Orchestral Association. In trying to establish a Union for all musicians, a major part of the problem was the non-homogenous working conditions of musicians in, for example, London and the provinces; the major orchestras and theatre orchestras.
Nevertheless, the Union survived these challenges and the hand to mouth nature of its operation in the first three years to expand, partly down to Williams travelling the country and speaking to musicians in different cities and towns. This became easier for him after the appointment of ES Teale as Assistant General Secretary in 1896 to cover the office tasks when Williams was out of Manchester, often to deal with and negotiate in, local disputes.
William Batten, who was to become a significant figure in the Union during the 1920s and 1930s, recalled meeting Williams for the first time at a meeting in Dalston in 1897 as he set about increasing the Union’s reach in London, noting his “tremendous capacity for work.”
This was reflected in his continual travel both around the UK (and subsequently, internationally) to recruit members and build alliances which would increase the power of the Union. As well as being General Secretary of the union, he was also a father of two, a member of Manchester City Council “for some years” as well as being on the TUC’s General Council for thirteen years. For a brief period towards the end of his career, he was also Chairman of the TUC’s General Council (1922) and chair of the TUC Congress in Plymouth in 1923.
However, his successes in raising the standards of musicians’ working conditions and pay, were perhaps more remarkable in the light of both is personal difficulties and ill-health. He was made bankrupt (ending his Manchester City Council membership) and his son, also Joe, died shortly after his eighteenth birthday after being called up to serve in the war.
After his retirement, Williams moved to his home in Veyrieres, France, which he had purchased in 1921. Bill Batten described Williams as “a mental and physical wreck,” though in the period after his retirement he replaced the roof on his house, indulged his passion for fishing and spent time with his family. After a number of seizures, he died at the age of 58 on 3rd August 1929, and was survived by his mother, wife, son and ten year old daughter. The family still own the house in France.
Unsurprisingly, on his death, he was lauded by fellow Unionists for his negotiating skills, but also by some of his adversaries. The issue of the Musicians’ Journal (October 1929) following his death also included tributes from some of the employers with who he had struggled throughout his career. These included the Theatre Managers’ Association who called him “a lamented friend,” something that would surely have been unthinkable in 1893. However, an anonymous article in the Musicians’ Journal some 3 years later perhaps best encapsulated the period of his leadership:
“JB Williams was a born pioneer and fighter. Plunging into the industrial morass of the music profession of forty years ago in and endeavour to make it a life worth living, he was assailed on every hand by employers, and in many instances by the very people whom he was struggling to free from the ‘slough of despond.'”