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Bob, seaman behind the ‘Pilchard Mutiny’

Shipmates took ‘Spartacus’ stand over wartime ration

16 November, 2018 — By Eric Gordon

Bob Cottingham: ‘Felt injustice should always be resisted’

DAY after day the ration was the same for the merchant seamen on a ship in the Mediterranean during the Second World War: tinned pilchards.

This became too much after several weeks so the men got together and elected Bob Cottingham, a young stoker, to complain to the captain about it.

But instead of being listened to, Bob was warned he would be court-martialled for mutinous action.

The next day, as he was about to be marched off the ship under police guard, a “Spartacus” moment flared among the men as they gathered near Bob and his escort.

“If Bob is up for mutiny, so are we. So take us as well,” they warned the captain.

Faced with a hostile crew the captain gave way – and Bob walked free.

The episode has gone down in the folklore of the merchant navy as the “Pilchard Mutiny”.

Bob, who grew up in Leeds, volunteered for the merchant navy in 1939 at the outbreak of the war because – as he told his family later – “he didn’t want to shoot anyone”.

He supported the war effort to defeat fascism, but simply did not want to kill anyone.

A man who held radical views throughout his life, Bob, who has died aged 96, lived mainly in Soho after the war, and later in Fitzrovia, Islington and Muswell Hill.

Always politically active, he joined the Communist Party in the early post-war years and remained a member all his life. He was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and latterly Stop the War Coalition, joining street protests against the Iraq War though he was in 1980s.

After leaving the navy at the end of the war he set up a business selling stationery and office equipment, mainly to embassies.

But with his background and sense of social responsibility, Bob inevitably drifted to local government work. For more than 20 years he was a social worker for Islington Council, specialising in child care.

He became well known in Islington as a man with a common touch who could be trusted, a familiar figure to thousands of families often struggling to make ends meet.

In retirement, he took up the cudgels for the elderly and became a leading figure for the Greater London Pensioners’ Association, based at the old Hampstead town hall in Belsize.

Even though he was confined to a wheelchair in his late 80s, he could still be seen at demonstrations campaigning for higher pensions and against war.

He was first married in 1956 and had four children; later divorced, he married Betty and lived with her in Muswell Hill.

His son Stephen is a solicitor, Martin a paramedic and Annabelle a teacher. Phyllida lives independently.

“He’s left a big unfillable space,” said Betty. “He was a generous man who could not bear to see children go hungry and ill treated.

“He felt strongly that injustice and any form of inequality should always be resisted.”


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