©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 19, 2021
Webpage updated: February 19, 2021




William Alexander Miller was born at East Stonehouse on July 15th 1890.   His grandfather had been a slave who was granted his freedom at a church mission in Sierra Leone and his father had found employment on a British ship on its way to England.  John Miller, his father, became the caretaker at the East Stonehouse Town Hall.  William’s mother was English.

Upon leaving school he first went to work in the building industry but later gained a more secure job in the electrical department of the Royal Dockyard.  When the Great War came, William went off to serve in the Royal Flying Corps, where he rose to the rank of warrant officer.  Afterwards he returned to the Royal Dockyard and became prominent in the Electrical Trade Union, eventually becoming president of the Devon and Cornwall branch.

During the 1920s he became actively involved in the Plymouth Labour Party, along with other well-known men of the time, “Jimmy” Moses, “Bert” Medland and Harry Mason.  William became secretary and election agent of the Drake Division Labour Party.  These men were all elected on to Plymouth Council and in 1926 “Jimmy” Moses became Plymouth’s first Labour Mayor.

“Jimmy” Moses stood for Parliament in the 1929 General Election, with “Bill” Miller as his agent.  Although he was elected as Member of Parliament, it was claimed that the Party had used bribery and corrupt practices to gain victory, and the result was challenged in the courts.   As William Miller was the election agent, he was directly implicated but was successfully defended by the Labour Party’s lawyer, Mr Stafford Cripps.

William was the first black councillor elected on to Plymouth Council.   As a hard-working member of various committees of the Council, he built up quite an impressive reputation.   He is credited with introducing the first electricity showroom in Plymouth, a free electrical wiring service, the first cremations at Efford Cemetery and Crematorium and, as chairman of the Hoe and Parks Committee, the Tinside Lido.  Indeed, the latter apparently gained the title “Miller’s Lido”.  And all the while, he was serving his Ward with equal energy, his home at number 10 East Street, Stonehouse, being conspicuous by the long line of people outside waiting to consult him.

With War once again looming, in 1938 Miller joined the Civil Defence Warden’s Service, where he agitated for better protection for the City’s residents from the threat of air raids.  His concern was soon proved well founded.  During the Plymouth Blitz he was head warden for East Stonehouse and his own house in East Street was hit by a bomb, injuring his sister-in-law and his two young children.  As a result, he decided to organise a total, but unofficial, evacuation of women and children from the area, commandeering a varied selection of transport to get them to safer areas outside the City.  The authorities were not amused, however, and had him arrested for taking the law into his own hands.  At the subsequent trial, William was asked why he had done this and replied that he had told the men in his area who had gone away to fight for King and Country that he would do his best to protect their wives and children.  The Court reprimanded him but within days the Government gave authority to do just what he had done.

Immediately after the Plymouth Blitz, work started on a plan to rebuild the City and Mr Miller joined the Reconstruction Committee.  The Council elections of November 1945 brought a Labour victory and it became the dominant party on the Council for the first time, with Harry Mason as its Leader.  As a result, William Alexander Miller was given the job of chairman of the Housing Committee, probably the most important post on the Council at that time.  Plymouth’s pre-war housing shortage had been made worse by the massive number of war damaged properties, so there was an urgent need of new housing.  The “Plan for Plymouth” advocated new estates of houses on land to the north of the City.  It all needed planning.  Under Miller’s chairmanship, a new estate had been begun at Efford in November 1945 and a thousand prefabricated houses had been erected on spare land around the City by November 1946.  He even persuaded the Royal Dockyard authorities to make items for the housing programme.

So keen was he on the need for housing that he declined the appointment of Lord Mayor in 1947 so that he could continue the work.  As a result, by March 1952 some 6,832 houses had been either built or rebuilt or provided as pre-fabs.

These achievements were recognised by the award of the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the 1946 New Year’s Honours List followed by the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1947 and the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1948.

There was a break in his service on the Council in 1949-50 when he lost his seat for Charles Ward but in May 1951 he won a by-election in Sutton Ward and got back on the Council, regaining his position as chairman of the Housing Committee in 1953.

William Miller became Deputy Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1962, following which he took over the chairmanship of the Parks and Recreations Committee.   He retired from the City Council in May 1970 and died on December 21st that year, at the age of eighty.  He was cremated at Efford Cemetery and Crematorium on December 24th 1970.

As Plymouth’s first black councillor, in a city with a tiny ethnic minority population, his career in the Labour Party and the trade union movement was one of outstanding public service and personal sacrifice and he deserves to be better remembered.