14 October 2020
Born in East Street, Stonehouse, on 15 July 1890, William Alexander Miller, known as Bill Miller, was the son of an immigrant father and an English mother. His father, the son of a freed slave, was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa. After finding work on a British ship, he eventually settled in Stonehouse.
Once Bill left school he worked in the building industry and then at Devonport Dockyard in the electrical department. Apart from serving in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, he continued to work at the Dockyard for many years, becoming prominently involved in the activities of the Electrical Trades Union. By the 1920s he was also an active member of the Plymouth Labour Party. He gained a reputation for being able, hard-working and having impressive organisational skills.
During the 1930s, Bill became a member of various council committees and is credited with introducing the first electricity showrooms, free electrical wiring service and cremations in Plymouth. He also gained a reputation as ‘the Poor Man’s Lawyer’. Local people queued outside his house to seek advice. Even Tinside lido was once known as ‘Miller’s Lido’!
As storm clouds gathered over Europe, central government urged local councils to consider how they would provide protection against air attack. However, Bill did not think the proposals debated by Plymouth City Council in January 1938 were sufficient. He wanted people to be able to leave the city. Concerned about the situation, he joined the Civil Defence Warden’s Service that same year.
The Second World War aerial bombardment of Plymouth was devastating. March and April of 1941 were particularly horrific and many people fled. The population is thought to have dropped from around 220,000 to 119,000. Bill organised an unofficial evacuation, commandeering buses and lorries to help take women and children to safe locations.
However, this had not been authorised by the government and he was arrested for taking the law into his own hands. At his trial he argued that he had told local men who’d joined the armed forces that he would do his best to protect their families. He received a severe reprimand but was vindicated shortly afterwards, when similar evacuations were organised by the authorities.
Bill’s evident skills came into their own when he chaired the Plymouth Housing Committee. In addition to the existing housing shortage, new houses were urgently needed to replace those destroyed by bombing. He worked tirelessly and resourcefully, collaborating with the Admiralty so that dockyard workers could manufacture the products needed for the construction of new homes. In 1947, he declined the position of Lord Mayor of Plymouth knowing that if he took it he would have to move aside from Housing.
His achievements were recognised locally and nationally. From 1946 to 1948 he was awarded the British Empire Medal (awarded for meritorious civil or military service), OBE and CBE. He served on several national committees and in1959 was elected Chairman of the National Housing and Town Planning Council. His work brought him into close contact with national political figures and he became a friend of Aneurin Bevin, Minster for Health and Housing.
Bill Miller never lost sight of local matters and remained a Plymouth councillor until shortly before his death in 1970. He remains an important figure in Plymouth’s history.