WORKING CLASS HERO – Julio Pons BEM, ISM

0
569

Julio Pons is Gibraltar’s most fervent and voluble protestor and a major fundraiser. He is married to Maria Louisa and they have three daughters and two grandchildren.

During the evacuation, he was probably the only Gibraltarian to be born in a military hospital. His father, also called Julio, was a sergeant in the Gibraltar Defence Force and his position was that of governor’s driver. In this capacity, he served eight governors for 28 years and drove many VIPs including the Queen, the Queen Mother, General Montgomery and Winston Churchill. Julio’s mother was evacuated to Catterick military camp, three miles from Richmond in North Yorkshire, and she gave birth in the military hospital on 28th of August 1942. Eventually, she caught up with the main group of Gibraltarian evacuees and in 1944 returned to Gibraltar.

Round the Rock in 24 hours walk

Julio was educated at the St Mary’s Primary school and then Lourdes school run by the Christian Brothers. After time at the Gibraltar Technical school, aged 16, he joined the Dockyard as a telephone engineer. Eventually, he was transferred as a civilian worker to 642 squadron Royal Signals and was trained in Aldershot and Camberley. His four-month National Service was completed in the Gibraltar Regiment under the watchful eyes of Colonel Charlie Norton, Sergeant Morris, Major Bob Peliza and Sergeant Bob Randall. He enjoyed his military service and looked forward to the two-week refresher course every two years. His Dockyard job awaited him and at this moment in time, he started to become interested in socialism and trade unionism. He admits that his father, a military man, did not approve. In those days, without television and limited newspapers, political views were debated in Main Street. He joined the TGWU and was elected Shop Steward for the civilians in the Dockyard and the Royal Air Force. As a shop Steward, he first made contact with Joe Bossano, the Union branch officer. At that time, there were around 9000 civilians working in the Dockyard. His Union responsibilities were increased when it was decided that he should hand over the RAF to another shop steward and take over responsibility for the civilians in the Army.

His first major political intervention was a protest against the segregation of the lavatories where there were separate lavatories for English, Gibraltarian and Spanish workers. Together with Jose Netto and union representatives, they arrived around six o’clock in the morning and with hammers smashed the lavatories into smithereens. Within 24 hours new lavatories appeared on site and a week later were installed but in future all to be used by any workers. This was a huge victory for the TGWU and marked the end of one form of colonial discrimination.

24 hour basketball marathon

At the time, there were MOD personnel on one side and civilians on the other. Julio’s intention was to fuse the two sides and get them to work together as members of the same team. This was accepted by the military and henceforth Army and civilians worked together. On Fridays, the Gibraltarians brought in crates of beer to have a joint party which was enjoyed by all.

Encouraged by this, Julio in 1972, organised a Christmas party for all the children in the Sergeants Mess followed by dances.  Some events were hosted in the Officers Mess. The next hurdle was for the civilians to become involved in military sport on Wednesdays which was the sport day for the military. Julio, emboldened by the success of the various parties, went to a senior military foreman to ask whether civilians could be included. It posed certain difficulties but eventually, logic triumphed and both sides played together. The civilians had some excellent basketball players, hockey players, and footballers who were welcomed with open arms. In return, the Gibraltarians were taught how to play cricket.

Julio turned his attention to the question of working hours and suggested that during the summer, the hours should be 7am until 2pm with no lunch break. This was agreed which meant that the military had the same summer hours which pleased them immensely.

The parity dispute lasted from the General Strike of 1972 until the victory in 1976 and Julio was at the forefront of the many protest marches, walk-outs and other protests of non-compliance. After one protest march Julio, Juan Carlos Perez and M. Netto were arrested in Main Street for blocking the traffic. They were taken to the Moorish Castle prison (known as the Rock Hotel) for three nights before appearing in court before Judge John Alcantara. In the meantime, a supporter had photographed the trio sitting on the pavement which meant that they could not have been blocking the traffic. Julio took advantage of his appearance in the dock by saying, “We were in the demonstration so that all those in the court will be able to earn the same wages as Britons doing the same job”. The photograph resulted in an immediate discharge.

24 hour round the Rock in a pedalo

Naturally, Julio was hugely involved in the bitter campaign to stop the closure of the dockyard. It is a credit to this non-stop protest and walk-outs that a small scale dockyard still exists. He estimates that the campaign for parity involved about 30 demonstrations with a similar amount for the retention of the dockyard. There was always a 100% turn out. He was the leader and thus in the front of all demonstrations and was the person entrusted to go in and speak to either the Governor or the Chief Minister.

Julio was proudly marching in the front of the huge demonstration of some 10,000 Gibraltarians protesting about the Government turning a blind eye to the huge cigarette smuggling and the era of the fast boat smuggling launches. The Governor intervened and all the boats were taken into custody. As the Chief Minister was away on business, the petition was given to Joe Pilcher, the acting Chief Minister.

As if this was not enough, he was also involved in protest groups such as Voice of Gibraltar which did not agree with the nuclear submarine HMS Tireless being repaired in Gibraltar harbour. Other causes included voting in the European elections and the question of passports and ID cards. He also worked for Defenders of Gibraltar. This is a political activist group, outspoken against the harassment and bullying of Gibraltar by the Spanish Government and which have performed numerous demonstrations on the streets defending Britain’s right to remain in control of Gibraltar.

Julio formed the Laguna Tenants Association and the Laguna Social Club. He has been its chairman for 47 years. In 1966, he was determined to obtain somewhere for the children to play and to learn more about Gibraltar. His approach to the Government and to his contacts in the Army and Royal Navy lead to the erection of a building which also served as a room in which to hold Laguna estate committee meetings. This, eventually in 2000, morphed into the Social club and bar.

Malaga to Gibraltar charity walk

Also, the bridge between Glacis Estate and Laguna Estate was built for the benefit of the tenants, as well as a zebra crossing between the estates. Extra rooms for disabled people were allocated and tabaco shops within the estate were terminated.

He is sad to be leaving Laguna estate but has moved to a flat in Sea Master’s Lodge in Mons Calpe Mews.

If this were not enough, he founded these charities: Help Us to Help Them, and St Martin’s Special School Petting Zoo. This was started 37 years ago and the pets today include rabbits, pigs, pigeons, goldfish etc.

He has raised considerable money for charity which include 24 hours walking non-stop round the Rock; walking from Malaga to Gibraltar which took 37 hours; 24 hours shooting the basket (basketball): standing for 24 hours next to the Union flag on top of the Rock. A cold levanter descended but he was able to keep warm by standing near the flashlights focused on the flag: paddling from Ceuta to Gibraltar with help from a disabled person which took 7 hours 20 minutes: a trike ride around the Rock helped by two Army volunteers: a 24 hour stay in St Michael’s Cave on his own except for countless mosquitoes, 24 hour walk around the Rock and many, many others.

Prior to his retirement aged 65, Julio was awarded the British Empire Medal. This gave him particular pleasure as his father had been given the same award. He was also awarded the Imperial Service medal.

Julio acknowledges that the MOD were generous in allowing him to conduct his trade union work which involved many meetings. He was not given official permission to lead the plethora of protest marches but did this in his spare time. He was an avid supporter of Joe Bossano and the GSLP. However, he swiftly came to this conclusion, “During my time with the MOD, I felt I was doing good work as a shop steward and, although I was offered promotion within my job, I declined as a managerial role would have stopped me from being involved with the union. I have strong convictions on what is right and what is wrong and have always strived to better Gibraltar for its people. I declined to take an active role in politics for the same reason. I am proud to have put forward the aspirations of the people of Gibraltar. This has resulted in me having meetings with many Governors and local politicians.”

Taking down the EU flag

A recent protest was when he pulled down the European flag at the frontier. This was to protest at the European Commission’s reluctance to ensure that the Spanish Government did not continue to impose draconian delays at the frontier. He was arrested for pulling down the flag and taken to New Mole House at 2.30pm and at 8pm £500 bail secured his release. He said that rather than pay any fine, he would go to prison. Twice he went to court and then everything went quiet for about two weeks. Eventually, he was called to the police station and told that the case would be dropped.

This is the remarkable story of an outstanding Gibraltarian who is proud to say that today Gibraltar is so much better than it was half a century ago as everybody is working together.