Obituary: T. Dan Smith

Thomas Dan Smith, local councillor: born 11 May 1915; City Councillor, Newcastle upon Tyne 1950-65; Chairman, Northern Economic Planning Council 1965-70; Member, Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69; Chairman, Peterlee and Aycliffe Development Corporation 1968-70; author of Essays in Local Government 1965, Education, Science and Technology 1970; married 1939 (one son, one daughter); died Newcastle upon Tyne 27 July 1993.

YOU COULD not meet a more engaging character than T. Dan Smith in the years before he went to jail. There was a time, back in the early Sixties, when covering the proceedings of the Newcastle City Council could be a lot more entertaining than a visit to the nearby Theatre Royal, and it was all down to Dan Smith, the extraordinary leader of the Labour group.

He twinkled, he made jokes, he broke stories, indeed he did everything to make the lives of young cub reporters - of which I was one - more felicitous. And he was so smart. This was something that everybody - even the Tories - recognised. Indeed, Smith had few personal critics in those days. It was as if everybody recognised that they had a man who was going places and that his city, and indeed the whole of the north-east, was going with him.

In a region that had been depressed for so long, Smith's mixture of high, wide and handsome plans and low, sometimes earthy witticisms was the tonic that most felt was needed. He called Newcastle 'the Athens of the north-east' and that went down a treat, even though some felt his penchant for tower-block development was less than classically correct. When there was talk of his becoming a cabinet minister in the Labour government it was regarded as an occasion for mourning. It was felt that he was too big a man, and too much of the people, to become yet another political pygmy in Westminster.

Smith was born in 1915, a Durham miner's son, and left school at the age of 14. His early political leanings were to the extreme Left. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, joined the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and was expelled from both. He later joined the Labour Party and rose with great speed, becoming a city councillor in Newcastle in 1950.

Smith had begun his working life as a painter and decorator, an experience that came in useful when, as head of the powerful Northern Economic Planning Council, he had the task of refurbishing Northumberland and Durham. He made a fair stab at it too, before he disappointed a region's hopes by getting too greedy.

His reputation only just survived the Sixties. On Jaunary 1970 detectives knocked at the door of his house in Newcastle and he was arrested. Sydney Sporle, a Wandsworth councillor, was accused of taking bribes, and Smith was one of those charged with giving them. Smith got off, but Sporle went to jail. Then in 1972 the well-known Yorkshire architect John Poulson went bankrupt. Examination of his books revealed a web of unexplained payments. As the hearings rolled on, many Establishment names became involved. Reginald Maudling, the Conservative MP, who had formerly been chairman of two of Poulson's companies, resigned as Home Secretary. There were reports of conflicts of interest among councillors nationwide, but particularly in the north-east.

The man they called 'Mr Newcastle' was jailed for six years in 1974 on charges of corruption, after admitting conspiracy to swing cut-price deals for Poulson. It was claimed at his trial that he received pounds 156,000 over seven years from Poulson, usually in the form of payment to public relations companies. Smith served three years of his sentence but always denied lining his own pocket. He explained his guilty plea as being the result of stress suffered during the four years it took for the case to come to trial. He would say: 'I was a broken man living on Valium and Carlsberg Special.'

Prison, if anything, restored something of his bounce. On the day he walked free from Leyhill open prison in Gloucestershire he took part in a radio phone-in programme, and he became assiduous in the cause of penal reform. He would, on a modest salary of pounds 2,500 from the Howard League, induce big names from industry and broadcasting to go into jails and try to persuade old lags to go straight. He was campaigning again.

But he was clearly a man still tortured by the circumstances that had brought him down. And he had much time to reflect on them in his 14th- floor tower-block flat in Cruddas Park, Newcastle, built as part of his crusade against back-to-back hovels. But he would never give up a fighting way of talking.

In one of his last interviews he said he filled his days giving public talks, fighting for pensioners' rights, penning a political history and playing classical records. 'I would never think of retiring,' he said, 'I would drop dead first, preferably while I'm speaking.'

In 1982 he started research work with Amber Films, an independent production company based in Newcastle, to make the drama-documentary T. Dan Smith, in which he played himself. The film, which examined the background to the Poulson affair, had a cinema release in 1987, and was broadcast on Channel 4 the following year.

His final public performance was on BBC Radio Newcastle's Sunday morning Talkback show nine days before he died, when it was said that he showed 'his old verve and fire', but not to those of us who can remember the T. Dan Smith from before the fall. Now that old, untainted Smith was really something to listen to.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution