Clery, William Edward (c.1861–1931), writer and trade unionist, was born in Ireland in 1861 or 1862, son of John and Helen Clery. In 1877 he emigrated with his parents to London, penniless, and in 1878 entered the civil service, becoming a second-class inland sorter at the Post Office. Simultaneously, he pursued his literary and theatrical interests, writing for the Gentleman's Magazine under the pseudonym Austin Fryers. In March 1889 Clery became involved in organising support for Tom Dredge, who had been dismissed from his post after attempting to organise a union of London postmen and demands for increased wages. In 1881 the Liberal postmaster-general, Henry Fawcett, had been generous in granting pay increases for sorting clerks, but by the end of the decade some of the London sorters, including Clery and J. H. Williams, maintaining that they were being denied further concessions which had been intended by Fawcett, formed the Fawcett Association to campaign for London sorters’ rights. It was inaugurated in February 1886, and Clery became secretary, with his name appearing on the masthead of the first issue of the Post, the Association's journal.
Sir James Fergusson, the new postmaster-general, refused to recognise the association, and Clery, who at the 1893 Trades Union Congress was to complain of neglect by labour members of parliament, ‘many of whom had supposed the civil servants to be a snobbish body’ (Clegg, 217), decided on an unprecedented policy of lobbying parliamentarians, demanding an inquiry into the sorters’ claims, although he insisted the Fawcett Association would not support a strike. Despite the opposition of Fergusson, the Fawcett Association received pledges of support from fifty-six parliamentary candidates. Fergusson promptly dismissed Clery and a colleague, W. B. Cheeseman, on grounds of insubordination and defiance. The dispute received huge media attention, and both men were immediately given full-time positions within the association. In 1893 Clery was elected chairman of the association, a position he retained for ten years.
Active on the London Trades Council, he was a member of the delegation to the chancellor of the exchequer in 1895 about the working conditions of public employees, as well as being involved in the formation of the United Workers Federation. To make parliamentary action effective, the unions also sought to build up public sympathy through the press, for which purpose Clery effectively used his extensive journalistic contacts. Artistic concerns, however, began to dominate Clery's career and, as well as working as a drama critic, he wrote plays and novels, became an actor–manager, and edited the popular arts periodical the Crystal Palace. His publications included A new Lady Audley (1891), A pauper millionaire (1899), The devil and the inventor (1900), A guide to the stage (1904), and a Popular life of Henry Irving (1906).
Clery undoubtedly demonstrated courage, persuasiveness, and magnetism in his union activities and was instrumental in ensuring a place for trade unionism in the Post Office, linking its employees with the wider labour movement as well as establishing a precedent for parliamentary action in the pursuit of union claims. He remained interested in parliamentary representation and, despite the fact that the Fawcett Association adopted a policy of independent parliamentary representation in 1897, was a supporter of the Liberal Party. In April 1902 he was adopted as a parliamentary candidate for Deptford, gaining the endorsement of the Liberal Party and also the Labour Representation Committee, though he was not elected.
Ultimately the recklessness, if not corruption, of his personal life was to be his undoing. Clery borrowed extensively, refused to pay his debts, and lied continually when asked to account for his financial irregularities. In August 1902 the Fawcett Association was served with an order against his debts, and the following year, after an inquiry into his affairs, he was sacked from his position, though the association continued to give him limited financial support. Wrongly reported dead in 1922, he unsuccessfully sued the newspaper which carried the story. In 1930 he was found living in squalid poverty, and a Post Office charity managed to raise funds for his welfare. He died 21 October 1931 in London, survived by his wife, the actress Elva Dearen, whom he married in June 1897.