The Grange Road building

On 21st October 2022, as part of the Council run Discover Middlesbrough Month  Middlesbrough Town Hall hosted my talk on the Teesside International Brigade Memorial; the wooden plaque produced in 1939 which is held in the Town Hall itself.

In Middlesbrough’s Council Chamber I told the remarkable story of the memorial’s production, loss, discovery and rededication. I was able to present my latest research, which fills in some of the gaps in the memorial’s story.

Two years ago I wrote about the Teesside International Brigade Memorial, in the intervening time I have continued to research the men and the story of the memorials loss, discovery and dedication. I have met with relatives of some of the men named on the memorial as well as the relatives of some of those involved in the memorial’s production and dedication. I have even spoken to and met with some of the people who participated in the recovery and dedication of the memorial.

We now have a much clearer picture of the volunteers and the Communist Party (CP) on Teesside. We can see the memorial in it’s context; how the story of the Teesside International Brigade memorial highlighs the story of the Communist Party on Teesside. This memorial was produced by and for the Communist Party on Teesside, it commemorates not only the men who fell but also the role the local party played in the Spanish conflict. The years after the Spanish War on Teesside were pretty turbulent for the Communist Party on Teesside.

Two years ago I wrote:

Harold Bennet, from Kent, was visiting relatives, he was a carpenter and French polisher, he asked to make this memorial especially; as he was aware he was losing his sight, sadly he lost his sight almost immediately after the completion of the memorial.

At the time I could not connect Harold Bennett to Teesside, recently found records now show that in early years of the Second World War George Short spent a few weeks in Kent on a “Communist Party refresher course”, this may explain why Harold Bennet constructed the memorial, it certainly provides a link to Kent which we did not previously have. Once made it was International Brigader Tommy Chilvers who painted the crest and the lettering.

The Communist Party already had an office on Stockton’s High Street and David Goodman says:

“a bookshop in a side turning off the High Street”

This would be the office at 92 Hartington Road which I wrote about in Singing Brigaders.

In Middlesbrough the CP rented offices on Borough Road and the  Young Communist League (YCL) had a meeting place on Marton Road. In 1941 David Marshall enabled the puchase of 147 Grange Road, in Middlesbough, to become the CP office in Middlesbrough; this is now the MIMA carpark.

The purchase of offices highlights the huge growth in CP membership; from about 70 CP members on Teesside in 1934 this grew to over 2,000 by 1941. There were also YCL and Labour League of Youth (LLY) branches in Billingham, Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stockton; the Middlesbrough branch of the YCL was the second largest outside London.

According to George, Maurice Sutherland, a member of the Middlesbrough YCL, was the articled solicitor for the Labour League of Youth and YCL. Maurice “gave support to YCL meetings” which explains why he organised the correct documentation for the purchase of 147 Grange Road.

George Short said that:

“The Party got the premises for next to nothing as it was a wreak.”

The building certainly needed a lot of work doing to it before it could be used; George Short tells that he and David Marshall put two steel beams under the ground floor to support it.

“Using my knowledge as a pitman we shored the floor up with timbers, there was a basement where we knocked out the two top courses of bricks and put the steel beams across. Talk about fools rush in, the whole building could have collapsed on us.” George Short to Bert Ward Dec.1988

It was in the rebuilt and refurbished Grange Road office that the Teesside International Brigade memorial was placed. Sadly George would not have long to enjoy the fruits of their labours. The  declaration of war by the UK on Nazi Germany in early September 1939 put the Communist Party in a difficult position; the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact meant that the UK was at war with an ally of the Soviet Union.

Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany; in his pamphlet How To Win The War he  called for a “struggle on two fronts” and for the “military defeat of Hitler and the political defeat of Chamberlain”.

This was  contrary to the Moscow controlled  Communist International (Comintern) policy. This was seized upon by Pollitt’s critics in the CPGB. Pollitt was forced to resign and Rajani Palme Dutt succeeded him as General Secretary.

The CPGB under Dutt followed a policy of “revolutionary defeatism”  which stated that the goals of the Communist Party could be accelerated by quickening the defeat of Britain, this caused the CPGB to split into two factions; a faction controlling the Party headed by Dutt and a faction which supported Harry Pollitt. The animosity between the two factions increased when Dutt arranged for Pollitt’s expulsion from the CPGB. The impact of this on Teesside was dramatic.

George Short, who had been the Teesside District organiser since 1931 as a Pollitt loyalist was ousted, and Jimmy Keeham was sent up from London to take on the role of District organiser.

In response George took up work at Smith’s Dock, it was whilst working here that we can see that George continued his support for Pollitt’s policy of supporting the war effort: a dispute at the shipyard over working conditions and hours escalated when the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) called for strike action. George successfully persuaded his fellow workers against strike action, saying “it will benefit the Fascists more than it will benefit you.” The strike didn’t take place and George was appointed Shop Steward, where he successfully negotiated  improvements.

It was at this time that Ron Boddy joined the party.

“I wanted to join the Party, I went to Stockton and I went looking for the Communist Party. Nobody knew anything so I thought there must be some NUWM people here so I went looking for them. And I had great difficulty until somebody gave me a name which I forget, but which George Short would know. I went to his house and asked him where I could find the Communist Party. He was most unpleasant and it wasn’t long before I realised that he and George were daggers drawn but I did find out where George worked. I found George Short in Derby Terrace in Thornaby. So I went along and saw George, told him I was here for ROP and that I was a member of the Communist Party in Cardiff and wanted to carry on up here. I joined the Party in Stockton.” Ron Boddy in interview with Bert Ward 1988.

David Goodman supports this, he recalls that “we got somebody from London but he wasn’t much good.”

Harry Pollitt was reinstated as the General Secretary of the CPGB after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. On his return Pollitt swiftly overturned Dutt’s position of criticising the government,  instead the Party followed Pollitt’s original position and now offered full support to the Churchill government.

George too was reinstated as District Organiser, this must have been a relief for the local activists, it appears however that they weren’t the only ones to be happy about it. As George was carrying out war work he need official permission to leave his employement, but his employers made it very easy for him, as George says:

Sunderland Forge were glad to help me get my release, just to get rid of me.

George also recalls that Jimmy Keeham left the local Party in a lot of debt, creating a need to raise funds:

We ran a campaign to raise money, we asked every member to raise £4 each, this paid off the debts and there was a remaning sum which paid for Grange road.

To show how large the Party had become by 1941 the Internationational Brigader David Goodman became the full time district organiser for Middlesbrough (in 1941) with Jimmy Keeham the full time District Secretary for Teesside. Goodman retained his post when George returned as District Secretary until 1943, when the Party moved him to Stoke where he took the role of full time District Secretary for the South East Midlands. David spent a few months in Stoke before taking the position of District Secretary for Devon and Cornwall, a post he retained until 1965, when he began his university studies as a mature student.

It was George and David who organised public meetings to call for a Second Front, to support the Soviet war effort. At one meeting Willie Gallacher the CPGB Member of Parliament for West Fife spoke. David Goodman recalls that it was at this meeting that his own father joined the CP, in fact David says that over 100 new members joined the Party at this one meeting. It was also about this time that David Goodman and David Marshall were arrested together whilst selling the Daily Worker on the streets of Middlesbrough.

They didn’t only hold demonstrations, in 1940 George Short led a CP deputation to see Stockton’s Member of Parliament, Harold Macmillan, who had recently returned from Finland.  George argued for a Second Front, and it may have had some effect because in May 1940 Harold Macmillan voted against the Government in the Norway Debate, helping to bring down Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. There is also a story that at the end of the debate Macmillan tried to join in with Colonel Josiah Wedgwood singing “Rule, Britannia” in the House of Commons Chamber, see Alistair Horne’s Macmillan 1894-1956  for further details.

Sadly I didn’t have the time to relate these fascinating stories that are linked to and enrich the history of the Teesside International Brigade memorial during my time in Middlesbrough Town Hall. The problem is that these are just some of the intriging stories that are linked to the memorial, there are many many more.

 

 

 

 

 

Still more on the Stockton branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement

Two years ago I wrote about an image John Coates’ friend, Tim Brown, was looking at. Tim was thinking that the policeman shown in the image was from the Middlesbrough Police Force; the force both had served in. After some enquiry we discovered that it was the Gateshead constabulary shown; we established that the Stockton contingent of the NUWM were marching across the Tyne Bridge. See –  https://foxburg.edublogs.org/2020/08/14/the-stockton-branch/

I have since seen this image used fairly often, as it seems to be one of the few images in which the lettering on the banner can be seen in it’s entirety.

Two weeks ago I had cause to review this image once again. Peter Shearer shared an image showing – “Unemployed marchers moving through Northumberland Road, Newcastle in 1932.” which he had found on  Mirrorpix. 

Peter shared it to a Facebook page for Classic Photos of Newcastle and The East End and it was subsequently reposted on the North east Labour History Society Facebook page.  When I saw it I contacted Peter, he told me where he’d found it and I downloaded a copy.

Unemployed marchers moving through Northumberland Road, Newcastle in 1932

What first caught my eye was the Sunderland Branch banner, as this seemed to be the one seen in the Tyne Bridge photograph.

On blowing up the image to see the Sunderland Branch banner more clearly I realised that the Middlesbrough Communist Party banner can be seen and that this is also on the Tyne Bridge Photograph, although only ‘Communist Party’ can be made out. It is great that this new photograph allows us to see most of the lettering on the banner. We can also see that the West Hartlepool Unemployed Organisation banner in both photographs, they are taking part and marching with their own banner, this was a grouping I was unaware of up until now.

Clearly this is the same same group in the two pictures, meaning the pictures were taken at the same time but at different locations. They are very close in time as to reach Northumberland Road, the marchers would probably have moved north from the Tyne Bridge up Pilgrim Street, then continued up Northumberland Street, then turned right just before the Haymarket. This short distance confirms our suggestion from two years ago that the photograph of the Stockton contingent does show them on the Tyne Bridge.

I have found that there is also a second image in the Mirrorpix page which shows the same event and in this one the banners can be seen even more clearly, I think this second image shows the group further along from the previous photograph, showing them passing the City Hall.  I’m really pleased that the Middlesbrough banner can be read quite easily.

I think these images show how well organised the march was. In a interview George Short tells us that the North East Group assembled in Newcastle on 4th October 1932 where a rally and speeches occured, and that a further Teesside contingent joined the North East Group at Darlington the next day, on the 5th October 1932.

As well as giving us a clear indication of the make up of the group it has also raised a few more intriging questions: for years I had pointed out that the smartly dressed man marching beside the NUWM men, I proposed that this was an MI5 officer detailed with following the march; we know some did as their reports are available in the National archives

The new photograph showing Northumberland Road has made me reconsider my proposal, for he seems in this picture to be stewarding the marchers, the men seem to accept him, he appears to be part of the contingent.  He is dressed so much differently to the rest of  the marchers that he stands out.

The Tyne Bridge photograph suggested that the Stockton  Contingent headed the Teesside groups; I think this it is now supported by these photographs, it seems that it is the back of the Stockton banner that can be seen going out of shot in the Northumberland Road photograph as the Stockton contingent  are heading this group, and again they are missing from the second of these two new  images as they  have marched out of shot.

I am particularly pleased with the second picture, although it does not show the Stockton contingent it does shows so much more of the banners and the placards.

The placard which starts with ‘Sacrifice’ in much clearer and unobscured, unlike in the Tyne Bridge Photograph, and the West Hartlepool banner is very clear in this second picture.

In all eighteen contingents converged on London’s Hyde Park on 27th October 1932, where the 3,000 marchers were met by a crowd of between 50, 000 or 150, 000 depending upon which source you use. The Metropolitan police commissioner deployed 70, 000 police officers to control the crowd in 1932, the aim was to prevent the petition the men carried reaching Parliament; when the Police confiscated the Parliamentary petition in Hyde Park violence broke out. In scenes reminiscent of Peterloo mounted officers charged the huge crowd which contained women and children, resulting in 75 people being seriously injured. Phyllis Short recalls in interview that she was struck on the head by a mounted policeman and was therefore unable to attend the Mass Rally in Trafalgar Square the next day, but George did speak at Trafalgar Square.

The media blackout on publicity for Communist inspired protests ensured that very was reported, and this has meant that these events are overshadowed by the; in terms of numbers, tiny Jarrow Crusade. I think, however, that the photograph of Trafalgar square speaks for itself.

The NUWM leader Walter Hannington was arrested in Hyde Park, he was refused bail so he spent several months in jail. He tried to prosecute the Home Secretary  Lord Trenchard  the break in by police of  the NUWM’s London offices; the Police broke in and destroyed the contents whilst Hannington was imprisoned. The Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, personally intervened to prevent the prosecution of Lord Trenchard going ahead. This is why we don’t see many photographs of Wal’ Hannington in 1932.

Walter ‘wal’ Hannington (1896 -1966) was a Founding Member Of The Communist Party Of Great Britain And National Organiser Of The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

I feel that these photographs give us a richer impression of the 1932 National Hunger March than we had and especially the organisation of the Teesside Communist Party. George Short had returned from the International Lenin School just a few months before the National Hunger March, but these images show the strength of the groups that were campaigning against The Means Test, and that they were well organised, a testimoney to the dedication and organisational ability of the small number of Communist Party activists.

These three images are a fantastic record of the 1932 National Hunger march and the North East contingent. I’m really pleased as I have some really exciting news regarding the Women’s Contingent on the 1932 March, I did write about it in 2020 – https://foxburg.edublogs.org/2020/08/17/more-on-the-stockton-branch/ but now I have some new material which is quite stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NUWM and the Jarrow Crusade

Some may have seen my campaign for recognition for George and Phyllis Short – The power couple of Teesside communism where I am aiming to mark the work they undertook to improve the lives of the people of Teesside, they helped the disadvantaged on Teesside for a period of fifty years.

This week, the ever wonderful Peter Verburgh pointed me towards a series of documents which are fascinating, I have ran out of extolments for Peter; he discovered the medical records for Bill Carson and Patrick Maroney which explained why they were repatriated – see I Sing of My Comrades: Remembering Stockton’s International Brigaders 

Peter’s brief and precise message was :

495/14/211 & 212 for material on the N.U.W.M. and the 1936 Hunger March ( period February-December 1936 )

This took me to André Marti’s personal file in the Moscow archives,  Marti was a leading figure in the French Communist Party (PCF), who, in 1936, became the Chief Political Commissar of the International Brigades operating the Brigade headquarters and training base at Albacete. Looking in this folder is unusual as we spend most of our time in the RGASPI. F. 545 folder which is the folder for the International brigades.

The first document that caught my eye was a letter dated 22nd October 1936. I knew that this was whilst the 1936 National Hunger March was on; it started in Aberdeen on 26th September and finished in London on Sunday the 8th November. The part of the letter that especially caught my eye was the name of Ellen Wilkinson.

Ellen Wilkinson is of especial interest,  when in October 1924 Ramsey MacDonald’s Labour government resigned, after losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons, the ensuing general election was dominated by the  “Red Scare”. The previous year the Labour Party had proscribed the Communist Party and outlawed dual membership, Ellen Wilkinson left the CPGB and was selected as The Labour Party’s candidate for the constituency of Middlesbrough Eas. At the General Election Labour’s representation in the House of Commons fell to 152, against the Conservatives’ 415, with Ellen Wilkinson being the only woman elected on the Labour benches.

Whilst MP for Middlesbrough East Ellen continued to promote policies which were not official Labour Party policies, but which were being advocated by the CPGB; for example she promoted birth control, a measure the CPGB central committee had been promoting since 1922 and which the The Labour Party renounced, it is suggested this was because The Labour Party feared losing the Catholic vote.

She was ever the activist, In May 1926, during the nine day duration of the General Strike Ellen Wilkinson toured the country to promote and support the strike.  She was furious when the Trades Union Congress called off the strike, and despite threats of expusion she continued to campaign for the Miners as they fought on alone: in June 1926 she joined George Lansbury at an Albert Hall rally which raised £1,200 for the benefit of the miners, who continued their strike for another five months.

Ellen Wilkinson’s reflections on the strike are recorded in A Workers’ History of the Great Strike , which she co-authored with CPGB member Raymond Postgate and her lover Frank Horrabin. Ellen also published the semi-autobiographical novel Clash in 1929 which is also set during the General Strike. The result was that Ellen Wilkinson was again threated with expulsion from The Labour Party, but she again called their bluff – the expulsion of the only female Labour MP immediately after women had gained the franchise by The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act  in July 1928 would have been a political disaster.

There have always been strong rumours that Ellen Wilkinson continued to work closely with CPGB members after she had resigned her membership.  I feel that this letter provides quite a bit of substance to these rumours, hence my excitement.

In The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend Dr Matt Perry  carefully lays out all the ways the organisers distanced themselves from the Communist organised National Hunger Marches, fearing that an association with the Communists would undermine their protest. They were largely successful; most people have heard of the ‘Jarrow Crusade’ (the word ‘march’ was not used to avoid associating with the Communist organised marches), but few people have heard of the fifteen National Hunger marches held between 1919 and 1936. I always find this remarkable as they are so different in scale: the Jarrow March started with about 200 men, whereas the National Hunger Marches usually had over 1,500 participants , with the highest being 2,000 men on the 1922 march. In fact the Stockton Contingent alone in the 1936 National Hunger March had more men than the Jarrow Crusade.

The Jarrow Crusade has since entered the iconography of the British nation, the image of a respectable, non-political, non-threatening form of protest; a representation of the marchers even appeared in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. But this bleached and de-politicised portrayal is far from the truth, the Jarrow Crusade was a small scale protest riding on the coat-tails of the NUWM’s campaign against government policy, especially the despised Means Test. The Jarrow Crusade was looking to rectify an issue that affected one town, whereas the decade long NUWM campaign was looking to alleviate a national problem.

The Jarrow Crusade wasn’t the only other march to arrive in London at the beginning of November 1936. The  contingents of the National League of the Blind and the British Campaigners’ Association reached London at the same times as the Jarrow March and the National Hunger March, they too where welcomed by supportive demonstrations held for them at Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park.

The Labour Party has long been keen to use the example of the Jarrow Crusade to burnish its own reputation, with successive  leaders  seeking to give the Crusade a retrospective Labour Party gloss, just one example can be seen in this 1950 General Election poster.

But the truth is that in reality the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party and especially the TUC were very quick to distance themselves from the Jarrow Crusade. This was a continuation of the directives which forbad Labour Party members supporting  Communust led protests against the Means Test, Unemployment and the BUF;  the TUC was especially fearful of the NUWM which was organising the unemployed and therefore threatening their control over the unskilled and those with infrequent work.

Famously when Ellen Wilkinson proposed a motion in support of the Jarrow Crusade at the Labour Party Conference held at Edinburgh in October 1936 the motion was unsuprisingly blocked by the NEC, instead Hugh Dalton was charged with leading ‘an investigation into conditions in which people lived and worked, or did not, in the Special Areas.’ The Labour Party Conference opened on 4th October 1936 and the Jarrow marchers set off the next day on the 5th of October.

Councillor David Riley

The opposition from the Labour Party and the TUC meant that  it was left to local figures of the Labour left, such as Councillor David Riley, chair of Jarrow council, Ellen Wilkinson, and Paddy Scullion to organise the protest march.

10th May 1972: 76-year-old Paddy Scullion, a veteran from the 1936 Jarrow Crusade, leads a new deputation on unemployment, from Jarrow, out of No 10 Downing Street, London. (Photo by Ian Showell/Keystone/Getty Images)

The October 1936 letter suggests that lacking institutional support from the Labour Party Riley, Wilkinson and Scullion used the CPGB’s expertise and experience in orgainising their protest marches to aid them in their own protest march;  it was intially planned that the Jarrow marchers would be a contingent in the National Hunger March. It could be argued that despite the appearance in reality the Jarrow Crusade was in fact little more than a contingent of the 1936 National Hunger March – it had the same purpose and was no larger than the 200 strong Stockton Contingent.

The Jarrow march had ended at Hyde Park on  1st November , however there was no official rally at the end, instead they joined a 5,000 strong Communist rally that was taking place to support the National Hunger March due the following week, and which this letter of 22nd October promotes .

The seven contingents of the National Hunger March, comprising 1,500 men and women, arrived in London on Sunday 8th November 1936 along with 250 marchers from the National League of the Blind. They were met by a crowd estimated to be about 80, 000. The National Government had decreed that newspapers should not publish stories or pictures of the National Hunger march, and as a result images are very rare. You will find, however, that this did not apply to the Jarrow Crusade, for which images seem multitudinous. I feel that this is a great shame, for it takes the Jarrow Crusade out of context, portraying it as a one-off stunt which although honourable, ultimately failed in its aim.

The Jarrow march was just one facet of the campaign to eliviate the suffering of industrial regions in the North of England, a campaign which had been ongoing for fifteen years prior to the Jarrow march. It is this campaign which these documents Peter directed me to highlight.

To avoid an overlengthy post I’ll return to this is a seperate post.

 

Where do you start on Clem Beckett’s life story?

Rob Hargreaves has published his book.

This is the review found  in the May 2022 issue of  https://www.speedwaystar.net/

Where do you start on Clement Henry Beckett’s life story?

A child who was born on Friday, August 10, 1906, and died
on Suicide Hill, in what has become known as the Battle of Jarama, on Friday, February 12, 1937.

He was 30 but had lived the life of a man perhaps twice that age. A
life full of danger, daring, unconformity, heroism, escapades, bravery
and, ultimately, death. His passing was mourned by hundreds of thousands of speedway fans, as he had been a pioneer racer who went on to fame if not necessarily fortune with his daredevil exploits. Even a month after his death, on April 13, the Daily Mirror carried a story under the headline ‘War Beats a Brave Wife’ recording: “When Daredevil Clem Beckett, famous ex-speedway rider, died fighting with the International Brigade against the rebels storming Madrid, the world crashed in ruins for his young Danish wife.

“She left Manchester yesterday to spend a fortnight with relatives in
Denmark. Since her husband went to Spain last December she had
bravely carried on his garage business in Oldham Road, Manchester,
racked with anxiety for a man who had dared all in his ‘Wall of Death’ exhibitions, determined he would dare death again.
“Then came the news that Beckett, holding rebels at bay at a
machine-gun post on the Valencia Road, had been trapped: killed. His body was never found.”

On Sunday, May 2, a memorial meeting was held at the Coliseum
Theatre, Ardwick Green, Manchester, at which a packed audience heard tributes to Clem (and other Manchester men, members of the
International Brigade, who gave their lives in Spain) from actress, Dame Sybil Thorndike, and half a dozen other speakers, including Clem’s widow Lida. A poster for the event, declared: ‘Salute the Heroes of Spain! They have not died in vain, they have saved World Democracy from Fascist barbarism.’

No ex-speedway rider has been accorded such a posthumous honour but Clem was no ordinary person and in a commemorative booklet published shortly after the Memorial meeting, famous Belle Vue manager Eric Oswald Spence wrote: “He was the most dramatic figure of the tracks. He rode as no one else has ever done.”

Few sportsmen have ever matched Beckett’s lifetime achievements,
he was never a world champion but he was certainly among the very
best of British competitors and a stalwart believer in workers’ rights,
the leading and motivating mover in the setting up of the first riders’
union at a time when, despite the sometimes rich rewards on offer,
competitors were exploited by unscrupulous promoters.
Clem was a fully paid-up and active member of the Communist Party
and used its official organ, the Daily Worker newspaper. Using his
friendship with the paper’s editor, he wrote a series of blockbuster
articles that led to him being banned by the Speedway Control Board.

 

The first of those appeared on January 14, 1931, under the big, black headline ‘Bleeding the Men Who Risk Their Lives on the Dirt Track’ and he tore into promoters on a number of fronts, including rider safety and the paucity of payments to everyone except the privileged band of star names. He cited the case of journeyman rider Donald ‘Risk-it’ Riley who, when being jailed for obtaining money by false pretences, told the court that his annual speedway earnings amounted to no more than £32 in prize money! Clem claimed most riders had finished the 1930 season with barely enough money to buy machines for the following campaign and in a second article five weeks later, he caused even more fury within the Auto-Cycle Union, furious at a headline that claimed ‘Fine Sport Made Rotten with Financial Corruption’. He accused the ACU directors of being ‘old, incompetent, out of date, and entirely out of touch with the men they profess to represent’. Beckett’s licence was suspended and he was forced to earn his living on the Wall of Death where his name ensured more than healthy audiences wherever they went.
Clem’s somewhat unorthodox, outspoken and controversial approach to life in general and speedway in particular, made him a wonderful subject for a book – and that’s exactly what has happened with the recent publication of Clem Beckett: Motor Cycle Legend and War Hero.

Author Rob Hargreaves has written one of the most unusual,
insightful biographies of any speedway rider of any era and he spent an inordinate amount of time – around 15 years – delving into Beckett’s background. It is far, far more than a story of a speedway rider, it is a reflection of a longforgotten age and a social commentary of life for a working man living in the 20s and 30s. Hargreaves is an exjournalist who worked for the Daily Express at their offices in Manchester; initially on the picture desk and then spending three years on the Sports Desk when one of the roles he fulfilled was subbing the speedway results when they came in late in the night. But he admits: “I can’t claim to be a speedway person. Years ago, in the 70s, I think I attended Belle Vue once or twice.”
He eventually left newspapers and, in the 80s, forged a totally new career as a lawyer, ending up specialising in custody, divorce
and so on, in the Manchester area. He added: “One of my hobbies, it still is, is cycling and not far from where I live I came across a local authority point of interest sign saying ‘Clem Beckett, famous speedway star, practised off road riding here’ and it just hit me. I’d always had a big interest from my school days in the Spanish Civil
War.

“These guys went out to Spain on a matter of principle, calling themselves volunteers for liberty. Clem had this political connection with the Communist Party and when the call came [to fight the fascists in Spain], he answered it. “That morning about 15 years ago, I thought, ‘that’s it, there’s got to be a story here’. A story that would interest people, the journey through life that people could identify
with.” In the fly-leaf of the 239-page tomb, Rob writes: “Clem
Beckett was 14 when he first rode a homemade motorcycle
over the cobbled streets of his hometown. It was the start of
a lifelong love affair with speed and machines. “For Beckett, the motorbike was a means of escape from the uncertain future of Oldham’s stricken industries in the aftermath of the First World War. Beckett’s zest for life, his natural exuberance and determination to be a winner, overcame the disadvantages
of a poor home bereft of a father.

“As a pioneering dirt track (speedway) rider, he broke records galore, and as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War he broke down class barriers. Whether as a tearaway teenager, an outspoken sportsman, or a member of the Communist Party, his life was characterized by broadsides of irreverence towards authority. “To Beckett, the appeal of revolutionary politics was youthful rejection of ‘old fogey’ values and the dominating role of tweedy gentility in motorcycle sport. Reviving faded memories and anecdotes of his career as a pioneer speedway rider, the book traces the extraordinary rise from blacksmith’s apprentice to superstar, in a new sport which typified the energy of the Roaring Twenties, and was characterized by risk-taking and serial injury. Ever the showman, banned from the Dirt Track for trying to protect his fellow riders from exploitation, Beckett took to riding the Wall of Death. “Observing the rise of fascism on his travels in Europe, Beckett’s increasing involvement in politics led to marriage to the mysterious Lida Henriksen, and inexorably to volunteer service in the British Battalion of the International Brigades in Spain. A narrative spiced with anecdotes
and new revelations about Beckett shows why from boyhood to the
poignant circumstances of his death in battle, Clem Beckett inspired
love and loyalty.”Hargreaves’ research was unstinting and is anything but a copy-and paste cuttings job. He spent days and weeks poring over documents at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford; the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell, London; the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield; the Imperial War Museum Sound Archives; the papers of the International Brigade Memorial Trust; and the North West Trade Union International Committee. He visited the battlefields of Spain where Clem met his death and also assiduously investigated his career as a rider and his brief time as a director of the Sheffield promotion. The 76-year-old author lent heavily on a band of speedway historians including Jim Henry, co-founder of Speedway Researcher, adding: “I cannot speak too highly of those guys in the speedway world. They provided me with as much help as possible and they were absolutely delighted to help me. “I did go to Spain on organised trips to look at the battlefield where Clem died and I was able to access the Communist International (Cominterm) Archives in Moscow. “Clem could get on with anybody, apart from the ACU, and people did remember him, all those who remember him gave their accounts affectionately. He married Lida, who was a Communist, and there is a strong suggestion that in the time he spent in Denmark, he could have
been helping the Communist Party to get money and messages from
Moscow.

“There were no children of the marriage and he had a sister who
died in the 1980s or 90s and her daughter, Clem’s niece, I believe, is still alive but after I put something on social media she didn’t respond so I wasn’t able to speak to her.”

CLEM BECKETT: Motorcycle Legend and War Hero is published by
Pen and Sword Military, an imprint of Pen and Sword Books Limited,
47, Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, S70 2AS and is available from all major booksellers or at www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. £25.

T J Carter

At the Stockton Arc recently I was honoured to be invited to the BBC’s recording of The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff  it was an emotional performance for many reasons, not least because, once again The Young’uns were performing it in Johnny’s and their home town.

I am impressed by the fact that there is always something new to take away from listening to the album or watching a performance, 17th March’s recording was no different.

In the track from the show Ay Carmela  Thomas Carter is referenced:

The first of us fell at Jarama
The earth was warm, our blood was warmer
Thomas Carter came a-stormin’
Ay Carmela! Ay Carmela!
Ne’er to see another morning
Ay Carmela! Ay Carmela!

This reminded me of one of my most recent finds, a letter published in the Daily Worker on 17th March 1937, I had uncovered it just two day earlier.

This short message tells us so much:  Thomas Joseph Carter, was know as Joe in Spain. he is explaining how his Company is occupying a high ridge, after fighting during the day they dig in at night, on the next day they are tricked by the Fascists, which is when Carter was wounded.The story suggests to me that Thomas Carter was a member of No.2 Company (Machine-Gun) in the British Battalion, he enlisted on 7th January 1937, number 73.

As Carter says he ‘occupied a high ridge’ we can discount the Conical Hill occupied by No.1 Company, but it is the description of the ‘trick’ which locates him in No.2 Company. According to the version that has become part of Jarama folklore, on 13th February some of the machine-gunners in Harry Fry’s No.2 Company were tricked into surrendering by fascist troops who advanced on their unprotected flank singing the Internationale and giving the anti-Fascist clenched fist salute. Some volunteers have repeated the story found in Frank Ryan’s Book of the XV Brigade, whilst many historians have subsequently dismissed it as myth, however the story was widespread at the time; it is repeated in a number of contemporary publications and is to this day recalled in most publications on the battle. This letter from Thomas Carter may be the first reference to the story, it is certainly one of the earliest contemporary descriptions.

Secondly we discover that Carter is wounded and in Hospital, I was unfamiliar with the name of the Hospital so I approached my friend and colleague Peter Verburgh, who is much more knowledgeable than I.

Trapaja is unknown to me – Castalan, however, looks as if it possibly is a garbled reference to Castellón de la Plana – it had two hospitals in 1937, one civilian, the other military, which both had International wounded/patients Peter Verburgh 21st March 2022

This is possibly the Benicàssim Hospital at Castellon de la Plana, which by coincidence is where John Unthank of Middlesbrough spent six weeks  before succumbing to the wounds he received at Jarama, he died on 2nd April 1937.

As Thomas Carter was listed on the database as killed in action on 27th February 1937 I had assumed previously that he was killed during the American assault of that day, in which Wilf Jobing was also killed, writing:

In an attempt to storm the Nationalist strongpoint at Pingarrón, the XV Brigade; which now included all 450 Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion under Robert Merriman, led an attack on 27th February. Due to lack of coordination the XV Brigade advanced without artillery or air support; the predictable outcome was that the Brigade was cut to pieces. Poet Charles Donnelly, part of the Irish contingent who had joined the Lincolns was heard to remark, “even the olives are bleeding”, before losing his life. The British had been tasked with supporting the attack by the Lincolns. The result was that No.2 Company Commander Wilf Jobling, along with David Halloran, a Catholic CP member from South Bank in Middlesbrough, and Thomas Carter of West Hartlepool were killed on 27th February 1937 when the attack failed. I Sing of My Comrades (2022)

It now looks as though he was wounded on the 13th February,  he succumbs to his wounds and dies on the 27th February, which then means that the letter was published posthumously.

The date of his death is confirmed on the Jarama memorial, erected by members of the British Battalion in 1937.

The names of Carter T.J., Jobling W. and Halloran D. are all shown on photographs of the memorial, and all have the date 27-3-37 against their name. The memorial was destroyed on Franco’s orders in 1939. Carter, Halloran and Jobling are also listed on the Teesside International Brigades Memorial.

Thomas Carter and Wilf Jobling are also eulogised in Jack Lindsay’s  epic poem Requiem Mass for Englishmen Fallen in the International Brigade

This war has roots everywhere, in the soil of squalor.

He watched on the tarnished slates the glistening moon,

a milky drip of light mocking the mouth of hunger,

a promise of cleansing beauty, a pennon of freedom.

and midnight, yawning, creaked with the ghosts of old pain,

till resolution regathered like the moonlight

flowing in through the cast iron bars at the end of the bed.

Where is T. J. Carter of West Hartlepool

 

Where now is he, a voice among many voices,

who said: In poverty’s jail are bolted the guiltless,

the thieves lock up their victims.His voice protested.

Sentenced, he saw through a stone-wall the truth.

Clearer that wall of privation than any arguments.

He struck his hand on the stone and swore he would break it,

he took a rifle and broke through that wall in Spain.

Where is Wilf Jobling of Chopwell? 

Requiem Mass for Englishmen Fallen in the International Brigade  Jack Lindsay, 1938.

 

Every October we commemorate the Volunteers for Liberty who gave their lives for the Spanish Republic, the name of Thomas Joseph Carter is read out, along with the other seven Teesside men who fell (yes this year there will be seven more, not six, but that is a different and recently uncovered story). With the instillation of the new Stockton International Brigades Memorial giving us fresh impetus we will continue to commemorate the Volunteers who served in the International Brigade.

Miles Tomalin’s work

For over two years I have been on a wonderful journey of discovery. Little did I know that John’s request for a leaflet to accompany his planned memorial (https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/stocktonbrigaders) would bring me so much pleasure and bring me into contact with so many wonderful people.

This part of the story really starts with this iconic photograph.

Members of the XV International Brigade Anti-Tank battery.

My primary interest in this image is that Otto Estensen and Tommy Chilvers were both members of this specialist unit; Otto can be seen here seated before the gun playing his mandolin. Standing above him is Miles Tomalin, playing his recorder.

Bill Rust describes Miles thus –

The anti-tank soon became known as the happiest family of the Brigade, and their comic wall-paper, Assault and battery news, and merry social evenings were the envy of all. Miles Tomalin, Battalion poet, musician, and cheery soul, was their foremost mirth provider, while the commander himself sometimes displayed his versatility by dancing steps from classical ballet. Britons in Spain – William Rust

Very early in writing I approached Miles’ daughter Stefany informing her I was writing about her father and enquiring about his poetry, she very kindly gave her permission for us to use an image of the commanders of the British Battalion and to include Miles’ poem The Gunner in our book. Later, in July 2020 Stefany asked me to check on her father’s recorder which she had donated to the Imperial War Museum; I was pleased when Richard Baxell confirmed that it was safe.

Now that the book is published I was able to send Stefany a copy, I send a few as she asked for some for family members. Her response was overwhelming, see – https://www.facebook.com/stocktoninternationalbrigaders/posts/495052918700677) we are deeply grateful.

Not only that Stefany kindly sent me a copy of a booklet of Miles’ Christmas verses, which is quite simply a wonderful idea, the booklet will be treasured. Yesterday I was reading through the copy of  Yet, Freedom yet, a  book produced in January 1939 by The International Brigade Wounded and Dependants’ Aid Committee.

Stuart Walsh had given me the copy as he felt that I would find the Roll of Honour useful, as ever Stuart was correct; and in addition I’ve found the articles in it equally useful.

In I sing of my comrades I have tried to use every mention of the Stockton men, frustratingly I’ve found in Yet, Freedom yet where Otto Estensen is mentioned. Miles Tomalin writes a chapter on the XV International Brigade Anti-Tank Battery, mentioning Otto’s command of the unit. The full text –

Anti-Tank Battery

In the spring of 1937, when the Spanish Government acquired some of the newest and most efficient light-artillery pieces in the world, the Internationals were called on to form the first batteries for their use. One of these was the Anglo-American Anti-Tank Battery, which after a brief and hurried training, hauled its guns up to the lines at Jarama, and in the quiet June days in that sector got to know itself and its guns and feel pride in both.

The battery had three guns, called Anti-Tank guns, because one of their functions was to destroy advancing tanks. They had other uses, the most important of which, so far as this battery was concerned, was the elimination of machine gun nests preparatory to an infantry advance. For a shock brigade like ours, taking part in one offensive after another, this was an essential service.

We learned beneath Mosquito Crest, the vital point in the Brunete battle, what the job was really like in active warfare.

We first experienced an air bombardment, when a squadron of fascist bombers went for us as we were driving up to take our first positions with the infantry battalions. We did not see them coming. The first we knew was that bombs were roaring in a ploughed field about 50 yards to the right of us. A second’s difference in the timing and most of us would have closed our experience of real war where it began. The first artillery shells to be fired at us landed right beside their mark before we knew the fascists had even seen us. While we were waiting for final instructions, near Brigade headquarters, the worst barrage of the war up to that time came over at us while we crouched in a shallow trench.

In this battle we had little time or energy left to let these things depress us. We changed our positions continually, firing from positions behind the lines, in them, sometimes even in front of them. The physical effort of dragging those guns and the ammunition up the rough, steep hills of that terrain was greater than any of us had thought possible to sustain. In that dusty soil it ground the soles off our feet.

Nobody who was in that battery in the Brunete days will forget the morning that followed our withdrawal from the sector into a reserve position. We went down to bathe in a nearby river. Sitting in the shallow water, we sang like a bunch of children. Our spirits were high.

In time it became a byword in the XVth Brigade that you couldn’t get the Anti-Tank Battery down. Our reputation was up to anyone’s and a matter of pride to every man. For this, good leadership was largely responsible. Malcolm Dunbar and Hugh Slater were our first two commanders-none better. Bill Alexander was our political commissar before he left to become adjutant of the British Battalion. Otto Estensen, Arthur Nicoll and Alan Gilchrist carried on their tradition. These men not only gave us good military and political direction, but were wise enough to encourage our cultural activities as well at times when there was opportunity for them, and our wall newspaper, “Assault and Battery News,” achieved, we were told, a reputation among the best in the Spanish Army..

The Battery saw service in all the Brigade’s campaigns until March, of 1938, when massed fascist artillery knocked out our guns at the beginning of their push through Aragon down to the Ebro. By the time we were ready to hit back and cross the river again , the remaining members of the battery had been drafted into the British Battalion, and played their part there with the best. There lie some of the best of them now.

Ours was a fine unit, and we shall not forget it. Those of us who have come back will see it that its spirit stays alive. MILES TOMALIN.

One must remember that Miles was writing this in December 1938 as the British Battalion returned from Spain. Despite the passage of time, and the work of numerous historians, I feel that one will find it virtually  impossible to find a finer summary of the XV International Brigade Anti-tank battery. I feel pride in the fact that as members of The International Brigades Memorial Trust  John, Stefany, Stuart and myself are playing a small part in ensuring that the spirit of the Anti-tank battery and the International Brigades are kept alive.

You can find out more about what we have been doing by visiting – https://www.facebook.com/stocktoninternationalbrigaders

 

Singing Brigaders

Stuart Walsh, a wonderful colleague and friend in  Lancashire notified me of this recent find, an article in the Daily Worker, for 9th December 1938 mentions Stockton.

These eighteen lines are packed with valuable information: Firstly that in 1938 Stockton’s office for the Daily Worker was at 92 Hartington Road. This is just a few metres away from Trinity Churchyard where George Short held his NUWM surgeries on Sunday evenings after the local magistrates had banned him from holding them at the Market Cross. The Daily Worker was the Communist Party Newspaper, the proceeds from sales of this were used to fund the activities of the local Party.

Up until this point I had not considered a secular ‘Christening’ happening in the 1930’s, today a naming ceremony followed by  a celebration is much more common, but to see it so officially Party Political is quite surprising, although I love the concept of the children being named ‘under the red flag.’

I need to research three of the four names, but one needs no introduction, the last child listed is George Short jr, who is referred to as George III as his father and Grandfather were both named George Short; George Short jr’s parents are George and Phyllis Short, he being the Teesside District organiser for the Communist Party (see https://foxburg.edublogs.org/2021/02/22/teesside-ib-memorial/)

The ‘songs by members of the International Brigade’ is also of great interest. The plural is used, which tells us there were more than one. Of the twenty one Teesside volunteers, seven were killed in Spain, hence we have a small number to choose from, although I suspect a number from Tyneside may have travelled down for this Party event.

We know of two brigaders in particular who were musical and also good singers. Otto Estensen had returned home just a few days earlier; arriving in Newhaven on 7th December 1938 with the rest of the repatriated British Battalion. We even have photographic proof of his musicality in Spain – the Iconic photograph of the XV Brigade anti-tank  battery. We also know that Otto was lodging with the Shorts in 1938, and did so until his marriage to Eleanor the following year.

We also know that his best friend, Tommy Chilvers, who had also served in the XV Brigade anti-tank  battery was musical; he played his guitar at the concerts put on by the Basque refugees from the colony at Hutton Hall. hence it is a virtual certainty that Otto and Tommy were providing the songs, and likely that they were a part of the ‘string band.’

What is even more pleasing is that George III is still with us, and I have been able to bring this small part of his personal story to his attention. It is a fascinating insight into the cultural outlook of these Communists on Teesside, a very personal event can tell us a lot about these wonderful people.

Sadly it is too late to add this interesting story to the book – I sing of my comrades: Remembering Stockton’s international Brigaders, however it reminds us that there is still much more to discover about these fascinating people.

The book has been produced to Support John Christie’s memorial campaign – https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/stocktonbrigaders 

It will be available soon, but if you wish to pre-order, please contact me through – https://www.facebook.com/stocktoninternationalbrigaders

 

 

The school strikes of 1911

This is a special guest blog from David Walsh

On 5th September 1911, a group of thirty or so boys marched out of Bigyn council school in Llanelli in West Wales to protest over the caning of one of their peers. Within days, pupils in more than sixty towns throughout Britain had taken to the streets to express their grievances. And many of these protests and walk-outs also happened here in the North East

The school strikes of 1911 took place during a time of widespread industrial unrest. Llanelli itself had witnessed a traumatic strike of local railwaymen, with 600 soldiers sent into the town to keep the peace, but which only led to rioting and several fatalities.

The same was true in the North East. Early in that year there had been a stoppage by dock workers which shut the ports of Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Sunderland. This was then followed by a North East seamen’s strike and climaxed with the region’s railwaymen walking out as one – an action which led to troops being deployed in Darlington and East Cleveland and to railway services coming to a total standstill.

Children were not immune from all of this – many parents were directly involved as employees within these industries. They were also aware of the emerging adult labour movement – as one boy told a Daily Mirror reporter, ‘our fathers strike – why shouldn’t we?’ But should the strikes of 1911 be seen merely as copy-cat protests?

The particular incident which triggered the first strike in 1911 was the hitting of a child by an assistant teacher in the absence of the Headmaster, who was away from school on sick leave. By the end of the week the strike had spread to schools in the big cities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham, London, Glasgow and other cities. The remarkable speed in which the strikes developed was often blamed by local councillors on the newspapers. While some of the protests were violent – for instance, boys in the East End of London were armed with sticks, iron bars and belts – the vast majority were peaceful affairs.

The Northern Echo covered the issue thoroughly, although initially with a degree of levity. The first reports on the 11th September covered schoolboy strikes in South and East London, Grimsby, Colchester and even Dublin, observing that the central demands were for the abolition of the birch and the cane, then still in wide use, and for payment for homework – a penny a day was suggested.

Clearly this publicity did not go unnoticed by local schoolchildren, and by the 14th, the first school strikes in the region – at Stockton – were reported, with a description of boys from Oxbridge Lane School walking out to hold an impromptu march through the town, parading with posters calling for a reduction in school hours, the abolition of the cane and payment of a penny a day for monitors. The Echo reported that the authorities, in the shape of Attendance Officers, the dreaded ‘school board men’, called on the parents of the absent pupils to ensure no repeat took place. Whether this had any real impact is hard to gauge – certainly by the same evening, the Echo was reporting that the very same boys were back, this time marching through Stockton High Street.

Oxbridge Lane School about 1932, from https://picturestocktonarchive.com/

By the following day, the strike fever reached Newcastle, where senior pupils at the Sandyford Road Council School struck demanding the abolition of homework. In the report it was said that “the headmaster’s stance, refusing to consider the application, led to the boys holding meetings outside the school and on the town moor.  Similar occurrences occurred on the other side of the Tyne involving a number of boys at the Gateshead Council and National Schools who also ” struck.”

Similar events occurred at Middlesbrough and York, where the demand was for ‘less work and less stick’.

Things in the Hartlepools took a more serious turn, with the London Times reporting that 100 boys at the Galleys Hill council school ‘came out’ and ‘that a storage room at the back of an hotel was looted and some bottles of stout and whisky and boxes of cigars were removed by the “strikers” some of whom were arrested and will be charged this morning….…The boys are also stated to have thrown stones at the windows of houses occupied by the teachers.”

The same paper also reported that “at Middlesbrough a procession of young “strikers” was dispersed by the police, who seized the placards they were carrying. Over 100 boys marched from school to school trying to bring others out and stones were thrown into one of the playgrounds where lads were drilling.”

This was borne out by reports in the then Middlesbrough Daily Gazette which identified the schools at the heart of the trouble as being “in the Newport District” and also observing that slogans were being chalked on school walls, and that, wonder of wonders, “they were both neat and correctly spelt”.

By the 18th the contagion had spread to Darlington and South West Durham. The Echo reported that “A number of the older boys at Harrowgate Hill School walked out of classes after the first lesson’, then, with what the paper said was a ‘meagre number’ leaving the school at midday to march to Rise Carr School where they linked up with a similar group who had also struck class, to hold a public meeting at a nearby street corner”.

This meeting must have been witnessed by an Echo reporter, as the account stated that the demands put forward there were for ‘a penny a week for all children and a four day school week’. The Echo observed that they ‘may have to wait a long time for this’ and acidly observed that ‘in the meantime it was voted as good fun to hold their meetings and defy teachers from the safe side of the school wall.’

The following week saw Echo reports of similar actions in South Shields where the majority of schools in the town were out, and where the police, robustly, corralled students back to class, and at Shildon, where schools in the town were picketed by pupils from the outlying Black Boy and Eldon schools, action which resulted in a ‘small number of students at the Shildon Council School joining in a march through Shildon under the slogan of ‘strikestrike and strike a blow for freedom.’

But by the following week, the strikes, save for a small reported flare up at Crook, were over, with pupils back at the chalk face, and their demands unmet.

The 1911 school strikes shouldn’t be overplayed. Numerically, while thousands were involved nationally they represented less than one per cent of the total school-age population. Their significance doesn’t relate to numbers – but the fact that many young people felt that they had to speak out on the issues that concerned them – and this, almost everywhere, centring around the practice of corporal punishment – the strap, the cane and even the birch.

It was also noticeable that all the stoppages in the North East related to what were called ‘council schools’ – that is, schools set up by the local authority, and given increased power through the earlier 1902 Education Act. The strikes did not seem to affect either the more middle class and exclusive church schools or local Grammar Schools, and the protests seemed to occur entirely in working class areas of the region.  Also noticeable was that the press reports spoke uniformly of “School Boys” – there was no mention of any involvement of girls from the strictly segregated all-girls council schools. Was there any ?

An image from Hull, School Strike 1911

There can be no doubt that these were genuine grievances. In following years some school authorities recognised the serious nature of the strikes and looked for ways to improve home-school relationships, against others who called for a firmer hand. In wider society, reforms to improve welfare provisions for children were well under way but corporal punishment remained the mainstay of controlling pupils for many teachers until as late as the 1970’s and the 1980s.

While schools today are required under the National Curriculum to provide opportunities for pupils to discuss a range of social issues, for instance in citizenship lessons, or through the setting up of School Councils, it is clear that, evidenced by school student protests over the future College Fees they will face, this is seen by many pupils as a mere token provision.

So, the decision to walk out of class and march through the streets – as we have seen in more recent years – remains the most dramatic form of pupil protest.

And the schoolboy strikers at Oxbridge Lane, Newport, Harrowgate Hill, Galleys Hill and Eldon – as well as all the other schools cited ? Tragically the leavers classes of 1911 were also the conscripts of 1916 who were then to face, not the cane, but the machine guns, gas and the barbed wire at the Battle of the Somme.

David Walsh

Citation from the Times Archive 

 15/09/11

At West Hartlepool about 100 boys at a council school ” came out.” A storage room at the back of an hotel was looted, and some bottles of stout and whisky and boxes of cigars were removed by the “‘ strikers,” some of whom were arrested and will be charged this morning. While marching through the streets the boys stopped an errand boy who was taking some apples to a house and helped themselves freely to the fruit. The boys are also stated to have thrown stones at the windows of houses occupied by the teachers. At Newcastle-on-Tyne yesterday afternoon the bigger boys at Sandyford-road Council School “struck,” demanding the abolition of home work. The head master refusing to consider the application, the boys held meetings outside the school and on the town moor. A number of boys at the Gateshead Council and National Schools also ” struck.” At one school they demanded the payment of a penny to each from the rates every Friday afternoon.  At Middlesbrough a procession of young ” strikers” was dispersed by the police, who seized the placards they were carrying. Over 100 boys marched from school to school trying to bring others out, and stones were thrown into one of the playgrounds where lads were drilling.

16/09/11

The schoolboys’- strike ” showed signs of dwindling yesterday, and in many cases the returning truants were severely punished by masters or parents. The “strike” in Newcastle-on-Tyne was ended yesterday. The boys returned to their lessons in the morning, most of them bringing notes stating that they had been punished by their parents. They also received lectures from the school managers. 

Return to the Ebro

 

On  27th May 2021 Mike Wild posted some images of a programme for the Play Return to the Ebro.

he wrote :

Play by friend and neighbour Berlie Doherty for 50th Anniversary of SCW in 1986. Later broadcast on BBC radio 4 as There’s a Valley in Spain . Several amateur productions have been done. It was very well received on tour. Old Sam’s mannerisms and voice were well captured by ‘Joe Grundy’ from The Archers!

The programme bills this as a ‘world premiere’ of ‘The true and moving story of Sam Wild’

The production was specially commissioned by The Library Theatre Company (https://homemcr.org/theatre/)

As Mike mentions Berlie Doherty was a friend and neighbour, and the cast are exceptional.

Mike mentioned that it was later broadcast on BBC Radio4 as There’s a Valley in Spain. John Scholey has kindly shared his copy of the broadcast.

In the intervening years Berlie Doherty has gone on to become a Carnegie medal winning author , with well over 60 books to her name, as well as  many plays for radio, theatre and television.  Her website can be found at – Berlie Doherty

The Good Comrade – Memoirs of an International Brigader

The Good Comrade – Memoirs of an International Brigader. Jan Kurzke :– ISBN: 978-01-913693-06-0

Published by- The Clapton Press

I am beginning  to run out of superlatives for Clapton Press, for this volume is divine.

These are the memoirs of Jan Kurzke, born in Hamburg in 1905, he was a talented artist, he fled the Nazi regime in 1933, eventually finding refuge in Spain where he ‘toured the country’, he travelled on to England where he met Kate Mangan  the married artist, actress, and journalist. After meeting Kurzke in 1934 she gained a divorce and then in 1936 traveled to Spain to look for Kurzke. Jan had joined the forming International Brigades and fought in the defence of Madrid, when he was wounded Kate nursed him and arranged for his evacuation from Spain. On their return to England they married.

What is really odd is that none of this wonderful love story is mentioned by Jan in his memoirs, as Richard Baxell explains in his detailed introduction, this was half of a wider memoir written with Kate Mangan, and her part of this dual memoir is published separately, also by The Clapton Press as Never More Alive .

A challenge to this publication is that Kurzke’s memoirs are fragmentary; his description of his  Spanish tour is left incomplete in 1934, just as he embarks on a new adventure, it  begins again with him reentering Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic in 1936, and again ends as he crosses the border once again, this time as a wounded soldier.

The reason for the discontinuous nature of the memoir is made clear both by Richard in his introduction and in the two Appendixes. Put simply this is all that remains. I think it is a brave decision to publish what appears to be an incomplete account.

In my opinion this decision is fully justified and is one we should be thankful for, as we have this fantastic account to relish, this is because the prose is beautiful and the narrative compelling, it is a joy to read; in fact a number of times I stopped reading the narrative to go back and reread a passage simply to enjoy the phrasing of the prose; and one must remember this is written in his second language.

Richard Baxell provides a detailed introduction, which at first I felt was a real spoiler; he details what Jan does and sees, explaining what happens prior to and post his first visit to Spain and gives us the point in which the narrative cuts off. Richard talks about Kate Mangan and her search for Jan, and how she finds him in a hospital awaiting the amputation of his leg, how she manages to avert the procedure and eventually takes him to safety.

If you think, as I did, that there would be no surprises left, that Richard had summarised Jan’s account, you will be wrong, very very wrong. The prose is so outstandingly well crafted and the detail so finely balanced you will find yourself rapidly absorbed into the story.

Jan gives us a glorious account of life  tramping round the southern parts of Spain, he provides witness to the debilitating  feudalistic poverty of the rural population,  his first-hand accounts of his encounters with fellow tramps and the Spanish peasantry are horrifically empathetic; the descriptions of the absolute deprivation need no accompanying elaboration.

The opening scenes as Jan prepares to tramp around Spain are deeply reminiscent of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, but this account swiftly surpasses Orwell’s detached and observational account, for Jan is not merely playing a role for a few short months and then returning to his comfortable life,  gathering anecdotes and inspiration. We feel Jan Kurzke living the life of a tramp, we take the journey with him; he is literally penniless, he is barely surviving, barely keeping himself alive. This makes his accounts of the living conditions of the Spaniards he encounters so overwhelming, it is shocking to read his sympathy for the families he meets, as he realises that they are in a worse situation than him, at least he can escape the situation he finds himself in by moving on, or ceasing the struggle to  stay alive.

One really warms to Jan, his natural charm is manifest in the way he describes the people he meets and the relationships he develops. There are two significant relationships he develops whilst tramping, the first is with Hermann, the fellow German.

I struck the main road from whence I could see the town. A man was sitting in a ditch not far off and I  knew he was a German from the map he was studying. A Spanish tramp does not mind where he goes or what the distance is between one place and another, but Germans are more methodical. they always plan, or make one; they like to have an objective, they like to know the country they tramping through. i found it helped me a lot, especially when resting, and I studied the names of places and mountains, towns and villages, and i would pencil off roads already covered and measure the distance to the next town.

Implicit in the account of his time with Hermann is how Hermann mentored Jan, shared his experience, guided him, collaborated and trained Jan. It was a real wrench when Jan departs from Hermann. I feel that this partnership guides us through pre-war Spain, illuminating the conditions in Spain which demanded reform, but Jan does not preach, he does not analyse, he simply reports on what he has witnessed, and his  description of the impoverishment of the Spanish populace is more the powerful for his lack of judgement.

It is striking that despite the horrific hardship Jan witnesses and to some extent experiences is not morose or depressing, his prose is uplifting as well as enlightening, which makes the situations he describes even more enraging.

Jan departs from Herman to join a trio of entertainers, led by the German born photographer Walter Reuter, the others were Walter’s wife and the beautiful young blonde Margarethe Zembal, who Jan refers to as ‘Putz’ and who Jan clearly fell in love with, despite promising Walter he wouldn’t.

It is just as he begins his adventures with these three colourful characters that the memoirs come to an abrupt end. This is pretty jarring as the narrative is flowing so freely one feels very much like Wile Coyote as he runs off the edge of a cliff; we seem to continue on, until, after a delay, we find there is nothing there. Even with Richard’s warning it still comes as a disappointing shock, in fact I may even suggest that without the prior warning this halt in the story would be a killer. I think it is testimony to the editors skill that he feels he can highlight the gap in the narrative to openly, because pre-warned I felt eventually felt frustrated towards myself for forgetting the warning, rather than directing my frustration at anyone else who was depriving me of the continued pleasure of reading this fine narrative.

The opening scene in this second section has Jan travelling into Spain,  it feels much like an entirely  separate narrative, which indeed it is because two years have passed, and Jan is a different man; older, wiser, with more responsibilities. However the prior section means that we are familiar with this character, we have an insight into his thoughts and feelings, we know him. The wonderful prose is still there but this time it is  not so light, it is much more descriptive, reflecting the subject matter, although Jan has lost none of his warmth and humanity.

I found the  second section rewarding for different reasons to the first section; I am much more familiar with the context of the narrative, for this is the period which covers the events to which I have already studied whilst researching  David Marshall and reading, another Clapton Press publication, Boadilla by Esmond Romilly .

Jan Kurzke’s account compliments these other accounts, he not only looks at some similar events from a different perspective, but the fact that Jan is not English means that he has different priorities, and dare I say it, different standards to the other two. It is notablr that Jan had some experience in firearms before Spain, and is therefore slightly more confident than the Englishmen when in the heat of battle. Jan had an advantage over most of his fellow British volunteers, as he was multilingual he could communicate much more easily.

One similarity which seems to reflect the other two accounts is Jan’s easy familiarity with significant individuals, his friend John was the poet John Cornford, a legendary figure in the International Brigades. so too was Jock; who Jan says had a permanent look of puzzlement on his face. I’ll never look at a picture of Jock Cummingham, who led the British Battalion after Jarama, in the same way again, but of course Jan is writing about them before they gained recognition and notoriety. It would be John Cornford who would drag the wounded Jan to safety.

John Cornford

It is not the proximity to the great and the good, nor the association with the great events which makes this book so fantastic, it is the simplicity. Simon from Clapton Press is presenting a splintered narrative, an incomplete memoir, a flawed account; but this is what makes it so special, it has not been sanitised or developed by an historian, it has not been added to in order to clarify, we are left largely with mo0st of what Jan  Kurzke intended to leave us, and it is wonderful.

The account of his time in Hospital feels so authentic, with tiny changes in routine taking on monstrous dramatic significance simply because time is dragging for Jan, monotony prevails. Once again,  just as the reader feels comfortable with the flow of the narrative it ends abruptly.

It is at this abrupt end that Simon plays his trump card, Appendix one contains the correspondence between Charlotte Kurzke; the daughter of Jan and Kate Mangan, and Bernard Knox, the academic who had fought in the International Brigades alongside Cornford and Kurzke.

The exchange itself is fascinating as it highlights the difficulties and choices we face when using testimony; an account constructed after the events. We also see their frustration with Jan’s odd choices and omissions. It is shocking to find that Jan Kurzke does not mention Charlotte’s mother in his account; one disquieting omission comes when the lovers, Jan and Kate are reunited in Barcelona, Jan replaces this event in his memoir with a description of him bedding a girl he met in a bar. Neither Charlotte nor Bernard can explain this void in the narrative, the reader too can speculate but there seems to be no satisfactory explanation.

The second appendix comes from Simon Deefholts, the CEO of The Calpton Press, in which he adds context and attempts to explain the end of the Story, where Jan abandons Kate and Charlotte to begin a new life. As with the first Appendix, this is not done to explain the situation, but to present information, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Simon is treating us like adults, who can weigh up the evidence, speculate and develop hypothesis of our own.

Put simply Simon has presented a number of parts, which don’t quite fit neatly together and certainly don’t make up a complete whole. I feels he has brought to our notice a fantastic account of Spain prior to the outbreak of the Spanish war, and a valuable account of the initial stages of that war, he has shown us what a fine writer Jan Kurzke was and the work his daughter has put in to bring it to the notice of the public. I believe this is an exceptional work of historical importance; we have an eye-witness account of life in Spain before the war, by an a gifted writer, combined with an account of the defence of Madrid which corroborates some of the most significant accounts in the English language.

If you want to read fine prose, you should read this book, if you want to get an impression of Spain before the outbreak of war, giving you an insight into why it broke out then you should read this book. If you want to read an interesting narrative, you should read this book. If you have an interest in the first few months of the Spanish Civil war you should read this book. If you have an interest in the construction of history then this book  will be a useful read. In short there are multiple reasons for getting hold of this publication, but primarily the major reason is that it is outstandingly good.

The book can be purchased from Clapton Press – here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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