How Hyde ‘Spymasters’ looked for Commies on BBC Children’s Hour

By Derek Pattison

Salford born folk singer and song- writer Ewan MacColl is remembered today more for his music than his agit-prop plays. But it was his political activities before the last war and his membership of the Communist Party that led to MI5 opening a file on him in the 1930s and why they kept him, and his friends, under close surveillance.

Secret service papers released by the national archives, now in Ashton-under-Lyne central library, offer a clue into how British intelligence (MI5) spied on working-class folk singer Ewan MacColl and his wife playwright, Joan Littlewood, who lived at Oak Cottage on Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire, during World War II.

MI5 opened a file on James Henry Miller (MacColl’s real name) in the early 1930s when he was living in Salford. As an active Communist Party member, he had been involved in the unemployed workers’ campaigns and in the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. Before enlisting in the army in July 1940, he had written for the radio programme Children’s Hour.

In Joan Littlewood’s autobiography, she writes: “Jimmie was registered at the Labour Exchange as a motor mechanic, but he did better busking, singing Hebridean songs to cinema queues. Someone drew Archie Harding’s attention to him and from that time on he appeared in the North Region’s features (BBC) whenever a ‘proletarian’ voice was needed.”

As a BBC presenter for Children’s Hour and Communist Party member, Littlewood also came under the watch of MI5. A letter in the file, marked ‘SECRET’ (dated March 1939) and sent to W.H. Smith Esq., the Chief Constable for Hyde, tells him that Miller – known to the writer to be a Communist Party member – had taken a house in Hyde. The letter informs him that Miller works for the BBC in Manchester and that his wife, Joan Miller – another communist – broadcasts under the name ‘Joan Littlewood’ and is “said to be ‘Aunty Muriel’ of Children’s Hour.” The writer Sir Vernon Kell ended by asking the Chief Constable for Miller’s address and asked if Miller followed any other profession other than broadcasting.

Colonel Sir Vernon Kell, also known as ‘K’, was the head of MI5. An officer of the old school, Kell had served in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and was appointed first director of MI5 in 1909.

‘Communist looking Jews’

Writing about the spy Kim Philby, Seale & McConville say that Kell was the ‘antithesis of the terror-wielding secret police chief of public imagination’. As a public servant, he was renowned for his sense of duty, tact and discretion and ‘used his wide powers with notable restraint.’ By all accounts, MI5 in 1940 was an antiquated organisation led by middle-aged men who, while adept at keeping so-called subversives under surveillance, had little understanding of the ideas that motivated communists of Philby’s generation.

At the outbreak of World War II, it seems that under Kell’s leadership, MI5 was unable to cope with the mass of information about German agents in Britain and the ‘spy-mania’ that was a feature of British life at the time. Consequently, Kell was retired by Winston Churchill in 1941.

A letter in the file concerning Joan Littlewood is signed Major Maxwell Knight. Charles Maxwell Knight held right-wing views and after his Royal Navy service he worked for the Economic League. In 1924, he joined the British Fascisti, an organisation set up to counter the power of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions. This body put him in charge of compiling dossiers on ‘political subversives’, counter espionage, and establishing fascist cells in the trade union movement. In 1925, Kell recruited Knight to work for MI5.

A report in the file by Inspector J.E. Robinson, also marked ‘SECRET’ and dated April 1939’ tells the Chief Constable of Hyde that Miller lives with his parents and wife at Oak Cottage. Explaining that the BBC does not permanently employ Miller, the Inspector adds:

“He (Miller) does not appear to follow any fixed occupation beyond writing articles for such periodicals as may care to publish them. I understand that such publications are rare.”

He concludes by saying Miller and Littlewood seem to have no known association with communists in Hyde, but “at weekends, and more particularly when Miller’s parents are away from home, a number of young men who have the appearance of communist Jews are known to visit Oak Cottage. It is thought they come from Manchester.

In September 1939 there is more correspondence between Kell and the Chief Constables of Hyde, Ashton-under-Lyne and Cheshire. It seems Miller and other communist suspects had got work at Messrs Kenyon Ltd in Dukinfield.

Writing to the Hyde Chief Constable, Kell asks about William Redmond Morres Belcher – a worker at Kenyon’s – who, he says, has fought in Spain in the International Brigades. Admitting that he has no proof that Belcher is a Communist Party member, he adds: “his sympathies are very much to the left.” Naming three more workers at Kenyon’s: W.Sharples, R.C.Dyson and Miss B. Nash, he again admits he has no proof they are communists, but “Sharples may be identical with a man of that name who visited the USSR in August 1932.” The Chief Constable is asked to “make some inquiries…and let me know what you discover.”

The employment of Miller and his associates at Kenyon’s in Dukinfield did cause MI5 some anxiety as the firm had government contracts. It was feared the group might foment industrial unrest and in a letter dated September 1939, to Major J. Becke, Chief Constable of Cheshire, Colonel Kell wrote:

“I agree with you that the employment of these men at Messrs Kenyon’s appears to be most unusual and would be grateful if you would let me have any further information which may come to your knowledge.”

Special Branch Surveillance

Belcher, a mechanical engineer, had been employed to fit blinds to comply with government lighting restrictions. He then used his influence to get jobs for his friends without consulting the Directors. A memo dated September 1939, says:

“Messrs Kenyon’s are anxious as to whether Belcher and his associates have any connection with the IRA. I told him (Percy Kenyon), I was unable to give him any information as regards that.”

A Special Branch agent report, dated October 1939, to the Hyde Chief Constable, says that Belcher, his wife Aileen, Robert Dyson, William Sharples and Miss Beryl Nash, had all been resident at Oak Cottage while that house was under surveillance.

This report says they were all active Communist Party members and members of the ‘Theatre Union, an agitprop drama group that toured industrial areas of Britain’. This agent says:

“I have been able to listen to their conversations during the evening at Oak Cottage but I have not heard anything regarding communism or other political views.”

He informs the Chief Constable that Miller is a communist “with very extreme views and I think that special attention should be given to him.”

Apart from surveillance of this kind by Special Branch agents, the file has details of telephone taps and of intercepted letters. A memo, dated September 1943, to Colonel Allan of the GPO states: “Would you kindly let me have a return of correspondence for the next two weeks on the following address – Oak Cottage, Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire.”

Other memos show that bodies such as the Central National Registration Office and Passport Office were supplying information to MI5. Frequently, people who knew Miller and Littlewood, were contacted directly by the police or vice versa.

Alison Bayley, who’d been at RADA (drama school) with Littlewood, stopped Littlewood in the street one day and asked her if she’d time for a coffee. Littlewood describes this meeting in her autobiography: “I hadn’t seen her since joining ‘Theatre of Action’. ’Old times Chat?’ I asked.” Alison Bayley then told Littlewood: “I’ve denounced you to the Police. About you being a communist.” Though Littlewood assured her that the police already knew she was a Communist Party member, Bayley told her: “I felt I had to tell them, Littlewood.”

Blacklisted by the BBC

One irate middle-class father from Withington wrote to the police in May 1940, demanding that the Millers be sacked from the BBC and interned. His 18-year-old son (Graham Banks) a “fine specimen of English boyhood with good morals and ideals and a brilliant future” had, he explained, fallen into the clutches of the Millers who had induced him to leave home. Mr Banks added: “His poor mother is frantic with grief and if it should be within your province to either return him to us or else to intern him along with the others taking part in these pernicious plays, I hope you will do so.”

MI5 intervention led to the BBC blacklisting Miller and Littlewood. Littlewood had already been banned from working in Sheffield because she’d broadcast criticism of local housing conditions. Other memos reveal links between MI5 agents and BBC staff. In a memo, dated October 1939, a MI5 officer says: “I do not understand why the BBC continues to use them. Could they be warned to drop them if other people are available?”

Another memo states: “We asked the BBC to hold them (the programme) up while we obtained this file and unfortunately their (the Millers’) programme for the 11th October 1939 was about to be cancelled. Mr. Nicholls (Controller of Programmes), informed me that there was a possibility that the Manchester Guardian would publicise the matter and questions would be asked in the House of Commons. I said I would raise no objections to the broadcast of 11/10/39 but would get in touch with the BBC again.”

Though the BBC had announced in March 1941 that persons who had taken part in public agitation against the war effort would not be allowed access to the microphone, the BBC stated:“Beyond this one limit the Corporation is jealous to preserve British broadcasting as an instrument of freedom and democracy.”

The real reason for the ban on Miller and Littlewood is made clear in a memo dated April 1941 from Mr. Coatman, North Regional Director for the BBC. He points out that Mrs. Miller (Littlewood) and her husband were not only well known communists but were active communists. Mr. Coatman says:

“It must be remembered that Miss Littlewood and her husband were concerned chiefly with programmes in which they were brought into continuous and intimate contact with large numbers of working class people all over the North Region. Clearly I could not allow people like this to have use of the microphone or be prominently identified with the BBC. I therefore urge that the ban on Miss Littlewood as a broadcaster be allowed to stand.”

In her autobiography, Joan Littlewood says that following the BBC ban, Miller and herself wrote to L.C. Knight of the National Council of Civil Liberties who promised to investigate but never contacted them again. She writes: “We offered our story to the newspapers they didn’t publish it, not even the Daily Worker.”

After being called up in July 1940, Private James H. Miller was placed on the ‘Special Observation List’ “to see whether he is trying to carry on propaganda.” He was declared a deserter on 18th December 1940 and remained AWOL for the rest of the war. In this period he changed his name to Ewan MacColl. Military reports suggest he was popular with his fellow soldiers and exerted influence over them owing to his greater intelligence. He was a member of the Regimental Concert Party and produced ‘several songs and skits’. One of his songs was a particular favourite with the men:

“The medical inspection boy’s is just a bleedin’ farce. He gropes around your penis and noses up your arse. For even a Private’s privates, enjoy no privacy, you sacrifice all that to save democracy. Oh, I was browned off, browned off, as could be.”

While the song was popular with the ordinary soldiers it seems the military top brass had their suspicions. A note in the file says the song was of the normal barrack room type and didn’t appear to his CO to be subversive but “he is now inclined to think that it was rather subtle propaganda, the theme being generally disparaging to life as a private soldier and enlarging upon the fact that the discipline and alleged discomforts, to which he is subjected, although nominally in the cause of democracy, were really for the benefit of some supposedly superior class.”

MI5 and Censorship

After the war, Miller was arrested for desertion. He spent the first night of his captivity in Middlesbrough police station and was then taken to an army detention barracks at Northallerton. Later he was transferred to the Northfield Military Hospital in Birmingham where he was diagnosed as suffering from epilepsy. A psychiatrist diagnosed him to have a ‘paranoid personality with strong oedipal tendencies.’ The result of his psychiatric report led to the cancellation of his court martial on medical grounds and he was discharged from the army.

In her autobiography ‘Joan’s Book’, Littlewood speaks openly about being blacklisted by the BBC and about MacColl’s (Miller’s) desertion. She says he changed his name to MacColl ‘as a precaution’ while on the run as a deserter. However, none of this is mentioned in MacColl’s autobiography (Journeyman), which contains many gaps and omissions about his life.

Both Littlewood and MacColl played a cat and mouse game with the authorities. They were certainly aware the police were reading their letters: “Jimmie wrote to me every day, mostly jokes and nostalgia. So were mine to him. It must have been disappointing for the police who were opening them all.” They knew the police were keeping tabs on them, because so many of their friends and acquaintances were approached by the police.

Nothing can be found in the MI5 file to suggest Littlewood and MacColl were in the pay of Moscow (Nazi Germany and the USSR were allies from 1939 to June 1941). Yet a memo, dated April 1942, shows Littlewood had contact with Emile Burns, who was boss of propaganda at the Communist Party Headquarters in London.

Clearly, MI5 monitored their theatrical work and activities because they feared that as proselytising communists, their work could influence and politicise the working-classes. One of their plays, ‘Last Edition’, performed by the Theatre Union, was described as ‘thinly veiled’ communist propaganda’ and MI5 boss Colonel Kell used his influence to urge local councils to refuse them performance licenses in the same way as MI5 prevented them working for the BBC.

Joan Littlewood died in September 2002, aged 87. She has been described as a ‘subversive genius’ who broke the mould of British drama. She was best known for her work ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and for establishing, with others, the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in East London. Ewan MacColl died in 1989 aged 74. He is now remembered more as a songwriter than an agit-prop playwright. His songs include ‘Dirty Old Town’, the ‘Manchester Rambler’ and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ made famous by the singer Roberta Flack in the 1970s.

This article was originally published in Northern Voices issue 7, 2007

Mary and Percy Higgins: Communists in Tameside

Mary and Percy Higgins, a couple from Tameside, were active politically on the left, first in the Labour Party and then in the Communist Party, from the early 1930s to the end of their respective lives.

Mary was born Mary Boardman on 22 August 1914 in Failsworth, of working-class parents. Her mother ran a hardware and china shop. Politics ran in the family: her parents were members of the Failsworth Secular Society and founders of the Independent Labour Party, whilst on her mother’s side her grandparents had been Chartists. Mary herself joined the Labour Party at the age of 16 and was elected to the executive the next year. She also became active in the Labour League of Youth (LLY, which in the 1930s had 30,000 members) and was elected as a delegate to the Manchester Federation.

She attended a national LLY conference in Leeds but came back disillusioned because, she felt, the young people attending were not allowed to discuss matters of real importance. As well as being active in Failsworth she also helped out at Mossley Labour Party (very likely because she had met Percy Higgins, her future husband, who lived in Mossley). By the late 1930s she was becoming disillusioned with the Labour Party and began reading the Daily Worker. Mary joined the Communist Party in Oldham in 1940, at first it seems as a paper member, because she carried on working in the Labour Party. After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil and hearing Harry Pollitt (the national secretary of the Communist Party ) she made the final break with Labourism and become an active member of the CP in Oldham. She later said that: “I found that I could not reconcile pacifism with a belief that, should the time come for the working class to defend their rights, I would fight for those rights.”

Within months Mary had become the Party Secretary in Oldham. That same year she got married to Percy Higgins. At this time they were living on Dacres Estate, Greenfield.

Percy was born in Mossley on 3 January 1910, one of a large family, and attended St George’s Elementary School. “I learned very early in life what it means to be one of a big working class family in wartime and slump. There were nine of us in the family, but a sister died at the age of three and my father became estranged and separated from the family as a result of the 1914 war.” From a young age Percy had shown an aptitude for painting and drawing but with his father gone and family on the breadline Percy had to be sent to work in a mill at the age of 14 to earn money for the family, instead of going to art school, as both he and his mother had dreamed of. “I shall never forget the heartbreak it occasioned my mother, never shall I ever forget the way she wept when I went off on my first day to work in a cotton factory at the age of fourteen, instead of art school as she had always hoped for.”

Starting as a learner piecer at 10/- a week, Percy rose to become a big piecer by the age of 17, earning 25/- a week, enough for him to afford evening classes in art in Ashton-under-Lyne where he won prizes and improved his technique. Percy was thrown out of work in 1928 but after a few months got another job with a commercial firm in Rochdale.

Whilst unemployed, Percy heard a speaker on the Market Ground in Mossley proclaiming how Socialism could solve the problems of poverty and ignorance. “I thought it over and read some books.” These included the Socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As a result he almost immediately joined the local Labour Party in which he became very active, assisting with the election of Herbert Gibson as the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Mossley at the general election in 1929. “I decided to give all the time I could to working for Socialism.” He started a Labour League of Youth and helped set up the Manchester Federation of Labour League of Youth (which is probably where he met Mary). In 1932 Percy organised a large demonstration by thousands of young people in Mossley against the Means Test and also stood for Mossley Council, but was defeated by 65 votes.

Percy realised his life’s ambition when he set up business as a freelance commercial artist in 1934. Though now a small businessman he did not abandon his Socialism and was Secretary of the Mossley Labour Party from 1933 to 1939 as well as Propaganda Secretary for the Lancashire District Clarion Youth Committee. In 1935 he assisted workers at Mossley Woolcombing to fight and win a strike over pay and conditions. At the same time Percy was also elected Secretary of Mossley Smalltraders Association, organizing a shopping week that same year to mark Mossley’s 50 years as a borough. He was also active in Aid Spain during the Spanish Civil War and in the Left Book Club. He took the 12 month correspondence course for Labour Party election agents, but left the Labour Party and joined the Communist Party in 1940.

In 1941 he joined the RAF and during his time at Padgate camp led a successful deputation to protest at the inept training and the food. After a brief spell in the Shetlands (where he established a Communist Party branch in Lerwick along with Peter Jamieson), he was eventually posted to Allahabad in India in 1943. He remained politically active, organising a Daily Worker reading classes and making contact with the Indian Communist Party. He met Indian Nationalists, including the son of Gandhi. Percy also served in Burma. His activities led him being moved to Nagpur, though this did not dampen his fervour for he made contact with local Communist Party and organized a Daily Worker reading group. He was posted again to Burma where he organized a Forces parliament.

Percy was demobbed in 1946. According to biographical notes submitted for a CP National School in January 1946 the Higgins were living back in Greenfield and Mary was working as a short-hand typist at R Radcliffe in Mossley. In 1947 they moved to Wales, where Percy worked as a full-time organiser and election agent for Harry Pollitt who stood as Communist Party candidate in the Rhondda East constituency several times, though was not elected. They lived in Penygraig, near Tonypandy, at this time.

Percy attended a National CP School in May 1950. The assessment of him noted that that he was very co-operative and ready to tackle problems and contributed well to group and class discussions, “though he has rather a tendency to leap into discussion without sufficiently thinking out his points.”

By the early 1950s Mary and Percy were back in Lancashire. Percy was now organising sales of the Daily Worker in Lancashire, quite successfully, according to a report in the CP archives. Mary worked as a medical secretary at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

They were very active members of CND formed in 1958, and took part in the Aldermaston marches and also marches to Holy Loch where nuclear submarines were based. Mary was involved with the Women’s Peace Caravan which crossed Europe to Moscow. In their spare time (what there was of it) they enjoyed walking in the Pennines and Lake District and also spent time at Dent in the Yorkshire Dales. Percy painted landscapes of their beloved lakes.

Percy died on 7 November 1977 and Mary died on 20 March 1995. The Working Class Movement Library has a tape of Mary taking about her life and politics.

Article by Michael Herbert

Sam Wild and Bessie Berry – the Spanish Civil War, Communism and Feminisn

Sam Wild, born in Ardwick, was one of the Manchester men who fought in the Spanish Civil War, eventually becoming the commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Bessie Berry, his wife, was a pioneering women activist in British Communist circles.

Dolores Long, Sam Wild and Bessie Berry’s daughter, described their lives and politics in an interview in June 2009.

Unemployment in Manchester

My Dad was a working class man who had a really poverty-stricken childhood. He was born in Ardwick and left school at 14 with no skills and found it very difficult to get work. He got involved in the unemployed workers’ movement because he couldn’t find work in Manchester and so he joined the merchant navy. And he always said, I joined the merchant navy because I knew I’d get accommodation and I’d be fed.

His political education was in the merchant navy, I think, because when he was going round the world he began to be aware of the officer class and the ordinary sailors and the difference in their facilities, different food and so on. Also he began to read, and so he always said that was his political education. He became a bit of a rebel and started agitating for better conditions on ship, he wasn’t popular with the officers, and he actually jumped ship in South Africa and came back to Manchester and started getting involved in the issues around unemployment in Manchester at that time.

The Spanish Civil War

Sam had a sister at that time in Manchester called Hilda, and Hilda had a boyfriend called Bert Maskey who was a Russian emigre. He was more political than my father. Bert and my dad became friends and when the Spanish Civil War broke out Bert decided to go to Spain. He was much more politically aware at that time than my father and he explained what Spain was all about and why democracy was at stake, and he realised that what was happening in Spain could be happening in the whole of Europe. He persuaded my father to go with him, so my father went out to Spain with just a kind of gut feeling. His politics just came from his experiences, he wasn’t particularly well read at that time or sophisticated politically, but he just had that kind of gut feeling that there was something wrong with the world.

So Sam and Bert Maskey went out to Spain together, and Bert Maskey was killed very early on in the war, which was a real loss to my father, but my father through his experiences in Spain became much more political, that was where he really began to form his ideas.

He was in his late 20s by that time. Because he’d been in the merchant navy he’d had a little bit of experience of discipline and organisation, but Spain was also where my father realised the skills that he had. His skills were leadership skills, and he was just a very, very inspirational leader and amazingly well respected by other people he was fighting with and very, very brave, so eventually he became the commander of the British battalion. One of my memories of childhood is when I met International Brigaders who’d been with my father, every one of them would just say I’d had total respect for your dad, he was a really democratic and efficient and effective leader, and very inspirational.

So by the time he came back from Spain – he joined the Communist Party while he was in Spain – and by the time he came back he was a changed person. During his time in Spain – he came back several times and went round the country giving speeches – he just became a confident, political, effective leader and a political leader.

The Communist Party

He stayed in the Communist Party all his life. I think with reservations, I remember when the Khrushchev speech happened, there were long discussions in the family. He stuck with the Communist Party, but he always had problems, he had issues. I think that that was to do with the kind of rebel qualities in him, he never reacted very well to the kind of discipline that the Communist Party instilled in people, he always had a problem with being told what to do by people. So he stayed in after all the revelations came out but I know never with the same enthusiasm. He stayed a socialist all his life though, without a doubt.

My mother who was also political, she had the organisational skills, but my dad was such a rebel, slightly wild and undisciplined, and I don’t think he fit into the Communist Party. My mother did, my mother became one of the first women elected to the Executive of the Party, but my dad was a man of action and the business and discipline that the Party required of people, he really couldn’t be bothered. He was also a drinker as well, I don’t think that helped.

I don’t think it was his kind of interest. The logical thing for my father to have done would be to have moved up in the Communist Party, but he never did that, he wasn’t very interested in it at all, so he spent the rest of his life in and out of work and never, ever finding something that interested him, used his skills, challenged him. I think it was a very sad life. Whereas my mother, who also came from a working class background, a very tough childhood, she got her act together and she had no education at all, or very basic education, but she was very active in the Communist Party. She went on delegations to Russia and Bulgaria, went on lots of delegations and trips. At the age of 40, with 4 kids, she took herself off to college and trained as a teacher, and her life kind of took off whereas my Dad’s never did.

Life after Spain

When Sam came back from Spain he was just another unemployed working class man and the experiences he’d had in Spain meant nothing really. He worked for the Communist Party, he went round and gave lots and lots of talks around the country about Spain and the Aid Spain movement. He stood as a Communist Party councillor in the local elections, and so he was active in all the political campaigns in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Eventually he got jobs on building sites, scaffolding, he was always elected the shop steward and he was very active in the TU movement for building sites and building workers, on safety issues, that usually ended up with him getting sacked eventually. In Spain, though, the situation used the kind of natural skills and abilities my father had and I don’t think he ever really found a role afterwards for himself. And I think that was really sad, because I think he had exceptional qualities but that for a working class men at that time, what would anyone do with the fact that he’d been an inspirational leader in Spain?

Bessie Berry

She got involved in the Communist Party I suppose in her mid to late 20s, and she and my father met when my father came back from Spain. He was giving talks about Spain and that’s how they met. I think that my father respected my mother for what she managed to do but I think he was very aware that her life had gone upwards and his downwards…

We lived in Longsight in a council house on Birch Hall Lane, a very small council house. My memories of growing up are two parents who were always busy, at meetings. There were always posters in the window of this little council house, there were always people visiting the house and kind of interesting people. Black people came to the house, which was really unusual – this was the late 1940s, early 1950s, and they were Africans coming to meetings in Manchester, Indians.

And we were taken to the Moscow State Circus and the Red Army Choir when they came to Manchester, and the Chinese State Circus, so although I didn’t realise it at the time there was a real sense of internationalism which even at that time I began to realise was unusual for someone living in a council house in Manchester.

And the other thing that was interesting is that I had a mother who at a time when most women were staying at home looking after the kids, being housewives, was out at meetings. She was talking at meetings, she was in the Co-op movement, she was in the Communist Party, she was active in anti-apartheid and boycotting South African goods. I can remember being totally embarrassed every time we went into a shop, my mother would ask where goods came from and when they said South Africa she’d say ‘oh no, I’m not going to buy that,’ and I can remember being totally embarrassed by that.

When we went to the cinema, which didn’t happen very often, but they used to have the Pathe news and I’d just cringe because I knew my mother would be complaining or disagreeing with something on the news. And we never stood up. In those days you used to stand up at the end of the cinema for God Save the Queen and my parents would never stand up. So an unusual and not an easy childhood, because particularly after the Cold War started there was, when people, people just had this fear of Communists, so the neighbours were always very suspicious and confused about what was going on in this little council house, and some were very hostile and didn’t want their kids playing with us because we were communist.

When my mother was elected onto the Executive Committee of the Communist Party the Manchester Evening News ran a massive hate campaign, because by this time she was a teacher and the angle they took was that this woman must be indoctrinating her pupils with communism, but fortunately her headmistress went to the Education Committee and defended her and said no, this woman’s just a great teacher.

So it was a very, very unusual, different kind of upbringing. At the time all I wanted was a normal kind of household and a mum who made cakes and wasn’t always out in the evening. As I got older I’ve kind of realised gosh, what an amazing childhood that was and what I gained from having two people as parents who were interested in the world and were active and also totally non-materialistic, just not interested in possessions and things, and having a mother who, although I didn’t realise it at the time was an amazing role model for what women could do.

Links

Working Class Movement Library information on the Unemployed Workers’ Movement
International Brigades Memorial Trust
Working Class Movement Library information on the Spanish Civil War
An ANC history of the British Anti-apartheid campaign
The current British Communist Party’s own history website
Basque Children of ’37 Association

Article by Sarah Irving

Bernard McKenna and the Spanish Civil War

After fighting Fascism – in the shape of Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts – in Manchester, the 21-year-old Bernard McKenna went to Spain to join the battle against Franco’s troops. Despite being wounded he “never regretted going” and stayed involved in left-wing politics throughout his life. Bernard died in 2008, 2 years after this interview was carried out.

Born in Hulme, Bernard McKenna joined the Young Communist League at 18, attending meetings, educating each other about Marxism and political issues and supporting workers who were out on strike or suffering at the hands of their bosses.

There was always something to do, it was a busy time politically,” Bernard said of the 1930s. He himself worked in a clothing factory in Cheetham Hill, owned by one of the area’s Jewish businessmen. It was a ‘good company’ to work for, he recalled, and his jobs included stock-keeping and dispatch, making use of his good memory.

Manchester was, Bernard recalled, a very active area in terms of support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Money and supplies such as clothes were collected by the Communist and Labour Parties (despite the national Labour Party’s policy of non-intervention) and by aid committees. Spanish refugees already in Britain were also supported, Bernard remembered. “It took hold of people’s imaginations,” he said, “it really livened up the political scene in Manchester because people could relate to it. And we heard about Franco’s misdeeds from French newspapers which were brought to Britain.”

At the age of 21, Bernard McKenna decided to head for Spain himself. The deciding factor, according to Bernard, was that the leader of the Manchester Communist Party decided to go, and Bernard himself thought “what the hell am I doing here? I’m doing a job here of no great importance, maybe if I go there I can do something useful.”

He left in January 1937, crossing the Pyrenees on foot, to find a situation of individual workers in Spain looking for ways to be useful. Meeting up with other volunteers from Latin America, Europe and the USA they formed a military unit, drawing on the experience of men who had served in WW1 or in regular armies in their own countries. Bernard himself recalled that “I was lucky, I’d no military experience so they put me in a group being run by a Czech ex-army man who was really good, and I got quite a number of weeks’ training. It was unusual to have been so well and efficiently trained” This training including physical fitness, use fo weapons, self-defence and political and military education.

“I realised it was more or less a dead end job,” Bernard joked, “but I hoped to be able to do something useful.”

As he was posted out, a need was identified for communications operatives, working with radios and telephones in an all-British battalion.

My job was simple,” Bernard described. “When we went into line to take up any lengths of phone wire and exchanges and field telephones and help to install them, and then after to fall back in with the battalion and fight with them, and then help to try and put things right if anything happened to the communications. At times when there wasn’t a lot of fighting, if the battalion was holding a position, that was something for me to do. When we got wounded members we could use the telephones to ring up and get cars or vans to move them out to bases where they could be looked after – this was difficult because if the fascists found a hospital they’d bomb it, you’d take a wounded person there and then have to find another one.”

According to Bernard’s descriptions, although this was a busy time the military action was mainly defensive, and at times members of the brigade would also be drafted in to help with farming and other tasks in villages where most of the men had been captured by Franco’s fascists or were in the Republican armies. But with the Fascist offensive in Central Spain and towards Madrid the action largely turned into defensive fighting and retreats. “It was a miserable existence from a military point of view, but there was still a feeling that we could stop them sometimes and stop them getting big victories,” Bernard recalled of the hot summer of 1937. “But there was a constant dwindling of people because of casualties, men would disappear to hospital or burial grounds, and fresh ones would come in and have to be trained.”

Bernard himself was wounded in the foot and taken out of the lines for several months. “It was a stray machine-gun bullet, it got lodged in my shoe,” he described of his injury. On recovery, he returned to the Aragon Front and was part of a major retreat under one of Franco’s attacks. But, he recounts:

“I was thinking it was a shame to leave all that telephone cable, so I took a trolley and collected some to take it back cross-country. I went onto the road to pull the trolley and ran into a group of Italian soldiers who took me prisoner, drove me off and handed me to Franco’s Spanish. They put me in a concentration camp, which was pretty rough. Ispent some months there, but we got by. Then the Italians helped me – they were pushing for an exchange of prisoners and after a lot of pushing the fascists agreed, so they took 100 International Brigaders from where I was, British and French, and handed us over in exchange for 100 Italians. We were given to the Italians in the rags we were living in, covered in lice and first thing the Italians did was to give us some second-hand Italian army uniforms, so I ended up dressed as an Italian private. I was handed to the front, under military guard then taken to a port and we were pushed onto boats. In Britain we were handed over to the police and sent under supervision to Manchester – still wearing an Italian private’s uniform.”

Bernard had been away for nearly 2 years, and on his return travelled round the North-West talking about his experiences and trying to raise support for the Republican cause. But he left the Communist Party during WWII in order to volunteer for the British army, so that he could choose to serve in the RAF rather than being conscripted into the infantry. With his communications experience from Spain he joined a signals unit and served in Malta, North Africa and what was then Persia.

Bernard McKenna rejoined the Communist Party after WWII and continued his efforts to keep the issue of Spain alive, joining anti-Franco rallies and supporting Republican refugees from Spain. He also trained to be a teacher and after the decline of the British Communist Party joined Labour. Even into his 80s, Bernard carried on listening to Spanish radio, reading Spanish left-wing newspapers and attending reunions with fellow members of the International Brigades.

In 2006, Bernard lamented the move to ‘middle-of-the-road’ politics and the absence of any real left-wing alternatives. “I’m glad I went to Spain,” he emphasised. “It was important not just for the people of Spain but also for anti-fascists from Britain – many weren’t that politically strong but went out of feelings of humanity and feelings of anti-fascism.”

And he also emphasised his fears about the continued presence of fascism in European politics. “People see Spain as somewhere pleasant with sunshine. It’s easy for them to forget that it was a fascist dictatorship until very recently.”

Links:
The International Brigades Memorial Trust
Working Class Movement Library resources on the Spanish Civil War
Bernard McKenna’s obituary in the Times
Manchester Evening News interview with Bernard McKenna from the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War
Information on Spanish refugees and evacuated Basque children in Britain
La Columna, a British re-enactment group commemorating the International Brigades
Basque Children of ’37 Association