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