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

The 1842 Strike, Part 1

In the summer of 1842 a great wave of strikes engulfed Lancashire and Yorkshire. The wave began in the Staffordshire coalfield in July when the miners went on strike for fewer hours and more pay. They also linked economic with political demands when a meeting passed a resolution stating that “nothing but the People’s Charter can give us a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’.” Miners marched from pit to pit spreading the strike as far north as Stockport.

Cotton masters in Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne gave notice that they intended to reduce wages by 25%. A mass meeting was held in Ashton on 26 July which was addressed by two Chartists and this was followed by other local meetings.

On Monday 8 August thousands of workers gathered at the Haigh in Stalybridge and brought out mills and factories in Ashton, Dukinfield and other villages. At 2pm thousands gathered in Ashton market square and then dispatched delegations to Oldham and Hyde to bring them out as well.

Tuesday 9 August

Perhaps 20,000 strikers gathered in Ashton and set off to Manchester along Ashton New Road, turning out mills and factories along the way. When they reached the junction of Pollard Street and Great Ancoats Street they were met by the magistrates, police and military. According to a letter later printed in the Manchester Guardian from Mr Daniel Maude, the chief magistrate, the procession “was led by large party of young women very decently dressed. Both they and the men who followed were arranged in regular file and nothing could be apparently more respectful and peaceable than their demeanour”.

Mr Maude refused to listen to the entreaties of the Chief Constable Sir Charles Shaw, who wanted to turn the police and military loose on the crowd, but instead placed himself at the head of the procession and led them to Granby Row Fields where they held an open air meeting which was joined by thousands from the neighbouring mills as they shut for dinner at noon. Richard Pilling stood on a cart and spoke of what had happened in Ashton and other towns. He told the crowd that they were determined not to return to work until the prices of 1840 were restored and they were seeking the co-operation of the people of Manchester for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour. At 1.30pm the crowd gave three very loud cheers for the People’s Charter and then set off back to their homes.

During the afternoon the Manchester mills were visited and turned out as well. There was some trouble where mill managers refused. The lodge at the Oxford Road twist company was gutted but the mill was untouched. At Birley’s Mill in Chorlton-upon-Medlock the managers closed and barricaded the doors and turned hose–pipes on the crowd, which retaliated by hurling lumps of coal at the windows, smashing hundreds. The managers climbed onto the roof and hurled down stones and pieces of metal onto the crowd below, nearly killing a young woman. Eventually the police and military turned up and dispersed the crowd, arresting seven people.

There was an attempt to start the mill the following morning but many workers were stopped from going in by mass picketing. The streets were cleared and patrolled by armed soldiers. On Thursday the there was fierce battle between the police and strikers, who only retreated after being charged by riflemen with fixed bayonets. The company closed the works at the end of the week, stating that on Friday and Saturday “a large proportion of the hands did not come and we reluctantly closed our Mills… We lament the necessity for suspending the payment of weekly wages to large number of usually contented and well conducted individuals, on many of whom others depend for support. “

The mill remained shut until 2 September.

Wednesday 10 August

There was meeting of 5, 000 at 6am at Granby Row addressed by a number of Chartists, including Christopher Doyle, who advised the crowd to apply to the workhouse for subsistence and not to go to work until the wages are raised. He advised people to go peacefully and not to break the law. The strikers marched to Ancoats, turning out mills on the way, the numbers growing to 10,000. The police blocked the way to the Kennedy mills, and there was some trouble with the cavalry being sent for.

Some of the crowd crossed Victoria Bridge into Salford, turning out mills along Greengate. The Manchester Guardian reported that

“ In passing along Broughton Road, one or two boys went into the shop of James Faulkner, provision dealer, and asked for bread. He gave them a 4lb loaf which was instantly torn to pieces in the crowd. There seemed to be at first an inclination amongst the younger member of the crowd to enter the shop and see if they could not get more bread, but the main body of the rioters forced them away saying that it would ruin their cause should they begin to plunder. Having proceeded as far as Broughton Bridge they halted in front of Mr Williams’s silk mill, having heard that there were some hands at work, but on being assured that such was not the case, they passed along Silk Street, Hope Fields, Adelphi Street, across Broken Bank, into Oldfield Road, from which they announced of making their way to Granby Row, to attend the meeting which was to take place there as stated in the morning”

By 9am all the mills in the areas of Ancoats, London Road and Oxford Road had turned out their hands. Deputations went to the managers of the mills and warned them that if the mills did not stop, there might be disturbances. Mr Jones mill on Chester Street initially refused but gave way after a crowd gathered outside.

At Messrs Stirling & Beckton on Lower Mosley Street (where they had been trouble the previous evening) the mill was visited several times crowds who called on the hands to come out. When they refused the crowd began throwing stones at the mill and Mr Beckton’s house. The cavalry arrived and, drawing their swords, they dispersed the crowds who ran in all directions.

There was another meeting at lunchtime at Granby Row Fields attended by thousands and chaired by Daniel Donovan. The speakers urged people not to return to work until their demands had been met and also urged people not to go to the bread shops. The meeting was adjourned until the following morning. The crowd then went in procession to Little Ireland.

Round about noon a crowd of several hundred young men and women, many armed with sticks, came down from the direction of Newtown Silk Mill to the Union Bridge over the Irk at the bottom of Gould Street and called down to men working in the river cleaning the filters to stop work. They then moved on to attack the gas works but driven off by a small number of police They returned in greater numbers and began hurling stones at the offices and house, before leaving the area. (The gas works was later guarded by police, soldiers, and sixty Chelsea pensioners who had been sworn in as special constables)

The crowd now set about a small house on Roger Street being used as a police station, eventually breaking in and ransacking the building, throwing the furniture into the street and hurling the policeman’s clothes into the Irk. Sergeant Almon, the only man left in the building (the rest having fled) hid under the cellar steps and was not found. The Manchester Guardian reported that after the crowd had moved, “their places were filled by a great number of lads, women and even girls who appeared to take delight in taking the work of destruction even further. They tore the handles and locks from the doors, broke the doors inside the house to pieces, pulled down mantelpieces, and even tore the grates out of the brick-work. The iron shelves of the oven were thrown out of the window, and everything was done to destroy the property.” Eventually fifty police and several dragoons arrived and seized a girl aged 14, who had thrown many things out of the window, and took her to the New Bailey prison. With the coast now clear Sergeant Almon emerged from his hiding place, clutching a sword. Nothing remained of the house except the floor and walls.

At about 12.15 a crowd of several hundred went down Princess Street, some of whom entered a provisions shop belonging to Mr Howarth and demanded bread. Perhaps not surprisingly he handed over several 4lb loaves. When the police arrived within a short space they arrested seven men who were still in the shop and took them to the New Bailey prison.

Later that same afternoon a crowd of thirty or so knocked on all the doors of house of Cooper Street, demanding money or bread from the house-holders who complied. The police led by Inspector Green stepped in and arrested the leaders.

Between 3pm and 4pm another group, who had already taken bread from shops on Deansgate, attacked a number shops on Oldham Street, stealing bread and other provisions and money. They then went off for a drink on the proceeds to the Cross Keys public house, Cross Street, Swan Street, where they were found by the police who arrested five men. The Manchester Guardian reported that they had been assured that “these parties consisted for most part of young thieves and not at all of workmen.”

At half past three a meeting of mechanics on a piece of waste ground near Oxford Road was attacked by a party of dragoons with sabres and the Rifle Brigade and dispersed, but not before they had agreed to meet the following day at the Carpenters Hall.

On Wednesday evening a public notice was issued summoning Chelsea pensioners to the Town Hall. The following morning some three hundred reported for duty and were sworn in as special constables

That same evening a group of women gathered in Great Ancoats Street and marched through the streets , their numbers increasing as they went. Their object was to bring out more mills. They were successful on Mill Street where the workers came out and they then moved onto Kennedy’s Mill, demanding that the mill to be closed. When this was refused they attacked the mills with stones, broke open the door and were about to invade the mill when the police arrived and set about the crowd. The Northern Star reported that the police “charged the people, sparing neither age nor sex, but laying about them right and left with their bludgeons and cutlasses; many were knocked down and beaten until they were unable to rise from the ground.” The women fought back with volleys of stones and the police eventually ran off “amidst the curses and execrations of the immense assemblage”.

Major Warre , the Manchester military commander, wrote to the Home Secretary requesting more soldiers, explaining that “I have but a very inadequate force in this town under the altered and excited state of things from the state of organisation among the working classes…..I did not expect that the general turn-out of work would take place in the towns of Lancashire to the south of this place… and that they should venture to march in bodies into Manchester notwithstanding the police and garrison.”

Until they had more soldiers, the town authorities advised mill-owners not to attempt to start up their mills as they could not provide enough forces to protect the mills and workers.

[Continued in Part 2]

Article by Michael Herbert

Portraits of Chartist Political Prisoners in 1841

Chartist meetings were banned by proclamation of the government in 1839. Mass arrests followed with Chartists being imprisoned and transported. In a movement that nurtured personality cults and where Chartist leaders vied for the hero-worship of their followers, rancour and rivalry was inevitable.

William Lovett, a member of the ‘London Workingmen’s Association,’ published his People’s Charter in May 1838. Among its provisions, the Charter made a number of political demands which become known as the ‘six points’: (i) universal manhood suffrage; (ii) payment of Members of Parliament; (iii) equal electoral districts; (iv) abolition of property qualifications; (v) annual parliaments; (vi) the ballot. The people who subscribed to the aims of the People’s Charter became known as the Chartists.

As a movement, Chartism is best described as an umbrella group which comprised people from widely differing protest groups. Although some Chartists advocated non-violent means to achieve their aims, such as petitioning (three national petitions, in 1839, 1842 and 1848, were rejected by Parliament which refused to reform itself) and became known as ‘moral force’ Chartists, other Chartists favoured the use of firearms to achieve their aims and became known as ‘physical force’ Chartists. However, most Chartists were inclined to support whatever method they thought was more likely to succeed at any moment in time. Some believed that the very act of acquiring arms – which was legal at the time – would of itself intimidate the government and force it to submit to Chartist demands. Though many never intended to use arms, there were instances when they were used. In August 1848 James Bright, a police constable, was shot dead in the street by Chartists from Ashton-under-Lyne.(1)

Many of the working-class Chartists who were involved in the movement during the late 1830s and 1840s often lived in abject poverty. According to the Chartist historian Mark Hovel, ‘intolerable conditions of existence’ were the driving force behind Chartism.(2) In addition to the many hardships they had to endure, they also risked the blacklist and imprisonment for their involvement in the movement. Chartist meetings had been banned by proclamation of the government in 1839 and many Chartists had been arrested. In May 1840, more than 200 Chartists were in prison, eighteen had been transported, eleven of them for life. Six months later, the number of prisoners being held had risen to 480.(3)

In October 1840, Chester Castle held fifteen Chartist prisoners, ‘twelve of them for collecting arms’.(4) Many of these were from Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockport. We know something about the prisoners and what their conditions were like. This is because in 1841 the Home Office appointed prison inspectors to investigate the treatment of Chartist prisoners after receiving complaints from the public. The document ‘Confidential reports made by the Inspector of Prisons upon the cases of political offenders in custody on 1st July 1841’, gives us a revealing insight into prison conditions, the backgrounds of the prisoners, their grievances and the attitudes of the authorities towards them.(5)

Although described as ‘political offenders’, while in gaol the prisoners were treated as criminals. A common complaint among the prisoners in Chester Castle concerned the food. Many complained of ‘want of meat’ and their diet largely consisted of bread, gruel and potatoes. They complained of indigestion but could purchase food for themselves if they had the money. Some were receiving money from the ‘victim fund’ (Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor had founded a national defence fund for arrested Chartists in June 1839) or from subscriptions or from relatives. Many complained about being locked up too early – 7.00 pm – and they also complained that they were only allowed to read The Times and no other newspaper. Prisoners were allowed visits from relatives, sometimes unsupervised, and correspondence could be confiscated and inspected.

The Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens, who was a Chartist prisoner, complained about the power of visiting magistrates who could reduce the men’s diet, enforce prison dress and impose solitary confinement. They resented what few privileges the prisoners enjoyed and did their best to restrict them. The prisoners were also allowed to purchase books and could exercise in a yard.

Timothy Higgins, aged 35, from Portland Street, Ashton-under-Lyne, was one of the Chartist prisoners held in Chester Castle. He was a cotton spinner and was married with four children. He had been convicted of conspiracy at the Autumn Assizes at Chester in 1839 and had been imprisoned for 18 calendar months.

According to a report in the Manchester Guardian on 3rd July 1839, the police had searched the home of Timothy Higgins and found two long narrow chests. Inside the chests they found 17 muskets with bayonets, four doubled barrelled guns, a rifle, one large horse pistol, four common-sized pistols, and a quantity of bullets and cases. When he’d been asked why he had the weapons, Higgins replied that he had them from the manufacturer, George Thompson, for the purpose of sale. At the courthouse the following day, Higgins had been given bail and released after his solicitor Richard Corbett submitted to the Magistrates that there had been no grounds stated which would justify the constables entering the prisoner’s house and seizing the arms.

In prison, Higgins was interviewed by Inspector WJ Williams. He said that he’d received about £6 by way of subscription and that his wife had received £2 from the victim fund. He said he’d used the money to buy books and food. The report says that he could read and write well and had been writing poetry while in prison and reading ‘Scott’s novels and common historical works’ and improving his arithmetic. He complained of having no meat and of being locked up at 7.00 pm. He also said that his wife was ‘about to be thrown upon the Parish’.

Although the pretext given for these prison interviews was to make inquiries about the prisoners’ conditions, it is clear from the reports that the inspectors were assessing each prisoner to make judgements about them and their political views in order to report back to the Home Office.

Inspector Williams writes: “Higgins avows himself a republican and is a member of the Workingmen’s Association. Is a man of considerable intelligence, not devoid of feelings. He shed tears when I spoke to him of his family.” Williams quotes Higgins as saying:

“‘I was brought up a cotton spinner – it was my agreeable calling when I first followed it, but they have got into the habit of applying self-acting machinery and man is of no use. I know some of the most intelligent in society who cannot get bread. They take a man now for his muscular appearance not for his talent – machines have become so simple that attending them is commonplace labour.’ This man was appointed an agent of Thompson’s for the sale of arms; a very trifling encouragement would induce him to emigrate to the U.S….”

George Thompson, a Birmingham gunsmith, had been supplying arms to Chartists in Ashton, Manchester and Stockport. He had also been convicted of conspiracy and given 18 months imprisonment in Chester Castle. The report says: “reads and writes well… is of a petulant temper and of ordinary ability.” He was allowed beer and wine by direction of the surgeon – he suffered from chronic rheumatism – and was allowed to exercise outside the yards. In his observations Williams says:

“This individual was called upon by…M’Douall whom he supplied with arms and then established agencies for the sale of them… the agents all being notorious Chartists. I do not believe it was anything more with him than a money making transaction but one of a mischievous character.”

The Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens, who had been appointed to the Ashton-under-Lyne circuit in 1832, was aged 34 when he was convicted at the Assizes in Chester in 1839. He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for the offence of “using seditious language at a public tumultuous assembly.” He was allowed to maintain himself and could use a private room to study and to eat. He told Inspector Williams:

“I have been insulted by one set of Chartists here, who sided with M’Douall, although I have in frequent instances given them money and food.”

In his observations, Williams remarked that Stephens was:

“an object of suspicion to M’Douall and his followers who call him traitor and are indignant at his pocketing the whole of the money raised by subscription for his defence by counsel, when he defended himself and employed none.”

Peter Murray M’Douall was aged 26 at the time of his imprisonment in Chester Castle. A physical force Chartist, he was a surgeon who had a practice in Ramsbottom, near Bury. In July 1839 he had been sentenced at the Assizes in Chester to 12 months imprisonment for sedition and attending an illegal meeting in Hyde in April 1839. Though he had been released from prison in August 1840, there was a great deal of enmity between the Chartist prisoners who were split into two factions – those who followed Stephens and those who followed M’Douall. A number of Chartists had asked that they be kept apart from Stephens who they regarded as an apostate. There had been violence in the prison when one prisoner had sustained a broken jaw.

In a movement that nurtured personality cults and where speakers competed for the hero-worship of their audiences, it was inevitable that there would be fragmentation and rivalries. The rupture between Ashton Chartists had occurred in June 1839, when M’Douall had publicly accused Stephens of committing an indecent assault on the unmarried sister of James Bronterre O’Brien, the Chartist leader.(6) Though this allegation was never proven it did damage Stephens’ reputation.

Stephens’s hatred for M’Douall ‘had no bounds’.(7) While in prison, he had sought to expose M’Douall’s immorality by alleging that he had tried to seduce the turnkey’s daughter: M’Douall later married her. At his trial, Stephens had repudiated Chartism declaring his detestation of the doctrine. Though Stephens never was a Chartist and said so on numerous occasions, many Chartists believed him to be so and he was accused of apostasy. He had also defended himself rather than employ counsel. Many Chartists who had contributed to his defence fund felt betrayed. There were also requests for the money to be given back so it could be used for the defence of other Chartists awaiting trial.

One of the prisoners who asked to be kept separated from Stephens, was Isaac Johnson, a blacksmith from Stockport. He was aged 36 and was married with two children. He told Inspector Williams that three of his children had died while he’d been in prison. He had been sentenced to 1 year’s imprisonment for ‘uttering seditious words’. In his observations, Williams remarks that Johnson was a shrewd man but uneducated:

“Which he explains was owing to his being turned out of school after gaining six prizes in consequence of his Father obliging him to go to school in a white hat with a crape and green riband at Peterloo time, for which he was expelled and never went anywhere afterwards. He is devoted to M’Douall with whom he appears ready to go to all lengths.”

Another prisoner who was much attached to M’Douall was James Duke, aged 36, who was married with six children. A cotton spinner by profession, he was the landlord of the Bush Inn, Stamford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. The pub was a well known meeting place for Chartists and it was here that Stephens was arrested by the Bow Street Runner, Henry Goddard. James Duke had been sentenced to 1 year’s imprisonment for ‘conspiracy to excite the people to arms’. He was also an agent for the arms dealer George Thompson and both he and M’Douall had visited Birmingham to buy muskets and bayonets.(8)

Some of the Chartist prisoners did enjoy greater privileges in gaol due to their social class. Inspector Williams believed that Stephens was unpopular with some of the Chartists prisoners because he had ‘greater privileges’. In the county gaol at York, Inspector Williams interviewed the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, a barrister/journalist who had been given 18 months for libel. He says: “his behaviour was most courteous and gentlemanlike’ and then adds:

“Mr O’Connor is placed in a light room with boarded floor and a fire place near to the infirmary…the Magistrates have supplied an additional officer to wait upon him and attend almost exclusively to his wants. This man sleeps within call and takes Mr. O’Connor’s orders respecting his meals etc and the hours which he selects for exercise in the yard. Mr. O’Connor maintains himself and there is no restriction upon his food or as to the introduction of wine, of which since his imprisonment he has had from four to five dozen. His room is furnished at his own expense…there is no restriction upon his candles, fire, or the hour of going to bed.”

Although O’Connor complained about the presence of a third person when receiving visits and the restrictions on his letters, he told Williams that he was generally satisfied with his treatment. He was eventually released after serving 10 months.

Despite the fact that the Chartist movement degenerated into sects and factions after 1839, it nevertheless overcame this and also survived attempts by the government to suppress it. By 1842, it had become more efficient as an organization and it increased its membership. However, as economic conditions improved, leading to higher wages, working-class support for the movement began to decline. In the mid 1840s some Chartists following their leader O’Connor when he set up the Chartist Land Scheme, where workingmen contributed small sums to purchase allotments of land. The scheme was an economic disaster. After 1848 support for the movement declined rapidly and many Chartists later became Liberals. The six points only began to be adopted after the Chartist movement had ceased to exist and when the political elite were ready to adopt it. With the exception of annual Parliaments, every political demand of the Charter was later to be granted.

The failure of the movement to achieve its immediate aims can be attributed to a number of reasons. Although a working-class movement, trade unions generally remained aloof from Chartism and it tended to appeal to those workers who saw themselves as victims of industrialization rather than its beneficiaries. The Chartists themselves were often at variance with one another and could seldom agree on social policy. The movement also lacked political support in the Commons and failed to form alliances with the middle-classes. It also lacked an effective leadership which in the opinion of the Webbs, ‘brought it to nought’.(9)

Sources:

1. Work, Class & Politics in Ashton-under-Lyne 1830-1860. R.G.Hall PhD Thesis 1991. P. 226
2. Ibid – P137
3. Some Working-Class Movements Of The Nineteenth Century. R.F. Wearmouth. P.211
4. Purge This Realm. A Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens. M.S. Edwards. P.91
5. Confidential reports made by the Inspector of Prisons upon the cases of political offenders in custody on 1st July 1841. Tameside Studies Library.
6. Purge This Realm. P.63/64
7. Ibid – P.93
8. Some Working-Class Movements Of The Nineteenth Century. P107
9. A History of Trade Unionism – Webb.

Article by Derek Pattison

The Irish in Manchester and the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland, 1963-1974

The emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the North of Ireland led to solidarity organisations being established in Britain, seeking through meetings, marches and strikes to highlight what was happening. The government used the prevention of Terrorism Act, passed in November 1974, to clamp down hard on campaigners.

The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland

In May 1963 local Catholics in Dungannon established the Homeless Citizens’ League to campaign for better housing conditions. One of its leading members was Patricia McCluskey, wife of local doctor Conn McCluskey. In August 1963 thirty families squatted in condemned buildings and eventually embarrassed the Stormont government, after Doctor McCluskey had personally lobbied it, into announcing that some 64 new houses would be built in the town.

News of this victory quickly spread beyond Dungannon and the McCluskeys received letters from families across Northern Ireland, asking for advice on how to win similar concessions for their own towns from Stormont. This convinced them of the need for a more permanent pressure group and led them to establish the Campaign for Social Justice on 17th January 1964 “for the purpose of bringing the light of publicity to bear on the discrimination which exists in our community”. The CSJ sent out regular newsletters and produced five pamphlets which detailed the injustices happening in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formally established at a meeting of 100 delegates in the International Hotel, Belfast on 29th January 1967. On 5th October 1968 a Civil Rights march in Derry was brutally attacked by the RUC and sparked a wave of anger, leading to the formation by students of a radical group, People’s Democracy.

Bernadette Devlin rapidly emerged as one of its leading figures and in April 1969 was elected to the House of Commons on a Civil Rights ticket. She made her first appearance in the Commons two days later, rushing over to take part in a debate on Northern Ireland and looking like “anybody’s classless undergraduate daughter” as the Daily Mirror put it. She attacked Unionism and the Wilson government for forgetting what Socialism was and rejected attempts to label the Civil Rights movement as a narrow Catholic uprising, saying “We are not sectarian. We fight for the rights of both Catholics and Protestants”. She spoke at countless meetings in Britain and the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign was set up, including for a while a group in Manchester based in Gee Cross, Hyde. This organised a meeting under the title The Real Struggle in Northern Ireland at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th November 1969 at which Michael Farrell from People’s Democracy was the principal speaker

Solidarity in Britain with the Civil Rights Movement

Events in Northern Ireland were now being keenly followed by many in the Irish community in Britain. The day after the attack on the Civil Rights march in Derry The Observer carried a full and graphic report of the RUC’s violence, written by Mary Holland under the headline “Ulster Police Club Marchers”. She also wrote a long feature, carefully researched, entitled “John Bull’s White Ghettos”, which exposed the political gerrymandering in Derry. Her articles were very influential.

According to the Irish Democrat the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association was now meeting every 3rd Wednesday at The Crown & Anchor public house in Hilton Street and becoming active again under the direction of Joe McCrudden, a Belfast man. There was a Civil Rights meeting in Manchester at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th March 1969, at which the speakers were Desmond Greaves and Betty Sinclair, a trade unionist and Communist from Belfast.

College students in Manchester also set up a Civil Rights Committee. The most active members of this seem to have been those attending the Catholic De La Salle teacher training college, who held a mass meeting on 16th January 1969 and leafleted city centre pubs and clubs on events in Ireland, as a prelude to an all night vigil in support of the demand for Civil Rights in Albert Square. The weather was not on their side – there was fog and rain and only 30 students stayed the course. They were pictured next day in the Manchester Evening News, walking around the Albert Memorial and carrying banners which demanded (unironically) “One Man One Vote”. The chair of the Committee was 20 year-old Conal Harvey from Belfast who told the press, “We want to draw the unfair situation in Northern Ireland to the attention of the people in Manchester. We are planning more protests.”

The British Army goes in

In August 1969 there was a three day battle in Derry between the people of the Bogside and the RUC. Rioting then broke out in Belfast in which whole streets were burn out and people were killed. Finally James Callaghan, the Home Secretary, sent in the army.

Frank Gogarty, a leading member of NICRA in London, was reported in the press as saying that the Association proposed to call all Irish people in Britain out on a one-day strike as an expression of horror and indignation at the police brutality in Derry. The Guardian reported that on 14th August there had been sympathy strikes in Birmingham, Coventry and London with more than 500 people staying away from work and further strike action planned in the Midlands to bring out all Irish labour. This was followed on 20th August by a further strike by Irish workers in Birmingham whose co-ordinator Tom McDowell claimed that some 7,000 people in the area had answered the call with support from corporation bus workers, factories and building sites.

St Brendan’s Centre in Manchester was named in the press as a recruitment centre for volunteers wishing to go over to the north. Local organiser John Madden said that he hoped to get the first volunteers across to Ireland almost immediately and was planning to organise a demonstration in Albert Square and a walkout by Irish workers. The following day St Brendan’s publicly denied that it was being used as centre for volunteers as this would be against its constitution.

On 25th August 1969 there was a march in Manchester. Supporters of the Civil Rights movement gathered in Platt Fields and marched to Ardwick Green . A photograph of this march in The Guardian showed one marcher holding a placard which stated “Get The Troops Out.”

In October Manchester City Council (then Tory controlled) refused to allow the local branch of the Campaign for Social Justice to hire council-owned halls to hold public meetings on the situation in the North of Ireland and a planned meeting had to be called off. On 6th November the CSJ organised a torchlit procession in the city centre in protest. John Madden, who was originally from Dungannon and had lived in Manchester for 15 years, claimed that 99% of the Irish population were sympathetic to their cause. He told the Irish Democrat it was “the sort of thing I used to experience when I was a councillor in the worst place in Northern Ireland for discrimination. I did not expect to find it in Manchester.” There was a protest march to the Town Hall against the ban after the annual Manchester Martyrs procession.

The Manchester CSJ stepped up its activities by taking part in the national petition for a Bill of Rights and holding a meeting in Houldsworth Hall on 22nd March 1970 at which the speakers were Ivan Cooper MP, Betty Sinclair, Mark Carlisle MP and Stan Orme MP. On 4th April they held a folk concert in the Lesser Free Trade Hall featuring the Grehan Sisters.

In July 1970 the British army imposed a curfew and ransacked the Falls Road in Belfast, looking for weapons. Four people were killed. In February 1971 the IRA shot dead a British soldier. Daily gun battles were soon taking place as well as a bombing campaign. At 4.30am on 9th August 1971 the Stormont government re-introduced internment, leading to more gun battles and extensive rioting. Nationalist areas virtually seceded from the Northern Ireland state.

Bloody Sunday, January 1972

A NICRA march was held in Derry on Sunday 30th January 1972. British troops from the paratroop regiment prevented it getting out of the Bogside and the usual small riot developed involving local youth. Most of the marchers were listening to the speakers, who included Bernadette Devlin and veteran Labour MP Fenner Brockway, when the paratroopers charged into the Bogside shooting thirteen men dead. Another man died later of his wounds.

A hurricane of anger swept Ireland, North and South. There were strikes and marches as tens of thousands of Irish workers protested in Dundalk, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Dublin. Airport workers at Dublin and Shannon refused to handle British aircraft, grounding planes in Manchester and other British airports. Jack Lynch declared 2nd February, the day of the funerals, as a national day of mourning. The British Embassy in Dublin was burned down when a crowd estimated at 30,000 gathered outside it and threw petrol bombs. In the North rioting went for days in almost every Nationalist area. Bernadette Devlin told the Daily Mirror, “It was mass murder by the army . This was our Sharpeville and we shall never forget it. The troops shot up a peaceful meeting”. By contrast Brian Faulkner blamed the organisers of the march and the IRA for the killings.

In Britain Bloody Sunday provoked the most intense response by the Irish during whole the thirty years of the Troubles. In Manchester over 100 students from De La Salle College, Middleton held an emergency protest meeting at midnight followed by a mass meeting in the afternoon which voted to boycott lectures and hold three days of mourning. A number of the students then went to the statue of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly and, amidst a snowstorm, began a vigil and fast, setting up a makeshift black flag and a wooden cross bearing the words “Will they rest in peace – how many more?” Some bus-drivers and office and shop workers jeered and shouted abuse as they passed (postal workers at the South Manchester sorting office threatened to boycott all mail to Ireland except Forces Mail on the grounds that the soldiers were not getting a fair deal). Members of the James Steele branch of Provisional Sinn Fein in Manchester mounted a protest at the army recruiting office on Fountain Street with placards that read “Derry Bloody Sunday, 13 massacred by British army”. Their spokesperson Seamas O’Morain gave his name in Irish and told reporters that they were protesting peacefully against the British army’s campaign of murder in Ireland.

On Thursday the De La Salle students led a march of 2,000 from the Cathedral through Manchester city centre, passing the Army Recruitment Office which was heavily guarded by police, and finishing with a rally at the Mancunian Way. There was a further march in Manchester on Saturday organised by the Manchester Connolly Association attended by 1,500, which was addressed by Lennie Draper, Desmond Greaves and Ann Doherty from the Manchester Civil Rights Association. A meeting attended by 1,500 students at Manchester University banned all military recruiting on campus and denied union facilities to the British army Officer Training Corps. An attempt to close the University Student Union failed when Tory students obtained a court injunction preventing this.

The Irish Democrat produced a special four page supplement on Bloody Sunday to go with their usual February issue. Desmond Greaves called for the resignation of Maudling, suspension of the Commander in Chief of British forces in Northern Ireland, immediate withdrawal of all paratroops from Northern Ireland, withdrawal of all troops from streets where they had become a provocation, an immediate end of internment and negotiations to lead to a united Irish Republic. The Manchester Connolly Association sent a telegram to Edward Heath (signed by John Tocher, divisional organiser of the engineering union and others), condemning the massacre of civil rights demonstrators and calling for troops to be confined to barracks and for a Bill of Rights to be brought forward.

Irish Civil Rights Association

In the general election held in October 1974 six candidates stood in the British general election under the banner of the Irish Civil Rights Association, the first time that candidates had stood on a specifically Irish platform since the Anti-Partition League in 1951. Margaret O’Brien, secretary of ICRA in Britain, said that they called for higher pensions and lower mortgages. “We should achieve this by a commitment to a United Ireland instead of propping up a rotten little statelet that costs £700 million in year and makes her name the derision of the world”.

The ICRA candidates stood in constituencies with sizeable Irish populations. Neil Boyle stood in Moss Side, Manchester, gaining just 238 votes. According to his election leaflet he was aged 37, born in Donegal, married with four children, worked for British Rail and had been active in the Civil Rights movement since 1969. ICRA candidates called for the release of all internees and a general amnesty for all political prisoners; a commitment from Britain to the idea of a united Ireland and a phased withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland. ICRA attacked the Labour government for increasing the number of internees in Long Kesh and Armagh, for renewing the Emergency Provisions Act and for the death of Michael Gaughan on hunger strike. It was clear from the results that, whatever strong feelings that Irish people might have had about events in Ireland, most Irish people at this period continued to give their vote to the Labour Party.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act

On 21st November bombs exploded in two pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and wounding 162. There was widespread public outrage and fury, some of which was directed at Irish people in Britain (although a number of the victims had been Irish).

Within two days the government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which became law on 29th November. Such was the public mood that not a single MP dared vote against. Desmond Greaves commented in later years that “the disastrous bomb outrage did the Irish movement in Britain more harm than a regiment of cavalry. The witch hunt that followed, which included anti-Irish marches, threw the Irish movement back decades.”

There were frequent police raids, arrests and exclusions from Britain. Many Irish solidarity organisations stopped meeting and it was not until the hunger strike campaign of 1981 and the emergence of new organisations such as the Irish in Britain representation Group that Irish people began to speak out again about what was happening in the North of Ireland.

Article by Michael Herbert