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

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