Archive for the ‘A J Cook’ Tag

The Recovery of the Labour Party & the Left in Britain, 1934-39: Fighting the Right & the Growth of a United Front.   1 comment

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

Following the November 1935 General Election, and Attlee’s subsequent election as leader, the Labour Party was firmly back onto the road to recovery. The components of that recovery were many and varied, but they could be summarised as including the following ten ‘key points’:

  • acceptance of the changing nature, or ‘re-making’ of the working classes, from those based on the older extractive and manufacturing industries to those in the newer, lighter engineering industries, including large numbers of women workers;

  • acceptance of the need to put the ‘National Interest’ ahead of sectional ones, whilst still seeking to develop primary policies to benefit the poorer sections of society, especially the unemployed;

  • giving priority to the needs of the working classes for local and national representation rather than promoting revolutionary activism among them;

  • ending narrow sectarianism and developing a willingness to develop socialist ideas in practice, and across a broad front, and in alliance with other groups, rather than on the basis of exclusive ideological principles;

  • developing co-operative and collective means of organising production, distribution and trade by building coalitions of social and economic organisations, including Co-operative Societies;

  • promoting social justice and equity as long-term aims as well as guiding principles for policy-making;

  • upholding the rights of all to the rights of freedom of association and expression, particularly in their participation in trade unions and organisations;

  • upholding the values of the British people, including ‘patriotism’ and the continuing importance of ensuring ‘thrift’ in programmes of public expenditure by ensuring long-term ‘planning’ of essential public services.

  • upholding the institutions of British Democracy, including its constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of its people through Parliament, based on universal and equal representation.

  • advancing the cause of ‘municipal socialism’ through the development of local parties committed to encouraging a sense of civic pride and the establishment of social services, especially in health, maternity and education, accessible to all.   

These points are not listed in any order of priority but reflect recurring themes in contemporary sources, rather than the current concerns of sectional and sectarian protagonists within the Labour Party. Clearly, however, there are echoes and resonances which affect our interpretations of past principles and priorities. Of course, these interpretations themselves are not necessarily new, as the Thirties were set in mythology before they even ended. Then, in my lifetime, against the background of economic decline under the final Wilson administration in 1977, John Stevenson and Chris Cook published their ground-breaking book, The Slump – society and politics during the depression, which began the process of de-mythologising the period by attempting to separate the myths, potent as they still were in popular consciousness, from the historical realities.

Certainly, the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the National Government in the pre-war years.  As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the election slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that era had clearly come to an end, the ghosts of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent.

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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Now we have passed the point of ‘No Return to the Thirties’ and the memories of the decade are no longer first-hand fears, perhaps this process will soon be brought to its conclusion and we will no longer be stuck with the powerful and all-pervasive images of ‘the wasted years’ and the ‘low dishonest decade’, even if the Thirties will be forever associated with mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement and the rise of Fascism at home and on the continent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the Thirties were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. At the time, there was a thirst for information on which policy to ameliorate, if not cure this malaise could be based, especially in the Labour Party. However, it took the Party two years until the end of 1937 to set up a ‘Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas’, to produce its report and to agree on a course of action at a special conference in December 1937. This is somewhat surprising, considering that the National Government itself had, in the face of already overwhelming political pressure, passed the Special Areas Act in 1934 to take some measures in four distressed regions to help the long-term unemployed. Commissioners had been appointed and departments created, though Whitehall in-fighting and economic orthodoxy hampered their work.

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But alongside the images of the unemployed must be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. Some sectors of the economy grew rapidly, particularly car manufacture, electrical engineering, the paper and publishing industries, and rayon production, all industries heavily concentrated in the Midlands. The output of the UK car industry increased from seventy-one thousand vehicles in 1923 to over 390,000 by 1937, by which time Britain was second only to the USA in the export of motor vehicles. The share of the ‘new industries’ in total industrial output rose from seven per cent in 1924 to twenty-one per cent by 1935. As a consequence of these ‘new industries’, the living standards of people who remained in employment actually improved by about sixteen per cent between the wars. Although the new industries were not sufficiently large to reverse the overall trend of economic decline, they were important in minimising the effect of the Depression for the employed, especially through the migration of workers from the older industries to the new. The economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. As 1936 progressed, it was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War.

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As can be seen from the maps above, giving an Index of Relative Unemployment, South Wales was hit harder than any other region by unemployment and poverty. Average unemployment there was thirty-one per cent, compared with twenty per cent in Scotland and twelve per cent in England. Within Wales, there were also huge local variations in levels of unemployment, from eighty-two per cent in Taff Wells, seventy-two in Pontycymmer and sixty-six per cent in Merthyr and Abertillery down to those in the coastal towns and areas below the regional average, if not the national one. By the 1930s, Glamorgan and Monmouthshire had the highest proportion of people on poor relief in the UK, apart from Durham. To combat poverty, the National government had passed the Special Areas (Development) Act in 1934 and followed it with the Special Areas Reconstruction (Agreement) Act in 1936, which provided financial incentives to industry to move to the four distressed areas of the UK. Most of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire became one of the ‘Special Areas’. The other areas were Glasgow-Linlithgow-Kilmarnock, South Shields-Hartlepool, and Workington. A few new industries were established in each of the areas, but the effects were inadequate.

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

In South Wales, the social effect of high levels of poverty was devastating. With poverty came malnutrition and disease. The incidence of rickets and scarlet fever soared, and the death rate from tuberculosis was 130 per cent above the average for the UK. Local shops and services became unviable. Chapels found their congregations dwindling as large numbers of people found themselves having to leave their country, moving to the ‘new industries’ of the southeast and Midlands of England.  Some of the migration continued to be ‘planned’ by the Ministry of Labour, which sponsored the transfer of workers. Between 1921 and 1940, over 440,000 left Wales permanently, eighty-five per cent of them from Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. They either left with the majority under their own steam, or on the Ministry’s schemes, but by the late thirties, it was estimated that as many as one in ten of those officially transferred had taken themselves back to their valleys. Therefore, those experiencing some form of migration from Wales in the interwar years may well have been closer to half a million.

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In July 1934, Professor Marquand of Cardiff University published an article in The Times arguing for state stimulation of investment by means of a Trust for new industries. But he also admitted that it was unlikely that any government whether socialist or capitalist could do little more than tilt the balance very slightly in favour of regions like South Wales. It was therefore important that the transference policy should be stepped up as the revival of industry in England proceeded. This provoked an angry reaction from y Blaid Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The Welsh Nationalist Party’), the only party wholly opposed to transference at this time, although it advocated resettlement of ‘Welsh’ and ‘half-Welsh’ industrial workers in rural or ‘de-industrialised’ Wales, while the pre-1921 ‘English’ immigrants to the Coalfield could be returned to their counties of origin. The Party accused Marquand of looking longingly towards state aid and admitting that it would never be forthcoming and then hoping that England’s recovery would be sufficient to enable the flower of Welsh manhood to be dumped there. But these were voices heard only as crying in the wilderness of the ‘Celtic fringe’, as Wyndham Portal’s 1934 Report showed that the government continued to advocate transference on the largest possible scale. 

The Portal Report and the continuing emphasis placed on transference by the Government’s ‘Special Areas’ machinery, to the deliberate exclusion of any policy designed to attract new industries did, however, meet with a growing tide of protest and disgruntlement at a local and regional level within Wales. The Nationalist arguments that the ‘best elements’ in Welsh society were being ‘shipped off’, that migration was having an anglicising effect greater than that of the BBC and that the National Government was only concerned to ensure that there there was ‘no trouble’ in Wales, began to have a broader appeal among ‘establishment’ liberals and church leaders alike. They began to accept that transference and migration did not discriminate between the ‘alien accretions’ and ‘the old Welsh stock’, between the citizens of Welsh-speaking Rhymney and those of anglicised Abertillery. The statistical evidence bears this out, as the number of those identifying as Welsh-speakers declined from 155,000 in 1921 to just sixty thousand by 1939. These views were strengthened by the resolve with which the new Commissioner for the Special Areas, P. M. Stewart, set about his task in the New Year of 1935. In his first report, Stewart offered a stern rebuff to the growing tide of national feeling in Wales by suggesting that:

… love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.

In the New Year of 1936, the Government’s policy again came under fire, from a more local perspective, when the Report of the Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve the bankrupt County Borough’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions. Either the borough should be subjected to a wholesale ‘evacuation’ or there should be a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those that remained. Neither was being pursued with any vigour by the Government, but there was one course of action for which no case could be made. That was:

… the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole … It is this last course which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

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In May, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Most of the prominent figures in the Social Service movement in South Wales attended the Conference, including Church leaders and MPs. The young Labour MP for Ebbw Vale (a family scene from where is pictured above), Aneurin Bevan called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of the establishment Liberals who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if the problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken  as there was neconomic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

This was the clearest statement to come from the Labour Left to date, but it was quickly countered by members of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite at the Conference, who suggested that the valleys of East Monmouthshire had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life … However, the majority view of the conference appears to have been that what had been taking place was ‘expatriation’ rather than ‘repatriation’. Later that summer, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, Elfan Rees developed this theme at another conference in Llandrindod Wells, that of the Welsh School of Social Service, taking issue with the recent comments made by Professor Marquand in his recent short book, South Wales Needs a Plan, that a population largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil … a people without roots may be as ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in. Countering this, Rees argued that:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going … the unwillingness to remain idle at home … are the qualities that mark our indigenous population. … if this process of… despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

This division among the left-liberals advocates of ‘Planning’ and the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite helps to explain what Bevan referred to as the ‘complacency’ of ‘The Welsh Nation’ over the policy of transference during the previous eight years. The liberal establishment in the Social Service movement had hoped that it would remove, as they saw it, the ‘alien’ activists typified by A J Cook and others in the Miners’ Federation who had robbed them of the loyalty of the Welsh people. By 1936, they were clearly embarrassed by their newly-formed impression of a large number of people of Welsh origin who were leaving the valleys. Rees and others tended to exaggerate this process (the 1951 Census shows that the proportion of Welsh-speakers remained similar to that of 1931), it is clear that the growing awareness of the indiscriminate nature of migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in the transference scheme in favour of a more patriotic opposition to it. Marquand himself was critical of this hypocritical and manipulative élite and the nationalist passions of persons who hold safe jobs themselves. The response which his overtly political South Wales Needs a Plan received in official circles and the prominence given to it in the ‘responsible’ press was seen by contemporaries as a measure of the extent of the shift which had taken place in national opinion. The journal Planning commented that, had the book been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously, and wryly suggested that Marquand was…

… still young enough to have the satisfaction of knowing that if the ideas he put forward were to go on making headway at their present rate, he would live to see most of them forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.

However, the Commissioner, Malcolm Stewart responded by allocating funds to the National Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire for a ‘Second Industrial Survey’ to be made with Marquand as editor. His team of investigators worked rapidly, publishing the report in three volumes in 1937. As there was little prospect of the revival of the staple industries, the Report suggested that the only alternative to continued mass emigration lay in the diversification of the region’s economy by the introduction of new industries, supported by state action. The establishment of trading estates, like the one already projected for Treforest, near Pontypridd, was seen as a means of ensuring the success of these industries. Thus, by the outbreak of war, the economy of the region was slowly being transformed, a process which was aided by rearmament. However, this grudging shift in Government policy did not take place until the end of a decade of mass unemployment and migration. Neither was the Labour Party very far ahead of the government in producing its policies. Its own Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas, appointed in November 1936 under the direction of Hugh Dalton, was not published until May 1937. Despite the fact that the Commission received evidence from a large number of local parties, Labour groups, women’s sections and trade union branches, the report on South Wales amounted to little more than a précis of Marquand’s survey in the form of a thirty-page pamphlet, the cover page of which is pictured below.

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The Report echoed the ‘sentiments’ of nationalists and ‘Cymric’ liberals in its statements that ‘the strength of the Welsh communities were being sapped’ and that ‘youngsters’ were ‘being torn away from parental care’. But the overall importance of the slim document lay in its drawing together of the current ‘middle opinion’ thinking and the vogue for ‘planning’ into a coherent set of policies for South Wales as a region. It criticised the work of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), established in June 1936, over its bureaucratic and onerous financial provisions. Despite the government’s shift in policy, 1937 was the peak year for the Transference Scheme. Welsh nationalists continued to conduct a forceful campaign, often confronting Welsh-speaking juvenile employment officers whom they accused of being ‘determined to force people out of Wales’ and of adopting ‘a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability of transference’. But by the end of 1937, the new public consensus had finally succeeded in supplanting transference as the main official response to the problem of mass unemployment in the Special Areas. However, this did not mean an immediate end to the continued exodus of older workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom in the Midland factories was swallowing up more and more labour.

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Above: Pages from the Labour Party’s Report on South Wales, using Marquand’s surveys. 

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

The interwar years are frequently regarded as radical ones in political terms, characterised by popular and revolutionary left-wing support for the Labour Party, the growth of the Communist Party, and hunger marches organised and led by the Communists’ organisation for the unemployed, the NUWM. Perhaps it was the genuine fear of the street violence and disorderly protests over the means test which encouraged the vast majority of the electorate to continue to vote Conservative in national elections, most notably in November 1935. In 1935, the Communists remained a small party with about seven thousand members, but each member was, according to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (in ‘The Long Weekend’, 1940), an extremely active centre of agitation and … adept at giving a Marxist turn to every discussable topic. The Daily Worker had doubled its size and greatly increased its circulation. In addition, between 1935 and 1937 nearly a million copies of the Communists’ pamphlets and leaflets were sold. Graves and Hodge summed up the commitment required to be a Communist:

To belong to the party meant devoting one’s time and money so whole-heartedly to the cause and having one’s political and social history so carefully investigated that very few sympathisers with the Communist position either desired to join the ‘corps d’élite’ of the party or would have been accepted had they offered.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once acknowledged as a show-down between the Left and the Right in Europe. The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees reverberated throughout the Labour left. While Bevin, Citrine and Dalton won the TUC in September 1936 for the Eden-Baldwin policy of non-intervention, informal discussions were being held by Cripps, Pollitt and William Mellors on the possibility of united action in support of the Spanish Republic. Earlier that summer Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski and John Strachey had launched the spectacularly successful ‘Left Book Club’, preparing the ground for a ‘Popular Front’ spanning the ‘Labour Left’ and the Communists, the latter by then having abandoned their bitterly sectarian ‘Class Against Class’ policy.

A volunteer ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict, including 2,762 British volunteers, 543 of whom died in Spain. Most of the British popular press was on the whole for the Republicans, but for the Conservative newspapers, they were always the ‘Reds’ or ‘the Communists’. To many people of René Cutforth’s generation, the war remained the most significant and deeply felt experience of their lives, little remembered, or read about, by today’s ‘soft’ Communists on the ‘hard Left’ of the Labour Party. Cutforth’s observation was particularly true of the mostly middle-class associates of the Thirties’ intellectuals, many of whom, like George Orwell, went to fight for the Republicans.  In Britain, communication across the class divide was almost impossible, but in Spain, some were able to achieve this. It was quite easy to dodge the non-interventionist authorities as the arrangements were mostly controlled through the CPGB, and once the volunteer presented himself at the recruiting office, he could be on his way into battle within a few hours. But, as Cutforth commented:

… the feelings which drove the Spaniards to massacre each other in droves turned out to have little or no bearing on those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from the protestant Christian conscience. … That the public school ethics of fair play and esprit de corps had played a large part in the formation of the minds which launched the Thirties movement is obvious from their works, and the British Labour movement always owed more to Methodism than to Marx.

This conscience-pricking idealism was utterly alien to the Spaniards fighting their private war. … their motives were personal, local, regional and sectarian. Communists had no hesitation in shooting Anarchists to gain control of a local situation. …

The foreign comrades were slow to realise that … the Asturias and Catalonia were not divisions like English counties, but furiously jealous little nations. … hundreds of thousands died by execution on both sides. … This … applied even to men obstensibly on the same side – ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these daily mass-executions which revolted the civilised Western participants. Was this the Revolution they had willed? Was there any real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed? 

But most of the British soldiers of the International Brigade were not socialist or communist intellectuals, but autodidactic workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales, some of whom I had the privilege of walking alongside in protest against the returning mass unemployment of the early eighties. Their convictions had been built in over generations of deprivation and years of survival underground had made them tough and fearless. Added to this, long-term unemployment had prepared them for the necessary privations of war, even if they were too young to have fought in the trenches like their fathers. To demonstrate their non-sectarian commitment to the cause, one of the two British contingents was named after the mild-mannered former soldier, Major Attlee. When most of the volunteers returned home in the spring of 1937, as the Germans and Italians moved in to support Franco’s side, they and the British Left, in general, redoubled their efforts to rally support for the Republicans in raising funds and producing propaganda. The survivors had had a short, but tough war. Twenty per cent of the entire British force were wounded, and more than three-quarters of the survivors had been wounded. By the time they disembarked from the ferry, the Civil War was already beginning to look like the ‘dress rehearsal’ for something much worse in the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil.

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While the International Brigade volunteers had been on the front line against fascism, Spain had already become the catalyst that brought a greater degree of united action within the organised labour movement in Britain, than any other political issue of the Thirties. As Michael Foot later reflected:

Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.

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Above: Oswald Mosley. leader of the British Union of Fascists, with his ‘blackshirts’.

It was not just the growth in extremism on the Left which alarmed many, but the emergence of radical right-wing groups during the second half of the 1930s. These consisted largely of disaffected Conservatives who demanded a renewed emphasis on imperial unity and tariffs to protect British industry, while at the same time rejecting parliamentary democracy. The financial crisis of 1931 was seen as proof of the failings of the policies of the established political parties. The most notorious of the right-wing groups was the British Union of Fascists established by Oswald Mosley on 1 October 1932. Mosley had been a junior member of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Labour Government, rising to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, one of the four ministers charged with solving the problem of unemployment. His colleagues were J H Thomas, Minister for Employment, who had the primary responsibility, George Lansbury and Tom Johnston. Mosley had a clear and practical policy but was totally frustrated by Thomas who had little grasp of the intricacies of economics. Mosley thought him ‘a drunken clown’ and treated him with aristocratic contempt, but he had been unable to convince MacDonald to sack the incompetent minister because, as the former national officer of the NUR, he had strong trade union support and influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Sir Oswald Mosley, baronet, had arrived in the Party via Winchester, Sandhurst, the Harrow Conservative Association and Cliveden so that his rapid rise in the MacDonald hierarchy after 1924 was regarded with suspicion and resented by many of his colleagues. Mosley resigned from the Labour Government in May 1931 when his radical solution to the unemployment problem was rejected by both the Cabinet and the House of Commons. At that stage, both he and John Strachey were both seen as being on the radical left of the Labour Party. Mosley left it to publish his proposals as The Mosley Manifesto, signed by seventeen supporters including Aneurin Bevan and A. J. Cook, the Miners’ leader, along with Strachey and others.

‘They Shall Not Pass’ – Resisting the ‘Blackshirts’:

Mosley formed the ‘New Party’ and was joined by three other MPs, but when this fell apart, they parted ways with Mosley migrating to the authoritarian Right and founding the BUF complete with Nazi-style regalia. His storm troopers were his ‘Blackshirts’, the élite of them housed in barracks at Chelsea, complete with parade ground. Much of his funding came from Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris Motor Company, and other wealthy industrialists for some years to come. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was a staunch protagonist for Mosley and on 15 January 1934, his Daily Mail appeared with the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

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Above: Anti-Fascists in Limehouse, London. Wherever Fascism was strong, as it was in East London, anti-Fascists were also very strong and could be violent. While Limehouse had a significant fascist vote (see the text below), it was still the safe seat of Labour leader Clement Attlee.

Mosley held military-style rallies, miniature Nuremberg, at which he could posture as a ‘British Führer’. They were also the scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, the ‘United Front’. In 1934, at the peak of British Fascist strength, Mosley led three big rallies, at the Albert Hall, Hyde Park and Olympia. At the Olympia rally the blackshirts, anxious to demonstrate their efficiency as storm troopers shocked the nation with the violence of their attacks upon protesters within the hall. The Times reported the next day ( June) on the methods used:

The Fascist meeting at Olympia last night suffered from continuous interruptions, and the interrupters suffered heavily at the hands of the blackshirted stewards, male and female. … It proceeded easily for the first ten minutes before the Socialists made their first move. 

… It was countered with … a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence. Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing in the end of his resistance, he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays. …

… The speech was suspended at every display of force. When it resumed it improved with a brief homily on the need of Fascist methods to preserve free speech and on the British people having become accustomed to ‘red violence’ over a period of years.

It was a strangely mixed audience … people of middle-age who wore neither black shirt nor badge; people with a tired expression of eye and wrinkled brows; some of the people who bore the strain of war and the cost of peace. 

Olympia set the pattern for all of Mosley’s meetings. When the hall had filled the doors were locked and the speeches began. There was a spotlight worked from the platform and if any heckler interrupted, or even if anyone rose from their seat, they would be caught in the spotlight and as they stood there blinded and helpless a squad of ‘biff boys’ would move and give them a savage beating up in view of the audience, before turning the offender out of the hall. As René Cutforth commented, the audience simply sat there as if mesmerised by the thuggery taking place in front of them:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny? They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming. Mosley was never short of an audience.

In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. The East End of London was home to between a half and one-third of them, mostly concentrated into a densely-populated area centred on Brick Lane, so it was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial antagonism in this impoverished area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. During the Slump, it had suffered particularly badly and was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales and the North of England, full of slums, filth and futility. Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness created by the hunger marches and demonstrations against the means test. They stepped up their parades until the East End felt it was being invaded almost every night. They always marched with a heavy guard of police, who seemed to be as much part of their parade as their own ‘biff boys’. The East End, with its large Jewish community, became the chief battleground of the opposing factions and parties. But there had been ‘skirmishes’ with the BUF at a number of regional rallies. On 12 July six blackshirts at one rally were knocked unconscious by men wielding iron bars. Mosley’s car window was shattered by a bullet as he drove away. At other meetings across the country, anti-Fascists pelted the rally-goers with bricks and stones. and many were injured. At a rally outside Leeds on 27 September, attended by thirty thousand people, Mosley was showered with missiles.

Many of the Jews living in the East End were second-generation, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary of Britain. Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed the windows of Jewish grocery shops, chalked anti-Semitic graffiti on walls and shouted racist insults during street meetings and as they marched through Jewish areas, such as The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! In the summer of 1936, the more abusive the blackshirts became, the more the police appeared to protect them from their victims. In September there was particular anger in the East End over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Later, a further horror occurred when a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertisement hoarding in the attitude of the crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.

Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of many of their parents and the official bodies that represented them. They wanted to fight back. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. Many became Communists, seeing the party as the most vigorous opponent of Fascism. Others joined the Labour Party, although it was much less active in the fight, contrary to the current mythology of a Labour Left riddled with anti-Semitism itself. Others formed their own self-defence groups or ‘street gangs’. At this time, the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Fascists were reaching a climax, and large numbers of people came onto their streets to protest against the BUF’s overtly racist abuse, and there were scenes of mass opposition from the Communists and later, ‘the United Front’.

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

When the BUF announced that it would stage a mass march through East London to celebrate its fourth anniversary on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley. The battle lines were drawn up, leading to the riots in Stepney which became known, famously, as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ (see the photos below). The prospect of Mosley’s major demonstration, with all the inevitable resistance and ensuing violence, led many to call for it to be banned. Labour MPs and the mayors of London’s boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to halt the march. A petition of a hundred thousand signatures was presented to him, but to no avail.

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Mosley had planned the route of the provocative military march of his uniformed racists to go right through the heart of Whitechapel. The coalition of Communists,’ leftists’ and young Jewish activists set to work organising the opposition. The older generation in the Jewish community was dead-set against them. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour too urged its members to keep off the streets; the Labour-supporting newspaper, The Daily Herald argued with typical pusillanimity that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party at first kept quiet. No official body wanted to be seen encouraging action that would inevitably lead to violence and law-breaking. For most, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Moseley was not the only public figure to completely underestimate the extent of the determined and deeply-felt opposition to his creed of hate and more than two hundred thousand Londoners, Jews and Gentiles, rallied under the Spanish anti-fascist slogan, They shall not pass! Spain was the constant refrain. For Charles Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a member of the CPGB, it was the motivating factor:

… it was not a question of a punch-up between the Jews and the fascists … in my case it meant the continuation of the struggle in Spain.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a left-liberal view of the world, whatever their ethnicity or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist at the time, later recalled:

We were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march, it was a British contribution to stop Fascism.

Two East End Communists, Joe Jacobs and Phil Piratin planned the unofficial fightback. A week before the demonstration, the latter arranged a meeting at his house in Stepney for a group of ‘Aryan-looking’ members of the CPGB, who would be able to pass themselves off as Fascists during the march and keep an eye out for any changes to the planned route of the march. In the early afternoon of 4 October a young medical student, Hugh Faulkner, dressed as a doctor and with an empty medical bag, joined the blackshirt demonstration at the Tower of London. He was allowed through the rows of police:

I found myself in the middle of the Fascists and caught sight of a member who worked in my hospital. On the spur of the moment I said “I’ve finally made up my mind. I want to come in with you”. He was such a clot he immediately accepted this … he was absolutely delighted and almost immediately showed me a duplicate sign of the route.

Armed with this latest intelligence, Faulkner ran off to telephone the plan of the march to Piratin and his fellow organisers. Meanwhile, vast crowds had assembled, ready to do battle with the Fascists. They had already built barricades while the blackshirts were being held up by police. The Cable Street riot was not a battle between the blackshirt supporters of Oswald Mosley and his opponents; it was a battle between the police and the anti-Fascists. When Harold Smith arrived at Gardiner’s  Corner at mid-day, where Piratin had placed trams to block the entrance to Commercial Road, he found a sea of people, ‘like the Cup Final’ he said. By then an estimated 310,000 people had turned up to stop the Fascists marching through. Although Communists under Phil Piratin had been the principal organisers of the opposition, it was not a Communist counter-demonstration. In 1936, the Party had only eleven thousand members. But the Party had been able to organise far greater support across a wide cross-section of British society. The police set to work to clear a path through the counter-demonstrators so that the blackshirts could gain access to Commercial Road, down which they had planned to march. They used a combination of brute force and mounted police charges. People everywhere were bleeding from head wounds inflicted by batons and staves. After several charges and forays, it became obvious to Sir Philip Game, the Police Commissioner, that there was no way that Mosley’s men and women could pass through to Commercial Road, ‘short of mayhem and murder’, so he decided on an alternative route, via Cable Street.

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Thanks to Hugh Faulkner’s intelligence, Piratin quickly became aware of the switch and ordered his ‘flying squads’. As its name suggests, it was close to the docks and lined with ships’ chandlers, lock-ups and warehouses. They were full of carts and heavy equipment which made perfect materials for barricades. As at Gardiner’s Corner, the mounted charges were unable to make headway, and the women in the tenement buildings began throwing everything they could lay their hands on down on the police, forcing them to retreat and, after taking shelter in the lock-ups, to surrender. The demonstrators took their helmets and truncheons and told them to ‘shove off!’ More than a hundred were wounded in the riot, and eighty-three anti-Fascists were arrested. The next day, many of them were sentenced, like Charlie Goodman, to four months’ hard labour. At about six in the evening, the news came through that the march through the East End had been cancelled on the orders of the Police Commissioner, after consulting with the Home Secretary. The demonstrators were elated, while there was despair among Mosley’s followers. They had waited with their ‘Leader’ for almost six hours, ‘kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street. The setback was significant, not simply because the march had been stopped, but because of the violence which it triggered.

For the left, by contrast, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. The three thousand blackshirts did not pass, as the anti-Fascist demonstrators prevented the police from ushering Mosley’s ‘stormtroopers’ through the East End, a victory which proved a decisive blow from which the British fascists never recovered. It brought together, at least for the following year, a fractured movement that had long been divided on sectarian and ideological grounds on the major issues of the day. It also united people from different ethnic and religious groups and across classes. One of the leaders of the ‘resistance’ recalled that the most amazing thing was to see a silk-coated religious Orthodox Jew standing next to an Irish docker with a grappling iron. A number of men, like Frank Lesser, took such pride in having stopped the Fascist march that they were motivated to volunteer to fight Franco:

It seemed to me that the fight against Fascism had to be fought in England, it had to be fought, and I went to fight it a year later in Spain too. 

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

In the aftermath of the events on Cable Street, the Cabinet met on Wednesday 14 October, with the disturbances at the top of the agenda together with the marches and protests of the unemployed which were happening at the same time. It was not only the disciplined ‘Crusade’ of the men from Jarrow which concerned the ministers. Two other marches were heading through the capital at the same time. One of these was a three-pronged demonstration led by the NUWM against the means test. The prospect of more revolutionaries fighting on the streets of London with the police after the debacle of the previous week in Stepney was more than the politicians could stomach. Some form of action was needed, but it was unclear what the government could do to stop the marches. Stanley Baldwin had recovered enough from a two-month illness to chair the meeting and called on Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, to report on the situation in general and specifically on Cable Street.

Two days earlier, eight days after the riot, the steely-cold Sir John had produced a Memorandum for the Cabinet that showed the degree of concern that he and his colleagues felt. They had faced an almost complete breakdown of law and order on the streets of the capital. The police had been unable to control the demonstration, nor had the Fascists been able to march, as was their right. More clashes were likely as Communists, buoyed up by success, took to the streets again to prevent further Mosley rallies. and demonstrations. The stopping of the march at Cable Street was a blatant denial of free speech to the BUF, as well as a victory over the legitimate authorities. As Mosley complained:

We were prevented from doing what we had done before, marching through London where we had tremendous support and would certainly have won a parliamentary seat.

Then he told his colleagues that nothing should be done to prevent orderly bands of demonstrators marching where they planned. Perhaps surprisingly, however, those who had stopped the BUF in its tracks and beaten back the police were not the object of Simon’s wrath. Instead, he singled out Mosley and his blackshirts for their provocative behaviour and drew attention to their uniform. There was something essentially un-British about a political party dressing up and strutting around in military-style. The Home Secretary spoke of the intense resentment that it caused in the country at large, with the assumption of authority by a private army. That was bad enough, but what was worse was Mosley’s aping the anti-democratic régimes of Europe, where the wearing of black or brown uniforms led to the overthrow of popular liberties … Sir Oswald makes no secret of his desire to follow the German and Italian examples. Simon told the Cabinet that the men and women who dressed as blackshirts looked much smarter than when wearing their everyday clothes. He thought this added to the appeal of the Fascists among poorer people. There was only one solution: uniforms had to be banned.

He also suggested that, on the subject of ‘hunger marches’, action be taken to minimise the risk of violence and that the newspapers should be made aware of the futility of these marches. Baldwin agreed that selected journalists should be briefed so as to counter the favourable publicity given to the marchers and that no ministers would meet any deputations of marchers. Clearly, the ‘nightmare’ on Cable Street was, in part, what led the government to take its hard-line over the presentation of the Jarrow petition. However, the Labour Party conference’s decision not to back the Crusade made it easier for the government, and the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ echoed the speeches which questioned the desirability of getting ill-fed men to march.

Banning uniforms was just one of several measures needed to deal with the disturbances, Simon said. He also threw in a restriction of liberty. He told the Cabinet that the onward thrust of modernity had made the police’s job impossible. Thousands of people could now be summoned at short notice by radio and newspaper., they could travel quickly by public transport, and they could be harangued by demagogues using microphones and loudspeakers. These developments, combined with ‘the European crisis’ and the hysterical fear that an anti-Jew agitation might gain the mastery in this country, meant that the authorities had to have the right to be able to stop demonstrations in future if they feared they might lead to disorder. The Cabinet agreed.

Despite the limitations on freedom of speech, a bill went before Parliament less than a month later. But to the Cabinet’s frustration, the legislation giving the police powers to ban demonstrations was weeks away from enactment. The government restricted BUF activities by enacting The Public Order Act banning political uniforms and allowing the police to ban marches for three-month periods. A coalition of all sides of the Commons came together to stop Mosley, united in hatred of the blackshirt as a political tool, and in loathing of his politics. It was a thoroughly partial piece of legislation in the first instance. Its practical purpose may have been to prevent the recurrence of violence on the scale of the Battle of Cable Street, but its political effect was to cripple the BUF. Denied their uniforms, prevented from marching purely at the discretion of local police, their extra-parliamentary party went into sharp decline. Mosley had few friends at Westminster and he claimed that the British Government had surrendered to red terror.

This forced the BUF back to using more conventional and constitutional political methods. Electorally, they had some local success in the East End. Although the BUF gained support in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, the East End remained its heartland.  In the London County Council elections of March 1937, the BUF won twenty-three per cent of the vote in North-East Bethnal Green, nineteen per cent in Stepney (Limehouse in Clement Attlee’s constituency) and fourteen per cent in Shoreditch. Nonetheless, the fascists failed to win more widespread support. BUF membership (as far as we can tell) rose from seventeen thousand in early 1934 to between forty and fifty thousand by July, organised in four hundred branches. After dropping from that peak to five thousand within a year, it recovered to 15,500 during 1936, reaching 22,500 by the outbreak of war. More generally, the fascists were unable to win parliamentary seats, not even in East London, despite Mosley’s certain declarations that they would. The BUF had no doctrines except jingoism, a professed love of the British flag and the Royal Family, and hatred of Jews and Communists.

In any case, the voting system worked in favour of the two dominant parties. The Conservative Party remained attractive to the middle classes and the BUF was unable to compete with Labour and the trade unions for the support of the unemployed. As the economy improved in the 1930s, the attraction of a political alternative diminished. The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it had been in Berlin in the Thirties where it was extremely easy for anyone to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Below: A press picture from ‘The Daily Worker’  of a great united anti-fascist protest in Trafalgar Square in 1937. Mosley and his followers are seen giving the Nazi salute, their demonstration ringed by a great phalanx of anti-fascists, their clenched fists raised in the salute of the ‘United Front’. Interestingly, despite the hatred, each side nurtured for each other, a single line of policemen was all that separated the opponents and the protest passed without violence, Mosley’s speech being drowned out by the mass singing of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’.  The demonstrators then kept up a continual barrage of anti-fascist slogans.  

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Below: A counter-rally organised by the BUF in Bermondsey in 1938. May Day was traditionally a Socialist festival. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the party, was regarded as richly comic by most of the public. 

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

In January 1937, the first issue of Tribune was published, its controlling board including Bevan, Cripps, Laski, H N Brailsford and Ellen Wilkinson. Later that month the United Campaign was launched at a great meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Stafford Cripps, James Maxton and Harry Pollitt appeared on the platform, and Nye Bevan, Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and Fenner Brockway were among the principal signatories to the manifesto. As the non-interventionist right-wing fought back, the United Front packed meeting after meeting with thousands of Labour, ILP, Socialist League, Communist and trade union supporters, organising practical aid for their Spanish comrades with devoted intensity. Eventually, the Popular Front won wide acceptance, with David Lloyd George and Harry Pollitt sharing a platform and Clement Attlee visiting the remaining International Brigade soldiers in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the attention of the international community. It served as a kind of litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism would triumph. In 1938, the outcome of this ideological conflict was more unsure than ever. The official line of the powers, sanctioned by the League of Nations, remained one of non-intervention, a policy willfully ignored by Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active intervention of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the Spanish Civil War into the ideological cause célebre of the late 1930s. Conscious that the conflict accentuated the division of Europe into Left and Right, the National Labour MP, Harold Nicolson inclined towards a more robust anti-Franco line in the belief that the government had been ‘weak and confused over the Spanish question’. At a dinner party, he told Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that he wanted ‘the Reds to win’. The destruction of Guernica, the ancient Basque capital, on 26 April 1937 by bombers of the German Kondor Legion had reinforced his feelings. He wrote to his wife Vita …

… I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.

At the end of February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, ostensibly over Chamberlain’s precipitate and inept handling of Anglo-Italian relations. As a National Labour MP, there was nothing Harold Nicolson could do about the doleful events in Germany, but Eden’s resignation affected him deeply. He had loyally upheld Eden’s handling of British foreign policy, and did not want to become ‘one of Winston’s brigade’. But he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘National Labour’ had ceased to exist as a separate entity. Nicolson was determined to defend Eden, whose resignation speech, muddled and indecisive, had not gone down well. The Foreign Secretary, he revealed to the restless MPs, had resigned not over ‘a little point of procedure’, but on ‘a great question of principle’. He lashed into Italy, …

… a country which has continuously, consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered … our great principles of policy … the rule of law , the theory of the League of Nations, the belief in the sanctity of treaties … butchered to make a Roman holiday.

His speech was warmly received by other critics of Chamberlain’s government, including Lloyd George and Churchill. Supporters of the government thought it damaging to ‘the cause of peace’. But Nicolson had no doubt that Chamberlain was blindly leading the country into a political and diplomatic minefield:

 … their policy is nothing less than the scrapping of the ideas which have been built up since the war and the reversion to the old pre-war policy of power politics and bargaining. This means: (1) that we shall have to buy the friendship of Italy and Germany by making sacrifices. (2) That this frienship will not be worth tuppence once is is bought. And (3) that in doing so we shall sacrifice the confidence of France, Russia, the United States and all the smaller countries.

For many, ‘Tricky Chamberlain’ no longer inspired trust, but nor did the National Labour Party that had behaved like worms and kissed the Chamberlain boot with a resounding smack. But the die-hard Tories were jubilant at having flushed out all the nonsensical notions of the past and having got back the good old Tory doctrines. Nicolson’s pessimism intensified when, on 12 March, German forces crossed into Austria and Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss. Although he still sat on the government benches, he emerged as a leading critic of the government’s foreign policy, claiming that we are going to let Germany become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us. The Anschluss passed off to whispers of protest, but Spain remained a burning issue. Four days after Hitler’s coup, with Franco’s troops on the offensive, Nicolson spoke out forcefully on the issue. He began by expressing his ‘deepest sympathy’ with the Spanish government and his ‘deepest hatred’ for Franco. A Franco victory, he pointed out, would gravely menace Britain’s interests and security. A free Spain, he stressed, had traditionally been of immense strategic advantage to Britain.

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Above: A snapshot from a woman Labour Party member of another anti-fascist gathering at Belle Vue, Manchester, early in 1938, showing women Labour Party members, Margaret Whalley and Mary Eckersley, waiting to attend the United Front rally.

May Day 1938 was one of the largest since 1926 and the message was ‘Spain above all’. Herbert Morrison spoke from the Labour platform, reminding his audience of the heroic Spanish people and their fight against foreign invasion. Hammersmith Labour Party carried a banner announcing that it had collected five hundred pounds to send an ambulance to Spain and West London engineers paraded a motorcycle of the type they had sent. Everywhere in the procession were the tricolour flags of the Spanish Republic, and a red banner proclaimed, Spain’s fight is our fight. Tens of thousands assembled at the eight platforms in Hyde Park to hear speakers from every section of the labour movement call for arms for Spain and the end of the Chamberlain government. As the long column of marchers entered the park, the loudest cheers came for the wounded members of the International Brigade, closely followed by a group of women of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (pictured below), dressed in nurses’ uniforms, collecting to buy milk for Spanish children.

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

In the view of Harold Nicolson, Neville Chamberlain was an ‘ironmonger’ who had no conception… of world politics and was quite unsuited to the task of concluding a successful negotiation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in September 1938. It soon became apparent that Chamberlain, who didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetans were in the Reich or out of it, had brought back sn agreement that, in principle, ceded to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept this arrangement.  At one stage, ‘Baffy’ Dugdale, a National Labourite and member of the Executive of the League of Nations Union, rang up Harold to tell him that she had been sick twice in the night over England’s shame’, and had thrown up again after having read in The Times that the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not … be expected to make a strong ‘prima facie’ appeal to them. Thereupon, she had resigned from the Party. Nicolson himself penned a note of protest to ‘Buck’ De La Warr about National Labour’s refusal to speak out on the issue: He would consider his position.

Chamberlain returned empty-handed from the second round of talks held at Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, but he was given a ‘blank cheque’ from public opinion for his peace efforts. Nicolson told Churchill that the international situation would bring about the end of the British Empire. They discussed tactics should Chamberlain decide to ‘rat again’. They agreed to press for a Coalition Government and the immediate application of war measures since war seemed imminent.  On 28 September, the House of Commons convened to hear the PM clarify the chain of events leading to the crisis. As he entered the Chamber he was greeted by shouts of applause from his supporters, many of whom rose in their seats and waved their order papers. The opposition remained seated and silent, as did Harold Nicolson, ostensibly a government supporter. The next day he addressed a meeting of the National Labour group in Manchester, hitting out at the Government and its advisors, which rallied the Chamberlainite supporters against him. Matters worsened when he voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging to support the PM, leading to accusations of ‘dishonourable behaviour’.

The high point of Nicolson’s parliamentary career was his attack on the government’s foreign policy after the Munich agreement. His stand was uncompromising and brought him much credit from the opposition. Hitler, he stated, had three aims: to swallow the Sudeten Germans; to destroy Czechoslovakia and to dominate Europe. We have given him all those three things, he stated. He would have given him the first of these three, as the Sudetenland was not worth a war. But by Chamberlain’s capitulation on this point, a deadly chain reaction had been set off that led, inexorably, to total surrender. He went on:

The essential thing, the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still ought to resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany … this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat (is) one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occured in our history. … The tiger is showing his teeth, the cage door is open; the keeper is gone … we have given away the whole key to Europe. … Germany will have the whole of Europe in a stranglehold. …

… I know that that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy … that the one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, to maintain a settled pattern of international relations, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil … but to set up some sort of standard by which the smaller Powers can test what is godd in international conduct and what is not – I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess the Foreign Office mind.

There were other powerful anti-government speeches, by Churchill and Duff Cooper (the only cabinet member to resign), but they hardly dented the government’s huge majority. By 366 votes to 144, the House declared its confidence in the government’s appeasement policy. Thirty Conservative MPs abstained and thirteen remained in their seats. Nicolson, a National Labour ‘rebel’ was among them. The dominance of the National Government and the fragmentation of the Opposition, confirmed at the General Election of 1935, meant that the case of the rebels was not strengthened by their counter-proposals – increased rearmament, grand coalitions, a revivified League, or claiming the high moral ground. Without a proper Opposition, the Commons was barren of new ideas. Those preoccupied with making British foreign policy, tormented by the memories of the horrors of the Great War, were inclined, also on moral grounds, to satisfy Germany’s ‘legitimate grievances’, above all conscious of Britain’s defensive weaknesses and the French lack of will to fight. Also using the tiger metaphor, the Chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper on 23 September that to attempt to take offensive action against Germany … would be to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

The fight against unemployment in Britain continued to the end of the decade. By the winter of 1938-39, the NUWM had changed their tactics from national marches and demonstrations to a series of localised stunts aimed at focusing attention to their demands for winter relief. Their three-point programme called for additional winter unemployment payments of two shillings and sixpence per adult and one shilling per child. They also demanded a national scheme of public works at trade union rates of pay and the opportunity to put their case directly to the ministers concerned. The picture below was taken on 20 December 1938, when two hundred unemployed men made their way to Oxford Street, crowded with Christmas shoppers. They stepped off the pavements and laid down in the roadway bringing the heavy traffic to an abrupt halt. The weather was bitterly cold and snow had been falling as the men covered themselves with posters calling for bread, work and winter relief. Two days later, a hundred men strolled into the Grill Room of the Ritz Hotel, seating themselves at the tables laid for dinner. They followed this by capturing the UAB offices and holding an officer prisoner, flying of a banner from the Monument in the City of London and chaining themselves to the railings of labour exchanges.

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However, in 1939, the threat of war overshadowed domestic problems. Opposition to the ‘appeasement’ policy after the Munich agreement was a lost cause. So too was the League of Nations Union, which was ‘practically dead’ and the National Labour Party was in no better shape. Nicolson devoted his energies to helping refugees from Franco’s Spain and co-operating with Eleanor Rathbone in her work with deprived children in Britain. He also joined the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror and helped the Zionist cause.

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For the Labour movement as a whole, the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’ even before the thirties were properly over. As Harold Nicolson motored home from Westminster to Sissinghurst in Kent on 3 September, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist and shouted: it’s all the fault of the rich! Harold commented in his diary:

The Labour Party will be hard put to it to prevent this war degenerating into class warfare.

Sources:

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920 – 1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishing).

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke (ed.), et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Publishers).

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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; II.   Leave a comment

Chapter Two: Class, the ‘Celtic Complex’ & the ‘Black Dog of Capitalism’.

 

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It is possible to detect from Hilda Jennings’ 1934 book and other publications on the Brynmawr ‘voluntary’ venture, that its dominating ‘outside’ participants were strongly motivated by a specific definition of ‘Community’ which was different, but just as alien to the coalfield ‘communities’, as that which was prevalent in official government and ‘social service’ circles. None of these was a definition or set of ideas which was readily shared by ordinary residents of the town, who might be forgiven for thinking that an attempt was being made to elevate ‘community’ over ‘class’.

She asserted that the cosmopolitan nature of the people of Brynmawr and its long history of industrial and political revolt were factors that acted against the building up of a sense of community. She wrote that it was despite this militant history, rather than because of it, that Brynmawr had maintained its cohesion as a community, exerting power over individuals through their attachments to various institutions. Furthermore, her writing-up of the Survey’s findings was clouded throughout by an overbearing concept of ‘community’, which placed its accent firmly on the importance of continuity with a pre-industrial past:

… the life of Brynmawr is still shaped by the dynamic forces of nature, race, common traditions and common history… Probably no force which has influenced its past can safely be ignored in the consideration of its future… We cannot ‘pluck out the heart of the mystery’ of Brynmawr, but it is well that we should study its history if we wish to plan a future for it instead of drifting down the stream of declining prosperity and disillusionment.

She went on to stress that these traditions were underlaid by the retention of a ‘rural-urban complex’, a pride of craftsmanship and an affinity for the common culture of the Welsh countryside which had transferred itself into the urban context. Much of the Survey, in common with other writing on the town by those who were attracted to it in these years, is coloured by eulogy for the rural heritage of the Welsh people. J Kitchener Davies, reporting on the 1932 Plaid Cymru Summer School held in Brynmawr (thus enabling the people of the town, so he claimed, to live in Wales again for a week), held it up as a model community, in stark contrast to its more urban neighbours:

Bryn Mawr … suffers from the advertisement of its poverty which had made us expect distress writ larger over it than over any other mining community. This is not so… (it) has a background of lovely open country, easily accessible, and this, I imagined, reflected in the faces of the people, made a contrast with those of more hemmed-in communities . The objectiveness of an open plateau turns men’s minds from their subjective brooding. 

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For nationalist visitors like Kitchener Davies, Brynmawr represented a model ex-coalfield community worthy of being reclaimed for their ‘new Wales’, confirming the suspicions of many of the ‘militant generation’ that they were seeking to elevate both ‘community’ and ‘nation’ over ‘class’. That such suspicions were well-founded is evident from the Walter Dowding’s pamphlet, Wales-Know Thyself!, published during the war by Foyle’s Welsh Press and dedicated to Saunders Lewis, the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party, as well as to Peter Scott and ‘the Group’ in Brynmawr. The author, who had taken part in the Brynmawr experiment as a volunteer, proposed that a ‘free’, post-war Wales would need to be based on small communities and that since the word ‘community’ or ‘commune’ was not synonymous with the word ‘town’, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport would, therefore, need to be broken down into ‘natural, sizeable units’. Dowding also advocated the redefinition of coalfield communities and their transformation into new, re-cymricised, re-sanctified, classless communities. He may have disagreed with the party leadership’s anti-communist, pro-fascist international policies, but in ‘domestic’ matters, his pamphlet echoes Saunders Lewis’ Ten Points of Policy, a personal declaration for consideration as the principles of the Nationalist Party’s social and industrial policy, providing, as far as Lewis was concerned, its ‘social catechism’. In them, Lewis called for wholesale de-industrialisation of South Wales:

… industrial capitalism and economic competition free from the control of government (i.e. free trade) are a great evil and are completely contrary to the philosophy of cooperative nationalism… Agriculture should be the chief industry of Wales and the basis of its civilisation. For the sake of the moral health of Wales and for the moral and physical welfare of its population, South Wales must be de-industrialised.  

These were quite clearly extreme nationalist views, compared with the liberal-nationalism outlook of the left-over leadership of the old liberal and nonconformist Wales, who had now found a new role for themselves as mediators between the Conservative government in Whitehall and the trades unionists and municipal socialists in south Wales, as the depression deepened. They were comprised of Welsh professionals, clerics, administrators and academics who, although small in number were, by the nature and value of the positions they held, influential in the political life of both Wales and Britain as a whole. Their image of the coalfield, past and present, was one of a society in which industry had distorted nationality and brought an incursion of alien people bringing with them an alien culture.

These people had never, it was claimed, shared in the inheritance of Welsh culture. Such alien accretions to the population had gradually stultified the natural development of native culture, as though the industrial invader, having no culture of his own, would brook no other either. This was a view expressed by delegates to the Welsh School of Social Service which met at Llandrindod Wells in 1934 and was one which was repeated at several public forums both before and after. Contemporary novelists also saw industrialisation, together with immigration, as being the root of all evil as far as the continuity of older Welsh traditions. The popularity of Richard Llewellyn’s novel, How Green Was My Valley, made into a Hollywood film in 1941, was perhaps an indication of the widespread acceptance of this explanation of the region’s fall from grace. The nation had moulded itself to the will, and abandoned to the needs of industry. The Coal industry had dominated South Wales, bent it to its will and made it hideous. Worst of all, for these ‘liberal-cymricists’, it had strangled our language and scorned our culture. 

The view of those at the Ministry of Health was that whereas the Welsh-speaking miners of the western anthracite district of the coalfield had clung to the manners and customs characteristic of the ‘Cymric’ race. They had remained largely uninfluenced by immigration, except that of people from the Welsh-speaking areas. The Eastern sector, however, had been invaded by a more or less alien population which partly accounted for the acceptance by South Wales miners of economic and social theories and policies which would appear to cut across Welsh tradition.  The events of 1926 were a case in point: The liberal-Cymricists expressed their belief, within official services, that the old Welsh Collier was a home-loving and God-fearing man who was only inflamed when an outside man came in, like Mr A J Cook, who was not Welsh. Cook was seen as representative of an undesirable element… which we have never got rid of. In a similar vein, the people of Rhymney were contrasted with those of Blaina by the General Inspector to the Welsh Board of Health:

In this and other districts where the native Welsh culture most strongly persists and the influences of the Methodist revival… are still felt, there is a noticeable difference in the character and outlook of the people as compared with the districts where the industrial revolution submerged the populace and introduced an economic doctrine and a philosophy of life both of which are strange and unsatisfying, though socially disturbing, to the Celtic Complex.

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These commentators may have differed in the degree of their dislike of industrialisation, but all were agreed in their projection of an image of a coal polluted by immigration. For them, the militancy of the coalfield was not the product of closely-knit communities, valuing their mutual solidarity, but of the openness of the coalfield to people and influences from far and wide. The ‘Celtic Complex’ – the love of home, of chapels, of language, of eisteddfodau, of music and singing; the cultural emblems of nonconformist Wales had been crumbling in the face of an anglicising, alien onslaught. An expatriate Welsh minister of religion, writing a tour guide to Wales in 1930, described the coalfield communities as outposts… of hell itself, with their inhabitants, almost to a man, supporters of the left wing of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, he was pleased to find an Eisteddfod taking place in the Rhondda and the rendering of Welsh hymn-tunes – and all this despite the considerable admixture of aliens. However, as far as he was concerned, the South Wales miners could not compete with their Flintshire brethren:

The colliers here are more purely Welsh than they are in the southern mining districts. Most of them speak Welsh, their politics are a milder shade of red, and they hold much more tightly to the ancient cultural and religious standards of the nation. 

Merthyr, in particular, was singled out for condemnation by ministers of religion and literary travellers from rural Wales for whom it encapsulated their sense of  ‘hemmed-in’ South Wales. Rev. W Watkin Davies had described it, after a brief visit in the 1920s as a hideous place, dirty and noisy, and typical of all that is worst in the South Wales Coalfield. P. B. Mais, a non-Welsh traveller along the Highways and Byways of the Welsh Marches a decade later, went into culture-shock as he came down from the Brecon Beacons to discover the town, with these unbelievably narrow, wedged rows and rows of miners’ houses huddled in a land where there was so much room that you get lost on the moors if you leave the town in any direction but downward. He went on to describe…

… ill-nourished children playing in the over-heated, crowded streets, or in the filfthy, offal-laden, tin-strewn streams at the backs of the houses with little strips  of backyards that make Limehouse backyards look like the Garden of Eden.

Mais could not believe that Merthyr people could be ‘content’ to live in such conditions, given their heritage:

Are they not sprung from hillsmen, farmers, men and women who regard air and space to breathe as essentials of life? Why, then, do these people go on living here? All of these South Wales mining villages want wiping out of existence, so that the men and women can start again in surroundings that are civilised, and not so ugly as to make one shiver even in memory.

It is significant that Welsh ministers of religion were continuing to express this image of a coalfield defiled by immigration a decade later, a decade which had seen ‘their’ communities suffering from large-scale unemployment, emigration and de-industrialisation. Rev. J Selwyn Roberts of Pontypridd wrote that,

…it is clear that for the last two generations there have been alien factors at work which have almost completely overcome the traditional conscience and spirit of the Welsh people.

According to Rev. Watkin Davies, a decade on from his original pronouncements, the coalfield was a grimy, foreign country made up of things and people which in no true sense belong to Wales. John Rowland, of the Welsh Board of Health, continued to present his ‘liberal-cymricist’ image of the impoverishment and demoralisation within the Borough of Merthyr as minatory to the ‘Celtic Complex’ of the ‘old Welsh stock’:

The prevailing impression after all my dealings with Merthyr Tydfil is of the real poverty that exists. This poverty is visible everywhere, derelict shops, execrable roads and deplorable housing conditions. Merthyr is inhabited by many worthy persons of old Welsh stock, hard-working and religious… It is very hard to see such people gradually losing their faith in the old established order and turning to look for desperate remedies.

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Yet, for the government bureaucrats who viewed the community from the outside, Merthyr was a Borough which in the early months of 1939 still had forty percent of its working population idle and was costing central government a pound per family per week, and so could no longer be said to be viable, let alone on the road to recovery. Some went so far as to suggest that the whole town should be abandoned, and its population transported wholesale to the coast. The reaction of the Merthyr Express, stating that such a proposal was ‘fantastic’ reflected the gulf which had opened up between the liberal-cymricists and the representatives of the coalfield communities themselves. It was highlighted by their ‘arch-druid’ Tom Jones’ ironic suggestion, that the entire population of South Wales should be transferred out of the region so that the valleys could be flooded, used as an industrial museum or could serve as an ideal location for bombing practice.

The third group of investigators, Marxist propagandists, themselves regarded as aliens by the liberal-cymricists, projected an image of south Wales which was shaped by a belief in a class struggle in which they saw the colliers as the vanguard.  For writers like Allen Hutt, whose books were published as propaganda for the times, the South Wales miners were the cream of the working class… the most advanced, most militant, most conscious workers. His neat definition of the Welsh working class led him to an even neater explanation of why they did not rise up against their suffering:

One of the obstacles confronting the revolt of the workers in South Wales is precisely that degradation of which Marx spoke of as an accompaniment of the growth of impoverishment under monopoly. 

In this way, the preconceptions of the these ‘propagandists’ often led to an idealisation of coalfield people in which individuality was frequently subsumed into an image of ‘the masses’ which could be made to fit their ideology. The tendency is also apparent in the historiography of the period, particularly that written in the following four decades, which tended to eulogise the miners and their leaders. Some, however, like Fenner Brockway, chose to focus on Merthyr for a chapter of Hungry England (1932), which naturally painted the bleakest possible portrait of the poverty and ill-health among the Borough’s people.

Historians tended to draw on the sources provided by the contemporary ‘propagandists’ and therefore projected an image of the 1930s coalfield communities as hotbeds of militancy, restrained by the demoralisation resultant from mass unemployment. More recently, over the past four decades, historians have demonstrated how such imagery tended to dominate much of the contemporary fiction, newsreel footage and photography of ‘The Thirties’. These preconceptions of coalfield societies served to create and perpetuate what may be termed, the myth of ‘The Unemployed Man’. This image of ‘the unemployed’ as a uniform group within British society, by definition excluding women either as factory workers or colliery housewives, was one which served the purposes of those who saw the causes of unemployment as correspondingly straightforward in economic terms. Thus, John Gollan began a chapter of on unemployment in his 1937 book, Youth in British Industry: A Survey of Labour Conditions Today with the following classical Marxist statement:

What is unemployment? We would be fools if we thought that unemployment depended merely on the state of trade. Undoubtedly this factor affects the amount of unemployment but it does not explain why, for instance, unemployment is absolutely essential for capitalist industry, while under socialism in the USSR it has been abolished completely. Modern capitalist production has established an industrial reserve army is essential in order that capital may have a surplus of producers which it can draw upon when needed. Unemployment is the black dog of capitalism…

In his book, Unemployment and the Unemployed (1940), H W Singer was scathing in his criticism of such generalisations both about unemployment and the unemployed. He argued that there was no such thing as the ‘unemployed man’, but only ‘unemployed men’, that there was no uniformity but an intense variety. He listed sixteen independent causes of unemployment and pointed out that since work enforced a common routine on the people who took part in it, it was reasonable to expect that when people became unemployed their suppressed individuality would again assert itself. Poverty, the dole queue and the Means Test might all restrict diversity, but that didn’t mean that the unemployed could be described as…

… a uniform mass of caps, grey faces, hands-in-pockets, street-cornermen with empty stomachs and on the verge of suicide, and only sustained by the hope of winning the pools…  

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Singer divided his ‘reserve army’ into two camps, the ‘stage army’ and the ‘standing army’, or the ‘short-term’ (under three months) and ‘long-term’ unemployed. The short-term unemployed could include those, like B L Coombes, who were ‘temporarily-stopped’ for two or three days per week from their colliery, so that they were paid for three shifts and could claim dole for the rest of the week. But if they were called to work a fourth shift, they would then lose their dole money for the rest of the week:

All that spring and summer I was working, but was not a penny better off than if I had been on the dole; while the men with big families and who had a shilling a day plus bus fare to pay were losing money every week by working…

Many miners would avoid losing dole in this way by ensuring that they were not at home when the colliery officials sent for them. For the twenty thousand or so unemployed miners over fifty in South Wales who were unlikely to work in the pits again, there was a three-fold ongoing problem. First, they had lost their sense of purpose as skilled, active workers and bread-winners for their families; relationships with younger, working members of the family became more difficult, particularly if these members were working away from home and thirdly, they found it impossible to make any kind of provision which would enable them to keep up the home’s standard of living when they reached the old age pension age.

Apart from these variations in income from week to week and even day to day, which made household budgeting (usually done by the women) impossible, the drop from full-time working to full-time unemployment had a dramatic impact on both family standards of living and general wellbeing. A skilled collier may well, in the prosperous early twenties, have brought home a wage of up to eight pounds per week, and when three or more sons were working on full shifts, the economic standard of the family would have been greater than that of an ordinary middle-class family such as that of a shopkeeper, policeman or small businessman. The maintenance system, however, led to an immediate drop in income per head of at least a pound per week, even starting from the more precarious wage levels which existed in working collieries by 1928-29. H W Singer commented:

It is just the extent of this drop… which will largely determine an unemployed man’s attitude to unemployment and work, whether he compromises with this present state and tries to settle down somehow, or whether he will frantically refuse to accept and submit… It is, therefore, the skilled men… that are feeling the edge of their condition of unemployment most keenly, because it is these people that are in fact being penalised by the existing system of ‘welfare’.

The effect on mental health was also felt by the miners’ wives. James Hanley was one of few writers who let the unemployed speak for themselves in his 1937 book, Grey Children: A Study in Humbug, reported his interview with one of them, John Williams:

My missus is in a mental home. We had a nice little lad, and were doing not so bad until I lost my job, and that and one thing and another, well, I suppose it got in her way.

Significantly, Hanley entitled one of his chapter’s ‘Many Voices’. Despite the common experiences involved in unemployment, many stemming from bureaucratic procedures, including the hated ‘Mean’s Test’, there were varied voices among the unemployed and their families. The myth of ‘the unemployed man’ not only excludes the experience of women in what might more accurately be defined as ‘the unwaged family’, but it is also an unreal image of uniform processes of impoverishment and demoralisation throughout coalfield society in the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is important to identify the factors which tended towards uniformity. Firstly, there was what Singer called the common pattern of poverty, the reality that since most forms of association cost money, the freedom of association of unemployed people was severely restricted in this way. Unwaged families could easily become cut off from institutions which required expenditure incompatible with unemployment. Attendance at chapel might stop, for example, because of the lack of a good suit. Secondly, the physical routine of standing in the dole-queue provided the forum for the formulation of opinion between the unemployed, much as the shared experience of the coalface did for the employed:

… One will usually find that this occasion is a sort of social meting, that people hang about the Exchange or the street near… for some time after, or they even go to the Exchange outside their own hours to meet the other people waiting there. It is there that information about prospective jobs is exchanged, or that politics, pools or the last fire or ‘whatnot’ are discussed.         

The ‘institution’ of the dole queue was particularly important to the long-term unemployed as they began to lose contact with the institutions which were based around work, such as the Miners’ Federation Lodge. For many of the long-term unemployed, the dole queue was a reminder that their condition was not ‘a special personal handicap’. It is in this sense that the examination of both individual and collective experiences of unemployment within coalfield communities is essential for social historians.

It was this combination of idealism and practical community cohesion which helped transform Jennings’ survey into a model for similar joint local-national ventures elsewhere, but it perhaps also significant that many of the key figures in other distressed places were also determined women sharing her values. In June 1926 Emma Noble had first gone to the Rhondda Valley, during the Coal Lock-Out, and contacted the local distress committee to investigate the need for outside assistance. She reported the deep need for material help and loving sympathy in the Rhondda to Friends in Oxford and London who had expressed concern for the miners. Funds were raised for leather for boot repairing, and clothing was collected, so Emma returned to the Rhondda, living in a miner’s cottage where Joyce Bater later joined her, and they did relief work based at Tonypandy until just before Christmas. The relief work closed down, as the government and social service agencies sought to encourage migration from the coalfield as the solution to its problems, and “relief” was seen as immediately necessary, but also “harmful” to the longer-term ‘Malthusian’ objective of transferring the “surplus population”.

Nevertheless, the Maes-yr-Haf settlement was opened in 1927 as an experiment backed by the Coalfields Distress Committee comprising Joan Fry, Peter Scott and others. They helped to inspire the nationwide publicity for the Lord Mayor of London’s Mansion Hose Fund in 1928, which had drawn a generous response from the British public, following an appeal by Edward, Prince of Wales. By March 1928, Friend’s “Meeting for Sufferings” was asked to make a wider appeal for financial support and to recruit volunteers for personal service, since Emma Noble had reported from the Rhondda that further relief was now essential. It was decided to send representatives to the government, as the Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain, was known to be having a change of heart.

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Emma and William Noble were appointed to become Wardens of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement by Dr A D Lindsay, renowned Master of Balliol College, who became Chairman of the Coalfields Distress Committee at that time. A great number of activities developed at the centre, and eight other settlements were established throughout south Wales over the next decade or so, led by people who had worked with the Nobles or had been influenced by them. Emma and William had similar backgrounds, both under the strong Methodist influence of their schools, which they both left at twelve. Later, they both became members of the Workers’ Education Association, where they met. In 1908 they married in the Methodist chapel in Weymouth and had a son and daughter before attending Ruskin College from 1921. There they came into contact with Oxford Quakers and became members of the Labour Party. Emma became an Alderman and William a JP and Trade Union official. They became Quakers in Swindon but left for South Wales with the support of their Meeting and their MP.

Under their guidance, Maes-yr-Haf became a centre for friendship, counselling and practical help. With their knowledge of local government and the poor-law, they were soon able to assist the unemployed in practical ways, but the Nobles were also determined to make education a priority. By the mid-thirties they had established fifty-two unemployed clubs in the Rhondda with a membership of nine thousand men, women and juveniles. The courses taught ranged from philosophy to country dancing, and they were supported by the University of Wales, the National Council of Music for Wales, the WEA, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and the Carnegie Trust. A few of the unemployed were able to advance to full.time residential courses at Coleg Harlech, Fircroft College in Birmingham, and Ruskin College. One of the unemployed men who attended the clubs went on to Fircroft and later became Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Lord Lindsay said of them:

These unemployed clubs came out of Maes-yr-Haf and spread all over England and even migrated to America.

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Above: The well-known photograph of Mrs George, Pontypool, washing with a doll-tub, about 1900. Photographs of domestic work are rare, but oral evidence reveals that little changed in washing methods, even when unemployment meant fewer shirts in the tub.

They began in the Rhondda Valleys and then the Welsh Council of Social Service helped them to spread to all the other valleys and area officers helped to make sure the unemployed had a meeting place for the courses. Women, in particular, had had little hope of employment or of improving themselves before, since all their time and effort was taken up with the traditional, daunting task of looking after men and their clothes, as described below. Now, with at least some of their men no longer coming home covered in coal-grime, women’s clubs and sewing groups were formed up and down the valleys to unpick, alter and make children’s garments, which were then distributed through the schools. Women were not used to independence but soon enjoyed providing their own entertainment, organising concerts, drama, dances and discussions, often exchanging ideas on the best uses for their very limited resources. Thus, the guiding principle of the settlements and clubs was ‘self-help’ and women were beginning to find a new role for themselves outside the home, organising with other women.

As the settlement did not wish to be associated with relief, ‘jumble sales’ were organised, which enabled the new material to be bought wholesale so that clothes could be made and sold for the cost of the material. A concession was made for baby clothes which were kept in a box in the hall and given away when needed. Altogether, thirty-five women’s clubs were formed, some with a membership of over a hundred. Maes-yr-Haf again supplied new materials at wholesale prices as well as providing the instructors in many and various handicrafts including needlework, leather glove making, and quilting, covering old pieces of blanket with new material, and renovating the members’ old garments. Belts were made from scraps of cellophane, which the women were taught to fold and weave into a belt, they looked like mother of pearl, and were very popular. By the late 1930s, not much clothing was sent to the Settlement, but jumble sales still made it available cheaply to members at small prices.

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In 1929 girls clubs were started. In 1932, they asked, why can’t girls have a holiday? So a holiday camp was arranged for them at which the girls enjoyed team games, physical culture handwork and inter-club competitions. A hand-loom was given to the Settlement so Emma and two others went to the movement’s centre at Haslemere for ten days’ training in weaving: they were then able to instruct others, so a small weaving industry was started. Wool embroidery also became popular, rugs being made for sale, favouring Welsh and Celtic traditional designs. Leatherwork was done, rush stools were made along with pottery, which was readily saleable: exhibitions took place on both sides of the Atlantic and some samples went on permanent exhibition in the National Museum of Wales. All these activities needed more space, so a two-storey annexe was built by voluntary labour.

In 1930, with the effects of the general economic recession spreading to the whole of the British Isles, the opportunities for large-scale family migration from the coalfields came to a rather abrupt, if temporary halt. At the very least, it became apparent that men over forty-five would struggle to find work in new industries and places once the economic recovery set in, which wasn’t to be for another four years in many of the more prosperous areas of the country. In these circumstances, the Settlement’s work among older men and women became more important, as their more independent children continued to leave the valleys in large numbers, leaving their parents ‘stranded’ in long-term unemployment and relative poverty. Maes-yr-Haf helped many thousands of people to escape from spiritual isolation, at least. Through the clubs and range of activities it offered, new interests and enthusiasms developed.

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In 1931 Emma Noble started a Nursing Association, so two Queen’s Nurses were appointed to the district. The following year, the Settlement acquired a disused malt-house, twenty-two miles away, by the sea. Unemployment led not only to material impoverishment but also to spiritual deprivation and a “shut-in” syndrome. One woman from Llwynypia in the Rhondda recalled how her mother only ever left the town on one occasion each year:

We had a good clean home, you know, a good mother, and I mean a careful mother… And the only outing we used to go on was with the Sunday School. We’d go to Porthcawl. We’d walk to Pen-y-graig station, I’d have a couple of coppers, and that’s all we had to be satisfied. Take our own food, init? And that’s all my mother ever went, love ‘er. 

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Above: Woman carrying a baby “Welsh fashion”, Rhondda 1930.

As a remedy, the Malthouse provided thousands of men, women and children with breaks by the sea, with regular meals, good food, cheerful company and, above all, healthy rest. An interesting observation on gender relations was that men, notorious for riots, rebellions and disputes throughout the period, never failed to uphold democratic discipline, collective action, common sense and co-operative goodwill in the clubs and camps. In five summers, there was not a single expulsion. They did their camp duties with good humour, and when asked, reported that the three hours per day of these were the most enjoyable part of the day for them. This was a revealing comment coming from men who, traditionally, had been used to a division of domestic duties in which they relied heavily on their wives. There were also separate camps held for juveniles, helping the next generation of men and women to adapt to these important social changes in the nature and divisions of labour between the sexes.

Emma and William Noble understood trade unionism and working conditions as well, so they were able to work closely with organised labour, emphasising the importance of democratic organisation in all work undertaken with the unemployed, whenever they were called upon to give evidence to the numerous commissions and social service surveys which took place among them. Nonetheless, as in Brynmawr, there was much local criticism of the voluntary schemes and unemployed clubs, particularly from the unemployed men themselves, though this was often glossed or scripted by those with their own sympathies to external agencies. Although the film Today We Live (1937) was commissioned by the NCSS and produced by the Strand Film Company, it was made by a documentary unit led by Paul Rotha. Its directors were Ralph Bond, John Grierson and Donald Alexander, all of whom were determined to give the local critics of unemployed clubs a voice.

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Significantly, there were few women involved in the outside scenes which were shot in Pentre, and certainly no main character. When the character Glyn Lewis, played by a real unemployed miner, hears that they have to contribute fifteen pounds of their own to the scheme to build a new unemployed club hut, he grabs his cap and leaves the room in disgust (see the picture and caption below). The scene was supposed to take place in ‘Big John’s’ living room, but it had to be filmed in the Marylebone film studio in London and Les Adlam, playing Big John, was introduced to a ‘girl’ from Lancashire, who was supposed to be his wife. Obviously, she wasn’t expected to say much, if anything, on film, let alone voice a feminine opinion, but Adlam found the actress very nice, a homely sort of person.

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The support given to the Riverside Club by the Quaker centre at Maes-yr-Haf was not mentioned in the film, undoubtedly because it would distract attention from the role of its sponsor, the NCSS. However, Glyn Lewis commented, realistically if critically, on the practical significance of its role:

When we were unemployed and formed our club in the stable, the garage, Maes-yr-Haf used to give us cheap cocoa, a bag. We used to have cocoa and sell it. Maes-yr-Haf then developed coming in there, coming back and forth. They had lectures: Jack Jones, the Rhondda Roundabout, started lecturing in the Riverside… They bought us carpenter tools and things like that. You know, the social side of it. Mr Noble was the head of Maes-yr-Haf and he had his lieutenants of course to see how everything went. They were very good indeed., but that wasn’t our problem. It was no money and nothing much around.

Les Adlam agreed with the policy that was adopted concerning the film, that…

… they were trying to expose the Government paying money to build these huts and not create jobs. I think the club did a good thing. It took us off the streets and filled idle hands with the arts and crafts centre and the social activities that it was performing. Otherwise we’d spend our time going on the mountains or standing on street corners… You couldn’t go in the pubs, you had no money. You couldn’t even go to pictures. we had nothing.

Glyn Lewis was even more emphatic about what was really needed:

The film was saying to tell you that the Government, the National Council of Social Service, was doing something for you. Well, there was a club in this district, there was one in Treorchy, there was one in Cwmparc, there was one in Treherbert. They’d spread them all around, so as to keep you quiet, not to cause rampage. But the point was the living of the people, people with families and no work and not much money. That was the problem of the unemployed. They didn’t want a club – it was all right for them, but it wasn’t the real thing – work was what we wanted! 

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In his ‘Swarthmore Lecture’ on Unemployment and Plenty, delivered on the evening preceding the assembly of the Friends’ Yearly Meeting at Friends House in London on 24th May, 1933,  Shipley N Brayshaw spoke on the role of what he called ‘Palliatives’, referring specifically to the Quaker work in the Occupational Centres of the Rhondda, mindful of the criticism which had been directed at this work from both within and outside the coalfield. He dealt directly with these, fully accepting the limitations of the Quaker relief work:

Our Society is taking at least its full share in seeking to alleviate the hardship caused by unemployment, but no one recognizes more clearly than Friends themselves the insignificance of such work in relation to the main problem of dealing with the fundamental causes of the evil. Palliatives, have their place so long as they are not linked with an attitude which accepts the existence of unemployment. In addition to many small contributions, such as lending their premises fitted up with wireless and other amenities, Friends have been prime movers in the work of Occupational Centres which, started in the Rhondda, have spread throughout the country and which are helping to arrest the moral disintegration of enforced idleness and poverty. Allotment cultivation has been developed through the past four or five years to such an extent that it has received government recognition and help and has become national in character. This work while bringing to impoverished homes a regular supply of fresh vegetables, not otherwise obtainable, has been of incalculable benefit in finding healthy interest and useful creative labour for more than a hundred thousand unemployed men.

We are thankful for all such work; but when a Prime Minister eulogizes it, and allocates to it an important place in relation to the major question, we ask to be saved from our friends. These efforts make no real contribution to striking at the roots of the evil; yet we do not know but what the knowledge and experience gained may prove to be of unexpected worth… those who are most anxious to conduct present-day business aright may also be the ones most keenly aware of their inability, by such efforts, to solve the troubles of the community…

If all the employers in the country had the maximum both of business ability and of benevolence they could not, under capitalism as it exists today, set everyone to work and distribute the available goods… 

Whatever the acknowledged limitations of the Quaker work in the Rhondda, the gender division among the workers at Maes-yr-Haf reflected the Nobles’ own partnership of equals. In addition to their son, Mac Noble, who later became the committee chairman, and Rowntree Gillett, its treasurer throughout, there were five male and five female full-time craft-workers/ instructors. This balance between the sexes among the ‘settlers’ was also found in Merthyr Tydfil where John Dennithorne was ‘appointed’ by Friends’ House in London to work alongside Margaret Gardener. Dennithorne was a  local Quaker and gifted orator, and in Dowlais, who had started the Dowlais unemployed club in 1928. It became a full settlement in 1935, when Margaret Carslake was the mainstay of the settlement, often visiting the Brynmawr group. The Merthyr settlement was founded in 1930, placed under the wardenship of Oxford graduate, Gwilym Jones. The Risca Educational Settlement (established in 1931) was associated with Maes-yr-Haf and organised by Mary Dawson. At Pontypool and Bargoed married couples were in charge. The Thomases at Bargoed were Friends from Yorkshire who had worked at Maes-yr-Haf and followed the lead of Emma and William Noble in establishing an educational settlement, with women’s clubs formed up and down the Rhymney Valley, specialising in sewing groups and belt-making. In May 1929, the Glamorgan Gazette reported that, in the Garw Valley, the local company known as the “Society of Friends” were doing splendid work towards the alleviation of distress among the unemployed. Clearly, by the 1930s, the social service movement had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the coalfield and was well-co-ordinated by the Joint Committee and from Maes-yr-Haf. 

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Above: Unemployed miners getting coal, Tredegar patches, late 1920s.

Like the Nobles, many of the wardens had a background in the Labour and trade union movement, and so fitted well into the local community. Jim Thomas helped to organise the Rhymney Outcrop Scheme in 1933-34, enabling the unemployed to get supplies of free coal without falling foul of the local police by picking coal from tips and levels. By 1936-37 the first level had yielded fifteen thousand tons of coal, which had been supplied to about 450 unemployed families for 2d or 3d per week, plus voluntary labour. The group of men in charge worked long hours and had many disappointments, but enjoyed the struggle, as Jim Thomas himself reported:

Miners like mining much better than gardening because it is their trade, and they rejoice in the freedom to do the work as real craftsmen should. In no mine, however well-managed, has better workmanship in road making and timbering been accomplished … the committee explained difficulties to the rest of the men. The committee had no misconceptions about human nature … men at work can be difficult to control … in voluntary schemes they can be more difficult than ever. With some men a great deal of firmness has been necessary, but with the majority there has been willingness to do even more than their share.

The other voluntary workers at Bargoed included two single men and single women. In terms of employment and class composition, the colliery towns and villages were more truly one-industry communities than Merthyr or Brynmawr.

Some historians have suggested that social service movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution. This opinion is, however, based on the level of direct government funding which occurred after 1932 and do not take into account the level of funding that which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct from private and charitable funds. The funds from the Carnegie Trust were small but significant, and large amounts were committed by the Society of Friends in the early period. However, it was the establishment of the Pilgrim Trust and the Nuffield Trust which helped to transform the situation. The duty of the Pilgrim trustees was to apply their resources at key points of the present distress, … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair. The impact of these fresh funds on the settlement work was immediate. In Dowlais John Dennithorne was able to receive a proper wage, two full-time female assistants could be engaged, more social and classroom accommodation was secured and materials and equipment bought in order to extend the work being done. The Trust’s grants to South Wales were essential in enabling both Dennithorne and Scott to develop their plans for Merthyr and Brynmawr.

(to be continued…)

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