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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…)

Tom’s Tale – A Young Hungarian Refugee in England: January-June 1957, and after…   1 comment

The International ‘backcloth’…

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In January 1957, a number of members of the British Parliamentary Labour Party, wrote a letter to the Editor of Pravda about the use of Soviet armed forces in Hungary. They included Fenner Brockway, Barbara Castle, Dick Crossman and Anthony Wedgwood-Benn. In it they asked a series of questions, perhaps the most important of which was…

do you consider that the present government of János Kádár enjoys the support of a majority of the Hungarian people? Would it make any difference to your attitude if it did not? We ask this question because, on November 15th, according to Budapest Radio, János Kádár said that his Government hoped to regain the confidence of the people but that “we have to take into account the possibility that we may be thoroughly beaten at the election.”  

Whatever Kádár himself may have believed, or been given to believe, in mid-November, by January 1956 there was little or no prospect of free and fair elections taking place, as the Nagy Government had promised. Hungary would remain under direct Soviet occupation, with the Red Army remaining until all traces of resistance had been eliminated. Anna Kethly, giving evidence to the United Nations Special Committee (see photo above) on her mission from the Nagy Government, declared that Kádár was a prisoner of the Russians, and that she could not believe that he would have accepted his part voluntarily.

First School Term and Easter Holidays…

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Cross-country run, class 3B of Tollington Grammar School, Muswell Hill, February 1957 (Tom is fourth from the right)

For Tom Leimdörfer and his ‘half-siblings’, learning English and adjusting to school life in England dominated the early part of 1957. Tom’s ‘Uncle Brandi’ had approached the Headmaster of Tollington Boy’s Grammar School and the Headmistress of Tollington Girl’s Grammar School. He explained the situation of the children’s flight from Hungary and arrival in England, and stressed the fact that Ferkó and Tom had attended two of the top high schools in Budapest. While their English was not very good, it was improving daily. Marika was not of high school age in the Hungarian system, but she had been doing well in her elementary school. She was trying hard in making a start with English, but understood very little. Tom described how…

Ferkó and I found ourselves in the study of Mr. Percival, a greying and sombre looking man, sat behind his desk, crowded with books and papers. He asked us a couple of questions. I managed to answer one, but the others my uncle had to translate. Mr. Percival said we could start there for a trial period to see if we would fit in and could keep up with the work. He introduced me to class 3B (the middle of three sets in the year group) and Ferkó to class 4A, which was a year below his correct age group, but this was inevitable as he could not be expected to take the dreaded O level exams within six months. So started our school days on Muswell Hill.

Tollington Boys’ Grammar School was situated in a road called Tetherdown. The unimposing red brick pile is still part of the complex of buildings of the present Fortismere Community School. The school was originally founded in the late nineteenth century and moved to Muswell Hill from Tollington Park (hence the name) at the beginning of the twentieth century. It gave the impression of a somewhat overcrowded and slightly chaotic place with equipment and resources inferior to the school Tom had left in Budapest. The plans for a brand new building and the amalgamation with Tollington Girls’ Grammar School were already well advanced by Middlesex County Council, which was then the local authority, before the days of Greater London boroughs like Haringey (which administers the present school). Only children who passed the old eleven-plus exam could be normally admitted to grammar schools and in Middlesex that was less than twenty per cent of the school population. Tom thus felt grateful for the opportunity, but it did not stop him feeling even more of an ‘alien’ when at school:

The first few weeks were totally bewildering. Almost everything was different. School assemblies with prayers and hymns, school lunches with oddities like shepherd’s pie and puddings with pink or green custard, exhausting cross-country runs in Coldfall Wood in the freezing cold or the pouring rain, an incomprehensible team game with an odd-shaped ball called rugby were all part of a strange initiation into a new culture. Some lessons were beyond my comprehension, but I soon noticed that I was well ahead in mathematics, physics and chemistry and the teachers started to show appreciative surprise when I started answering questions when no other hands went up in the class. In geography and biology, I simply tried to copy down as much as I could from the board. Mr. Ron Davies, our history master dictated all his notes. At first, this made things very difficult especially as I had to get attuned to his broad Lancastrian accent. I gathered that the Spanish Armada had just arrived and been defeated, but not much of that found its way into my book. However, by the time we got to the Stuarts, I became good at taking down his dictation and then checking the spelling afterwards. I also tried to memorise as much as I could. At the end of the year I actually came top in history by simply regurgitating the notes and being able to answer just the right number of questions.

For all its oddities for me, Tollington school was a humane and generally tolerant place. The boys of 3B initially reacted as if a Martian had landed in their midst. They asked questions about Hungary, but I often misunderstood or struggled with words and they did not have the patience to listen. However, they all knew that Hungarians were supposed to be brilliant at football (the national team having beaten England twice) and I was included in playground games with the right shaped ball. They were soon reassured that I was just about average for their standard… After our first three weeks, Ferkó and I were summoned to Mr. Percival’s study. He said it was time we attended school in proper school uniform (green blazers and caps with gold badge). He said he no longer wanted to see me ‘looking like a canary’, referring to my yellow jumper by courtesy of the WRVS ladies at Heathrow. That meant we were accepted as proper Tollington students. As an afterthought, he added that we were both doing very well and he was pleased. At the end of term, I was ‘promoted’ to class 3A, probably because in maths and science I was too far ahead of the class.

Meanwhile, there were momentous family developments in Budapest. When Bandi informed Tom’s Aunt Juci that they had safely arrived and were getting settled, he told her that he could also get visas for her and Uncle Gyuri, their three children, as well as Tom’s grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi). This came as a great challenge for them, as they had good jobs and a lovely flat they would leave behind. Times were growing darker there, however, with a repressive communist regime back in charge, though they had been through all that before. They thought and prayed a lot about it before thinking about submitting a passport application. The border was closed, of course, and chances of getting passports to the West were remote. It was at this point that a strange twist of Hungarian politics produced a miraculous opportunity. Kádár imprisoned hundreds of liberal activists who were associated with the revolution and executed dozens, but he wanted to signal that his administration would be different from that of the hated Rákosi regime. He invited the left-leaning, puritanical Reformed Church Bishop of Debrecen, who was not actually communist party member at the time, to be in his government as Minister of Culture (years later he was to be Hungary’s Foreign Minister). The bishop accepted, after some hesitation, and was therefore looking for a flat in Budapest. This was known to someone in the Ecclesiastical Office, who also knew that Juci and Gyuri were thinking of emigrating. A deal was done within days: seven passports for a large comfortable upper ground floor flat in Buda with garden.

The excitement of hearing that his beloved uncle, aunt, cousins Jani, Andi and Juli were to come to England, followed shortly after by his paternal grandparents, lifted Tom’s spirits as he visited his mother in hospital. He still has two letters written by his mother to ‘Sári mama and Dádi’ as they were preparing to come to England. She was anxious to reassure them that her illness was not serious and her cough was getting better. She also wrote:

Throughout his years at school, my Tomi never gave me as much joy as he has these past weeks. It is such a surprise to see that now when I dared not demand too much from him, he has worked harder than ever.

Tom saw his mother for the last time at the very end of March. She was weak, but still insisted that she was getting better. This time she asked to have a few minutes just with him. She said she was proud of him and also that it gave her much joy that Aunt Juci and family had arrived in England. They had just landed at Dover and were going to Ramsgate, where they had temporary lodgings in a guest house run by the Hebrew Christian Alliance. Ferkó and Tom were going down there for the Easter holidays while Marika stayed with her father’s friends:

Our first term at school ended, we packed our bags, Bandi took us down to Victoria Station and we boarded the train for Ramsgate. Juci, Gyuri and my cousins met us at the station and it was a wonderful feeling to see them. Ferkó hardly knew them, but was treated as part of the family immediately and fitted in without fuss, as he always did. The guest house was a grim place run by an austere elderly couple. They found fault with everything we did, rationed our use of soap and toilet paper and turned off the heating even though it was a cold and drizzly start to April… Aunt Juci set about ensuring that we children had as good a time as possible. It was the first time Ferkó and I saw the sea, so a walk along the promenade was a novelty. There was also a miniature model village and some other traditional seaside attractions.

Then, on 11 April, Tom received the shattering news of his mother’s death. He went down to the sea at Ramsgate, sat on a rock, and watched and listened to the waves breaking and crashing on the shoreline for what seemed like ages. Aunt Juci continued to ensure the children had as much fun as possible during the next few days, going by bus to Margate and Folkestone. They then met up with Bandi, Compie, Gyuri Schustek and Marika at Golders Green Crematorium for Edit’s cremation:

We sang Mami’s favourite hymn ‘Just as I am..’ in Hungarian, some prayers were said by the Presbyterian minister and her coffin was gone. I knew I had the support of close loving relatives but I also felt that my life was mainly in my own hands. I must try to fulfil Mami’s dreams for me.  My childhood was over; I had to be an adult at the age of fourteen and a half.

Gloomy Relations…

International relations over the Hungarian ‘situation’ also continued to get gloomier during the early part of the year. In January 1957, the UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution establishing a specialist committee to investigate the situation in Hungary, also calling on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to allow committee members free access to the country. The Hungarian government had retaliated by requesting the recall of the Head of the US Legation, Minister Wailes, whom it alleged was conducting his activities without having presented his credentials for formal acceptance by the new government. Wailes left Budapest on 27 February, following which the US was represented by Chargés d’Affaires ad interim until 1967. In March, Soviet and Hungarian officials had finally responded to the UN resolution by issuing a joint declaration denying the right of the UN to any purview over Hungarian affairs. Relations with the West deteriorated still further that month when the US began using a postal cancellation stamp reading, Support Your Crusade for Freedom on letters sent to Hungary. The Hungarian government protested that the stamp encouraged counter-revolutionary elements and violated the Universal Postal Union Convention. Mail bearing the stamp was returned to senders. In April, the US Legation replied that the stamp was meant to encourage voluntary contributions to privately supported organisations, and was in general use only during the first quarter of 1957. Officials denied that the stamp had any political intent, adding their ‘surprise’ that the Hungarian authorities seemed to consider aspiring to freedom as counter-revolutionary.

Also in April, Soviet and Hungarian military personnel detained US Military Attaché Colonel J. C. Todd and his assistant, Captain Thomas Gleason, charging the latter with espionage and demanding that he leave the country. The US Legation denied the charges against Gleason and demanded his release from detention. In a tit-for-tat move, on 29 May, the US demanded the recall of a Hungarian Assistant Military Attaché. The Hungarian government then demanded that the US Legation reduce its staff by at least a third and make proportionate reductions in its staffing by local employees. On 10 June, the Legation replied that it did not accept the concept of the Hungarian Government determining the size of the US mission. Ten days later, in New York, on 20 June, the UN Special Committee issued its report on events in Hungary. It concluded that a spontaneous national uprising had occurred in October and November of 1956 and that…

… the ‘counter-revolution’ consisted in the setting up by Soviet armed forces of Mr Kádár and his colleagues in opposition to a Government which enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of Hungary.

Despite its de facto stability, significant, continued, passive resistance and the lack of international recognition still denied the Kádár régime full legitimacy. On 26 June, representatives of the twenty-four countries that had sponsored the January resolution met to discuss the prompt consideration of the report by the General Assembly. The GA then adopted a resolution in September endorsing the Special Committee’s report, calling on the Soviet Union to desist from repressive measures against the Hungarian people. It also appointed the President of the General Assembly, Prince Wan Waithayakon of Thailand, as its special envoy to further study the situation in Hungary. However, the Kádár Government refused to allow the prince to enter the country.

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On 23 October, the White House issued a statement proclaiming the anniversary of the uprising to be Hungarian Freedom Day. In December, President Eisenhower announced that his emergency program for Hungarian refugees would come to an end at the end of the year. About 38,000 refugees had been received in the United States and a total of $71 million had been spent on their assistance, including $20 million from private and voluntary contributions.

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The Hungarian Communities in Britain…

Of the approximate total of 200,000 who fled Hungary in 1956, about 26,000 were admitted as refugees to the UK, a respectable number for their hosts to have accepted then, given the relative size of the population and the fact that the period of post-war ‘austerity’ in Britain had only recently ended and there were still some privations. A British-Hungarian Fellowship had already been established in Hungary in 1951. After the refugees arrived, many more clubs and associations began to be established and to thrive. Three other area associations were formed between 1965 and 1971. In one area the Hungarian community only ‘fifty-sixers’, while in the two other areas it also included earlier immigrants.

Diplomatic tensions between Hungary, the Soviet Union and the ‘West’ continued throughout the 1960s and ’70s, however, and tight restrictions on travel to and within Hungary meant that exiles remained cut off from their familial, linguistic and cultural ties in their homeland. To begin with, those who spoke up among the exiles (others feared reprisals against their families back home) did so in uncompromising terms. After news came through of Imre Nagy’s execution in June 1958, Tibor Meray, wrote an account of the uprising called Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin. He concluded:

To say that Hungary’s history had never known a leadership more thoroughly detested than this ‘Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ would be in no way an exaggeration… Little by little the rule of the Rákosi-Gerő clique was restored… The activities of the Kádár Government soon gave the lie to the glowing promises with which it assumed power.

Due to the extent and continuation of the Hungarian diaspora after 1956, as refugees were joined by emigrants simply wanting a better life, there was a low ethnic and linguistic vitality of the Hungarian speech community in Britain. Given the rapid shift from Hungarian to English which, it would appear, has taken place in the second and third generations of ‘exiles’, it is not altogether surprising to note that mother-tongue teaching did not seem to be generally demanded by those of Magyar descent. Marriage to non-Hungarians consolidated assimilation for some while others attempted to integrate their partners into existing Hungarian circles; some partners and children attended language classes especially to enable them to converse with relatives when visiting Hungary or when relatives visited Britain. Three of the five associations held language classes in 1988, students ranging from age eight to forty-five and one group even helped with preparation for ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams in Hungarian. The School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London also offered courses in Hungarian.

One of the very few sources of information on Hungarians living in Britain in the 1980s was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Language Census, which showed that in 1981 there were ninety Hungarian speakers attending schools in the capital; in 1983 there were 86; 1985, 83, and in 1987 there were 86. However, because numbers were so small, the Hungarians were aggregated with ‘other Eastern Europeans’, so that it is impossible to say whether these were descended from 1956 exiles, and were bilingual, or whether they had arrived more recently and were in need of ESL (English as a Second Language) support. ILEA funded HFL (Hungarian as a Foreign Language) classes in Pimlico, and there was a new Saturday morning class in Highbury for young children. It included folk-dance teaching, as did the various social clubs which also showed Hungarian films, held dances and performed other traditional, social functions. Hungarian commemoration days were observed traditional crafts such as embroidery were taught, and there was an annual Hungarian Cultural Festival.

Nevertheless, due to the easing of the political situation in the seventies and eighties in Hungary, and particularly the restrictions on the travel of ordinary citizens in 1986, there was an awakening of interest of ‘second generation’ exiles in their ‘roots’. Few of these clubs and associations survived into the third generation of the late 1980s, however, so new organisations were needed to facilitate the coral growth of inter-cultural links and exchanges which now emerged.

The Reform Communist governments of the late 1980s in Hungary attempted to foster Hungarian language knowledge and a knowledge of Hungary among the children of Hungarian descent living abroad by running summer camps for 7-14 in three locations in Hungary. In the summer of 1988 eight camps were held of ten to fourteen days’ duration. Although the prices in the online brochure were given in US dollars, most of the participants were from Hungarian ethnic minority families in the bordering Slavic countries rather than from third generation refugee or exiled families in ‘the West’.

The relative difficulty of learning the Hungarian language as a non-native, second or foreign language in the UK may help to explain why, in 1988, only eight students entered for the University of London School Examination Board’s ‘A’ level in Hungarian, compared with eighty entries for Polish. Even allowing for the comparative sizes of the two communities, the proportion of entries for Hungarian was disproportionately small.

Living Adventurously…

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Above: Tom (centre), standing behind his wife, Valerie,

outside the Friends’ Meeting House at Sidcot, c 1990

Tom Leimdorfer graduated in Physics from London University, where he met his wife, Valerie. They both joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1971. He had a career as a Science teacher before becoming Headmaster of Sidcot (Quaker) School in Somerset in 1977, moving there with Valerie and their three children, Andrew, Gillian and Karen. They stayed at the school until 1986, when Tom left to do a master’s degree in Bristol. He then began working for Quaker Peace and Service (QPS) as their Education Advisor at Friends House in Euston, London. This was when I met him in 1987, as I began working for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project, based at Woodbrooke in Birmingham. Tom and I attended the International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn that year, meeting teachers from the Hungarian Peace Council. We acted as hosts to their delegation which visited the UK the next Spring, including Woodbrooke, and Tom invited me to join the QPS teachers’ delegation to Hungary the following Autumn, 1988, just as the major changes were beginning to take effect in the country. It was then that I first heard his incredible story of how he had escaped Hungary in 1956.

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Tom visited again in May 1989, taking part in a symbolic cutting of the barbed wire on the Austrian border, close to where he had crossed thirty-three years earlier. I returned in the summer, to establish a teachers’ exchange between Coventry and its twin town of Kecskemét, where I met Stefi, my Hungarian wife. Tom and Valerie attended the Meeting for Worship in celebration of our forthcoming marriage in Hungary, which was held at Bourneville Friends’ Meeting House in Birmingham on 6 January, 1990. His advice to us, given during the meeting, was to live adventurously!

Seeking alternatives to despair…

We took his advice, living and working as English teachers in southern Hungary for most of the next six years, while it underwent ‘transition’ to a democratic society. The area also provided a base for NATO troops and UN peacekeepers working in the war-torn areas of Former Yugoslavia. Three years into this period, Tom visited us at our home in Pécs, on his way to a conference in Osijek, now in Croatia, not long after that country’s war of independence. The town had seen some of the worst fighting in the conflict, as it is close to the border with Serbia as well as with Hungary. Tom gave me a copy of his presentation to be given at the Children at War Conference. In its introduction, he wrote:

Anyone coming to Osijek must come with a feeling of humility. How can we, who have watched only on the screen the horrors which were experienced by those who lived through it, relate to what you felt and are feeling still? 

I need to search the memories of my childhood, for I too am a child of war. Born in neighbouring Hungary, I was barely six months old when my father died near the shores of the river Don, where the Hungarian army had no business to be; I was two years old when my grandparents were taken to Auschwitz and when we lived in hiding through a siege which brought both terror and hope of survival. I was fourteen when I saw tanks on the streets of Budapest in 1956 and became a refugee soon afterwards.

My work has been mainly with children as a teacher, then as a head of a school where many children came from abroad, often from places of tension or conflict. In my present work, as Education Advisor for the Society of Friends (Quakers), I run courses in conflict resolution techniques for teachers, educational psychologists and others involved in education both in Britain and central/eastern Europe. Such work has special significance in places of ethnic, cultural or religious conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Romania or indeed in your country, but children are growing up with violence all around them everywhere. They not only see violence on television, they can experience it daily in the school corridors and playgrounds, and on the streets. A child’s life can be made hell by the children or adults around her or him anywhere, even without a war… Does it all demonstrate that human beings are fundamentally evil and there is nothing to do but despair?

I regard much of the work I am doing as seeking the alternatives to despair. The starting point of such work is encapsulated in some lines written by the Hungarian poet Attila József :

Ti jók vagytok mindannyian: Miért csinátok hát rosszat?’

(You are good, all of you; so why should you commit evil?)

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The fundamental aim of Peace Education is to lead each child, or adult, to a form of self-respect which is not only tied to being Croat or Serb, Catholic or Orthodox, Muslim or Jew, Anglican or Nonconformist, Marxist or Nationalist, Monarchist or Republican, but simply to being human. From this child-like, simple understanding they may aim to develop a spirit of affirmation of the worth of ‘others’, even when they disagree with them and need to challenge them with the truth of Attila József’s words above. Violence comes from a feeling of despair. Peace Education aims to empower people to seek alternatives to despair. That is Tom’s witness and testimony, and mine: it is also the story of his life.

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Published Secondary Sources:

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publications.

Marika Sherwood (1991), The Hungarian Speech Community in Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards, Multilingualism in the British Isles: The Older Mother Tongues & Europe. London: Longman.

Valerie Leimdorfer (1990), Quakers at Sidcot, 1690-1990. Winscombe, N. Somerset: Sidcot Preparative Meeting.

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