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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).

Posted January 12, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, asylum seekers, Austria, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Church, Churchill, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Economics, emigration, Empire, Ethnicity, Europe, Factories, First World War, France, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Italy, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Refugees, Remembrance, Revolution, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Technology, terror, Unemployment, William Morris, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Zionism

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Three)   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage:

In the early 1930s, migration to the new factories for both men and women was hampered by prevailing economic conditions. Despite payments of fares and expenses for the removal of household goods, only 1,200 families had been removed from the depressed areas under the provisions of the Transference Scheme up to the end of 1931. In the seven years which followed, approximately ten thousand more families migrated under government assistance. Apart from the difficulties associated with finding employment for adults in the ‘new areas’ during the general depression, local Ministry officials at both ends of the transference process were also very conservative in procedure, rarely committing time and resources to finding openings for families in the same way as Juvenile Employment Officers were prepared to in the case of young men and women moving independently of their parents.

For much of the period, Ministry officials would only advance rail fares in cases where the transferee had definite employment to go to. In 1935, however, this was broadened to the provision of free fares plus a loan equivalent to one week’s wages for men with good prospects of finding work. Since such prospects were dependent upon the residence in the ‘new area’ of friends and relatives, transference in this form amounted to the subsiding of voluntary migration. Even then, the subsidy was ‘hedged around’ by bureaucratic stipulations, which deterred people already suspicious of government motives and cautious about making a commitment to permanent resettlement, to become entangled in this way.

The state subsidies were sometimes made use of, however, when the head of a family had established himself a new area and was confident enough of the of the prospects for his family to apply for a grant to help with removal expenses. The assistance in this form was in the region of ten pounds in the mid-thirties, and this was probably the most successful aspect of the adult transference scheme. However, its successful operation came too late for large numbers of actual and potential Welsh migrant families. In the case of the Oxford Exchange District, with its huge Morris and Pressed Steel car plants in Cowley, hardly any use was made of the Family Transference Scheme until 1933 when thirteen families were assisted to migrate into the district. By the end of 1936, 186 families had received help, 115 of which were from Wales, including the Wilcox family among thirty families from the Pontycymmer Exchange in the Garw Valley. It would be more accurate to describe this as ‘assisted migration’ rather than transference, as most of the work was found by the migrants themselves, with help from friends and relatives already in Cowley, many of them working in the building trades. It was only after settling in Oxford that the migrants found more stable employment in the car factories.

Where the state machinery was used to direct and control the movement of workers via placements notified through the exchanges, the processes involved in resettlement were largely alien to the experience of these individuals so that the end product was frequently accompanied by a sense of atomisation and alienation. In turn, these feelings often led to large-scale re-migration to South Wales; of the ninety thousand men transferred by the Ministry of Labour from the depressed areas between 1930 and the middle of 1937, forty-nine thousand returned home. Despite the after-care provided for juveniles, it was estimated that between October 1934 and September 1937 approximately forty percent of boys and fifty percent of girls transferred by the Ministry returned home. The Ministry classified ‘homesickness’ as the most important reason for this and the social environment was as important in fuelling this as the working conditions. As one commentator put it, parents became convinced that it was better for their children to be half-starved in Wales than hopelessly corrupted in London. 

While official reports attempted to play down the cases of re-migration as hopeless cases of homesickness, unpublished sources show a growing concern among officials with the unsuitable nature of many of the domestic situations into which the juveniles were being placed, particularly in the London area. Wages paid to boys under eighteen were insufficient for them to maintain themselves; they were ill-prepared for the kind of work involved, which was often arduous, involving long hours and little time off, certainly not enough for an occasional weekend at home in Wales. As a consequence, many boys returned home without giving local officials the chance to place them elsewhere.

The Ministry recognised from the early thirties that the success of the scheme in placing a large number of boys in the South East of England would depend on finding them industrial placements. By this time, Welsh girls were also becoming increasingly resistant to being placed in domestic employment. In its Annual Report for 1930, the Oxford Advisory Committee for Juvenile Employment stated that only eight boys and fourteen girls from Wales were placed in employment, compared with forty-nine boys and eighteen girls in the previous year. This was due to fewer suitable vacancies being notified to the exchange. The reasons for this were seen as being very specific:

… An employer who has previously had in his employment Welsh boys or girls who have not proved satisfactory has declined to consider any further Welsh applicants for his vacancies. Of the Welsh boys who have been brought into the area during the past year, six boys and two girls have already returned home.

The young people concerned had been placed in hotels, as domestics in the colleges, or, in the case of many of the girls, in resident domestic situations. In small private houses where only one maid was kept, evidence of the increase in middle-class prosperity, Welsh girls were said not to settle easily. Their sense of isolation intensified and the resulting homesickness led them to return home. By contrast, those girls and boys who were placed in ‘bunches’ in the colleges were far more settled and were also able to return home during the vacations. However, even these young people found the expense of return rail fares a powerful disincentive to returning at the end of the vacations. Thus, by 1931, the experiment in placing juveniles in domestic service in Oxford had largely failed, and employers were showing a distinct preference for local labour.

Far more significant than the involvement of the Ministry of Labour in the reception and settlement aspects of transference was the role played by voluntary agencies. At a national level, organisations such as the YMCA and YWCA were keen to look after the social and moral well-being of the young immigrants. ‘Miss’ Allen, Secretary to the organisation’s Unemployment Committee, was thus able to report in October 1936 that all the organisers were working very closely in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour in the matter of the transference of girls… and were very much alive to the necessity of commending girls so transferred to the YWCA in places to which they went. Two months later, the Ministry informed the National Council of Girls’ Clubs that it was prepared to make a grant available for the establishment or extension of club facilities in certain areas to which juveniles were being transferred. In the following year the NCGC, the Central Council for the welfare of women and girls and the YWCA were involved in a conference on the problem of Transferred Girls and Women.

Concern for the moral as well as the material welfare of transferees is also evident in local sources dating from the late 1920s. These reveal an early provision of support for young transferees to the industrial Midlands which contrasted sharply with the lack of after-care provision in Greater London found in the mid-thirties. In 1935, Captain Ellis of the NCSS was no doubt mindful of this contrast when he arranged for Hilda Jennings to be released from the Brynmawr Settlement, where her survey of the Distressed Area was finished, to conduct a six-week enquiry into the efficacy of the methods of the various Welsh Societies in the Metropolis which catered for the welfare of Welsh migrants. The enquiry was paid for out of ‘private funds’ but was conducted with the fullest cooperation of the Divisional Controller of the Ministry of Labour.

The enquiry found that most of the transferees to Greater London were in the eighteen to thirty group, and were single men and women. It was critical of the London Welsh societies which it claimed were concerned mainly in preserving in the Welsh colonies the Welsh language, culture and traditional interests. As Jennings pointed out, most of the transferees from South Wales knew little or nothing of these. The problem was further compounded by the deliberate policy operated by the Ministry of mixing transferees from different home areas in order to diminish the overpowering “home” affinities and thus increase the chances of assimilation in the new community. Given the evidence identifying the importance of migration networks based on particular coalfield localities to successful settlement in the industrial towns of the Midlands, this policy was undoubtedly counter-productive, and a further example of the way in which the official Transference Scheme worked against the grain of the voluntary migration traditions of Welsh communities. 

The Ministry’s policies exacerbated the sense of isolation and meant that migrants were forced to meet at a central London rendezvous rather than being able to develop a local kinship and friendship network in the suburban neighbourhood of their lodgings and/or workplace. Moreover, the local churches displayed a complete incapacity to provide an alternative focus for social activity except for the minority of migrants who possessed strong religious convictions from their home backgrounds. However, Jennings’ suggestions for a strong central committee to coordinate and develop local district work met with considerable resistance from ‘the Welsh Community’, who resented both her criticisms and her dynamism, by the NCSS which by 1936 was divided on the issue of transference and therefore unwilling to provide the funds for such a project, and by the Ministry, who doubted its practicability. Consequently, the young adult migrant to London, lacking the conditions favourable to self-organisation which existed in smaller industrial centres, was left largely unorganised by the social service movement and its voluntary bodies.

It was the experiences and responses of those scattered throughout Greater London which received most contemporary attention from social investigators such as Hilda Jennings. This research into the new London Welsh, which formed the basis of a radio broadcast by Miles Davies, were focused on forty-five men and women living in different parts of London, working at different trades and occupations and coming from various parts of South Wales, most of whom were young, single people who had been in London between one and five years. A significant proportion had been transferred by the Ministry; others had arrived ‘on chance’; only a few had migrated with the help of friends or relatives already working in London. It is therefore not surprising that the respondents complained of the feeling of being adrift … the feeling of foreignness, of being among strange people. They generally contrasted the ‘bottling up’ of home life and the ‘latchkey’ existence in London with the ‘open door’ of the valleys. The impersonal and business-like visits of the tradesmen in London left the newly-arrived housewife in London with a real sense of isolation and loneliness. Of course, there were many older established districts of London in which more neighbourly contacts were the norm, but few Welsh people could afford accommodation in these districts.

One of the young women interviewed, however, pointed out that friendships in London had to be doubly precious and long-lasting, as against the casual half-hearted friendships of the village. The Welsh societies and chapels were unable to compensate for the loss of companionship; they stood aloof both culturally and geographically from their potential recruits. There was no easily-identifiable Welsh colony for them to serve. The eighteen respondents who were members of Welsh associations had to travel considerable distances to attend, and few migrants could be expected to go to the lengths of one girl who had actually learned Welsh in London in order to worship with Welsh people.

When the spotlight was shifted away from London and the South-East Division of the Ministry of Labour to the industrial Midlands, a more positive picture of the experiences of migration becomes more apparent. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay commented in his survey for his Special Areas Commissioners’ 1937 Report that there were many cases known to him personally where Dai in the Midlands finds a job for Ianto at home. Professor Marquand of Cardiff University also noted that younger men were subject to waves of feeling connected to the receipt of letters from friends who had already left Wales and he concluded that a programme of training and transfer would only prove successful if it were employed through a policy of group transfer.

That individuals should migrate with the help of friends or relatives already established in the new area is, in itself, hardly remarkable. What is significant is the way in which this informal ‘networking’ extended far beyond the ties of kith and kin and became, in itself, almost an institution. Often it was a daughter or son who secured the first job and the strength of familial solidarity would lead, eventually, to reunification in the recipient area. In turn, once a family, especially one of some social prominence, had become established in the new area, a new impetus was given to the migration of additional relatives and friends, and eventually to that of casual acquaintances and even comparative strangers.

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In this way, a ‘snowball’ effect was created whereby large numbers of people migrated from a particular locality in South Wales to a particular place in the Midlands. For instance, one family from Cwmamman were responsible for the removal of a further thirty-six families from the village. By the end of the 1930s, substantial pockets of people from particular coalfield communities were located in particular Midland towns. Workers from the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys were dominant among the migration streams to Oxford while there appears to have been a preponderance of Rhondda people among the migrants to Coventry, and Birmingham seems to have attracted a good many workers from the Monmouthshire valleys. Although there is some evidence to support the view that workers from other depressed areas were influenced in their choice of destination in a similar fashion, the geographical patterns are not nearly as distinct. Moreover, the Ministry noted that a significantly higher proportion of Welsh people found work for themselves than was the case among migrants from Northern England. Indeed, the Welsh networks were so strong that many of those who accepted help from them were actually employed when they made this decision.

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Besides this independent and collective organisation of familial networks supplying information and support to fellow migrants, the retention of cultural traditions and associations helped to reinforce a collective identity and to establish a sense of stability and respectability in the recipient communities. These associations, or institutions, which the exiles carried with them, were outward expressions of an internal idealised image among the immigrants, an image which came complete with its ‘Welsh mam’ in Miles Davies’ 1938 radio broadcast:

What is there in this Rhondda Valley which is missing from… London? Climb with me for a moment to the top of mountain overlooking Tonypandy … past rows of cottages, with their slate roofs glistening in the sun … across the valley are the long streets of Penygraig, some tilted up the hill, some terracing the mountainside. It is all so near and so clear. You can pick out Dai Jones’ house below. There is the wash that his wife has just put out blowing in the wind; a brave show of colour. You can perhaps see Mrs Jones herself talking to her neighbour over the fence … That is the kind of picture that often comes to the mind of the Rhondda exile.

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Dunraven Street, Tonypandy, circa 1914

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Above: Glamorgan Colliery, Llwynypia, Rhondda, circa 1920

It was precisely this type of imagined scene which helped to provide the invisible binding ties for the Welsh exiles in the Midlands, ties which proved strong enough to hold them together in solidarity and resistance against the tangible tensions which were brought to bear on them in an atmosphere of economic precariousness and social/ cultural prejudice.

The Welsh working-class immigrants in England, men and women, like many other immigrant communities before and following them, found that their attempts to propagate a self-image of industriousness and respectability were in open conflict with a powerful panoply of counter-images and prejudices forged within host societies and reinforced by a variety of social and political commentators. Although long-distance and international migration was a major component of the social and cultural experience of many of the rural and older industrial areas of Britain, it was alien to the experience of most of the ‘new industry towns’ which had obtained their craftsmen in previous generations predominantly from surrounding rural artisans and labourers. The ‘local’ character of the populations of these centres meant that they were essentially conservative in social and cultural, if not in political terms.

The accusation that Welsh immigrants habitually undercut wages was a prevalent one. An American writer recorded that it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishmen would dream of accepting. This view was a myth without much grounding in reality. Among the immigrants to London interviewed for the NCSS Report on Migration to London from South Wales in the late 1930s, eighteen young men and women had either left Wales upon leaving school, or held no job between leaving school and moving to London, or were too young to join a union in Wales. Twenty-one men had belonged to trade unions in Wales, eighteen of them to the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF, or The Fed). Only ten of the interviewees, nine men and one girl, had joined unions since arriving in London. Those among the contributors who were active in the trade union movement in London said that they found it difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were slow to join unions in London. They did, however, suggest a number of reasons, including that membership of The Fed had been accepted as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought. On finding themselves in London trades, industries and services where no such tradition existed, they did not bother to seek out and join the appropriate union. Some complained that in the course of years of employment in London they had never been asked to join a union.

The age-old stereotype of the Welsh as being dishonest, even to the extent of thieving, was also alive and kicking. When it was revived and reinforced by the agents of authority in society, most notably by magistrates and the press, it was difficult to counteract. In 1932, Merthyr’s Education Committee resolved to send a letter of protest to the Lord Chancellor concerning remarks reported in the press as having been made by a Mr Snell, a magistrate at Old Street Police Court, London, during the hearing of a charge against a young ‘maidservant’ from Troedyrhiw:

Did your friends tell you when you came to London from Wales you could steal from your master, as I find a great many of you do?

The Committee protested that these remarks cast a very serious aspersion upon the integrity of the people of Wales, and in particular upon the inhabitants of the Borough. Of course, not many magistrates were as prejudiced in their attitudes, but cases of theft by Welsh immigrants were given pride of place in reports from the police courts. For example, in 1928, another domestic servant, nineteen years old, from Cwm Felinfach, pleaded guilty to stealing from a bedroom at the house in Oxford where she was employed, the sum of five pounds, six shillings. She was arrested at the GWR station, presumed to be on her way back to South Wales. Her employers asked the bench to be lenient with her as she had not been in trouble before. She was therefore remanded in custody for a week while enquiries were made with a view to helping her. Naturally, such individual cases were a considerable hindrance to those who were attempting to break down this popular prejudice against the Welsh, though they occurred with far less frequency than Mr Snell suggested.

In 1937, the National Council of Social Service made an application to the Special Areas Commissioner for funds to establish a reception service for Welsh immigrants to London. They presented detailed evidence from both London and Slough to show how, among the migrants, a certain amount of hostility had developed between those of Welsh extraction and other migrants. Hilda Jennings, one of the key social service figures in this proposal for a Government-funded initiative, emphasised the degree of prejudice and hostility which  immigrant girls from the depressed areas had to contend with from ‘local’ people as well:

In many districts to which migration takes place there is a growing uneasiness on social grounds. Sometimes, in default of precise knowledge, prejudice, due to the failure or misbehaviour of a few individuals, is allowed to determine the prevalent attitude to newcomers. Generalisations with regard to the ‘roughness’ of girls from Durham or the instability and ‘difficult’ temperaments of the Welsh, make it less easy for even the most promising persons from those areas to take root in new communities. Many of them make good, but others, for lack of better company, gravitate to the less socially desirable groups and reinforce existing anti-social tendencies.

In addition, Welsh women were often stereotyped as being ‘highly sexed’. Many commentators certainly took the view that they were more feminine than their English cousins. On the whole, they were more content than Oxford or Coventry women to accept traditional roles as either maidservants or housewives and mothers. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Oxford or Coventry before the war, compared with ‘native’ women or immigrant women from Lancashire. If the ‘highly-sexed’ charge related to a stereotype of the Welsh immigrants as having larger families than the natives, then the charge was as fallacious as the stereotype. Research showed that while the fertility of married migrants in Oxford differed little from that of the South Wales population, the fertility of both of these populations was less than that of the Oxford natives.

Given the scope and level of prejudice with which the immigrants had to contend, it would hardly be surprising to find that they also tended to conform to the stereotype of them as ‘clannish foreigners’. However, this was not only a tendency common among Welsh women, whether married or single. In this regard, the dilemma that both men and women migrants found themselves in was clearly articulated in the NCSS report of the late thirties on Migration to London from South Wales:

… instead of being encouraged to use the gifts of sociability and social responsibility which he has brought with him from the small community, he does not seem to find any demand for his services except in gatherings of his own people… The more Welshmen are able to keep together, the happier they will be. But at the same time they are building up a reputation for clannishness which does not help them to find a place in the mixed community in which they live.

There may be a danger that men and women from South Wales coming to London after, perhaps, long years of unemployment, tend to lose their courage. They use the Welsh churches and societies that they find in London as something of a shelter and do not make efforts to integrate themselves into the life of the metropolis. If this is so, then some of the blame must lie with London for presenting to the stranger the face it shows. 

In a 1936 edition of their journal, the ‘Middle Opinion’ group, Political and Economic Planning published statistics showing that immigration into the South East of England was in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole, claiming that while the national importance of emigration has long been recognised, the practical significance of internal movements has often been overlooked. The pressure which groups like P.E.P. brought to bear led a year later to the appointment of Sir Montague Barlow to head a Royal Commission on the distribution of the population. Although the Commission’s full report was not published until 1940, it began receiving evidence in March 1938. By  then, there was considerable disquiet among the British public about events on the continent, not least in the Spanish Civil War in which bombing by Italian and German planes had led to a mass refugee problem.

On its sixteenth day, the Commision received evidence from a group of councillors, industrialists and academics from South Wales. They pointed out that in 1934, South Wales still possessed a high birth-rate compared with the other regions of Britain, at 16.1 per thousand of its population, compared with a rate of 15.4 in the West Midlands and 13.9 in the South East. However, Professor Marquand of the University College in Cardiff also pointed to the falling fertility rate due to the migration of men and women likely to have families elsewhere. This was borne out by the fact that, in the period 1937-39, there were on average sixty-six births per thousand South-Welsh women aged fifteen to forty-four, a rate less than that produced by women in the West Midlands. Demographic historians have highlighted the role played by the involvement of women in manufacturing industry in the Midlands, the North-west and South-east as an important factor in spreading birth-control techniques; the highest birth rates continued to be recorded in those areas where employment was mostly dominated by males.

Even before the Barlow Commission began to sit, concerns about the increasingly uneven distribution of the population had begun to be heard, especially from those living in London, as the following extract from The Round Table reveals:

London and its satellite towns have already expanded too far and too fast, from the social, health, and ascetic points of view. The heaping up of population in the quarter of these islands nearest to Europe constitutes a grave and growing strategic liability.

Although the increasingly dangerous international situation referred to created nervousness about the excessive concentration of the population in the Midlands and South East, it also created increased demand for labour in the industries which were responsible for rearmament, most of which were located in these areas of the country. It was not until 1939 that the economy of South Wales began to be transformed by rearmament in general and the resultant mushroom growth in women’s industrial employment in particular.

 

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In this context, the work of the Barlow Commission, completed in August 1939, was too late in taking cognisance of the widespread agitation for regional planning in response to the twin concerns about the denuding of the Special Areas and the threat from the continent. Its conclusion served as an indictment of pre-war governments and their piecemeal and paradoxical policies on the planning of population:

It is not in the national interest, economically, socially or strategically, that a quarter of the population… of Great Britain should be concentrated within twenty to thirty miles or so of Central London.

However, this still did not mean an end to the policy of Transference or to the continued voluntary exodus of workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom meant that engineering centres like Luton and Coventry were swallowing up more and more labour by offering ever higher wages in their shadow factories producing aircraft. Welsh Nationalists denounced MPs and civil servants alike as ‘collaborators’ in the ‘murder’ of their own ‘small, defenceless nation’, a theme which was repeated in the Party’s wartime pamphlet, Transference Must Stop. Nevertheless, the Transference Policy had long-since ceased to occupy centre-stage by the time the Nazis occupied the Sudetenland, and there is evidence to suggest that the ‘Blaid’ leadership was itself slow to give priority to the issue, favouring a policy of deindustrialisation and being opposed on pacifist grounds to the location of armament industries in Wales.

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On 3 September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made his famous radio broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. In London, an air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves. The lesson of the fascist bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 was not entirely ignored by the Chamberlain government, despite their acquiescence. Cities were vulnerable to air bombardment and the civilian population would be a prime target in any Nazi attack. Such an attack would not discriminate in terms of gender or age, so women and children would, for the first time in British history, become the primary targets of the large-scale bombing. By September, a year before the beginning of the blitz on London began, the government had published plans for the evacuation of two million from London and the southern cities, and by 7 September, three and a half million had been moved to safe areas. The social effects on all sections of the community were traumatic, though the greatest hardship fell upon the working classes, of whom a million were still unemployed at the outbreak of the war.

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Billeting arrangements were often discriminatory against both girls and women. Pamela Hutchby, a ten-year-old girl, exhausted and travel-dirty after a slow train journey to Stafford recalled being driven from house to house, the billeting officer asking, do you want an evacuee? The reply came, what is it? A girl? Sorry, we wouldn’t mind a boy, but not a girl. Sarah Blackshaw, a cockney mum with a baby, remembered standing on Ipswich station and being left unchosen from a line of evacuees as farmers took their pick as though selecting cattle, their first choice being for strong lads who would be of most help on the farm. Elsewhere, middle-class families recoiled as billeting officers attempted to place poorly-dressed and underfed kids into their genteel homes, a world of oak biscuit barrels and fretwork-cased radiograms. Happily, there were those who took in and treated the city refugees as their own children and formed deep relationships which survived the war. The picture below shows children from Walthamstow, London, on their way to Blackhorse Road Station for evacuation.

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At 3.50 a.m. on 7 September 1940, the Nazis began their blitz on London, the target being the London docks and the solidly working-class areas around them. In the small terraced houses that had back gardens, the people took to their Anderson shelters, dug into the earth, but for tens of thousands in tenements and houses without gardens there were no deep shelters, only inadequate surface shelters built of brick. Buildings with large cellars opened them to the public and conditions were often appalling as thousand crammed into them night after night. People looked enviously at the London Underground stations, deep, warm and well-lit, but the official policy was against their use as shelters. In Stepney, the people broke down the gates when the stations closed and went down to the platforms. The authorities then relented and opened the underground stations as night shelters. At first, people simply took a few blankets and slept on the platforms like those in the photograph taken in October 1940 at Piccadilly. Seventy-nine stations were used as shelters and at the peak, 177,000 people were sleeping in them each night.

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In 1940, the general willingness of the British people to meet the demands of mobilising an entire economy for war production was a remarkable feature of the nation’s experience of the war.  This economic mobilisation had to be achieved while several million men were in the services. To meet Britain’s labour needs, therefore, over seven million women were drawn into the workforce. Recruitment campaigns were mounted by the government to encourage women to enter the factories, but ultimately compulsion had to be used. This was a controversial step, given existing social values and the fact that women were paid far lower wages than men.  It was made plain that female employment was a wartime expedient only: women were expected to return to domesticity once the war was over. Of course, many didn’t, partly because this profound social change towards a ‘dual role’ for women had already begun five years earlier in many engineering centres like Coventry.

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Nevertheless, the scale of the rearmament and restructuring task is best illustrated by the aircraft industry, in which the workforce increased from about thirty-five thousand in 1935 to nearly two million in 1944, some forty percent of whom were women. It became the largest industry in Britain, employing about ten percent of the total workforce. One typical company, De Havilland, builders of the Mosquito, had to expand rapidly from its Hatfield base into nearby ‘shadow factories’.  Factories in Luton, Coventry and Portsmouth, also built Mosquitoes. It was one of the most successful aircraft of the war, with nearly seven thousand produced and large numbers repaired. Those women who remained as housewives became involved in government initiatives such as the ‘Saucepans into Spitfires’ campaign (see the photo below). In 1940, housewives saved forty shiploads of paper and enough metal to build sixteen thousand tanks.

(to be continued)

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