Communist Party Activity (Reel 11, Box 7E)

 Background

 The observers were well placed to report on Communist Party (CP) activity, as many were left wing. Of the long term non-Bolton observers John Somerfield had been in the CP himself and Walter Hood was a Labour Party member. Of the visiting volunteers Richard Crossman, Zita Baker, Woodrow Wyatt, Tom Driberg and many more were leftists. But also many of their local observers and contacts were on the left, some, Like Eric Bennett and Jack Fagan with senior positions in the Labour Party. Others, such as Tom Binks, Bill Naughton and Albert Smith, all became conscientious objectors during the war. Tom Honeyford, Jack Fagan and Peter Jackson had been members of Albert Smith’s Workers Educational Association class for unemployed men. Peter Jackson, Jack Fagan and Tom Binks joined the WEA council during the war. Eric Bennett was a trade union official.

 This does not mean that the MO’s aim was left wing. MO may have been anti-establishment, in that part of the aim was to peel back lazy assumptions about life in Britain, but it was never party political. Observers were trained to note exactly what happened. There is bias in some of the reports but many are absolutely straight down the line reporting in tedious detail everything that happened. Madge had been a CP member for a while, but not for long, and Harrisson, late in wartime, almost accepted a parliamentary candidature for the Liberal Party. The difficulty they had in breaking into Conservative politics may well have been that Tory party members were older people and the MO observers were almost all young and many were leftists. Moreover the Conservative Party, generally satisfied with the way society worked, was less likely to want the carapace of societal norms peeled back to reveal whatever was underneath, actions which were at the very heart of MO’s activities.

 

Communist Party Meetings

Communist Party Activity (Reel 11, Box 7E)

Background

The observers were well placed to report on Communist Party (CP) activity, as many were left wing. Of the long term non-Bolton observers John Somerfield had been in the CP himself and Walter Hood was a Labour Party member. Of the visiting volunteers Richard Crossman, Zita Baker, Woodrow Wyatt, Tom Driberg and many more were leftists. But also many of their local observers and contacts were on the left, some, Like Eric Bennett and Jack Fagan with senior positions in the Labour Party. Others, such as Tom Binks, Bill Naughton and Albert Smith, all became conscientious objectors during the war. Tom Honeyford, Jack Fagan and Peter Jackson had been members of Albert Smith’s Workers Educational Association class for unemployed men. Peter Jackson, Jack Fagan and Tom Binks joined the WEA council during the war. Eric Bennett was a trade union official.

This does not mean that the MO’s aim was left wing. The MO may have been anti-establishment, in that part of the aim was to peel back lazy assumptions about life in Britain, but it was never party political. Observers were trained to note exactly what happened. There is bias in some of the reports but many are absolutely straight down the line reporting in tedious detail everything that happened. Madge had been a CP member for a while, but not for long, and Harrisson, late in wartime, almost accepted a parliamentary candidature for the Liberal Party. The difficulty they had in breaking into Conservative politics may well have been that Tory party members were older people and the MO observers were almost all young and many were leftists. Moreover the Conservative Party, generally satisfied with the way society worked, was less likely to want the carapace of societal norms peeled back to reveal whatever was underneath, actions which were at the very heart of MO’s activities.

 Communist Party Meetings

 So CP meetings were easy to attend. Many were ‘open’ meetings, in an attempt to attract recruits. MO Observers reported on several:

 An open air one at Farnworth Market (Wednesday, 26 January 1938) at which G Aitken, regional organiser spoke. This attracted around 75 men and 25 women and lasted between 8.30 and 10.00 pm. The left/right confrontation in Spain was of great concern. The speaker took questions which included ‘if Britain confronts the fascists will that cause a world war?’ and ‘what about the communists murdering nuns and priests in Spain?’

  1. A lot of publicity was used to pull in people to the Communist Crusade meeting on 7 February 1938, the main attraction being Harry Pollitt, the CP leader. This took place at the Co-op hall on Bridge Street with 600 people present. The meeting started off with a sing-song, ‘Georgia’, ‘Cockles and Muscles’, ‘for tonight we’ll merry, merry, be’. The ‘obs’ (observer) said that although some sang with enthusiasm others just mouthed the words. Someone standing next to the obs said ‘this is what the Labour Party has lost. They’ve forgotten how to sing. They're too respectable’. There was a collection which reminded the fellow next to the obs of a Methodist meeting, especially as comments were made implying not enough had been donated. £9 4s 5d was the final haul. Pollitt was passionate and persuasive – this country has become the doormat of Musso and Hitler! It ended with a rendition of the first verse of the Internationale (called for by the audience) even though the organisers had not planned that.

  2. Eric Bennett (local obs) went to a CP branch meeting on 3 October 1937. This was at 55 Deane Road, the Workers’ bookshop. This was where the university precinct is now and must have been opposite Flash Street Mills. From there Bob Davies, the local CP secretary and his young partner, Louie Boon, delivered the Daily Worker around town, including to MO HQ 85 Davenport Street. Bob and Louie married in 1941. There were six people at the meeting, four men and two women. the meeting started at 3.50 and ended at five past five. Party membership was discussed which stood at 140 across Bolton, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham. This implies a membership of something like 40 in Bolton.

  3. An open meeting on 5 November 1939 was held at the York Café on Great Moor Street – the Socialist club did not have room. Fourteen men and two women were present. After a speaker, questions focussed on the reason for Stalin agreeing the Nazi-Soviet pact and included a question asking why Litvinov had been replaced by Molotov, as if anyone in Great Moor Street would know.

  4. A branch meeting followed on 10 November, observed by prospective novelist Geoffrey Taylor. This time Mrs Kane and Louie Boon were the two women present and five men. The CPGB were on the defensive because of the Nazi-Soviet pact and explained that they could not support the war in defence of Poland as that had been a fascist regime. Czechoslovakia had been a democracy and Britain had not supported them. The Fins (who were being invaded by the Soviets) were propped up by German and British capitalism according to the CP line. Anyway, they said the Nazi-Soviet pact would open Germans up to Soviet influence and would weaken fascism. There you are then!

  5. Brian Allwood (a 19 year old observer) reported on a speech Bob Davies gave on the Town Hall steps on 21 July 1940. About 50 people gathered and Bob went through the diatribe against poor little Finland and why the Soviets were justified in invading it. Obs said the crowd were not enthusiastic but not hostile either.

 Attendance at Tamara Rust’s Lecture

The report on the lecture given by Tamara Rust in late 1938 is the most interesting as the observer not only notes all 23 people present, about half of whom are named, but includes what they were wearing, their stance and behaviour during the lecture and how they stood when speaking. The lecture was on Communism and Socialism upstairs in the Empress Ballroom in Mealhouse Lane, the fourth in a series of six about Communism which took place on Saturday afternoons. Nothing of the lecture was noted by the observer, but Tamara Rust was a significant figure, a Georgian national, married at the time to George Rust, first editor of the Daily Worker. She wrote about equal pay for women, established a voluntary Women’s Parliament in 1941 and remained active on the left all her life. Those attending were identified as:

Bob Davies CP member, the chairman. The estimate of his age by the obs is given is 50, though as he served in the army during the war, he must have been younger than this. ‘Navy suit, grey shirt, blue tie, but also wearing a black red and yellow striped scarf’. (Bob Davies was the local CP secretary. From St Helens he had moved to Bolton as a mature man when his marriage failed. He drove a tram for a while and ran the Workers bookshop at 55 Deane Road).

Louie Boon (30) CP member. Black leather mac, blue blouse, black shoes, grey beret - very La Passionara! She had been born in Ashton in 1909 and started work in a weaving shed and became active in the union. She married Bob in 1941. CP member until 1980, when in her view it had gone soft. Died in 1994).

Mr Partington (60) CP member. ‘Grey Tweed’. ‘Right leg on left. Scratches penis with left hand’

Mrs Partington (60) carrying a ‘nurses black bag’

Stanley Carmel (23) Co-op employee. ILP Guild of Youth member

Jack Walsh (30) CP member

Arthur Cooper (40) CP member

John Rees (25) Labour Research Group (which presumably meant Labour Research Department – a sort of think tank), wearing dark grey pinstripe suit and blue shirt. Broke matchsticks all the time, having 18 pieces on the chair beside him at the finish.

Albert Smith (40) the WEA lecturer who engaged several of the men in his unemployed WEA group as observers for MO. That night he wore plus fours and brown shoes and stammered when he spoke. When the war came he refused to register, have an ID card or ration book and refused a medical, which was part of his registration. Of the 100 or so people who registered as conscientious objectors in the war most were put to work in some capacity and accepted it – working in hard and unglamourous employment like forestry or agriculture. Those who refused were occasionally, like Tom Binks and his wife Annie, sentenced to 28 days in prison. Albert Smith got on the authorities’ nerves so much he was sentenced to 6 months hard labour in 1941.

 Two unnamed people were identified as Fascists, one man (25, leather worker), one woman (30). This identification was not just an insult, as there were people in the late 1930s who identified as British Union of Fascist (BUF) members. There were reputedly two offices of the British Union of Fascists in Bolton, one on Folds Rd.

 Observations

 Our view of the Communist Party in the 1930s is heavily influenced by the Cambridge spy ring – secretive and in complete thrall to the Soviet Union. It is certainly true that the CPGB followed the Soviet line, and one of the questions at a meeting ‘why was Litvinov replaced by Molotov?’ gives the impression that people thought there was a direct link between the Kremlin and Deane Road. But allowing MO observers into branch meetings indicates an openness, as does the significant advertising of the Communist Crusade. The sing-song at the Co-op, bizarre as it sounds also confirms an evangelistic approach. They were attempting to attract members openly.

 But the formal branch meetings attracted only handfuls of members, out of a total of something like 40 members in Bolton, a tiny community. Although there were discussions within the CP of a united front with Labour as the war began Bolton CP members did not seem to associate with other leftists. Labour Party members for instance became involved in the Peace Pledge Union and the WEA, CP members seem not to have done.

 But people were happy to go to CP meetings and engage in debate with the CP. One of the reasons so many came to open meetings was the severely practical one that there was limited entertainment in the home. Working people’s homes were cramped and draughty with one source of heating. Going out in the evening was no chore but for many a release. People also lived much closer to their work in those days so could be home washed and have had their tea by six. And people joined things in those days: associations, societies, clubs, choirs, bands. But also the political atmosphere of the late 1930s was particularly febrile - the Depression and huge unemployment, an unprecedented National Government had split the Labour Party, the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini and Hitler…all caused anxiety and dissent. As war seemed more likely various ideological positions hardened – those opposed to the fascist powers, those in favour of fascism, those in favour of the Soviet Union, those who wished to avoid war by appeasement, those who wished to avoid all war, those who just wished to help the Spanish. As well as the traditional political parties people joined the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, the Peace Pledge Union, the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the Left Book Club, the Junior Imperial League, British Union of Fascists (and anti-Fascist organisations). There were serious clashes both between demonstrators and the police and between different groups. The same day the Bolton CP met at Deane Road on 3 October 1937, thousands of BUF members marched through Bermondsey, jeered and assaulted by onlookers. Three thousand police struggled to keep order and a hundred people were injured.

The description of those attending the meetings is interesting. The CP members and others present were all well-dressed: flannel trousers, polished shoes, suits – as if people dressed up for political meetings.

 Dave Burnham for Live from Worktown