Communists in the Labour Party: Frank to Elizabeth, 1939

This long letter from Frank to Elizabeth must date from some time between the June 1939 Labour Conference in Southport (at which Stafford Cripps was expelled) and the outbreak of the Second World War (and marriage of Frank and Elizabeth soon after) in September of that year. I think it probably also dates from before this letter from Frank to Elizabeth on the occasion of the the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23rd August 1939.

More than anything it provides a snapshot of the young Frank’s life in Newcastle after coming back from Spain: staying with various friends/acquaintances, including Frank Graham (who had been in Spain as well and later became a Tyneside publisher), and generally feeling pretty sorry for himself; correspondence to be sent care of the Newcastle People’s Bookshop – home to the North East Branch of the International Brigade Committee; working to raise awareness, and funds, for the International Brigades, including organising a gala (in one of the documents in his Comintern file Frank had declared his intention to “go back to England to stimulate the propaganda for Spain”); and concerned with internal Labour Party workings – and with the relationship between the Communist Party and the Labour Party.

The expulsion of Stafford Cripps (who had advocated a “United Front” between Labour and the Communists) from the Labour Party at the Southport conference in June 1939  marked an end to the “Popular Front” of the late 1930s and, as Frank notes, prompted Communists who had previously been working within Labour to leave the party and instead to work on building the Communist Party (work which would come to a rapid end with the outbreak of war only a few months later).

It sounds like Frank was expecting Elizabeth to disagree with this decision and it’s amusing to read the slightly patronising tone he takes with her in this letter – suggesting that her “isolation” in Perthshire means that she can’t properly judge “the wisdom of the step”.

I don’t know who the Betty is that Frank suspects of trying to sniff out sedition by asking about his politics – his sister’s name is Betty, but this clearly isn’t her. The Alison referred to is Elizabeth’s youngest sister. I’m not sure what the connection with Walter Hood is (though it seems likely that Elizabeth knew him from Oxford), or why Frank took against him so violently – jealousy perhaps?

Transcript, with a number of indecipherable words, and images of the full letter below.

Continue reading Communists in the Labour Party: Frank to Elizabeth, 1939


“Hark the rebel workers sing”: songs from Spain


This tatty song sheet was among various other papers from Elizabeth’s time in Spain; it is densely printed and double sided, and contains the lyrics to about twenty different rousing socialist anthems. These include old favourites, such as “The Red Flag” and “Avanti Popolo” (aka “Bandiera Rossa”), but also a number that I haven’t heard of before, such as “Song of the Proletariat”, and – my favourite – the very catchy, “Hark the rebel workers sing” (“Tune – HARK THE HERALD ANGELS”). See below for lyrics. Continue reading “Hark the rebel workers sing”: songs from Spain

Gus Daubenspeck

1938.8.29 - Letter re Spain - wound - Ebro - Harry Sander

This short note – giving Elizabeth the Barcelona address of a friend who had been wounded at Ebro – must date from 1938. The battle of the Ebro (the longest, largest and bloodiest of the Spanish Civil War) took place between July and November of that year, ending in massive defeat for the Republicans.

I don’t know who Harry Sander, the writer of the letter, is – and if Elizabeth had met him in Spain, or in London (where she had lived and worked in the East End before going to Puigcerda in late 1937).

Gus Daubenspeck, the man shot in the back at the battle of the Ebro, seems to have been an International Brigader from the East End (Lamb Lane in Hackney), and is listed here as one of the Jewish volunteers who went to Spain as part of the British Battalion. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any further information about Gustav Daubenspeck, and this makes me wonder if he died of his injuries while still in Spain, or went on to be killed in the Second World War, or even later changed his name. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that, like Frank, most of the British volunteers in Spain were working class men – including from the East End – and that many (roughly a quarter) were Jewish.

(In trying to find out more about Gus Daubenspeck, I came across this nice account of another Jewish East End volunteer, Jack Shaw:

UPDATE: After posting this on twitter, asking if anyone knew more about Gus Daubenspeck, the fount of Spanish Civil War knowledge that is Richard Baxell got in touch to say that he could send me information about Gus Daubenspeck. He also sent me this photo of Daubenspeck from the Russian State Archives in Moscow:

Continue reading Gus Daubenspeck

Red Fifties: Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Frank Girling, Marxist anthropology and anti-communism

Earlier this year I wrote the below about my grandfather, Frank Girling, and his friend and colleague, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, and the ways in which they were excluded from the British anthropology establishment because of their politics and their suspected links with decolonisation movements. This was originally published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society (and is republished with permission), and was written at the request of Rila Mukherjee for a special issue of the journal in honour of her father, who died in 2015. It is a (very) long read, and is slightly off topic (it isn’t about the 1930s, or about the Spanish Civil War), but it nevertheless feels appropriate to post it here (and now).

N.B. There is one correction – care of my mother – to the below account of events. See end for details.



Ramkrishna Mukherjee and Frank Girling: Marxist Anthropology and McCarthyism in the 1950s

Of all the things that I thought I might do in my life, it never crossed my mind that one day I would be asked to write about the eminent sociologist Ramkrishna Mukherjee for the Journal of the Asiatic Society. I am not a sociologist, and never met Ramkrishna Mukherjee, nor have I studied his work – however, for a brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he and my grandfather were friends, colleagues and comrades. They met at Cambridge in the late 1940s – Ramkrishna was there as a PhD student and my grandfather, Frank Girling, as an undergraduate. My grandfather would have been older than many of his fellow undergraduate students (and he was two years older than Ramkrishna); upon leaving school he had worked in various jobs before volunteering for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, where he met my grandmother, Elizabeth Aytoun. They married soon after the outbreak of the Second World War and Frank was conscripted into the army; he spent much of the war in India, partly with the Indian Army – having defected from the British Army. He did not become an undergraduate, therefore, until he was in his late twenties, when he went to Cambridge to study social anthropology in the aftermath of the Second World War (special arrangements were in place for ex-servicemen, compressing what was normally a three-year degree into two).  It was there that he and Ramkrishna – who was then at Cambridge working towards his PhD – first met.

Last year – prompted by a request for information about my grandfather’s doctoral research, and his time in Uganda – I began the process of looking through his papers. Because his papers are mixed up with my grandmother’s, this became a far bigger task than I had originally anticipated. For a while I was overwhelmed with the volume and scope of the papers they had left behind them; as a grand-daughter who still misses them both dreadfully, it was wonderful to be able to read their words and to be able to discover things that I hadn’t previously known about their past. I was particularly struck by the amount of material (letters, postcards, pamphlets, etc.) about their time in the lead up to and during the Spanish Civil War and this, combined with a radio show that I heard at the time about British volunteers in Spain, led me to begin a blog about their experiences there. In the process of looking through a box of papers from around this time, I found a packet of letters clipped together; these were letters from Ramkrishna Mukherjee to my grandfather, and carbon copies of my grandfather’s letters to him. These led me to contact Ramkrishna’s daughter, Rila Mukherjee, in the hope that she might be able to tell me more about the relationship between the two men, and possibly even to find more letters between them. It was Rila who asked if I might write something about Ramkrishna and my grandfather, and about this early moment in their academic lives. I would love to have been able to document their correspondence fully – to trace their friendship and working relationship in full – however, to do this, I would need to find more of the correspondence between the two, and look in more detail at the research and articles that they produced together (I would also love to one day find the photographs that Ramkrishna took during their time together in Uganda). For now, however, that is  unfortunately beyond my means; I have had to rely on their correspondence that I have had to hand, and what information about the two men and their work at this time that I have been able to find. I only hope that even the limited view that I present here will go some way to illuminating this moment in the early intellectual lives of these two extraordinary men. Continue reading Red Fifties: Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Frank Girling, Marxist anthropology and anti-communism

Ephemera: Barcelona envelope

Inevitably, there are many items other than letters and photographs among Frank and Elizabeth’s papers – bus tickets, leaflets, luggage labels, scraps of papers covered in scribbled notes.  This envelope was in the same bundle of papers as the letter giving Frank free passage to help in the aftermath of the March 1938 bombing of Barcelona – and perhaps originally contained this letter (although the official stamps and letterheads are different).


I don’t really know anything about it (I would love to hear from anyone who can tell me more) – but the combination of the Generalitat de Catalunya Comissariat de Propaganda (which Frank worked for, for a while at least) official stationery, the addressee, Fernandez Bolaños, and the various names and addresses written on various parts of the envelope (including one in Russian) give an indication of the various people and networks that Frank would have encountered in Barcelona at this time.

I am pretty sure that it belonged to Frank, and I think perhaps that these were names and addresses of people that he wanted to (or had been asked to) contact, or keep in contact with, after his return to the UK in the late summer of 1938. In his report from this time (possibly July 1938, and possibly for the KGB) he had written: “Now convinced of the inefficiency of the Cat. Government and in particularly of the Esquerra Republicana I do not want to continue and no other work offering I shall go back to England to stimulate the propaganda for Spain.”

He worked in the Newcastle office of the International Brigades Organisation after his return to the UK and so it is possible that at least some of these people were intended as contacts in his work “stimulating propaganda for Spain.” The Russian address (“for Jeanna”) is perhaps the most intriguing…




Barcelona, March 1938

1938.3 - Barcelona bombing

In March 1938 Barcelona was bombed almost continuously over three days by Nationalist planes (supplied by Italy and Germany); the bombing was so heavy that the air raid system was rendered useless as there was no way of telling if the sirens were signalling the beginning or end of an attack.

Frank had been in Puigcerdà until early in 1938, and had come to Barcelona and been issued with a Catalonian identity card on 1st February 1938. I don’t know if he was in Barcelona during the bombing but in his own account of his time in Spain he talked about his work in the Propaganda Office of the Catalonian Generalitat during this period. This letter, from the General Secretary of the Junta Local de Defensa Passiva de Barcelona, 19th March 1938 – the day after the bombing stopped – seems (as far as google translate tells me) to request that Frank be given free passage to help with salvage work in the aftermath of the bombing.

“I have attended to your Fascist friend’s requirements”

I just love everything about this 1934 letter – although I know very little about it, and can barely identify the sender’s signature (I think perhaps it is W. Alan Nield, who was Librarian for the Oxford University Labour Club in 1934 – see below for Trinity Term membership card and information). Presumably Elizabeth had asked a Labour friend from Oxford to recommend some reading to a Surrey-based acquaintance with “fascist” tendencies. I can just imagine my grandmother trying to persuade Home Counties Oxford Fascists to join the Labour Party and telling them that she would send them some books over the summer! It seems that this particular Fascist friend was acting as Secretary for the University of Oxford Fascist Club; unsurprisingly, it is hard to find information about membership of this club – although from the address given (The Old Court, Cranleigh – “it may be a Workers Sanatorium one of these days, if Russia is anything to go by!!!”), I think it might have been a man with the surname Marshall.

I wonder if he ever did read John Strachey‘s The Menace of Fascism (1933) or The Coming Struggle for Power (1932). It’s an interesting reminder that there was a point before the Second World War (and before the Spanish Civil War), when Fascism was debated – and countered – intellectually, at least to some extent, and that Elizabeth and her friend, Alan, both seemed to have some hope that reading and counter-argument could persuade the “Fascist friend” of the error of his ways… (although Alan does acknowledge that “Fascists when successful are always so swollen with national pride that they lose the use of reason”).

1934.9.25 - fascist friends requirement

1934.9.25 - fascist friends requirement - 2

Continue reading “I have attended to your Fascist friend’s requirements”