“She liked you, oddly enough”: Christopher Hill, Czechoslovakia and Communist refugees

There is a family story (myth?) that Christopher Hill proposed to my grandmother, and that she turned him down because he was too short (she was quite tall). I am not sure if this is true, but certainly they were great friends at Oxford – and I do remember her telling me that she went back to visit him in Oxford after she had been in Spain (and after she had met Frank). She took Frank’s brother, Harry, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford, to visit Christopher and arrived with wet feet, having been caught in the rain. Christopher mortified her by suggesting that she change her stockings in front of he and Harry; she was worried that this would give the impression that she and Christopher were romantically involved, and this would get back to Frank. I don’t think that they remained such good friends after the Second World War (I would imagine that life – spouses, children, geography, careers – got in the way), but she always took a great interest in his work: I used to be given his books for Christmas, and one of my uncles recently reminded me that she wrote to the Guardian after his death to protest against the suggestion that he had been a Soviet agent. Like my grandfather, Christopher suffered from dementia at the end of his life and I remember Elizabeth telling me that they had both had such brilliant minds that they must have burned out in some way.

The first box has quite a number of letters and postcards from him to Elizabeth (such as these Catalan postcards, sent in March and February 1939 – and including some from the mid-thirties, at which point they do seem to have been more than just friends). A lot of these are about bringing refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I wasn’t really going to include much of this at the moment (a whole other story – complete with really wretched letters: brief biographies of potential Jewish refugees, photographs, lots and lots of paperwork. I assume that some ended up in Britain, perhaps even living in Perthshire c/o Elizabeth, but some presumably didn’t – all kinds of formalities had to be gone through to bring people here). This series of letters is interesting though, and I find it intriguing that Elizabeth declares herself a Socialist (rather than a Communist, presumably), and therefore asks that any Communist refugees “keep their politics strictly to themselves” (image below). At roughly the same time Frank was also writing to her asking her opinion on Communist Party plans and statements…

Elizabeth had, out of the blue, inherited a Perthshire estate and castle in the late thirties; she tried to sell it in order to give money to Spain (possibly the Republicans somehow? possibly the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief?), but this was blocked by her family and by the family lawyers (the case ended up in court – another story that I hope to find more information about in these boxes). Instead, as a second best, she ended up housing refugees there before and during the war. These letters between Christopher and Elizabeth are largely about the bringing of Communist refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I will look out for more correspondence between the two of them about this, as it appears that Elizabeth was at first slightly reluctant (possibly due to the Moscow show trials, and the beginnings of Stalin’s purges?), and I wonder how she squared this with the pressing humanitarian side of things.

This is the first letter from Christopher to Elizabeth about this, asking for urgent help, probably from the autumn of 1938, (transcript below):

Balliol College,
Oxford.

Dear Elizabeth,

The names of all communists are being struck off all lists of refugees applying for evacuation from Czechoslovakia, and they will be sent to concentration camps in Germany – you know what that means. The only chance of saving them is for them to receive a personal invitation from someone in England willing to put them up for 2 months. Can you or do you know of anyone who could do that? If necessary food would be paid for. I know it is a hell of a thing to ask, but it is so absolutely urgent that I am writing to everybody I know in the hope that they will say No if they really can’t but will try to think of ways and means. (In approaching anyone, it will ultimately be necessary for them to be told that these people are communists.)

 I am sorry to cadge like this. I really wouldn’t try to exploit your castle unless it was a life and death matter.

 Yours
Christopher.

 Please let me know one way or the other with the utmost possible speed.

There must have been further letters (or discussions) between the two on the subject, as Christopher wrote again on 21st November, taking back “some of the hard things” he had said (and reassuring her that he believed she did her “best” – !) (transcript below).

Balliol College,
Oxford

21/xi/38.

Dear Elizabeth

I take back some of the hard things I said about you: I believe you do your best really! I will arrange for somebody in London to get in touch with you: don’t myself know at the moment who. The essential thing at the moment though is just to get people out before they are shot or beaten to death: & that means they must have a personal invitation. Could you stretch a point & let me know as soon as you possibly can what you think the probable maximum you could take, so that something could be done towards getting them out before it is too late? Adjustments & rearrangements can be made later, but that is literally a life & death matter at the moment. If E. Cadbury approved in principle, can’t you risk maybe offending the gamekeeper? The more you can manage the better placed we should be, naturally.

I am very sorry to have to hassle like this, but you will realise that unless it happens within a day or two it will be impossible to save their lives at all.

It is very decent of you to do it at all. Glad you liked my sister: she liked you, oddly enough.

Yours,

Christopher.

Elizabeth responded to this on 23rd November 1938:

1938.11.23 - to Christopher Hill re refugees -politics

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redthirties

if you have any thoughts, questions, suggestions - or (even better!) further information - about any of the topics covered on Red Thirties, then please either leave a comment or e-mail me at: redthirties@gmail.com. Thanks for reading, Anna

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