“There is no place like London”: Elizabeth Girling to Elizabeth Aytoun, July 1939

1939.7.17 - from Elizabeth Girling snr to Elizabeth - 1

This very crumpled letter, typed in red ink, is from the original Elizabeth Girling, Frank’s mother, to her future daughter-in-law, then still Elizabeth Aytoun. It was with a number of other letters to Elizabeth from 1938, but I think it is actually from July 1939 – partly because in July 1938 Frank and Elizabeth had only just come back from Spain, and so it is unlikely that the two Elizabeths would have been on such familiar terms at that point, and partly because the letter refers to Frank’s application for a teaching post, which another summer 1939 letter (not on here yet) mentions.

It’s lovely to have this insight into Elizabeth Girling (my great-grandmother)’s life – as I think I have mentioned before, many more of Elizabeth (Aytoun)’s papers survived than did of Frank’s, and so I have a much clearer sense of Elizabeth (Aytoun) and her family’s life at this time than of Frank and the Girlings. I think this might actually be the first of Elizabeth Girling’s letters I have seen; certainly, I don’t think I have ever had such a strong sense of her personality before.

I always knew that she was left-wing, and very interested in (and involved with) politics – my great-aunt (Frank’s sister) told me a few years ago that, as a young woman, her mother had been a suffragette (and had met her future husband while protesting at a polling station), and I recently found a flyer for her 1945 campaign to be elected as a Labour councillor for Newcastle. But for some reason I always thought of her with her eyes very firmly fixed on Newcastle, so it is surprising to hear her describing it as “dull” (and that she and her husband “live for” weekends away in the countryside), and describing their recent trip to London (and various Australian friends) with such zeal. “There is no place like London” is a sentiment that I often express myself – although I don’t have any fascinating Australian friends there, living on Warwick Avenue, in a flat furnished with “amazing bargains”.

These Australians – Vivian and Basil – are perhaps the most intriguing thing about this letter. Basil: a retired Australian bank manager, about to head to Russia; Vivian: a journalist for the Australian and New Zealand press, “very amusing” and “quite good at monologues”; both of them fresh from 9 months overland from Australia, and “keen to spend the rest of their lives working for the working-class movement”. Who were they?

[UPDATE: I have had a few suggestions about the identity of the amazing “Vivian”. Fraser Raeburn suggested that she might be Vivian Pynor who, earlier in the 1930s, had written a series of articles about life in Russia. She and her husband had both travelled extensively, including in India and Russia, and were “on the left”; she sounds absolutely fascinating, and I wish it was her – but as far as I can tell, her husband was called Henry, and worked as an architect (not a banker). They had both lived and worked in Moscow in the early 1930s – whereas Vivian’s husband was about to go there, alone by the sounds of things, in 1939. It seems more likely that Vivian and Basil were in fact Vivienne and Basil Newson, as suggested by Sarah Tullis. Basil Newson worked for a bank, while Vivienne Newson (née Dobney) was a journalist and editor, who declared in 1938, “‘I have always been a feminist”. She was involved in the United Associations of Women, Open Door International, the Council for Women in War Work, International Women’s Day, International Peace Campaign and Spanish Relief. From 1938-1941 she and Basil “made a world tour” – and “family letters reveal that she enjoyed life in London” (I would love to see these, and wonder if they mention the Girlings at all…).]

Transcript (divided into paragraphs for readability) and better images below.

Continue reading “There is no place like London”: Elizabeth Girling to Elizabeth Aytoun, July 1939

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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 (or maybe Bunty) 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. [UPDATE: Since initially posting this I have had a few suggestions for some of the indecipherable words and I have included these below – many thanks to Vijay Jackson and Jim Kelly. Further suggestions gratefully received.]

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