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

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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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“Hark the rebel workers sing”: songs from Spain

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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: https://www.jewisheastend.com/internationalbrigade.html)

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

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).

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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…

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Barcelona, March 1938

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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.

“There is a long straight valley”: one year of Frank and Elizabeth’s “Red Thirties”

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Frank (second from left) and Elizabeth (fourth from left), Puigcerdà, January 1938

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I haven’t posted for a while (I have been trying to have a PhD thesis “push”), but wanted to write something to mark the anniversary of my beginning this project. I didn’t know what to expect when I began; I wasn’t sure quite how the non-chronological posting of items would work (I didn’t, and still don’t, have time to go through and catalogue and order everything properly), nor did I know what I would find, or if anyone (other than my family) would find it all interesting. I am pleased to report that I have been pleasantly surprised on all fronts: the non-chronologicalness of it all hasn’t seemed to matter (and I have really enjoyed just diving into various boxes and seeing what I can find), and various people – from all over the world – seem to have found it interesting. I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has read my posts over the last year – and especially to those who I have had contact with in various capacities (from Nancy Clough, whose uncle, Nik Carter, was in Puigcerdà with my grandparents, to Fraser Raeburn, who sent me my grandfather’s Comintern file, and Hannah and Jenny who translated a long document from that file for me).

For this anniversary I had hoped to find and post an essay by my grandmother about Puigcerdà, and about her and Frank’s time there (I think she may have written it for the Daily Worker, although I don’t know if it was ever published – certainly, it appears to designed to raise support for the Republicans outside Spain). Unfortunately my brief Sunday night raid of my mother’s cellar didn’t yield the typescript (and I can’t remember which box it is in). However, I did find this first draft of the first page, complete with Elizabeth’s notes – I think it’s charming, as well as fascinating (hopefully I’ll find the full version before long). My quick search for it also yielded the above photograph of Frank and Elizabeth in Spain, together with some of the evacuated children from the Puigcerdà camp. This is the first photograph that I have ever seen of them together in Spain (and the only photo I have of Elizabeth in Spain), so I was pretty excited to find it.

Here is an early draft of the first page of my grandmother’s essay/article about life in Puigcerdà during the Spanish Civil War – a curious mix of normality (“there is a funny little hill, with one tower and one lake and one market square on its top”), deprivation (“starvation was drawing near last winter. No vegetables could be bought after seven in the morning, and very few before that; there was no meat at all, bread was poor and the ration five slices a day per person”) and fear (“before the winter was out, bombers had come”).

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“Mere writing is not sufficient”: Florrie, May 1938

“Socialism is definitely not the issue at the present but it is civilisation which is at stake in Europe.”

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the similarities between the current political situation in Europe (and North America) and that of the 1930s. While there are some clear parallels, I have tended to take the whole fatalistic argument with a pinch of salt (the very real reasons for bleakness seem different, and there is, as yet, no incipient Holocaust), but chancing upon this letter today drew me up short. So much of what Florrie writes could have been written now, this very day or week.

I am not entirely sure who Florrie is, but the references in the letter make me think that she and Elizabeth must have worked together in Hackney Wick, with Hugh Lister (on whom, MUCH more to follow – I can’t underestimate how many more letters there are still to come, and Hugh Lister and his work in Hackney Wick, where Elizabeth worked with him for a while, is one of many strands I want to pick up).

The main drama of the letter is the fall-out from the 1938 May Day happenings; while there was apparently a good turnout for the traditional marches and demonstrations (including from the strikers with whom Hugh Lister, Florrie and Elizabeth were involved), a problem seems to have arisen due to some Labour Party members associating themselves with “Unity”. From what I have quickly gleaned, this was an anti-fascist, cross-party (in practice, Labour and the Communist Party) movement that had begun in 1937, and which was initially opposed to rearmament; by 1938, however, its position had become more contentious, in part because of its apparent links to the Soviet Union, and Labour was working hard to distance itself and its members. Florrie is driven to fury (“it makes me sick”) that time at a Labour Party branch meeting could be devoted to discussing such matters of internal politics, “while comrades in parts of the world are suffering”.

It is salutary to see just how seriously politics, and its attendant factionalism, is taken in this letter  – not just how much it all mattered, but a very real sense of the responsibility of the individual, of the impact and importance of one’s own personal actions and decisions. It is also very poignant to read of Florrie’s efforts to obtain “obtain working class education”, in addition to working in her day job. At a time when class consciousness is either a dirty or an alien concept to most people, we would perhaps do well to take some lessons from the 1930s about how best to arm ourselves for whatever is to come.

Here is the transcript of Florrie’s letter, written on 10th May 1938, and sent to Elizabeth in Scotland (with letter images below). Four pages, but worth it.

50 Annis Rd
South Hackney,
London E.9.

10/5/38

Dear Elizabeth

Many thanks for your letter which John brought home from Lister’s about the 6th of May, so if the date on your letter is April it has been there quite a time.

There is so much to say that it seems mere writing is not sufficient.

In the first place we do not come into contact with Hugh at all since his removal chiefly because our local labour party takes up much time and also that his union activities do not leave him time for us.

With regard to our letter to you in Spain naturally we hoped that it would prove some contact with home and would have been only too glad to know that you had received that with the cigs but in future we will avoid Hugh’s forgetfulness by having each others addresses.

The only prospect of seeing you would be by me travelling the same way as yourself as John as recently joined the LPJB as a bus driver which says goodbye to holidays this year otherwise your kind invitation would be promptly accepted but even so there may be the chance of a cheap trip to where you are in the near future. Perhaps you can suggest something as you are more familiar with Scotland than me.

I was interested in your remarks about the doctor or docker talking to the strikers about Spain, it seems a healthy sign also you will like to know that they turned out on May-day and what a day. I do not know if you are conversant at all with the happenings here in London but the demo reached all expectations in numbers and organisation although there is a row in our local party regarding the actions of individuals associating themselves with unity and refusing to give up party banners to our official marshalls. We are expecting the outcome of it tonight at our ward meeting and it makes me sick to think that while comrades in parts of the world are suffering we should be forced to waste time on discussing an action which has no bearing on the work of the ward which meets only once a month. I daresay that you are aware of the pushing forward of the “Peace Alliance” although the Labour Head Office refuse to associate itself with same and I sincerely hope that something in that way will be established as Socialism is definitely not the issue at the present but it is civilisation which is at stake in Europe and that is what the Right wing Labour does not seem to face up to.

Along with other comrades of Park Ward I have been attempting to obtain working class education with the National Council of Labour Colleges which has been to our great advantage and has given us clearer understanding of all class issues. We attend conferences in different districts and also have our own lecturer once a week at the central office so that together with a women’s section in the Wick and ward activities in which John also takes his part takes up time as you can imagine.

I should like to know more about the castle and what if anything goes on around and I only hope that I won’t be denied the pleasure of seeing it for myself so I’ll close in saying that I have inflicted enough writing on you and anticipate a quick letter in return.

With love from John & myself

Florrie

Continue reading “Mere writing is not sufficient”: Florrie, May 1938