“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

Frank’s Catalonian Identity Card, 1st February 1938

Seventy-nine years ago, on 1st February 1938, Frank was issued with this ID card (Carnet d’Identitat) for the Generalatit de Catalunya, the government of Catalonia. The Catalonian text states (roughly): Frank Knowles Girling serves in this Comissariat, as  editor of English bulletins. 1st February 1938.

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A few months later, in his own account of what had brought him to Spain, and his activities while there (see Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1), Frank would write of his work as a translator for the Generalatit, and his growing disillusionment with the Catalonian government:

Having by this time learnt Spanish and a little Catalan came to Barcelona at the end of January hoping to be able to join the I.B. and serve usefully the cause. Being offered a post in the Propaganda Office of the Generalitat I accepted it thinking that as a translator I might be more useful than as a soldier. 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.

His account of coming to Barcelona at the end of January would fit with the issuing of this card on 1st February – and his description of himself as a “translator” fits roughly with his description on the card as an “editor”, although I still don’t really know what his activities were at this time (I have a feeling that he ended up broadcasting on the radio at some point). The Generalitat and the Republican Left of Catalonia (the Esquerra Republicana that Frank talks about) were in internal turmoil throughout the Spanish Civil War (as described by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia), with numerous groups and factions competing for control – I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of all this, but perhaps his disillusionment was in some part linked with his allegiance to a particular faction, or perhaps it was due to frustration at the overall factionalism in the face of ongoing assault from Franco’s forces.

Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 2

I feel like most of the posts so far have been about Elizabeth (more of the ephemera is associated with her), but that when there is a post about Frank it is a cracker. I have described previously how I was sent the information on Frank from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). The most exciting things in this file were a photograph of a very young (c. twenty-one) Frank, and an account in his own words of how he ended up in Spain (see Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1 for more on all this). There were also two other main items: a “Biografía en España” questionnaire (answered by Frank in French), and an intriguing-looking three page document in German, that looks like some kind of security report on Frank by someone called Kurt.

My German is almost non-existent, so two very kind friends (Hannah and Jenny) have been working their way through this document for me over the last few months  – combining the translation of strange German documents (apparently some of the German is an unusual dialect) with various jobs and a new baby! It was a far greater task than I had first anticipated (far longer, and more intricate), and so much information has come out of it, that I have decided to break it up a bit and just post the report page by page. So here is page one, translation first (with the original – and some of my thoughts – below). Here goes:

Around 18 days ago Girling turned up in our delegation to take part in the Interbrigaden. He said that, since 10.10.37, he has been volunteering at the children’s evacuation center in Puigcerda. On his past he gave the following information:

Born in England. Studied at different universities. Then since May 1935 worked in Croydon in England in the Government Office: Civil Service Inland Revenue Department as a scribe. Girling states that this was a position subordinate to the finance ministry. He was here until December 1936. In January 1935 he wanted to enter the K.P.E. [British Communist Party – “Kommunistischen Partei Englisch“?], but left after 11 months, since he was in danger of losing his position in the civil service. After his dismissal from the service, he apparently worked as an unskilled worker in various companies.

Girling is in possession of an English passport no. 4634, issued on 15.7.35, valid for 5 years. In this passport he has various visas and visa stamps of entry and exit to France, from the time he worked in the Civil Service. He states that he went on holiday trips to the French coast. In July 1937 he went to France and joined the International Voluntary Service. Girling states that this is a service attached to the International Red Cross. He was allegedly used for building roads in Kanton Wallis [the Swiss Canton of Vallais] near Loetschental. He was there until the end of September 1937, then went to Bern, where he spent two weeks at the house of Therese Lautenburg, Bern, Falken Höhenweg 8. He states that this is a friend from the International Voluntary Service. In October 1937, he took a bus to Spain to pick up evacuated women. That is why Girling has a visa issued by the Spanish Consul in Bern. He arrived in Barcelona on the 10.10.37. He signed up at the Servicio Internacional de los Amigos Cuaqueros [“International Service of the Quaker Friends”], where he was sent to Puigcerda on October 13, 1937 to work in the children’s evacuation center. He is in possession of a confirmation on the 12.10.37 issued by this service, signed by Alfred Jakob. In Puigcerda he was mainly used for agricultural work by the Comite Ayuda Infantil [“Children’s Aid Committee”] until early January 1938. He then went to Barcelona.

In Puigcerda he met an Austrian physician, Dr. Wallis, who was married to the daughter of a Russian who is living in Barcelona, called Kleinmann. Kleinmann is the owner of a small celluloid factory and lives in Calle Provenza 82. Through the intermediary of Dr. Wallis, Girling met this little man and settled in Barcelona with him. For his time in Puigcerda he refers to the following 2 persons:

1. Friedel Funk (Swiss), head of the Comite in Puigcerda

2. Nic Carter (American), secretary of the Comite.

He first met both people in Puigcerda. Of Funk, we have nothing to complain about, but we are currently trying to inquire about him. Of Nic Carter, we were told that he was the son of an American millionaire. We have also been warned that he is an unknown quantity, with no exact details.

Continue reading Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 2

Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1

Frank - picture - 1I can’t quite get over how young and dreamy a c. twenty-year-old Frank looks in this photograph. It is the main image of him from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). I was sitting in the library a few days ago when an e-mail arrived (from Fraser Raeburn – an Edinburgh PhD student working on Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War) with copies of the various documents held in this file. I hadn’t seen this photo – or any of the other material – before and my heart actually skipped a beat.

The file isn’t huge – but all of the information it contains is new to me (including an intriguing document that looks like a security report on Frank, in German, simply signed “Kurt” – more on this once translated). Most exciting is this, an account of how Frank ended up in Spain, including his involvement in politics before going there. It contains so much interesting (to me) new information that I don’t know where to begin… Here he is in his own words, with my thoughts below:

Continue reading Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1

Puigcerdà

Excitingly, this document means that I can pinpoint where my grandparents were for at least part of their time in Spain – Puigcerdà in the Catalonian province of Girona – and now know that they were there roughly between 1937 and 1938. I previously knew that my grandmother had been looking after evacuated children somewhere in the Pyrenees, fairly close to Barcelona, and that my grandfather had come there at some point. My grandmother met Frank and others off a train;  he commented on her “funny hat” – love at first jibe apparently.

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Las Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas al pueblo de Puigcerdà y en particular a las demás organizaciones juveniles (1938)

I had had trouble working out exactly where they were before finding this document, partly due to my grandmother’s handwriting/spelling of the town’s name (as on the back of this 1937 photo of Frank, with what must be some of the evacuated children).

Continue reading Puigcerdà

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