“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

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:

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“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

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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

Love Letter, Very Private

It’s not quite the anniversary of this (fake) love letter to my grandmother, but it’s close enough that I can’t resist sharing it. It was sent to her (at her home address in Birmingham) in April 1934, towards the end of her first year in Oxford – perhaps during the Easter holidays. I suspect that its author may have been Janet Millar (later Henderson) – Elizabeth’s best-friend from her schooldays (and known to my grandmother as “Blobs” throughout her life). Janet was from Glasgow (from where the letter is postmarked) – though I have no idea about Gallow Hill in Lanarkshire, Janet’s visit to which my grandmother was clearly meant to be envious about/impressed by!

Anyway, I think it’s wonderful – and too good to languish in obscurity any longer (transcript below).

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The true meaning of Cadbury

The Cadburys were Quakers and pacifists – and cared enough about respect for (and the study of) other cultures and religions to fund a library where the oldest known fragments of the Qur’an were found in 2015.

The letters between Edward Cadbury and my grandmother that I have read also make it clear that the Cadburys cared deeply about the fate of refugees in the 1930s – giving money to help those fleeing, first, from the Spanish Civil War, and then from Germany and Czechoslovakia. Edward Cadbury also gave my grandmother, Elizabeth, the money with which she first travelled to Spain to work with refugee children.

This letter (transcript below), from 1939, captures the personal interest that Edward Cadbury took in refugees, and the financial help that he provided; as well as asking after the refugees that Elizabeth was currently housing (and sending them a tin of cocoa!), he makes reference to a number of refugees that he was involved in housing in Birmingham (and the difficulties in getting them to the UK – presumably because of bureaucratic barriers). It is interesting that Edward also draws Elizabeth’s attention to some “semi-Fascist publications”, published, “probably”, by an organisation connected with the Daily Express. Plus ça change…

1939.5 - Edward Cadbury

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