“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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Continue reading Love Letter, Very Private

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…

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Continue reading The true meaning of Cadbury

23rd August 1939, German-Soviet Pact announced

The announcement of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) on 23rd August 1939, only a week before Germany’s invasion of Poland, and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, was a key event in the lead up to the Second World War.

This letter, written by Frank on the evening that the pact was announced (a Wednesday), captures some of the intensity of – and speed at which events were moving at – this time. It is written from Newcastle on International Brigade notepaper (Frank was working for the north-east branch of an International Brigade committee at the time), and was sent to Elizabeth – apparently still at Ashintully (“languishing in idleness”, according to Frank). Frank and Elizabeth married almost immediately after the war broke out – so within a few weeks of this letter.

I don’t know what or who the “S. T. D.” that Frank is awaiting a reply from refers to (any pointers gratefully received) – nor who Jack Sword (?) and the Bickfords are.

Transcript below, along with a copy of the invitation to their Diamond Wedding party – they eloped, so this is the closest there was to any kind of wedding announcement.

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Continue reading 23rd August 1939, German-Soviet Pact announced

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.

Max Gerhard Löwenberg

Holocaust Remembrance Day made me think of the heartbreaking profiles of potential refugees that I had seen among my grandmother’s papers. I don’t want to deify my grandparents – they were by no means perfect, but I do think that they generally tried to do their best (according to their belief in what “best” might mean). This letter to my grandmother, asking her to take these Jewish refugees from Germany, is dated June 1939; I don’t know if she refused for some reason (unthinkable, but possible I suppose), or if events intervened (the war broke out three months later) – but Max Gerhard Löwenberg (/Loewenberg) was sent to Auschwitz in March 1943 and was killed there along with his parents.

From the brief information I can find online, it seems that Ludwig Israel Weikersheimer did manage to leave Germany in time, and later became a naturalised British citizen and changed his name to Leslie Wallen.

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Goodwill Towards Men, Xmas 1935

I am not sure if this Christmas message from 1935 was sent to Frank or Elizabeth; it is from a box full of items belonging to Elizabeth and dates from her time at Oxford, during which she was involved in various Labour Party activities. But it is signed by somebody called Walter, from Castletown in Sunderland – not that far from where Frank grew up, and was living at this time.

Anyway, here it is, a 1935 colliery Christmas card, complete with Dickensian mine owner.

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