“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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Aunt Teedee’s gift of a “living wage”

I have been reading and thinking a lot about Virginia Woolf lately, and so reading this letter this afternoon brought to mind the various ways in which Woolf describes women helping other women – help without which any individual female achievement would be impossible. The help Woolf describes ranges from the practical (the £500/year left her by her aunt) to the intellectual; she imagines the great feminist, suffragette and composer, Ethel Smyth, as a “pioneer”, clearing the way for woman after her:

She is among the ice-breakers, the window-smashers, the indomitable and irresistible armoured tanks who climbed the rough ground; went first; drew the enemy’s fire; and left a pathway for those who came after her. I never knew whether to be angry that such heroic pertinacity was called for, or glad that it had the chance of showing itself.

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The help offered to Elizabeth by her “Aunt Teedee” (her father’s sister, I think) in June 1937, falls firmly into the practical category, however it is no less touching for that. Having left Oxford the previous summer, Elizabeth still had no set career – although clearly she wanted one – and had no immediate plans (or desire?) to marry. She had been active in politics at Oxford, and when she moved to London at the end of her degree she seems to have become involved with the N.U.W.M. (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement – I will post something about this soon). By June 1937 (when she received this letter), it seems that she was working for the League of Nations Union – an internationalist organisation, committed to the principles of the League of Nations (ie international co-operation with the aim of avoiding another world war) – in what must have been an unpaid capacity (I seem to remember my grandmother telling me that she had worked for the League of Nations itself, so it may have been this, rather than the Union that she was working for – hopefully future letters will bring clarity!).  Presumably, like many recent graduates, she didn’t know quite what to do with herself – especially, as someone who cared so much about politics, in the context of fast-moving domestic and international events. Or perhaps she knew exactly what she wanted to do, and was going about it the best way she could.

This was almost a year after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, but it seems like going there wasn’t yet on Elizabeth’s horizon at this point – however, it would nevertheless have  been becoming increasingly clear that (nationalist) fascism and (internationalist) socialism were competing for the future of Europe. Meanwhile, Britain was blighted by high levels of unemployment – and by the consequences of this in a pre-welfare state – and so the work Elizabeth did, both to agitate for the cause of the unemployed (with the N.U.W.M.), and to support an internationalist organisation like the League of Nations, reflects some of the decade’s key issues.

However, the family narrative (from Elizabeth’s side of the family) was always that she was headstrong and a bit flighty, and that her politics were driven primarily by a desire to spite her mother. It is wonderful, therefore, to come across this letter – to realise that she had (female!) relatives who took her seriously,  and who, furthermore, supported her in concrete terms – such as with this birthday present of two weeks’ wages to continue her work at the League of Nations (/Union). It isn’t quite in quite the same league as the legacy left to Woolf by her aunt (which allowed her “a room of her own”) – but for Aunt Teedee, a middle-aged, middle-class, single woman, with only a small income of her own, it is a hugely generous gesture, and one that speaks of belief in Elizabeth’s capacity to do great, useful things (“a future strenuous life”), as well as tacit solidarity with her ambitions. Thank you Aunt Teedee!

Continue reading Aunt Teedee’s gift of a “living wage”

Learning Spanish

By late September 1937 it seems that Elizabeth’s plans to go to Spain were becoming ever more concrete and she was on the search for a Spanish teacher to improve her language skills. Letters from the previous month between Elizabeth, her sisters, and Edward Cadbury make it clear that she had wanted to sell the property she had inherited in order to put the money towards relief work in Spain; having had this plan blocked (legal action was taken against her in the Scottish courts) it looks like Elizabeth quickly decided to go to Spain herself instead.

Janet Perry (1884-1958), the writer of this letter, was a lecturer in Spanish at King’s College, London. She went to Spain twice, with Quaker-organised relief units – and this again makes me wonder if Elizabeth also organised her travel and work in Spain through the Quakers (perhaps aided by Edward Cadbury). She had grown up with a number of Quaker family friends (including the Cadburys), and Dorothy Thompson (mentioned in this letter as the link between Elizabeth and Janet Perry) was Assistant Secretary to the Spain Committee of the (British) Friends Service Committee. Farah Mendlesohn writes in detail about Quaker relief efforts in the Spanish Civil War in her book, Quaker Relief Work in the Spanish Civil War – in which she mentions both Janet Perry and Dorothy Thompson. Alfred Jacob, who was mentioned in the security report on Frank, is a central figure in Mendlesohn’s book – again confirming the importance of the Quaker presence in Spain to both Frank and Elizabeth’s time there. Mendlesohn also briefly mentions Puigcerdà, explaining that it was initially set up (in 1937) as a “Quaker children’s colony” (the first of these in Spain); no doubt I will come across more Quaker links as I go through the boxes, but one day it would also be interesting to look at some of the archives explored by Mendlesohn (especially material relating the the Birmingham Quaker community).

Here is the letter, with transcript below:

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Continue reading Learning Spanish

“I am interested in my own integrity”: selling the castle for Spain

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Excerpt from letter to Elizabeth from one of her sisters, 12 August 1937.

I had been planning to be slightly systematic about this all – to go through the contents of the first box I opened before moving on to the next – but this morning I had to look for something else in one of the dusty tea chests that house a lot of Frank’s papers, and came across this little packet of letters between Elizabeth, her sisters and Edward Cadbury. They are about Elizabeth’s plans to sell the Scottish estate she had inherited (Ashintully) and to give the money to Spain (specifically Spanish Medical Aid, as I learn from these letters). Obviously various kinds of family and official pressure was exerted on Elizabeth not to sell – for reasons of family, responsibility, etc. – including from Edward Cadbury, who had acted as guardian and adopted uncle to Elizabeth and her sisters after the death of their father. Ultimately, the case went to court and the will was changed so that Elizabeth inherited jointly with her two sisters (and therefore couldn’t sell – as she couldn’t give money to Spain, she went there instead). I do wonder if the same would have been done to a male heir?

Elizabeth always spoke very highly of Edward, his wife Dorothy, and all of the Cadburys: they were socially principled, and deeply committed Quakers (and pacifists), and were a great support to Elizabeth and the rest of the Aytouns over many decades – but in this case respect for him, and for her family, was secondary to her socialism, and her explanation and moral justification for selling Ashintully is an eloquent articulation of her socialist principles (and the rights and wrongs of property ownership) that I find incredibly stirring – and still very relevant.

Here it is (with image, and letters from Edward Cadbury below):

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To Edward Cadbury, 17.8.37

You may be right about my motives. I’m not the one to judge. I am quite sure though that to sell now is not the “easy” way. The easiest way would be to keep Ashintully for a year at least, and then decide. I don’t find riding rough-shod over my family easy. It is so difficult as to be almost impossible.

As to the praise – most of the people who need to know about it would think me irresponsible or melodramatic. I don’t want the kind of praise I might get for giving large sums of unearned money away – just as I hate it if anyone ever thanks me for doing political work – it only makes me feel an outsider.

Anyway, surely we should be discussing results and not motives? The responsibility argument might be valid, except that it might be used by any and every capitalist as a reason for hanging on to property. Also in this case I think the first responsibility is to the tenants, and in the circumstances I don’t think sufficient good would be done to them by my keeping it to justify myself on those grounds alone.

If the two clash I do definitely put my responsibility to the world at large before that to my family, short of doing them harm. Actually, of course, they count far more than that, but I don’t think they should. I was writing to the lawyer today, and asked him as a point of information for definite facts about the ownership, though he did explain it all to me when I was there. Also I won’t do anything without at least Joanna’s complete and willing agreement.

I am not just throwing my money into the waste-paper basket for the sake of getting rid of it – and the real question to be answered is, I think, whether the need for medical aid supplies, doctors, nurses etc. in Spain is great enough and urgent enough to require all or some of the money now or whether the sale and decision of amounts could justifiably be left till next year. And on the other hand whether an equal amount of good might be done in other ways in this country. As far as I can tell now, partly for political but mostly for humanitarian reasons, I don’t think so. I have written to a member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, who is a great friend of mine and did not ask me to sell for information. Joanna raised some questions which certainly need answering. I will also wait to hear your proposals for the use of the estate, and, of course, what the lawyer has to say. I know the question is complicated – I’ve been thinking about it for two months.

I am very grateful for all the help you are giving me – you do understand better than almost anyone, but we must remember that there is a fundamental difference between us. You are, when all is said and done, a man of property – very probably as things are now even from my point of view, rightly so, and I am a socialist.

There are just two other points – first that I am interested in my own integrity, and second that I am as fond of Ashintully as anyone.

Don’t bother to answer this till Saturday.

P.S. No-one has called me inconsistent – no socialist tries to be consistent in this system, we only try to judge by results.

Continue reading “I am interested in my own integrity”: selling the castle for Spain