“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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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

“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

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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”).

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“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”