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 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.

Continue reading Communists in the Labour Party: Frank to Elizabeth, 1939


“Hark the rebel workers sing”: songs from Spain


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

Red Fifties: Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Frank Girling, Marxist anthropology and anti-communism

Earlier this year I wrote the below about my grandfather, Frank Girling, and his friend and colleague, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, and the ways in which they were excluded from the British anthropology establishment because of their politics and their suspected links with decolonisation movements. This was originally published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society (and is republished with permission), and was written at the request of Rila Mukherjee for a special issue of the journal in honour of her father, who died in 2015. It is a (very) long read, and is slightly off topic (it isn’t about the 1930s, or about the Spanish Civil War), but it nevertheless feels appropriate to post it here (and now).

N.B. There is one correction – care of my mother – to the below account of events. See end for details.



Ramkrishna Mukherjee and Frank Girling: Marxist Anthropology and McCarthyism in the 1950s

Of all the things that I thought I might do in my life, it never crossed my mind that one day I would be asked to write about the eminent sociologist Ramkrishna Mukherjee for the Journal of the Asiatic Society. I am not a sociologist, and never met Ramkrishna Mukherjee, nor have I studied his work – however, for a brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he and my grandfather were friends, colleagues and comrades. They met at Cambridge in the late 1940s – Ramkrishna was there as a PhD student and my grandfather, Frank Girling, as an undergraduate. My grandfather would have been older than many of his fellow undergraduate students (and he was two years older than Ramkrishna); upon leaving school he had worked in various jobs before volunteering for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, where he met my grandmother, Elizabeth Aytoun. They married soon after the outbreak of the Second World War and Frank was conscripted into the army; he spent much of the war in India, partly with the Indian Army – having defected from the British Army. He did not become an undergraduate, therefore, until he was in his late twenties, when he went to Cambridge to study social anthropology in the aftermath of the Second World War (special arrangements were in place for ex-servicemen, compressing what was normally a three-year degree into two).  It was there that he and Ramkrishna – who was then at Cambridge working towards his PhD – first met.

Last year – prompted by a request for information about my grandfather’s doctoral research, and his time in Uganda – I began the process of looking through his papers. Because his papers are mixed up with my grandmother’s, this became a far bigger task than I had originally anticipated. For a while I was overwhelmed with the volume and scope of the papers they had left behind them; as a grand-daughter who still misses them both dreadfully, it was wonderful to be able to read their words and to be able to discover things that I hadn’t previously known about their past. I was particularly struck by the amount of material (letters, postcards, pamphlets, etc.) about their time in the lead up to and during the Spanish Civil War and this, combined with a radio show that I heard at the time about British volunteers in Spain, led me to begin a blog about their experiences there. In the process of looking through a box of papers from around this time, I found a packet of letters clipped together; these were letters from Ramkrishna Mukherjee to my grandfather, and carbon copies of my grandfather’s letters to him. These led me to contact Ramkrishna’s daughter, Rila Mukherjee, in the hope that she might be able to tell me more about the relationship between the two men, and possibly even to find more letters between them. It was Rila who asked if I might write something about Ramkrishna and my grandfather, and about this early moment in their academic lives. I would love to have been able to document their correspondence fully – to trace their friendship and working relationship in full – however, to do this, I would need to find more of the correspondence between the two, and look in more detail at the research and articles that they produced together (I would also love to one day find the photographs that Ramkrishna took during their time together in Uganda). For now, however, that is  unfortunately beyond my means; I have had to rely on their correspondence that I have had to hand, and what information about the two men and their work at this time that I have been able to find. I only hope that even the limited view that I present here will go some way to illuminating this moment in the early intellectual lives of these two extraordinary men. Continue reading Red Fifties: Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Frank Girling, Marxist anthropology and anti-communism

Ephemera: Barcelona envelope

Inevitably, there are many items other than letters and photographs among Frank and Elizabeth’s papers – bus tickets, leaflets, luggage labels, scraps of papers covered in scribbled notes.  This envelope was in the same bundle of papers as the letter giving Frank free passage to help in the aftermath of the March 1938 bombing of Barcelona – and perhaps originally contained this letter (although the official stamps and letterheads are different).


I don’t really know anything about it (I would love to hear from anyone who can tell me more) – but the combination of the Generalitat de Catalunya Comissariat de Propaganda (which Frank worked for, for a while at least) official stationery, the addressee, Fernandez Bolaños, and the various names and addresses written on various parts of the envelope (including one in Russian) give an indication of the various people and networks that Frank would have encountered in Barcelona at this time.

I am pretty sure that it belonged to Frank, and I think perhaps that these were names and addresses of people that he wanted to (or had been asked to) contact, or keep in contact with, after his return to the UK in the late summer of 1938. In his report from this time (possibly July 1938, and possibly for the KGB) he had written: “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.”

He worked in the Newcastle office of the International Brigades Organisation after his return to the UK and so it is possible that at least some of these people were intended as contacts in his work “stimulating propaganda for Spain.” The Russian address (“for Jeanna”) is perhaps the most intriguing…




Barcelona, March 1938

1938.3 - Barcelona bombing

In March 1938 Barcelona was bombed almost continuously over three days by Nationalist planes (supplied by Italy and Germany); the bombing was so heavy that the air raid system was rendered useless as there was no way of telling if the sirens were signalling the beginning or end of an attack.

Frank had been in Puigcerdà until early in 1938, and had come to Barcelona and been issued with a Catalonian identity card on 1st February 1938. I don’t know if he was in Barcelona during the bombing but in his own account of his time in Spain he talked about his work in the Propaganda Office of the Catalonian Generalitat during this period. This letter, from the General Secretary of the Junta Local de Defensa Passiva de Barcelona, 19th March 1938 – the day after the bombing stopped – seems (as far as google translate tells me) to request that Frank be given free passage to help with salvage work in the aftermath of the bombing.

“There is a long straight valley”: one year of Frank and Elizabeth’s “Red Thirties”

Frank (second from left) and Elizabeth (fourth from left), Puigcerdà, January 1938


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”).


“I hope you will not worry about me”: a postcard from Frank



I came across this postcard completely by chance yesterday, in the pages of a postcard album, along with a pile of much more recent postcards. I suspect that they were all part of a stamp collecting enterprise by my mother or one of her brothers – as, unfortunately, the stamp has already been steamed off this one.

It is wonderful to have something from Frank’s time in Spain – so much of what I have found so far is Elizabeth’s (especially letters, etc.), and what I do have of Frank’s tends to be from a bit later. I didn’t think I would ever find of any Frank’s letters home to his family – this gives me hope that some of them may have survived and that I may find more eventually.

This was sent to his parents (also, confusingly, called Frank and Elizabeth Girling) in Newcastle just before he crossed from France into Spain. The postmark looks to me like 9th October 1937, and this would fit with the Comintern report, in which Frank had stated that he had been working at Puigcerdà since the 10th October 1937 (for more, see:

The text is short and sweet, and reads:

I am in Perpignan now and will cross into Spain tomorrow. First to Barcelona and then to Puigcerdà on the French frontier.

The I.V.S.P. have a camp there – farming work.

Love to all


I hope you will not worry about me. Frank.

Continue reading “I hope you will not worry about me”: a postcard from Frank