“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

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

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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: https://redthirties.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/franks-international-brigade-personnel-file-in-the-comintern-archives-2/).

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

Frank

I hope you will not worry about me. Frank.

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Spanish Fiesta, Perth, 4th March 1939

This 1939 letter from the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (Perthshire Branch), makes it clear just how much of a national issue the Spanish Civil War was in Britain. The letter was sent on 15th February 1939, in the last stages of the war – by which point the welfare of refugees from Spain seems to have been the main public concern (presumably it was clear by this stage that the Republicans were not going to win).

The groups involved in this Spanish Fiesta provide a good snapshot of 1930s British public/civic culture – the Masons, the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the Practical Psychology Club, the N.U.R. (National Union of Railwaymen) Women’s Guild, the Theosophical Society, the Congregational Church, and the Soroptimist Club.

I am particularly taken with this: A VERY SPECIAL FEATURE OF THE FIESTA WILL BE THE BUILDING OF A CAIRN OF TINS OF MILK FOR THE SPANISH BABIES. PLEASE COME AND HELP BUILD IT. A nice Scottish twist on a broader humanitarian issue – I wonder if the milk-tin cairn was a success…

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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…

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The inevitability of sexism at the Oxford Union, 1936

On the 21st May 1935 the Oxford Union was due to debate the “inevitability of progress” with C. E. M. Joad (philosopher, Fabian and anti-capitalist – whose career was ultimately ended by an unpaid train fare), St. John Ervine (an Irish playwright whose fame seems to chiefly rest on the fact that he was standing next to suffragette Emily Davison before she threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby), and Ronald Knox (Catholic priest and writer of detective fiction).

The day before, Elizabeth received this letter from Ian (surname unknown), sending her tickets for the debate – and at the same time informing her that he was off to vote against her membership of the Union. How charming…

This letter makes me fizz with anger: how dare this man – whoever he was –  write to my grandmother like this. I obviously don’t know the grounds on which Ian planned to vote against Elizabeth’s membership of the union. Politics presumably, but I can’t help but feel that the whole thing smacks of patronising misogyny (down to the final love and kisses).

Is this what she had to take at every turn as a woman who was interested in politics and wanted to be taken seriously at Oxford in the 1930s? Elizabeth was at least as clever as Frank (if not cleverer – and she was certainly more diplomatic), and her political activism and passion for changing the world certainly rivalled his. And yet, after the Second World War, their focus was on Frank’s education and career and – although she was politically active her whole life, and achieved a whole raft of things – she never had a serious career in the way that he did (despite her early educational privilege). Attitudes like this must have had something to do with that – just one more woman lost among successive generations of Shakespeare’s sisters.

Here it is, from 20th May 1936, with transcript below – along with notices of various other Oxford Union debates from Elizabeth’s time at the university (apologies for blurry images).

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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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